Saturday, January 26, 2008

"I wrote some new songs,I thought I'd play 'em. I didn't know what else to do with them"

We have been writing songs at The Blue House (hence the catchy name of the band) collectively and individually - some scraps of riffage and chordwork, and bouncing lyrics and tone poems back and forth across the ether and Our Glorious Leader has even got as far as committing some of them to hard drive. Some of them have been composed during car journeys with the demos on the CD player ("How did people write lyrics before cars were invented?" muses The Fragrant and Charming La Mulley, our resident chanteuse. "They wrote them in tandem with each other" I reply pithily). Some of them are quite good - I'm particulary impressed with the work OGL has undertaken in wrangling one particular set of mine onto a tune by guest piano-botherer TT, a reflection on a trip I took to New York - everybody should have a New York song I reckon - I think it is lyrically sourced in a melange of The Eagles' "Whatever Happened To Saturday Night" and Boo Hewerdine's "World's End", TT reckons it reminds him of Ralph McTell. Hmmmm... So when we are contacted by our friends at The High Barn in Great Bardfield with the offer of a half hour acoustic set in three days time it seems obvious in SftBH terms that we should use the occasion to road test the new material, notwithstanding the fact that High Barn Records are also our label and we have an album to promote. Faint heart never won Radio Two airplay and all that.
We gather in the control room at the studio adjacent to the venue, Me, La Mulley and TT and look expectantly at the rather shaky figure of OGL. He was up until half three finishing off the vocal on one of our more recent creations and is currently a bit short on sleep, food and, by most reckoning, vital life signs. He's also pretty much the only one that can remember how the songs go all the way through, and we're on in two hours. What could be simpler? We work on our parts together, TT manfully arpreggiating at the piano, me capo'd at the second fret to make things easier because they all seem to be in E and La Mulley nervously adding some harmonies to things that seemed so much easier to sing along with in the car. It's all coming together, mind, and we smile affably at the other acts as they pass the control room window being shepherded to the stage by our friend and sound engineer Simon, who isn't entirely convinced by the claim that we don't actually know any of the stuff that we're due to play, at least until the fourth time he's performed this operation and his cheery thumbs ups have turned to slightly worried frowns - he was there for the soundcheck, or 'first run through' as we called it. Finally we decide that there's no more to be gained from further repetiton and retire to the venue's bar for refreshing Brewers Gold and brave-face-on-it smiles, not least at our record company boss, who can't quite believe it either.
Showtime for the indiscreet, and standing on the stage OGL confesses himself to be "shitting it", which is not entirely reassuring for either us or the audience, who are similarly not relaxed by my joke involving mishearing my wife saying she wished I had "..an amazing pianist", still, it's the one thing I actually have rehearsed in the short time between hearing about the gig and doing it, and so I'm determined to use it, as it were. And so off we go. It's a wonderful thing when the synchronicity 'tween audience and performer(s) seems to be just right. We introduce a song by explaining that OGL and TT are both fans of The Who, although of different albums, and so we are going to perform a song which creates the bridge between Quadrophenia and Who's Next , and do you know, it very nearly does, even given that neither of those albums is necessarily noted for featuring a bodhran-style hammering on an acoustic guitar (open-tuned to 'C' for the occasion) or an unnecessarily Neil Young-style backing vocal, both courtesy of yrs truly - the lyric for the BV is only six words long, and I still had to write it down... The default solo in Falling, a standard run up and down the scale (imagine George Harrison on an off day) followed by some ambitious finger-tapping which had TT in hysterics a few minutes ago actually works in context, and by the time we get to the last song in the set we're pretty confident that we're about to have pulled it off, and so we hammer on. There has been a discussion in the car on the way to the gig about what the lyrics to this last one are actually about, and La Mulley has been surprised to find that OGL has stumbled upon the real heart and soul of the song lurking soft and hidden, unsuspected beneath the still waters of the typewritten word. I won't tell you what it's about - you may, one day, have the opportunity to work a meaning out for yourself, and in the best traditions of songs that do things, it'll make it's home in whatever dark drawer of your mind that it chooses to, but for us it is still new, it's still finding it's way and as the climax of the song comes shooting through the veins of the chords our singer is briefly overcome, and the words tumble out in a torrent of raw emotion, like a crystal moment of grief and pain and loss, and a bewildered hatred of things that he just can't understand. Well, that's the way I heard it. You can't buy it, its not for sale.

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”.

