Sunday, July 27, 2014

"Who brings dental floss to a festival!? Um...can I have some..?"

I am, for my sins, a member of the PRS. They’re those annoying people who put stickers on the door of your hairdresser’s or your local artisan-curated coffee shop stating that the music played within will be properly attributed toward the account of whoever you’re listening to while you have your roots retuned, or your decaf skinny mocha frothed and served in a cup with your name on. That’s them. Last year they deposited £3.64 in my account with regard to my work on various works of interest, which at least paid for a latte. In truth, Paul McCartney gets most of it. That’s what writing ‘Yesterday’ gets you.

This weekend I played two engagements with my friend Tony James Shevlin - one at the Felixstowe Carnival and another at The Secret Garden Party. At the first we set up early and, in the way that gig-scarred veterans are prone to then retired to the pub to discuss old war stories. Gibbon related the first gig that he ever did, which climaxed with the guy from upstairs taking exception to the performance going on below and attempting to come to some sort of agreement regarding how it should proceed by laying about all and sundry with a baseball bat. Shev looked around the bar we were in and recalled dark evenings of watching folk getting slowly sozzled. One more chorus of ‘American Pie’. Gib reflected on the parade which passed our temporary home. “The brass band” he recalled fondly – “A bunch of bikers threw fifty pence pieces at us”.

Dirk the Drummer told a story about a student of percussion of his who had claimed that he wouldn’t need to know how to set up a set of drums. “I’ll just use the house kit” he said. We looked around us. If there’s a pub out there who actually has a house kit, we’d love to hear from you.

Today I played at The Secret Garden Party, which as far as I can ascertain seems to be a weekend-long excuse to get as fucked up as possible and dance all night, so the opening slot in The Living Room (anomalous sample menu, pot of tea and two crumpets - £4.50) on a Sunday afternoon would suggest that we were not about to experience any combination of the above approaches. As it happened, we had a lovely time – having had to validate your invitation online, check in with a PIN and provide license-quality ID notwithstanding. We nearly lost Jules at that point.

Once entrenched, the splendidly be-bearded stage manager loomed toward me asking about my monitoring requirements, and then provided them with a stroke of his iPad – no “One two…one two….bit more acoustic in the wedges” for him. We played what could reasonably be described as ‘the hangover slot’. Behind the stage walls, years of signatures paid tribute to the countless bands that had gone before us. A grateful Ed Sheeran had scribed in sharpie. “He was great, Little Ed” said the stage manager. “Came back and did a secret gig for us when he was big”.

We got the “Five minutes” warning through the monitors. Three minutes later, through the power of mime, Shev asked if we could do one more. “Short?” came back the universal sign language of the crew who have a long day ahead of them and don’t want to start their working day running over time after the first turn. We cut it short. We ensured we thanked the crew, we were grateful for our pot of full English tea, scones, cream and jam afterwards. Jules may even have sprayed the portaloo with Tramp. Or whatever it is she wears. A girl approaches us with a clipboard. “I need to know what songs you played” she says. “I’m from the PRS”.          

Friday, July 25, 2014


To Coggeshall, where the annual cricket and beer festival demands to be entertained on its traditional Thursday droop as the good folk of Essex recover from the Wednesday quiz and look forward to the Friday night live band. La Mulley has assembled a crack squad of top-flight session musicians (or Myself, Mr Wendell and Ant Ragged) by the simple expedient of opening up her address book and texting the first three random names her dialling finger falls upon, and after some earnest discussion and cross-functional market analysis we have assembled a lovingly curated set of numbers based on our shared musical chronology and (crucially) things with not so many chords to remember.
Rehearsals have been entertained – at one, held in The Snug at The Blue House, The-Artist-Formerly-Known-as-Our-Glorious-Leader (having been ejected from his office for the evening) thoughtfully sends a capitalised document of encouragement to the printer – and we are reasonably sure that our mix of jaunty self-penned fauxgrass and re-imagined pop hits will, if not cement, then certainly temporarily gaffa tape our position in the acoustic pop pantheon.

