Back in early April 2008 I was at a Riverside Live event in Chatham. It was inbetween bands, and a record came on over the PA that made me go over to Jay the sound man and ask him what it was. It was the best thing I’d heard in ages. Gorgeous acoustic guitar. Honest, slightly gritty lyrics delivered by a voice that clearly meant them, and a hint of the outsider about the whole thing. “That’s Hospital Bombers” came Jay’s reply. They’re playing here tomorrow if you’re about”. It’s not often you hear something so good it pulls the rug out from under you, and then find that the band is playing in your home town the next day – although I reckon that sort of thing happens more frequently in Medway than in most places – so of course I went back. The song, by the way, was “Maid In Old Town”.
The set the band played the next day was primarily an acoustic affair, and I was pretty much spellbound. The singer was Chris Austin, and I recognised him as someone I’d seen in gig audiences over a decade before. It turned out that he and I had a friend and drummer in common in Emitt Kyle, who had played in Gin with me and in Bonzai Reservoir with Chris, so there was a connection of sorts. This is probably what made me brave enough to ask the band if I could photograph them, a request that was met with much more enthusiasm than I was expecting, so off we went around the grounds of the Command House, something we would do on future occasions as the band’s line-up changed and it slowly transformed into Burn Paper Tigers. This particular shoot saw Chris in what I think must have been his favourite red jumper, with more than a hint of Arthur Lee in his stance and confidence and just a hint of healthy suspicion in his eye. Driver’s hair was dyed black. He seemed most unsure of the camera. Turns out he’s as photogenic as he is engaging, so nothing to worry about there. Rob was kind-eyed and full bearded, his gentle humour relaxing the band, and Hannah was like a beautiful queen in Rocket Dog boots, quietly amused, I think.
Anyway, that’s how I fell in love with Medway music all over again. Didi Bergman hit me at about the same time with her ageless music, and Ben Jones and the Lovedays rounded it all off with their irrepressible energy by about July. These seeds have helped to lead to my modest part in Homespun, Medway’s newest and best festival (I would say that, of course), via a plethora of Medway Eyes events in between, and ultimately to being the producer of a little radio show. That path started with Chris and his music, and It’s been rewarding beyond measure. I haven’t overworked that at all. ‘Maid In Old Town’ was a genuine epiphany.
But enough personal indulgence. Chris died earlier this month and I want to tell you what a brilliant and unique soul and musician Medway has lost. He was a one-off. In a world where mediocrity is unaccountably allowed to prevail, he was a beautiful fly in the ointment. As a guitarist for others (The Flowing, Kid Harpoon, Lupen Crook) he helped to shape the music, with more than a dash of something unique, angular and intense. You couldn’t tell him what to play. He just played. He just was. As the front man in Hospital Bombers, Burn Paper Tigers and Tape Error (and, indeed, as a solo artist on occasion) he could fill a room with his own aura. The quietest acoustic song would shut a room up and focus its attention. He wasn’t limited to just music either. He had an exceptional grasp of video that went way beyond the obvious. You can see that here.
Chris lives on in our hearts and memories, and in the musical DNA of these towns. And we’re blessed.