Tag Archives: London

Twenty Years!?

I saw a Facebook post recently which reminded me of something. Well, not so much ‘reminded me’ of something, more like hit me over the head with something. It’s been twenty years since I had my first story published. Twenty fucking years. I was going to say it’s been twenty years since I started writing, but that wouldn’t be strictly true. I’ve been writing since I was a kid. My first published story was called Monkey Man, and it came out in a Welsh literature magazine called Cambrensis some time in 1997. It was a different landscape back then. In the late-nineties there was a thriving small press consisting of various genre mags as opposed to a glut of websites. I also had some early success in Raw Nerve, the Asphalt Jungle, Roadworks, Tales of the Grotesque & Arabesque and several others. The thing was, even back then I was very conscious of getting paid for my efforts, and the vast majority of these titles didn’t offer anything except ‘exposure.’ In fact, when you consider materials, printing and postage expenses, in the pre-digital age it actually cost money to submit to publications. It was a two-way street. Being physical entities, it meant these magazines cost money to put together and distribute.

Having flunked all my exams (even English) I was working in a factory at the time for minimum wage. Mostly, I put things in boxes. Soap, shampoo, pills. You name it, I’d put it in a box. I wanted to find some way of generating extra income, so I started submitting feature ideas to newsstand magazines. This was when shows like the X Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer were at their peak, and this was manifested in the popularity of paranormal-themed publications like Fortean Times, Enigma and Beyond. I soon found my little niche, and what was more, they paid! They paid pretty well, actually. Sometimes, I would get as much money for one 2000-word feature as I would for an entire week slaving in the factory. My magazine work and general fascination with the weird and fucked-up led to me researching and writing my first book, Into the Dragon’s Lair: A Supernatural History of Wales, which was eventually published by a mid-size Welsh publisher called Gwasg Carreg Gwalch in 2003. Into the Dragon’s Lair set my life on a different path. It was targeted mainly at the tourist trade, and generated a lot of media interest. Several national newspapers did stories about it, and I was a guest on a live Radio Wales programme. It all resulted in a division of the Welsh government giving me a grant to go to university as a mature student.

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I had a choice of two; Carlisle and Southampton. I chose the latter because growing up I was a big Matt Le Tissier fan, who played for Southampton FC. It was that simple. Two weeks later, I was enrolled on a journalism degree and working part time as a barman at the football stadium. I’d hardly left Wales before. In my spare time, I decided to knuckle down and write ‘The Great Welsh Novel,’ a partly autobiographical tale called Rainbow’s End. It took a couple of years, but as soon as it was finished it was snapped up by a new start-up publisher called Flarefont, who promptly went bankrupt. During this time, I also started working on a book about Cardiff City FC, which eventually came out in 2014, again on Gwasg Carreg Gwalch, after another publisher strung me along for about three years until eventually pulling the plug.

From the Ashes F

During university, one of the most beneficial things I did, was go on work experience placements at every magazine that would take me (Front, Ice, Maxim, FHM). I learned more during those two-week placements than I did in three years of university, and I managed to form relationships that would serve me well later in my career. After I graduated from university, I freelanced for a year, writing features for Nuts, Record Collector, Rock Sounds, Urban Ink, Chat… It’s Fate, and anyone else who would pay me, before bunking off to China to teach English. I mainly worked at universities, which meant I had a lot of free time during which I continued to freelance, adding China to my list of specialist topics. One freezing Spring Festival in Tianjin, through sheer boredom, I started writing fiction again, a full nine years after my last published effort. Perhaps this explains why some people assume I am relatively ‘new’ to the scene. Nah, mate. Been here a while. Just had a rest. Over the next couple of years I wrote Apartment 14F: An Oriental Ghost Story and Dead of Night (both published by Damnation Books), and Devil’s Island (Rainstorm Press), as well as a clutch of short stories, which would appear in Screams of Terror, Gore, Siren’s Call, the Literary Hatchet, Trigger Warning, Deadman’s Tome, and a few anthologies.

