Steve Knightley is something of a legend in the folk and acoustic scene and there were many in the audience who were obviously die-hard fans. At the end of the evening, the couple seated next to me divulged that they had seen him a dozen times or more – either solo or with the award-winning group ‘Show of Hands’ – but this performance they said had been a very different experience.
What made it different was that it was Steve sharing what it is like to be a touring musician and the evening was a collection of songs, stories, anecdotes and (often hilarious) observations that illustrated a typical day in the life of a folkie roadie.
And Steve has been on the road a lot! His career started in the pubs and clubs and in the intervening decades he has played at all sorts of venues from chapels and cathedrals to the Royal Albert Hall. He averages 110 shows a year which adds up to about 35,000 miles annually. Altogether, he estimates that this is well over a million miles.
One of his observations was that even though the venues might be only 40 miles apart, that 40 miles made a massive difference. Accents would have changed and there was usually a healthy disdain for the place just left. The welcome at different venues also differs hugely. He described one particularly bad reception (a few years ago now) with a technical team at Leamington Spa where the resulting animosity had almost prevented the show going ahead. “We were there!” shouted a couple from the top gallery. It’s a small world and obviously his fans also spend a fair bit of their own time on the road following him across the country.
Throughout the evening, we learn all about the mechanics of a tour – from negotiating fees and working out the finances to kicking off his shoes after a gig is over. We also find out about ‘safe houses’, which are places where he can relax without being asked to perform a few songs just for the fun of it. After all, he muses, a friend of his is a lower bowel specialist but no one expects him to demonstrate his skills at a social gathering.
It is a life which has put him outside of regular society. It can feel a bit “shabby” being at a service station at 3am in the morning but he also confesses to the guilty pleasure of phoning his wife from a bar and hearing three squabbling kids in the background. But is it a good life? He refers to the joke “Mum, when I grow up I want to be a musician.” To which she replies, “Well son, you can’t do both.” Music keeps you young at heart he confirms. He also acknowledges that audiences like to know that you are enjoying playing for them and seeing him there chatting on stage with just him and a few guitars is ample proof of that. At the end of the day, it’s probably what keeps him on that road.