Henhouse Prowlers: Europe (Part One)
Words By Ben Wright
This is the second time the Prowlers have been to Europe. We were very excited to come back and we've already been here a week. We flew in three days early because it saved us about $300 a person to do so. We rented an apartment in Brussels (through Air BnB) and spent three days soaking in the city before we started playing shows. I got up early this morning to write this before all the rest of the band woke up. There really aren't copious amounts of quiet time here, so I'm cherishing it. As I typed that last sentence, a truck drove by blaring something on a loud speaker in Flemish. Things are different here. I love it.
Three days in Brussels, Belgium:
Our flight arrived early Monday morning and we hopped a bus to head to what we thought was the general area the apartment was located. On said bus, we met a Hungarian woman that recognized Grants mandolin. She takes lessons online with Mike Marshall and we suspected that meeting a bluegrass fan so quickly was a good omen. It was. Part of the plan was to kick jetlag before the tour started and we knew we had to stay awake most of the day to do so (despite being up for the past twenty four hours). The apartment was perfect and we found a small bar nearby to get some Duvel. Three beers in we decided to head to the Grand Place, which is the main square in Belgium to busk. The neighborhood we were living in is called Ixelles and it's quite close to a West African neighborhood, which was endlessly fascinating to walk through.
Grand Place is surrounded by guild halls and the city's Town Hall. It's stunning. The minute we pulled out our instruments we were surrounded by tourists. Our exhaustion level was pretty high at this point, so we only lasted about 90 minutes. Famished and thirsty, we headed back towards our neighborhood of Ixelles. We found a small neighborhood Portuguese/Belgian restaurant to eat at, which turned out to be amazing. The owner spoke no English but Grants Spanish was enough to get by. There was a sense that we were at a real local spot. Brussels is truly a European melting pot, and there were at least three languages being spoken around us, not including English. The eccentric but kind old man that clearly ran the place brought us out a huge pot of Mussels and fries (Moule Frite) to eat. The exhaustion coupled with serious hunger made it one of the best meals we'd ever eaten. Off to bed we went.
The next two days were spent busking and eating. We made the same two mile (3.2k) walk to and from the Grand Place. On day two we were stopped by two Belgian police officers who let it be known that we couldn't busk on the actual square. They were really friendly about it and suggested a church just around the corner. It turned out to be an even better place because it was at an intersection with a ton of traffic. At one point while taking a break at a cafe, we were approached by a Romanian guitar player. The video speaks for itself.
There were other great experiences over these three days, but for the sake of time and space I'll simply leave some photos with brief explanations.
1st show: Wortel Prison
We did a prison gig in Turnhout last year and it was suitably mind-blowing. This year was no exception, but it was also more difficult to get pictures. I did get a couple of the outside, though. We immediately recognized the Warden from last year as we went through security. Apparently he bounces around all the prisons in Belgium on a regular basis. He was just as warm and funny as he was last year, though he did warn us immediately that there had been an 'incident' right before we arrived and that things might not go as smoothly as they did the year before. An inmate had gotten angry because he didn't have any cigarettes and he'd punched a glass framed poster (of Elvis's Jailhouse Rock, no less), which had quite seriously cut his hand open. We had to wait for things to calm down to play, which meant eating delicious sandwiches and hearing more stories from the Warden.
We heard about escape attempts and admittedly gruesome suicides and even the story of one of the prisoners we'd just met who'd been a high level police officer until he was busted for moving multiple tons of marijuana. I found it slightly unsettling that he was so lighthearted about all these things but he reminded us that you have to develop thick skin and a sense of humor to work amongst such things, which I completely respect. Things settled down and we were able to play. It's quite an advantage to be able to perform acoustic here and this was one of the times when we were able to pull that card. About twenty five prisoners filed into the small room as we tuned up. One of them was clearly the class clown of sorts and he immediately asked for Dueling Banjo's. Some things are universal.
We played for an hour and the inmates were genuinely engaged in our show. They asked a few questions and we all shared some jokes. Dan sang the Drifter towards the end and got what appeared to be a tear out of the class clown. Throughout the entirety of our show the poster that had been smashed by the unruly inmate was sitting against the wall right next to us.
One gig down, 19 more to go.
