Saturday, January 15, 2022

You’ll have to excuse me…

 


Turns out that if you want to get a bloody legend to play on your recording, all you have to do is ask.

Friday, December 24, 2021

The last great white rhino in the reserve.

 

Around the start of The Great Unpleasantness I got a call from an agency. Would I be interested in helping out at one of these Covid testing centres the army were setting up around the country? I thought this might get me off the sofa for a few weeks, and so I duly responded, and a couple of days later found myself standing outside a portacabin on the newly deconsecrated Park n’ Ride somewhere near Copdock. 

Little did I know that twenty months later, I’d still be reporting for duty, albeit without the cheery farewell to the family which for some time consisted of the mantra “Cheerio, Daddy’s just off to collect phlegm in a bucket!” before the morning meeting in which we might be informed that (for instance) if we saw any drones overhead we should get under cover in case of a remotely-launched acid attack.


Over time the job evolved into something pitched as a hybrid somewhere between Big Brother and Love Island. The first wave led to a firm and lasting bond between the brotherhood of the Exit Bays - me, Craig, Callum and Tom - one of the driest and funniest people I’ve ever met - and our honorary fifth wheel, Sarah - My Lil’ Princess, for whom we had to bring in the kids’ version of the Trivial Pursuit questions and who would, if she didn’t know the answer to a geography question, answer ‘Australia’.*


There were a lot of nicknames around site -  That Crazy Russian, The Duchess, Sexy Harry (and of course Non-Sexy Harry), Young Blud, Thing One and Thing Two, Surallan, The Doc and - possibly my favourite - My Sex Dwarf. Someone would bring in a tray of cupcakes. I would arrange the sandwich deliveries in order of palatability. There were quizzes. At one point a Backgammon school was established.


Once the first few of a bewildering number of revolving door-style management changes put in place their squad rotation policy, the old gang broke up and we moved into a new era. Admittedly this allowed for making new acquaintances since I was no longer in an isolated outpost at the end of the car park, and from these conversations in shared adversity new friendships and bonds were formed. The long winter days just flew by.


By the time we celebrated my birthday with a themed quiz we knew each other so well that over seventy per cent of the respondents answered the question “Who would Shane like to see wrestle in jelly?” correctly and most of them also got the bonus answer to “What flavour?”.


We toyed with the idea of making our daily lives into a sitcom, but reasoned that many of the sits would be too far-fetched to be acceptable as ‘com’. The morning brief where we were informed that we needed to wash our hands more but use fewer paper towels overall and the Afghanistan-based rant by one particularly unhinged boss were merely two such examples. One of the guys and I wrote a song about it.


Time moved inexorably on and folk started returning to their roles in the real world. Students, bankers, chefs, airline pilots even. All with the tell-tale bikini-strap marks of a Summer spent wearing a mask outdoors. I got a job running one of the mobile units we operate out of the site, which meant I got to travel the length and breadth of the county and beyond. “Standing at the dock in Harwich” hasn’t got half the resonance as an opening line to ‘The Ballad of John and Yoko’ as it might have.


Anyway, today I picked up my Employee of the Month certificate, and had cause to think back on all of those people I’ve shared a birthday cake, a portaloo or a game of On Site Bingo with and who, for better or worse, have helped to make me the person I am today. I’d like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves, and I hope we passed the audition.



*You should have seen her face that time the answer was actually ‘Australia’.

Sunday, October 31, 2021

Green and Red



After two years of The Great Unpleasantness interfering with our plans, The Picturehouse Big Band made its return to the live arena in Stowmarket (natch) and despite fearing that we might have forgotten how these things work, by the end of the evening I think we had firmly reestablished the central tenet and mission statement of the group in that it’s just like going to the pub with your friends.


From TAFKAG’s* studious reprogramming  of his keyboard sounds during the day (he also literally dusted off his speakers, which is when he found one of the tweeters rolling around in the cabinet where a tweeter is not supposed rolling around to be), to the surprise guest singer toward the end of the set (modesty forbids identifying the party, but regular ‘Swich gig goers will be astonished to learn that he did not perform bearfoot…) we had an almost literal riot.


Admittedly Last Nite was a bit tawdry around the edges, but it was still better than The Strokes’ version, and that second encore meant that at least we got to re-do Band on the Run, but properly this time. 


Many thanks firstly to my Picturehouse brethren, everyone who rocked up to a packed Pickerel (especially Linda Stix for the photo), that nice girl who played drums in the full Nell Gwynne corset and Harvey Two-Face Halloween** make up while we were packing away, Pat for PA, and lastly Greenwich Mean Time, for letting us have an extra hour in bed on the morning after.


