My own personal 2016 was such an enormous year that I feel the need to write it down. It was amazing not only for the vast traveling I did, but for all the experiences and challenges I had along the way.
The year took in fourteen countries on three continents. It involved high-speed train travel, intercontinental air travel, international travel by car, and international overnight ferry rides.
The best way to do this is by a month-by-month recap.
The first half
January was quiet, which is to say I was home playing guitar and writing music.
My travel activities began with a short tour of Ireland in February, which included two relaxing days off in Galway. If you ever go to Galway, there is a great fish and seafood restaurant called Oscar’s. I will definitely be going there again on my next tour.
In early March, a few days after returning from Ireland, I had a major foot operation. It took three months for my foot to heal, but I never stopped moving from the beginning, first on crutches, then limping slowly, and finally walking more and more normally as the weeks rolled by.
In April, less than six weeks after the surgery, I was playing at King’s Place in London as part of an Americana-themed show for the Rimbaud and Verlaine Society.
In May I did a video shoot for my tune “The Last Viking” with a talented filmmaker named Alan McMaster. The seven-minute video was shot at scenic locations around the area where I live in South Ayrshire, Scotland. It tells an entertaining story that Alan had visualised from listening to the tune. It contains a lot of classic black-and-white gravitas. As a film and cinematography fan I appreciate the nod he makes to some of my favourite directors — Ingmar Bergman, Ridley Scott and others.
Early in June I played a concert in Rothesay on the Isle of Bute, a scenic 40-minute ferry ride from Wemyss Bay near Glasgow.
Later that month I flew to London to be a mentor on episode seven of Sky Arts Guitar Star. It a was an intense eight-hour video filming which included an interview, mentoring sessions with two guitarists, and a performance along with fellow mentors Mike Dawes and Nitin Sawney. The program aired at the end of July (I still haven’t had a chance to watch it, but I hear I went over well).
Canada, China, the U.S. and London
Starting in late July, the pace quickened. I would play in ten countries over the next four months.
On July 19th I flew from Glasgow to Kingston, Ontario to perform at the Canadian Guitar Festival. It was great to play a concert alongside Canadian guitarists Don Ross, Antoine Dufour and others on Saturday night.
It was the first time I had seen Antoine since we toured Europe with Andy McKee as the Guitar Masters in 2012. He told me he liked my new video.
The promoter of the festival, Del Vezeau, a tall man with a droll, sardonic wit, asked me to be a juror for the guitar competition the next day. I accepted.
It was fascinating — not to mention an honour — to adjudicate my first international guitar contest. Don Ross, Antoine Dufour, Justin St. Pierre and I sat around a table in a trailer listening to twenty-seven contestants via an audio monitor. The whole process took about four hours. When it was time to decide the winners, I was surprised at how quickly we all agreed on who they were and why, despite being very different guitarists ourselves.
From Toronto I flew to Guangzhou, China for a fast-paced tour of seven cities, traveling mostly by high-speed train, but also by air and by car. Every day I saw amazing things, met warm friendly people, and had stupendous meals.
I shared the stage on the tour with a wonderful Chinese guitarist named Song Yi Fan. When we met he told me I was his hero, and that he had studied my music for many years. Although “Ivan” used some of my best-known techniques, he had his own compositional sound and vibe…a sort of modern take on traditional Chinese music. It reminded me of an interview I once heard with the great jazz pianist Bill Evans, saying his influences were Nat Cole, Bud Powell and Earl Hines. Really? He didn’t sound like those players. He sounded like himself. And so does Song Yi Fan. We became good friends.
One of the shows on the tour was the Beijing Guitar Festival, where I found myself sitting around a table with Don Ross again, this time for a post-festival dinner with the staff and players.
At the end of the China tour I flew from Shanghai to Richmond, Virginia to join Andy McKee and Craig D’Andrea for two Guitar Masters shows, followed by five days of teaching and performing at Andy’s guitar camp (the Musicarium) in upstate New York alongside Andy, Craig and Thomas Leeb.
It is always a pleasure to work with Andy. As much as I admire his playing, I admire his character even more. For many years now he has told audience after audience and interviewer after interviewer about me and my influence on his music and playing. I am honoured to be one of his guitar heroes.
