Thursday, January 08, 2009

Well, this is a surprise - I’d never have guessed.

My friend James runs a monthly showcase night in darkest Essex called ‘Live at The Institute’ – not, as it may appear to the casual observer, an entreaty to move in to some sort of charity dosshouse, but an attempt to give a stage and an audience to a few artists he and his co-host Tony like and admire, and of course vice-versa, in that they’re giving (well, ‘selling’ to be strictly accurate) the good people of Kelvedon some quality entertainment that the village wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity of experiencing. Of course things can go wrong, which is why I found myself trying to come up with one good reason why I should step in to help when one of their featured artistes cried off ill in the week leading up to this month’s extravaganza. And when I say “trying to come up with one good reason” I mean exactly that – I was trying to persuade James that I was the ideal replacement, stand-in, or what have you, and he’d asked me if I could come up with one good reason why he should book me. If nothing else, he is determined to avoid the hollow sucking sound of his principles disappearing into the slavering maw of nepotism when it comes to doling out appearances for his friends, I’ll give him that.

Once I’d managed to convince him that I was indeed probably able to not actually physically repel his audience for half an hour while not tripping over the furniture, I looked toward putting together a set list consisting of a dramatic retrospective wade through nearly thirty glorious years of tunesmithery and the sort of pithy, incisive lyrical flourishes that have rightly earned me the epithet “That bloke who rhymed ‘phospherescence’ with ‘adolesence’” in certain hushedly awed songwriting circles. You can have a circle with two people in it, right? What it came down to, of course, was coming up with half a dozen songs I could remember the words to all the way through and which when combined in the same program didn’t actually serve simply to remind people how few chords there actually really are in pop music. Oh, and they had to be performable on a single guitar. I decided to go back to my roots and, eschewing the acoustic guitar as a foppish affectation, grabbed the Telecaster and prepared to channel the spirit of Billy Bragg once more, even given that dear Billy is actually still with us and probably doesn’t take to the idea of being channelled by anyone all that kindly.

The last couple of solo appearances I’ve made have been short two or three song hops at Suffolk Songwriter’s Night in Ipswich, where the reassuring familiarity of the surroundings and the relaxing effects of Guinness have combined to both make the experience easier and have my name annotated in the official club records as “Put on early – likes a drink”, however ‘Live at The Institute’ involves playing to a paying audience who are expecting a certain level of competency, or at least to be distracted from their olives and hoummous (it’s a bring-your-own refreshments gaff) at least once during a set. With this in mind I turn to my back pages, when I wrote sadly and shockedly about pain, depression, heartbreak, misery, and listening to my friend Geoff Lawrence’s band on cassette while sailing (hey, the nineties weren’t all bad!). I think it was Geoff pulling out of the gig that made me think of it – that and the oft-repeated claim that my miserable period produced my best work – I think that’s a mere coincidence, it just so happens I was miserable for a much longer period and so, proportionally, that was bound to produce more stuff. I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now. Once the set is decided on, after much thoughtful consideration, crossing out, underlining and scribbling under, I’m ready for a run-through. Headphones on, guitar plugged into effects rack to simulate the sound of a small theatre just off the A12 and I’m away. Whoops, a couple of missed chords there, a repeated verse, a fluffed change, best to get it all out of the way now though. Twenty seven minutes. That’s too long for a half hour set once you build in the applause (I’m nothing if not an optimist these days) and the ‘tween song banter. What’s to go though? I could probably lose that one, but then the flow’s uneven. And that one’s a bit long, but it has got the best chorus. I realize that I’ve been hearing all the past drum parts, harmonies and bass riffs that have ever been added to these thing in my head, that they won’t be there on the night, and also that I have been singing along in the kitchen with headphones on in a ghastly mid-nineties Walkman-like manner. Pity the neighbours. More trimming, editing, rearranging and moving, and another run through. That’s better – twenty four minutes even. Should I drop out the cover, or is that more likely to pep up a flat spot in the set? Can I still reach that bit in the chorus or should I just drop the whole thing down a semitone?

All these things to consider and no-one to bounce ideas off. Now I remember why I formed a band in the first place.

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