Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Perfectly Good Guitarist

I am not now, and it must be said, I never have been Ipswich’s go-to guitarist when it comes to dep and session work - this, you may be surprised to learn, is in the manner of a massive understatement. Very early in my career I took to heart the mantra that one note played with feeling was worth a hundred rattled off at speed, and the knowledge that I probably couldn’t play a hundred notes in a row at any speed without stopping for a cup of tea and a breather half way through then, and I certainly can’t now, has certainly helped me to maintain this conviction over the course of the years. Drummers, usually the last refuge of the guitarist who has run out of banjo jokes but who still needs a fall guy, have been heard to hum along with solos of mine in real time, not because they are so memorable and catchy, but because they are always the same. It isn’t that I’ve not tried. I could probably quote you chapter and verse from Ralph Denyer’s seminal The Guitar Handbook, although it’d probably be the chapters containing pictures of Jimmy Page wearing a dangerously low-slung Les Paul and some gemstone en-Zoso’ed flares rather than the one explaining the modern diatonic scale and where to locate it on the neck of a serviceable electric. The Guitar Workout for the Interminably Busy* is rarely far from hand, however in terms of graduating from the paperwork to the fret work I remain, like E.L.Wisty’s High Court Judge, tantalizingly short of the Latin.

Phlegmatically, I’ve come to figure that since in any room containing three or more other musicians there’s statistically likely to be someone better than me, one of them may as well get on with the business of taking care of, um, business. Although I might have the ego for the lengthy guitar duel I certainly don’t have the chops, and I’m generally happy to fulfill the gurning for the cameras and keeping an eye out for the ladies part of the on stage equation. Apart from that one time, of course.

Since I was already involved with the raiding party being dispatched to help Ippo’s twin town celebrate France’s national music day (as one seventh of The Perfectly Good Guitars**) I suppose it made sense, when one of the other bands' guitarist pulled out, to ask if I would fill in. After checking twice that they’d got the right phone number I agreed, and then immediately went into the sort of bowel-loosening cold sweat that usually involves the prospect of a hospital appointment or a driving test. The Frisky set itself was a mix of originals from singer Jules’s past, a few things from keyboard player TT’s solo album*** and a couple of covers - one of which, Paul McCartney’s Maybe I’m Amazed, even if not wholly dependent for its success on the guitar solo per se, would certainly be deflated in its impact if I fluffed the whole thing up during my time in the spotlight. There began a series of rather intense CD listening sessions during which I spent an awful lot of time hovering over the pause and rewind buttons, and which also involved a certain degree of deciding to pack away the guitar at the end of an evening and heading off to bed with a mild headache before switching the lights back on and trying to run through the whole set without making a mistake just one more time.

At the single rehearsal we had time for I managed to bluff my way through without persuading anyone else in the group that simply drawing a discreet veil over proceedings and withdrawing gracefully from the engagement would be in the best interests of everybody, and I think I even added an extra part into one of the songs through judicious use of finger-tapping during one of the intros where there had been an atmospheric keyboard overdub on the recorded version. Thus emboldened, I hopped in the van determined to give it my best shot. That the gig itself was reasonably uneventful was cause enough for celebration on my part – no-one fell off the stage, we managed to play all of the songs all the way through without having to stare accusingly at a recalcitrant amplifier in order to cover up momentary brain freeze, and my climactic solo went unremarked, which I was more than happy to accept as validation of its authenticity.

Afterwards we all piled off to the nearest Irish pub where party leader Shev had blagged an impromptu gig for “…beers only for the guys in the band” to celebrate, whereupon he invited so many members of the touring party up in succession, like a jam session Gandalf inveigling Thorin’s dwarves into a Joycean Rivendell, that it would have been cheaper for the bar owner to give free beer to the audience members instead. I was, and remain, profoundly grateful for the faith they showed in me that weekend and, as I often think regarding whatever has befallen or may come between us in the intervening near-decade, we’ll always have Arras.

*It’s a real title.

**It’s fair to say that there was already a fairly generous cross-fertilisation going on between the nominal groups that made the trip. At one point Shev swears he heard one of the promoters exclaim “Eet is the same guitar player - burt zees time ‘e is wearing a ‘at!”

