Sunday, December 31, 2006

“Another year over, and what have you done?"

The final lap of this year's journey through the pub rock underworld arrives with a gig in our home town on New Year's Eve Eve, and an opportunity to celebrate with friends, each other and people we don't know. The John Bull has us dripping with sweat after three songs and wondering where to go after five since a young lady has taken it upon herself to read the setlist at The Singer's feet and announce each song as it comes up. 

For some reason I take umbrage at this and we decide to skip one just to throw her off the scent. There wll be quite a lot of skipping going on during the course of the evening, both by us, who are having the time of our lives, and by a large and enthusiastic circle of Billy Bunters, who are determinedly also doing so. Everything is good natured, however, and after a few shouts and a good few Guinesses, The Singer and I decide that maybe a run through a Take That song really is just what the situation demands?

Fortunately the rest of the band are also game and, as ever, a cobbled together non-song gets the biggest cheer of the night. Still, it's not often that 'Back For Good' gets an outing, and doubtless theirs will be added to the list of CDs that an attentive fan has been collecting based entirely on our set list, which is a tribute of sorts and helps us feel that perhaps we really are putting something back, although how REO Speedwagon sits next to Graham Coxon in her collection is perhaps a matter for the more Gambaccini-minded amongst us. 

The party atmosphere takes over and we delve into singalong mode, to the point where we eschew traditional entertainment mores, take the Robbie route and simply let the crowd sing for us - they particularly enjoy an ad hoc 'All You Need Is Love' medleyed into 'Cum on Feel The Noize' which was certainly not on the set list I had. The New Drummer is bayed at to play his triangle, which he solos on admirably at one point before our chum Andy Trill takes the stage and simply rips through 'My Sharona' while I look on simultaneously awed and nervous - I have to go on again after him, after all and it's all I can do to handicap him with a long guitar strap, an unfamiliar amp and a guitar he doesn't like just to keep him in some sort of check. 

At last we close with an Undertones song and are let go. We don't really want to, but we've never been keen to outstay our welcome at the best of times. And this is the best of times. Five blokes, making a loud noise with bits of wood and wire and of skins and hearts. That's all we are, but at times like this it feels good. It feels better than good, it feels like home. We pack up the gear, we wish each other a happy new year. And we go home.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

"What's That Coming Over The Hill...!?"

It's christmas - hence there has been jollity, there has been consumption of fizzy drinks, there has been football in ill-fitting footwear at a party and, consequently, there has been a guitarist-related head/brick wall interface scenario resulting in the sort of look that says to a casting director "Yes, this guy could play Phantom, and what's more, we could save a bundle on make up". Consequently I have been spending a lot of time on the sofa worrying whether an aneurism is on it's way, or whether I'm just going to have a lot of explaining to do at tonight's gig in Stow. Hence when I roll up to the show I'm still waiting for blackouts, spots before they eyes, sudden memory loss involving that tricky solo in 'My Sharona' or a good excuse as to why I have a rapidly developing black eye. As it happens, only the third example manifests itself and that turns out to be confirmation that everything is, indeed, completely normal this evening. We haven't played for a couple of weeks and so we ease our way into the set, a couple of safety standards leading our way, and the vagaries of the room highlighting the lack of a soundcheck that is the hallmark of a veteran pub band. There are marker pen reference points against all the knobs on my amplifier, and that's the usual starting point at all shows - that the 'lead' channel usually ends up a couple of turns to the right bears less relation to any fondness for 'The Time Warp' than it does The Singer's enthusiasm for the latter, more guitar-centric part of the set, where his rhythm parts take on behemothtastic levels of indulgence. Still, the look on his face and that I can embark on tasteful little sweeps and arpreggios with absolutely no possibility of anyone hearing them well make up for it. As I canter through the set I am pleased that my position stage left means that I am principally hiding my weeping cheek from the audience while concentrating on frettery and frottery - the usual posing has given way to my default posture of sub-Frankenstenian Neil Young lumbering with a side order of beer gut, and I am momentarily discomfited to notice that it looks like my sons are fronting the band, youthful and well-dressed as The Singer and The Other Guitarist are. Or at least look. Something else that has come to my attention is that my return to active service, or at least uprightness, has prompted a healing sudden rush of blood to the head which, although welcome in terms of putting to bed those feelings that The Pickerel may be about to witness a dramatic on stage collapse, also means that my nascent black eye is swelling alarmingly, and starting to edge up into my field of vision. At this rate of not having peripheral (ie fretwards) vision I'll be playing by memory alone, which has happened a couple of times - and a couple of times too many. I resolve to take in more fluids and hope for the best. And the best is what it turns out to be. The second set kicks off full bloodedly and we start to get into the zone - that special feeling where everything is locking together, everything's kicking in and all the stuff is coming off. It's not about packing up the car in the rain, the dodgy leads or the odd covers, or the knowledge that someone, somewhere out there is playing this solo a lot better than you ever could, it's about being out with your mates in a pub full of whooping people having a great time. Time flies. There's an encore, then another, then another, and we're having such a good time that we don't want to stop. Alright then, we will play that thing we haven't done for ages, just for a laugh. I tilt my head a bit further back just to keep an eye on any errant notes that may have hidden away below my eyeline and get cigarette smoke in said eye as a result. When we finally finish we realise that for a band that subscribes to the "two forty five minute sets" school of pub bandery we have just played the second 'half' for an hour and a thirty minutes and are still being asked for more. I have seen rock and roll future, and it's five blokes in a pub. It's a shame we don't still do 'Born To Run' - that'd have been a good punchline.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Heathen Chemistry

It was the best of times, the worst of times. Well, not quite that bad as to be literally ‘worst’, to be honest. Not as bad, for example, as the time we decided to do a gig in Stowmarket with our Beatles specialist band and precede each song with a recitation of the relevant entry from Ian McDonald’s seminal ‘Revolution In The Head’.

It may have been that which pushed them over the edge, or the first-set closing version of the (I believe) 1967 fan club-only flexidisc song “Christmas Time Is Here Again” (not one of their better known or artistically satisfying works, to be honest) but we were certainly let know in no uncertain terms that our outrĂ© approach to presenting the works of the mop tops was not appreciated. That and the “play some more, you fuckers” at the closing of the second set indicated that both the levity and brevity of our stagecraft left something to be desired. Everyone’s a critic, eh? 

So when we were contacted at a couple of days notice to fill in for a cancellation at a private party only for The Bass Player to reluctantly decline the opportunity to sit around toying with vol au vents for three hours waiting to go on for the second weekend in a row we probably should have thought again about the wisdom of approaching the evening as an exciting challenge. 

As it happened, The Singer and The Other Guitarists were posed mutely in a hotel room in Stoke and a charity fundraising dinner in Ipswich respectively, fingers hovering over the speed dial buttons on their mobiles, wondering if I had finally lost the plot by suggesting we could 'busk it'. Fate however intervened and those calls were never made. On such throws of the dice do the gods (possibly played by Larry Olivier) toy with our fates. 

On the surface, it should be a relatively easy task to accomplish – we’ve got three guitar players in the band and so one of them just shuffles across and fills the vacant space on stage and plays simply two fewer strings than he does ordinarily. How difficult can it be? That The Other Guitarist was originally a bassist of no little repute anyway (one early comment on our line up was that having him on guitar was like Ipswich Town putting Richard Wright up front instead of in goal, although subsequent developments in his career now suggest that that may not have been as silly a concept as it sounded at the time). A few set list conference calls later and we’d settled on a respectable run of numbers and although we had bowed to circumstance and included a few Beatles numbers (sans prologue essays) we stick firmly and proudly to our No Mustang Sally rule. 

We have been warned that there may be a few musicians in the crowd, always the toughest of people to play to, and at the sight of one legendary local entertainer I am both anxious that he may see through our hastily constructed facade and relieved that at least we can get him up for a good twenty minutes' worth of "Come Together" if things tail off later. It transpires that he is merely dropping party guests off in his current role as a cab driver. I am not sure whether this constitutes a lucky escape for him or for us. 

