From Czeching in to checking out
Here we are, sitting in a hrad, Czech for castle, in the western town of Loket. This place has been hill-top and centre in this village since the 12th century. The actual location of our performance tonight is reported to be in the ancient royalty’s entertainment room, where the various monarchs entertained or administered other business. The throne room is backstage.
It’s been two and a half years since we were last in the Czech Republic, it’s so nice to be back.
We left London before dawn this morning, up around four-ish and back through the sleeping city to Stansted. We land at Praha (Prague) and have a small wait for our ride to arrive. It’s easy to remain occupied with pizza, beer and Czech-watching.
Mirek, frontman for Už Jsme Doma(UJD), arrives by bus first. The van with the rest of the band is not far behind. Once it arrives, loaded with equipment and bodies, out spill the rest of the band. It is always wonderful to reconnect with old friends, warm, enveloping and welcoming
There are also new introductions, firstly to Ruda the driver, and Votja the new drummer for UJD. Votja has been with UJD for the past year now, and comes with the experience of playing in punk bands for many years. We load our gear into the last space available and leave Praha for the town of Loket near the Western boarder.
The trip is all talking, story-telling, and Czech beers in the backseats. Evening falls and we enter Loket after the two hour journey in the drizzle. It is a winding route to access the castle shrouded by low cloud and poor visibility. You can imagine the ominous image cast in centuries past as one approached this fortress in the gloom. We enter Hrad Loket through large wooden gates. The town is dressed in mist and drizzle, there are radiations of orange from tungsten street lamps through the wet, the air is full of gems of orange as the light inhabits single falling raindrops.
We have a task to do though. We park in the central grounds of the castle and load guitar amps, drums, and PA gear up the stairs and into the festival hall. The equipment is assembled and soundchecked surrounded by ancient swords and crossbows. At the other end of the hall is the dining room. Long tables are set out and wait for the dozens of bodies to occupy. Someone is setting up the kegs. This castle happens to be the only venue in Loket and it has been functioning for the past four years in its current iteration. It appears it took some convincing to get the go-ahead to be able to run modern concerts but it has been a positive step for the town. Bands now come and play in this extraordinary venue, and subsequently more people visit the historic site as a important site of tourists interest.
People start to arrive early and in numbers. We are thankful we are up first, in the lineup of three acts, and can fully enjoy watching UJD. We make ourselves up into our costume, walk across the open courtyard, up the stairs and then enter the hall via the front main entrance. We are all ready to go, there’s a decent audience waiting, and boom! we’re off. It’s a great set, we look out and see people smiling, dancing and a party unfolding. Playing in Czech feels like coming home.
Next up is UJD, they deliver a solid set. It’s a delight to stand in the audience and hear everyone around singing along. There are new arrangements of songs and a host of other familiar tunes. Votja’s drumming seems harder than the previous drummers we’ve seen, more wirey, more punk, more attack. It adds a powerful lift to the music. The final act is a local group called Blahobeat, a local five-piece, sturdy old-school/post-punk rock band. A fantastic gesticulating frontman who is a dynamo and holds centre stage.
After the show we go to friends of Mireks’: they have offered to let us stay at their house for the night too. So we pack down our gear in preparation for leaving the next day, and then head out into the mist for a midnight stroll across bridge over the river to bed. Once at the house we’re offered nightcaps of Slivovice, a strong Czech alcohol, clear in appearance, made of plum and tastes like fire. If you inhale at the wrong time when consuming the burn is so much more intense! It takes a couple of goes to get it right. Sleep is welcome.
After waking, our plan is to meet the band at a restaurant but first it has been arranged that we have the opportunity to explore the castle in more depth. It’s a fascinating walk up the wooden stairs to the top of the towers. We see the geography of the land from every direction. On the way down the stairs continue to go further into the basement from our exit point from the building. Looking over the banister in the central well is a large sculpture of the local dragon, every castle needs one.
Another ‘key’ attraction of the castle is the ‘torture chamber’ display. This is definitely eye-catching with the ultra realist sculptures illustrating in graphic detail the interrogation techniques used in-house during the dark ages. It’s extremely graphic and brutal and quite unsettling after such a pleasant time meandering moments before. We didn’t take any photos. How is it possible to forgot the horrendous acts inflicted by one human onto another? Additional reminders do not seem necessary. There were tiny cramped cells, sensory deprivation chambers, chairs of deathly discomfort and devices of entombment and suffering. Directly upstairs from this basement of suffering was the palatial chambers for the monarchs. It was a graphic education.
We left and went looking for lunch and to reconnect with the others in a local restaurant.
Czech food is often limited for vegetarians, and harder for vegans. Today there’s a lot of deep-fried cheese in multiple varieties of presentation, onion soup or our tour staple, Bamborachy, a Czech savoury potato pancake. And a country that has a sweet fruit-filled dumpling on offer as a main cannot be all bad either.
Sated, we load up and leave. Our next destination is the town of Tabor, at the venue CESTA (previously mentioned in the Italian post). It will been ten years since we last set foot through the doors of CESTA. A lot has happened since then and we’re both deeply looking forward to being back there.
