Monday, July 04, 2016

After the Deluge.

“This is from a time when if your phone rang you had to pick it up and ask to find out who was calling you”. Thus Shev introduces another song from A Hard Day’s Night at Ipswich Music Day 2016. The heads of disbelieving teenagers sway sorrowfully from side to side behind the crash barriers at this fresh import, their overloaded minds still reeling from the introduction of the concept of The Album B-Side. The Star Club are reconvened, rehearsed, refreshed and ready to go again, on the (rightfully) restored BBC Radio Suffolk Stage.

Flashback: Reado has set his drum kit up, assembled sidestage in full working configuration, ready to be moved swiftly on to the boards at the culmination of The Martells’ performance. Indeed, we are tapping out the hi-hat rhythm along with their performance of Smoke on the Water when I decide that putting my fingers unnecessarily close to a pair of cymbals probably isn’t the wisest thing I’ve ever done this close to going on stage (in fact it ranks right up there with eating a portion of coconut just before sound check) and I step back - at which point a gust of wind catches the stage canopy and deposits a good proportion of the overnight rain therefrom and onto a less-than impressed and now decidedly damp drummer. This, clearly, is in no way amusing to me at all. In fact, it’s only slightly less amusing than when, after he has managed to towel off the worst of it from his finely-tuned drums, I step forward to sympathise (“What are the chances..?” I begin) and the whole thing happens again. First as tragedy, then as farce, as they say.

My white shirt and tie are soaked. I am the Mop Top Mr. Darcy. Kilbey wonders if I am going to wear sunglasses on stage. He’s considering not wearing his specs, thereby making himself look even younger than - rather unfairly, all things considered - he already does. Reado is keeping his. “Without them” he explains “I can’t read the set list”.
And so, slightly damper than we would ideally have been if given the choice, we kick off with the traditional set-opening medley of A Hard Day’s Night, Ticket to Ride and Taxman - we figure that if we can’t pause for breath then the audience won’t be able to either. And what an audience! Stretching back as far as the eye can see (admittedly we’re in a park, and so there are trees in the way) there are familiar faces, family members, friends, and of course a whole bunch of people who don’t know who we are. “We have some people who’ve flown in from Newmarket to be here” announces Shev. There is the well-timed beat of the seasoned front man. “I’m sorry – my mistake – New Zealand!”

Most of our children are in the crowd – an average of two each (although Kilbey is batting slightly higher than the mean. “What can I say?” he shrugs, with a charming grin). Mine is perched on the barrier front and centre waving delightedly and giving me the double Macca thumbs-aloft. “Good to see so many kids singing along. Good parenting, people” says Shev as we pause to catch our breath. In front of my side of the stage there is a synchronised jive party going on. “Give me a ‘yeah’! Give me a ‘yeah, yeah’! Give me a ‘yeah, yeah, yeah!’” and we’re off into She Loves You. Just one more to go after this, two decades of twisting and shouting about to come to a frugtastic climax. You can meet and make a lot of people in twenty years. You can also lose a number. I’m not going to stop the party on their account, but a few of the names and faces get a couple of silent dedications, shades in the summer sun.

We’re packed up and ready to go, (fab) gear returned to sensible family saloon cars. “Keep an ear out” hints Reado. And I won’t have to pick up my phone to know it’s him!

Update - One Iain Blacklaw has put together a Flickr album from the gig. 
You can find it here; 

Monday, June 13, 2016

Possibly the most English thing I've ever done...

On Sunday we - The Neighbourhood Dogs, in our latest iteration – stood four and a half square beneath the shelter of a marquee performing our own brand of East Angliacana before a cricket match, in the rain. And when I say 'before' I mean, quite literally, in front of. The Papworth Everard Village Fete was in full swing, as were the (mostly) outclassed batsmen of the home side, caught fraught in the onslaught of nearby Yelling, who took the match - and the trophy - in a not very closely-fought annual battle of the village rivals. Put it this way – our set lasted very slightly longer than the home side’s innings, although both started with someone shouting “Catch it!”. Personally, I think they should have challenged the slightly less nearby village of Over, but that’s just so I could have included some additionl pun-ditry round about here  
But this is to dwell unnecessarily on the lamentable. Prior to our performance Sam Inglis had probably out-Englished even us with his doughty selection of traditional folk tunes, including a splendid Reynard the Fox which was obviously written, as he acerbically observed, “…by someone who has never been to Royston” (approximately fifteen miles from where he was sitting, as the crow flies). A good attempt, but despite his best efforts I don’t think we actually reached peak English until shortly after our set, when a vibrantly polka-dot be-frocked scion of the landed gentry went full jolly-hockey sticks in awarding the prizes for the Victoria Sponge competition.             

