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Busking in the Elbe Tunnel

Saw player and singer John Pauline recalls an unusual gig for his band, ‘Uncle Meat and The Highway Children’

My best experiences of travelling in Europe can almost all be attributed to busking and touring with a large folk band called ‘Uncle Meat and The Highway Children’. My main instrument on these occasions was, and still is, the singing saw, an unusual feature which may have been partially responsible for the band’s financial success in most European cities. In Germany we found the locals in almost every place we visited to be both open minded and hospitable. I probably had more unique and enlightening experiences in Germany than in any other country and it must have ranked as the most financially beneficial country we visited as a band, mostly due to the huge amounts we earned busking in the border city of Saarbrucken.

From a gig and short stay in the Haus Mainusch squat in Mainz, which seemed to be very quietly refined in comparison with other cities, to my on-stage electrocution and hospitalisation in the small city of Saarbrucken due to faulty stage wiring and the large quantity of beer which had soaked it, I had nothing but good experiences of this wonderful country. But by far the most interesting episode was in the bustling and contemporary metropolis that is Hamburg, and the night ‘Uncle Meat and The Highway Children’ were invited to play in the Elbe Tunnel.

For those who have not visited Hamburg I will explain that the Elbe Tunnel is a 400 metre tunnel, 24 metres beneath the river Elbe. It is over a hundred years old and although it was once used for vehicle traffic it is now used only by pedestrians and cyclists. The acoustics within the tunnel are extremely unusual and almost ecclesiastical in tone.

We could hear the crowd – at least three hundred strong and very excitable – even from outside the tunnel’s surface level entrance. The first act of the evening was a semi classical Baltic folk and dance performance, the instrumentation ranging from violins and cellos to accordions and drums. Although the musicians and songs were wonderful we were later informed they were mostly classical music students from Hamburg and were not involved with a real, full time band. Finally after 45 minutes of dancing with local punks and classical music students alike, we were asked if we were ready to play.

Without microphones it was a little hard to hear our instruments over the ethereal echoing sound of screaming, so we stuck to marching band music and Irish folk as much as possible despite having a long back catalogue of songs which differ greatly in genre and cultural heritage. The simple beats and reliable structure of the songs we chose meant the entire crowd felt comfortable to clap along. We played as many songs as our aching muscles and increasingly ruined voices would allow, and then stuck around to help clear up the beer cans. The previously baffled security guard gave us his thanks as we helped to clear up the small mess left behind, and then we took our leave.

Without a doubt this is the most memorable show I have ever played. The location, the mix of people and their welcoming attitude was enough to make me fall in love, not just with the city of Hamburg but with the country of Germany all together.


John Pauline writes on behalf of Sky Park Secure who provide an great airport car park service for travellers.

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