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18 October, 2018

Welcome to the USSSSA!

Here’s Helen, getting our tour blog underway!

“It’s fair to say that our time in the States was dominated by four letters – SSSS.

“We set off early on Thursday morning to Gatwick airport. The Korean visas had been completed at the eleventh hour, so James and Becky were distributing passports in the check-in queue! The first inkling that our progress through the airports might be less smooth than we’d hoped was when Becky got called aside for extra questioning at the front desk. She was asked what kind of a group we were, and how long she’d known James Arthur. Shortly afterwards James was hauled out of the queue and grilled on whether his relationship with Becky had always been purely professional!

“After an easy ten hour flight we landed in Denver. Kate and I breezed through the visa queue but it rapidly became apparent that the rest of the group were going nowhere in a hurry. Unbeknownst to us, our boarding passes contained the magical letters SSSS (Secondary Security Screening Selection) which meant that at every turn we would be subject to a thorough grilling and extra search of all our belongings.

“An hour later we all finally emerged into the crisp Denver sunlight, rather disappointed to see the flat landscape with no sign of the Rockies. Having arrived at our hotel we each decided on tactics to get us through the next six hours without falling asleep (with varying degrees of success). After naps, hot tubbing and walks in the park, we all reconvened for a pre-prandial in the hotel bar before setting out for dinner at the Bent Fork Grill. After some hearty American fare we retired to bed hoping for a long sleep.

“At 7am the next morning, half of the group could be found in the hotel gym. Tom K took on the role of personal trainer and we undertook a series of lunges, squats and pull-ups complete with weights. Consequently I was unable to walk unaided or lift anything for the next few days and I’m still waiting for the muscles to appear… Breakfast in the hotel was a success. Most people decided to stick around the hotel but a few different parties made the trek into town to see what downtown Denver had to offer and to do a spot of shopping.


“Once we were in town we finally caught a glimpse of the Rockies , including a great view from Cheeseman Park.

“Next to the park were the Botanic Gardens where we met for a spot of lunch. Simon managed to use his English charm to get free entry for a few of the group, and then blag himself a member’s discount at the cafe! It was a warm afternoon in the sun and it was a shame to drag ourselves back inside for the rehearsal. We were pleased to find ourselves in a large church with a beautiful acoustic and there were delicious homemade cookies for the break.


“There was an appreciative audience for our Colorado debut, including a couple who had first stumbled upon us in a church halfway up a mountain in Switzerland! Alberto kindly drove us back to the hotel when we crawled into bed, ready for the 5am departure the next morning.

“It was still dark when twelve humourless singers got called aside again for the traditional extra frisking and swabbing. Ben, as group publicist, is travelling with twenty items of camera equipment, each of which was individually swabbed. Tom L’s toothpaste aroused particular suspicion and an explosives expert was called in for Katie’s laptop and Ben’s long lens. We were finally released and had made it to the gate, panting and sweating, with seconds to go, only to find that there was another security hoop to jump through. Just when we were trying to appear at our most innocent, the gate stewardess suddenly discovered Ben’s GoPro camera, hidden on a security barrier, trained on her, capturing valuable footage…. Despite this, we were allowed on the plane and were on our way to NYC.

“We were pleased to be back in a Ford Flex and heading to the big Apple. It was great to be back in St Mary the Virgin (affectionally known as Smokey Mary’s). Because of service timings at the church, we had a three hour gap between rehearsal and concert. Some headed to Angelo’s, a favourite pizza joint, others went for a stroll around Central Park and a few of us headed downtown for a quick spa session in a place we’d found when we were in New York last January for the Grammys.

“There was a big crowd at the concert, and a few friendly faces, but sadly we didn’t have long to chat as we were immediately off to another state.  A short drive later we were at our hotel for the night in New Jersey.

“The next morning saw us drive out to the pretty college town of Lafayette where we were delighted to meet our promoter Hollis Ashby! We didn’t have time to go through the family tree as we were straight into rehearsing in the plush campus theatre, which had an impressive new acoustic shell. It was nice to chat with the friendly audience afterwards over cake and fruit punch, before hitting the road once again to head back to JFK airport.

“We had booked into Michael’s of Brooklyn for an early dinner, but one carload had to give up on the plan to make sure that Simon and Tom K caught their flight back to the UK. The rest of us made it there, and we’re glad we did. It was a real old-school Italian joint, and the food and wine didn’t disappoint. It was just as well we had been well sated as we then had the inevitable SSSS addition to our boarding passes, ensuring another fun hour of every page of our music being individually swabbed. We still don’t quite know why were singled out for the special treatment; it could be that we had one way tickets, it could be our Colombian trip earlier in the year, or it could be that a bunch of early music singers on a round the world trip just looked too suspicious to ignore. Either way, we were relieved to be leaving our Homeland Security nightmares behind us and jetting off to the Far East. We just had to get past the 16 hour flight first…”