Being pretty much a scratch line-up due to prior holiday and theatrical commitments on the parts of both Producer Andy and Turny Winn, Mr. Wendell, Helen & I were bolstered by the incipient stand-in skills of gods kitchen and SftBH alumnus Mr. Gibbon, on whose behalf our promoter and sound man Steve played an old Goodies single over the PA as our intro music, which was a thoughtful gesture. We were also joined by the ‘half’ mentioned earlier, Steve’s daughter Amelie, who was to play flute on our closing number, Come On#2*.
Due to Gibbon’s familiarity with some of our further back-back catalogue, we had eschewed some of our more recent song writing efforts in favour of tunes that most of us knew all of already and were mostly in G, just to keep things doubly simple. Amelie sat rather nervously through the show and then, at her cue, steadied herself, drew a deep breath and played a lovely octave counter to Helen’s part before sitting rather relievedly back down again, graciously declining the opportunity to jam on our encore despite our entreaties and encouragement that “…it’s in G, like that one”. The twin flute attack - which I have experienced once before, in another lifetime - is something that we might have to look at again. Mellifluous, it is.

As the day’s activities drew to a close, the bouncy castles were deflated, the Pimm’s was reduced to a pound a pint to clear the dregs, the clouds cleared and happened that most English of occurrences at the culmination of any drizzly community event. The sun came out.  

*Performed on SftBH ‘Tree’ by Paul Mosley, whose folk opera album The Butcher is out now.

Monday, May 09, 2016

"So, who do you sound like..?"

At certain points over the course of my variegated musical career I’ve been lucky enough to be approached by folks who need a band for their charity event and who know that I strum a bit; to be contacted by people who need ale for a beer festival and have approached a man who coincidentally both works at a brewery and is in a band with me (the two birds/one stone approach) and have sat with a telephone handset in one paw and a printout of venues from the back of the 1989 Music Industry Yearbook in the other trying to see which back room or bar would be prepared to have us – tired and poor - pitch up for the evening and perform for their huddled masses.
Success in these endeavours mostly comes down to being able to answer the question “So what do you do?” and this in turn usually involves handing over a shiny silver disc in a cheap case and saying “That’s us”. In days gone by the agonising decision about what to put first on the cassette frequently took up more time than actually recording the thing, and so it was a blessed relief when the availability of cheap, home-made CDs meant that the pressure was off slightly, as people would now probably flick forward through the ones they didn’t like, so all you needed was a good strong intro or four.

We in Helen and The Neighbourhood Dogs have got by so far on a combination of couple of old reference recordings by a group Helen and I used to be in and a rough YouTube video of us playing one song live, the full version of which essentially comprises documentary footage of one guy getting slowly pissed in a thunderstorm while a band plays in the background behind him. With this dearth of demonstrability in mind we decided that it was time to burn some wax, cut some tracks and get hip to the hep groove Daddio or, more succinctly, drop round to Producer Andy’s house where he’d start putting together some demos so we could give them away to people when they asked whether we’d done anything they might like. Also, many festivals these days insist on you filling in a web-based  application wherein you have to link to three examples of your work online and your website, neither of which we currently have (we did, however, get on to last year’s Ipswich Music Day with a Soundcloud demo of one of my songs performed by Shev on vocals, a picture of the four of us at a beer festival Wendell took on his phone, and a link to Helen’s Twitter account, so it can be done).
On the nicest day of the year so far Mr Wendell, Helen and Myself gathered at Trillstar Studios to begin committing our oeuvre to posterity, which involved us drinking tea, plugging in our guitars, and Andy recording them onto a hard drive thereby being able go about correcting our mistakes through the medium of digital technology at his leisure once we'd stopped cluttering the place up. Thankfully our unyielding adherence to the strictures imposed by modern timekeeping meant that after a couple of brace of run-throughs all parties decided that there was no point leaving the metronome on beyond the count-in as after the first two verses it became a distraction when we inevitably veered off-piste and lost where we were. In a spirit of compromise Helen kept time with hand gestures while Andy pointed out that Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours is all over the place in terms of timekeeping and look what happened to that.

