Monday, 2 May 2016

Burying St Edmund, Greene Kings, and Rita Coolidge - Just another day out in Suffolk, but a 'Grand Day Out' all the same.

I cannot remember exactly how this day came about, but I suspect it all began with a Rita Coolidge track popping up on shuffle on my i-Pod. As is often the case with an artist that I don't listen to all the time, I do a quick search on Google to see if a) they are still alive, b) still performing, and c) possibly touring and playing close to Norwich anytime soon. Well, Rita Coolidge is still very much alive, and according to her website, is about to undertake a UK tour that takes in The Apex, in Bury St Edmunds.

Tickets were £24, but it is not everyday that I find a seventies American legend performing that close to Norwich (Bury St Edmunds is just over 40 miles, making it about the same distance away as Ipswich). As I hadn't ever been to a show at the recently-opened Apex venue, I went ahead and booked myself a ticket.

As the date approached, I decided to make a day of it - I haven't been to Bury St Edmunds since the year before La Maman died - and this seemed like a good excuse to have a wander around somewhere other than Norwich's Anglia Square. The weather forecast looked good, so I could check out the town, have a rummage around the charity shops for used CDs, and pay my respects to the cathedral and the abbey ruins. I could even book onto a guided tour of the Greene King brewery - something that really requires either taking a designated driver, or leaving several hours to elapse before driving home myself. Yes, this could be quite a grand day out!

Bury St Edmunds
I may have been a bit over-keen, but I set the alarm early, with a view to leaving the house by 9am. I figured that it's about a one hour drive, but it was a Saturday and I wanted to make sure that I arrived in time to grab a long-stay car parking spot. Internet research had shown that the Parkway multi-storey car park near the town centre offered all-day car parking for the very reasonable fee of £3, although I would possibly have to cough up another pound to extend for the evening. I ensured that my phone and camera batteries were fully charged, made a couple of rounds of egg sandwiches, and set off.

The sat-nav interestingly took me right through the centre of Thetford but I arrived soon after 10am as expected. I found the car park without any problem, only to discover that on a Saturday I was only allowed a maximum of four hours - not much good to me. I therefore resorted to 'plan B' and drove out to beyond the limits of the permit-holder zone (found a spot in Westley Road which is almost opposite the University College Suffolk campus), and strolled back into town. Took about ten minutes, max.

After locating The Apex I was able to collect my ticket without any problem - they didn't need a booking reference number, or even any ID. So much more trusting than some other venues. The Apex has now been open for just over five years, and has a light and spacious foyer with a café on the ground floor and a bar upstairs. It forms part of the modern Arc shopping centre, built on the site of the old cattle market, and it's presence here is surprising, seeing as the restaurant and Cineworld complex situated on the other side of Parkway might have been a tempting alternative (à la Cambridge Junction). Instead it is surrounded on three sides by modern shopping units, including a futuristic looking Debenhams that has echoes of a 'Birmingham-Bull Ring-Selfridges' kind of thing going on. Top marks to Bury St Edmunds for providing such an impressive arts venue so close to the heart of the town (the former arts venue at the historic Corn Exchange has since become a bar and restaurant run by Wetherspooon).

It is only a short walk through the town centre to the abbey grounds, but I decide to go to the brewery visitor centre first to sort out a place on one of the day's guided tours. There is still limited availability on the 2.00pm tour, but I decide to bag the final place on the last tour at 3.30pm. I hand over my £12 and they take my name, but I get neither ticket or receipt in exchange. They really are a laid-back and trusting lot in Bury St Edmunds.

It is a beautiful sunny day and dramatic white clouds billow up against a bright blue sky - perfect for wandering around outside and taking some pictures. I am soon reminded how this town came by its name :

Edmund, King of East Anglia, was captured by the Danes in 869AD. When he refused to renounce his Christian faith he was tied to a tree, shot with arrows until he 'bristled like a hedgehog', and finally decapitated. His head was eventually located, being guarded by wolves, and was allowed to be brought back to his body, at which point it miraculously re-fused itself at the neck. The body was later placed within the abbey of Bury St Edmunds, where the shrine became one of England's wealthiest and most famous places of pilgrimage. Indeed, St Edmund became patron saint of England until he was usurped by the dragon-slaying St George almost five hundred years later, in 1350. Even Henry VIII was so in awe of the legend of St Edmund that the abbey was one of the very last of the country's monasteries to be dissolved, the king being almost afraid to alienate the believers in Edmund.

Nowadays, only remain where once the great abbey stood, but in its shadow lies the Anglican Cathedral of St Edmundsbury, which serves the diocese of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich (hence, Bury St Edmunds remains as a town and not a city). Construction of the cathedral started in Norman times, but the central tower was only completed during this century (between the years of 2000 and 2005).

