Prague welcomes the Pope

I’ve just come back from a week in Prague.  To be honest I had mixed emotions about returning to that city.  The last time I was there was over 20 years ago.  I was on a tour of Europe as the support artist to Art Garfunkel. Now that might sound glamorous, and it was an amazing trip, but there are some things you need to know before judging my ambivalence.

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On the plane to Prague with arranger Andrew Griffiths

Firstly, when a major artist has a support slot on a big tour they don’t just want someone good to open their shows, they actually want you to pay for the privilege to join the tour.  The idea is that the main artist gives the support artist the chance to play to their audience and that comes at a price.  Luckily for me Art Garfunkel seemed to like me enough to ask me to join the tour for free, but, I still had to pay my own expenses.

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After we finished playing a gig near Lake Como in Italy I had 2 days to get to the next stop on the tour, Prague.  Everyone else was going by plane.  I decided I would save money and go by train. Of course, this was before the easy access to booking online.  I remember walking up to the station ticket kiosk in Lake Como and asked hopefully for a one way ticket.  It was actually easier than I expected, and it was a trip of a lifetime. We left Italy and travelled through the alps ending up in Stuttgart in the late evening.

It was one train from Stuttgart to Prague, a sleeper train.  I shared the compartment with 2 young American students and a slightly deaf old Czech guy returning to Prague for the first time since the 1968 uprising.  As usual in these circumstances you end up chatting and explaining the reason for your journey.  When I said I was on tour with Art Garfunkel I could tell they didn’t quite believe me.

It was early in the morning when I got off the train and walked to my hotel.  You could tell the city had once been glorious but back then it seemed dusty and grey.  At the hotel the tour manager told me he had forgotten my clothes bag.  Luckily, the tour promoter, an old guy who had been organising tours by western Artists since the 50’s, took me to the airport and after some money changed hands my bag turned up.  I still remember that car ride as he told me about the old tricks he used to play right under the noses of the communist overlords as he drank into the night with the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong.

The gig itself went well.  I was paying for the tour by selling CDs after the gig. Luckily my CDs had been put onto the gear carrying the musicians instruments from Italy.  Unfortunately, they had not been declared at customs.  As I stood selling Cd’s I was approached by 2 very plain clothes policemen who wanted to arrest me for illegally importing merchandise.  Thankfully, Holly, who was Art’s merchandise man was used to this type of shake down.  Some more money changed hands and I managed to leave the country a free man.

So perhaps you can understand my feelings about Prague.

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The reason I was returning to the city was to record an orchestra for my new album.  My arranger, Andrew Griffiths from Ystradgynlais, had been to Prague a number of times recently and when it became clear that my new album had aspirations far beyond anything I’ve done in 40 years we booked the plane, hotel, the studio and orchestra.

As soon as we landed I knew things had changed.  The airport was brash and colourful.  On the drive into the city we shared the roads with some old trams but also lots of brand new Mercedes cars.

After checking in we went for a stroll around the Wenceslas Square and the old city.  It was staggering.  Every building looked ancient, but somehow brand new.  The streets sparkled, the old grey buildings were now all shades of candy colours and the old churches and castles were lit as if we were walking through Disneyland.

The reason we had come to Prague was that the city is home to 4 different symphony orchestras.  The players there are excellent.  Also, the studio facilities are second to none and the city now has a global reputation for being the place to come to record strings.

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Previous visitors included Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Ennio Moricone and Roman Polanski

Smecky studios has quite a history.  It is said that when Einstein worked in the University in Prague he gave lectures in the main studio room and he also played his violin there on a number of occasions.  During the second world war the SS used the room for their dance evenings, and I was told that some of the holes on the floor were down to the stiletto heels of their dance partners.

After the war the Soviets took over the studios to broadcast radio propaganda.  They shared the facility with the burgeoning Czech film industry.  Having gained an expertise in recording film music they were soon being booked by the likes of Ennio Morricone.  On the wall were pictures of previous visitors to Smecky including the director Roman Polanski, and actors Nicole Kidman with her then husband Tom Cruise playing drums.

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On the recording front we knew we were in safe hands.  Our engineer Jan Holzner had a number of Grammy’s to his name including one for recording the orchestra for one of Adele’s albums.

Andrew and I got to the studio early.  For an hour we checked and rechecked the score.  As the time approached to begin our first session the musicians started turning up.  They all looked every ordinary.  They ordered coffee and sandwiches from the little refreshment booth and after some general chit chat took their places in the studio.

As usual I thought I ought to say something.  My introduction in Czech raised a few titters and I think my impassioned speech about how excited we were to be there went completely over their heads as very few of them spoke English.

There was very little to stop us getting started.  The scores were all set up on their music stands.  The positioning of the microphone was tried and tested.  After a few minutes making sure everything was working we started the music, pressed record and off they went.

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James, Jan , Michael, Stanya and Andrew

Their skill and ability was staggering. The first run through sounded pretty amazing to me.  Andrew would then chat to Stanya, our translator who also was a violinist, about what might be improved then we would record again and maybe once more for luck.

Technology is a wonderful thing and there are fantastic results these days emulating an orchestra using synthesizers but there is nothing that can compare with 30 musicians all playing together.  You can hear the wood of their instruments.  There is an air that surrounds the recording.  More than once I found myself in tears as they played. It was truly a wonderful, unforgettable couple of days.

When the sessions were over, everyone packed up and hurried off to their next appointments including a number who had major concerts in the city that week.

In the old days we would have had to lug back a few heavy tapes full of recordings but now all we left with has a hard drive full of digits.  When we got home and started playing the tracks the tears weren’t far away again.  The experience of a lifetime but hopefully not the last of its kind.

Now all I have to do is mix the orchestra together with a bass guitar recorded in Garnant, guitars recorded in Llangennech, drums and brass recorded in Ystradgynlais, keyboards from Carmarthen and vocals recorded in Mumbles.  As I always say, what could possibly go wrong???

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