Tim Dowling: I tell the audience I’m quitting – they don’t get the joke

In the spring of 2019, the band I’m in decided to take a 12-month break from playing live. A year later we were preparing for a small tour when the pandemic hit – our year off suddenly became two. We played one of a pair of socially distanced gigs in December, before the other one was cancelled after restrictions were reimposed.

All our spring 2021 gigs were postponed, some of them twice. In June we were rehearsing for the Black Deer festival when we heard it would not go ahead for the second year running.

The gig at the Grayshott Folk Club almost went the same way, but the organisers were determined to rescue it. A bunch of tickets would have to be returned, a new venue secured, and we would be obliged to play two shows back to back – to an audience of exactly 46 people each time – with a 45-minute cleaning break in between. But at least it was happening.

Waiting backstage beforehand, I am unbelievably nervous. My hands are shaking. The banjo hanging round my neck seems to weigh a tonne, and my stage clothes have become very tight since I last put them on. Playing twice on the trot affords a unique opportunity for analysis: we have ordered the sets slightly differently, to see which version goes down better. It means there’s a lot to remember, but when we step out in front of the first cohort at 6.45pm, I’m more worried about talking than playing.

I’ve barely faced an audience in 27 months, and I have forgotten what it’s like to address them directly. As I pause to retune my banjo between the third and fourth songs, an expectant hush falls over the room. When I lean towards the microphone, my mouth is dry and my tongue feels huge.

“So,” I say, finally. “I guess this is a good time to announce that I’m leaving the band.” A disappointed “awww” ripples across the room from back to front. I nod gravely.

“Yes,” I say. “As much as I love playing with these guys, my rightwing tweets are more important to me.”

Here’s what I think this is: a sly and topical reference to the Mumford & Sons banjo player’s recent departure in the wake of a minor social media scandal.

Here’s what the audience thinks it is: a sincere declaration of my intention to withdraw from the group, coupled with a renewed commitment to keep on posting my beloved rightwing tweets. The perplexed silence that follows makes it clear many of them think I’ve made the right decision.

“Maybe you shouldn’t do the Mumford thing for the next show,” the accordion player says during the break.

“Why not?” I say, knowing exactly why not.

“I’m just not sure any of them picked up on the reference,” he says. I think back to that pre-Christmas gig, when I embarked on an elaborate set-up about electing to wear my second-favourite cardigan on stage. In the end it turned out only about half the audience had heard of Cardi B in the first place. But half is still more than zero.

“I can make it work,” I tell the accordion player.

“Can you, though?” he says.

“Watch me,” I say. “I’m going to go out on that stage and club this joke to death, like a little baby seal.”

Which is exactly what I do: when the moment arrives, the second cohort is just as bewildered and saddened by my shocking revelation. In their silence, however, they seem to be willing me to reconsider, to forsake my unfashionably stupid politics for the sake of the band.

I stop and explain the joke, reviewing the relevant news story in some detail by way of background, and berating them all for their failure to keep abreast of current events in folk music.

“The first audience thought it was hilarious, by the way,” I say. “They were really on the ball.”

Early the next morning, my wife calls from Devon to ask how the gig went. I tell her.

“What rightwing tweets?” she says.

“I didn’t send any rightwing tweets,” I say.

“Why would you want them to think you did?” she says.

“Never mind,” I say. “Just never mind.”