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Wi Lek Wi Salone – Part 1

INTRODUCTION: THE COMPLETE UNKNOWN

In the summer of 2016, I received a call from an old friend. Jamie Webb used to run the bar at Nambucca, my old haunt, but since the fire there in 2008 he’d moved on. These days he runs a group called The Joe Strummer Foundation (formerly Strummerville). They raise funds in the UK which they then disburse to different charitable groups around the world.

The purpose of Jamie’s call was to ask me a wholly unexpected question: would I be interested in visiting Sierra Leone? The Foundation were working with a group in the capital, Freetown, called Way Out Arts, who worked to bring music to disaffected and disadvantaged street kids, some of the poorest people in the world. The trip would be part investigative – checking out for ourselves exactly what Way Out were doing – and partly a publicity and fund-raising venture.

I like to consider myself game for pretty much anything, someone with a sense of adventure, but I have to admit that I briefly paused for thought at the offer. I knew very little indeed about Sierra Leone, other than what I’d learned from casual newspaper reading, and a half-forgotten viewing of the film “Blood Diamond”. In line with that, my associations were, chiefly, a vicious civil war, child soldiers, and conflict diamonds. Immediately after bringing myself up short on that thought, my mind flipped in the other direction. It seemed to me somehow mean, or cheap, to dismiss a country of which I was ignorant with a short list of Hollywood-generated stereotypes. After some brief reading up on Way Out, I decided to accept the offer to go.

Much logistical back-and-forth followed, as it usually does with the hectic state of my diary, but eventually we decided on sending a four-person team to the country in March of 2017. Jamie, our mutual friend (and JSF worker) Dave Danger, and Ben Lloyd of the Sleeping Souls would make the trip. Visas were acquired, jabs were jabbed, and books were read, in the countdown for our departure.

There are many fine lines to be trod in a venture of this sort, and indeed in writing about it. The first one to be encountered was the line between trying to prepare for the trip by educating myself about the country, on the one hand, and keeping my mind, my eyes and my ears as open as possible to the empirical experience of being there. I didn’t want to go to Freetown completely blind, but I also didn’t want to load myself with preconceptions about our destination. I settled on a couple of history books and a travel journal by journalist Tim Butcher, who walked across the country in 2009.

Despite these preparations, when the time for the trip finally rolled around, I realised that I was still essentially stepping into a complete unknown. That’s something I rarely do on my travels these days, so it was with some trepidation mixed with excitement that I set out for Heathrow airport on a sunny Wednesday morning.

DAY 1: YOU’RE BEAUTIFUL BUT I DON’T LIKE YOUR SHORTS

SL crew

The four of us met up in the smoking area outside the terminal in the unseasonable March sunshine. Dave had twisted his knee in a skiing accident a few weeks before, so he brought a grey hospital crutch along with him for the ride. Jamie brought four acoustic guitars, a kind of downpayment for Way Out on a future shipment of equipment, bought with funds that we’d raise online. We checked in easily, carrying the guitars with us through security, and caught up over a pub lunch, grasping at the last reliables fibres of wifi before we set off.

Our itinerary took us first to Casablanca, a three hour hop with a dramatic storm in the distance as we landed. After that, we had four hours to kill before our connection to Freetown; the flights to and from Sierra Leone are few and far between, and they tend to be at ungodly hours of the night. We skittered around Mohammed V airport, a slightly ramshackle affair, complete with redundant extra security checks carried out by angry, sweaty guards, who spent as much time pushing and shouting at each other as they did examining our affairs. In the countdown to our midnight takeoff we drank beers and discussed our destination, and joked about playing an impromptu show there and then with the Way Out guitars. One of the bartenders told Dave that he was beautiful, but she didn’t like his shorts.

As boarding time laboriously crept along, we gathered with our fellow passengers at the gate, the last chance saloon, last flight of the night. Ageing American missionaries, chubby Chinese businessmen and a blue-shirted, exuberant Sierra Leonean soccer team mingled, chatted and formed a queue. Finally we were off; following hard-learned techniques I cocooned myself in my cramped seat, ear-plugs in, hoodie up, pillow against the window, and tried to catch a little sleep.

