Monday, November 14, 2016

On Angel Hill

If you - like me - are a big fan of the work of the actor George Clooney, you will doubtless be familiar with a pivotal scene in the Coen Brothers’ marvellous film O Brother, Where Art Thou, wherein the self-styled Soggy Bottom Boys perform the song I Am A Man of Constant Sorrow in a recording studio, set snugly around a single microphone which captures their performance in real time. “Aha” you may have thought to yourself “Those days are long gone – it’s all feeding digital files into computers and auto-tuning and cut and pasting these days – look at those hicks with their ancient depression-era ways! Those days are over, and good riddance - I, for one, welcome our new sonically curated digital overlords!” Well, quite.
So when we gathered at The Unitarian Hall in Bury St. Edmunds in order to record some demonstration tapes under the kindly aegis of folk singer and technical crackerjack Sam Inglis, we were surprised to find that the screens and baffles we were expecting to litter the place were notable by their absence and the technical arena seemed to consist of a pair of microphones on a stand, a shovel, a pair of angel’s wings, a goblet, a dagger and four candles. Most of this equipment, we quickly surmised, wasn’t really anything to do with the session we were involved in, but was more probably connected with the play that a local theatre group was putting on in the evenings while we were - if you will - sunlighting on the opposite shift during the day.

Tape Op Steve put the kettle on. This would be a feature of the course of the rest of the day – whenever there were a lull in proceedings he would appear almost magically bearing tea, coffee, Lemsip and/or biscuits. For all my analogue inferences up there ^ we were actually recording onto a shiny laptop, however the vagaries of the room’s sound, the acoustic properties of our instruments and whether Helen had had a hot lemon drink and a vocalzone recently meant that Steve’s honorary title actually translated into a practical series of tasks, as he delineated the optimum position for chairs and feet with masking tape in order that the best balance be effected for each track depending on instrumentation, who was singing, and whether there was a banjo involved or not. Mr. Wendell spent the day facing slightly away from the group, playing his Gibson acoustic into the well of the hall. Helen was instructed to rotate through 360 degrees in order to ascertain the optimum angle for her flute to cut through tonally and then had to take a step forward to sing. Each take literally began with the entreaty “On your marks…”.

Having six people to performing live in a room brings its own complications. “We seem to have a tuning issue in the last chorus there” remarked our de facto producer at one point. “No – it’s just that the closer to the end we get, the tighter I’m gripping the guitar” replied Mr. Wendell affably. It was fairly obvious when someone had got an intro wrong, but if somebody happened to stumble over a vocal well into the trunk of a take we stopped and went back to begin again. Turny forgot the order of a couple of his characteristically momentous lyrics; for some reason I purported that the protagonists in one song would be entranced by each other’s 'furniture' rather than their 'flirting'; I sang ‘totches’ rather than ‘notches’ right in the last verse of ‘Harrogate’. “It’s okay – I can drop that in later” said Sam guilelessly. We all looked around within our circle of concern, processing this new information. Significantly, we stopped looking at each other at the conclusion of a take and started deferring to him*.

We relaxed between takes with small talk and noodling. The theme from Crossroads became a recurrent…theme. Fiddly’s theorising about the placement of the microphones** and other such technical concerns gave way to a philosophical “Well, you know what they say – it’s not so much about the quality of the recording as whether you’ll be whistling it on your way home that counts”. Mr. Wendell reminisced fondly about the days of four track recording. We waited for passing cars to plough their torpid furrow through the drizzled streets outside before we recorded a particularly quiet intro to our token cover version. Steve shielded my amplifier with a cushion so that the sensitive recording equipment wouldn’t pick up its ambient hum during the same. We ran through the outro of one song half a dozen more times*** for posterity’s sake. We checked the clock. It was half an hour before we had to be out of the hall. Packing instruments back into cases, gathering cables and leads, unscrewing stands, disassembling improvised risers, replacing the chairs and finishing off the chocolate brownies, I motioned Fiddly to pause and listen, as from the other side of the room came the unmistakable melody of Love Minus Zero/ No Limit.

“There’s your old grey whistle test, right there”.    

*This was obviously a lot easier for Wendell, as he was partially turned in that direction anyway.
**”No – I’m just using that one. The other one’s just there in case the first one breaks”.

***”You’re all slowing down at the same time, just at different speeds”.          



Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Thank You Very Glad.