*The Artist Formerly Known as Gibbon.

**At least I’m assuming she doesn’t go around like that all the time.

Thursday, October 14, 2021

“A Picture House in Every One Horse Town”

I am having everything above the neck trimmed and tidied when Danny, my hairdresser* enquires as to my plans for the rest of the day. As they do. I am to rehearse with Picturehouse prior to a forthcoming engagement, as we in the band figure that muscle memory alone is not going to pull us through, what with The Great Unpleasantness having put off our gig schedule by about two years, and we’ve never been the best at remembering to rehearse anyway. I realise that this will probably actually be the first time I’ve sat down with (say) The Drummer for about two years. I know, right?

Everyone having remembered where he lives, we gather at (indeed) The Drummer’s house, he plugs in his electronic kit, tiny tiny amplifiers are produced seemingly from out of nowhere and we start to work through the set list, which The Singer has resisted the temptation to put into chronological order. Since he, The Bass Player and I are also in this country’s premier proponents of East Angliacana, we have seen each other only recently, but it is splendid to hang out with The Other Guitarist again, he resplendent in the almost ubiquitous (these days) thick framed glasses**, his flaming ginger thatch calmed by the passing of the years into subdued autumnal strawberry blond. 

During a break in proceedings, The Bass Player recounts a visit to a mutual friend of ours, who is reluctantly selling his drums. Due to the nature of the Suffolk rock, pop, folk and ambient loon jazz scene, we all have various connections in common, and so he - the vendor - had enlisted help in identifying who it was in the picture he was going to use to advertise the kit online. He knew that it had been taken at The Moon and Mushroom, a bijou establishment in Swilland***, twice named Suffolk Pub of the Year and at a gig by his band Cara Cleibh (also featuring Helen and The Neighbourhood Dogs’ Fiddly Richard), and also that the support act was on stage at the time. It was a good photo of the kit, it was just that they couldn’t work out who was playing just in front of it. Drummer Seamus**** suggested it might be The Other Guitarist.

The Bass Player squinted at the picture and pointed out that The Other Guitarist was, and remains, left-handed and that the ginger guitar player in the photo was demonstrably not. “That” he pointed out “Is Ed Sheeran”.



*And beard, and ears and eyebrows.

**Only Gibbon, on bass and keyboards, has resisted the temptation to let his eyes decay with age.

***Literally ‘Pig Land’.

****Seamus Hussey. When we’re in the band gods kitchen together I’m Ted Bidits and Gib is Justin Credible. Stephen is Wendell Gee and Steve is Kilbey. Keep up at the back, there’ll be a quiz later.

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

The Heaped Plaise of Frattery.


To The Snug, where a full complement of Dogs have assembled beneath the hopbines in order to [dramatic hand gesture] create. We haven’t got our heads together in the country for quite the time due to The Great Unpleasantness and so it is with some trepidation that we take to our seats, sofas, deckchairs and, in one case, exercise bicycle and collectively wonder out loud what we’re going to do. La Mulley suggests that we warm up with something we know, and so a slow, countrified version of Not That Kind of Girl is extemporised.*


Suitably warmed up, I suggest something I’ve been working on, tentatively working titled The Merchant of Venus and before long we are locked back into the familiar cycle of hesitation, repetition and deviation - almost the anti-Just a Minute, and during which we learn that Helen has never seen an episode of Taskmaster, Mr. Wendell and I discuss our top five favourite Waterboys gigs, and Turny Winn buys a snake.


Over in the corner by the Marty O’Reilly poster, Helen takes a pencil to the extended, breath-defying opening line. I suggest an alternative to one later couplet, to conclude with the phrase “…surfers in The Suez”. Someone suggests that this deliberately invites a Mondegreen, and although I agree that “…in the sewers” might perform the role admirably, it’s nowhere near that time TT wondered why ‘cokehead’ might be such a deliberate term of endearment to employ in an otherwise perfectly serviceable love song. “It’s ‘coquette’”.


Before too too long we have an acceptable demonstration version available, which we commit to Garageband for reasons of austerity and Mr. Wendell, as usual, lasers in on probable sources and influences.