I was woken by our bumpy arrival on the tarmac at Lungi airport. According to my reading, Freetown is one of the best natural harbours on the West African coast, with deep-water channels, a protective spit of land and the curved, lion-esque shelter of the Sierra that led the Portuguese to give the country its name. But these same factors make for a terrible location for an airport, so they built one across the water at Lungi instead. We groggily disembarked, comparing tallies of hours slept, and boarded a pointless bus that carried us all of 50 metres to the terminal.

The airport itself, on the arrival side, was pleasantly clean, modern and efficient. We were whisked through immigration, complete with finger-scanners, and collected our bags. At this point I started making notes about the adverts and billboards, which became something of an obsession over the course of the trip. My first specimens were for logistics firms, mobile phone companies (the ubiquitous Africell) and anti-corruption drives: “Together we can fight corruption and build a better Sierra Leone”.

The tide of travellers eventually spat us out into the warm night – it was about 4.30am – and into the arms of a gaggle of excited locals, all offering initial warm welcomes that carried the foretaste of a transaction. In the midst of the melee we managed to locate John from Way Out Arts. John is one of the senior members of the organisation; along with a few others, he actually draws a small salary for his work, and the charity has got him off the street into rented accommodation. He’s in his mid-30s, has a wicked, sarcastic sense of humour, and a fierce dedication to his team.

With John on the ferry
With John on the ferry

John shepherded us onto a bus to the ferryport, happily declaring “We’re team!” (which seemed unlikely to us sleep-deprived new arrivals), where we had to take a boat across the water to Freetown proper. The road down to the water was a ludicrous mountain range of potholes down a steep hill, our first real taste of the low level of development in the country. En route, John started teaching me some words in Krio, the main local language. Every linguistic success on my part was met with much hilarity on his, and he was soon on the phone to our welcoming committee in the city, telling them I spoke “small small Krio”. Krio is a pidgin, so after a few days in the country I was able to tune in and understand maybe up to half of a conversation, but at this time it was still fairly impenetrable.

The ferry carried us 25 minutes over the water. Onboard, I got chatting with an older American called Will, a farmer from South Dakota, who was in the country working for a Christian missionary organisation, taking solar powered ovens to people in the rural areas of the country. We talked Willie Nelson and Kenny Rogers, my mind spinning with fatigue.The four of us were exhausted, paper-thin sketches of people by time we arrived to be met by Hazel.

Hazel is the founder of and driving force behind Way Out Arts. She’s originally from Manchester, lived and worked in London as a film maker for many years, before coming to Sierra Leone in 2004 whilst shooting a documentary about a Liberian politician. Something about the place stuck in her blood and she’s been coming back ever since, helping to form the charity in 2008. Now she alternates a couple of months there and in the UK through the year. She greeted us with smiles, a video camera, and some local tips – locals were quite keen on shouting matches, men comfortably hold hands in public, and so on.

We boarded a couple of taxicabs (and were treated to a minor shouting match, which everyone seemed to thoroughly enjoy), and drove to our hotel – Jam Lodge. In the creeping dawn of 6am we scurried to our rooms and lay down to catch a few hours’ sleep, before the beginning of our first proper day of the trip.

Part 2 is here. More coming soon. In the meantime, you can donate to Way Out / Strummerville here.

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End Cycle

I finally made it back to my place in London yesterday morning, pretty comprehensively exhausted after the New York and Boston shows, an end of tour party, and a gruelling overnight flight. There was a time in my life where I was indefinitely happy to be a wanderer, but these days I need to come back to my nest every now and again. Dropping my bags and getting into my own shower fills me with a sense of unburdening that is difficult to put into words.

As I’ve commented on social media elsewhere, it’s difficult (and pointless) to exactly pinpoint the beginning and end of what record labels insist on calling “album cycles”. That said, this was our last trip to North America until we have a new record to tour, so this feels like the end of something. I played 326 shows in 26 countries since August 2015, when Positive Songs For Negative People was released. That seems like a decent effort, to me.

My major preoccupation for the foreseeable future will be working on a new album. I have written a mountain of new songs (one of which we’ve released), and am brimming with ideas about where to take my material. It’s still too early to say much more about what’s coming, but I’m excited about it, and hopefully some other people are too. I have no idea when a new record would be released, but I’m hoping as soon as possible. Sorry to be vague, but yeah, watch this space.

