Ask Simon and The Gathering 20

‘Ask Simon’, our very own Gathering concierge, reflects on the Gathering 20. Please read on and savour every moment of Simon’s memories of the Gathering 20 and anticipate the excitement of G21 to come next January!

An AskSimon view of Gathering 20

It’s a really strange feeling wandering around Pontins pre Gathering.  All that space and all that silence and knowing that in a few days time it will be full of fabulous people and a fabulous sound.

It’s not all silence though as there is the occasional noise from the MPO crew.  Whether this is the roadies sorting out the sound, Lily sorting out the merchandise, Andy taking photos, Stephen putting up backdrops, Katrina and Jackie setting up the LHS area and not forgetting the numerous sound checks and songs honed by the band.  In between all this will be Jules checking, checking and checking again that everything is going to plan.  There are many cogs to this set but everyone knows what they need to do and just gets on with it.  The amount of work that goes in to creating the best rock and roll weekend is staggering.  It starts as soon as the last one finishes and finishes as the next one starts.

The first people started arriving on Thursday from across the globe.  It always amazes me how far some people travel to attend this event.  That in it self shows you how special this weekend is.  It’s a weekend not just about the music but also about the people.  Without the band there would be no fans and without the fans there would be no Gathering.  The same faces arrive year after year but there are always new faces to add in to the mix.  The new faces always go away with a huge smile on their faces and all vow to return.

I went to the Queen vic on Thursday night for a brief visit to meet up with a friend or two and also to begin to feel the buzz.  It was there even though there were only about 25 people in the pub.  If there was a buzzometer, in 24 hours in the same pub it would be on overload. I left ready to return the following day and to begin my role as AskSimon, not at the end of an email, but face to face.

I arrived on Friday morning at about nine to book in to my chalet.  The usual friendly people on reception and an efficient booking in was swiftly done.  Having lived in the area most of my life, I find it a little odd that it is only in the last 3 years that I have stayed here.  It is what it is. The room is somewhere to put my stuff, grab a bit of food or a cup of tea or even just some quiet time, and at the end of the day some sleep (not a lot I must stress).

I then strolled over to the Love Hope Strength area to meet up with the rest of the MPO crew and to set up my little corner of the Gathering.  This usually involves some gaffer tape, staples and climbing up ladders.  The merchandise stand was beginning to look impressive as usual.  I love seeing the merchandise before everyone because as a fan I know how important it is and always treat myself to something.  The LHS lounge had now been Alarmified (ok its not a real word but maybe one day it will be).  The Red Poppy arena was dressed for an expectant rock and roll date and the Spirit Ballroom was getting ready to party.  The Buzzometer (ok, I like to make up words) was beginning to rise at a rapid rate.

All through Friday, people were arriving.  Booking in to their chalets, catching up with old friends in the Queen Vic and making lots of new friends.  I always spend a bit of time in here on the Friday afternoon to feel the atmosphere, speak to people and to listen to what’s being said. “Have you been before?”, “Where are you from?” , “How have you been since last year?” , “What will they play tonight?” and most importantly “Whose round is it?”.  At about six I usually go back in to the LHS lounge for a final check on things and to take in that silence once more.

At 7.00 pm, the doors open.  It’s a trickle at first but soon fills up.  Most people head to the merchandise stand to check out what they are going to buy.  It’s a considered purchase and this years merchandise was excellent.  T-shirts, hats, mugs, cds, dvds.  New designs and new releases.  Those who don’t head to the merchandise stand usually head straight for the bar before the queues begin (less of a problem this year).  The room fills with an expectant chatter and my job begins.  A few questions, people checking on the bus tour and people registering for the quiz.   I love the interaction and love meeting and chatting to anyone who wants to come say hello.

Then the moment arrives.  On to the small stage area comes a certain Mike Peters.  This is the official opening to the Gathering.  A warm welcome from Mike as he surveys those in front of him.  It must be nice to see so many familiar faces and to finally get to the point when all the hard work begins to come to fruition.  I haven’t met many musicians but I would guess that there aren’t many that are anywhere near as genuine and unassuming as the man stood in front of us all.  Let the Gathering begin.

First on the bill was Simon Fowler of Ocean Colour Scene.  Now I am a fan of OCS and love Simons Voice.  I was looking forward to this intimate performance having seen the full band show only a few weeks earlier.  He didn’t disappoint.  Great vocals, great presence and great humour.  “This is the first time I have come on stage dressed as a librarian” he said.  If all librarians were like this I would go more often.  He then invited a few friends to join him on stage for his final song of his short set.  These friend were of course Mike, Craig, James, Smiley, Mark and ….it can’t be …….it is…’s that guy from Spandau Ballet, Its TRUE I  tell you.  Ok , to be honest I knew about it before hand.  Some fans were horrified, some were confused and some fans were already a little drunk.  A fantastic version of “The day we caught the train” followed.

