Riddle of Steel | The Holy Grail

St. Louis’ Riddle of Steel makes prog-rock without the pretentiousness, Andrew Elstner’s effects-laden, intricate guitarwork gliding over the thunderous rhythm section of bassist Jimmy Vavak and Traindodge’s Rob Smith on drums while Elstner and Vavak trade off on catchy yet off-kilter vocal melodies sure to please any Police fan. No strangers to the road, RoS took off across the pond for a European tour this April. Elstner fills us in on the mayhem.

April 20 | Frankfurt, Germany

We arrive in Germany, grab our gear, meet up with our tourmates Roma 79, and have bro-hugs all around. Our van driver Georg finds us rather easily; I imagine it wasn’t too hard to find six scrubby rocker dudes hanging around a street curb, standing next to a pile of gear while taking digital photos of each other.

We stop at perhaps the cleanest gas station ever and are alarmed at the amount of beer for sale here. And yes, you can drink it anywhere, anytime. I’ll take the giant can with the Viking head on it, please. We buy our weird snacks; the woman behind the counter speaks English without first asking.

We get to Saarbrucken, a beautiful city apparently known for its shopping, and finally meet Chris (our booking agent who arranged all of this over the last six months). We decide to walk around the city, take in the sights, perhaps have another beer? Ice cream is really big here; tons of it everywhere. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think the Germans live on ice cream, sausage, and beer.

April 21 | Belvaux, Luxembourg

Wake up from the jetlag–induced coma. The plumbing is inevitably equipped with some strange shower contraption. Forget it; I’ll wash my hair in the sink. I’m only slightly embarrassed to admit that I’m the butt of all jokes on taking too long in the bathroom. 

Chris has breakfast ready: coffee, tea, juice, rolls with various euro-spreads for them. After, we go out to the van to inspect our rental gear. I should mention here that obviously we couldn’t take our drumsets, guitar, or bass amps with us. It costs thousands of dollars to ship it all, so everyone rents a backline of gear. At least cosmetically, all the gear looks great, possibly better than our stuff at home.

After a bit of walking around in a nearby park (yes, there was a beer stand), we left for Luxembourg. Belvaux is a very small town with one main road and lots of farmland on either side. The club we played, the 911 club (named after the Porsche), had a bar up front and a kind of all-purpose room way in the back where the shows went down. The bartender/owner was very friendly but she only spoke French; lucky for us, Georg speaks French.

Set everything up and began working out the kinks in our gear. The guitar amps in particular sound pretty awful. We did our best to work around it. The turnout wasn’t what everyone had hoped for, but not bad considering that Stars was playing just 20 minutes away. Two young guys even drove 200 miles from Germany to see us play.

After the gig, we followed the show promoters to a hostel in Luxembourg City. The older chap behind the counter spoke Luxembourgish (yes, that’s what it’s called), which to my ears sounded almost like Italian. It’s supposed to be a combination of French and German, but our driver had no idea what he was saying; luckily, the promoter did. The hostel was really pretty nice, very clean and all that. Georg slept in the van, which left one room for five of us, and another room for one person. Jimmy took the card-key to this room, assuming he’d have a room all to himself, only to switch on the lights and find four very drunk and utterly naked young European men in the room. He walked right back out.

The architecture in Luxembourg city is really pretty amazing. Lots of French-style buildings, almost Renaissance fair kind of stuff. Everywhere in Europe I’m always expecting a parade of nobles to come down the road while a minstrel strums a lute or something. Isn’t Luxembourg still a kingdom?

April 22 | Dunkerque, France

Today we drove to Dunkerque, another easy drive. Arrived at the venue, 4 Ecluses, which as a building is sort of like a big bomb shelter, a giant cylinder sliced in half, laid sideways. Amazing stage, super nice, high-end P.A. system, multiple soundmen, a lighting guy, and a couple of loaders/helpers, as well.

Behind the club was the “green room,” a separate building with two bathrooms/showers, a stack of towels, two fridges crammed full of beer, a kitchenette with coffee, tea, juice, a ton of food, clean chairs, and couches…all for us. The club was also paying for all the bands to have dinner at this restaurant on the beach. After our soundcheck, we met the other band, Gwen, from Lille, a town we’ll be playing at the end of the tour.

After the show, the promoter gave us directions and a key to an old farmhouse that seemed to have been recently converted into a hostel-type place. Still had chicken coops out back, and what looked like a horse stable. Yeah, I know, sleeping in a rehabbed French farmhouse where people make you breakfast in the morning? Huge bummer. Note: Sometimes the French drink coffee out of bowls. Who knew? Summary: Amazing, overwhelming hospitality and friendliness from everyone. It was hard to leave.

April 23 | London, England

For us to get into the U.K. as a band playing shows, we had to have work permits. I could write a small book on how difficult it was.