And then the wait begins for showtime. This, it transpires, is a tenth anniversary and Christmas party for a local firm run, it turns out, by a very nice man who also plays in a local band, and who is grateful for our turning up at short notice if nothing else. We have a few friends in common and he’s extraordinarily reasonable about the lack of a few numbers in the set, we chat about gigs, bands and all the minutae of musical life that occupies musos when they get together and he invites us to help ourselves to the buffet and call him if there’s anything we need. So far, so good. 

This particular ilk of office party is where you go to chat to colleagues, off-piste as it were, meet up with family members, talk to friends you haven't seen for a while and enjoy the sumptuous buffet at length. It is emphatically not where you go to drink booze and jump around to the band, especially one with as cobbled-together a repertoire as this, sounding as it does like the preliminary mixes of a particularly eclectic covers album that someone has forgotten to put the overdubs on. 

We are not exactly on a post gig high when a woman passes on her way to leave with her clearly embarrassed daughter in tow. “I loved your Haircut 100” she beams. “Bloody kids!” she adds, and is gone. Which brightens the mood a little. And so it is with almost religious fervour that we greet The Prodigal Bass (and keyboard) Player the next night at a compact and bijou (and scheduled) gig within hiking distance of at least two of the band members’ homes. 

The first order of the night hence goes out for two lagers, a Guinness, a JD & coke* and a lime and soda. Stalker Bertie, back from a trek around Europe following proper bands is in attendance and is sequestered into guitar roadieing duties - just as soon as he’s back from the bar - and there is a healthy assortment of WAGs, friends and people who’ve seen us before building up an anticipatory air to proceedings. 

As we begin a more familiar set that on the previous evening there is a palpable sense of relief that guitar parts are being filled, errant harmonies are back in place, and that all is well within the camp. The newly relaxed atmosphere leads to showboating, mucking about and further calls for lubrication from the bar, and we are back again as a tight and groovy little team, playing to our strengths and enjoying the vibe, as are our mutually appreciative audience. 

At the start of the second set our good friend Andy Trill gets up to lead the rhythm section (including The Other Guitarist back on his original bass playing duties) through a spirited Snow Patrol rocker to marvellous effect. Mr Trill is also a bassist of enormous ability and at one point comments on my efforts with the four string that he fears that it seems apparent that I may have been attacked by a bass as a child. I also perform the patented Dave Pegg plectrum on the forehead manoeuvre mid song, which makes me smile to myself, if no one else. 

We are in a noisy mood tonight, and so the punk stuff is to the fore – ironically, this would have been a much better approach to take last night, as our host had told us he was due out to support the UK Subs next year with his band but, oh, that special component, that whole, and it’s missing part. We won’t be trying that again. Tonight however the sound’s great, everyone is in good voice, the solos are coming off a treat, and all is well with the world again. I could have danced all night, and still have begged for more. I could have spread my wings and, hang on…

 *A post gig conversation runs thus - "I've only had five JD and cokes and I feel fine". "You do realise Pat got you a treble, don't you?"."I've only had eight JD and cokes and I feel fine..."

Monday, December 11, 2006

“It was a very good year...”

Who’s in charge here?” A question like that this early in the evening can only mean one of two things – either we’re about to be handed an inordinate amount of money or we are to be informed of some restriction on our activities – either a line we have to stay behind, a sound level we must not breach or, as on this occasion, a dire warning about the state of ‘the electrics’. “We’ve got trouble with the electrics” a man informs us succinctly. We enquire further as to the nature of the ‘trouble’, mindful that we will be holding electric guitars for a period of time later, plugged into electric amplifiers and very possibly singing into microphones which are routed into a PA amplifier which, in turn, will be connected to the ‘electrics’ with which there are, apparently, ‘trouble’. “We’ve had problems with the supply, so if you could just plug in the bare minimum of stuff you need, that’d probably help”. We consider what the ‘bare minimum’ entails and reflect that the laser show spelling out the name of the band in fourteen foot high letter against the night sky will probably have to remain in the van. ”You should see our fuse board” he carries on mournfully, “charred black, it is”. The Singer and I exchange glances. “If the lights go down, who should we ask for?” he says, mindful of the need for calm heads in the event of a crisis. “If I were you I’d ask for an electrician” is the guileless reply.

We are in a good old-fashioned social club on the outskirts of our home town at five o’clock on a Sunday afternoon, and setting up the gear in front of the regulation sparkly gold curtain and stashing instrument cases in a box room behind the stage which is festooned with stern notices concerning band running times and dark warnings about the abuse of the ‘one free drink for the band’ rule on Saturday nights in order to play at a birthday party for The Old Drummer’s Mum, an irony not lost on those of us who nodded sympathetically as he explained his reasons for leaving the band some weeks ago and are to share the stage with a conjuror, a choir, and The Old Drummer, who will guest behind the kit before closing the show with a bit of Frank Sinatra to a backing track, for which he needs simply a microphone and a stand to perform – a long way away from all that setting up of drums and stands and cymbals that he used to have to put up with on these sorts of occasions. I ask where he is. The Singer replies that he’s gone home as he forgot to bring a microphone and a stand with him. Any old irony? Any, any, any, old irony?

Later, as the room fills with the young and the old, the long and the short and the tall, The New Drummer, resplendent in his “Uzi does it” t-shirt, is setting up his drums and stands and cymbals in the midst of a swarm of ‘tweenagers, all variously helpfully tapping, crashing or tightening things around him. It’s like a post-My Chemical Romance ‘Lord of The Flies’ up there and he mouths “Help me!” silently toward the rest of us, now happily set up and recumbent (as all mindful bands at this sort of function should be) at a table conveniently close to where the queue for the buffet will start. We wave brightly back and reflect that it’s lucky he’s not wearing his glasses as surely by now there’d be one of the kids trying to use them to magnify one of the stage lights we’ve (recklessly, in view of the parlous state of the electrics) left shining brightly stage left (and which will later give one of the Choir a frankly demonic hue throughout her performance) before smashing them and leaving him crawling around, a pitiful mewling wreck in a circle of baying children, their faces painted with scary, primal patterns. Well, they start wearing mascara so early these days, don’t they?

A member of The Choir wafts past, resplendent in their purple stage robes. “I do wish you wouldn’t smoke” she sniffs at our Bass Player “It makes me feel sick!” Clearly she is of an age where you don’t have to introduce yourself to someone before being rude to them. At the bar, another member is polite enough to introduce herself first before asking someone what they think of the stage gear. “Er…very nice” replies the interogee, not sure what to say. “Really?” she replies “I think I look like Aladdin….”. The spectre of The Good Life’s Miss Mountshaft hangs eerily in the air. After the extensive buffet - we are back in our seats and chowing down on chicken drumsticks and nibbles and dips before The Choir has made its way half way across the dance floor toward the paper plates, although to be fair a good number of them are walking with the aid of sticks – we are treated to a selection of show tunes, a couple of pop numbers and some beat poetry of the Pam Ayres variety. Clearly the smoke inhalation has done Rude Lady no good at all, judging by her solo number, but you can always learn from a fellow musician, if only if it’s what not to do. Attempt a three octave song with a two octave range being the obvious example on display here. 

There is also a solo piano number featuring the overture from “Kiss Me Kate” which is an object lesson in how to put songs together, and is terribly well played. From our vantage point behind the charming and friendly young lady on the keyboard we can see the chords being played out with the right hand and the alternating bass notes and fills courtesy of the left. It’s fascinating and, being an overture, you get all the songs packed into one handy five minute package which in my own humble personal opinion is, frankly, the best way to ingest your musicals. It’s always a pleasure to be able to appreciate a talent first hand and see the magic which can be weaved with what (I believe) Fats Waller once referred to as ‘a handful of keys’. Our own, dear, Bass Player, who doubles as onboard keyboard monkey and whom I strongly suspect is several grades behind her in terms of exams is looking slightly less enthralled as he has to follow her by opening our set with a pop song in ‘E’ which he still hasn’t quite mastered satisfactorily. This, it will transpire, will be one of the three songs he is required to play this evening, thus making it one of the highest pound-per-chord evenings out he’s ever experienced, and if he can avoid the choristers now circling the room armed with charity collection buckets, he could be quids in on this one.