When Simon Fowler left the stage to appreciative applause, it was time for the Alarm to take over.  From the beginning to the end of the set, Steve Norman looked like a man who had written in to Jim’ll Fix It and got the ultimate reply.  He added a bit here and a bit there to the sound, but mainly added his enthusiasm.

As for what was played in this section, where shall I start.  Well probably the beginning is the best place.  My town, then Superchannel, then Without a fight, then Strength.  All songs played with an acoustic ferocity.  Hearing songs acoustically shows what good songs they are.  Many songs followed then we reached an amazing Fade in followed by 21st Century.

What followed was a sequence of songs book ended by 1983/84.  Mike told stories of this period and played Unsafe building, Marching on, The Stand, 68 Guns and then Steve Norman took the band through Gold.  Yes, the Spandau Ballet song.  A few strange looks in the crowd but it worked.  By the chorus we were all singing along, even me and I can’t stand Spandau Ballet.  WWYHWTSB ended the sequence in spectacular style.

At this point Mike brought on Simon Jones and Steve Webster who had won the auction for Love Hope Strength to appear on stage with the band.  They certainly enjoyed every minute performing Love Hope Strength.  And finally, One Guitar brought an amazing performance to a close.

Now I know some people like the pure one man acoustic Mike Friday night performance but I like it when all the band join in.  For me, this was one of the best Friday nights ever and many people seemed to agree.

So at about 10 .30 it came to an end and we all left and moved in to the Spirit Ballroom.  This was a time to grab a drink and discuss in depth what we had just seen.  There wasn’t a disappointed person in the room.  What a way to start the weekend was the general consensus.  Surely it had peaked already.

As the evening went on we were entertained by local band The Absolute Worst containing Mikes nephew and star of Vinyl, Will Peters.  A short break then on came The Last Republic. They seemed to go down well and had actually already been seen on the Sound and Fury tour by a few people.  A good band with a good future.

At 2.00 am I decided to call it a day having spent the rest of the evening chatting to whoever I could.

At 7.30 a.m. I climbed out of bed ready for the next instalment of the greatest rock and roll weekend.  I needed coffee and needed it fast.  It took me a while to wake up but the realisation that I was here to work meant I didn’t have the luxury of lie in.  At 8.30 I wandered over to the Pontins office to print out the final list for the bus tour.

Impressive as always, most people turned up for the tour.  The bus arrived on time and Phil (great bloke) was ready to take over the reins from me and head off on the magical mystery tour.  It’s always enjoyed by everyone and this year was no different.  I was there when the bus came back and the feedback was great.  Phil and I then spent ten minutes talking about what could be added next year.  Yes, planning for G21 starts early.

Those who hadn’t been on the bus tour were able to go into the LHS lounge and take a look at some of Mikes guitars and outfits from years gone by.  How many bands let you get up close and personal like this.  You can actually pick the guitars up.  They are not hidden behind glass with a no touch policy.  Like the owner, the history is approachable.  Mike then also gave us a run through of the guitars and clothes.  Where were they used, why he had them, why he owned a shirt that really belonged on Steve Norman in the 80’s.

This then led on to the Guitar Masterclass where Mike and James explained about the origins of the song One Guitar and how it is played.  It’s a great story, as are so many of Mikes.

He’s has “stolen” two songs now and has made both of them his own.  Long may it continue.  He then announced that Willie Nile, the writer of the aforementioned song would be at next years Gathering.  I told you planning for the next gathering always starts early.  Fans with guitars were then invited up on stage to learn and then play along to the song with James and Mike.  One Guitar played by 30 guitars but 30 guitars played as one.

After the Masterclass comes the Mastermind quiz.  Lots of teams entered as usual and it’s done in entertaining way by Mod (Richard Jones).  It astounds me the knowledge that some of the fans have.  Some take it very seriously and some enter for a laugh.  The best three were as usual invited up to the Mastermind chair to answer the ten spotlighted questions so that an eventual champion can be found.  At this point my phone rang and I had to leave the LHS lounge so I actually missed the crowning ceremony.

And so to what was the extremely anticipated first showing of the film Vinyl.  Everyone was talking about this event, everyone wanted to see it.  The spirit ballroom had been transformed in to a cinema complete with a popcorn machine.  Gaz Top and Mike introduced the film and gave us more stories about how the film came about and a great story about Sara Sugarmans involvment.  The lights were dimmed and the film began.

Myself and all the other avid viewers were thoroughly enjoying what was turning out to be a really good film.  Then it happened, disaster struck.  The film began to sound like an old 7 inch single from my collection and look like a vhs video that had been recorded on 100 times.  The film was stopped and despite at least 6 people trying to get it started again we had to declare the result a defeat.  Thankfully during this time, Gaz Top (Gareth Jones) did a sterling job of entertaining us with his one man stand up show.  We were all disappointed but everyone accepted it was no ones fault and the Gathering would continue.  I think a lot of people were happy to have an extra hour to go back to their chalets and have a nap, or was that just me?