Two students at the workshop had come all the way from São Paulo, Brazil. On the last day they presented me with a hard-bound book written by one of their friends – a guitarist named Yuri Federsoni – who had interviewed me extensively via e-mail over the course of the previous year. It was his graduate university thesis: A Téchninca Integrada De Violão Percussive De Preston Reed (The Integrated Percussive Guitar Technique Of Preston Reed).
I felt very honoured.
When Andy’s camp ended on the 19th of August, I was tired. A month of traveling, time zone-switching and exceptional summer heat — everywhere I visited — had taken its toll. I was happy to head home to Scotland for a short break.
In September, after having been home for three weeks, I flew to London for a concert and a workshop at the London Acoustic Guitar Show at the Olympia Convention Centre. One of the guitarists I had mentored on Guitar Star — a young woman named Becky Langan — was at the concert and said hello afterwards. It was nice to see her again. Unfortunately, she hadn’t won the competition and seemed discouraged. I told her to keep on playing.
Our great European adventure
In October my wife Catherine and I took our car — a Ford Mondeo diesel estate — on an overnight ferry from Newcastle, England to Amsterdam for my first real solo concert tour of Europe. I have been playing and touring in Europe since the early 1990’s, but always sponsored by guitar manufacturers and usually playing in music stores or at music merchandise conventions like the Frankfurt Muzikmesse.
This time I would be on my own, playing real concert venues.
The ferry trip over was wonderful. It was a huge, cruise ship-sized ferry operated by an old Danish company (DFDS). There were bars and restaurants everywhere. We had an excellent meal in one of the restaurants.
I have to say, it is a special experience to sleep on a big ship. To wake up in the middle of the night and see the sea rushing by outside your cabin window and feel the gentle pitch and roll of the vessel as it courses through the waves is an amazing sensation. I found it both mesmerising and relaxing.
The last time I had slept on a ship was on the French oceanliner Liberté crossing from France to New York in 1958. I was three then. I plan to do it more often.
Catherine loves to drive, anytime, anywhere, which is fortunate for me. She did most of the driving on the tour, giving me the opportunity to take power naps en route to the venues.
When we arrived in Amsterdam she was apprehensive about driving for the first time on the right side of the road in our right-hand drive car. So was I. Catherine had driven quite a bit with me on tours in the U.S., driving U.S. rental cars, but this would be different. Or so we thought. As it turned out, she was driving like a Continental European after a couple of minutes.
I had the same worry when I took the wheel for a little while later that day. Would I have trouble adjusting? Once I was underway it became a non-issue. If you know how to drive, you know how to drive anywhere.
We covered four thousand five-hundred miles on the tour, much of it on aggressively fast German autobahns. It was never a problem.
After disembarking in Amsterdam, we drove all day to bohemian, romantic Prague, Czech Republic where we spent two days eating, drinking, relaxing and exploring.
We were in Europe with our own car! It was an exhilarating feeling of freedom.
On our third day on the Continent we headed south from Prague to Bratislava, Slovakia for the first date of the seventeen-date, five-country tour. I played in Vienna, Dresden, Berlin, Düsseldorf, Nice and many other fantastic cities over the course of four weeks.
Google Maps on my phone was our navigator. It got us everywhere. It found us alternate routes around road construction, road closures and traffic plugs. It is an indispensable miracle of technology.
Here is an example:
Late on the first day, as we neared Prague at around nine o’clock in the evening, we came upon a road closure with a detour sign. Once we had exited the highway Google Maps took us through a serpentine maze of pot-holed roads — through tiny hamlets and dark, uninhabited countryside — for about fifteen minutes. Some of the roads were narrow, steep, winding and unpaved. We never saw another detour sign to guide us. With the constant turning onto new roads I completely lost my bearings. At one point I thought to myself, if we lose the GPS now we’re fucked. Then all of a sudden it put us back on the highway on the other side of the closure.
Despite having been a touring musician since the late 1970’s, it is now hard for me to remember what life was like before GPS navigation.
One of the most beautiful cities we visited on the tour was Passau, Germany in southern Bavaria, not far from the Austrian border. A small, medieval city situated on an island surrounded by three rivers, replete with well-preserved architecture, cobblestone streets and meandering alleys, it was a delight to wander around for two days.
One day while in Germany in the middle of the tour, we parked the car at Cologne Airport and flew to Nice, France for a concert at the Nice Acoustic Guitar Festival. Before flying back to Germany, we had the chance to visit the old part of Nice for some sightseeing. The architecture and atmosphere in the back streets and alleys reminded me of Rome, and indeed, Nice was once part of Italy.
