“My nickname has always been ‘Kitbag’ – but they call me ‘Toast’ within the Costello camp…” Chris Holding, 26, is telling me about the delights of working on the road. Scouser Chris, from Anfield, spends most of his professional life travelling around the world with Elvis Costello, as stage manager and a vital part of the production team for the songwriting legend. He assures me that ‘Toast’ is only a reference to his dietary requirements and nothing more sinister. “It’s a long story,” he laughs. “But one that’s stuck!” Let’s find out a little bit more about him and his life less ordinary…
How did you get started in the music game?
I’ve been working with bands for over a decade. Liverpool Community College picked The New Picket as a placement for me, helping to operate the lights and assist in changeovers for the college’s gigs. Phil Hayes and Neil Robinson were in charge and they asked if I would stay on and help out at all of the gigs… and I’ve never looked back! The New Picket and my time there will stay with me forever and I remain very grateful to Phil and Neil for that first opportunity.
When did you first work with Elvis Costello and his team?
Back in the summer of 2007. Elvis was touring ‘The River In Reverse’ – with the late, great Allen Toussaint – and they played a special gig at The New Picket. His team arrived and set me the task of fitting a 12 piece band – including horn section, Steinway baby grand piano, Steve Nieve’s famous Hammond and Vox Continental organs and Elvis’ guitars – onto the relatively intimate Picket stage! I also remember going shopping around town with Milo Lewis (Costello’s long-term production manager) to get everything that was needed for three days of rehearsals.
How did you go from that to being part of the inner circle?
Elvis’ long-term production team – Milo, Robbie McLeod and Paddy Callaghan – took me under their wing and they’ve been on the road with Elvis for over thirty years. They helped me adjust and continue to do so. They took a 17-year-old local venue tech and taught him the ropes of advancing shows and all the logistics of being on the road with a touring family.
What’s touring with Elvis Costello like?
Great! It starts with pre-production for me and, because I’m quite sad, I love all the advance work: booking buses, sorting trucks and liaising with venues. Seeing it all then come to life is one of the most rewarding bits. I am production staff and stage manager, so when we hit the road I set the stage in the morning of the gig and then it’s off to the office for me to advance the next day and work on getting the venue ready before the band arrive. It’s a real team effort.
Tell us about a typical day on the last tour?
We completed a full European tour late last year. Elvis was playing solo, with a show called ‘Detour’, and performing songs spanning his entire career. We had to have the stage prepared for anything and everything – at some points, he would sit with a vintage guitar and rework a song into an old studio mic! We also had Elvis’ wife Diana Krall’s baby grand piano on tour with us and he would perform at that each night, too. Even the support band, Larkin Poe, would jump up and play with him towards the end of the show… so it was a lively day at the office!
You work with other bands, too. Tell us about them…
My favourites are The Wonder Stuff, Amsterdam and Damien Dempsey. Ian Prowse, from Amsterdam, is another who took me under his wing at The New Picket and is now a good friend. I’ve worked with him since 2008 and have been his band’s lighting engineer at gigs all over the UK ever since. It was on tour with Amsterdam, that I first met The Wonder Stuff too… we were supporting them and got along famously, so, when their lighting engineer couldn’t make the next tour, Miles Hunt asked me would I do it. I’ve been with them ever since and we’ve played some great festivals and tours – the next one is The Wonder Stuff’s 30th anniversary tour, starting in March, and I can’t wait. I’ll be tour managing and doing the lights, so it should be a busy one!
What about when you’re back in Liverpool?
I’ve been involved with Africa Oyé since 2008. Unfortunately, I’ve been on the road for the last couple, and have had to miss them, but hopefully I’ll be about this year. I’ve stage managed the festival, booked PA, sorted the backline, lighting… you name it. I’ve been a production advisor, I would say, over the years for Oyé and I’ve worked closely with the festival’s director, Paul Duhaney. I will always have time for Oyé, it’s a wonderful festival.
Do you ever have a day off, Chris?
Sometimes! Although, back in 2008, a couple of friends and I started Trio Entertainment – we produce pantomimes and theatre – and that’s gone really well, making Christmas and Easter busy, too! Another friend bought The Magnet recently, though, so when I’m not touring I can be found down there propping up the bar and catching some great live music… is that a day off?
Sort of. A ‘busman’s holiday’, maybe? Anyway, tell us a few of your favourite things please…
New York City is my favourite city in the world. With Elvis, we rehearse there for about ten days before a tour and I love it. The Hollywood Bowl (not the Edge Lane one, though!) is one of the best venues I’ve worked in – but I always love coming back to the Philharmonic Hall for a hometown show with Costello. ‘Be Thy Name’, by The Wonder Stuff, is one of my favourite songs… but Damien Dempsey’s ‘Colony’ and Elvis’ ‘Less Than Zero’ take some beating.
Editor’s note: following this interview with Chris, his close friend Milo Lewis, mentioned above, died. Mr Lewis had been on the road with Elvis Costello for a very long time and had taken Chris under his wing. He’ll be greatly missed by all those who loved him.
Pic by Dave The Hat