Sunday, March 24, 2024

“Put down the cheese and get on the stage…”

 And so, again, to Helstock which as regular correspondents will know is the annual celebration of the continued existence of The Fragrant and Charming Helen Mulley and which has been running almost annually since the towards end of the last century. I get a free pass to perform since it’s also near my birthday and everyone else gets an admission pass if they bring a cheese of interest, echoing an approach first adopted in the late eighties by local band As Is, whom I once saw do a splendid gig at The Old Times in exchange for the wholly reasonable entry fee of a potato.

This year’s submission is along the lines of stripped-down power trio (Mr. Wendell is indisposed due to illness) This Much Talent who - let’s face it - are principally performing a gods kitchen repertoire from the roaring nineties, no longer available on handcrafted cassettes (we were way,way ahead of the hipster curve) but still available to listen to on the Bandcamp courtesy of the Bluehouse Records imprint. In order to fully embrace the retro feel of the occasion I have also dug out the very shirt I used to perform some of these songs in, courtesy of a grateful record industry (Duran Duran as it happens) in 1988. “How do I look?” I mutter to Mulley prior to kick-off. “Like someone I used to know” she whispers.

To climax the five song bijou settette I summon a pre-warned show majordomo (and proprietor of BHR) from behind the mixing desk to perform with us as a surprise eye candy treat for La Mulley who brings things bang up to date by needing both his phone as a prompt and his glasses to read it in order to perform. After a refreshing amuse bouche of a set by Mulley and Winn (“We’re going to play you a traditional folk song - don’t be scared. Oh, and Tony will be performing it on the banjo”) we are back on stage in the guise of Helen and The Neighbourhood Dogs - a dog or two down, but Dogs nonetheless and are so late on stage due to the buffet-centric distractions that we have to forgo our closing singalong and go out with the big folk epic about the dead sailor, in part derived from Heart’s ‘Barracuda’.

The stage is cleared and Lily Talmers, hot foot from New York and having absolutely smashed the entry fee by bringing fresh bagels, takes centre and utterly charms the room with her acoustic balladeering which hits the sweet spot between Joni Mitchell and - say - Paul Mosely, and if you don’t know how much of a compliment that is, you don’t know you’re born. She is concerned that the room is very quiet. Someone breaks cover to confirm that we are all simply entranced. At what is essentially a private function, the queue for Merch reaches back from the sound desk to the stage.

As per usual, my journey back is soundtracked by the random feed from all the albums I’ve bought and paid for and loaded onto a memory stick*. About seven minutes from home an eight minute version of ‘Thunder Road’ kicks in and I am minded that it was recorded on the night before Mr. The Boss’s twenty ninth birthday. Apparently he was staring down the barrel of his thirties, not sure if he had achieved everything he’d set out to do and worried that this might be it (his delivery of the line “So you're scared and you're thinking that maybe we ain't that young anymore” resonates through the ether even today) but was emotionally rescued, reassured and convinced by the music in the room that night.

You and me both Bruce, you and me both.

*OK Boomer.

Saturday, February 24, 2024

“I am breathing in, I am breathing out…”

 Once more to The Institute in/at/for Kelvedon (see blogs passim). I am employed this evening as go-to session guitarist for The Tony Winn Band, as we are promoting his latest (and best) album - Blue Speck, upon which I also make a small contribution. My role this evening, under Eno-esque direction, is to play as little guitar as possible - something which we take to the absolute apogee during some parts of the set, in which I am not on stage at all.

One of the joys of The Institute, aside from its convenient parking, lovely audience, adjacent Co-op and marvellous nearby Indian food is the appointed backstage area, a veritable trove of comfortable seating, occasional theatrical props, a clock to tell the time by, a lit mirror and a fully operational separate kitchen, which has been stocked with tea, coffee, milk and sugar by de facto TM, sound engineer and promoter James Bluehouse, seemingly from a stash of well-plundered hotel, motel and Holiday Inns’ courtesy baskets.

I settle into an armchair and catch up with the rhythm section - on bass, the artist formerly known as Barry Picturehouse, currently engaged in a quest to bring the music of Prince the length and breadth of the UK and on percussion (“Congas and bongas”) Sam ‘Bongoboy’ Thurlow, who tells us of his ukulele-based exploits with his Anarchy in the Ukulele quasi autonomous syndicalist collective. “Occasionally we break them” he confesses. “That must be popular!” I say, cheerfully. His mood darkens perceptibly as he glowers under beetle brows and mutters in a meaningful half-tone. “Not always…”

We are joined by Maverick scion Ella Spencer, who is to be the principal supporting artiste and who is gratefully checking the mirror to see if - having enjoyed a curry earlier - she has spinach in her teeth, on her face or (and I quote) in her piercing. “There’s always a first time”. Bass player Trill and I reminisce fondly about what we refer to numerous times as being “Back in the day”*. Ella seems fascinated at the idea that one might book a venue in London, guarantee to sell thirty tickets, organise a coach and then play to the same people at The Powerhaus as you would have done at (say) The Caribbean Club in Ipswich.