Once the chairs that the ladies have been resting on between exertions have been cleared from the stage (by us) it seems that the funky beat rhythms of The Scissor Sisters are not strictly to the tastes of the majority of our support act and they gather together their bags, shawls, fleeces and sheet music to their persons and sweep out majestically into the night, a squadron of song, an armada of Andrew Lloyd Webber. To be fair “Take Your Mama Out”, a deliberate choice to mark the occasion, isn’t strictly to the tastes of the band either, as The Old Drummer declines the opportunity to sing it on the grounds that it’s “fucking rubbish”. The things you find out about that you never knew about someone, really. He contents himself with some absent-minded percussion tapping, and some tambourine waving in the distracted style of someone who’s popped into the office where he used to work only to find someone else at his old desk and his workmates a bit too busy to sit and chat about how he’s getting on these days.

After a couple of numbers TND is however ejected affably from the stool and TOD takes his place behind the kit. Thus, similarly, The New Drummer seems to have spent more time as an unofficial children’s entertainer than he has as a drummer (and was not only more enthralling to the kids than the actual conjuror, but in his bow tie and dinner jacket combo, actually looked more like one too). The show closes with The Old Drummer’s big Sinatra number – mic in one hand, whisky and cigarette in the other, he croons like a good ‘un, living the dream, dinner jacket secured with a single button, the glittery curtain a suitably Vegas backdrop. We’ve been here five hours, for around twenty minutes of actual onstage playing time. Still, like the man says, that’s life.

Friday, November 24, 2006

"All back to the hotel, two birds each....."

Now, most of these blogs have a happy ending - a tiny triumph, an if you will, little victory - but it's not always like that. There are gigs where the highlight of the evening is that the leads haven't had beer spilt all over them, something you tend to only disover once you've coiled them up around your arm at the end of the night. We once had to make our way out of a pub armed with mic stands as makeshift offensive weapons after The Drummer sang a ribald alternative version of the chorus to "Something Stupid" at the wrong guy in the Gents (not as alarming as when our friend DJ Simon happened to walk into the toilet singing "Beautiful Stranger" that one time, but that's a different story). I was in a particularly chipper mood arriving at tonight's gig, having spent the day in a recording studio discovering the wonders that a magical thing called ProTools can perform on an ineptly played harmonica part and listening to a fiddle player weave marvellous parts around some songs that I'd been involved in writing. 

The previous evening I'd been in a pub listening to old timey down home singalongs and had woken up in my friend James's spare room with a cup of tea and a wet lurcher (the dog, not the gait) and this evening I'd partaken both of fried food and a Richard Thompson album on the way to the gig and so things, pretty much, were going as well as could be hoped for.

We were set up and ready to rock when a young lady approached the bandstand. The bete was about to turn noir. "Do you do 'Mustang Sally'?" she enquired. "No", I answered truthfully "We don't". "Why not?". "Because I hate the song and despise everything it implies about the lack of imagination and lazy easy hit attitudes of the worst kind of pub band" I responded. I always find that honesty is the best policy in these situations - it saves an awful lot of misunderstanding later on.

“But you could do it?" she persisted. "Yes. But we choose not to". That pretty much summed up the situation as far as I was concerned and I felt sure we could move on in our relationship - to the first song of the set perhaps, which was patiently waiting to be played at this point. "Well, people say I have a kinda okay voice and I could do it with you". "No". "You're just being a typical male now, aren't you?". She sure had a lot of questions on her mind, and here came another one. "Well what can you play?". I nodded toward The Singer's big book of lyrics cheat folder. "All those songs in there". I was still processing the information that a 'typical male' would be just the kind of churl to deny a girl the chance to sing "Mustang Sally" on a first date, which out of all the accusations I'd ever had levelled against me was way down the list - a long way behind not offering to pay for dinner, for starters (as it were). 

She regarded the ring binder acidly - "What are you, some sort of karaoke act?". I turned slowly to take in the two basses, four guitars, one drumkit, two keyboards and three microphones and complete lack of request slips we'd managed to arrange on the stage and considered that I may well have misinterpreted our role. Nope, I was pretty sure I was in a band. "No", I confirmed, "We're a band, definitely a band". "So, do you do any Beatles?". As it happens, we do sometimes, but I wasn't going to let the tricksy little minx get round me that easily. "No" I said. "Now go away". Typical male.

Three songs into the set, she approached again. No, we still didn't do any Beatles. We tried differing responses. The Singer's "Umm, I'm actually working at the moment" cut no ice. "Please go away" from The Other Guitarist didn't really cut the mustard. "Look, do I come up to you at work and start telling you where to put the gherkins in your burgers?" provoked only a desultory "How did you know what my job was, anyway?". "A lucky guess". From the bar came a pleading "Leave them alone, it's not your show, it's theirs". Now there was someone who wasn't getting extra relish on his hot dog tonight. In the break we were informed that we were quite good but our stagecraft wasn't up to much. It's nights like these you live for. 

And then the people came. It's amazing what a turnaround in fortune can be provided by the bar upstairs at chucking out time (thank you so much Bouncing Off Concrete for being so good that nobody left your gig to check out the group downstairs....). Suddenly, rather than having a good chance at beating the entire audience at a pick up band vs. audience kickabout there were people dancing, and shouting, and clapping, and whooping. You knew the happy ending was coming, didn't you? By the time the second encore came around we were throwing shapes (there's your stagecraft), odd covers (has she gone, great let's do that Beatles song we had up our sleeves all the time) and whacking our way through a double speed Waterboys cover we hadn't previously tried with The New Drummer which provoked whoops, frugging, a free drink from the bar, oh, and a fight.

As I wound up the leads I was happy to discover that no-one had spilled beer on them. We come, we go, we play. We have fun with our friends we play the songs we like and we make a loud noise that makes people drink and dance until the early hours. Is that such a bad way to spend our evenings? We could be more accomodating when it comes to requests, I suppose, but all we really want to do is ride them, sadly, ride.

Friday, November 03, 2006

We definitely ate the bear......

Some nights it all comes together. It's loud, it's hot, the sound of your guitar is exactly what you want it to be at every turn, those little licks you try come off, everybody plays out of their skin, there's a girl dancing at the front like nobody's watching, someone hands you a beer, the audience are singing and clapping and grinning, the set flows like a river, suddenly the skinny fit jeans and Converse don't feel like an affectation and every shape you throw feels like you were born to it. Last year I was in London watching Keane when the singer announced that there was no better feeling than playing 'Bend or Break' in Hyde Park to a girl on her boyfriend's shoulders with her tits out, and at the time I believed him. Tonight Tom, I'm not so sure you were right. Or as The Other Guitarist said after the gig, grinning like a darned fool. "Where the fuck did that come from?!?!?"

Monday, October 30, 2006

"Back in the garage...”

There’s nothing more likely to bring a smile to the attention-starved musician’s lips than the word ‘rehearsal’. This, it should be said, isn’t strictly true in some cases. It’s a broad-faced lie, in fact, especially when it comes to me. I can’t see the point, I mean it’s not like you’re going to get a round of applause or anything, is it? And isn’t that the idea? The show-off must, after all, go on. And you have to pay for the privilege. 

Although there are bands who like nothing more than the regular routine of the Thursday night run through the set followed by a quick couple of goes at a new song and then knocking off in time for last orders (I used to be in one myself and it was marvelous fun at the time, and I believe James Brown follows a similar routine when not on the road) we are not a group renowned for our rehearsive habits. Folk in Stowmarket, for example, still talk in hushed, awed tones of the version of ‘Rubber Bullets’ we attempted on the back of two quick acoustic run-throughs at which no more than sixty per cent of the band were present at any one time.

This was an unfortunate aberration as usually this tried and trusted method allows new songs to at least limp in to the set before being fine-tuned over subsequent performances until by about the fourth or fifth time we play them, they have gained magnificent lives of their own. Or they are discreetly dropped to the bottom of the list, whichever seems more appropriate. Suffice to say, our 10CC repertoire has a separate piece of paper to itself these days. 

