It was getting late on the last day of February 2020 – the bonus Leap Year Day – and The Wurzels finished their encore at the Cadbury Hotel in Congresbury, near Bristol.
The packed crowd cheered to the rafters as the band put down their instruments and left the stage.
It took a while for them to get back to the dressing room.
“I remember it clearly. I love playing the Cadbury Hotel, but you’ve got to go through the audience to get to the dressing room,” remembered Tommy Banner, the band’s longest-serving member and accordion player.
“It’s alright getting to the stage, people don’t bother you – they clear the path – but afterwards, everyone wanted a selfie. I’m always the last off, and the security had to come and rescue me,” he added.
The crowd was packed in to the hotel’s main room that evening, singing loudly into the night the songs of Somerset and Bristol, many written by the band’s founder, Nailsea’s own Adge Cutler, who died 46 years ago this year.
For an 80-year-old adopted West Countryman like Tommy, who joined the band on a trial period for one gig in the late 1960s and has been playing in it ever since, it is ‘absolutely amazing’ that the adoration of the huge crowds is still just as strong.
Little did he know, as the band’s driver had to save him from being mobbed too hard, that was the last time The Wurzels played a gig.
He said: “I remember that there was this talk of this virus from China or Italy, and it was only the next morning that I woke up and thought about it a bit more. There was talk at the time that people should stop being in crowds, and I remember thinking ‘what if we’ve contributed to this spreading?’
“The Stereophonics got criticised for going ahead with that gig in Cardiff, didn’t they? I started being a bit worried. But we never had any idea that would be our last gig.”
There was another factor too – while bands began cancelling gigs because of fears that the crowds at venues would be a breeding ground for coronavirus, The Wurzels themselves had to think about their own health.
“I never panicked, but I thought ‘we’re going to cop something here’,” said Tommy.
Even a week or so before lockdown on March 23, the Government advised those over 70 to start ‘shielding’. And that’s most of The Wurzels.
So gigs scheduled for March began to be rescheduled for June and July, even before lockdown, and then moved again to later this year, and are now being moved to 2021.
And then, for the band, the reality began to dawn on them.
“I had a feeling straight away that we wouldn’t play again this year,” said Tommy. “The others were a bit more optimistic, but my hunch was this was serious.”
Pete Budd, the lead singer of the band who took over the mic after Adge’s tragic death in 1974, was more hopeful at first.
“I didn’t have a clue it was going to be as long as this,” he said.
“Anything can happen when you’re in a band that means you can’t play – someone can be ill, someone could get injured – but this is different, that’s not as bad as this.”
While the entire nation got used to the shock of lockdown, it meant a new reality for everyone. For those in essential jobs in supermarkets and hospitals, it meant still going to work and putting themselves at risk. For many it meant furlough, for many it meant getting used to working from home.
But there can’t be many people in Britain for whom the coronavirus lockdown meant what it did to The Wurzels.
They have been gigging relentlessly – often two or three times a week – non stop for almost 50 years. Demand to see the original Scrumpy & Western stars is as high as it’s ever been, remarkably, given three of the band are either side of 80 years old.
To go from doing the same job with the same people for 50 years to nothing, overnight, was a shock. The band would meet up for gigs every few days or every week, but haven’t seen each other in person at all since that night in Nailsea.
“It came out of the blue,” said Pete. “It’s affected us all I think. At the start, for me, it was a bit of a break. My wife has Alzheimer’s so I’m carer for her, and so I concentrated on that. I’m a bit of a housewife for us, really.”
A huge party was planned by Pete’s family at Rich’s Cider Farm in Somerset in July for the singer’s 80th birthday – but despite the start of lockdown easing by then, it couldn’t happen.
“I felt so bad for Pete, so sorry for him,” said Tommy. “I had my 80th last year, and we had a big party, and for him to miss out on that was awful.”
Tommy, who lost his wife after a long illness just less than four years ago, wanted to stay active, and was frustrated by lockdown.
“I have done volunteer driving for a long time for a local resource centre, here in Taunton,” he said. “I loved doing it, sometimes 20 hours a week. I wanted to do that, get out there and help people.
“But they said I couldn’t because of my age, so there was nothing I could do.”
Instead, like everyone else their age, The Wurzels stayed indoors, and were supported by family.
“I’m really lucky because I’ve got my son living five minutes away one side of me, and my daughter five minutes on the other side of me, and they have been keeping me fed. I call it the meals on wheels,” said Tommy.
“There’s a bag full in the hallway now of empty Tupperware boxes that they’ll come and pick up. It’s brilliant because all of them – my son and daughter-in-law, and my daughter and son-in-law, they all love to cook.”