Greene King Brewery

I have been a legal drinker of Greene King ales for forty years now, and I probably had my first taste even earlier than that. My parents were regular and frequent visitors to the Loaves and Fishes in Beccles, specifically for imbibing in the Abbot Ale, and I was known to accompany them on more than one occasion. Lowestoft, at the time, was a barren wasteland for 'real ale' drinkers with Watneys and Whitbread owning the vast majority of pubs. Apart from a couple of Adnams pubs in the town, proper beer was found only by venturing further south towards Southwold, or west towards Bury St Edmunds.

The Greene King brewery has grown massively in the intervening years, and now produces 14 million pints of beer every week. It has grown by acquisition over the years, and now it is not just the range of Greene King ales that are brewed at Bury St Edmunds, but also Ruddles, Old Speckled Hen, Hardy & Hanson, and a trendy range of craft and speciality beers. Purists may claim that such large-scale production has debased the heritage of the original product, but John, our tour guide, explains that the modern technology merely assists the production of such a wide range of ales. Whatever.

The secret, he claims, lies in the modern brewers' ability to blend a larger number of hop varieties with the malt, the grain and the yeast, and also in the ability to 'balance' the water for each brew by adjusting the hardness and the mineral composition. The barley is no longer malted on-site, although it is still grown in East Anglia and processed by Boortmalt just a couple of miles away. Dried hops now arrive in 'pelleted' form, only one single strain of yeast is now used, and assorted natural flavouring agents are blended in to produce the increasing range of seasonal and commemorative ales. However, despite the growing supermarket trade, the vast majority of beer produced at Bury St Edmunds still leaves in casks rather than kegs or bottles, and is therefore a product with a very short shelf-life. If nothing else, you have to admire the logisitics and expertise in producing such huge quantities and getting them into pubs around the country with such tight deadlines.

I have to admit to always having been an Adnams drinker myself, with Woodfordes perhaps being a close second choice, yet I have always enjoyed a pint of Abbot. Perhaps, like many CamRA (Campaign for Real Ale) purists, I am being unreasonable in my suspicions about Greene King's expansionist and acquisition-led reputation. We are, after all, lucky in having no shortage of independent micro-breweries springing up to guarantee a genuinely wide choice of  original ales and beers.

I certainly enjoyed my tour, including the 100+ steps climb up onto the rooftop of the brew house, taking in the views and the delicious aromas along the way, but relished the tastings at the end even more. We are initially given samples of Abbot Ale, Old Speckled Hen, and Green King IPA to sample, but I also manage to quaff eight or nine other brews before finally staggering out into the late afternoon sunshine. One of the most unusual was Purple Reign, not a tribute to the musician Prince, but a fruity brew in celebration of the Queen's ninetieth birthday. No matter what you think of Greene King, if you are a beer drinker you will find this guided tour and its refreshing conclusion a fascinating couple of hours.

And so it is off to The Apex for tonight's concert. Obviously I have to leave my car where it is, but a little tip for anyone attending future evening events at The Apex -  all on-street car parking in Bury St Edmunds town centre appears to be permit holders only, but these restrictions end at 6.00pm from Monday to Saturday. It should not be difficult to find somewhere free to park within easy walking distance of the venue. Alternatively, most of the pay-and-display car parks appear to charge a flat-rate fee of £1 after this time.

Rita Coolidge at The Apex

Rita Coolidge's most successful years were probably during the 1970's, starting with her eponymous debut album in 1971. She started off as a backing singer for US act Delaney & Bonnie, but also sang with everyone from Bob Dylan to Eric Clapton. In 1973 she married Kris Kristofferson, and the pair released several albums together. At a time when glamorous pop stars were still something of a novelty, Coolidge became one of only a handful of female artists to be celebrated in poster form, her long hair and striking features becoming almost as well-known than her music thanks to Athena, and a generation of teenage boys too old for Cilla Black. That was soon to change. Debbie Harry, Kate Bush and even Olivia Newton-John were soon to change the landscape of testosterone-tinged bedroom walls for ever.

I was fifteen at the time, and whilst I knew of Coolidge my own  musical tastes lay more with Top 40 bands like T.Rex and Slade, or prog-rock acts like Led Zeppelin, Emerson lake and Palmer, and Genesis. American folk and country music hardly hit my radar at all. That would come much later.