No little proportion of our practise time has been given over to set pacing, vocal arrangements, capo placing and relative dimensions in time and keys however much of it, admittedly, devoted to discussing the post-fame rehabilitation of the PG Tips chimps (upon hearing that one of the leads is now forty two Ant enquires solicitously if she is “…still hot” and “…has had any work done?”), upon which fonts are acceptable in a post-glyph desktop design landscape, and whether it is ever appropriate for a gentleman to sport Speedos in a family leisure pool. My inherent uncertainty regarding the difference between a font and a typeface remains unexpressed in such blistering company, however I'm pretty certain on my position regarding budgie smugglers. At one point this is our considered nom-de-musé, however upon hearing the howling response to Mr Wendell’s haunting melodica playing we are inspired to settle upon an alternate moniker for the collective. We are The Neighbourhood Dogs.
Taking the stage at nigh-on ten o’clock after a day’s cricket and its attendant refreshment possibilities may be seen as a challenge to some, especially having to follow a rousing marquee-wide singalong of The House of The Rising Sun from the prior turn but the team rise admirably to the challenge with only passing reference to various bits of paper scattered at our feet – Mr Wendell wisely sits for most of the set to make it less obvious that he is squinting at chord sequences, ascending majestically to his feet in time for his flawless rive gauche melodica recital. La Mulley emotes in her signature style (and wedges), Ant slips between double bass, vocal harmonies and heroic levels of Yakima Gold consumption and even former SftBH banjo-slinger Turny Winn chips in with a couple of prime examples of our banjo-as-fried-egg analogy (in that if you pop one sunny side up on top of almost any foodstuff it almost always improves the dish - thus it is invariably so with the banjo in popular song).

We encore with an unscheduled three chord thrash through North of Nowhere, which leads to an impromptu Breaux & Wood-esque routine being performed before us to the delight of the assembled Sunnydonians. “Thanks to the umbrella lady!” cries Mr Wendell at the conclusion of the set. A voice from the audience responds witheringly “It’s a parasol. You dick”.    


Wednesday, July 09, 2014

“Not my circus, not my monkeys…”

You can see how it happens. You’re cooped up in a van or a car or - if you’re really lucky - a bus for hours at a time, and when you finally emerge blinking and yawning at your destination there’s some guy with a clipboard who wants to know if you can drop ten minutes off your set since they’re running “…a bit over”. That’s not your fault – you showed up early, you’ve got your own DI box all ready and you’ve even remembered to put on a clean shirt. What’s this guy’s problem? That’s the third time in a week… It’s no surprise that by the end of (say) three weeks on tour, the barricades are manned, the drawbridge is up and the metaphors are flying thick and fast.
For those of us who have taken a glimpse beneath the gilded cage’s security blanket it is obvious that the vicissitudes of a life on the open* road might well drive anybody to distraction - not every singer would respond to the news that no-one in the immediate vicinity has any idea how the (tech spec-promised) guitar amplifier operates with the grace under pressure demonstrated by Marty O’Reilly in The Barn at Maverick this year, who simply hoofed it back to the car park and borrowed one off The Rainbow Girls (they were a hoot and a delight last year, by the way). If you ask a random sample of stage managers what their favourite thing about the band they’ve just had on at their festival was - the music or the lyrics - they are more than likely to answer “their punctuality”. No wonder people employ tour managers. That way you can have someone else remark upon the poor quality of the piano you’ve been given without you having to get involved yourself.** Essentially, the stage manager/artist/tour manager interface runs very much along the lines of that of the late Johns Peel and Walters, whose relationship the lugubrious DJ and National Treasure once described as being “…like a man and his dog, each imagining the other to be the dog.”

So, in between assembling a forty-six piece gazebo from scratch with no instructions (then screwing it to the wall so it didn’t blow away), vacuuming the stage, disposing of untold bottles of half-drunk complimentary water, finding Mick the Electrician to install a lamp backstage (“I’ll be there before it gets dark…”), continually asking people to kindly move their camping chairs out of the way of the main thoroughfare and making subtle winding up gestures to folk who were far more entitled to be on the stage than I was - let’s face it, no-one’s ever spent fifty quid to watch a guy in board shorts make an announcement about the dog in the car park - I was lucky enough to spend time with some very good company, all of whose music I greatly enjoyed, many of whom I announced in terms which clearly left them wondering whether there was someone else due on stage rather than them, and some of whom I salute here;
Sam Lewis was charm personified and greeted my standard artiste enquiry (“Would you like an introduction and how’s your time keeping?”) with an expression of glee that I hardly think it warranted, even at that early stage in proceedings. “Hell yeah” he enthused. “Make sump’n up - tell ‘em I’m the world’s tallest man!” He apologised for having to rush off to do a session for the BBC straight after the show and entrusted his complimentary meal voucher to me to pass on to some worthy or needy soul, which was lucky, because I hadn’t had the opportunity to get mine at this point. So, thanks for the ham and chutney bap, Sam.

