Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Following in Sheeran's Footsteps

Music in the Park, as we veteran Suffolk fans still call it (despite the relatively recent abrogation of the term in favour of Ipswich Music Day's absorption into the new, exciting - and presumably grant-laden – Ip-Art Festival) kicked off in 1991 as part of a national celebration of music with a show from local band The Caution Horses, probably performing on the very spot in Christchurch Park where frontman Andy “Andy’s Ball!” Heasman used to play footy with a varied collection of us Ippo musicians and other assorted ne’er-do-wells on Sunday afternoons in the post-Italia ’90 surge in gentrification of the beautiful game. It certainly looks like the same area from the photos I’ve seen of great white hopefuls and recently reformed country rockers Buffalo Road who appear to have performed on a couple of wooden pallets serving as a stage and with a borrowed home hi fi shipped in as an afterthought for amplification purposes.
Unlike the rest of the country we in Suffolk persevered with the form in 1992, and the year after, and then the year after that, until the festival became a major fixture in the East Anglian cultural calendar. Last year’s attendance was estimated at over 40,000 people, who were entertained by a veritable smorgasbord of bands on over half a dozen bespoke girder and lighting rig-composed stages, a far cry from the Venue for Ipswich Campaign-inspired trailer upon which I had the good fortune to be able to perform a lengthy extemporisation upon The Buzzcocks’ “Why Can’t I Touch It?” with As Is, one of several appearances I’ve put in over the years*. With God’s Kitchen I tried to follow The Dawn Parade’s feather boa-heavy performance of Brit glam pop. On Star Club duties I loaded the gear straight off the stage into a van so that we could re-set up at The Milestone just at the bottom of Woodbridge Road and carry on where we’d left off, in The Picturehouse Big Band we inspired a frugging teenage moshpit frenzy (I know, at our ages), The Perfectly Good Guitars’ cod-American hillbilly accents so incensed one punter that he stomped, not just away from our stage, but all the way out of the park and off to the pub, and under my own name one year I even compered the early Singer-Songwriter session on the BBC stage.
Throughout all of this I have gleaned a modicum (a quantum, one might say) of experience about what goes on in terms of the organisation and the logistical effort involved. Firstly, since no-one gets paid and everyone volunteers, the bands themselves tend to be on the receiving end of the old saw that some people know the cost of everything and the value of nothing. I have had stage managers order us off on the dot of the scheduled closing time, mid-song (even though it was them who had spent twenty minutes trying to work out which of their shoddily-maintained cables was at fault before we could start), I’ve had soundmen give me the thumbs-up and bid me start playing while I was still holding an unplugged guitar lead forlornly toward them, I’ve had stage monitors so distorted and badly-mixed that we’ve asked them to be turned off rather than try and fight against them, and I’ve hauled a fifty watt amplifier half way across the biggest park in town by hand because of an unfortunate arse/elbow interface which meant that I’d already lapped the circumference of the grounds by road three times looking for someone who may have actually attended a steward’s briefing before putting on his orange fluorescent jacket. The requested detailed stage plan and DI box diagrams we sent weeks in advance to bestay some of these issues may as well have been blueprints for the directions to Neverland. Once Songs from The Blue House invited the twenty hardy souls who’d stayed to watch us in the pouring rain into the backstage tent where they could at least have a cup of tea in the dry and suggested that we might play acoustically, only for them to be chased out again by an over zealous FOH manager. Throughout this, the audience experience has been almost universally positive so, y’know, it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of the vocal mix in the foldback occasionally being a little too heavy on the reverb doesn’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. At least I’ve never been phoned at three in the morning by a stage hire company to be told they’re not coming in the morning after all, as happened to BBC Radio Suffolk’s Stephen Foster one year. 
Applications for the 2013 event are now open, and our local media advises that performers successfully applying to be included in the line up could forseeably follow in the footsteps of Ed Sheeran (tempting, however in my case I’d probably have to take much shorter strides in order to do so) although to be honest you only have to walk out of your front door in Suffolk to be following in Ed Sheeran’s footsteps – the oft-repeated dig that you could find any number of similarly talented young singer-songwriters at open mic nights the length and breadth of the country simply by throwing a stick may well be true but you’d have to go a long way to find many as willing to get off their fat behinds and put in the hard yards that Sheeran has, which may well be what’s made the difference betwixt his career trajectory and mine. I imagine that the organising committee are hoping to garner some of the cachet that having hosted the The A-Team hitmaker at a previous Music Day brings. Similarly, last year The Maverick Festival put up some footage of Ed Sheeran performing at their song writing competition slot the previous Summer (he came third).  
I have submitted an online application this year on behalf of Theodore, the band that Mr. Wendell and I performed with a couple of times last year with Mr. Mickey Trenter, late of Lovejunk and currently of Ippo punk veterans Red Flag 77 on bass and with Mike Summers from the self-same 1991 Music Day performers Buffalo Road on drums. A far cry from the early days of when simply knowing who to know was a passport to inclusion, the entry criteria has tightened up considerably to the point where cassettes - even CDs - are surplus to application requirements. To get in these days you need three songs on Soundcloud and your own website. We don’t actually have the latter, but I did include this blog in one of the required fields and so if you’re still reading, designated committee member, we’d love to play, we really would, notwithstanding all that stuff about the organisation in past years I mentioned earlier. I imagine the usual amount of negotiation will go on in camera in respect of who gets to play where – one year when I performed our drummer was also depping for three other bands, which involved a considerable amount of horse trading involving stage set ups and start times among all of us. There is an oft-repeated mantra regarding the criteria affecting the selection of bands and the constancy of the playing field regarding their chances of appearing which anyone who has ever had dealings with the workings of the committee knows to be aspirational at best, and so with that in mind may I be permitted to commend our application to the house and I'd like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves, and I hope we passed the audition.
*Having subsequently checked the invaluable online resource provided by James Partridge regarding As Is chronology, I see that this wasn't actually an Ipswich Music Day performance, nevertheless, it was in the park.

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