It was probably not a good idea to meet up with my nephew Sam the night before I was to fly to the United States. We hadn’t seen each other since our epic journey across Ireland filming the video for Restless Celtic Heart. “Let’s go for a drink, Uncle Tony”…
So next morning, I’m dropped off at Heathrow Airport, nursing a hangover. I’ll sleep on the plane, I told myself. How wrong I was. Despite the early departure time, a group of lads from Essex let the rest of the passengers know just how suitably refreshed with alcohol they were. They were very vocal throughout the flight making sleep a near impossibility. When they didn’t appear at baggage reclaim I gave in to feelings of schadenfreude, imagining the frosty reception their barrow boy charm was given by Homeland Security.
I was back in Kansas City, Missouri to promote my recording of Kansas City Won’t Let Me Go – one of the songs I’d written on my 2015 US tour – and had recorded specially. But my visit was also about catching up with the many friends I’d made in the time I’d spent in KC. None more so than the ebullient Matt Mayfield who had been my conduit to the many wonderful sights, sounds and people I had encountered in this town which I’ve grown to love.
Kansas City, MO is a people town and my arrival was greeted with a barbecue outside of the warehouse in the historic West Bottoms area of KC where Matt lives. Many of the people I’d met on my last visit dropped by. One of them was Emily.
Emily Evans Sloan is a conceptual artist, photographer and serial knitter. She is also one of the nicest people on the planet. Her connections in the artistic community opened many doors for me on this trip. Plus, she chauffeured me around the city on many occasions.
Emily introduced me to Ronan Collins, a wily Dubliner, now resident for many years in KC. He was responsible for setting up several gigs I would undertake, a radio interview, and a television interview – and all before he had even met me!
The next evening I visited Johnnie’s bar which is mentioned in the KC song. My friend D-Rock was behind the bar. He must have seen me crossing the street because just as I entered the bar, my song fired up on the jukebox. When it finished, everyone in the bar gave a spontaneous round of applause. I felt so honoured.
This was also the night that my friend Scott Stillwell from Des Moines, Iowa came to visit. Scott and I met in Nashville two years ago and wrote a couple of songs together. Last year, he hosted a house concert for me which was a highlight of the tour.
The morning after a night of drinking and singing, Scott and I went for coffee at a new shop down the street in West Bottoms. The Bottoms is full of derelict warehouses that once housed various long-gone industries. The area is set for regeneration (hence there being a new coffee shop). While it is good that the area will be put to good use, we both mourned the passing of the old ways – and so we went back to Matt’s and wrote a song called Used to Be – my favourite line is ‘Loft apartment, hipster fool, a Johnny Cash t-shirt don’t make you cool’.
People in Kansas City love to talk about food – particularly about meat. I have stood by as they have argued fiercely about different food outlets and their varying reputations. “Oh, yeah, their burnt ends are good but I prefer the sauce from so and so…” They will drive across town because they claim the ribs at one place are better than at another. “Do you prefer Gates or Bryant’s?” This is just as important as: “Are you for Clinton or Trump?” (incidentally, I never met anyone who was for Trump).
I rarely eat steak. Not because I don’t like it; I do. It’s because I’m often disappointed by the fare that is served up to me. Let me tell you why. I was in a hotel in Dubai in 1983 where I ate the most wonderful steak dinner; I believe the meat had been flown in from Colorado. In the intervening 33 years I have sought to replicate that gastronomic experience. Actually, less and less as the years have gone by, as the excitement and anticipation that the dish in front of me was the equal or even surpassed my food Nirvana, was gradually replaced by an acceptance that my taste buds would never again attain those dizzy desert heights. Even dining on steak in Colorado last year I was disappointed.
So when Matt said: “I’m gonna cook steak!” I feigned enthusiasm even though I knew he was a first-rate cook.
Matt spent a lot of time preparing the steak. And I mean a lot. At times it seemed more like a scientific experiment than cooking, with the meat being sealed in plastic at one point.