Big up and props to everyone who came out this week to support our continuing efforts to combine the haunting lilt of the banjo with the sublime mellow wash of the bouzouki in pursuit of the perfect East Angliacana stadium anthem. Inclusive of - but not limited to - The Earlybirds, Fern Teather (and Sam - "Hello Bongo!"), whoever put money in the hat, bought us a drink and who made the effort to come out on a wet Tuesday night* to hear us perform songs we'd made up out of our own collective heads, a couple of Dylan numbers, one by Moses and an utterly sublime The Queen and The Soldier on Fern's part. Lastly, and very much not least of all, James out of Blue House Music who put in a sterling shift in the face of a deliberately provocative fiddle, squeezebox, flute, whistle, bouzouki, bass, twelve string, acoustic and electric guitar-based line up with four singers, and who came up smiling nonetheless**. Thanks buddy - obviously we could have done it without you, but it would have sounded shit. 

*Yeah - we could do it in Stoke if we needed to. 
**Or at least not grimacing any more than he normally does.     

Thursday, November 03, 2016

Thirty Eight Things to Go Wrong.

So, our final rehearsal before next week’s expedition to darkest Colchester is completed. You couldn’t really call it a dress rehearsal since when performing on stage Turny often puts on a skinny tie that makes him look like a member of a late seventies post-punk power pop combo – how you always picture Ric Ocasek out of The Cars during their Just What I Needed pomp, say. Mr. Wendell has taken to wearing a polka dot shirt which lends him the slightly whimsical air of a Robyn Hitchcock, and Helen had taken to sporting a pair of spray-on leggings covered on Shakespeare quotations until she noticed that the ‘Ham’ from ‘Hamlet’ was emblazoned perfectly on her upper thigh. I myself usually pick out the cleanest checked shirt in the wardrobe, which is frequently the one I wore at the last gig, so carbon-dating the age of any band I’ve been in through the medium stage wear has become an increasingly knotty issue over the past two decades*.
We ran through everything a couple of times, just to bed in new yet enduring bassist Gibbon, whose arrival in our midst has been necessitated firstly by the departure of original stand-up guy Ant and then also of his replacement, Producer Andy, whose lucrative side line in playing bass for Purple Rain – A Tribute to Prince means that since the recent surge of interest in the work of one of Minneapolis’ favourite sons he gets to fly by private plane into tax havens to perform the music of the Stack-Heeled Sex Impness of Funk rather than the slightly more staid East Angliacana’n fare we cater for, with, and to**. Also along for the ride is SftBH alumnus Fiddly, in whose shed we are rehearsing, and whose pre-match chocolate cake and tea we are fortified with. Not being a self-styled full-time filler of the ranks, Fiddles describes himself as a Three Legged Dog. Their approaches to the run through are both familiar and heartening. Gib wants to know which key to start in and after that pretty much anything can happen, and Fiddly wants to know how many bars we’re going to do at the end, so he knows when to stop. The only thing they really have in common is that they’re both actually called Richard.

We have secured the expertise of a proper sound engineer and their bespoke PA system for the gig itself, mainly because they haven’t received any more better offers since we asked if they’d do it for us a favour***. We have engaged two guest turns (“…a couple of mics please, and a monitor would be great!”) , arranged load-in and sound check times, forwarded details of parking, run off some posters, created events on three separate social media platforms, alerted the press and I have worked out the settings I’m going to use on all three electric guitars, the twelve string, and the bouzouki. I’ve also forwarded a copy of the stage plan and technical specs (although I did lose brownie points on that as it wasn’t formatted to print in landscape). And that’s just for one Tuesday night, low-key run through of some material before we go to record it in a couple of weeks' time. At one place I’m playing shortly they won’t even let your gear in the room unless it’s got an up to date PAT certificate****. Imagine what it’s like then for your local arts centre, folk club, open mic, songwriter’s showcase or blues club promoter who does this every week!  
We’ll leave a tips jar on the bar for you to show your appreciation.

*If I’m wearing a white shirt with a heart overlaid with an ‘X’ on the breast pocket it’s a photograph of As Is. That was a gift from a grateful record industry on behalf of Duranduran, whose “1988 single “I Don’t Want Your Love” fell swiftly from its debut chart position of #14, despite EMI’s best efforts to promote it through the dispensation of form-flattering wardrobe. Go on – try and remember how the chorus goes. See?  