Friday, January 11, 2008

“Busy Doing Nothing, Working The Whole Day Through…”

To the Barry Bunker! The new wave of British pub bandery takes a new twist as the Picturehouse talent, or at least the stringed aspect of the team, convene in darkest Essex to run through a few new things with which to replace the departing Bass Player’s repertoire of plunks, twangs and squeezes. Having slimmed down from an expansive four-vocaled five piece whose mission statement was to play the things that you’d forgotten you liked to the more regular three-up-front-one-at-the-back formation favoured by so many of our contemporaries, it does feel rather as though we’ve abandoned the Dutch free-flowing total football style we were previously employing in order to adopt the meat n’ potatoes work ethic of the sort likely to be managed by Sam Allardyce. Not that there’s anything intrinsically wrong with that you understand (unless you’re a Newcastle fan, or chairman, or both), it’s just that there’s a lot of it about. However, needs must, and so we are gathered in front of a PC, with two people plugged into it via a DI box, listening to tracks on MP3, downloading lyrics, burning CDs and streaming audio. I, rather anachronistically, am sitting at the table with an acoustic guitar, a pad of scrap paper and a thick-nibbed marker pen. It’s a mighty long way from that pleasant domestic scene portrayed on those early Fairport Convention albums, with the band all gathered round the table having breakfast together, presumably before leafing through some scrolls liberated from Cecil Sharp House in a leisurely fashion, working out a bass riff in the living room and then breaking off for a quick kick about before tea; It sounds heavenly, but this ain’t the garden of Eden, things ain’t like they used to be, and this ain’t the summer of love.
On the way down I have been privileged enough to hear the songs that Guitarist Barry, Now-Bassist Kilbey and AWOL singer Wendell have been working on in their own time – a lovely mélange of CSN harmonies, reverberating guitars and sampled strings which sounds a lot more like it’s benefited from the kitchen table treatment, even if Barry’s production relies slightly more on the implied threat of the appearance of the kitchen sink. It’s seriously quite lovely and never more so than during a number entitled ‘Turquoise Blue’, wherein the embarrassment of relaying the decade-old lyric is overcome by the simple expedient of translating it into French and getting a teenaged girl to whisper it only barely just above the wash of the backing track. It makes the sound of phosphorescence on a tranquil sea lapping gently at a sandy beach in the moonlight. Put it this way, it’s no “I Wanna Rock n’ Roll All Nite”.
Back at the ranch, exciting news regarding the partially dormant gods kitchen (missing believed retired by some, a mere whisper of a rumour of a legend to others and used principally to frighten youngsters into concentrating hard during guitar lessons let they too be drafted into our ranks) This is yet another excursion into uncharted territory in that it’s a band playing original songs (mine) in a style which comes back into fashion around every four or five years or so, and since it’s been a good year and a half since we’ve trod the boards, I’ve rustled up a couple of gigs for this year just so we can get our ticket stamped and carry on our membership of the ‘we exist as a band, we do’ club, which we’re now into our fourteenth, or fifteenth or somesuch year of doing, cruising comfortably along below the radar of popular indifference, which in a town like Ipswich isn’t half as tricky as some people make out. I fondly remember the small ad I put in the paper when I was putting the band together – “musicians required, into baggy shirts and A minor”. It’d get you put away these days. However, I digress - when Ken Stringfellow toured as part of REM and then hung on to do a few extra dates with The Posies to which a dozen or so punters turned up (they did at the Norwich gig at least – and I would know…brrr it was draughty in the venue that night) I knew exactly how he felt. Only scaled down – we aspire to a dozen followers these days, but I very much fear that in the same way that video was alleged to have killed the radio star at one point, the DVD boxed set has pretty much put paid to the chances of our target audience making their way down to The Steamboat on a cool Thursday evening. So naturally I’ve asked two other bands to do it as well, just to keep the numbers up. Needs must.
And finally to the last round in this game of musical chores and in my capacity of Chief Foil for Our Glorious Leader, I am due to call Our Beloved Record Company on behalf of Songs from The Blue House to check up the details on our forthcoming download single. From doubling the riff on Girls Aloud’s “”Love Machine” on an acoustic guitar in someone’s kitchen to chasing up Suzie from the office about the possibility of doing some festivals on the back of our radio sessions to promote “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” in one short day, and to that from learning the b-side to “My Ding-a-Ling” on a four stringed nylon-strung guitar, in a mere quarter of a century? Huh, kids today. They don’t even know what a transit van is.