“It’s that Nagasaki thing” he suggests, and I am indeed reminded** of the first night I saw Channel 4, taking a break from work in the hotel restaurant, and slumping down in front of the staff room TV to see this strange fusion of rock and folk music***, the likes I’d never heard before, and which was probably the first time I discovered something for my very own self - probably why I dove headlong into the oeuvre, and still haven’t properly surfaced to this day. I used to perform a couple of Christy Moore songs during my folk troubadour phase, and indeed I did Moving Hearts’ Hiroshima, Nagasaki Russian Roulette which it turns out has an extraordinary number of verses and is tongue-twistingly tricky at some points, and which is possibly one of the reasons that I have been venting my frustration on Helen by presenting her with similar challenges ever since.**** (My belated sympathies with various audiences in The Albion Mills, who’d probably just nipped out for a pint of mild and a game of darts and had to listen to me earnestly performing Sacco and Vanzetti instead. In front of the dart board).


I looked it up today and although I’m not sure it’s the same gig, it sure looks like it. None more eighties, even down to the hot wired Strat neck pick up and the out of phase lead guitar solo (see also The Home Service, whom I similarly fell heavily for and for whom still hold a candle).


So there you go - musical fellow travellers who know you better than you know yourself. Mind you, he’s gonna freak when he hears JJ Cale’s Carry On

  • *Yes we will, probably.
  • **This part’s a bit like that scene in Ratatouille - bear with…
  • ***The next week they had The Damned doing White Rabbit, so things could all have turned out so very differently.
  • ****”Tell me about your relationship with your mother…”

Thursday, September 23, 2021

“…and Leon’s getting LARGER!”


“It’s about that time of the evening - when you’ve had a dreadful day trying to corral the twins - and you finally snuggle up with a boy under each arm, fresh out of the bath, them smelling of talc, their tousled hair sticking out at angles, ready to hear the bedtime story you’ve been working your way through for the last few nights…” Helen emotes to a hushed audience, introducing the next song.

“…and then you remember you don’t have kids…” interjects Mr. Wendell, drily.


We are exploring the second rule of songwriting at The Fisher Theatre in the heart of swinging downtown Bungay, a much delayed return to the theatre of dreams which has been put off so often by the great unpleasantness that we are not sure if anyone will remember who we are from the last time we played. To be honest, a few of us are having the same issue. Nevertheless, we have been warmly welcomed to the venue by sound engineer Dan, who regards the seven-piece line up phlegmatically, and enquires as to whether we’d like onstage monitors with an air which suggests that he would really, really appreciate an answer in line with the one that small children asking if they can have a fourth chocolate biscuit wouldn’t. Of course, in order to maintain the eternal balance between the talent on stage and that of the technical expertise deployed backstage, we insist that we do. And another vocal mic wouldn’t go amiss while you’re down there…


Monitors in situ, old-school DI’s and snakes appropriately routed, we soundcheck and retire to the dressing rooms (plural) to consider our good fortune. There are mirrors, lights, an unfeasibly large collection of theatre costumes (including what looks very much like a lioness stole and a tiara, which La Mulley seriously considers adopting for the evening as a ‘look’). There are also five members of the group considering the paisley button-down which I have placed on a convenient hanger. 


“Is that your shirt?” Turny Winn asks, solicitously.

“Yes” I reply truthfully.

“Are you planning to wear it onstage?” he continues.

“Yes” I affirm.

He indicates the rest of the group in a manner reminiscent of a shop steward in a Carry On film from the golden age, with a waggle of his thumb.

“We don’t think you’ll get into it…”

Infamy.


After a lovely set from our co-traveller Tony James Shevlin, we are unleashed upon the good folk of Bungay, who seem as pleased to be back in a proper venue listening to proper music as we are. They are kind, solicitous, engaged and appreciative, and buoyed by their vibes we, in turn, take our chance to shine. Up in the gallery Dan - it turns out - has spent some of the set with headphones plugged into the console, enjoying his own private concert experience. 


We relax into the show. Everyone is on top of their game. I even eschew the opportunity to do a banjo joke. That’s how in the moment we were. The theatre audience - two thirds full, not one third empty - grants us an encore.

“This is unprecedented in the history of pop music!” quips Helen. “Another song!? Well, I’m not sure we have anything prepared…”


By the time I get home, there are already laudatory comments on social media. I retire far too late (tell me about it…) with a warm glow, not entirely Pinot Noir-dependent. The next day at work a woman in a posh car drives over the cleaning equipment we’d put out to mop up the mess where some bloke had taken the opportunity to spit at me. That’s the thing about fame, fame, fleeting fame. Some days you’re the BMW, some days you’re the bucket.

Monday, September 06, 2021

Schrödinger's Acoustic Spot.


After a short delay (of about a year and two months), I am off to The Maverick Festival (see blogs passim) for a weekend of country, blues, folk and Americana in the country, and this year - due in no small part to the ravages of The Great Unpleasantness - with added East Angliacana in the shape of Helen and The Neighbourhood Dogs. 

