A Ton of Pizza…But Not One Slice For Me!

With 20 mins to go until the doors were due to open for my Golden Jubilee concert we still had a problem which threatened whether the show could go ahead as planned.  Well, I’m sure we would have done something for 2 hours, but it wouldn’t be what we had rehearsed. I’m always surprised how calm I feel when this happens, and I know, because this happens almost every time.

On stage wondering if everything will work?

Although we always try our best to plan for every eventuality its always the unexpected that you don’t, well, expect. The trouble is I think I’m addicted to that buzz, to the instant flow of adrenaline throughout my body when you realise everything you’ve worked for is on the line. 

Like that time when I had spent the kids inheritance, and lots of sponsors money on building a Theatre in Swansea High Street for ‘Cappuccino Girls’.  The flyers had been printed, the advertising money had been spent and we were quietly confident that the show would be up on its feet in time for opening night. 

I was driving to rehearsals along St Helen’s road when the phone rang.  Using my handsfree kit I answered.  On the line was someone from the council saying that our application for a license to open a theatre and bar would have to go to a special meeting. They were sure it would be granted but it would be a week before we knew, a week or so after the opening date….

It was as if someone had injected me.  I can still feel the sensation running to each part of my body.  The strange thing was I ‘kinda’ liked it.  I felt alive.  Of course we found a way to make it happen and when we opened on the correct date no one else knew the stress the production team had been under.

This week was the 50th Anniversary of me signing my first record deal with Elton John.  In many ways I was more prepared for my big concert at the Swansea Grand Theatre than I had been for lots of other big events in the past.

To celebrate I had remixed and remastered the album I recorded in 1973 which had been shelved because prior to release my voice broke.  I had the tapes a little later than I had hoped but by working around the clock I managed to get ‘Rocket Boy’ online and the CD manufactured in time for the big day.

I always say it’s easier to do 100 gigs with a band than one.  Although these players are some of my oldest friends everyone needs to make a living and if ‘Mal Pope & The Jacks’ aren’t on the road they need to find another gig to pay the mortgage. I had contacted the band early in late 2023 to check they were free and then to make sure they put the date in the diary.  At least I knew I had the musicians.

We had booked in the best part of a week for rehearsals but as the concert drew closer it soon became clear that was over ambitious.  In September we had got together for a special concert at The Royal Welsh Showground in Builth Wells.  That was a short set of 50 mins including our ‘party set’. 

When we had played the clubs in the late 90’s we had a rule we would never rehearse the covers we played.  We wanted them to be fresh and original and we felt we were able to come up with an instant arrangement if we had a request from the audience.  Over time, and a million gigs, the set became a well oiled 90 minute show.  

As Ryan Aston our drummer counted us in for the first time in nearly 20 years it was amazing how easily we all slipped into the songs.  When we came off staged we all laughed about how wonderful it had been to play together again.

The Grand Concert was going to be different.  This was going to be 2 hours of original material with guest artists and video playback.

At the beginning of the week before last we checked who was available for the rehearsal dates we had set aside months previously…

Nigey Nige the keyboard player had a problem. He has been playing keys for Chris De Burgh for the past decade or so.  Chris had put a last minute gig in for Marbella on the Saturday.  Nige would be back in time for the concert and maybe for a rehearsal the day before but that was it.

Ryan the drummer runs a very successful music company that meant if possible he needed to go to a big meeting in Watford.  He’d also be back for Monday.  Wal the bass player was in the middle of a big ‘mixing’ project, but he could be there late on Sunday evening.  I think you get the picture.

I had already spent an evening with our guest of honour Mr Peter ‘Bongo’ Williams. Peter was the teacher who had encouraged me in primary school, and we had rehearsed a version of ‘Streets of London’, a song we had first played together in 1968.

On Sunday morning I met with Rachel K. Collier to go through our duet.  Rachel went to school with my kids and after years building a reputation in London she has now moved back home with a little family of her own and 150,000 followers on YouTube.  As we sang through our song I told her our performance was very ‘Donny and Marie’ to which she said, ‘Who are Donny and Marie?’

Those who could make it set up the studio in Llangennech on Sunday afternoon ready for an early start on Monday.  The band had actually played on all of the songs, but we had never played the new songs live.  These tracks had been recorded remotely.  I had taken their individual performances and mixed them together.  Now we had to fit it all together, together. 

We also wanted to add in some of the other elements on the records like the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra and the Gospel Choir.  For that we need to send a rhythmic click to Ryan the drummer so that he could keep the rest of us in time. This was nearly our undoing.

Backstage at the Grand waiting for the call…

The rehearsal went very smoothly, and the following day everyone arrived nice and early at the theatre.  As well as using the sounds of the orchestra and choir we wanted to use the videos that went with the songs.  The trouble was when we started the songs from the computer the video and the track and the click were all in slightly different places, none of them sync’d up.  It was impossible to play together.

Of course while that is going on I had forgotten that ITV Wales news were also coming down to do a live insert into the 6 O’clock news.  After a few hours we identified the problem.  Luckily another Ryan who was working with us for the day had his own kit which he was sure would solve the problem.

Wanting to make sure during the day nobody went walkabout Ian Parsons, the tour manager, had bought £100 of pizzas.  I told the band they should head to the dressing room, while I did the interview and the technical team tried to reconfigure our set up.

Steve Balsamo and Nigel Hopkins on Keys.

It was 6.45 when we pressed ‘play’, and everything worked pretty in sync.  After the that the concert went like a dream.  We had some old school friends join Peter and me for Streets of London and Steve Balsamo sang his solo like an angel.

After the meet and greet in the bar and clearing the stage of all my gear I headed to the dressing room famished.  What did I find?  Nothing.  A ton of pizza and I didn’t even have one slice.  Well at least I had the special cake they presented to me on stage and that was more than enough to round off the perfect day.

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