After refreshing myself, having some food and a cup of tea (I’m on duty no drink for me), we all returned to the arena for Saturday nights musical extravaganza.

On first was Joe Silva with a short but very good acoustic set.  I hadn’t heard of Joe but found his set a good way to open up proceedings.  Then followed The men they couldn’t hang.  I admit I didn’t really know much by this band either.  Some bands just pass you by, others pick you up and take you on a wonderful journey.  With TMTCH it was time to get in the car and I’m glad I did.  A thoroughly entertaining band with some great tunes.  A lot of the crowd were obviously already fans, they were in the car in front.  The band really got the crowd going with their banter and enthusiasm I think really set the crowd up for what was to follow.

And what was to follow wasn’t what we were expecting.  The lights dimmed and on stage appeared eight silhouetted musician. Had we all suddenly got double vision?  The lights adjusted and we saw the usual foursome joined by Mark Taylor, Steve Allen Jones, Steve Harris on guitar and that guy from Spandau again.  What was going on!!! The E street band had come to Pontins.

The band opened with a song I always wanted them to as soon as I first heard it.  Control exploded out of every amp.  The extra members of the band were not just there for show but were there to enhance every song played for the rest of the gig.  For me this was the strongest opening of all the Gatherings.

Knife edge, Coming home and Permanence in Change followed.  The latter really showing that Mike wasn’t afraid to mess around with old classic Alarm songs.  The Saxaphone solo played by Steve Norman was a stroke of genius.  I could list all the songs that were played but that would take ages.  Lots of songs that hadn’t had an airing for a while were included such as Levis and Bibles, The usual crowd pleases were played, Kill Kill Kill, Alarm calling, Drunk & Disorderly and Blaze of glory to finished off part one of the set off.  It was an amazing show to watch and the extra band members really enhanced every song that was played.  Having the extra guitarist really freed up Mike to be the great front man that he is.

After a short break, an almost acapella version of A new south wales started of proceedings again.  Down the road, the most Springsteen moment of the night, led in to the usual crowd pleaser Spirit of 76.  Peace agreement was followed by another short break for the band and thankfully the crowd.  I was in the middle of the chaotic swarm at the front and I needed to catch my breath and recharge my batteries.

The band came back on Mike started to talk about Vinyl and we were treated to a new song from the film.  Breed apart was excellent and bodes well for the forthcoming soundtrack and Vinyl tour.  45rpm meant that I was going to get no rest at the front but gain another 6 bruises.  At one point I fell over but thankfully someone had beaten me to it so I had a soft landing.  Free rock n roll completed the trilogy of Vinyl songs but the energy didn’t let up as we went in to 68 guns.  The gig ended with a great version of Walk forever by my side.

Mike thanked all those involved with a heart felt speech to his family, friends and crew. It was all over.

Most people who were there were completely blown away by the performance they had just seen.  The dynamic of the eight piece band brought out a new side to all the songs played.

This band was full of great musicians who are able to go with the flow when Mike decides to improvise on stage.  They all looked like they were having so much fun, especially Steve Norman who smiled so much I thought he was advertising a brand of toothpaste.  The comparisons to The E Street Band were flying around and that is some praise.  This performance could so easily have filled the MEN Arena even if there was no audience.  We had witnessed something very special this evening.

A lot of drinks, chat, photos, cowboys and Indians and dancing followed.  At 4.00 a.m. I admitted defeat and went to bed safe in the knowledge that rock and roll was alive and well and currently residing in Pontin, Prestatyn.

On Sunday morning at the Gathering, I always open up the curtains slowly.  Its beach walk day and it’s a great way to end of the weekend and good weather always helps.  Today was a good day.  Cold but dry.  I left my chalet and headed back to the Love Hope Strength Lounge to be greeted by just a handful of people.  No need to panic, this is always the case and as usual, by 10.00 a.m. there were a few hundred people ready to take the short walk to the beach.  I joined Mike and Jules for the stroll and a chat.  We don’t usually get much chance to do this during the weekend due to being busy so this was a lovely moment (in time).

Arriving on the beach we arranged ourselves in an amphitheatre with Mike the centurion in the middle, armed with his guitar (just the one) and his voice.  Songs were sung including Big Countrys “Chance” and then it was back to the LHS Lounge for the final part of the weekend.

Despite all the performing and all the singing and all the talking, Mike always gives time on Sunday morning for fans to have their photos taken with him and to have memorabilia signed.  He doesn’t stop smiling and he doesn’t stop talking and he never turns anyone away.  The respect and love the fans have for him is immeasurable.

And then it’s over.  Everyone slowly leaves and then its time for us to take down everything we put up a few days ago.  The venue returns to a Pontins theme and it feels really strange. Its quiet again, but like a few days ago, the MPO crew can be heard doing what they need to do with no fuss, but with a feeling of another job done well.  Jules breathes a sigh of relief that it went of with no problems.  I breathe a sigh of relief that I won’t have any question for at least a couple of weeks.

Planning for Gathering 21 has long since started.