We have decided to go with a fairly representative five-song collection, at least three of which are newly-hewn, which means that we’re looking forward, not back (one of the others dates back to about 1986, which has tended to balance things out). The idea is to give a fairly representative idea of what we sound like when we perform - we want to record our performance rather than perform our recordings - so although the vocals might be done a number of times until we’re happy with a take, there shouldn’t be more than four of them; and although the bouzouki part will be pretty much as it is live, this time it’ll be in tune.

And, once we’ve done thatthen we’ll add the pedal steel, 10CC vocal effects,  and Welsh Male Voice Choir.  

Monday, April 25, 2016

"...and for those of you watching in black and white..."

Like swans, we musical Narcisseae generally glide serenely across the waters of this business we call show whilst underneath our little legs scurry away in a frenzy, forever reaping and posting, commenting and colluding, and trying to ensure that the machine is adequately fed and watered at all times. So many platforms to fill, so much media to refresh – and all for the fear that if we don’t keep buoyant, our online presence will sink to the bottom of a watery grave, our career floating in the starry firmament in exactly the same way that bricks don’t. Honestly – if I’m not dropping the latest Rare Candy remix on Tidal I’m generally up to here issuing Cease and Desist writs to the paps. It’s never-ending.

I’m swamped.
As it happens, there’s not a lot to report at the moment, but I like hanging out with you guys, so in a spirit of “Well, and what have you been up to recently..?” let me take you through my virtual week, since it’s mainly involved the subject of visuals and video and they’re quite fun to look through. At the last Neighbourhood Dogs get-together we were going to collaborate on a song. I came in with a couple of verses and a couple of chords and looked forward to a pleasant evening wrangling over middle eights and taking things to the bridge, but on the first run through La Mulley conjured a melody out of the ether, Mr. Wendell found a few inversions he could play with, Turny wandered up to the dusty end of the banjo, we all threw in some 10CC-esque “Aaaaahhh”s in the turnaround and Producer Andy pronounced himself satisfied with the outcome to the point where he suggested that adding any more chords in would unnecessarily complicate the whole thing. I suspect that this would have pleased the shade of Our Former Glorious Leader, who was forever trying to edit things down - preferably to the point where a song consisted of one verse (possibly repeated twice) and one chord, and that being without a major tonic*.

What with us being freed from the constraints of arguing about diminished fourths for the rest of the evening we decided to lark about with some guerrilla promo-making. Ordinarily when doing something for the interweb one would ensure that the lighting, camera angles, shooting script and sound source were all in tip-top condition and ready to be tweaked in post-production. Even Zoella makes sure not to fall over the scenery, I'm told. What we did was prop my iPad up on the breakfast bar and point it at the sofa. It’s on Facebook, which tends to annoy some people but then again, so are we.
Here it is 

In the same week that we did that, a far more professional editing job appeared over on the YouTube courtesy of Tony James Shevlin, who I did a session for the BBC with a few weeks ago. Those nice people from Unity in Music turned up with a couple of cameras, thus obviating the need for any of us to casually approach and fill the screen (an action which is a lot easier for me than it used to be these days) when we needed to cut between shots. My main job in this one was to sit quietly to the side and not fuck things up, which I think I achieved with commendable aplomb – my model for this role being Bill Bruford, who once received a writing credit on a King Crimson track for not playing anything, the reasoning being that although he was there in the studio, this was exactly what the song needed. What I will say is that that third harmony was my idea and in the absence of Dirk the Drummer on backing vocals, I was pleased to be able to dep in and perform it.
Last, but by no means peremptorily, was the astonishing discovery that MySpace is still a thing! Going back to my opening remarks, back in the day that’s all we had. I think Justin Timberlake owns it now, in which case he has the rights to this performance from The Cornbury Festival of ten years ago, wherein the single camera edit is skilfully utilised by our friend Nick Cooper who was already rather conveniently out on the weekend doing something or another with Spiers and Boden. See how crowd cutaways allow him to switch between angles. You’d probably never have known unless you were the sort of person who could instantly distinguish between a banjo and a mandolin** - keep an eye on Russ Barnes to the left of your screen. He's the, er, one in the hat - not the one in the frock.        


*The notable exception to this would have been that time he set out to write a song with a central riff containing all twelve notes in the scale. He did it, as well.  
** Unlike the guy on the desk out front doing our sound check.