**To be fair, he also plays in the Tony Winn Trio, so it's not all "Twenty minutes, off, helicopter, back to the Warwick Hotel, two birds each."

***i.e. ones that pay, and at least at time of writing.

****You’ve got Google – go and look it up.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

"Let me bore you with this story, how my lover let me down..."

It is a truth universally acknowledged that once you’ve learned how to play the first six The Beatles singles you’ll be in possession of everything there is that you need to know about writing a song. Song writing, I should stress, is not the same as making a record, as John Seabrook’s excellent The Song Machine explains in detail and at length. But I digress. With the benefit of knowing how "one gets the impression that they think simultaneously of harmony and melody, so firmly are the major tonic sevenths and ninths built into their tunes, and the flat submediant key switches” one can all the more appreciate the “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah!”'s that tend to round off those early choruses. Listen and learn, kids, listen and learn. My own personal road map on the way to song writing enlightenment on the other hand, was Neil Young’s Comes a Time. Once I'd reached the point where I could play all the way through the whole album I knew what I wanted to say, how I wanted to say it, and had also developed a penchant for checked shirts, the key of 'G' and battered straw hats that has withstood no little critical opprobrium even to this day.
But the intriguing thing about those Beatles singles is the stories they tell and the questions they ask. “If there’s anything that you want..?”, “You think you’ve lost your love…”. Despite any contrary claims regarding the groove, it’s story tellers whose work you have to keep coming back to. Desperado was a disappointing follow up to Eagles’ debut album sales-wise, but it’s still their best work, due in no small part to the narrative thread that runs through it. Thin Lizzy’s best song isn’t Jailbreak, or The Boys are Back in Town or even Don’t Believe a Word, but the relatively unassuming Southbound*, with its trail-weary protagonist reflecting on the good old days in the same way that Bruce Springsteen’s tough young punks from Asbury Park turned into the jaded parents of The River. Throughout these songs, I want to know what happens in the next verse, the next chapter. To reach the gloomy denouement**.
At last night’s Doghearsal we sat down with two chords and a couple of verses of lyrics, trying to make sense of the narrative and bookend the story of 'As Yet (Untitled)' as best we could.

I dug out all these old photographs

The three of us smiling on New Year’s Day

It’s almost as if it didn’t happen

 And it feels like it’s a century away starts. It’s not like our song Harrogate, which is a jolly, chirpy four verse country romp about an illicit but ultimately doomed liaison in a northern spa hotel***. That’s a straight soup to nuts Squeeze song waiting to happen. This is more opaque. Who are these people? Where have they met? What are they doing there? What are their regrets? I won’t lie to you – these are the themes I keep coming back to. There may be a hundred protagonists, a few dozen parties and a hundred miles of tarmac in the notebooks, scraps of paper, bookmarks and receipts I’ve scribbled things down on over the years, but the question is always the same. In common with The Boss, I just want to know if love is real.
We worked on the arrangement. I’d come in with two chords and the lyrics, intending to workshop the thing into something bigger, but we’d decided that it didn’t need to break out into a bridge, a chorus, a middle eight – just to go circling around and around, Mr. Wendell keeping the hypnotic rhythm going - like the very best of Simon Nicol’s Sloth work - while the rest of us drift in and out according to mood and inclination. “It’s only two chords” said someone “It’s not a bit too U2, is it?”
“Fuck ‘em – they didn’t write ‘A’ and ‘D’” someone replied.
After a while I remembered where I’d heard these inversions before. Many moons ago our drummer had written a song called Love is Here through the simple expedient of positioning his hands anywhere on the guitar neck that sounded good to him, and then moving the odd finger to see what happened. The verses were based around a repetitive three chord round with lots of open strings and odd sub-tonics. I’d absorbed, assimilated and re-stumbled upon his fingering**** for two of them and here we were, some twenty five or six to four years later bringing them back out into the light of day, or at least the stygian half ten-ness of a Tuesday night in Coggeshall. Song writing, chord construction, words and bridges - all there in spades. And he couldn’t play you a Beatles song if his life depended on it.        

*And it closes with a great big fuck-off gong. Which is awesome.
*** Which in turn is not a patch on Scarborough, by Farrah, which covers pretty much the same sort of ground lyrically, but which has a better chorus.
****Easy, tiger.

Monday, September 05, 2016

"Do your Claude Monet!" "I'm sorry - I don't do impressionists..."