There are other things happening in the meantime of course – dates in Europe, Lost Evenings (now sold out!), and various other festivals in the UK and Europe over the summer. There’s also news imminent about DVDs and films, books and more. So I’m not exactly slacking. But I will be holed up, comparatively speaking, with the new material, so forgive me if I’m a little less present than usual.

Finally, a word on the tour just gone. I’ve toured with a lot of bands in my time, and I’ve got on with and enjoyed almost all of them. But I have to say that I think Arkells take the prize as my favourite band, both musically and personally, that I’ve shared road with. Wonderful people, wonderful songs. I’d also like to officially thank Felix Hagan for stepping up and covering Matt’s keyboard duties for the last tour. It was a seriously tough job, and he absolutely nailed it. Matt is also now a proud father of a son, so everyone wins that one.

Right. I’m getting off the internet for a bit.

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Hola América del Norte!

Greetings one and all from a hotel room in Mexico City. It is simply fantastic to be back at the wheel again. I had a great beach holiday, worked on my tan, but now it’s back to the grindstone. There’s the small matter of a North American Tour, starting imminently.

First of all, quite a big piece of news for everyone. Well, actually, it’s good news, bad news, then good news. Brace yourselves. Mr Matt Nasir of the Sleeping Souls is expecting a baby with his wonderful girlfriend Anna at the end of the month! Great news! The bad news is, that means he can’t be with us for this run. Which is a massive sad face. We’ve had the same line-up on stage with the Souls since 2008, when Matt joined.

But there’s good news! The wonderful Mr Felix Hagan has quietly stepped up to the challenge. We spent the UK tour last month rehearsing with the man, and he’s now kitted out in his own white shirt and ready for the tour, with Matt’s blessing. Everyone coming down should be extra nice to Felix and make sure he feels at home. Matt will be rejoining the Souls as soon as possible – once he’s bedded down into fatherhood.

So, all hail Felix, love to Matt and family. The tour starts in Mexico City on Friday, rolls through Wet Virginia and thence to Silver Spring where the Souls (and Felix) jump on board. Tickets are selling fast – the first Chicago show is sold out already – so don’t delay. See you all on the road.

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Concert Numéro Deux Mille

Well, that was quite a year. 193 shows in 29 different countries, finishing up with show 2000 at Rock City. Colour me totally exhausted, but in the best possible way. I feel like we (me, the Souls and my crew) did some long haul honest graft in 2016, and we’re proud of it.

The 2000th show, incidentally, was a magical evening. My crew let me know that the crowd, as we walked on stage, hit 118dB, which is (apparently) louder than a sold out arena crowd. So well done everyone there! As attendees may have noticed, there were cameras in the building, the show was documented in full. I don’t yet have details I can share about how and when that will be released, but I’m not one for dawdling, so watch that space.

Speaking of films, the cinema release of “Get Better” also went well. It was pretty nerve-wracking for me to sit in the dark of the cinema and watch my character explored in depth on the big screen, but I was filled with pride for my friend Ben Morse and thought he did a stellar job. We are now working on cinema releases for other parts of the world, followed, of course, by a DVD.

Looking ahead to 2017, aside from the various imminent film content, there’s a lot of cool stuff coming up. Lost Evenings at the Roundhouse is shaping up well; in fact, it’s selling out, and we haven’t even announced any of the copious other acts playing! There’s also our biggest tour of the US and Canada yet, including the Boston Agganis Arena show. Get your tickets while you can.

There’s also a solo tour of France just announced. It’s been a decade since I toured France properly, so it’s with great joy that I cab point to shows in March in Dunkerque, Joué-Les-Tours, Rennes, Bordeaux, Albi, Nîmes, Lyon, Nancy and Strasbourg. Check out the dates.

There’s more tour dates coming, of course (gotta head for 3000 now.. ha). But the other main concern for next year will be working on another record, for which I am brimming with ideas. I can’t really say more about it for now but it’ll be the thing occupying my mind for the forseeable future.

But before we get into that properly, there’s Christmas, my birthday, and the new year. For all of which I am planning on being largely off-net. If I do say so myself, I feel like I’ve earned it this time around! Happy Christmas to you and yours, here’s hoping for a generally rosier 2017.