Thursday, April 07, 2016

Nashville State of Mind

Further to that update from a couple of weeks ago, a video from the BBC Radio session I did with Tony James Shevlin is now available for your delectation on the YouTube. It's a nice little performance, although half way through the second verse one nervous onlooker did ask "...but what are you doing with your hands..?"


Sunday, April 03, 2016

Carry On Up The Helstock

A pleasure and a privilege to be able to stage manage/MC the annual Helstock, wherein folk of all stripes gather in order to celebrate another year in La Mulley's impressive ongoing accumulation of uninterrupted years of existence. This year she also claimed credit for a quarter century's worth of sole bragging rights on our erstwhile Glorious Leader's attentions, and so Yakima Gold had been procured, a venue booked and donations of cheese encouraged. There was also the small matter of half a dozen turns to get on and off the stage in good order but, hardened by a triumvirate of succesful stage wrangling weekends at Maverick*, I felt that this was the least of my concerns.  Indeed it was. Thanks to the provision of a late Easter Cracker I was able to both read a suitably awful joke for my first onstage announcement and to have the opportunity to sport a paper hat in order to establish whether I were appearing as compere (wearing) or, when bereft of headgear, as an artiste - Helen and The Neighbourhood Dogs also making a brief but perfectly performed intrusion as part of the evening's proceedings. I thought I'd made a suitably positive statement by taking off my hat to perform, whereas Helen upped the stakes considerably by removing her entire skirt.  

"That hat" someone asked "Is it crepe?" "It does the job perfectly well for what it is" I replied.

After many hugely talented turns, including debut performances by Joe and Tev Partridge**, who have been listening to their mother perform since they were in utero, it was time for putative headliners The Black Feathers, who were in turn mesmerising, beguiling, extraordinary moving, and funny. Having pretty much exhausted my stock of amusing off-the-cuff intros I suggested that I should just do a "Ladies and Gentlemen..." then run up to the top and back of the multi-tiered stage and bang the massive gong which resides there for the use of the Ipswich Hospital Band. I would then announce them in a vaguely hysterical Hugh Dennis The Now Show fashion. That seemed to work quite well. I made my way out of the performance area and sat down next to Becky, innamorata of our own, dear Turny Winn. She turned, measuredly toward me and addressed me with perfect Gerald Thomas-inspired timing. "Rank stupidity".  

*I'll say. We once got a thank you letter from Mary Gaulthier. "All festivals should be run this way" she wrote.  

**Also an opportunity to use the old Mike and Bernie Winters story - "Oh god, there's two of 'em". 

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

When they were up, they were up.

So, for those who have been kind enough to ask, yes it all went very well for The Neighbourhood Dogs at our Bank Holiday soiree. We had a good turnout, the convoluted story structure of the set didn’t particularly interfere with anyone’s enjoyment of the afternoon’s entertainment (despite my lengthy introduction of new song Well as being from “…the soundtrack to a John Hughes movie that doesn’t exist yet”). Helen and Mr. Wendell combined beautifully with a number of soaring harmonious interjections while Andy put in a solid shift on fretless bass and Turny filled in all the gaps - occasionally stepping forward to take centre stage, as on his vaguely calypso-inflected What’s a Rainbow - my son Lord Barchester’s second-favourite song of the performance. He also managed to draw an entire doodle pad’s worth of progressively more frightening monsters during the course of the performance. Barch, that is – not Tony.
There were a couple of minor opportunities – we were plagued by feedback at one point early on in the performance, the source of which our de facto Sound Engineer (sitting at the bar with a tablet rather than encircled by leads and XLRs at a table somewhere over by the toilets) swiftly identified and dealt with by the simple expedient of leaping over to the performance area and shutting the curtains behind us, thus preventing the specific frequency bouncing back off the window pane into the Behringer in front of Tony. “Also, I couldn’t see a bloody thing with that sun coming through like that” he added.

We’d done our sums regarding how many songs added up to what sort of duration on the back of a fag packet, and so were relieved to find that our two sets just about filled out the contractually-obliged hour and twenty minute run time. My agent approached*. “Very nice” he said. “Very pleasant. You’ve got the makings of a really good forty minute set there”.**

 *Yes, I do actually.   
**To be fair, later on at home my wife confessed her enormous sense of relief that (a) “It was really good – perfectly suited to a lazy afternoon’s relaxing in the sun” and (b) more importantly, that it “…wasn’t shit”.