That method also explains why it is very rare to hear of any band member actually listening to any of the songs we perform live for their personal pleasure. On one occasion The Singer was so frightened by listening to ‘Band On The Run’ at home, and the hideous shape we’d twisted it into, that he took fear and threw it as far away as possible. What with The New Drummer having done his homework and rather confusingly having decided to play what’s actually on the original recordings rather than what ought to be, it has been decided that we should convene properly to thrash a few of these things out, figuratively if not literally, and it’s a three line whip – with one exception. 

We will not be joined by The Other Guitarist who, having methodically checked everyone’s availability, sourced a rehearsal room and negotiated a deal for its hire, finally put the phone down on the last transaction only to remember that he was supposed to be in Stoke that night. This is another reason why the regular weekly practice session has fallen out of fashion. Our real, grown up lives intervene, and we find ourselves taking kids to piano lessons, escorting them to quasi-military religious rallies (Boys Brigade, I believe they call it), stock checking electrical components in Brighton, being on planning business in Milan or, in this case, being called to Stoke. 

There are worse things than rehearsal, clearly. We are issued with a closely-typed email detailing what we need to run through. Worryingly, this seems to comprise a large percentage of the set and it seems that we will be enjoying the delights of an ex-carpet workshop long in to the night while our absent friend in the north settles back with the contents of the mini bar and a selection of premium-rate hotel TV movies. Which of us is living the rock n’ roll dream now, eh? Practice commences in time-honoured fashion. Three of us have a fag outside while we wait for The Drummer to turn up. 

He phones from a nearby McDonald’s and kindly takes the time to ask if we need any apple pies before promising to be there shortly. Once he’s in and set up proceedings continue as they have from time immemorial – I sit and play with the presets on the keyboard and try to find silly noises, and play some very bad Depeche Mode riffs. To vary proceedings I then try Axel F, and once this has been completed to everyone’s satisfaction we stretch out by trying The Icicle Works’ ‘Understanding Jane’. Needless to say, this is not part of our homework but it’s a blast, so we play it anyway. Once gathered towards the highlighted set list we diligently work our way through, playing things twice, going back over intros, sorting out some errant chords that have become ingrained through repetition and explaining drum fills in the usual way – “It sort of goes doof-de-doof doof blam” to a clearly perplexed drummer. 

A handy mnemonic for one run round the kit (it’s the intro for ‘down under’ as well as many other things) goes “flats in Dagenham”. This was once the subject of a mildly amusing mid-song fill when one batteriste of our acquaintance got as far as the part in question at a gig and then forgot the name of the town. He answered our queries afterwards by explaining that he’d been playing “houses in Chelmsford” in error. Insert your own drummer joke here…. After a while it’s actually fun – it’s a bit raw, a bit loose, and we’re suddenly fourteen year olds again, back in the garage and reveling in the joy of making really loud noises with electrical equipment for our own amusement - so much more fun than power tools and piano lessons. A final run through something a bit more familiar, just to reassure ourselves that we do really know what we’re doing, and a quick check as to what time we need to be at the venue and we’re done. 

These days we don’t need to wait outside for our parents to pick us up – basses are hoiked on to child seats, briefcases shunted aside to make room for amplifiers, and project folders shifted aside so that guitars have room on the back seat. And finally; The Drummer’s apple pie has cooled down enough for him to be able to eat it.

Monday, October 16, 2006

1992 and all that.....

Of course, while I'm out folking about, the business of Picturehouse continues. Here, The Singer explains what goes on behind my back....

While our Picturehouse Big Band colleagues Skirky and Gibbon are plying their trade (their particular trade being better described as a “folky-country-bluegrassy mix of original songs”) at an acoustic evening in Colchester, Kilbey and Wendell, watched by drummer Frisky Pat, are preparing to play as an acoustic duo for the first time in about two years. 

The venue is a country pub on the high street in Bramford, just outside Ipswich, run by good friend Noisy Jane, and attended by locals with a smattering of various band wives and friends.We’re feeling a little nervous. Having not played this set of songs for a while, and being used to having a wall of noise behind which to hide any hesitant chords or backing vocals, this gig seems to present more than the usual set of worries. But on the plus side, neither of us are driving home, and the traditional nerve sweeteners of Guinness and JD / coke are available in abundance.

We start off with a couple of our old faves and before we know it we’re half way through the first set and each song has been greeted with a fair amount of appreciation. Before playing the next song I decide to tell the attentive audience about the time that I, along with Skirky and Gibbon in one of Skirky’s bands called Gods Kitchen (with no apostrophe), supported an up and coming band by the name of Dodgy, whose song ‘Staying Out For the Summer’ we are about to play. 

The crux of the story is that despite a fair amount of publicity, only 5 people turned up to see the show, which left us playing to these 5 plus the main band and them playing to the 5 plus us. As I’m recounting the story, I mention that, I think, this all happened in 1991. “No, it was 1992.” Shouts one of the audience. After I’d asked how he could be so sure, he said “I was one of the five.”What are the chances? 

At the break I go and find this guy to check if he was actually just having a bit of a joke. Charlie, as his name turns out to be, is indeed telling the truth, and we chat for most of the break about other gigs we’d both been to in our home town and he requests that we do a Smiths song in the second set. As we don’t know any, he has to make do with a Starsailor song (no, really!) and seems happy with this.

At the end of the show one of the locals approaches us and asks if one of the guys sitting with the band friends is really the keyboard player for Fish – him out of Marilion. We explain that not only is he the keyboard player, but also co-writer on a lot of Mr Fish’s last couple of long players. “I’d hoped so,” replies the pleased local, “I bought him a drink and got him to sign this bit of paper. Should get something for it on E-Bay.”

As we pack up the gear, Frisky Pat is telling us that we need some percussion (“You won’t even know that I’m there” he explains), and we drain our drinks before being driven home by the very sober Mrs Wendell, who tells me that I should choose any of the other backing vocal lines for one of the songs. Any that is, other than the one I actually sang. Harshest critics and all that… 


Friday, October 13, 2006

"Someone's throwing sand at the moon...."