Hannah Aldridge was very tall (we underestimated the mic stand extension both times she appeared for us) and so impossibly glamorous that we offered to line check her guitar for her so that she could make a big entrance on the first night. She played again on the Saturday and very politely asked if I would “…do that thing again?” Never one to turn down an opportunity to show off, I played the intro to The Who’s Substitute. “I know her Daddy” said Mary Gauthier later “fine songwriter”. It clearly runs in the family.
“You’re going to have to hurry us up” said Tim-out-of-Police Dog Hogan when we were getting close to kick off. “He’ll go on forever if you let him” he added, nodding over at the other Tim on the far side of the stage. For a seven (or was it eight?) piece band they set up darned quickly, with a minimum of fuss about who can hear what in the monitors (but then Rob on FOH did a sterling job all weekend getting mixes together quickly) and were one of the bands who occupied themselves by simply running through a few songs in the paddock backstage prior to their stage time. I didn’t get the chance to ask Other Tim whether people acted more outlandishly around him so that he would write about them in The Guardian. I shall be checking to see if my super hero-referencing introduction makes the cut anyway, even if I didn’t do it with that in mind. We all have our different approaches – for example Giff on the main stage was very much a Bob Harris-band whisperer (he took over on Sunday, much to the relief of anyone who’d already been on over the previous couple of days, I imagine).  
Another chatty and endearing turn was Thom Chacon, who was happy to hang out backstage and made a point of checking out other singers, complimenting them, finding out where they were from and eventually asking if he could watch Mary Gauthier from our snug hidey hole at the side of the stage. “She’s been such an inspiration”. I didn’t buy much over the weekend but I made a point of digging out his (“all analogue”) vinyl album from the company store before I left.    

Sadie Jemmett’s set got switched from The Peacock Café, which I was more than happy about because it meant I got to listen to her beautiful songs. Even though her scheduled appearance had now been swapped, meaning that some people who’d planned on seeing her in the evening and would now find that she’d already performed she remained calm, grounded, and was by quite a long way my biggest crush of the weekend.
Having helped out Hannah Aldridge with a spare guitar after she’d broken a string on hers, The Goat Roper Rodeo Band then went through three of their own themselves. They appeared last year and I was more than pleased to have them back with their close harmonies, big thumpy rhythms and feelgood stage performances. About twenty minutes in I noticed that one of their guitars was lying on the stage with a string hanging off it. Then I noticed one of the guitarists gesturing frantically to the (replacement) guitar he’d also broken one on. By the time we’d raced each other to restring our respective instruments (he was first – I think the combination of adrenalin and terror helped him through) he had just enough time to snap one more during the next song before I handed him back the one I’d now managed to tune. I last spotted them under a tree in the rain, at two in the morning, still singing gloriously together.   

The GRRB been hanging out earlier with The Mae Trio, who appeared a tad bewildered at what an Australian folk band were doing at an Americana festival at what was clearly a petting zoo, in England. Well, when you put it like that, I suppose, yes... They closed with an amazing acapella version of a Kate Rusby song which had me going round for the rest of the day collaring people who’d missed it and making them promise me they’d see them in The Peacock Café on Sunday.

Dan Beaulaurier and The Hallelujah Trails was my band of the festival – all great tunes, Tele lead breaks and backing harmonies over solid grooves. Having warned their extraordinarily affable drummer that Police Dogs Hogan’s guy had fallen off the drum riser the previous night because we’d set the kit up too far toward the rear of the stage he assured us that he would take extra care not endure the same fate. I had made a point of checking the pronunciation of everyone whose name looked like it had potential to trip me up, and so it was mortifying to announce The Hallelujah Trails being fronted by…um…ah... Beautifully, guitarist Jeremy stepped in before I had to suffer the indignity of referring to my programme, squinting like someone who had decided not to bring his reading glasses (I hadn’t) and subtly muttered “Dan Bo-lare-ee-ay” out of the side of his mouth. I trust the audience appreciated the dramatic pause. Good job too, otherwise I may have had to resort to Joey Tribbiani’s notorious smelling farts technique, and nobody wants that.

Finally, a word for the magnificent Mary Gauthier (‘Go-Shay’) who demonstrated unimpeachable decency, dignity, openness, warmth, and not only charmed the crowd (and crew) throughout her time with us but delivered some songs of rare quality with a great performance to boot. Every one of the other artists who made a point of checking out the show clearly adored her, both professionally and personally, and I can thoroughly understand why.

