I can’t stop listening to the new album by the Stagger Rats, a charismatic rock band from the small Scottish town of Dunbar. They remind me of all the best music I have heard over the last 30 years. Some critics use the word “Beatles” when trying to define their sound and you can see them on this surrealistic video which they made in Hungary last year. The Big Issue magazine describe them as “timeless, but also intriguingly fresh and unique” and Irvine Welsh said (on Twitter) “Great riffs and brilliant name for a band.”
I saw the Rats perform at the Control Club in Bucharest, a successful Indie club that has (for some bizzare reason) just closed down. The basement room was packed and the performance was a sensation. I spoke to the band members afterwards and several of them said to me “that was the best gig we ever did”, and I assume this is because of the peculiar magic of Romania.
I asked Daniel Paylor, their lead singer, what he thought of Romania and he sent me an email that is so different from the usual travel writing that I thought it essential to reproduce it here.
This is what he wrote:
“We were treated very well by everyone in Romania. As soon as we crossed the border in our old van we found potholes and ill-kept roads. We dodged horses-and-carts and old, weather-beaten, head-scarfed women. We never went faster than 40 mph.
At Cluj-Napoca we were warmly greeted at the club we were playing at and helped with our equipment — something which has never happened before or since. The club’s promoter – Raul – gave us free drinks all night, let us all stay in his flat and even cooked us dinner. We found out later that this was not as uncommon in Romania as it would be in the UK.
After Cluj we embarked upon a journey through the Carpathian Mountains. We saw little clearings next to the Danube and promised ourselves to return and camp among the wolves and bears. We tuned the radio to a local station playing traditional music and it perfectly sound-tracked our jaunt through that wild and strange land.
The next town we came to was Craiova. We were struck by how rustic and poor it seemed compared to Cluj. There was an abundance of single-story buildings and derelict shop fronts. We came to the venue and met our hosts who carried on the wave of generosity by bringing us pizza and free drinks all night, and putting us up in a local hotel.
We met some very interesting locals, including a Romanian Simple Minds fan hell-bent on telling me that everyone in Scotland constantly walks around listening to and singing the band’s eighties hits.
The next day we finally made it to Bucharest, a gritty city along the likes of Budapest and Berlin, although with a touch less grandeur about it. We burrowed through the side-streets in search of our hostel, which turned out to be a very charming apartment above a bar. The staff were golden and the rooms were simple, yet very comfortable.
In Romania, dogs are like a dominant species. We came across many roving packs of dogs. We saw packs of nine or ten just walking around town, seeing which way the wind blew, taking in the night. We saw dogs crossing major roads without the slightest alarm, looking for traffic both ways. I swore I once saw a dog waiting for the green man.
Our gigs went down well in each of the Romanian cities we visited: the crowds were large, they danced, they drank, they reacted, they said hello afterwards; very good crowds in comparison with other countries. We found the Croatians very aloof audience-wise, though the individuals we met were kind and funny. The German crowds were very appreciative even though I got the impression that we weren’t their ‘cup of tea’.
Our four days in Romania showed me a country of indescribable beauty. The cities looked intimidating at first, but as soon as you had a drink or spoke to a local that feeling evaporated. There’s a wonderful self-deprecating and pessimistic humour to the Romanians, which is an extremely Scottish trait we rarely see in other peoples. The Romanian dogs have the most character in the world, and the kindness of the people is unmatched by any I’ve seen.”