20 May 2011

Den Haag, Nederland

The clunking of an old car’s heavy door can only mean one thing: my cousin associated with the band tonight is here to get us to the Focus’ (the band’s) sound check.

This cousin is a complete nostalgia freak, and it’s not hard to tell as I step into his 70’s International Wagonmaster, one of his two cars that are forty years old, which is probably just over how long their driver has been growing his hair for!

Without a moment to lose we set off and bounce along the road on broken suspension and very 70’s springy seats. “I feel like this transports you back into another time and world, you know?” He’s right, and its all part of getting into the zone for listening to stuff that most would think would have all but disappeared tonight. The brakes seem to work well enough when the car in front suddenly slams its brakes, even though some vital brake cable is visibly held only by a plastic cable tie. Al about getting into the zone, I reassure myself.

The place we arrive to looks like a cross between a bar, barn and hall. It’s difficult to know what to expect at this point – besides, what do you do when you ‘meet’ a band? Say what you think of their music (shite they’ve heard thousands of times over)? Their past and future? Cooking???

I’m taken to the back entrance of this strange structure, where a really tall man looks out into the infinite flatness of Holland. Probably the bass player, I joke to myself. “Olly, this is the bass player of Focus, Bobby.” All bass players are tall, long arms. I’m telling you. Turns out he is just a normal guy, too, which is no more surprising.

We get our wristbands and walk through to the soundcheck that’s going on. Immediately I recognise the organ of Thijs van Leer and I see him just sitting there, playing and practising – checking, I assume. To me, this guy is a genius mixer of classical, jazz and rock. Forty years on, he still is the same, but has gained about fifty kilograms and is constantly drinking Red Bull. He wears a hawaiian shirt, unbuttoned, with one of Focus’ album artworks underneath. His white mid-length hair just clears his glasses, which match his hippie, Earthy necklace.

It’s all a bit unreal, until they start practising a song, and then it’s very unreal. I’m not going to bang on about the music but I’ll quickly say that to hear this is really something that I won’t ever forget fro the rest of my life.

“Ok!” one shouts. They come down to where my cousin and I are watching and start speaking. The main man tells me a story of when they were in Australia: Frank Sinatra bad mouthed Australian women before Focus were due to cover him. So, Sinatra was somehow forced to fly back to LA, leaving Focus the whole day to prepare. You sense they, Focus, have lots of stories like this in the way they say “there was this one time that…”. All this had to wait a bit because dinner was being served. Right, so you meet a band you think you could never ever see, and then have dinner with them. Is this what you do when you meet any band?

The meal is… intimate. There’s only Focus, a wife, my cousin and I, though not so intimate for me because being Dutch, and being in Holland, they’re all speaking their mother tongue. The band members are all in their pre-performance zone, too. Drummer is looking relaxed, bass player is laughing with cousin and I about tours they used to do together, guitarist is smoking and the main man is using his glass as an instrument, playing along to to the Jimi Hendrix in the background with, astoundingly, perfect notes. Every little moment seems so implausible, yet I’m watching it all with my own eyes.

After some audience-watching with the band (they’re pleased to see more younger people over the past few years) it’s jam time.

“Now that was a concert, man!” My cousins say, one being a jazz concert connoisseur, the other a muso, so I trust their judgement, but mine’s the same anyway – we all are stunned.

This is by no means a usual backpacking thing, as tonight was really something else for my entire life, but it all makes sense, because this man, and his band, really are something else.