Monday, May 28, 2007

"Do you do any Buffalo Springfield?"

I read an interesting diversion on the electric interweb recently, wherein a newbie to all this going out and playing a full two sets in public malarkey was buttonholed after a recent show and informed that his band hadn’t played enough songs that his audience member knew. His query was intended to ascertain what the correct ratio of covers to originals in a set should be and the forum responses varied from a wholly reasonable explanation that some people are never happy with songs they don’t know to an explanation of how another group member divides up his set list to provide reasonable periods of known and loved covers before sliding in a couple of their own, stealthily under the cover of contented familiarity. An answer that wasn’t posited was to reply that if the audience member didn’t know a few of the songs then perhaps they should get out there and listen to a bit more music and then perhaps they’d broaden their horizons a little. This, however, would only contribute more to the eternal battle between those on the stage, who are sure that they know best what an audience should be listening to, and those in the stalls, who are equally but almost always skewiffedly convinced of the same. You’d think they weren’t all there for the same reason sometimes. So when the call came through to The Blue House at three fifty nine from The High Barn to participate in their monthly acoustic showcase, by four we were on our way. To a lengthy discussion about what we should play. The first job was to round up the usual suspects – a band-wide group email revealed that some were busy, some were free, (some of them were angry at the way the earth was abused, by the men who learned to forge beauty into power, but that’s a different story) and some didn’t respond as the word ‘barn’ somehow set off their over-sensitive spam filter and they didn’t get the message in the first place. They didn’t get the mail that included the word ‘document’ either, because if you knock out the first two letters and the last three….you see? Well, it’s political correctness gone mad. Either that or health and safety, I can never remember which one I’m supposed to be cross about. The victim of all this de-spammery was our esteemed bass player and so he was excluded from the discussions about what to play, which took place between myself, singer-guitarist James, fragrant chanteuse and flute-monkey Helen and our wild card for the ride, Picturehouse frontman Wendell, who’d been thrown into the mix because he’s a both chum and because every so often we like to mix it up a bit and see what happens.

At a hastily-convened rehearsal the discussions really picked up pace. “So, what’re we doing?” enquired James, once he’d finished his baked potato with cheese and beans. Nothing fills a vacuum like that like opportunism and so I proferred my CD copy of the first Buffalo Springfield album, which contains a charming little sixties pop song by Neil Young called ‘Burned’ which I’d long hankered to have a go at. I have an advantage in the ways of Neil Young in that having learned to sing and play by strumming along with his Live Rust album I can pretty effortlessly drop into an appropriation of the Young-esque style at the drop of a harmonica. It’s uncanny, chameleon-like shading means that several people are fully convinced that I can’t sing properly* and lead one past band member to informally dub our Beatles specialist band “John, Paul, Ringo and Neil”, which if nothing else would make a great Willy Russell play, let’s face it. In the face of overwhelming ennui we were now one down in our quest to fill half an hour’s worth of hotly sought after stage time and moved on to the next selection. With our new album being due out on the HB label, we thought it only right to preview something from it and so started on stripping down the full band version (including pedal steel and banjo) to an arrangement for two acoustic guitars and a couple of singers who hadn’t even been on it. That took another twenty minutes, so by now we were flying. After a few more forays into our respective back catalogues of performances and writing credits we ended up with a couple of my old songs that didn’t get an airing often these days (one of which involved La Mulley transposing a three part saxophone part to flute), a song by Helen which was currently going through some discussion as to whether it was going to make the album at all, and a duet between Hel and Wendell on Gram Parsons’ version of ‘Love Hurts’. Oh, and James had decided to play bass. This was not a set list devised by a committee of movers and shakers looking to influence and win over an audience eager to soak up the familiar. This, surely, was tomfoolery? So, anyway, on the afternoon of the gig Wendell was spending a lot of time on YouTube instead of working and came up with the idea of doing The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, so we lobbed that into the set too. And why not?