And, for the record, she was very punctual.



Thanks to Des at (with whom the copyright remains) for the photo of me at the top. That's how I roll.

*Or, with five minutes to go before a sound check that the sat nav is telling you is in a field about twenty minutes from where you are currently blocked, diverted, rerouted or stuck behind a slow-moving tractor.


Monday, July 07, 2014

The Boy in the Bubble

It’s called Under The Dome, I believe. The story is that a small town has been cut off from the outside world and in turning in on itself discovers the best and worst, the resourceful and the hurtful within its community. The Simpsons Movie is based on a very similar concept. Maverick is the myth made flesh, especially with the level of phone signal we enjoyed at Easton Farm Park, where the annual festival of Americana - now in its seventh year - played out all the drama and suspense of a disparate group of individuals thrown together and forced to use their basic knowledge, low cunning and improvisational skills to survive together. Ladies and Gentlemen, meet the stage crew.
As Stage Manager for The Barn, my job was to make sure The Talent were on site, on time and to not get in the way of the guys from the PA company, who were doing the actual plugging in and switching on, and who conducted mysterious conversations over their walkie-talkies involving things called XLRs, DIs and SKGs. Across the festival similar ragged bands of folk were engaged in the same rituals – announcing the next turn, hoping we’d got the pronunciation of their name right and then, counterintuitively, given the astonishing level of talent that passed through our cobwebby portals, hoping they didn’t run over and were off in time for us to repeat the whole process again for the next act.

The crackle of the radio brought forth a fresh challenge with each new transmission and assistant stage managers were dispatched across site to beg, borrow, steal or otherwise rustle up amplifiers, drum kits, mic stands, drum keys, gaffa tape… Conversations between us took on a Masonic tone as we compared stories from the front line in hastily-taken breaks for coffee and food from whichever vendor had the shortest queue*.
“Seven minutes over earlier, but we pulled it back after Hannah finished early”.

“Do you have an SM-58? Not on the entire site? No - not the beta!”
 “We need a spile at the Moonshine Bar. And bring a mallet”

“There’s a pig loose in the artists’ hospitality area”
I don’t know what it is with me, tour managers and pianos, but I had another chance to shine this year. I mean, I don’t mind taking down an entire drum kit and replacing it on the riser with a piano whilst also clearing away the previous band’s equipment and all in a ten minute window of opportunity before your scheduled start time, but you could at least then get your employer to play it. Still, we should be grateful she didn’t set fire to it, as one washboard player did at the climax of their set, brandishing it above her head** in a Hendrix-esque fashion to the delight of the crowd. If only it had been a banjo.***

There were so many fine and talented people performing over the weekend that I couldn’t hope to do them all justice by summarising their skills in so small a space, but Mary Gauthier notably drew several of the day’s prior attractions back to the stage on Saturday night – part mother hen, part eccentric aunt, full-time inspiration, she was so down home and folksy I wouldn’t have been surprised if she’d tapped out a corn cob pipe before taking to the stage. I asked her if I could line check her guitar for her. “Oh, don’t worry about that honey, I’ll just get on up there and get started”. I pointed out lights and monitor tech Max and she made a point of checking who the guy on the front of house desk was. Sometime into the set she tuned her guitar down to a low, ominous D which rattled the fillings. “Push it hard, Young Rob, make ‘em rumble” she chuckled over the PA. I swear she winked at him. In the wings next to me Thom Chacon whooped with delight.        
I had to leave early on the Sunday of the festival in order to be available to perform on The Grapevine Stage at Ipswich Music Day as part of Tony James Shevlin’s backing band The Chancers. Here, the roper boot was comfortably on the other foot, so I made sure that I got my gear on stage as quickly as I could, turned the volume down on my guitar so as not to interfere with the acoustic guitar tweaking while I tuned up, and waited patiently as the sound engineer asked us to give him a line check on each of our instruments and on our vocal mics in turn. I also remembered to thank the stage manager for his attention after the show, said that I really appreciated the onstage monitor mix and hoped that we’d given a good account of ourselves. The MC gestured, palms down, to the audience who were generously showing their appreciation in a spirited way. Then came the line I’d been missing all weekend. “There’ll be more” he assured the crowd. “…just not from them”.     


*When refuelling, time is of the essence. At one point I saw the production manager eating a full English breakfast off a paper plate without breaking stride as he stomped purposefully over to sort some issue with the bar.  
**The washboard, not the piano.

***I know. Open goal, I couldn’t resist.