***This received the best review I’ve ever read, from The Blackpool Courier, which concluded "The influences of Rick Wakeman, Tony Banks and Jools Holland can be heard without a trace of plagiarism... Tony's playing deserves credit. More's the pity then that I can't find any tracks on the album that I like"

Here are me, Andy, TT and Frisky Pat reunited some years later, backing Steve ‘Kilbey’ Mears on a version of “Won’t Get Fooled Again”. Unlike during our time in Arras, I stood on my guitar lead half way through this song, hence my nervous glance toward the amplifier before I check all four controls on the guitar and finally wiggle the lead around until it starts making noise again. You don’t really notice because of the tremendous racket the other three are making, which was also of great comfort during some of the trickier sections of Summer in the City in France.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

"This song was number one...

....on the set list earlier, but we changed it"

It’s always interesting to watch a band from the other side of the monitors from a musician’s (or at least band member’s) POV. This week I went to Live At The Institute in Kelvedon, a lovely little monthly club night with no bar and a bring your own policy regarding both food and drink, which means that the turns are blissfully uninterrupted by the rattle of the till and the clank of change on palm during their sets, and that the audience is one prone to listening rather than discussing whose round it is and whether they require salt and vinegar crisps with their pickled egg, although I will say that I momentarily misread the enquiry “Chilli nuts?” from one of our party given that it was minus eight in darkest Essex that night and I’d just been out for a fag.
We were there to watch a band called Moses touring their ten year old The Swimming Zoo album (almost) in its entirety and to marvel at both their song and their stagecraft - both of which were depressingly still on top of their game after a decade of baffling obscurity for this superb collection of singers, musicians and potty-mouthed betwixt song raconteurs. Before that then, the supporting artistes. First up were a four piece acoustic band called One Sixth of Tommy which, before we go any further, I have no hesitation in damning as a terrible name for a group, even given that ours (Songs from The Blue House) is as eminently memorable as that of the band who hit number three in the Billboard chart with Jackie Blue in 1975 by comparison.
Forever the fate of the support act is to go through the middle-aged musician’s filter. How old are they? What are they wearing? Can they play? Can they sing? Do they insist on explaining how they came to write their songs? Who do they sound like? Where can I file them away in in my internal rolodex of genres? And, finally, what are the songs up to? OSoT, as I expect no-one outside their Google Calendar stenographers refer to them, were through all of these hoops like an otter through the country of the two rivers as my jaundiced forty-something eyes took in their schtick, cast about for a suitable pigeonhole in which to place them, and ate some more chilli nuts.
I liked ‘em. At one point they advised that their next song was available as a free download from their website. But that’s not what I want. When I’m in the room, the sound of digital reverb still echoing off the rafters, and wondering if I’ve got time to nip to the toilet before the proprietors have rearranged the onstage furniture for the next act, I want to go to the merch stand, proffer a round sum in currency, and have something in my pocket that I can listen to in the car. Hence today’s tweet - Buying a band's CD at the gig is like leaving a tip, or writing a thank you note. It also means they can afford a Ginster's on the way home. I bought One Sixth of Tommy’s CD because it was shorthand for explaining that I thought they had a lot of promise and I hoped they’d do well, that they wouldn’t split up and go off to separate universities and split the band, and that I really appreciated them coming out to a large village in Essex in the middle of winter for third on the bill expenses, and because I’ve been on the unwilling receiving end of so many post-gig lectures about what I should be doing to further my career in music that I wrote a book about it.
This isn’t so much about my night out. It’s about how a tangible product is always going to be a better calling card than, say, a calling card. How folk faced with a merchandise table and a queue will pay a tenner for an album and get to their next appointment rather than wait around for the person in front to have their one pound and a penny in change counted out (whoever’s manning the table will appreciate it too, incidentally) and how the critical process is generally merely a number of box ticking exercises undertaken by middle-aged men with chilli nuts.
There was one more thing. I hope I managed it.
This is One Sixth of Tommy. www.youtube.com/watch?v=fxFxkCM-4xQ
The Swimming Zoo by Moses is available at CDBaby http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/mosesuk

Thursday, February 02, 2012

"You! Book Sarm West for Tuesday...

...and get me The Ladybirds on the phone!"

Like me, I’m sure you’ve spent many an hour idly wondering how guest musicians end up on each other’s albums – what the process is by which the massive over-extended super-ego of fame is subsumed for long enough to make a meaningful contribution to another’s work, and how they then hold off from suing the recipients for withheld songwriting royalties for as long as most of them do. Most of the time, it’s as easy as just asking. There are a host of guests on the forthcoming Songs from The Blue House album whose session fees (to my knowledge) range from a huffer* and several pints of delicious Brewers Gold to some remedial maintenance work on a laptop (and several pints of Brewers Gold) - yes, Bellowhead fans, it is entirely possible that many of those songs from the bus updates you were enjoying during that last tour would have only been made possible through the diligent application of Our Glorious Leader’s technical knowledge and his ability to turn things off and then turn them on again.

