The Celtic Invasion
Whenever I am in Tarnowskie Gory I grab any opportunity to play live guitar. Starting from my first concert in Galeria in Christmas 2005 up until to the Golden Gate 25th Anniversary Party in the summer of 2016, I enjoy the thrill of being onstage with others and, more importantly, that first Tyskie after playing well. Back in Wales I work strange hours and my days are full with my family so visiting Poland is the only chance I get to play live anymore. When I knew my wife, daughter and I would be coming to TG for a wedding in September I knew I had to try and arrange some kind of concert. I did. It was a wonderful night involving some usual suspects, lots of friendly faces and somebody whose ass I used to wipe nearly 20yrs ago. It’ll all become clear eventually.
I first started playing guitar when I was twelve. I was taught to play a folky finger-picking style by a blind man my dad delivered milk to. At one point I really was very good. I should have tried to play more concerts when I was growing up but, no excuses, I didn’t have the guts. By the time I came to Poland in 2005 I wasn’t playing the guitar so much but when the chance came to help start The Golden Gators I jumped at it. Chord-swinging replaced finger-picking and I had a blast. The best bit was I wasn’t by myself but hidden in a group. The thought of getting up alone and playing the guitar to a pub full of people I didn’t know was terrifying. It still is. These days I have absolutely no problem going into a pub to stop a big fight and make some people unhappy, but going in by myself and trying to entertain them? Not so easy.
My latest part-time group The Native Creatures – made up of past and present Golden Gate Natives including Dave Grant, Matt Hazzard, Ben Sixsmith, Matt Codd and our-man-in-The-Middle-East John Gillooley – has been very enjoyable. We have played a few times over a couple of years when our schedules have allowed it. They are all great guys and fine musicians and it is a pleasure to be around them. The music is generally much better than it should be when you realise we hardly have any rehearsal. We normally ‘rehearse’ by me emailing the other guys chords. With the potential to play something in September my first choice was to call these lovely boys. Unfortunately only Dave was available. The others were all off doing other things in the summer but that was okay, I wasn’t planning on organising Woodstock. I just wanted a nice quiet little night in Galeria playing a few acoustic songs. Dave Grant is an awesome guitarist and a terrific singer and if it was just going to be him and me playing to half a dozen Galeria regulars and my wife and mother-in-law that was fine by me. Some tunes, some buddies and a few drinks after – who could ask for anything more?
With only two of us we couldn’t really be The Native Creatures. As Dave is from Scotland and I’m from Wales, we renamed ourselves The Native Celts. We got Galeria booked and in the weeks before the gig Dave and I were in regular contact via email, him in Krakow and me in Wales, talking about songs we wanted to play, then some more songs, and some more. Oh, the songs. Soon the list looked like the phonebook and we needed reinforcements. Another singer would be a good start to give Dave a rest. Our old boss Rafal Drewniak was the obvious choice and he didn’t need much persuading. Next we needed a bassist. Both John Gillooley and Matt Hazzard had played bass in The Native Creatures, but now John was off teaching the Past Perfect to migrants in Jordan and Hazzard was in England doing, well, whatever Hazzard gets up to in his spare time. I’d rather not think about it. I had an ace up my sleeve and, even better, he too was a Celt – my nephew Connor Millington.
Born in 1997, Connor is my sister Rachel’s son. With less than fourteen years between us he was more like a little brother than a nephew. I spent a lot of time with him when he was very young, which hopefully explains the ass-wiping comment earlier. In recent years we have become closer than ever through a shared love of rock music and Game Of Thrones. Connor started to learn the guitar a few years ago and here and there I would teach him Beatles songs. We even played together at a few family parties and it was always a laugh. I had been trying to get him to come to TG with me for years now and finally we had a perfect opportunity. What was even better was he had just started playing bass in a band and was a fast learner and, more importantly, a good guy. He was in and was about to discover the homeland of his Great-Grandfather thanks to his great uncle.