We arrive Tabor in the dark, and the cold has set in. Warmth returns in bearhugs with our old friend Chris, it’s like time hasn’t passed and we seem to pick up where we left off. Pressing practical matters take precedent and we need to set up the show. Only our two acts are playing tonight. There’s some swift and skilful problem-solving required to manage several technical issues, and things feel tense as the approaching starting time looms. Technical issues are always a potential issue to navigate, sometimes a show can feel like a constant battle against the elements. But there’s a skill learned across time that it’s better to roll with the challenges that present, such as equipment faliure or sound issues, than to fight them.
We play first and it is a gratifying personal milestone to be back here making music. CESTA holds a significant place of importance in our experience of developing and presenting our creative work. UJD follow us, and the room swells with locals. If we’re not mistaken this may be UJD’s first show in Tabor in their nearly 30 year duration. It is amazing how busy this band is and how many shows they are able to play in Czech Republic every year, a country that is not so different in landmass to Aotearoa. It’s impressive that there is such a wide number of welcoming venues available to this assertive Czech rock music on a regular basis.
The show ends and some head to the bars in town. We remain at CESTA and are able to catch up with Chris properly after his task of hosting the show is complete.
Bedtime arrives and we go to sleep to the sound of a potbell burner gifting heat to our room on this satisfying Autumn night.
Morning brings breakfast at CESTA, coffee, dark rye bread and jams. Chris returns from errands and we spend a bit more time talking before we need to return to the road. We appreciate being in close company again and to be able to hear and share the details of large life events. When you live at such distance from each other, settling for quality rather than quantity is essential.
In the back of the van and unsuccessully trying to sleep. Got to sleep at about 3-4am last night after a very late show in Lanškroun, our third show. It was a great show for us, assertive, solid and intentional. We didn’t take to the stage till about 01:30. UJD went first just after midnight delivering another powerful set. Great sound by Miloz who has been the band’s most regular sound person for many years. It is a loud venue. This show was part of a local arts/theatre festival, and the bar was flooded with folk who had attended or participated in theatre events. Our concert is the after party. And they partied.
We leave Už Jsme Doma in Lanškroun. Good byes are always emotive, and we hope it is only a see-you-later. We feel lucky that we have found a fraternity, a family, of like-minded music makers across the globe.
Now the GPS is giving directions in Czech. We are in Votja’s van moving towards the Webrocka festival where we play our fourth show. Low damp cloud is everywhere and there is very little to view. We are moving towards the Polish boarder.
This is the 15th year of the Webrocka festival, a local festival that also acts as a fundraising event for a local group working with kids. There seems to be a large turnout for the festival. Two stages are programmed and music runs continuously. There are also breakaway rooms with smaller but very roudy acoustic performances. One stage starts as the other finishes and change-overs happen simultaneously. We are on the downstairs stage in a very cold cellar space and we play after Votja’s other group 100%. They are great, high energy punk/funk styled chaotic songs. The bass player Marco, an english bloke living in Czech, has a spectacular and aggressive bass technique, an assertive slapping style that treats his instrument as a true uninhibited extension of himself. The sets feels a combination of songs and improvisation and these two are rock solid with each other. It’s a delight to watch, a real highlight to see this committed performance.
The entire event seems to be tightly stage managed and on schedule till the headline band before us takes the stage, then the schedule seems to stretch. Our first set was to start 1145 but didn’t start till 0030. We are rostered to play two sets, this first and then a second about an hour later. Time continued to stretch and we ended up completing our second set at 3am. Fortunately at the end of the night we have a much warmer space upstairs to put our heads down for a few hours sleep before heading of early to a town to catch a train to Prague.
Our final journey to Prague is through amazing country side of rock formations that feel like giant’s building blocks, unusual and very old. We leave Votja at Pardubice train station, this line will take us the rest of the distance to Praha.
We exit the train at the terminal and are met by Romek Hanslík, the bloke who has helped us with our Czech bookings. Romek also runs a tour management service that includes UJD and the Plastic People of the Universe.
Our final show is at the Prague rock club Vagon. It has been arranged that for our final show we open for the Plastic People of the Universe, a group that has obtained a legendary status through the history of being a long-haired, underground psychedelic group prior to the end of the communist regime. They were often in trouble with the authorities which resulted in prison time for some of the band members. They also moved in the same circle as Vaclav Havel who became the first prime minister after the Velvet Revolution. They have also achieved the status of iconic legends for also for being a group performing for almost 50 years. There is one remaining original member.
Coincidentally, in relation to Velvet Revolution, while we have been here there has been a national holiday to commemorate the events which sparked the Revolution, the bloodless transition from a communinist state to something more open. A commemoration has been set up across the road, across from the venue, and people have come in their droves to lay and light candles at a sculpture to mark the place and the event.
Sunday night shows, like many places on the planet, are plagued by the pull of Monday morning work. People tend to remain home and tonight is no difference, our audience is compact. We open the evening with a sense of personal closure, this is our last show here and it’s been a whirlwind. It is gratifying being back and being able to access these opportunities. We are thankful to the people that have supported us to make this a reality.
It’s a tough audience, hard to know what they thought, but we gave it our best and what more can you do than that. The Plastic People take the stage, Jiri, the original member, the guitarist who has been with the band for years and a much youger trio of bass, guitar and drums. It’s obvious that this is who the audience have come to see. It is definitely cool to see the Plastic People, and a privilege to see them tackle three new songs tonight.
It’s done. We pack away our gear as all the equipment is dismantled and head for our backpackers for a few hours kip. We need to be up at early-doors and return to the airport and the UK.