Then, in 2012, I had another huge stroke of luck. A Staff Writer job came up at Nuts magazine and I was given a shot at it mainly because the deputy editor had somehow noticed some of my funny quips on social media. I flew back from China and was suddenly zipping around London fraternizing with models and film stars. But times were already hard in the ‘lad mag’ market, and getting progressively harder. I was soon got laid off as the sector went through its death throes. I reinvented myself as a sports journalist, and landed a job on the new-fangled Sports Direct magazine. That, too, went belly-up for entirely different reasons, and was re-launched as Forever Sports (later FS). After a couple of years as Senior Writer I was offered a promotion and a pay rise, and asked to move to another new launch at a different publishing company. It didn’t work out. I butted heads with my new editor for a while, then left to go back to freelance, and the new launch sank like the Titanic. By this time I was beginning to realize that the magazine industry was a ruthless arena with very little in the way of job security.

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Parallel to my magazine career, I took advantage of the rise in self-publishing and put out a steady stream of material. To help keep a degree of separation from my day job(s) I modified by name for fiction. There were some things I wrote while I was in China (including Sker House, and No Man’s Land: Horror in the Trenches) which just needed tweaking, and I also started gathering my previously-published short stories into a series of collections. I’ve lost a lot of faith in publishing companies, so I much prefer to put these things out myself. That way I can maintain complete control over every aspect of the process from the cover art to the contents and pricing. These days, I make a living by maintaining several revenue streams, fiction and magazine work being just two components. It isn’t easy, but it’s the life I chose. The past two decades have been a hell of a ride. I’ve done things I never thought I would do, and seen things I never thought I would see. I’ve met some amazing people, more than a few cunts, and lived in 12 different places, in eight different towns and cities, in three different countries. I’ve come to realize that moving around is a big part of my identity. I get restless if I stay in one place for too long. I need the constant sense of ‘newness.’ It keeps me focused. All things considered, I’ve far exceeded my own expectations, and anything beats working in that factory.

I can’t wait to see what the next twenty brings.

 

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Dear London

This isn’t an easy letter to write. I think you know, things haven’t been right between us for a while now. I’m not sure they ever were. Don’t get me wrong, we had a lot of fun together. Those early days, when there was so much to discover and indulge in, were very special. So new new and exciting. For a while, I really thought you might be ‘the one.’ I thought I’d finally be able to settle down. But those feelings didn’t last. After a couple of years, all the little annoyances I used to find so charming started getting on my nerves. These days, I find it difficult just to be around you. Everything’s such hard work, and I derive so little pleasure from what we do together. It comes down to balance, I suppose. This relationship is all take and no give.

I would give you that time-honoured “It’s not you, it’s me,” line.

But that wouldn’t be fair, because it’s mostly you.

I know the score, okay? I know how things are. You are this rich, powerful, older woman and I’m just A.N. Other guy. I have to work my balls off to impress you and stay in your good graces. Do you have any idea how exhausting that is?

Didn’t think so. You act like I should be happy just to be here. To have the opportunity. But my best was never good enough. You have ridiculously high standards, and even higher demands. I know if I let my guard down for just a few moments, there’ll be a line of would-be suitors queuing around the block. Like vultures. Half the guys in the world want to get with you. That’s a lot of pressure. Plus, you go through my money like it was piss in the rain.

God, you make me feel like such a failure sometimes. On the other hand, you make me proud just to be with you. That’s the paradox of love. Anyway, enough waffling. The bottom line is our relationship is turning destructive, and it’s probably best I leave before someone gets hurt.

There, I said it.

Sorry to be so abrupt, but you broke my heart, London. At least three times, you cold, heartless bitch.

I know you are fucking other people, okay? You always were, and you always will. It’s just what you do. You don’t care. And why should you? You don’t owe me anything. You’re thinking, “You came to me, remember? Feel free to leave at any time.”

I also want to thank you. You taught me how to be humble, how to be strong, and how to grow. Along the way you taught me a few hard life lessons. But someone had to teach me, and I’m glad I learned from the best.

I’m not bitter. It hurts to know that you’re so ruthless and callous, but I get it. It’s not personal. And don’t worry, even though I knew all along you were using me I have no regrets, because I was using you, too. We were just having fun. I always knew it wouldn’t be long term. How could it? We both value our freedom and independence too much to make any kind of lasting commitment. Many better men (and women) than me have tried to have a relationship with you and failed.

