Monday, January 21, 2008

The Board of Directors of Songs from The Blue House have had a very good meeting with Our Beloved Record Company regarding our plans for global domination of the acoustic pop (folk-and-country-influenced sub-division) market this week, and flushed with our success at making notes and following fully exposed agendas are looking forward to meeting with the organizers of a local festival who have asked Our Glorious Leader to curate their Acoustic Stage. I am attending in a capacity which is not so much Butch Cassidy to his Sundance Kid, but will be characterized later with the suggestion that I am issued with a t-shirt bearing the legend “James’s Bitch”. I wouldn’t mind, but it wasn’t even him who suggested it. This is a preliminary get together just to ensure that everybody knows who should be doing what to whom, and by when, and as such is naturally hosted in the saloon bar of The Dove Street Inn. OGL has forsaken his usual working attire of brewery branded polo shirt and is sporting a nice jumper, which is a measure of how seriously he’s taking the whole thing, and I am in my usual Saturday garb of a pair of his cast-off jeans, which indicates how seriously I’m taking this year’s diet.
Introductions are made, notes are produced and we settle down to work our way through the list, Myself, OGL, The Festival Organiser and Louise who has been co-opted onto our team as nominal Stage Manager, even though she’s not entirely sure what one of those does. This will all be explained in due course, but firstly, to the agenda! OGL and I are enthused about the idea of bringing our experience of these sorts of events to bear and are soon enjoying throwing suggestions and questions into the mix – the first of which principally concerns the mixer. The acousticity of the stage is implicit – bass players will be allowed small amplifiers since no-one plays one of those big double bass things any more, but every thing else will be going through the mixing desk and PA speakers – drums will not be mic’d up. Now, I know what you’re thinking – how come all this technology is being brought to bear on making what are essentially hollow boxes with strings on louder through the application of electricity, diodes, transformers and speakers, when the truly acoustic nature of the mighty percussionist’s art, le batterie, the second oldest profession, is denied the basic comforts of being made louder? Well, we don’t make the rules, and anyway, they’re used to it by now. We have a number of suggestions to try and ensure that the day runs smoothly for crew and performers alike, gleaned from years of turning up to outdoor gigs to find that the stewards don’t know who the stage manager is, the stage manager can’t find the sound guy, the sound guy is in a mood because he hasn’t been given the stage set ups of any of the bands’ line ups and the group on two slots before you is running half an hour late because the second band on the bill were late setting up and then got an encore.
We propose our list of essentials. These may sound obvious, but not all have been covered, and these are based on grim experience in the past. Firstly – a stage. Sounds pretty rudimentary, but although the performance area will be under the cover of a marquee, the rest of the park, ‘backstage’ and the audience area will not. Spend eight hours trudging backward and forward over the same patch of slightly damp grass in sensibly sturdy boots with a selection of bass amplifiers and drum kits and you soon have an area of cut up turf which most closely resembles Wigan Athletic’s centre circle, and which tends to do for ease of performance what Wigan Athletic’s Titus Bramble does for calm, clear-headed defending.
Monitors – say, for example, that you have a half deaf fiddle player who is playing out in the open air, where the sound wafts away on the whim of the breeze and who can’t keep track of where the beat is because he can’t hear either of the guitarists either. Point a wedge-shaped monitor speaker at him and turn it all the way up to twelve. I’m not saying this has happened to us at every festival we’ve played. I’m saying it happens at every indoor gig too. Chances are someone else will have a similar story.
Get us a portaloo. Some of the turns will be either playing outside for the first time, will be in front of lots of people they know, or conversely lots of people they don’t know, will have driven long distances with little opportunity for comfort breaks, or will have been behind the sound desk all day with nought but a Shell garage all day breakfast triple decker sandwich and a family-sized lucozade for company, or will have been at the beer tent all afternoon, or will have a personal evacuatory ritual which must be conducted precisely five minutes before showtime. You don’t want these people queueing behind three families with crying toddlers, two guys full of off license Merrydown and half a dozen pre-teens who desperately need to check their make up at the public toilets ten minutes across the park when you’re running to a deadline, trust me.
And so it goes on - “Do you have a multicore”. “A what?” “Don’t worry, I’ll get one”. I also make a mental note to remember spare strings, leads and batteries. Someone will have forgotten to check their electronic tuner, the active DI circuit in their Takamine or their chorus pedal, and the gig’s on a Sunday and in a park. That’s no time to be panicking when you can’t tune your guitar because none of the little red lights come on when you plug it in. In those sorts of situations the only reasonable thing to do is blame the last person to use your tuner/guitar/chorus pedal or, if in doubt, the fiddle player.
There are a numbing number of these sorts of things – little practicalities which will just help the whole thing run that little bit more smoothly than if we’d forgotten to do them. Band gear specifications, a gazebo for the mixing desk in case of either rain or shine, or both, a crate of bottled water for the parched and/or nervous performer, an agreed chain of command and responsibility and a form of identifying pass or t-shirt which means that everybody knows who’s responsible for doing what, and when. Louise quite literally perks up. “Can we have them in girl’s styles? A nice strappy top or something, only I’ll look terrible in one of those baggy XL men’s sizes”. At last, a suggestion that really makes sense and we dutifully make a note on our lists of things to do. “And I’m not really familiar with what goes on at these gigs – I mean, what’s a practical sort of thing to wear on the day?” asks our stage manager. We agree silently and speak as one. “Generally cut-off shorts, really small bikini tops, that sort of thing” we propose, sagely. “Pretty much anything you’d ordinarily wear to wash the car”.

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