Whatever it was he did – it was worth it. I almost cried as I bit into the juiciest, tastiest steak I’d eaten in – well 33 years. And it was served up with morel mushrooms that only appear for two weeks of the year, which he had foraged for himself on the banks of the Missouri River.
Speaking of the Missouri River, Matt suggested we go canoeing on the Mighty Mo. Everyone to whom we told our plans, warned us of the dangers, that with all the recent rain, the river would be too high and would be moving too fast. Local canoe rental stores had suspended hires for the duration. But still we went. At our departure point, we had to wait while Kansas State Rescue boats that had been out in search of an upturned pontoon manoeuvred their crafts out of the water. But still we went.
Matt saw us as a modern day Lewis and Clark – intrepid explorers who mapped out uncharted territory in 19th Century America, but in my head I was Daniel Day Lewis’s Hawkeye in Michael Mann’s epic movie Last of the Mohicans. I scoured the banks for Huron war parties. At first, we avoided the turbulent parts of the river but after a while we were seeking out fierce eddies, driving our boat headlong into them. I had the most marvellous time.
We stopped at a riverside casino. I moved from Day Lewis to De Niro in Martin Scorsese’s Casino. We played ‘craps’ where you throw dice along a table till it bounces off the back wall. I had no idea how to play, and the loss limit of thirty dollars that I’d set myself was reached very quickly.
The casino wasn’t at all glamorous. The bulk of the clientele looked a little sad; there was a sense of desperation in the air, and a look of hopelessness on their faces. I was glad to get back on the river.
I took part in two live radio sessions. The first was on KCFX 101 The Fox. It’s a classic rock station so it was very nice of the host, Brian “The Slacker” Adams to have me on his show. Once on air, we chatted for a while, I told my story and then I performed the KC song acoustically. He seemed very happy with the session. Matt and Emily, who had accompanied me, agreed that it went well.
Hear the interview here: http://bit.ly/1U066Jt
The second radio session was on KKFI River Trade Radio with the softly-spoken Kasey Rausch. Once again Matt and Emily were by my side. The interview was interspersed with me performing three live songs. I started with Nashville State of Mind. The late night (I had gigged the night before) and the early morning start was starting to catch up with me. How I forced out a vocal, I have no idea. Whilst I don’t think the listeners could tell, I could see out the corner of the one eye that wasn’t tearing up, that both Matt and Emily were holding their collective breath in an effort to hold back the almighty cough they knew I was struggling to contain. Somehow, I did contain it and I started to relax, swimming in Kasey’s velvety voice. Naturally, I sang Kansas City Won’t Let Me Go and finished with Restless Celtic Heart.
There was also a television interview live on Fox 4 News Morning Show. We arrived at the TV station at 8.30am and were shown in to the Green Room and offered coffee and water. I chatted with the guest who would follow me, a vivacious lady named Kim Case Hassler. A production assistant came in and explained how the session would run. She was very excited. I knew this because she told me she was. She said the interview would last a minute and a half and then the song would air for another minute and a half. This took me by surprise as it meant I would barely get to perform a verse of the song. I immediately began mentally editing the song to make it shorter. The intro could go and likewise the solo section. She took me through to a small studio which contained two remote-controlled cameras, where Kevin the soundman sound-checked my guitar and vocal mic. I wouldn’t be able to hear either but would have to rely on the acoustics in the room. I decided that I could trust him to send a good sound to the control room. Another technician came in and put a clip mic and radio pack on me which would be used for the interview. I was then asked to play for 30 seconds in what they referred to as ‘a tease’. This was to air just before a commercial break with a voiceover of “and after the break, we’ll be talking to singer-songwriter Tony James Shevlin…”
While the commercials ran, one of the TV anchor persons came in. He identified himself as Nick, and for the next couple of minutes he was my best friend. I completely missed what he was saying to me as I marvelled at how orange his skin was.
And then we were live on air. He read the introduction from an autocue; I looked away from it for fear I might mouth the words along with him.