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Show 2000 Supports

The UK tour starts tomorrow at Shepherd’s Bush Empire, with the Peaceful Noise concert, in memory of my late friend Nick Alexander. From there I’m flying to Dublin to meet up with the Sleeping Souls and commence total UK and Irish mayhem. Esme Patterson joins us in Dublin, and then Felix Hagan & The Family get on board from Salisbury onwards. There are still a few shows with tickets left – have a look. See you all there!

The tour proper winds up in Portsmouth on December 14th, but the Souls and I will be immediately heading to Nottingham, to Rock City, for my 2000th show. A thousand shows ago (dear God it feels weird to type that), after much indecision, I decided to celebrate my 1000th show with a party. We had a great night, so now it feels like an infrequent tradition that’s worth celebrating.

So we come to December 15th in Nottingham. We made an extra effort to stop touting for the show, which seems to have worked. We have people coming from all over the world. I wanted to make sure that the whole evening is special, and to that end, we have some tricks up our sleeve for the supports.

Main support for the evening will, of course, be my old friend Jay, a.k.a. Beans On Toast. Jay is the guy who convinced me to start playing solo acoustic shows in the first place, all those years ago, so it seems only fitting to bring him along for the party.

First on is something yet more special (no offence to Jay!). When I was first playing shows around London, hanging out at Nambucca, there was a local country band doing the rounds called The Tailors. In fact, Adam Killip, their singer, introduced me to the canon of country on the roof of the bar one evening, after beating me in an arm-wrestle (long story; read the book!). The Tailors have been inactive for a long time now, but they have remained a staple of my listening diet, and one of my biggest influences.

It’s long been a source of annoyance to me that so few people knew their stuff, but such is life. However, I’m now in a position to do something about this, so I called Adam and asked if he’d be up for putting the band back together for my 2000th show. After some umm-ing and ahh-ing, he said yes, the Tailors are back for one night only. And, given that Chad moved home to Vancouver, they may even have a lanky guest guitar player too (ahem). I couldn’t be more excited.

If you’re hoping to do some homework on the band before the show (or you just want to get a better idea of where my songs started coming from), they have a whole bunch of stuff on myspace still – no really – and two of their albums, “Wakey Wakey” and “Come Dig Me Up”, are on Spotify.

We will also, of course, be documenting the show for the people who couldn’t make it. So I’ll see you there, or elsewhere on the tour. Let’s see 2016 out in style.

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The Shining City On The Hill

I made it home from North America yesterday morning. We did 89 shows north of the Rio Grande this year, which seems like a pretty satisfying total. We also made super-best-friends with Arkells, which is one of my take-home events of 2016. We have one more US / Canadian run to go for this album – tickets are available now – after which we’ll be taking a break from that part of the world until I have another record ready to go. So don’t miss the shows in January and February.

It was a fascinating and mildly terrifying year to be in the USA. I like to think I’m an intelligent and engaged adult, so of course I have my opinions about what’s going on, and today is the big day. I have, in recent years, shied away from public political statement, but my conscience is bugging me today, so, for what it’s worth, here’s my two cents.

I love America. Really, adore the place. It’s intriguing and complex and infuriating and delightful in equal measure. I take pride in having played shows in 44 states (and D.C.), and having some small feeling for the great mass of the country; I’m not someone who went to New York City on holiday once. I’ve spent quite a lot of my time at home, since my first US tour back in 2007, trying to debunk lazy anti-American stereotypes that abound in the UK and Europe – stupid, ill-informed jokes about Americans being provincial, nationalist, fat, stupid or whatever. None of that has been broadly true, in my experience.

And then there’s Donald. To my foreign eyes, he is the absolute embodiment of every joke, every lazy prejudice and slur about Americans ever levelled by the armchair warriors of the old world. He is everything I’ve spent nearly a decade telling my non-US friends that America isn’t. And yet here he is, in the final run-off for the presidency.

I am more than aware of the shortcomings of Clinton, of the arguments for and against third party candidates and so on. And let me be totally clear that I’m very aware I’m not a US citizen, not entitled to vote, and not entitled to tell anyone else how to use their vote. But the outcome matters, to everyone in the world. I’m not suggesting anyone vote *for* anyone in particular, but I’m crossing my fingers and toes that the America I love and I like to think I know will vote *against* the insulting and childish caricature of their nation and its values that stands on one side of the ballot. I’m hopeful, today, I really am.