By now what started as a quiet little jam in Galeria was looking like a full concert. Rafal wisely suggested we get my favourite Jack Sparrow lookalike – Bartek Pokrywka – on the drums. Bartek is a hugely talented musician, he played keyboards at my wedding, I think he played guitar and sang at Gwarki one year and Rafal had told me he was also a great drummer. That was good enough for me. I asked and he accepted. We were lucky monkeys. I know Bartek and Rafal aren’t Celts but, you know, we let them in anyway. Dave and I had nearly thirty songs we wanted to do and I knew handing Bartek and even Connor such a huge list to learn was a big ask. I had the idea to structure the concert so it gradually built. It would start with Dave and I on guitars for a few songs, (as I first pictured the gig being really), then Connor would join us for a few, then Bartek would join us on drums, then for the last ten or so songs Rafal would come on and we would all end together.
Three days before the gig my family and Connor arrived in TG. I showed my not-so-little nephew around the town dearest to my heart. The weather was great and we roasted sausages in Lesniczowka, we visited the Tyskie brewery and he pretty much fell in love on every TG street we walked on thanks to the beautiful local ladies. We enjoyed the normal superb hospitality from my in-laws, Connor said he had never eaten so much in his life as he did that week, and we spent a lot of time on the streets of Ohio trying to walk off our dinners. It was a lovely experience walking round in the sun with my nephew. I slowly realised he wasn’t a little boy anymore but had grown up to become a fine young man and one that enjoyed Tyskie just as much as I did. We also practised a lot. Dave, Bartek and Rafal were all very experienced, very talented performers and we had to make sure we didn’t bring shame to our mighty Celtic nation of Wales. Not after they did so well at the Euros.
The day of the gig came. Connor and Dave came up with the idea that we wear Celtic football shirts – Dave was in Scottish blue, Connor in Welsh red and I went for the green and white of Glasgow Celtic, a Scottish club with Irish roots. I didn’t know how many people to expect. As long as there were a few more than normal that would be okay with me. Before long the place was pretty much full. Lots of old faces and a few new ones came to see us and I’m very grateful that they did.
The concert went better than I could have hoped for. We only had one practice as a full band and even then we didn’t practice all the songs. It’s not like we were doing ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. There were mistakes here and there but nobody in the audience asked for a refund. None of them paid to get in anyway. By the time Rafal came on we were all guns blazing, each song sounded better than the last and my old boss was on top of his game. Dave was superb, Connor’s practice had paid off and I just played chords and tried to keep everybody locked in together. Whenever I looked back at Bartek on the drums, he always had the biggest smile, and he played far better than somebody ever should be able to on their third instrument. Even Native Creatures singer Ben Sixsmith got involved. He had returned from England few days earlier than expected and, though he hadn’t been able to be part of the preparation, there was no way I was going to have him just sit and watch us. Despite him not being a Celt, Ben got on and sang three tunes, the best being when he told everybody to always look on the bright side of life. The crowd loved it.
Connor had done all that was asked of him and more. A lot of pressure, playing a lot of songs with a group of people he mostly didn’t know and he came out the other end alive. When the gig was officially over I went off and gave the guitar to Rafal so he could play ‘Purple Rain’ with Dave and Bartek. Connor went to go off too but they wouldn’t let him. They taught him the chords in about thirty seconds, they all played it together and it was terrific. Dave did a solo that had my jaw on the floor. My Scottish pal then went for a well-earned cigarette and the others went for a beer. The stage was empty. Connor quietly said to me he could play ‘You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away’ by The Beatles if anybody wanted him to. I told him to just get up and do it. I wasn’t sure if he would. He did. Oh boy, he did. I’d never heard him sing or play so well. He took the guitar and got up onstage, all alone, and sang to a pub full of people he didn’t know, in a country he had only been in for four days. The crowd went bananas and wanted more. He then played ‘Blackbird’ by The Beatles, which was even better. As he played, I was filled with so much pride and, to be honest, a little jealousy. I wish I had his talent and, more importantly, his guts when I was that age. If only. Oh well.
Connor came off and sat back down next to me, with the applause for him filling the room. I smiled and said, ‘So, do you want to come back here some day?’ ‘Definitely!’
Oh yes, my friends, one Friday night in September a group of Celts invaded Tarnowskie Gory and, assisted by some fine Slavic soldiers, were ultimately victorious. Within a few days they had all vanished and returned back to the lands they came from, with two of them flying on a mechanical eagle with ‘Wizzair’ written on its side. Should they ever return in the future, should lightning from the far edges of the British Isles strike once more, you owe it to yourselves to be there...