Thinking about it, I suppose we were only ever fuck buddies. At first, there was only passion and lust. I wanted to do everything with you. But then, the spark died. The dream ended and reality bit down on us hard. We stopped going out as much, most of our ‘friends’ slipped away, and our sex life went down the toilet. When we did manage it, which wasn’t often, it was functional and mechanical. Like we were just going through the motions. Yeah, we’d blame things like work and family and the weather and whatever else. But the truth is, we just drifted apart. I know that you never gave all of yourself to me. There was always that part of you that you kept hidden. And no matter what I did, you were never going to reveal it to me. I could spend a lifetime trying and still not discover ‘the secret of you.’

Maybe I was the same way.

I admit, I haven’t exactly been faithful. There’s this other girl called China. I don’t understand half the things she says or does and she has these really strict parents who make things difficult, but she’s just so beautiful and exotic. Then there’s my mental ex, Wales. She was my first love, so I guess she’ll always be in my life. We went through too much together for me to ever really forget her, but we are so volatile together we fight like mad.

Anyway, goodbye, London. I don’t know where this journey will take me next, but I do hope we can stay in touch and who knows, maybe we can hook up again further down the road. The future is a place where anything is possible.

Take care of yourself, and stay beautiful.

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Something to Declare?

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Today is Chinese New Year, 2016 being the Year of the Monkey. Therefore, I think it’s time for another weird China story from the vault.

On September 11th 2011, the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks (which was nerve-wracking enough in itself) I made the journey from Wales back to my ESL teaching job in China. After getting a lift from my dad to Cardiff Central I got a National Express coach to Heathrow airport and then endured a gruelling 10 hour flight to Shanghai Pudong, where I had to get another bus to another airport in Shanghai so I could make a connecting internal flight to Changsha city, capital of Hunan Province. As you can probably imagine, by that point I was tired, stressed, and not in the best of moods.

I dragged my 24 kg suitcase to check-in at Hongqiao, where a nice young Chinese lady slapped a sticker on it and sent it through an arcane-looking X-ray machine. And then an alarm went off. Uh-oh. A couple of burly ‘security operatives’ appeared and whisked me away to a little side room where my suitcase was waiting, sitting on an oversized metal table. One of the security people motioned to a monitor where several ‘suspect’ items were highlighted, and told me to open my suitcase. He then put on some rubber gloves and proceeded to rummage around in my personal affects, placing several of my possessions on the table for further scrutiny.

The first was a police-issue extendable baton, bought for 20 RMB from a street seller in Changsha the year before. Whatever your opinion on this, in my view living alone in a foreign country where laowai (foreigners) are often targeted, necessitates some form of personal protection. Besides, it was pretty cool.

“Can’t have,” said one of the young customs officers.

“Okay, no problem,” I replied, sheepishly. Fair cop, guv.

The next item was a 5-inch switchblade knife with a retractable spring-loaded blade, kept for the same reasons as the baton (although this one doubles as a handy household tool). They are illegal to own in some places, and certainly illegal to carry. The customs officers opened the blade and admired it for a few moments, tested it was sharp enough, then stuffed it back in my suitcase and told me it was fine.

What? Are you sure? I wanted to ask, but of course didn’t. Besides, things were about to get weird. The next things pulled out of my suitcase was a meagre collection of paperback books.

For reference, the titles of these were as follows:

Horns, by Joe Hill

Breathless, by Dean Koontz

Full dark, No Stars, by Stephen King

Bookie Wook 2, by Russell Brand

Country Driving, by Peter Hessler

As the security personnel picked their way through the pile, flicking through the pages and breaking the spine on at least one (I hate that) vague notions ran through my mind. The Chinese government dislike Peter Hessler, an American who lives in China and writes almost exclusively about his adopted country, and often ban his stuff. Could this be the problem? Or could it be the fact that in 2008 the Chinese government banned ‘horror’ (whatever that means) in reaction to Steven Spielberg pulling out of his role as advisor to the Olympic committee on political grounds?

“Why do you have so many books?”

“I like reading.”

“Really?”

“Really. Why else would I carry so many books half way around the world?”

The customs officer considered this and, apparently satisfied, moved on to the next item, which was a pound of Cheddar Cheese.

“What’s this?”

“It’s a pound of Cheddar Cheese.”

“What is it used for?”

“It’s cheese. You eat it.”

“When?”

“Erm, whenever you want.”

