Monday, June 08, 2009

In my line of work, it’s not all bouquets, awards ceremonies and eating sushi backstage off the bodies of naked supermodels.

Oh no – occasionally I like to give a little something in return, to put back into the business of show a little something to repay the debt I have for nearly a lifetime of brickbats, pay-to-play band competitions and eating Ginsters pasties at service stations at two in the morning. And so it was that I found myself calling in at bandmates’ houses early on a Sunday morning in order to round up various bits of P.A. equipment and stowing them carefully next to my handy stagehand’s survival kit – spare strings, leads, capo, marker pen, guitar strap, stand, and a tool for getting the pegs out of acoustic guitars so that you can swiftly restring them, with an additional attachment in case any passing horse should become unfit for purpose due to a stone finding ingress to its hoof. Also a spare shirt, trousers with plenty of convenient pockets, a waterproof jacket, sturdy boots, a bottle of water, a copy of The Sunday Times and a chocolate Boost bar for the soundman for I - keeping it real and giving back to the kids - was due my day in the sun as stage manager (or “My stage bitch” as James the Soundman rather unkindly put it) for a small one day festival upon the town recreation ground where no less a turn than Pink Floyd had previously strutted their stuff in the heady days of the sixties, just before they broke into the pop charts and very shortly before (I imagine) firing their booking agent.
We were running the acoustic tent. It was going to be an acoustic stage, but then what with the weather being foul and forecast fouler we reasoned that being under cover for the duration might be a pretty good idea and so what had served merely as last year’s stage area was transformed into this year’s intimate and bijou acoustic marquee, the running order of which was to be kicked off with an hour showcasing young talent from the Amplitude project, a scheme whereby the keen and the curious can be mentored, encouraged, given opportunities to perform and such like. We could see them gathered under canvas by their dedicated stage a few hundred yards away, no-one seeming overly keen to brave the hair gel-sapping force of the drizzle for long enough to get to our place and perform until, stately as a galleon, a Goth in full trenchcoat, corset and long skirt regalia loomed over the horizon. Say what you like about Goth wear, but PVC is absolutely perfect for inclement weather. Upon enquiry as to the lack of music emanating from our stage James pointed out to the organiser that if the talent wasn’t prepared to walk eight hundred yards across a playing field to perform there really wasn’t a lot that he could do about it. Meanwhile we consoled ourselves regarding the lack of rising young talent keen on storming the barricades with complimentary cups of tea from the next attraction along – the Salvation Army ‘Rapid Response Vehicle’. In our excitement we almost missed the delivery of our own dedicated portaloo.
Chivvied along by the organisers, a few minutes later we had a respectable number of asymmetrically fringed youngsters milling around, and it was merely a matter of finding out who wanted to go on first.”What is this?” enquired one gamine young thing on behalf of her group “Is it some sort of practice?” We assured her that we were more than happy to provide a stage, a P.A. system, microphones and even guitar leads (one blue, one green so we can tell which channel they’re going into even from way back by the sound desk – a good fifteen yards in my estimation) but it was really rather incumbent on them to actually get up and play something. “Right” she considered “Because we haven’t really practiced”. We rather revised our requirement to ‘some people who not only wanted to play, but had learned some songs in advance’. A couple of young tyros stood up to the challenge and got on with their work. They had a bass, a guitar, a set list executed in exquisite calligraphy and a number of lengthy songs which went through a bewildering number of time changes, and stops, to the point where I couldn’t quite work out from my position at side stage whether we’d moved on from one number to the next or whether we were just in the middle of a complex instrumental section. Still, they gave it a bash, which is the important thing. Next up were a group who wondered if they could do two songs and then come back and do a couple more later when their other singer turned up. I reflected on the very first pub gig I managed to wangle, the course of getting which involved the landlord making us turn up and audition or, as it turned out, run through our set about four times, in his cellar until he found time to pop his head round the door, shake his head sadly and tell us that we were awful but could play anyway. I’m still not sure whether he did this on the grounds that anyone who gave up after the first three hours didn’t deserve a gig or that as a jazz buff he really couldn’t bring himself to sit through more than twenty seconds of our version of ‘Heartache Tonight’ and having heard the first run through from his vantage point in the bar above, had taken the rest of the evening to steel himself with a few stiff ones to see if we got any better. What we certainly didn’t do was turn up and ask if we could, like, do a couple of numbers a bit later on when our singer turned up, as in the mean time she’d gone to the bakery. Well, you know how it is when it’s a choice between the once annual festival gig and a nice Chelsea bun. It may have been about this point that I started muttering something about “kids today” but fortunately I was distracted by the arrival of the first ‘proper’ act on the itinerary, or rather her mother’s dog, who was taking a crap in the middle of the tent.
The dog was very much a feature of the next half hour or so, being tethered to the sound desk while Mum mixed the sound until she (the mother, not the dachsund) relinquished control of the desk back into the care of Soundman James for long enough to march onstage (taking the dog with her) to add a haunting wordless Gaelic keen to one instrumental number and then return to her post to oversee the end of the set, which came slightly earlier than expected as, having been given a thirty minute slot, the talent had only brought twenty minutes of material and so ended up looking hopefully over at the desk for further instructions. Onstage as she played the first song again James surreptitiously noted the excellent reverb setting her mother had worked out. You’re never too old to learn. Over at the Amplitude arena, the crowd swelled ominously in numbers, all black t-shirts, studded belts, and concealed blue WKD. It was like being caught at the county’s biggest bus stop. I nipped over to the burger stand to procure sustenance for the crew (“Do you want some money?”, “Don’t worry – I’ll get a receipt!”) as a four piece whose combined age wouldn’t have added up to any more than mine were running through an irony-free Teenage Kicks, and the crowd was going wild. I returned to the quiet sanctuary of our little house on the playing field. Here singer-songwriter-guitarist Kevin Pearce executed an amazing set full of open chords and octave-defying vocals – I actually bought his CD off the back of it (and so I’d be able to throw out the Lily Allen album I’d very stupidly put in the car to listen to on the way to the show), The Proposition were fun and good-timey in a rollicking folk-country-blues sort of way, and The White Gospel played a hypnotic set which managed to combine the vocal stylings of Radiohead with a flat back four to the floor soul beat and choppy licks, which is certainly a phrase I never thought I’d see myself (or anyone else) writing. As their set drew to a close they thanked us (“Hey – sound guy, some people we know, bloke in a cool t-shirt, man with a dog – you’ve been great!”) and the rain, again, came down. Yards away, some passing kids aimed kicks at our precious mobile toilet facility. "Oi", I shouted, "Don't fuck with my shitter!" In my line of work, it’s not all bouquets, awards ceremonies and eating sushi backstage off the bodies of naked supermodels.

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