Singers don’t generally mind popping in and donning the headphones of notoriety as long as they get a lift there and back, and in my experience as long as there’s a curry in it you’re pretty much guaranteed a pedal steel player’s best attention for the day. Where banjo players are concerned you mainly need to have the civility to hold off on the jokes for as long as they’re within earshot or they do tend to get quite defensive and you have to let them sit in the engineer’s big swivel chair and swing themselves around for a bit until they’ve forgotten whatever perceived slight they were cross about**. I once did some recording where I wanted an old colleague to contribute some backing vocals and, thanks to the online archive that is http://www.james.partridge.com/ I was able to re-read our correspondence regarding the matter.

"My Drearest Rossquo,
The offer to contribute to what I'm confident will be a millstone in pop history is completely genuine. You should temper your excitement though, as I let you in on its chequered history so far...
Having decided that with the imminent retirement of Clive Davis from Arista it was unlikely that 'The new Whitney Houston' (as I had been billing myself) was going to be signed this side of the next millennium - yes, the next one - I wandered round to Gibbon's house one evening and recorded half a dozen songs that I'd made up out of my very own brain using an acoustical guitar and a voice out of my very own head.
The idea was that Gibbon would then take these and overlay some keyboards of such exquisite beauty that grown men would weep, and bass guitar parts such that women would in all likelihood offer us their first born to use as fridge ornaments (or as we preferred) upon hearing them. I started to get very excited. Then Gibbon decided to do it properly; and digitally. As it turned out, I had time to go back and redo a couple of songs, then record a couple more, then get married, go on honeymoon and have a lodger move in and then out of the house in the time it took Gib to do his bits. There were dark rumours of Cubase-sequencing-to-hard-drive-and-beat-realignment-download problems. There seemed to be an awful lot of manual reading going on. One night he stayed up til half past four in the morning sequencing a particularly bass part (and made himself quite ill the next day). Finally, some four months after the first deadline I had given he announced that we were ready to do some overdubs-hence Sunday's thrill of confusion/space cadet glow interface scenario.
This will involve a couple of guitar solos (one major, one minor - i.e. the same one only three frets up), Helen doing some flutework (it's a sort of decorative trellis used to disguise chimney sores) and some singing. Either come down for the day and lob constructive comments at the engineer (Gib should probably have connected his output port to his infile flange by about, ooh, Tuesday at the rate he's been working) or park yourself in the pub and we'll issue mobile phone calls when your specialised subject comes up. Don't ask me what it sounds like because I haven't heard anything since about March, and that was some rubbish keyboard drums we'd put in as a click track.
I'll put you down for some BVs, (no chance you've still got a mandolin I suppose - we've done a song that's crying out for it) and there'll be an acoustic kicking about in case you get inspired (bear in mind we've only got a day, so don't get too inspired) and it's all very laissez faire around the album (if you can hear it in your head, let's put it on the track). Plus, if you play on the album you can go and look yourself up on the website, which always impresses the ladies. Then when we've all got thoroughly pissed off at losing that vital middle eight due to bastard technology we can all go to the pub and play 'Mustang Sally' at the acoustic jam. There'll be a bass there, incidentally.
What time are you coming?
Love, Shane xx

His reply read;

All sounds fun to me, though I will have to go back on my previous musings that we "shan't work together again". I would be delighted to utterly destroy your hopes of producing anything sounding remotely usable, with backing vocals that once led a female Cornish Minstrel to dub them "interesting Jazz harmonies".
Yours in loud love, B.H. Emoth

Incidentally, you’ll be pleased to hear that the resulting CD was favourably reviewed locally, as the following testimonials attest;

Great songs from a well established local muso who's not afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve - BBC Radio Suffolk's Stephen Foster writing in The Grapevine
One of the finest purveyors of wry, acerbic pop....Songs that are imbued with pathos and humour.....A gifted wordsmith with a wonderful turn of phrase....-East Anglian Daily Times
Will inspire those who have lost enthusiasm to pick up their forgotten instruments - Ipswich Evening Star
He's a great musician Dad, but he can't sing, can he ? - Emily Broadley
* http://www.compasseslittleygreen.co.uk/Compassess%20Website%20food.html
** It usually involves reference to a skip somewhere in the equation.