He made a ‘yeah, right!’ face, picked the cheese up and started bending it and sniffing it. ‘Did you pack this yourself?’

“Yes I did. I packed my suitcase myself, and this is definitely my cheese.”

“Are you sure about that?”

“About what?”

“The cheese.”

“Yes, I am quite sure this is my cheese. Is there something wrong with it?”

“I’m not sure you can take this on the plane.”

“Why?”

“No why.”

“So I can take a knife on the plane, but no cheese?”

“Knife no trouble in suitcase.”

“So will the cheese be trouble in my suitcase?”

“Maybe.” He gives the matter some thought, stroking the few wispy hairs on his chin.

“Look, I would really appreciate it if you let me take my cheese on the airplane. Of course I will put in my suitcase, and not get it back out until I get to my apartment.”

“Okay. We trust you.”

I hurried off and hid in the departure lounge before they changed their minds. Angry, confused, and bummed at losing my baton, but happy I got to keep my books and cheese. Happy New Year, China.


Gary Holton, RIP

Gary Holton  22 September 1952 -25 October 1985

Gary Holton
22 September 1952 -25 October 1985

His name might be unfamiliar, but today marks the 30th anniversary of Gary Holton’s death. The English entertainer’s list of achievements is considerable. He lived life to the fullest and did things most of us can only dream about. For starters, he once toured as lead singer with the Damned in place of Dave Vanian, he had a number one single in Norway where he was a massive star, appeared on Top of the Pops and the Tube, was the subject of articles in NME and Melody Maker, and fronted the glam rock band Heavy Metal Kids and later Casino Steel, who were signed to Polydor records. A year to the day after Bon Scott’s death, Holton auditioned to join AC/DC, turning up at the venue with a crate of whisky. Rumour has it that the sole reason he didn’t get the job was that the band didn’t want another alcoholic singer.

Despite his love of rock n’ roll, it was Holton’s acting endeavours that really made his name. He had minor roles in Quadrophenia, Minder and Shoestring, before finding fame as flash cockney carpenter Wayne in the classic comedy drama Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, about a group of British builders working abroad. His character displayed a penchant for wine, women and song, something which by all accounts mirrored his off-screen persona. At the peak of his career he was offered the part of ‘Nasty’ Nick Cotton in the long-running soap Eastenders, but declined for reasons unknown. By some weird twist of fate, the part eventually went to one of Holton’s best mates, John Altman. By some even weirder twist of fate, in 2010 Altman took Holton’s place in a revamped version of Heavy Metal kids.

Gary Holton died from an overdose of alcohol and morphine in his flat in London before finishing the second series of the show that made him famous, his parts being completed by clever use of body doubles and sound editing. The cast all went to his funeral, and resisted attempts to make a third season for 15 years despite increasingly-lucrative offers. A recovering heroin addict, the inquest into Holton’s death revealed his blood contained almost twice the lethal level of morphine (o.8 mg per litre). Poignantly, the last single he released shortly before he died was a song called ‘Catch a Falling Star,’ and when the grim reaper came knocking he had been declared bankrupt twice. A tragic, sad end to a life that promised so much. Still, he probably packed more into his 33 years than most of us could in several lifetimes. His ashes were laid to rest next to his grandparent’s grave in Welshpool, Powys.

Since his death, Holton has achieved cult status. A hard-living, hard-loving rocker with a prodigious talent who loved the pub, when he wasn’t off being famous, he could often be found pulling pints at the establishments his parents ran, or playing dominoes with the regulars. Apparently, his records still outsell the Beatles in Norway. What a legend. RIP, Gary Holton. I hope you caught that falling star.


Inside Harberry Close

A few months ago, the writer Gregory Norris asked me to contribute something to his website about my story, Harberry Close, which was included in the recent anthology Dead Harvest on Scarlet Galleon press alongside one of his.

Dead Harvest - Front Cover

Dead Harvest – Front Cover

I was more than happy to oblige, and here it is.

Until quite recently, I lived in east London and worked in the south-west. That meant a near two-hour journey through one of the busiest cities in the world, during rush hour, twice a day, five days a week. That journey used to drive me mad with all the pushing, shoving, and elevated stress levels. It wasn’t an easy route, either. A typical commute consisted of a 15-minute walk to the nearest tube station, the Central line to Bank, the Waterloo & City line to Waterloo station, an overground train, and a bus. I absolutely hated the Central line. It was slow, ponderous, and you invariably ended up squashed into someone else’s arm pit.