We didn’t see a lot of the evening’s entertainment, spending, as we were a good deal of time in the studio annexe next to the stage running through the set again just to make sure that we hadn’t made a series of catastrophic errors of judgement. It wasn’t that reassuring, to be honest, but we did enjoy the experience of watching several of the other turns walk past the studio window on the way to the stage alternately baffled and amused by our enthusiastic (to them) miming. At last our time came. We were to follow the excellent, splendid and thoroughly Blue House-endorsed Al Lindsay, whose John Martyn-esque acoustic stylings were beautifully counterparted by a percussion player and a double bassist and who indeed encored with a marvellous reading of Martyn’s “May You Never”. Uh-oh, an encore….we’d better be good.
So we took the stage, four people in a line up which hadn’t played together before, one of whom was playing an instrument he didn’t usually care for and with a set list comprising at least four songs which no-one outside the sound engineer was likely to have heard in their lives and, d’you know what? We bloody killed out there. In a good way. Helen and Wendell were on superb old-style country weepery harmonising form, James was ebullient, I jumped off a chair and windmilled during The Who song, which raised a cheer if not a faint sense that the audience were about to see a forty-year old man do himself an injury, and that hadn’t happened during “Won’t Get Fooled Again” since that time with the tremelo arm in San Francisco – you could sense the voyeuristic thrill, and cut the air of anticipation with a chainsaw, or some other very large petrol-driven cutting tool. We retired outside for a post-show cigarette of relief, smoking being banned inside the building (It’s health and correctness gone politically safe, I tells ya) and I considered the question of “what to play”. Nobody knows anything; performers, audiences, critics. It’s all about the shared experience. If it works, it works, there’s no formula “These people do it for financial gain and we’re entitled to pass our opinions however we see fit” a correspondent had said (I’m paraphrasing). Too right. Al Lindsay wandered up to the sound man. “Do we, um, get paid for this?” he enquired, not unreasonably.
“No”.

*At least I think it’s the Young impression.

Monday, May 14, 2007

"Leave i', 'E's not wurf i' - Ooh, The Koiser Cheeyufs!"