Arriving back in Germany, we drove from Cologne to Kassel. When we parked the car near our hotel, I noticed the left driver-side rear tire was low. We drove to a nearby garage and learned that the tire was fatally leaking, so we limped the car back to the hotel parking lot, grabbed my gear and took a taxi to the venue for the show that night. We had organised emergency roadside assistance before leaving home, and the next day a mechanic showed up, removed the wheel and showed us a huge rip in the inside sidewall of the tire. Luckily it hadn’t blown out on the autobahn earlier, and luckily we had a day off in Kassel to get it replaced at a local tire shop.
There were many famous, character-filled venues on the tour, many of them atmospheric subterranean cellars like the Smaragd Cultur Café in Linz, Austria. I was amazed to hear from one of the owners there that they had put on nearly ten thousand shows in that room over the past twenty-five years.
One my favourite venues was a small street-level metal rock club in Düsseldorf called The Pitcher. The sound was brilliant, the audience was incredibly appreciative and enthusiastic, and the owner was a warm friendly man with a braided beard named Uwe. He enjoyed the show so much he contacted our agent and demanded that we come back next year.
Friends from the internet came to my shows throughout the tour. Some I had known for years on Facebook and Google Plus. It was magic to meet them in person.
My Bailey baritone and jumbo acoustic guitars sounded fantastic at all the shows I played all year long. There may be no greater compliment on your live sound than having a German sound engineer come on stage after sound check to inspect your guitars and gear and ask questions. It happened regularly.
I have always loved exploring the old sections of European cities, whether on my own or with Catherine if she is traveling with me. With such an abundance of those on this tour, we were out every night — be it a gig night or a night off — combing alleys and side streets in search of atmospheric bars. We always found a place to hang out…usually a quirky neighbourhood bar full of locals wondering why we were there. We did our best to be proactively friendly, and were rewarded with entertaining, sometimes language barrier-leaping interactions.
I have always noticed a sadness that comes as I near the end of something that I have given everything to, whether it be a recording project or, in this case, four months of intense traveling and performing. I was feeling both the exhaustion of such a massive outlay of energy…and a feeling of melancholy that it was about to end.
The last show of the tour was a concert for the Oberhausen Guitar Festival in early November. The venue was a large room at the back of a popular Polish restaurant called Gdanska, named after one of Poland’s big cities. It reminded me, wistfully, of Wrocław, another Polish city I had played in twice in the past few years.
We took the ferry back to Newcastle from Amsterdam the next day for what I thought was the end of the year’s adventures.
One more trip
One afternoon, after having been home for about ten days, I received an urgent phone call from Krzysztof Pełech, the artistic director of the Wrocław Guitar Masters Festival and Competition. Tommy Emmanuel — the figurehead of this year’s festival — had had to cancel at the last minute. The festival was next week. I was asked to come in his place to adjudicate the competition and perform at the awards ceremony.
Catherine and I headed to the airport for four intense days in Poland. This was now my third visit to beautiful Wrocław. I had first played there in 2011 at the Wrocław International Guitar Festival along with Paco de Lucia and others, then again for the Thank You Jimi Festival the following year.
The place feels like home now.
Festival duties and activities included a gruelling twelve-hour adjudicating day with fellow jurors Martin Taylor, Krzysztof Pełech and Piotr Restecki, followed the next night by the awards ceremony and concert performances by me, Martin and Piotr, as well as performances from each of the winners.
The guitarists who won were awesomely good, as were many of the other twenty-one contestants. Interestingly, all three winners were nylon-string players despite Tommy Emmanuel’s dominant steel-string influence among the contestants. I marvelled once again — as I had in Canada — that all four jurors agreed very quickly on who the winners were, with very little discussion.
After the awards night was over, we joined staff and participants for what turned into an all-night party in two bars in the city center. I spent time with several contestants who had not won. They were simply happy to have been part of competition, inspired by the players they had competed against, and itching to pick up their guitars again. The courage they had mustered and the effort they had put in had, in the end, given them something positive to take back home. They would continue following their dream. I don’t doubt I will be seeing them again.
It was an honour and a gift to serve as a juror for such an inspiring event…not to mention in a city I already knew and loved.
A fitting end to a great year.