Not everyone is going to like what I just wrote. And to a large degree, given the circles I move in, this is going to be preaching to the converted, which I always find to be a waste of time. I’m no fan of easy moral grandstanding. But today of all days it needs to be said, if only to salve my insignificant conscience. Peace, see you in 2017.

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Post Holiday Catch-Up

Greetings, one and all, from a parking lot (carpark) in Columbus OH. It seems like only yesterday we were… somewhere near here. In actual fact, we took a couple of weeks off this month. I went to Italy and sunned my pasta-filled self to the point of bronzed incapacity. It was wondrous. But now we’re back at the grindstone, and happy to be so. My email account, upon my return, was something between a snow-drift and a multi-car pile-up, but I’ve just about got to the bottom of it, so I thought I’d do a general round-up of where things are at, as we head into the remainder of this most curious of years, 2016.

Right now we’re at the start of a small US run – we have shows in Cincinnati, Champaign IL, St Louis MO, Maquoketa IA, Milwaukee IL and Kalamazoo MI in the next week or so. Then we have a break in October (I’m working on some secret plans back home; Nigel will be on tour with Sad Song Co). After that, it’s back to the US again for more shows in Athens GA, Charlottesville VA, Morgantown WV, Norfolk VA, Wilmington DE (for Halloween!), Albany and Ithaca NY, and then Toronto.

After that we head to the UK for the Get Better tour – about which I am very excited. The majority of the shows have sold out; there are still a few tickets for Dublin, Carlisle, Doncaster, Oxford, Exeter, Edinburgh, Scunthorpe, Newcastle and Portsmouth. We are still working on an elusive Cornish show – there’s been a lot of changes in venues down there lately which is making it very hard – announcement coming soon. On top of that that, there’s some imminent news for both London and for show 2000.

There was, inevitably, some touting bullshit around the tour. It drives me to distraction, and I’m always looking at ways to combat it. For the time being, I’d say don’t buy from touting sites. Nearer the time there’s almost always people trading tickets fairly, either on twitter or on the forum.

Moving on to charity stuff; I donated a signed guitar to add to my late friend Wayne’s signed record collection, all of which is being raffled off for Music Vs Cancer. Check it out here.

The good people at the Music Venue Trust have launched a new #Fightback initiative, raising money for an emergency venue fund. There’s a show at the Roundhouse on October 18th which is well worth looking into (I won’t be playing this one, alas). In other venue news, there’s a fundraiser here for the great Exeter Cavern, which had a tragic fire while I was away. And if you’re still feeling generous and helpful, the Star & Shadow in Newcastle could use a hand.

Next up, journalism (of a kind). I answered some questions about Nirvana’s Nevermind here, and waxed lyrical about Lucero here.

Finally, for now, lots of my friends have wonderful new music on the way; Xtra Mile sure are busy right now. Skinny Lister have a new record coming, and tour dates in the UK and the US. Will Varley and Beans On Toast have similar. And Koo Koo Kanga Roo put me in a music video, which was fun.

So, in short, the world kept turning while I was roasting by the side of the swimming pool. Which is reassuring. See you all on the road soon.

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Finally – UK Tourmageddon!

It is with GREAT PLEASURE that I can finally announce some more tour dates for the UK.

I know, I know, it’s been a long while since we were on home turf. And last time we toured the UK we only played the major cities. So, as is becoming tradition, this time we are hitting some different places, taking the show around the country to see some different people. Of course I can’t ever please everyone, but this is an attempt to cover as much ground as I can this year.

Support comes from the amazing Felix Hagan & The Family, and the sublime Esme Patterson. Both hand-picked, both awesome, get down early to catch their sets.