If the weather was bad, or if there was some kind of strike or other disruption, it could easily add half an hour or more to my journey, which meant I would arrive at work late, then have to stay late to make the time back. I’m sure you get the picture. Waterloo station represented the mid-point in my journey. As such it always filled me with a strange mixture of emotions. On one hand it was encouraging to know I was halfway to my destination, but at the same time it was a bit soul destroying to realize I still had some way to go. I actually quite like Waterloo. Despite always being chaotic and full of stressed-out commuters, it’s one of London’s nicer transport hubs. There’s quite a decent pub on the platform, and an excellent burrito place. Anyway, as I waited on the platform every morning, I often found myself wondering what would happen if I somehow got on the wrong train. Where would that wrong train take me. Maybe somewhere like Harberry Close?

I started thinking about worst-case scenarios, and couldn’t think of a better (or worse) one. I made the name up. There is no actual Harberry Close. At least, I don’t think there is. I wanted something that sounded quintessentially English, and very nearly called the story Strawberry Hill. That is a real place. My train sometimes goes through it. I’ve never got off there.

The original version of this piece can be found here.

http://gregorylnorris.blogspot.co.uk/2014/12/behold-dead-harvest.html


Yellowcard/Less Than Jake @ Koko 9/03/2015 – Review

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I love KOKO. It’s not the biggest venue in the world, but its old-school multi-balconied layout always makes for a good atmosphere and a storming gig in this little corner of Camden Tahn. In past lives the venue has been a theatre, a cinema, and a BBC studio. Now it is a 1400-capacity concert venue. It has character and charm, and is a welcome deviation from the sterile sports arenas and pokey little rock clubs so often used by gigging bands these days. Some juiced-up jobsworth security guard confiscated my Cadbury’s Dairy Milk on the way in, presumably in case I clubbed someone to death with it, which didn’t get my evening off to the best start but at least I wasn’t accused of being a Romanian pickpocket like I was at the Ally Pally last year. A Day to Remember? A day to forget, more like.

I’ve been a fan of ska punk stalwarts LTJ since their album Anthem rocked my world back in ’03. I’ve also loved Yellowcard since Ocean Avenue which, ironically enough, came out the same year. I’d never seen either band live so to get them both on the same bill was pretty amazing. I didn’t even care that it was a Monday night and I had work the next day.

Co-headlining tours often make for a weird dynamic. The first question to be answered is who’s going to play first? There is still a level of prestige that comes with playing last, on the top of the bill in the traditional headliner slot. I don’t know if they alternated or what, but on this occasion it was Yellowcard who followed French rockers Chunk! No, Captain Chunk, who I completely missed because I was eating Mexican food across the road.

Fresh off the Warped Tour and a US jaunt with Memphis May Fire, Yellowcard are a band on form. Powerful, polished, and profound, their multi-layered music comes at you in waves, and is given an extra dimension by Sean Mackin’s often-manic violin. Having progressed from their slightly more hardcore roots and survived the demise of pop punk, they now manufacture a brand of solid, mainstream rock it’s hard not to like. The bulk of the material in the first half of the show was taken from last year’s Lift a Sail, as evidenced by the opening salvo of Convocation segueing into Transmission Home and Crash the Gates, the first three tracks off the album. In truth they didn’t go down too well, which prompted front man Ryan Key to yell, “I know it’s Monday but wake the fuck up!” before launching into Lights and Sounds.

YC

I’m no expert dude, but if you want crowd interaction, maybe starting a gig with an extended violin intro and a couple of mid-tempo plodders most of the crowd don’t know isn’t the most sensible option. A stunningly stark rendition of the piano ballad California aside, the latter part of the show was, naturally, more geared toward the crowd-pleasing classics (and there are a lot of them) building up to the one-two encore of probably their best-loved songs, Way Away and Ocean Avenue.