We are contemplating our name on the playbill outside The Barn Stage prior to soundcheck and considering - even with the Americanisation of dropping the ‘U’ - how much room it takes up on posters. “I’m thinking we might change our name to ‘The Neighbourhood’ confides Mr. Wendell. “Yes, but those three, four and five letter words aren’t really the issue here, are they?” points out WAG Becky phlegmatically.

I am also here in my guise as Stage Wrangler for The Medicine Show - a pop up boutique stage for the off duty talent to stretch out with some covers or, in some cases, simply warm up for the main event. Tucked away in a paddock behind the bar, I am doing the equivalent of tightening the rigging and checking the bowsprit for woodworm when I hear the first of the turns being announced in The Barn. At which point I remember that we’re the first turn on in the barn…


A short sprint through the crowd later I have managed to retain both my stage shirt and my dignity and we haul away into our opening number. The unspoken advantage of being bottom of the bill is that you are, necessarily, often top of the list for sound-checks, and so we are buoyant from the off, confident that our pre-show run through of The Byrds “You’re Still On My Mind” has settled the nerves of the sound crew, and Helen, who did ask if we could follow it up with “…something we know”.*


Fiddly seems unencumbered by the lack of most of his pinkie, which he apparently managed to remove with some sort of mechanical implement earlier in the week, just as Turny’s banjo-fingering digit has grown back after that incident with the secateurs some weeks ago, and we are all - band and audience - pleased to be back in the room/barn, doing what we like to do best. We, telling stories with wood and string, and they listening, applauding, and buying our records afterwards. 


A VIP area has been set up to thank those who retained their tickets throughout The Great Unpleasantness but it is empty. No-one wants to be swanning around drinking free Big Drop when there’s an actual, physical manifestation of a festival happening just over the velvet rope. There’s a palpable sense of relief all round, an exhalation of pressure - one agent mentions that we’re the first band he’s seen play live in two years. Poor bastard.


Job done, and back to the acting, I welcome the legend that is Jon Langford to The Show with the immortal words “THE Jon Langford?” He is a grizzled old veteran of the punk wars, hunkered down in a big hat and sheepskin jacket that makes him look like the sort of rancher who has had to deal with his reckless youngest son shooting off his mouth in the saloon in town once too often. He also greets me with his beautiful deep Welsh burr by name all weekend, enquiring after my welfare each time. The sort of turn you are prepared to crawl over broken riders for.


I take time out to burst into Dana Immanuel’s backstage enclave to wish them well for their show. “You won’t remember me!” I exclaim. “I do…” purrs cajonista H, albeit in the sort of tone which suggests that somebody may have forgotten to renew a restraining order. “Do a fabulous show!” is all I can think of to blurt. I resist the temptation to go the full Wizard of Oz and continue “…and your little doggie!!” in case I’m dragged away by security but do manage a strangled “I love you!”** The next time I saw Dana was at two in the morning singing ‘Wagon Wheel’. As you do.


Saturday dawns full and bright, and I have another day of my virtual twelve hour house concert to enjoy. M’good friend and occasional employer Tony James Shevlin puts in a shift in the afternoon and then later again in the Stygian gloom of the evening, where we are delighted to bump into Rich Hall, later to appear in his own show, but currently mournfully regarding the line up for the John Prine tribute to take place in The Peacock Cafe (another barn in all truth), which has been COVID- safeguarded in terms of ventilation  by the simple expedient of taking out about a third of the wall. 


The queue for the stage is considerably larger than some of the audiences I’ve seen, but Rich is kind enough to look obligingly like he knows me for my souvenir snap. During a gap in proceedings on The Medicine Show I take to the stage myself, indulging in a few songs just in order that I can say I trod the boards as a solo artist once again. Helen is later annoyed that I didn’t summon her to perform and I gravely inform her that this constitutes misuse of the radio under the Stage Manager’s Code. She nods solemnly, abashed.


On Sunday I have a lighter line up than I deserve, and so have mostly to make sure Tony Winn doesn’t fall off the stage during his return to the live arena. He is ably supported by The Fragrant and Charming Helen Mulley on vocals, who is keen that her offspring should be attendant to behold her magnificence. The boys are working the festival and so I offer to summon them via the power of wireless communication. “I thought that breached the Stage Manager’s Code?” she suggests.


I summon my inner Captain Barbossa. “It’s not so much a code, Missy” I explain piratically. It’s more a set o’ guidelines…”


*Diva

**That from me to them, not the other way round, in case you were wondering.