These days of course, one might set up a phone in a cradle, film yourself with a filter and put the resulting demo on YouTube for much less effort, and without having to pay a clean up fee to the bus company. A passing Tony Winn dolefully recalls the attendance figures at his Edinburgh Fringe residency (spoiler - you could have fitted the entire run’s audience in tonight’s venue) however we brightly point out that the subsequent press merely reflects that he had a show at the Edinburgh Festival. 

Before too long it is time to mach show ourselves, and after my brief Little Feat-esque groove to ‘South Australia’ (the presence of a conga player named Sam to my left helps enormously with getting into character) and a career-spanning guitar solo, I am off for a bit of a sit backstage and a cup of tea before resuming duties for a bit of light arpeggiation, the climactic audience singalong and some off the cuff volume control swell work. For the arms-linked audience bow at the end, Trill and I engage in lunges, at my behest. “Christ” he says “You could have warned me. At my age!”

*To be fair, when I drove La Mulley home from rehearsal earlier in the week she actually said “Of course, it was all fields around here when I was growing up” at one point.

Friday, January 19, 2024

A to the M to the E to the Ricana

“Jazz” opined the songwriter and philosopher Otis Lee Crenshaw “ain’t nothing but a blues quartet falling down a flight of stairs”, thus neatly labelling an entire genre of music which encompasses everything from Louis Armstrong’s gravel-coated reading of ‘Wonderful World’ to Pat Metheny’s atonal ‘Zero Tolerance for Silence’, which one critic called “…an incendiary work by an unpredictable master” while another called it, simply, “rubbish” which is, frankly, nitpicking. Thus, to define ‘Americana’, we need to dig into its - appropriately - roots. 

I was having a conversation about authenticity in music at The Maverick Festival at Easton Farm Park, where if nothing else the presence of horses, goats and sheep lends a bucolic air to the self-styled first and finest Americana music festival with a visiting musician who posited that folk should really sing in their natural accent, prompted not by an outbreak of MacCollesque revisionism, but by a performer who had sung a song in a broad Tennessee twang and then explained the genesis of the ballad in an accent which reflected nothing so much as a deep immersion in the history and culture of (say) Beccles. My companion nodded approvingly at the next turn, who provided a thorough exegesis of the Appalachian ballads she had wrought regarding mining disasters and backwoods stills. When we looked her up in the programme it turned out she was from New York.

And so we try to define ‘Americana’, the granddaddies of which are probably The Band, who after all were eighty per cent Canadian and steeped in rock n’ roll and Motown roots. ‘Roots’ being the term many thrusting young women and men adopted in order to avoid being pigeonholed as ‘folk’ (too finger in the ear), ‘country’ (big hats and songs like “When You Leave Me, Walk Out Backwards so I Think You’re Coming In”) or blues (literally endless versions of “Sweet Home Chicago”). Put them all together though, and you have a form which encompasses all the best of everything. To paraphrase Sanjeev Bhaskar’s grandfather character in ‘Goodness Gracious Me’; “Guy Clark - Americana”, “Police Dog Hogan - Americana”, “John Craigie - Americana”. It’s a convenient shorthand for an all-encompassing genre which wends its way from the close folk harmonies of The Black Feathers to the (now) bombastic Zeppelin-esque onslaught of Larkin Poe or the stadium-bound LA-centric Morganway.

If Beyonce opined that you should really put a ring on it, Americana suggests that if you like it you should put a fiddle on it. Or a dobro. Or a banjo. Our old friend Otis might suggest that Americana ain’t nothing but a folk singer in a lumberjack shirt, but the breadth and scope of the genre is the most welcoming of churches. After all, one of the early adopters of the opportunity to simply get up and perform songs from the heart-worn highway in a checked shirt is immortalised on You Tube in an early performance at Maverick.

Local lad. His name was Ed Sheeran.