I thought the interview went well. This being my third one, I had my patter down to a fine art and I told him how I was on tour in the US last year, came to KC, came back again and again and wrote a song about it. He threw me a curveball when he asked me about which places in the city I found myself going back to. I didn’t want to reel of a list of bars I frequented (that could take up the whole interview) so I waffled on for a bit and talked about how I loved the sound of trains. He seemed to like that. He announced my remaining show dates and thanked me for writing the song and asked me to play it. Knowing I was up against the clock, I was up and running before he was out of shot. From the corner of my eye I saw him leave the room and I never saw him again. He doesn’t call, he doesn’t write…
It was most disconcerting to have to play against the clock, watching it count down, whilst trying to perform to the million plus people watching in their homes. It’s only in the second verse of the song that places in KC are mentioned and I was trying to do the mental arithmetic as I sang: ‘If a verse takes 30 seconds to sing and at halfway through that verse the clock says 19 seconds, how much of the second verse will be sung….?’. And the clock ran down to zero. However, the red light stayed on so I carried on singing. I ticked off the places in my head as I reached the relevant lyric in the song: BB’s check; Johnnie’s, Royals check. Claycomo – didn’t think I’d get that in – check! I’d just started verse 3 and name-checked Boss Tom (Pendergast, Irishman and political fixer) when the red light went out and Kevin gave me the universal cut sign by pretend slashing his throat. I learned later that if my performance had been rubbish they would have cut to the studio once the clock had counted down, where the anchors would have bantered humorously until the break but the director decided to stay with me. Job done.
View the TV appearance here: http://bit.ly/1RwjR0J
The gigs were many and varied. There are too many to go through but here are some of the highlights.
One was at a bar called the Brick – the Rural Grit show. There was one microphone that picked up both my vocal and my guitar. The act on before me was a trio of acoustic guitar, mandolin and fiddle and three-part harmonies. When one of them took a solo they just stepped closer to the microphone, stepping back when they had finished. Very old school – but it worked brilliantly!
Weston is a small town 30 miles north of Kansas City, where many Irish immigrants settled in the 18th century. The Stores have names like McCormick’s Country Store, Celtic Ranch and McCalley’s Antique Store. I was playing O’Malley’s Pub, opening for a great rockabilly band called The Culprits. After my slot, the band were kind enough to get me up for a couple of numbers. At one point, I found myself playing stand-up bass alongside the redoubtable CW Hasty. While I slapped, he fretted! I also found the time to pop to another bar in the building where Bob Reeder was playing an Irish set. I ended up sitting in with him and the craic was mighty.
The gig in Matt’s huge loft apartment was one of my favourites. It was attended by many of my friends; there was a warm and convivial atmosphere and I was able to wax lyrical with stories about how the songs were written. I also felt comfortable enough to unveil some new songs that will be recorded later this year, and I sold lots of CDs.
My final show was at Browne’s Irish Market which is basically a shop with a deli counter and a bar. I was surrounded by products which, like me, had made their way across the Atlantic. Naturally, there was a strong Irish presence in the room; the songs, the blarney, the Guinness, the whisky and the craic flowed.
There were also great nights at the Dubliner and The Bierstation. In the former I learned a new word ‘fluffer’ and in the latter I got to meet an awesome Celtic band called Ballybricken (you’re going to have to look up the meaning of ‘fluffer’ for yourselves!).
On a professional level, my promotional campaign for Kansas City Won’t Let Me Go has resulted in me selling all of the CDs I brought with me, I’ve increased local awareness of me, and I have opened many artistic doors in the city, which bodes well for the future.
Away from the music, I have had a bloody good time. I got to taste my friend Rita’s Sicilian sauce which takes three days to make: “I don’t make it for just anyone!” said Rita. I drank a pitcher of Margaritas from Ponak’s Mexican Kitchen, and I won money on the Kentucky Derby. And oh, yes, I got to drive an 18 wheeler truck down the freeway.
Anything can happen in Kansas City, Missouri.
Kansas City Won’t Let Me Go is available from:
iTunes at: http://apple.co/1Uacuhb
Amazon at: http://amzn.to/27V7zuU