London is incredibly hard to drive around in. Georg did a stellar job of it, and has been dubbed the “Clint Eastwood of van drivers.” We arrived at the venue, Upstairs @ the Garage, where we learned the load-in was as follows: park around back, enter rear door, go through main room then behind the bar into the kitchen, hang a right until you reach the tiniest load-in door in existence. We didn’t think this could be possible, but after taking all of our gear out of its hard cases, we were just able to fit everything through the door’s 24” wide, maybe 4-1/2’ tall frame, then up another flight of stairs into the venue. Many photos were taken, many Spinal Tap jokes made. 

A couple of guys from Kerrang! were there. During our set, I managed to throw myself off the side of the stage, legs-over-my-head kinda thing. Rob and Jimmy, being the awesome rhythm section they are, kept the song going until I got back up and finished the song to much applause. Oddly enough, I was unharmed.

April 24 | Manchester, England

The drive to Manchester was the longest so far, six hours. We missed an exit on our drive up, which made us a tad late, but the alternate route we took was really nice. Views of the British countryside, mazes of stone walls, sheep farms on rolling hills, houses hundreds of years old.

Found the venue, the Star and Garter, in a relatively rough part of town. The turnout was great, and the crowd was perhaps the most enthusiastic so far. Afterward, we stayed with a friend of Andy’s and partied with the locals, all great people. They’d even made us a sheet of shortbread that had “For the Yanks” cut into it. Sweet.

April 25 | Lancaster, England

Lancaster is a gorgeous city. There’s almost a medieval vibe to it, complete with Lancaster Castle, which though it is now half prison, half museum, is still really striking.

Towny pubs on virtually every corner with names like “The Duke of Lancaster” and “The Bobbin.” The show at the Yorkshire House went well. The sound here was superb, more free food and beer (hooray!). At one point, a group of college-age guys got so pumped during our set, they formed a spontaneous human pyramid in front of the stage.

April 26 | Glasgow, Scotland

Northern England—Scotland, in particular—is really beautiful. Kind of reminds me of Vermont. We get into Glasgow, a very metropolitan town, very “U.K.” but different somehow. Despite warnings, everyone we met was incredibly friendly. We nabbed a sweet parking spot right in front of the club, The Vox at the Vale. The room we played in was pretty small. We were worried we’d be way too loud. The soundman said, “Too loud??” as if this was even a possibility. Our kind of club.

April 27 | Bath, England

Long, long drive. We get to the venue, Moles Club (Go Ape! night), and load into another, almost impossibly tiny door. Got another excellent hookup with some free food at the restaurant next door. The crowd here was the best by far, the sound was great, and people were dancing the entire time. I was even privileged enough to have a few groupies who were intent on petting my right arm while we played.

April 28

Day off. We finally got to complete our Spinal Tap–pian pilgrimage to mecca, i.e., Stonehenge. I do believe we quoted all of the Stonehenge references in Spinal Tap, even got them on video. “Oh, how they danced…” Truly an inspiring sight.

April 29 | Grimsby, England

When we arrived, Greg’s parents had dinner waiting and beds all made up. They went so far as to crack open a couple bottles of wine for us, then prepared brunch in the morning.

Watched a bit of a game of cricket in the front yard, then headed over to the Matrix Club. Everyone played a good set, club folks were kind. We were annoyed by the non-English speaking bathroom attendant and his incessant, “Freshen up! Freshen up! Freshen up!!” while holding some cruddy cologne. After the show, a DJ started playing rock music. His first song: Aerosmith’s “Love in an Elevator.” Everyone flipped, dancing really hard.

April 30 | Lille, France

Have to drive to Dover, catch the ferry to Dunkerque, then drive the rest of the way to Lille. No, no one has slept at all. Very, very tired right now. Attempting nap.

We leave the ferry and drive to Lille. Lille is yet another beautiful, old city with seemingly plenty to do; too bad we’re here on a Sunday when most everything is closed. The prices in most of the cafes around here seem to be very touristy, though most everyone is friendly.

Tonight’s show is at the Stax Soul, sort of a hole-in-the-wall, but fine just the same. The band Gwen, from our first gig on this trip, all came out to see us off and have one last round of beers; even provided the P.A. Sort of a nice, circular way to end things. We had a great time at this show, busted an encore (or two). The guys in Gwen offered to “buy you a round of beers for every encore you play.” Unfortunately—or fortunately, rather—the bartender wasn’t keen on this idea.

May 1 | Frankfurt, Germany

Today was freaking rough. We had to drive straight to the Frankfurt airport from Lille and be dropped off for our flight which leaves at 11:55 a.m. 5/2. Yes, quite a long wait, about 18 hours. We staked out a spot and took turns walking around the airport while the others guarded our stuff. It was tough, but who am I to complain? We just toured overseas for the first time and broke even, a feat in itself.

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