It is one of those periodic fallow times for Picturehouse (frankly, if The Drummer was looking for some time off due to pressures of gigging relentlessly, consensus is he left the wrong group) which enables me to spend time with my other musical interest, Songs from The Blue House, a moveable feast of a collective of mainly acoustic musicians playing a folky-country-bluegrassy mix of original songs and whom some of the members of Picturehouse refer to as my “proper group”. Oddly enough, as members of SftBH do when referring to Picturehouse, as it happens. The combo has been invited to celebrate John Peel Day in the company of a couple of other turns in a converted church – the very same one which saw the departure of The Drummer a few weeks ago - and as we gather under the vaulted ceiling a friend remarks that the last time she was in here she was at a mate’s wedding and it felt very different “with all the tables and stuff”. I mention that the last time I was here it was for a wedding and agree that yes, it did feel very different. As the players slope in, I strike up a conversation with Sound Man Marky – always a good move early on in the proceedings, especially with the number of things we need DI* connections for – and ask him how it’s going so far. “Well…”, he reflects world-wearily “…I set the fackin’ PA up and there was all sorts of fackin’ crackles and shit goin’ on so I switched a few leads round and it still fackin’ crackled like a bastard and then I moved across to switch another couple o’ connections and tripped over the bleedin’ stage box”. “…and!?” I wonder out loud. “That seemed to fix it” he says happily. “You’re gonna need shitloads of DI’s, aren’tcha?” I confirm that yes we are indeed going to need ‘shitloads’ of DI’s, and four vocal mics too. For an ‘acoustic band’, it generally takes an awful lot of wires and electronics to get us heard anywhere beyond the front row. “I was afraid you’d say that”. He finishes off his cigarette with a deep pull and his features take on a steely and yet faraway expression as he reaches a satisfactory conclusion to his ongoing internal debate. “I’ll get some shit out’ the van”.
The turn on before us is a young bass/drums/piano combo called Making Eyes at Elvis who are sparky, spunky, quite, quite brilliant and quite obviously destined for far greater things in life than opening a charity gig on a Thursday night in Ipswich. As our MC for the evening announces that the last time he’d introduced the band he’d been mercilessly heckled by the band’s entourage there are “Ah, that’s where we’ve seen him before!” nods between the band members over his shoulder before they kick robustly into a series of driving, complex and quite possibly lyrically brilliant (it’s hard to tell) songs which should have them recording bad cover versions in the Jo Whiley live lounge before they’ve even had time to decide which support tour to turn down because they’ve got A-levels to revise for. They, clearly, are aware of this already as post-set congratulations are accepted in a shrugged “yeah, and your point is…?” kind of way, seemingly as if they have more important people to listen to. Which I’m sure they probably do. Or maybe I’m just the wrong demographic, or maybe they’re just shy. Still, they seem happy enough to borrow both the drum kit and our bass amp, so perhaps it’s just that they like to travel light and with this in mind, in the way of the young folk these days, once they’ve done their set they’re packed up and on their way. Well, why would you want to bother hanging around to watch anyone else play when you could be home in time to catch the end of ‘Extras’? I feel like I should be compiling a tome on old-fashioned band etiquette. The least they could do is hang around outside and smoke for a bit after all, like we’ll do later with the headline act
One of the diversions of having to smoke outside the venue is that we have been able to listen to the band play inside while watching local salsa clubbers entwine themselves around other of their constituent members’ limbs in the glass-sided atrium nailed to the front of the building, in a sort of oddly coherent pastiche video style. The jumping skittered piano, whip crack drums and rumbling bass riffs of M.E.A.E. post a heady backdrop to the fluid moves and snake-hipped twistery of the dancers, making up what looks like a BBC 1 trailer as edited and mixed by Damon Albarn in one of his more art school moments. It also makes it tremendously entertaining getting through to the toilets. How the smokers during our set felt about the same thing occurring is unrecorded. We, for our part, had fun on stage, having whipped a couple of less-frequently performed things from the repertoire out of our pockets and enjoying our intro from Simon-from-The Urban Sofa** a bit more than the youngsters did (“When I first met this next band they were arguing over which idiot had booked them to play at the Jorvik Viking Centre in York. Since then their choice of venue has, if anything been even more inspired. Potters Bar Dog Borstal, the deep-sea research vessel “Albatross”, B&Q and the Millennium Stadium have all played host to their uniquely wonderful style of music…”). The next day reviews were good, everybody played well, and Marky’s gaffa-taped on stage box, stuffed to the gunwales with bouzouki leads, banjo DI’s and cables from mic’d up bass cabinets and fiddle delay pedals held out long enough for us to finish the set with ‘Risk’, singer James’s weary affirmation of hope for the future and celebration of new life. As we hit the last chorus I look up to the far end of the venue, and notice where the neon lights of the insurance building next door are shining through the stained glass window left over from the building’s previous incarnation – “A life that wasn’t yours” I sing to myself from one of our earlier songs. And I think of all these little pieces. Tiny fragments.

*direct input from an internal pickup, ie you don’t stick a microphone in front of it and hope for the best.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

"The King is dead! Long live The King!"


I roll up at saturday  to the works open day, where we have been employed to provide a musical backdrop to the raffle, a selection of stalls, some tours of the factory and a surprising number of scouts, some of whom are desultoraly wandering around having accessorised their uniforms with sneakers, skinny fit jeans and long keychains and have doubtless already achieved their 'emo' badges, very probably with distinctions. 

The Suffolk School of Samba are occupied drumming, dancing and generally enhancing the hangover experience under the bright sunshine and not one, but two trailers have been lined up side by side to provide our stage. Another band have provided PA and are also to play and are soon battling with the other attractions, not least a display by the company fire officers, who are regularly setting alight a pan of chemicals and then demonstrating how best to extinguish it, which on a site which expressly forbids the use of cigarette lighters and mobile phones for fear of igniting an explosion seems cavalier at best. Luckily there are also some members of both the Territorial and The Salvation Armies at hand, so all bases seem pretty well covered in terms of providing extra assistance in case things do go awry. 

Marvista, for it is they, play a punchy set of rock classics punctuated at every tween-song break by the dulcet tones of the site announcer urging folk to take the tour, buy some raffle tickets or visit the site waste disposal area over the PA before reminding them that they are being entertained by the band who are playing "in a pub style". The New Drummer suggests that we all go and have our faces painted and perform our set as tigers, an idea which is given serious consideration before being politely declined, as is his second suggestion that we engage in some Greco-Roman wrestling prior to the gig to stir things up a bit. At least he's contributing. 

The band finish and clear the stage of their equipment including, unfortuntely, the mics for the drum kit and guitar amps and also the vocal mics, however we have our own bag o' leads to hand and jury-rig a quick backline sound. This does rather leave The New Drummer having to make himself heard acoustically over the noise of the PA through which everyone else is playing, but he seems unfazed and approaches the task at hand with gusto. 

It's a nice day, we're on a trailer, we're having fun, and so who really cares if the car park audience are mainly transient? The lure of the waste disposal area has clearly become too much for a few people, and the lure of afternoon tea too much for a few stallholders who, some tired of handing out leaflets for free gym sessions (we weren't sure if we were being deliberately targeted but the exchange "Are you fit, then?" - "No, Tracy's the fit one" - "I beg to differ my dear..." was another of TND's contributions to the afternoon's entertainment) start packing up. 

The Scouts, to a be-woggled girl, boy and man, bravely hang on to the finish. As we prepare for our final big crescendo the announcer, who has been AWOL throughout our set, reappears, elegantly coiffed and resplendent in pastel green slacks, matching socks and wearing sandals to announce that it is time for the raffle to be drawn. 

Our stint, apparently, is over. Well, it's been a nice day out, I've earned more in an afternoon from the company than I have from the previous six years' performance-related bonuses (whether that says more about me than about the firm is a moot point) and so we pack up, up and away, content that for once we'll be home in time for tea and Final Score. The TA have loaded up their lorry, the winner of their own personal competition gets to ride the Steve McQueen-esque camouflage green motorcycle home, the last of the balloons in the balloon race are released to the skies and the afternoon has one, final, glorious postscript. The winning raffle tickets are announced over the public address speakers and prize recipients come forward to claim their booty from the stand. "....and on the yellow, winning ticket number 173. Has anyone seen Mike Hunt....?"

Sunday, September 03, 2006

"...and on that bombshell....."