Sunday, October 22, 2023

“Here today I drift away from carnal thoughts of sin, to the sounds of Little Epic and The Nights are Falling In…”

 The behemoth that is the This Much Talent promotional tour rolls on - The Bury Milkmaid Contemporary Folk Club one night, The Beyton Village Fete and now, The Coda in Colchester, for an afternoon session with the power trio - that is to say Me, The Bass Player and Helen, flautist, vocalist and registered pole dancer, resplendent in autumnal tones from top to toe. I consider having my colours done, but at present they might be a sort of cod-psychedelic mush. Or just the colour of cod.

The Bass Player and I are sequestered in the tour bus (my Skoda Karoq), he with the general ennui of his everyday existence and me with the sort of hangover that a quadruple gin and tonic snifter to finish a Friday night in front of HIGNFY will only be dispersed - we agree between us - by either a long nap or a serious infusion of caffeine, and at this stage we can’t decide which we need more. We are not aided by a listless wander up and down the high street looking for the venue which we intend to attend at a responsible hour before our scheduled three o’clock kick-off, but which it transpires doesn’t open until half two.

Upon admittance we admire the funky decor, and adopt bar stools. “Am I on a smaller stool or just a lot shorter than you?” enquires Helen. “I’m even wearing heels”. I approach the bar, somewhat shakily, and order three coffees. “What sort?” our host enquires. “Well, it’s after noon, so it can’t be a Cappuccino” I offer. “We’re not in Milan, but I will silently judge you” he responds, before putting together three amazing Americanos for an extraordinarily reasonable rate during which process which I apologise for delaying one of my my fellow drinkers’ orders. He’s just purchased a print of yachts in full sail off the Isle of Wight from the Emmaus charity shop opposite and is happy to chat while the coffee machine clicks and whirrs. 

We are to play at the end of the session, and so I look forward not only to the acoustic stylings of our fellow travellers on the afternoon showcase highway, but the additional recovery time afforded by the running order. The doors are wide open and so the high street traffic adds an ambient burr to proceedings when not drowned out by the world’s loudest toilet hand dryer. Before too long, and after a restorative Guinness which I manage to not spill entirely from my shaking hand, we are ushered onstage and fixed quickly and efficiently with a monitor mix and a DI pedal which contains an inbuilt tuner. As a veteran of the songwriter’s showcase and open-mic scene, and someone who has decided to play a twelve string guitar with a capo at one point, this is a welcome restorative.

 They also, quite wonderfully, livestream the whole thing on social media, so I would tell you about the performance itself, but you can make up your own minds. Helen works absolute wonders on transforming an old song called The Boy Who Loved Aeroplanes with her psych-folk flute, The Bass Player adds subtle harmonies and weaves wonderful lines throughout, and after a tight thirty-five we are off and able to indulge in the rest of our evenings. “Split the money three ways, yeah?” I quip. “Sure” says Helen. 

“How much do I owe you?”

Watch the This Much Talent Medium-Sized Band here:

Thursday, August 31, 2023

A Guest Blogger Writes…

A couple of decades and a few thousand miles ago, I ran a cosy little studio out of my back bedroom in Ipswich, grandly referred to by the cognoscenti as Chemistry Set East. Around about this same time, it came to my attention that the guitar player in almost every local band in the Suffolk-Essex hinterlands looked identical - coincidentally, they were all Shane Kirk.  Eventually I encountered at least one of the songs on this EP, with the proviso that this song "had been kicking around for a while."  As far as I recall, the only time I played it was in the upstairs room of a pub in Felixstowe which faced the deep blue void into which I would shortly disappear.

***recorded at Chemistry Set East, 2005:

Sometimes, not always, things go round in circles.  Some orbits are longer than others, of course, and somehow our world tours didn't cross paths again until late 2017.  The onset of the global pandemic had a way of adjusting priorities for us all, and 2020 saw the transformation of my office space/guitar storage hangar into Chemistry Set West.  Originally reborn solely as an experiment space for the reconstruction of some decades-old cassette tape montages, #CSW has spread locally and internationally. (#CSW is just a bit under 4000 miles west and a little south of #CSE.) Little did we know that back in the old country, Shane was revviving projects of his own.  Imagine my surprise when I found out those old tunes were *still* kicking around.

Showtime came to us originally as just a guitar and vocal piece recorded by Ian Crow at Amblin' Man.  We overdubbed the rhythm section (Deric McGuffey and Sean Dowdall) and then asked for further guidance from the horse's mouth.  "Well," said Shane, "You know some horn players, don't you?"  I had to admit this was true.  In one of my self-appointed roles, I operate a de facto international dating service for musicians.  When temporarily stumped for arrangement ideas, it's always a good idea to consult Trent Jackson, an accomplished songwriter himself, trombonist, and leader of the Unsustainables:

Jen Strassberg and I rounded out those arrangements with a touch of flugelhorn, after all of which we sent it all back to Ian to work his magic on. Isn't technology marvellous?  In the old days, somebody would've had to get on Concorde with a 2" multitrack tape stuffed under their coat.  I do hear, however, that 2" tape and supersonic travel are both due for a revival, much like the time capsules presented here.  