After roughly 70 minutes of Yellowcard, the stage was set for their fellow Floridians Less Than Jake. With eight albums and a clutch of singles and EP’s to choose from, any LTJ set list is full of potential surprises, and so it proved. They kicked things off with Look What Happened, which is a bit like Bon Jovi starting a gig with You Give Love a Bad Name. Cue mosh pit. From there it was a veritable free-for-all as the five-piece tore up the rule book and hopped, jumped and skipped all over their extensive back catalogue. It’s very clear that this is a band who doesn’t give a fuck. Their energy and enthusiasm is infectious, not to mention relentless, with Chris DeMakes and Roger Lima forming a two-headed vocal assault team that barely pauses for breath. Their (usually) good-natured banter easily plugs the gaps between songs, the duo sometimes coming across more like a well-oiled comedy act than members of rock band, a la Blink 182. One of the biggest LOL moments of the night came when, in an effort to drag fans away from social media for a few precious moments, DeMakes said, “If your phones not a dildo, you shouldn’t be using it.” Priceless.

The whole thing makes for an inclusive and fun atmosphere. This is a band that obviously loves what they do, as evidenced by trombone player Buddy Schaub’s no-holds-barred performance just six weeks after having a pacemaker fitted. At one point they invited a guy up from the crowd, gave him a huge comedy mask to wear, and let him stumble around the stage like a drunk Elvis Presley for a couple of songs. There were also lots of sparkly things and balloons. Highlights on the musical front, for me anyway, were the Ghosts of Me and You, Automatic, History of a Boring Town, and a faultless, tour exclusive (we are assured) version of Gainsville Rock City.

With a strict 11pm curfew in effect in most of London these days (ask Bruce Springsteen) the gig was over all-too soon. Never mind. Like I said, I had work in the morning. And you know what? I even had time to go and get my Cadbury’s Dairy Milk back from the juiced-up jobsworth security guard. So the joke’s on you, dick wad.

Cadbury-dairy-milk


Pop Punk Not Dead Tour 2014 Review

Only Rivals / Candy Hearts / State Champs / The Story So Far/ New Found Glory

The Forum, London, November 29th 2014

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Here it is. The final night of the 2014 Pop Punk Not Dead Tour. The only UK representatives on the bill, Dublin’s Only Rivals, are more grungy alt rock than pop punk, and taking the stage just after 6:30 didn’t help their cause. Still, they are a tight unit and have some decent tunes. Their new EP, Details is out now.

On the other hand, the Candy Hearts embody what pop punk is all about. As the name suggests, sugar sweet melodies and killer hooks combine with emotionally-heavy lyrics sung with gusto by Mariel Loveland to great effect. Most of the short set was taken from this years ‘All the Ways You Let Me Down’ album, probably their strongest to date.

State Champs were up next, showcasing tunes from last year’s debut full-length ‘The Finer Thing.’ If you missed it, that’s a great album, and they hit all the right notes live. Polished and fluid, and with some good crowd interaction, the New York 5-piece made more than a few new friends tonight and ensured that pop punk certainly is not dead.

Main support The Story So Far have been around a long time now, and have amassed a healthy body of work to call upon. Live they are technically flawless, and perhaps the only thing missing from their repertoire is the presence of a couple of killer singles that might threaten the charts. They closed their 10-song set with High Regard, possibly the closest thing they have, apart from Small Talk, which they didn’t even play. Still, if this is the story so far, its pretty fucking impressive.

This being the last night of the tour, many in attendance were expecting something special and headliners New Found Glory didn’t disappoint. In fairness, they rarely do. Even after almost 18 years together and eight studio albums, they still give each performance everything and play every show like it could be their last. After a slightly surreal intro tape they ripped straight into Understatement, lead track from arguably one of their best-loved albums Sticks and Stones. After that, the classics kept on coming, Better Off Dead, Hit or Miss, Don’t Let Her Pull You Down, Failure’s Not Flattering, Dressed to Kill, Truck Stop Blues, and, of course, My Friends Over You, mixed with a few stand-out tracks from most recent album Resurrection.

During his between-song banter, guitarist Chad Gilbert said the concept of the new album was based on finding that inner strength and belief that helps you triumph in the face of adversity. Anyone who knows the back story of NFG, and in particular the scandal that broke last year surrounding ex-member Steve Klein, will know what he was alluding to. Another thing Gilbert said in one of his between-song raps that stuck with me was that life isn’t about chasing fame, money or success, its about making memories. He’s probably right about that because in the end, memories will be all any of us are left with and if that’s the case we made some good ones tonight. Cheers boys.


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