It is strange that you can enter a room and feel the presence of someone no longer with us. It happened to me when I walked into New Siloh Chapel (now known as Liberty Church) back in April. I was there to record for the TV Show ‘Songs of Praise’. My grandmother Myfanwy had been the organist in the chapel in the 1920’s and in 1968 she had been sitting in the front row when I had sung a solo in the Brynhyfryd School Carol Service. ‘Mam’ passed away over 30 years ago but as I sang that bright sunny April afternoon I could almost see her smiling face.
Something very similar happened to me last night.
I was pretty emotional driving to the Grand Pavilion in Porthcawl anyway as this was the first time in 2 years I had been through the ritual of packing the car with instruments and stage clothes. The week itself had been an ongoing discussion in my head about what songs I was going to sing and what order would be best. On Thursday morning the decisions had been made and I finalised my running order… and by lunchtime I had changed it drastically.
‘Match Day’ used to follow a regular routine. That regularity of gigs and concerts every week or so takes away a lot of the worry because most of what you do becomes second nature, part of muscle memory. Having said that it’s all too easy to get complacent and forget a guitar stand or piano stool if you’re not careful so I had a routine.
One of my ‘Match Day’ rituals would seem odd to any of my neighbours should they see or hear it. Just before I leave I stand with the back of the car wide open and say out loud all of the things I can see in the hope that somehow this process of ‘incantation’ will make me realise if I’ve forgotten anything.
The other major concern I had this week was the use of new technology to add to the show. One of the great things about doing a solo gig is that there are fewer moving parts that can go wrong. No need to worry about things like, will the drummer arrive on ‘time’, or will the keyboard player find his ‘keys’? On the other hand, nearly 2 hours of one person on stage asks a lot of even the most devoted audience.
Using Video in the show at the Porthcawl Grand Pavilion
Back at the start of planning for this tour in January 2020 I had decided to add video footage to the show. It seemed a really good idea 18 months ago, but the postponement of the tour dates meant I never had to see the process through. All week, as well as rehearsing songs and changing set lists, I’ve also been editing video footage to screen during my show. I must admit the concern of gremlins in the machines did add more concern on my drive to Porthcawl than I thought possible.
I arrived at the Grand Pavilion nice and early, much earlier than I would have in the past. This was partly due to the fact I didn’t want to get delayed in summer traffic and also because this was a socially distant show and that had consequences. Normally the theatre crew help carry your kit onto the stage, but this time, to minimise contact with theatre staff, I had to allow extra time to move the instruments and set up myself.
There was a lot going on in my mind as I set up the gear. Despite the social distancing the room seemed busy. Ian Parsons, my tour booker, was liaising with the technical staff to make sure the videos were all working, and I was making sure the distance between the piano set up and my guitar set up all worked with the least possibility of me tripping over any leads.
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It was only when I finally stopped and looked around at the building that it happened. The Grand Pavilion has lots of memories in these walls. Over the past few weeks on my podcast with Johnny Tudor we have talked about the Stan Stennett Summer Seasons so I’m sure Johnny would think of Stan, and of course no one must be allowed to forget the performance by Paul Robeson over the telephone in the Miners Eisteddfod of 1957.
The Johnny Tudor Dressing Room at the Grand Pavilion Porthcawl
For me, as I stood there looking out at the room, I thought of one special person. The last time I had performed at the Grand Pavilion I had been invited by Chris Needs. This was one of his famous ‘Garden Parties’. The room was full of his BBC Radio Wales ‘Garden Members’ and the stage was full of artistes that Chris championed on his Late Night Radio Show. It was a night of pure variety with Bruce Anderson and Dame Mandy Starr sharing the stage with the Chris Needs Dancers.
Of course, we were all there for a good night out and to raise money for Charity but in reality we were all there for Chris. Chris had a remarkable ability to connect with people and we loved him. That night he was on great form, chatting, singing, telling jokes, sharing stories and filling the room with his presence.
Chris would regularly call me, even more so when the severity of the pandemic became clear. He would ring me and his other friends in the world of entertainment to check up on how we were coping with lockdown. He knew that with theatres and clubs closed we would all be out of work. Every phone call would end with us ‘arguing’. He would nag me for bank details so that he could send me some money to tied me over… and I would refuse but trying my best not to hurt his feelings. Some people are stage friends, but Chris was a real friend.
It’s almost a year since Chris left us. That Sunday afternoon my phone rang. It was Chris. He sounded tired. Just before we said goodbye he asked me one last time could he give me some money. I told him not to worry and that we would soon be out performing again, doing what we all loved and hopefully paying the bills again.
Last night as I looked around the room I saw a lot of ‘Garden Members’ who had come to support me on my first night back on the road. I talked about Chris, the last time I had performed at the Pavilion and our last conversation. Normally I only perform my own songs in concert but last night I made an exception. One of the songs we would often sing together was ‘You’ve Got a Friend’. As the audience quietly joined in with the chorus I think we could all sense that somewhere in the room Chris was joining in too.