Thursday, August 03, 2023

You get what you play for.

 ‘Twas ever thus – a tale as old as time - somebody well-meaning puts out feelers on Facebook to see if there are any bands prepared to play for no money, but good exposure, and is swamped in the subsequent pile-on from justifiably annoyed creatives who point out in varying terms of kindliness how you can’t trade exposure for groceries*. The reaction tends to be especially more energetic when the hosts are charging eight quid on the door or, in the case of one country show** I performed at, invoicing traders sixty quid a metre of stall front, plus electricity. It’s all very well claiming they’re providing footfall and merch opportunities, but they’re also advertising your services on the poster in order to entice paying customers.

And there – just in that paragraph above – is the rub. Yes, I performed at The East Anglian Country Show. It was a nice day out, I was with friends, and the joy of an unpaid gig is that you can do what the hell you want. Any teenage dirtbands invited to an unpaid genteel pub garden beer festival gig should, in my opinion, pitch up in full fishnet and death’s-head make up and play a set of Extreme Noise Terror covers, no matter what genre they usually perform. We happened to do some genteel East Angliacana, as I have at Ipswich Music Day, The Cornbury Festival, The Kelvedon Community Festival, Maverick and countless radio sessions and open mic nights, so I’m not about to start scrabbling around for two sharps, two flats and a packet of gravel with which to cast about my glass house, galling as it is to know that the car park attendant at many of these events is earning more than you are. To be honest, the portable toilets are earning more than you, and they don’t even have to dress up in a hi-viz tabard. 

On the other hand, there’s that marvellous faux-personal ad regarding a dinner party that someone is planning for the weekend and how it would be a splendid opportunity for a chef to demonstrate their talent as many of the guests would tell their friends about the food and maybe even post it on Instagram. Sadly, the ad concludes, the host cannot afford to actually pay for the years of experience and practice their cook will have employed, the kitchen implements they’ll have to bring, or indeed the food, as the budget is a bit tight. Show me a musician who’s played a wedding and I’ll show you someone who has been asked if they can do it a bit cheaper. I frankly wouldn’t swear the same about a caterer, a florist or dressmaker.

It's a tricky conundrum – and very much one that seems to principally concern those of a musical bent, to whatever degree. “You can play here but you have to sell X number of tickets/fill a coach” is a familiar refrain from the last century, whereas its modern equivalent seems to be “Songwriting Competition – Get Your Song Heard by Nashville Legends!” and then in extraordinarily small print somewhere on the third page you*** click through to “Only ten dollars to enter” by which time you’ve got more cookies swarming over your hard drive than at Sesame Street Sid’s birthday party. It’s the sort of approach that starts with Learn Guitar for Fun and Pleasure and ends with you**** being advised by the government to retrain in IT.

It's a rum old conundrum and no mistake, and I don’t think I’ve got all the answers. As a result of playing some of those unpaid gigs I mentioned earlier I’ve shared a bottle opener with Robert Plant’s road crew, won a shiny silver trophy I keep at my Mum’s house, been introduced to Peter Buck, blagged more free pints than I could shake a gnarly old stick at and, on one notable occasion, met the present Mrs. Kirk. All I will say is, that if someone you don’t know asks you to play a show for nothing, then that’s what they think you’re worth. And you’re better than that.                

*Don’t get me wrong – I was there front and centre with my passive-aggressively flaming torch and freshly buffed pitchfork

**in agrarian terms rather than the boot-scootin’ musical genre.

***You, not me.

****Me, not you.

Saturday, July 08, 2023

What You Give is What You Get

In the town hall square, tuning up for a daytime show with Tony James Shevlin and The Chancers. A massive stage has been erected, drum kit, backline and monitors are all complimentary and in place, the band on before us are tearing through a terrific version of ‘Barracuda”. It’s a long way from clambering up on to the back of a P&O trailer and peering twenty yards to your right to see if the other guitarist is playing the same bridge as you. Lovely, tight forty five minutes. Blinking in the sunshine afterwards I realise what a culture shock it is to come off stage and still have a good couple of hours of afternoon left.