A chum flagged one of those memes on their Facebook page the other day – this one a product of the venerable Musician’s Union, which has a history of being very good to orchestral and session musicians and is widely ignored by the rest of us – suggesting that unless you were doing good works for charity you should not play gigs for free. A wizened old chestnut indeed. Having been on both sides of the paid/plaid* divide I can confirm that this is an emotive subject and has been discussed online many times before. The financially rewarding Star Club years went a great way toward financing the not-so-lucrative gods kitchen and SftBH epochs and yes, we did a lot of work for charity, notwithstanding the rather heated discussion we once had with some members of one bike club when we declined their invitation to spend our entire Saturday providing the PA and playing for their good cause – not because it wasn’t lucrative or that the charity wasn’t entirely worthy, it’s just that all of us had better things to do with our personal time on that occasion.
One of the online responses to my friend’s post was from a correspondent indignant about being continually told to monetise her art (I’m paraphrasing – there was a lot of text to summarise) which I can sort of see, or at least I could do clearly if I weren’t so completely mesmerised about the prospect of one day being in the position of insisting on monetising my own art. That would certainly help assuage a lot of low-level guilt about asking your friends and colleagues to spend an hour and a half driving in order to play a twenty minute ‘open’ spot when they could be more gainfully employed sewing name tags into their kids’ PE kit ready for their first day back at school. Or building furniture.

As it was, we spent two afternoons this weekend gainfully not monetising our art – firstly in Needham Market at a Fun Day where we were the starter course to a veritable banquet of open spots, a singer who was on The Voice, a bouncy castle and, later, karaoke**. Our host, who had a terrific voice of her own, made us thoroughly welcome and waited patiently while we phoned around to see if anyone in proximity of the venue had any microphone stands we could borrow, the privilege of digging them out and bringing them to the venue on our behalf they would be similarly un-monetised for. We had a good time, using it as a pre-session run through of the set for the next day’s gig, and Nicola put a clip of our performance on to the electric internet, prompting one viewer to comment that it was the best version of Love Minus Zero/No Limit he’d ever heard. So, no money, but good exposure.
It was also a useful try-out for the new instrumentation – we’d decided to eschew the familiar two acoustic guitar strumalong style in exchange for one of us going electric and the other going to California for a couple of weeks and this had been the first opportunity to see how it sounded live. A bit too long tuning between songs for my liking – Helen’s “Talk among yourselves…Um, I probably need to work on my between-songs banter a bit, don’t I?” had been merely the confirmation that I was spending a little too much time on capo-related tweakery of my guitar and so I decided that for the next day’s show I would brazenly break Robert Forster’s seventh rule of rock and roll and take another to go with the bouzouki I was using on one song. One of five, I should probably mention. Let’s face it, if you’re not being paid in items you can legally take to a superstore on the outskirts of town and exchange for goods and services you may as well indulge yourself in other ways - it’s only that we’d already decided on the set and we weren’t playing anything that demanded a capo at the fifth fret in order for me to conjure my inversions*** too that meant that I didn’t pack a third electric guitar to go with the other two.

Our Sunday host and de facto front-of-house sound engineer looked at the mountain of equipment we (I) was loading in to the cramped open mic-sized performance arena with a mixture of rising panic, fear and disbelief. “I didn’t see why I should make it easy for you!” I chirruped happily. She looked slightly less impressed than if I’d announced that there was a fortress of keyboards**** and a Mellotron still to come in, but took it all with good grace. Thankfully, she’d had a cancellation and so we had a bit more set up and pack down time than we would have otherwise allowed ourselves and also had an opportunity to drop in a couple of extra (unrehearsed) songs from our back catalogue – one of them a genuine request, which is always gratifying. With all of the history of recorded music stretching out around them as far as the ear could hear, someone wanted to listen to something we’d written
At a party recently, someone asked me what my ideal job would be. “Tim Dowling” I said. “He gets to go out at the weekend and play with his band, and then he gets to go home and write about it”.

And he gets paid for both.                                


*I tend to wear the familiar Neil Young/Rory Gallagher-inspired lumberjack shirt when performing my own works. And pretty much all the rest of the time too, if truth be told.
**That is, the singer had appeared on television’s The Voice, not that she appeared on the bouncy castle. I explained this line up to a friend, including the karaoke. “When does the fun start?” he replied, drily.

***Ooh, Matron, don’t! They can’t touch you for it.
****Thanks to @backwards7 on Twitter for that one.

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.