Meanwhile Coolidge's reputation as a Stateside rock-chick was not harmed in any way by stories of romantic liaisons with the likes of Graham Nash, Stephen Stills and Leon Russell. She was almost the Sheryl Crow of her day, mixing and touring as a female musician in a male-dominated world. Luckily, this UK tour coincides with the release of her autobiography, Delta Lady, published by Harper Collins, in which she promises to reveal all about her turbulent life, and chronicling her rise to fame. Not surprisingly, a notice in the foyer of The Apex informs us that Rita will be signing copies of the book after tonight's performance.

The interior of The Apex is, as you would expect, bright and modern. It has removable seating downstairs for 500, with further seats around the balconies. It is all a bit IKEA in style - lots of polished light wood and aluminium rails, but the seats are surprisingly comfortable, with plenty of leg room. Late-comers can easily squeeze past without the yo-yos up and down before the start and during the interval. It is by no means sold out tonight, which is a bit of a shame as it leaves the auditorium feeling slightly reverberant, with audience chatter echoing off the walls in a slightly hollow manner.

Support comes from a bearded grey gentleman in a flat cap with a guitar, who looks a bit like a retired farmer. It turns out that Ian Brown (no, not that one) comes from Hampshire, and for fourteen years he did indeed milk cows, farm pigs, and grow corn. He then turned to songwriting and music management in 2000. I cannot say that I am that impressed by his repertoire of self-written folk ditties, but have to respect the fact that in his time he has written songs for the likes of Jason Donovan and Pixie Lott. He wrote a follow up single for Sinitta, intended for release after So Macho and Toy Boy, but her then manager (a certain Simon Cowell) went bankrupt before it could be recorded. But his biggest claim to fame appears to be the Ivor Novello songwriting award which he won for Sandi Thom's big hit in 2007, I Wish I Was A Punk Rocker (With Flowers in my Hair). Now it all makes sense. I always hated that song.

Rita Coolidge is announced on stage by a member of her own band, and walks on to warm applause. She is looking good for 71 years old, elegantly dressed and wearing high heeled shoes. Her hair is still long and straight, but a shade lighter than most photographs suggest. Heaven help me if it is a wig. She compliments the auditorium, but I guess is slightly surprised to see so many empty seats, and is obviously more used to the exuberance of American audiences. For the first couple of songs she seems to be struggling to get the sound just right with her radio mic, and is constantly alternating between 'muffled boomy' and 'slightly too quiet'. She pops a mint into her mouth between songs, and regales us with tasty snippets from anecdotes and experiences of people she has met and worked with over the years - and mentions that book a couple of times, and the fact that she will be signing copies afterwards.

The band is competent, but not exceptional, although it transpires that the guitarist and backing vocalist is none other than Hamish Stuart (he of The Average White Band fame). The setlist covers many of the legends of Americana - Ry Cooder's Tattler, Kris Kristofferson's Late Again and Bob Dylan's I'll Be Your Baby Tonight, along with songs that I am more familiar with - Delaney & Bonnie's Superstar, and the duet Loving Arms (originally recorded with ex-husband Kris Kristofferson).

There are covers of Ann Peebles' I Can't Stand The Rain, The Temptations' The Way You Do The Things You Do, and a velvety-smooth version of Peggy Lee's Fever, but it is the Cherokee version of Amazing Grace that really raises the bar emotionally. She explains to us the story of the enforced re-settlement of native American tribes in the 19th century, and the subsequent 'Trail of Tears'. Coolidge claims Cherokee lineage, and from my third-row seat those tears in her eyes look genuine enough as she sings what has since become adopted as the Cherokee national anthem.

Ultimately, though, the 'hairs-on-the-back-of-the-neck' moments are reserved for the twin highlights that are the pair of her biggest solo hits, (Your Love Has Lifted Me) Higher, and the first-dance wedding perennial I'd Rather Leave While I'm In Love. Call me a sentimental, if cynical, old softy, but this is what I and many others have come out tonight to hear. Legendary songs performed by a legendary singer, whilst we still can. As I said to someone before I came out for this gig, 'It's a long time since I have paid to watch someone perform who is actually older than myself''. It is not just me that isn't getting any younger.

I don't hang around for the book signing, or to try and snatch a 'selfie'. I find that whole side of things so undignified. For a first night in a strange country it's not been a bad show. It's just that the audience has been a bit non-committal for a star of her standing. Hopefully later dates, including London's Cadogan Hall, will be more appreciative.

 Instead, I head back to the car, and my fifty minute drive back to Norwich.

In the timeless words of Wallace & Grommitt, "It's been a grand day out".

Visit Bury St Edmunds -

Visit St Edmundsbury Cathedral -

Visit Greene King Brewery -

What's on at The Apex -

Ian W Brown website -

Rita Coolidge website -

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