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….