The Maverick pop-up Medicine Show has been relocated to a leafy grove and looks, feels and sounds all the better for it. I am to wrangle a series of  short solo, small band and off-roading sessions from artists who are (mainly) appearing elsewhere at the festival. Charlie Austen*, who has a self-constructed suitcase-based percussion set up (“I’m playing all this myself you know, it’s not loops”) performs an as-yet unreleased balled called Four Tiny Frames which unaccountably sets off my hay fever**. Red-eyed and sniffing, I congratulate her on the perfect timing with which her sunglasses fell down on to her face mid-song. “I definitely planned that” she grins.


Matt Owens is playing guitar for someone else at the festival, but drops by to perform a few numbers of his own. This is the joy of The Medicine Show. He calls in two hours before his allotted stage time, checks out the gear, asks my name, returns an hour later with a beer and we chat amiably about his beautiful vintage acoustic guitar. By this time I would have done almost anything for him. He gently explains what he needs in terms of sound and we tweak things variously until he’s happy, or as happy as an ex-member of Noah and the Whale can be in a field adjoining the goat enclosure. During his set he engages affably with the queue for the portaloos, which snakes along the track fronting the paddock. “Good time to choose to go for a wee” he advises sagely.


Our Man in the Field are a trio with a guitar, bass, cello configuration who are setting up under the stars and by the light of a fullish moon which glints off the river. They’re using backline for the guitar and bass which means I have to work with their levels, and everything else needs to be carefully balanced against them. Two of their coterie have already advised me as to their sonic preferences regarding the performance and I have taken their suggestions on board, and then refer back to them a couple of songs in to see what they think. I’ve deliberately kept everything low so that we have to lean in to get the sound. One thinks I’m taking the piss. I explain that it’s a combination of my character of ‘Grumpy Sound Man’ and my naturally sarcastic-sounding tone that is probably misleading. Another admits that their suggestion about the balance of the backing vocal was probably wrong. My character graciously reverts to the prior mix. On stage they are joined by fiddle player extraordinaire Chris Murphy, who despite meeting them that afternoon and being invited to sit in, sounds like he’s been rehearsing with them for a decade. It’s enthralling, moving, breathtaking music - the sort that Guy Garvey might have made if he’d moved to Woodstock in 1968 and signed to Warners. I remark to his partner that Chris’s playing is exquisite. “Mind you, I guess I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know?” “Yeah, but it’s good to hear it” replies Barbara Hershey.


Picturehouse have assembled in a community hall to see if our old PA still works and to run through a few of the more untenable numbers in the set for our forthcoming quarterly show in Stowmarket. “It’s a long time since I rehearsed in a village hall” I say. The walls are lined with portraits of benefactors and plaques recording gifts of clocks, indoor toilets and the addition of a kitchen. The Drummer is on his phone. “Someone’s added me to the village WhatsApp group and I need to tell them it’s not my drone” he mentions by way of explanation. “In the old days” someone sighs wistfully “the only way you’d get a call out here would be someone ringing the phone box outside to complain about the noise”.


The Bury Folk Collective have invited me - the newly appointed head of a benevolent dictatorship - to bring my This Much Talent project to perform at their monthly contemporary folk night. For someone so used to hiding behind a microphone and an amplifier, the bare bones of an acoustic evening bring forth a whole new set of challenges. Fortunately audience interaction is not only permissible in such circumstances, but encouraged. I emerge from an acoustic guitar instrumental reverie to enquire of Mr. Wendell whether that really was a rendition of Metallica’s ‘Nothing Else Matters’, which he assures me it was. By the time we’re on someone has located the switch for the mood lighting. Gib on electric bass*** and Wendell on Gibson jumbo are seated, I’m front and centre telling a lengthy introductory anecdote about how thrilled I was when Geoffrey Kelly out of Spirit of the West had agreed to play on my new CD****, how that never would have happened during the era of phone boxes and what an incredible job he’d done playing on it. “Whereas, tonight…” smiles La Mulley, holding her flute up to the light. “Such a tiny little thing, and yet so expressive!” remarks a flute-loving audience member afterwards.

“Isn’t she just?”

*Explaining to my neighbours in The Moonshine Bar, who are back-announcing their turns and then inviting folk to pop round the corner to see who’s on, I explain “It’s ‘Charlie’ as in the BRIT Awards drug of choice, and ‘Austen’, as in the author…” 

“I had not made either of those connections” remarks MC Smithy, drily.

**I don’t get hay fever.

***”Judas!” etc etc

****”It’s three tracks and lasts…well, it’s a compact disc, it’ll last for ever…”