We have another wedding reception to play. As per normal we have strongly advised both bride and groom to come and see us in a pub environment prior to the big day and warned them that, possibly minus a bit of Radiohead and plus a bit of Beatles, that's what they'll be getting. We're not a cabaret band, we don't do requests and we don't turn the PA back on after we've finished so that the chief bridesmaid can make an announcement. Not since that time one of them slurred "But i's very important - jes' wanna tell evryone tha' I splept with th' groom las' week...." although, believe me, we were tempted. Especially after The Bass Player said "Did she say 'the groom' or 'the bride and groom'?". These details can be important. So we turn up at the appointed (and anointed) venue, a decommissioned church, still used for spiritual matters but doubling as a conference, exhibition and meeting centre, although according to the sign outside "Revelations is cancelled on saturdays for further notice". The Bass Player is comforted by the inference that tonight's gig will be mercifully undisturbed by any apocalyptic horsemen, not least because I imagine they'd leave a terrible mess on the carpet. We have arrived bright and early to set up but find that the stage is already occupied by the pub rocker's sworn enemy and only natural predator - The Dixieland Jazz Combo. The Drummer is freaked out enough by clowns, so you can imagine what the sight of half a dozen MU members in blazers and toting such things as banjos does to him. They affably explain that they didn't know that there was another band playing tonight, but they'll be off at eight, which will give us plenty of time to set up before we start at nine, and there's still time to catch the second half of the England game at the nearest pub. This all sounds terribly reasonable and so we retire for coffees and cigarettes and a discourse on Peter Crouch's scoring record, at The Plough. The Drummer also has something on his mind. He has a beautiful gifted and attentive partner* and is charged with the care of three beautiful children, all of whom he hardly ever sees, has a way stressful day job to which he has to devote many hours of his own time, and on top of that goes out several thursday, friday and saturday nights a month with a bunch of guys who make him play 'American Idiot' and then 'I Fought The Law' in quick succession without a fag break in between. And at his age? Something's got to give, not least because it's rumoured that his golf handicap is also suffering. It's been building for a while and so we are not entirely surprised when he announces that this will be his last performance with the band for the forseeable future. And he might be losing his hair, but he's got great eyesight. Coffee cups are clinked. We go back to the venue and set up. The Drummer points out that this place "sucks the bass out of things". It's not a metaphor, the sound is odd. Three songs in we play a John Lennon song we've learned especially for the occasion at the Groom's behest and I shudder quietly to myself at how easily a "no requests" principle can be quickly neutralised by the application of ready cash. Perhaps it's the venue (although the huge organ** intro to one song sounds especially dramatic given the surroundings), perhaps it's occasion, perhaps it's the sunshine the starlight or even the boogie, but I keep drifting off. Regular viewers will be aware of my penchant for shape-throwing at pertinent points of shows, but there really is something especially wonderful about windmilling a chord in a Who song and having a wild drum fill punched into the crowd by The Drummer at the same time. We don't do any Free, but sometimes when I've been hitting a hanging barre chord on the Les Paul (roots ad fifths only, no thirds) leaning close up to the hi hat and locking in with the bass drum I really have thought "Were Kossoff and Kirke like this on Top of the Pops in the seventies?" - that we were probably playing 'The Bends' at the time needn't impinge on my reality, any more than the stuffed moose's head hanging from the ceiling over my head had to. During a slow Coldplay number I remember that when I did my first ever stand up solo singer-songwriter gig it was supporting The Drummer's band*** and when we finish I'm sorry that it wasn't in a frenzy of thrashing guitars, bass drones and Moonist fills around the kit, just that we had served our purpose for the evening and foks had mostly either disappeared for a cigarette outside or gone on to a club. And so this is how it ends. Not with a bang, but with a wedding. We are in the town centre, and rowdy crowds pass us by on their way to club land as we are packing up, many seasonally underdressed. Two girls dressed as Playboy bunnies totter past unsteadily. A man in a wedding suit nudges The Other Guitarist. "You can see their tails from here.....". Back in the venue, a very small boy clambers on to the stage, unsure of himself and looking for reassurance from his father, who urges him forward. The Drummer hands him a set of beaters, settles him on the stool, and watches happily as the child swooshes a few cymbals, delighted at the noise. I can see him thinking to himself - "My art will go on".

*Hi Trudes. x
**Oh stop it.
***It's alright, he doesn't die in the end, this is all just flashbacks. He's fine.

Monday, August 28, 2006

"Hi, I'm Johnny Cash...."

The Drummer has passed a late fitness test and announces his presence from behind the kit by launching into a couple of choruses of 'Ring of Fire'. All is well in the Picturehouse world as we are restored to full strength and amplifiers settings are rotated clockwise just a little further than is ordinarily considered polite. This evening will be a testament to the power of rock (country skiffle covers notwithstanding) and we have already seen off a great many guitar-based numbers so far tonight by the simple expedient of thrashing the merry hell out of our instruments at somewhat extreme volume. It's fair to say that after a series of party gigs, decibel metered-power cuts and enforced periods of acousticity, built up tensions are being released. 

They're not the only thing close to being released, as it occurs to me that the cold sweat I am generating may not be simply down to the pressure of trying to remember the riff to that Coldplay song we haven't done for a while but may also have something to do with the extended dinner I enjoyed last night with an old friend, the artist formerly known as The Behemoth of The Bass, and his lovely partner which ended up with us sitting over pints in the garden of a pub which hosted some of our finest moments back when we were someone, pointing out where the monitor engineer sat in a sort of "this were all backstage when I were a lad" fashion. The Behemoth mentions that he bumped into Fruitbat out of Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine in a bar in London recently and drunkenly reminded him that he'd supported him in Ipswich once. Fruitbat was either compos mentis enough, or polite enough, to recall the gig as a good one, and there is much discussion over the correct sequence of the lyrics to 'Sheriff Fatman' as a result. 

This was all terribly good fun at the time but it occurs to me that it's a good job that tonight's venue is no-smoking as having a naked flame anywhere near my pores just at the moment would be tantamount to inviting the local council to close the place down as an unwarranted fire hazard. Tonight I am playing the role of brooding guitar sidekick, and the resulting Peter Buck shapes being thrown, at least in my head, perk me up to the point where my unsteady passage to the microphone to front my first featured number of the evening is not quite as terrifying as it would have been ten minutes previously. While the audience is expectant, I am still feeling mildly expectorant, nevertheless the song passes without any embarassing evacuations, either by them or me. The healing power of REO Speedwagon is an underrated one, I find, nevertheless I am grateful to retire once more to the shadows and return to my imagined desultory air of mystery while the front pair pump up the volume. 

By the time The Drummer has introduced his Johnny Cash turn we are all positively playful - there are a couple of injoke riffages and The Singer's sense of urgency is infectious - every 'tween song break is punctuated by an agenda-setting purposeful "right...." before he announces what we're doing next, to the point where I idly speculate that "I predict a 'right'" may be the way forward for my next go at the microphone. As it is, some anthemic choruses bring forth a display of mobile phone screens in lieu of waved lighters, audience members shake tambourines and egg-shaped shakers (one returning said eggs with a leered - "It's alright, I didn't get them wet....") and by the time I'm feeling perky again it's all over bar the encores. 

The Other Guitarist does his party-piece "It's The End of The World as We Know It", we fade down the faders, switch off the electrics and retire to the garden for a contemplative post-gig cigarette. To paraphrase, doing a gig is like making love to a beautiful woman - you have to turn up on time, bring the right equipment, know what to do with your hands and leave 'em gasping and wanting more. 

Obviously, getting a round of applause is a bonus. 

Saturday, August 26, 2006

"The call came through at three fifty nine and by four you were on your way....."

I'm at work, and the inbox message flashes up on the screen with incoming. It's not Stalker Bertie (recently redubbed Bertie McFly) or Ophelia, two of my more my regular correspondents, it is The Singer. The Drummer is unwell and it looks like we will have to either cancel tonight's gig at The Pickerel or (and this where I feel my enthusiasm drifting rapidly away) "Let's do it country". Let's face it, it's friday night, it's raining, Ipswich Town are on the telly and we have no drummer - how much fun could this be? Really? He says that The Other Guitarist is going to call in on The Drummer for a late fitness test and then call the pub and will text me later. I reply and sign off to The Singer's email "fingers crossed". I imagine that we have different reasons for hope, after all, I've been invited out for dinner.
As it turns out, the gig is on. I pack the electrical guitar just in case we need a bit of extra oomph and slip a CD into the car stereo for the journey. It is the (originally a) tape that The Singer and The Other Guitarist made some twenty or so years ago of acoustic whimsy and leftovers from their other bands that at the time simply begged to be put down for future generations to enjoy. They called the band Picturehouse. There was no MySpace back then, and everyone we knew was in a band with oft-copied cassettes and hastily zeroxed fanzines as the only way to spread the word. The music is brilliant, all twelve strings and echoey piano and drum machines and naively double-tracked vocals, and I hear 'Stringman' as I pull up into the pub carpark and (in the words of Jackson Browne) I remember why we came.
We get kudos in the first place for turning up at all, but then we are faced with the issues of what to actually play. Luckily the frontline boys have a few numbers up their sleeves with which to calm the beast which is a Stowmarket pub audience and luckily The Bass Player is a master of improvisation and can provide some low notes. Oddly, they take to us and our never-say-die spirit (of actually turning up) with enormous enthusiasm. The Picturehouse Small Band renditions of singalongs like Lazy Sunday and California Dreaming bring forth glass-clicking approvals and lusty audience chorus joininginery. By the time we have exhausted our enforcedly limited repertoire the audience are bellowing at us not to leave. But leave we must. The Bass Player and I have shared the remaining SM58 like proto Paul and Georges, he has played guitar, I have played bass, we've both tried our best to fill in for The Drummer's inimitable harmonies and a very pretty girl leaps upon him after the gig saying she loves bass players - they're the best and coolest, ever. The Other Guitarist reflects sadly that chicks never fancied the bass player in his day, that's why he swapped.
Back home, I put on the Picturehouse CD again. And again.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

"...and now, please welcome on stage - Nun's Gussets....!!"

