Whisky & Culture

Spirited Away

For a band on tour, the road can be a lonely place, despite the fans, adulation and oodles of free drinks. Neil Ridley caught up with UK band, The Duke Spirit midway through a six week tour of the United States.
By Rob Allanson
It's been said that whisky and Rock 'n Roll are the ultimate bedfellows, and that the creative energy flowing through many of the greatest and most enduring classic blues and Rock 'n Roll songs can be attributed to the 'spirit of the spirit'. From the raw emotion laid bare in Robert Johnson's seminal recordings of the late 1930s, through to the hedonistic, hell-raising antics of Led Zeppelin and beyond, whisky, of some kind, seeps with abundance from virtually every pore. But hell raising and ragged souls aside, the life of a touring band is seldom straight forward.

Rather aptly named, London's Duke Spirit are now into their 3rd major US tour, since releasing their 2nd album Neptune back in 2007, to huge critical acclaim. This time round, the five piece are travelling coast-to coast and back again, on a journey which will visit nearly 40 cities and cover more than 8,000 miles.

I join the band in the parking lot of the Molson Amphitheatre in Toronto, an enormous outdoor 'shed' of a venue, already in the grip of a sweltering east coast heat wave. The band are guests of US rockers Incubus for the majority of the tour and together, they'll travel down the coast, across the border to Syracuse, Boston, Connecticut and onto New York for two huge shows the city's legendary Radio City Music Hall. Joining us are an 18 Years Old single cask bottling of Longmorn and also a bottle of Laphroaig, should we need any back up...

Because of the sheer size of this tour, the band have been travelling in the relative comfort of a sleeper bus, which will act as home for the entire journey. This may sound vaguely luxurious, but on closer inspection, the sleeping quarters bear a striking resemblance a row of triple tiered, child-sized bunk beds, with a simple curtain for privacy. I wonder just how anyone gets any rest.

Tour manager Dave Dupuis is no stranger to these sleeping arrangements. "You could say that this is the ultimate way to bond with your band" he says with a wry smile. "After all, there's really nowhere to hide on here, other than behind your bunk curtain"

In contrast to the lack of privacy, there's a hugely sociable angle to life in this close proximity. "Everyone has to get along, it's as simple as that," points out lead singer Liela Moss, who perhaps has the most unique take on things, being the only female on board. "During some of the really long drives between states you do crave other female company, but it's great when you stop and get to catch up with some lady friends who you haven't seen in a while - it's the only way to keep sane!"

Moss, who began singing in bands at Cheltenham Art College where she met future Duke Spirit guitarist Luke Ford, also professes a love of Dalwhinnie 15 Years Old, which acts as 'a warming tour companion' "It's really important to look after my voice on a tour as long as this, so the odd dram helps protect against colds", she grins. "If anyone gets one, chances are everyone on the bus will end up with it"

Fortunately the sweltering summer conditions put pay to any sniffles and the band soundcheck, sign some autographs and retire to the air conditioned bus before their set. A dram of the Longmorn is despatched and talk turns to what it's like to be an English band playing to a sometimes unfamiliar audience. "American audiences always give that little bit extra with their response to our show, when they realise we're English", says guitarist/bassist Toby Butler. "Which in turn makes us work that bit harder on stage... they always make you feel really welcome.

"There also seems to be loads of random 'whooping' which can freak you out a little at times!" he beams.

After a successful show in Toronto, making a few thousand cheery fans even happier in the process, the bus moves out onto the Highway at 3am for a six hour drive towards Syracuse, New York state. The Laphroaig is opened and the bus is soon enveloped in its peaty aroma. Both Toby and Luke (being huge Islay fans since their early 20s) exchange stories with the crew on their best and worst whisky-related tour riders.

"On the first few tours we'd always optimistically request something decent, like a Lagavulin, Talisker or Oban, just to see what would arrive, and depressingly, we'd usually end up with a bottle of High Commissioner or something equally rough, laughs Luke. "It was always a race to finish it!" he grimaces.

As we reach the Canadian-US border at dawn, we jokingly offer a nightcap to the stern-faced guard, who seems to be less than amused. We put it down to an undiscerning palate... perhaps.

The rumble and creak of the bus almost rocks you from your bunk, as it pulls into its next destination, a faceless motel in Syracuse, a stop-off point on the way down to Mansfield, Boston, so the driver can get some sleep. In stark contrast to Toronto, it's raining heavily and the band head off to a nearby shopping mall for some breakfast and a look around.

"Apart from when you get the odd day off, you don't really get much of an opportunity to explore the cities you're playing in, which is a shame" says Toby."Most of the time you're parked up on the outskirts, which gives you plenty of time to think and work on new songs, especially when it's coming down heavy like today". Even in the brief time I've spent with the band so far, it seems that save for a few slender minutes of excitement on stage, life on a US tour largely consists of... well... lots of waiting around.

"Ohmygodohmygod! I just luuuuvve your cute English accents. Are you guys in a band?" says a small group of waitresses on a smoking break at the mall. It's impossible not to laugh at this brilliantly cliched question, as it is probably the fourth time today the band have been asked, but everyone in the band tries hard to keep a straight face, failing miserably. Some new guitars are strummed at the resident music shop, before we head off on the short trip to the next venue in Mansfield. The glorious weather has returned and escaping the blistering heat, the band decamp to the catering area, where Al, one of the veteran truck drivers on the tour regales us with '10 things you really shouldn't know about the Beach Boys' who he apparently worked with back in the 70s. Of course we're all sworn to secrecy in the classic 'what goes on tour, stays on tour' way.

After another triumphant gig in Boston and we're quickly back on the move towards New York, which promises to be the highlight of the east coast tour dates. Radio City Music Hall has played host in the past to the likes of Frank Sinatra, Stevie Wonder and the Grammys, so there's an air of excitement and trepidation from the band about performing there too. The main hall itself is like a vast armadillo shell with shimmering gold curtains hanging from the ceiling and stage. It's got a glamour that only New York can deliver, which fires up the band a little more than the previous gigs.

"Good Evening New York... we're the Duke Spirit...From London town!" yells Liela as the venue erupts for the first song and clearly Toby was right, the US fans are keen to show their appreciation to the Brits, even with the odd over-excited 'whoop' thrown in for good measure.

"That was unbelievable, you couldn't really see anyone from stage, but you could certainly hear them" says Luke, as we head to a whisky bar a couple of blocks from the venue, with a few US friends and fans in tow to celebrate a successful night. "There's this intense camaraderie between us on tour, I suppose kind of like being in a gang, and you can always feel it when the rest of the band are having a great time on stage, like tonight" he continues, as the barman brings over a round of enormous, freely poured Laphroaig 10 Years olds. I try to equate the occasion to perhaps trying a great whisky for the first time with close friends, and that shared sense of enjoyment and 'collective satisfaction' that you're experiencing something truly exciting together.

"That pretty much sums it up," laughs Luke, "and we'll certainly drink to more of that"