For Pete, however, he needed to be out and about a bit more.
He said: “I’ve got my mask, been going to the shops.
“I’ve been so amazed by some people’s attitudes to this though. One thing stuck with me, from the early days of the lockdown. I went to the supermarket and there was a young lad working there on the door to tell people that only one person from each family was allowed in, to limit numbers.
“This couple were there, in their 50s, and the bloke kicked right off – having a go at the lad, who was only doing his job, saying ‘what am I supposed to do then?’
“I mean, how stupid can you be?”
Without playing gigs, The Wurzels stayed in touch with fans via social media – and many had Wurzels-flavoured lockdowns.
When the 20-second hand wash advice came out, someone produced posters suggesting singing the chorus to Blackbird would give you the right amount of time.
And then two fans made all the members of the band their own facemasks, just to keep them safe.
The Wurzels are a disparate bunch too. Drummer John Morgan lives in Gloucestershire’s Forest of Dean, Tommy in Taunton and Pete in Somerset, further towards Bristol, with bass player Sedge Moore nearer Bath. Other band members – it can number six on a big stage – live all over the West Country.
And lockdown didn’t mean they got into Zoom calls or Facetiming. “I mainly text the others,” said Tommy. “But it’ll be a text and then a reply a couple of days later apologising for not replying sooner. We chat on the phone, see how each other are, but I don’t think any of us have done this Facetime thing.”
One thing they have kept up is the messages for fans. Every few days for years, the band’s management will ask them to record a video message – it’ll be a shout out for someone’s birthday, or a video message to congratulate a couple on getting married.
“We’ve still been doing them a lot,” said Tommy. “But the wedding ones have been drying up a bit, and now it’ll be something about being sorry that it was supposed to be their wedding day.
“It’s so nice to do them, although my first attempts in lockdown were rubbish – I was trying to do it on my phone in selfie-mode and kept filming the hedge or the top of my head.
“So my daughter comes over now to film them, and she’s getting pretty professional at it,” he added.
For 50 years or so, the band have played gigs so regularly, that they don’t really ever practice – they just don’t need to.
So being without music for so long has been hard, especially if the only time you play is front of hundreds of people singing and dancing along.
“I have to confess I haven’t picked up my accordion,” said Tommy. “I haven’t really felt the need to. It’s not like I can play and sing along – I’m the backing singer, I only know the choruses,” he joked.
Pete has picked up the guitar, but only occasionally. “I might have a bit of a play, but it doesn’t feel quite right,” he said. “It’s not the same when you’re just playing it to yourself.”
There have been moments of Wurzel-flavoured joy during the long months in scrumpy and western lockdown.
During the early summer heatwave, the band individually filmed themselves in their gardens performing the classic Blackbird, and the video was spliced together as a Lockdown Wurzels gig, with plenty of highlights, including drummer John Morgan swapping his mobility scooter for a ride-on lawnmower.
Now, the band are chomping at the bit to get back out there. If anything, Pete said, the lockdown has renewed their hunger for playing live.
“Pete and I always said we’d stop doing this when we didn’t enjoy it anymore,” said Tommy. “You go to see some bands that have been playing a long time and you can just see they are going through the motions,” he added. “Well we don’t – we love playing to a crowd and there’s nothing like it. It’s absolutely amazing, and it’s incredible we’re still doing it and people still come to see us,” he added.
Apart from the buzz of playing live, the one thing all the band members said they miss most of all is the banter between them.
“A lot of the reason for our success is that we’re never living in each other’s pockets,” said Pete.
“We don’t really see each other outside of playing gigs. So we save it all for the gigs. So it’ll be amazing when get back together again, we’ll be coming back with new energy,” he added.
Tommy said there were things he didn’t miss – mainly the waiting around at home ‘clock watching and waiting’ to be picked up.
The band will play all over the country, but a typical gig will be somewhere near enough their West Country homes to have them back in their own beds each night.
“It’s the banter on our little bus I miss almost as much as playing live,” said Tommy. “It’s just great. I’ve not missed travelling, but I’ve missed the chat in the bus – there is just so much p***-taking among ourselves on the bus, and then in the dressing room too.
“We all know each other’s eccentricities, and there’s always something going on that we’re joking about – I’ve certainly missed all that, it’s hilarious,” added Tommy.
Pete agreed, describing how the butt of everyone’s jokes is often the band’s driver. “We’ll be heading somewhere and always seem to end up on what we call ‘Bluebell Way’ – which will be an old country lane and we’re getting thrown about in the back,” he said.
“The satnav always gets a bit of mickey taken out of it as well. It is great fun, and it’ll be great to get back to it,” he added.