The tour will go on a special fan pre-sale this WEDNESDAY AT 9am, and on general sale on Friday. Get ready! Here are the dates:

THE GET BETTER UK TOUR, NOVEMBER / DECEMBER 2016

Fri 18th November 2016, Salisbury City Hall (14+)
Mon 21st November 2016, Liverpool O2 Academy (8+)
Tue 22nd November 2016, Carlisle Sands Centre (All Ages)
Wed 23rd November 2016, Doncaster Dome (14+)
Fri 25th November 2016, Coventry Empire (14+)
Sat 26th November 2016, Cardiff Great Hall (14+)
Sun 27th November 2016, Oxford New Theatre (All Ages)
Mon 28th November 2016, Exeter Great Hall (All Ages)
Wed 30th November 2016, Reading Hexagon (All Ages)
Thu 1st December 2016, Leeds University Refectory (14+)
Fri 2nd December 2016, Aberdeen Garage (14+)
Sat 3rd December 2016, Edinburgh Usher Hall (14+)
Mon 5th December 2016, Scunthorpe Baths Hall (All Ages)
Tue 6th December 2016, Warrington Parr Hall (14+)
Wed 7th December 2016, Newcastle Northumbria University (All Ages)
Fri 9th December 2016, Nottingham Rock City (14+)
Sat 10th December 2016, Bexhill De La Warr Pavilion (14+)
Sun 11th December 2016, Norwich UEA (14+)
Mon 12th December 2016, Guilford G-Live (All Ages)
Wed 14th December 2016, Portsmouth Guildhall (14+)

As ever with these things, we’ve been planning this tour for a long while and the details are set. It’s also not the last tour I ever do, so if there are places I’m missing this time around, fear not, I’ll be back soon enough. See you there.

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Live At 930

It’s been a little while since I did a post on here, so I thought I should update everyone; this is mostly a kind of housekeeping post, but we’ve been adventuring around the place of late, so there are stories to be told.

We got back to a rainy Europe and successfully failed to play either Hurricane or Southside Festivals, due to some seriously inclement weather. That was something of a blow for everyone involved, one we hope to rectify next year. In the meantime we played some more German shows and festivals, played in Italy a few times, and had a wonderful first show in Carcassonne in France. I managed to fit in some UK shows, T in the Park being particularly awesome, with special mentions for a magical show at 2000 Trees Festival. I found time to launch and then play at Ben Morse’s House Of Vans photo exhibition. And I even managed to catch The Boss in Paris of an evening. Quite the month.

Tomorrow I’m finally returning to Latvia to play in Cesis again, which will be wonderful no doubt. Thence we head to the USA for Lollapalooza and our shows with Flogging Molly and Chuck Ragan (all details on the live page). We’ve also added some more US dates in September and October with The Arkells and Will Varley, which I’m excited about. And for those champing at the bit; fear not, these are not the last US shows I’m doing on this album tour.

Finally; last October I made a happy return to my favourite American venue – Washington DC’s legendary 930 Club. Our set was filmed as part of a new TV series – Live At 930. It came out really well, I was honoured to be interviewed by Bob Boilen, and the show features some other great acts. Our episode can be found here. Enjoy.

Right. I have a total of 15 hours in my own flat now. Time to hit the sofa.

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Europa Europa

We had a wonderful time on the road in the USA lately, which was followed by a pretty gruelling and disappointing weekend. Our flights through from Atlanta to Hamburg were variously delayed or changed, our guitars got “misplaced” (thankfully we got them back again), and we arrived to find that Southside Festival had been cancelled. The following jet-lagged day, we got to within 4 minutes of going on stage at Hurricane Festival before that was also pulled, due to the bad weather. Not much fun.

It’s important to state that both decisions were no one’s fault. The people at FKP Scorpio, who book Hurricane & Southside, are some of my best friends in the industry and they did everything they could, but safety has to prevail in the end. We will be back, for sure. Actually, we have shows in Bonn, Munich, Ulm and Münster this coming week. Check out the dates.

The other big news, obviously, was the referendum result, which took place as we were flying over the Atlantic. The older I get the less interested I am in discussing politics in the public forum (if you think I’m going to discuss it on Twitter you’re out of your mind). The only comment I want to make is this: I am international touring musician, and have no plans to change that. I’ll see all my friends on the continent as much as I ever did.

To lighten the mood a little, here’s a thing I did in Richmond just before coming home. Our touring buddy (and new best friend) Jason Isbell was gracious enough to lend us some of his time for a music video. I’d been wanting to do something for the song “Love Forty Down” for a while, and I immediately cast Jason as the bad guy. I’m pleased to say that in total the video took 5 hours (1 hour shopping, two shooting, two editing), and cost $200 all in. I shot it on my phone and edited it myself. DIY Punk Rock! Enjoy the video, happy Wimbledon!

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