We return the The Pickerel in Stowmarket, the residents of which fair hamlet are referred to in some circles in a non-ironic fashion as Slowmartians. Not ours, mind - we know which side our breadwinners are likely to be battered should we subscribe to such a foul calumny - and set up in a positive frame of mind, all the better to try out our 'new' songs, since the Stow Boys (and gels) are a friendly crowd and generally forgiving of our expeditions into the unknown. Some regulars still speak in hushed tones of our foray into 10CC's "Rubber Bullets", and warn their troublesome children that if they don't go to bed and get straight to sleep we'll come round and play it again. It sounded fine at rehearsal, honestly. This time we are to debut not only something by The Feeling (we feel a particular affinity with these coves as they themselves were a covers band up until just before their big break, although in ski resorts rather than in small pubs near railway stations in unprepossessing East Anglian towns which produce mainly paint, malt and processed chickens) and a piece of goth rock magnificence in The Damned's version of 'Eloise', for which Gibbon has been assiduously programming the sounds of darkness into his 90's-era keyboard and for which Wendell has been throwing impressively dramatic power grabs (cf Meatloaf) in rehearsal, as well as cultivating a moody mic-stand clutching hooded-lid performance persona which cunningly disguises that he is actually reading the lyrics off a sheet of paper gaffa-taped to the monitors.
The set has a fairly regular feel by now, which can be the curse of the inattentive pub band, as although we might only play it every couple of weeks, if the pub crowd only sees you once every couple of months and you play exactly the same thing every time, they soon cotton on that you're not really paying attention to their needs. After all, The Kaiser Chiefs might only have two albums to pick from, but we've got the whole of rock history to cherry pick, and so there's really no excuse to settle on a set and leave it at that for the duration. We're not The Rolling Stones, after all. Clearly. There is an opening section through which we state our case - a bit of new stuff, a bit of eighties, a bit of seventies west coast Californian country rock (at which point my wife inevitably goes to the toilet, as a childhood spent in the back of cars shuttling her between parents to the soundtrack of Glenn Frey has left her emotionally scarred in terms of references to taking it easy and she can't bear the experience to be dragged back up through her psyche. Either that or she's holding out for something from Desperado). A nice run through the first set ensues, and The Feeling goes down well - given our exalted position in the rock hierachy we're never sure whether the common man is listening to the same thing that we are, and it seems unlikely in some cases, and so we are relieved that we've made a good pick. We are, after all in the business of show, and although (say) one of Gibbon's favourite albums is by a side project of someone who's played on some of the biggest selling albums of recent years, I don't see anything by The Bears making it as far as (say) The John Bull in Woodbridge Road. Their loss.
The break gives us an opportunity to restock, regroup, refuel, sympathise with the ever patient Mrs Skirky, who has had a trampalike spill a glass of house white over her new frock and refuse to countenance getting a replacement in, and who has been drying it off under the hand dryer in the ladies' (always a dignified way to spend ten minutes) and also to respond to the number one mid-set question of our short but glorious career - the answer being, of course, The Jags.
A quick set rearrangement for the second half means that we start off with one of our taking-a-flyers, set wise - the world may love OK GO's YouTube clips, but their actual songs are generally more of an effort to get into, however the group of Trivium T-shirted youth stage left are pleased at its inclusion. They are clearly in a band together and fills, licks and riffs are greeted with quiet consideration and occasional head-nodding-together memos to selves, which is great. I remember doing the very same at a gig by the Turnham Green Blues Band at The Thrasher in 1980, and it's encouraging to know that in twenty five years or so they too may be raiding their kids' iPods for things to play in pubs after their hopes, dreams and wild eyed ambitions of rock stardom have been cruelly dashed at the altar of fame by a cruel unfeeling public who can't make the distinction between genius and genre-hopping. That might, at a stretch, just be me, mind....
The time has come for Eloise, and with a few "good luck"'s and "see you at the end"s we launch hopefully into it. And, d'you know what? It works. The blams come in all the right places, the timing's right, the chords and runs come easily to work-ravaged hands* and at the end of the song the sweet, sweet candy sound of applause and cheering rattles through the air - it's like catnip for fortysomethings, it really is. I'm so pleased I do a guitar solo behind my head two songs later, pretending that I'm being post-ironic. "Ooh" runs my internal monologue "I think I may've put my back out".


*Alright, so mainly ravaged by tapping computer keyboards all week, but you get the idea...I have to take cod liver oil tablets once a day at my age, you know.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

As we know, one of this year's big ambitions is to publish. Sadly, Wendell's hard drive, along with text, photos (see how I didn't put an apostrophe in there?) and notes about my grande folie has crashed and burned, and so the project is delayed even further than it would have been if he hadn't already been concentrating on jobs that actually have a positive and immediate effect on his mortgage repayments. 'Twas ever thus. Being the good sort that he is he had been keeping this from me for as long as possible, but a Picturehouse rehearsal scheduled for his kitchen made it difficult to keep hidden.
Mr Wendell was calm, collected, and reassuring about the prospects of the book coming out this year, and assured me that he had kept Editor Jessica's post-it notes exactly where they were and could recreate the magic that only sub editing by someone with a far greater appreciation of the impact of a sub-colon than we have could bring. You can probably tell that she has no input into this farrago of a blog at all.
And so we sat down with the band to learn some new stuff. Having greeted Mr. Gibbon at my front door with a charming rendition of the solo from Show Some Love by The Feeling, I was surprised to find Kilbey doing the same thing to us when we turned up at Wendell's. Not as surprised as he was to receive a phone call from Frisky Pat calling from the band rehearsal room, mind, but fair play to 'im for fielding the "We're all at Steve's - where are you?" call with such admirable aplomb. As it turns out, Kilbey's up for a bit of guitar playing on this one, and I'm up for a bit of the ol' bass. Unfortunately, the first run through is so capable that the rest of the evening is given over to trying it one more time, drawing tattoo templates (on Pat), smoking in the garden, looking at Pat's mobile phone photos and checking out Kilbey's kids' band's MySpace site.
Don't tell 'em - we're thinking of doing a cover. I mean, A and G - how hard could it be?