Even by James Blunt’s notoriously punishing work ethic it’s been the world tour to end all tours. What started with fireworks in Shanghai at New Year ended (almost) at the weekend after 149 concerts and 80 TV shows in 26 countries with skiing in the beautiful Austrian village of Ischgl.
Unlike Sir Elton John, Bob Dylan, and nearly all the roll call of top international artists who have kicked off or signed off the season in Ischgl Blunty is a skier (notable exceptions are Diana Ross and Robbie Williams).
Actually, Blunty is an extremely good skier, and he’s also a friend of mine. We spent a family Christmas together last year in Verbier, where he has a home. So when he was booked for last weekend’s Top of the Mountain concert, it made sense to try get there to see him on stage and join him on the snow.
His good friend Robbie Williams – their respective bands stage an annual football derby in LA – thoroughly enjoyed himself when he closed the season here back in May and told Blunty he should accept the invitation.
But fitting Ischgl into his diary was never going to be easy. To promote his album Moon Landing, Blunty has spent 2014 travelling the world travelling to five continents with his four-man band, crew, and 20 tons of stage equipment. Along the way he found time in September to get married in Mallorca. His wife Sophia tours with him whenever she can.
A problem over Ischgl: James and the band were booked for Brighton in seaside Sussex on Friday night. The got to their hotel bed at 2am but his contract stipulated that he had to be on a ski slope in Austria just 12 hours later.
It wasn’t going to be simple for me to get there, either. My work as a ski writer takes me to around 40 resorts each winter. For me, this time of year means Val d’Isère and Tignes, where for the past 19 years I’ve organised personal performance courses on the glacier with ski guru Pat Zimmer.
In the event, one of us made the 10-hour journey across France, Switzerland, and Austria by hire car and train. The other did it in three hours by private jet and limo. No prizes for guessing who got the shorter ride.
Germany and Austria house one of Blunty’s biggest fan bases so it came as no surprise that some 20,000 music and ski lovers paid 60 euros each for a lift pass and the chance to see him perform – it’s got to have been the best value gig in the world. Blunty had hoped to get a bit of a ski himself before the later afternoon sound-check on the stage in a giant car park on the edge of the village. But when he arrived late for a photo call at the Idalp mid-mountain hub, time was not on his side and the idea had to be binned. I shouldn’t imagine he had relished the idea of performing on skis in front of 200 reporters, and photographers with all of them willing him to catch an edge.
The last time he did that – skiing for the cameras, not catching an edge – was back in 2007 when Verbier named a lift after him and presented him with a lifetime lift pass.
“Much my best award ever,” he told me at the time. For a bloke who raced for the army and who has performed in front of audiences of 250,000, a gentle potter down the piste might seem a doddle…except for the camera lenses: “Completely terrifying – I’d rather do a downhill any day,” he said.
The gig was great, laced with all the old classics including You’re Beautiful and Goodbye My Lover, along with completely new numbers like Smoke Signals. He really connected with the audience, even managing a few words in German and a 20m crowd surf.
Over dinner up the mountain in the Pardorama restaurant he told me; “Ischgl looks like a great resort, just a shame I didn’t get the chance to ski here this time, but I can’t wait to get back on the snow later this month in Switzerland.”
For the guy who in the past has been vilified at times by the British press, Blunty gets a rapturous welcome from their international counterparts. They’re genuinely surprised at what a normal, nice, and approachable bloke he is.
Thanks in part to his succession of dry and witty, ripostes to Twitter trolls, he’s somehow morphed into one of the coolest stars on the planet.
I ask him if he’s surprised by this transformation. “Not at all,” he replies, “As you know well, I haven’t changed. I’m still the person I always was, with a collection of truly miserable songs – although I do have an increasing number of cheerful ones as well.”
He looks happier and more relaxed than I’ve seen him in years. That’s marriage, music – and skiing for you, I guess.
Peter Hardy is co-editor of the ski information website Welove2ski.com. He spent three years intermittently touring with James Blunt in Europe, North and South America, and Australia researching a book about James. Different Country, Same State: On The Road with James Blunt, published by Hodder Headline is available from Amazon.