It is the third and final day of our three day tourette, and we are in the garden of The Steamboat Tavern in sunny downtown Ippo readying ourselves for an acoustic session in the sunshine. Thing is, after the privations of the previous couple of days The Other Guitarist and I have sneaked a couple of amps and electric guitars on stage, "just in case". The Singer whacks his acoustic through his pedal board, previously employed as the world's most digitally complicated guitar tuner, fiddles with some buttons and pronounces himself satisfied with the resulting fuzztoned buzz. 

The Bass Player regards his now-redundant elaborate two speaker cross-wired acoustic guitar foldback system sadly. It's nice in the barn-like shelter and we are happily playing, free from the restrictions of decibel meters and themed gigs, able to take ourselves wherever our whimsy guides us. Naturally, this means that we play a couple of Eagles songs and revisit the Noel Coward-does-The-Clash experience of last night, chatting to the happy crowd and inadvertently being rude about a couple of other local bands. "If there's anyone else you'd like us to have a go at", I quip, "Write their names down on a piece of paper and we'll do it in the second set". 

The so-called acoustic gig is becoming louder by the minute, much to the chagrin of The Drummer, who has stuck to the party line and just set up the minimalist kit he was playing last night, having treated himself to a couple of extra cymbals which give it a nice sense of symmetry if nothing else. But like The Ghurka kukri, once it is unsheathed it must be used, only with less deadly effect (usually). It's much harder to play a small combo than a big one and still make it sound good, especially when The Singer announces a number which traditionally starts with a big roll round the (missing) tom toms. He improvises masterfully before discarding the soft sticks and bringing out the 6A hickory big guns. 

Still, there's food, a bar tab, and a number of our collective offspring milling about, doing colouring on the patio and each other with thoughtfully provided chalks and complaining about having to sit through Dad's old rubbish again when they could be watching Star Wars. Kids today. They don't know they're born, eh? A number of small children seize the opportunity of the break to familiarise themselves with the percussive possibilities afforded by the stripped-down set up as he looks on happily, safe in the knowledge that he is creating an army of junior batteritistes which will one day surely take over the world, led by their spiritual leader, a sort of pied drummer of Hamelin. 

There is a faint sound of nervous squeaking as the dockside rats convene to discuss the inevitable forthcoming putsch. An all-girl cabaret trio set up, plug in their iPod and perform a number of swinging close-harmony songs with stage props and hat changes a-plenty. Someone has clearly been listening to our stage banter however, and hands me a piece of paper. I unfold it to read three words, the name of the group, The Nun's Gussets. Some of the children look a mite confused at their introduction and there is a degree of dread amongst the grown ups about having to go through the trio's moniker before Gusset number two helpfully points out that it is, in fact, a cocktail of sorts. Mainly involving Guinness, I believe. 

I was quite taken by the blonde one in the jaunty stetson actually, but there is a strong suspicion within the group that I'm not her type. My wife seems sure, anyway. High on chilli, caramelised sausages, chicken wings and sunshine, we retake the stage, blast out a few more less-than-acoustic numbers and bid our adieus. It's been a funny old weekend, but I love a happy ending.

“Turn ‘em all on, then turn ‘em all down...”


I am loading the car when the phone rings. It is Stalker Bertie who is already at tonight's gig and mysteriously offers the advice that I should pack an extra acoustic guitar. It seems that the venue has had a council-approved decibel meter installed, wired irrevocably to the power supply. Upon arrival it transpires that the previous night's band managed one thwack on the kick drum before departing in high dudgeon, and ominously The Drummer has set up only a bass, snare and hi hat ensemble and is regarding the soundchecking Singer mournfully. 

Sure enough, our saturday night out loosing the hopes and cares of the working week through the medium of loud rock music is to be skewed slightly and we settle down on stools for an evening of overly polite strumming, battling both the ever-present draconia of the amber light on the meter and the ribald revelry of the lads just to our right who are exploring the social possibilities of massive lager consumption, mobile-phone related humour and raucous repartee, some of which regularly threatens to trip the light not-so-fantastic without any of our help at all. I bet they're having no trouble washing away the week's cares. Still, needs must, and The Singer, who is currently resting between engagements, is keen to uphold the showbiz maxim that the show-offs must go on. And so we do.

After the third power cut in three songs we have found our level and worked out that it is the harmony vocals which seem to be both triggering the electrical blowouts and keeping us going through them, and for a band that prides itself on its harmony work this is clearly going to be an issue. Gallows humour takes over as we try to entertain (after all, that's our job) as well as salvage our dignity - a 'London Calling' lyric is subtly altered to report "London Calling / and I don't wanna shout / 'Cause every time I do / That fucking thing keeps cutting out" before the Noel Cowardesque reading of the songs slides to a jazzy denouement involving the call-and-response backing vocals originally found in 'The Monster Mash'. It's not supposed to be a joke band, but the temptation to play up to the audience is overwhelming on occasion. A popular Kaiser Chiefs' anthem is presented as 'I Predict It's Quiet', and 'Smile' is taken at a steady swing jog. 

We are forbidden from playing past eleven, which is a blessed relief and we gamely throw in a polite 'Fat Bottomed Girls' to close the show. That The Drummer, bereft of his usual armoury of percussion, manages to trip the power by vocally freestyling the big drum fill is the final ignomy. There is a gentle faux-Who trashing of kit before we accept defeat. And our gig money. Stalker Bertie sympathises as his uncannily similarly-featured father slopes up and stands next to him, giving us a collective Back To The Future-esque vision of Stalker Senior handing over an envelope containg the words "....and if you get to the band on friday, tell them to cancel the gig and go out on the town instead." 

I receive a text from my friend James, who is at the festival I would have gone to if we weren't gigging. Glenn Tilbrook's doing Squeeze songs backed by Fairport Convention and " sounds great!". I don't know what the weather's like in Cropredy, but here it's just started raining.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

A Long Weekend (part one).

The High Barn in Great Bardfield is part venue, part studio, part web-based conglomerate, but all situated in a beautiful 16th century barn (hence, um, the name). It is a lovely place to play and three-fifths of the combo, plus occasional stand-in drummer Frisky Pat and our friend Shev have signed up to play one of their occasional acoustic showcase tribute nights - on this occasion performing the music of The Eagles. 

We have been forewarned that a couple of people have dropped out at short notice and so we have decided to play what Shev terms 'the Jack Charlton card' and a last-minute rehearsal has bumped up our repertoire by three songs, two of which are not strictly Eagleish, but do have strong family connections, hence the term. Thus it is that Don Henley's "Boys of Summer" for one, will receive a gentle acoustic makeover. 

Upon our arrival we are designated a table and invited to line check the instruments; that is, plug them in and make sure they're working, a full soundcheck being precluded both by the rapidly filling auditorium and the absence of Pat, who has phoned ahead to say he's just finished work and may be a while. There is a hastily convened set-list huddle to switch things about as we are supposed to be opening and closing the show which is settled amicably and I will be up to sing the first song - one of the ones we put together last night - the opening track from 'Desperado'. 

With this thus resolved we retire to the sold-out hall where a little old lady has taken residence at our assigned table. "Who's she?" whispers Shev and I, manfully avoiding the temptation to repeat Ralph Brown's beautifully drawled line from "Wayne's World 2" (" my old lady") confess that I have no idea. From table N comes a cheery wave from Louise, one of the other turns (and who will sing very well later on). We leave the little old lady to her place at table M, retire to the artiste's seats and resolve to buy some of those earplugs the drummers favour these days. 

We are called to the stage, which has been meticulously cleared of guitar cases, guitar-stand bags and all other detritus by soundman James, or "Slacker" as we have been referring to him, since his was one of the bands that dropped out, and are mildly peturbed that our opening jokey line of "So, who here owns anything other that The Eagles Greatest Hits?" is greeted with baffled silence by the well-heeled assembled and we prepare to open our set with an album track from the band's most poorly received outing with no little nervousness. 