Day two: Lichtenvoorde, Holland
We played this show last year as well and were really looking forward to making it back. This place is a common stop for tons of our favorite bands and has been for thirty years. The walls are hung with Hatch prints (including a Flatt and Scruggs one that I own) and the promoter, Carl, is a long-time advocate of bluegrass and country music in Holland. Dale Watson played here a couple months ago. The room is one of the nicest venues we’ve played over here and it's attached to a spectacular restaurant/hotel that we took advantage of. We weren't able to get a picture of the audience (about 100 people), but they were serious fans of bluegrass and there were clearly a lot of knowledgeable people. I spoke briefly about Earl Scruggs (and his recent passing) and we played several of his most famous tunes. The audience ate up our originals and Dan even told a banjo joke which everyone clearly understood. Again, some things are universal.
After the show we had beers with Carl and he shared stories of the numerous bands that have passed through his series over the years. Sally Van Meter was brought up along with Bill Clifton (He's the father of European Bluegrass, look him up), Doyle Watson, Tim O’Brien, and John Reischman to name a few. The warmth and understanding of what it means to be a travelling musician was palpable. I'd be remiss if I didn't bring up our sound man Jan Molena at this show. He's the European equivalent of our favorite US sound man, Asim. Jan's worked with tons of bands (Deep Purple, Valerie Smith, etc) and he really has a love for doing good sound. His microphones were top notch and his commitment to making us sound good was amazing. Props, Jan.
Day Three: Zonhoven, Belgium @ The Pub
The Pub was a typical small town bar with really good energy and an honest local Belgium vibe. We watched the Gent vs. Genk football game with the attentive sports fans. I sat next to an older gentleman who really didn't speak much English, but we connected with grunts and exasperations at every close shot and red-card. I enjoy those kinds of interactions to no end. Some things simply don't require vocabulary.
Dan, Jon and Stijn (pronounced 'Stan', he's our tour manager and buddy over here) played Foosball in the back while we waited to perform and we were given delicious Italian food. One of the traditions here in hosting bands at a venue is that they always feed you. It's something more American venues could learn from. Good hot food makes a band play better. Not frozen pizza. Home cooked food. I wasn't able to take pictures that night, but there was a guy (Luc Marchal) photographing the entire show and I connected with him on Facebook so I snagged some off his page. A local harmonica player (Kris Rogiers) got up and played Deep Elem Blues with us... and he kicked ass.
Day Three: A Swedish Interlude
I wanted to include the story of the Swedish band we've made friends with here. They stayed with us for a few days and played shows in the same region. Emmy Lou and the Rhythm Boys are a Rockabilly band from Enviken, Sweden. They're all under the age of 21 and quite a blast to hang out with.
Emmy Lou is an amazing singer and the guys all play really well. We had several jam sessions with them and endless comparisons of life in our perspective countries were made. During the day before our show at The Pub they made us a Swedish meal and taught us some traditional drink toasting songs. The food in the picture below consists of Swedish meatballs, sausages, herring, potatoes, mushrooms, lox, smoked mackerel and crayfish. I'm also posting a video here of them teaching us a drinking song. Great kids, great music, killer food.
A final note on the Swedes: They were all able to drink us under the table. Hands down.
Day 4: Ingelmunster @ De Fagot
Despite its rather unmentionable name in English, this place was great. It was an outdoor festival in celebration of Easter and the folks there all seemed to be artists and musicians. You can see from the pics that it was a large outdoor stage and there were lots of vendors and people enjoying the day with their families. This was the first show where we were able to use our full setup (mics and DI's) but our in-ear monitor power pack blew. Managing electrical inputs here is tricky at best, but the equipment at this fest was top notch. The sound guy helped us put on a great show and the people loved it. We sold a bunch of CD's and made some new fans. Starr broke a string during the encore and the audience gasped, then laughed along with us.
Final notes: Jon's been able to tune in two of the first three cubs games on the internet. This might not be "the year", but it sure feels good to hear Pat Hughes's voice.
Tonight we play our home-away-from-hometown bar in Gierle and tomorrow we have a day off. There's talk of hopping a train to Amsterdam. We'll see...
Dan and I went for a walk about five minutes ago and I got a video of the truck I mentioned in the first section. It's advertising a circus. Slightly creepy, but awesome.