Three songs later and we retire, having been encouragingly well received and wait excitedly for both the rest of the evening and for drummer Pat's arrival. James's perceptive comment of "I like the way you repeated that mistake you made with the slide guitar so it sounded like you meant it the first time" is treated with the opprobrium it deserves, ie none. Well spotted that man. 

There are ups and downs throughout the course of the night's entertainment - 'Hotel California' is delivered without it's signature guitar solo, one comment from the stage of "We're going to do a little something different with the next song" is greeted with an arch whispered "What did you do - learn it?", there is some discussion around whether the world is ready for a cod-reggae version of 'Desperado'. 

Pavlov's Cat deliver a storming open-tuned version of 'Seven Bridges Road' which is worth the price of admission alone, and also serves to gee the assembled up into a form of anticipation for our second set. With Pat now firmly in place behind the kit we kick off with "Take It Easy" and the by now well oiled as well as well heeled seem happy that there is a five piece band doing four part harmonies and delivering songs they know in an instantly recognisable form. A couple of us are even in checked shirts.

 It's not so much radical reinterpretation, more sub-tribute band but we are, in the parlance of the business, giving the people what they want. So much so that by song three there is a conga line of women of a certain age making their unsteady way to the front of the stage, seemingly fuelled equally by chardonnay and HRT patches, where they remain for the rest of the night, swaying, singing along and making requests for Shev's hat - it really does make for a terribly fun party atmosphere which at the generally austere and 'listening' barn is a novel experience. 

By the time we've encored with the Jack Charlton-carded 'Rocky Mountain Way' we are all happy, some of us are very slightly drunk, and Shev is in the middle of a melee trying to retrieve his hat. Next stop, The Royal Oak in Ippo for a full band gig, unencumbered by the niceties of being party entertainers or not having electric guitars to whack up during the solos. 

Thursday, August 03, 2006

“Seems like a dream now, it was so long ago….”

We are at The Singer’s house working our way through a number of Eagles songs in preparation for a “An acoustic evening with…..” at a rather splendid venue of our acquaintance, The High Barn in Great Bardfield. We have done a couple of these things before – our REM performance was received in awed silence by those who were either enormously impressed with our reworking of “Don’t Go Back to Rockville” or were perhaps previously unaware of the existence of albums like “Reconstruction of the Fables”, or indeed very much outside of “Everybody Hurts” if we’re being honest about it, and that included some of the performers. 

We declined the opportunity to participate in the ‘unplugged’ Simon and Garfunkel night, or the evening of ‘unplugged’ Bob Dylan (I know, I know what you’re thinking…) but we’ve piled enthusiastically into this one, principally driven by my guilty-pleasure led adoration of the seminal ‘Desperado’ album. 

This was an early influence on my burgeoning career, courtesy of a copy of my elder sister’s boyfriend’s vinyl record which I played a great deal, so much so that I went and bought the book of the music so I could play laboriously along. Everything I know about songwriting I owe to JD Souther….. (this was in the days before you could just download the chords, lyrics and an MP3 of the tracks and start getting on with it. Or even an MP3 for the backing tracks and start performing it in pubs). I strongly suspect that there were very few covers bands being inveigled into The Eagles via rough and ready versions of ‘Twenty One’ and ‘Outlaw Man’ at the time, and certainly no others that rehearsed in a tomato shed* in Newbourn that I was aware of. It’s not a big village, mind. 

Well, I say “we” when referring to our current night’s work – “we” appear to be short of a drummer and a bass player for this side project, who perhaps don’t quite share my admiration for the early works of Bernie Leadon, and so we have co-opted an old chum of ours who plays guitar, sings and (rather handily) used to be in an Eagles tribute band, and also regular stand-in drummer Frisky Pat, both of whom are sadly not able to contribute to the set list discussion as they have rather better things to do this evening. We are thus also denied their contributions on whether that tricky lyric in verse three of “Doolin Dalton” is “laughed” or “left” – in Don Henley’s world the received pronunciation is identical. You can see why I needed a book. 

There is some acoustic guitar strumming, a fair amount of falsettoing, some rudimentary harmonizing, a bit of playing of CDs and a couple of cigarettes in the garden – all fairly standard Picturehouse rehearsal procedure – and we are reasonably happy with the way things are going before we realize that it is approaching ten o’clock.In the civilized world, if you carry on belting out “Take It To The Limit” with three part harmonies on the choruses this is about when the neighbours tend to start politely mentioning that you may have ‘had some friends round’ when they next bump into you over the garden fence and, more importantly, spouses who have work in the morning start to get a bit snippy with your guitar strumming friends, and it’s probably best to not wind up Mrs Singer anyway as her planned waterskiing expedition has been cancelled today as it is “too wet”**. 

It occurs to us that since it is Wednesday night, a good friend of ours will be hosting his weekly radio show from Central Ipswich about now. DJ Simon was our producer when we briefly entertained megalomaniac aspirations and had our own show – “Your New Favourite Song” - on Ipswich Community Radio a couple of years ago on which we played a wide ranging choice of selections and had regular features such as Drummer’s Corner (The Drummer plays a song which features an exceptional piece of percussion work), Charity Shop Record of The Week (vintage vinyl purchased that very week for under 50p) and, of course, Your New Favourite Song, which on one occasion was an eight minute Camel track about foxhunting (as far as we could make out) – The Bass Player’s choice if memory serves me. 

We call the show up on air and ask if they need cheering up with a song and ten minutes later we are in the studios of and on The Urban Sofa Radio Show playing a rather dubious acoustic version of a Razorlight song, plugging some forthcoming gigs and being rude about co-host Matt Marvel’s t-shirt and closing with The Jags’ “(I’ve Got Your Number) Written on the Back of My Hand” which provides Simon with a splendidly cheesy link to a station ID, to Matthew’s audible disgust. “Don’t knock it mate” replies Si - “that’s going on my showreel….” 

 * ‘For the storage of’, not ‘constructed with’ or ‘painted the colour of’ 

**Again, I know….

Sunday, July 30, 2006

"I've never been yachting....I've been dogging, does that count...?"

In such fashion the other guitarist attempts to engage the assembled at The Felixstowe Ferry Sailing Club, where we have been called in at short notice to provide the soundtrack to the climactic party of Deben Week, a seven day festival of fun, frolics and messing about in small boats.

Upon arrival T.O.G. and I are astonished to find a fully set up drum kit on stage. Astonished as this is most unlike the man we have come to refer to as Our Late Drummer, whose comfort zone for setting up is considerably shorter than, say, a good-length version of Sweet Home Chicago (whether there is actually ever such a thing as a good length version of Sweet Home Chicago is probably best left to a later discussion). 

We set up around the drums, a novel experience for all of us, and await his arrival over thoughtfully-provided hot meals. For a party that promises a buffet, live band and the experience of being there or being square it does seem that a goodly number of our nautical chums have opted for the latter,, however we kick off as advertised at eight thirty and play our first party set, principally to a confused looking young girl and her friend, who is enthusiastically practising her handstands, their elders and betters mostly preferring the safety and distance of the bar. 

There are a good few dancers later on, but the interval arrives without hint or happenstance of major frugging. Puzzling. Still, we're by the river on a balmy night and so a mid gig constitutional is a pleasant alternative to huddling in the car park over a marlboro light, and we listen appreciatively to T.O.G.'s party CD mix. The second half starts similarly desultorily and our habit of swapping instruments around doesn't do anything for a seamless segue of songs but gradually a few pogoers start to thrash about to the livelier ones and by three songs from the end we have a respectable melee going on. 

By two songs from the end of course, they have all disappeared again, but then return en masse for the last number to bellow their appreciation and demand an encore. It's a very odd series of comings and goings, but apparently we have gone down very well in the other room, where perhaps the comfort zone afforded by the pool table and the ability to hold a conversation without damaging one's chum's eardrums have proved more conducive to a jolly night out. 

It's odd though, like being the house band in a caravan park's social club (I imagine). But being terribly civilised, it is reasonably early by the time we're out and on the way home, with promises of more social functions to come - they're happy, which is the idea of the game after all, and it remains only to dodge the pavement traffic and the roadcrossers of chucking-out time as I wend my way home. It’s  been an odd sort of evening. Still I guess sometimes you're the wallpaper, and sometimes you're the wall.