Monday, June 25, 2007

“Lookin’ out at the road rushin’ under my wheels”

One of the issues in forming “a nice little acoustic band – we’ll just roll up and play” is actually getting some places to play in the first place. Back in the early days of Songs from The Blue House, when James, Gibbon and I staged a series of pre-emptive raids on beer festivals and acoustic/songwriters nights this wasn’t so much of an issue, as since we only had half an hour’s material anyway, we were able to either get up and do our thang and get out of the way before anyone noticed it was the same six songs we’d played last time or drag up whatever other stuff we could remember which meant that the set became mainly covers anyway, and besides, who doesn’t love a rip-roaring acoustic version of I Wanna Be Your Dog to close the evening? 

These days, now that the line up has grown to the point where there are around half a dozen of us on a quiet day, such guerilla tactics aren’t always so possible or indeed permissible, and so we find ourselves settling into whatever surroundings we can and then settling back to enjoy the ride, wherever it may take us. Hence, only recently, we’ve played a birthday party in a village hall in Northamptonshire where we turned up early and then drove for five miles in each direction trying to find a pub that was open before realizing that there was one next to the venue, albeit one that didn’t open until seven and for which you had to book in advance if you wanted a burger making up. 

We have also been on the back of an open-sided trailer in a park attempting to communicate with a sound engineer who is a good hundred yards away and who has no direct means of contacting the group other than an odd sort of pidgin sign language (a carrier pigeon with sign language would have been handier) and who has to come out of his mixing tent to actual see where we’re pointing to things that we can’t hear (I know – “a nice little acoustic band”, we said) . Being a park, and with a parkie’s responsibilities being what they are, they locked the toilets at bang on half five. The lads who’d spent all afternoon in the beer tent weren’t best pleased, apparently. 

There was the beer festival in Little Totham where it had been raining torrentially all morning. When we turned up there was a boat in the back garden, which indicated a level of preparation of Noah-esque proportions on somebody’s part at least. Having decided against risking it with elements by setting up in the garden we managed to cram two guitarists, a banjo player, a small p.a. system, and a bass player into the area next to the restaurant, a space about eight feet square and from which we’d had to move the spare cutlery and the salad for the barbecue before we could fit the mic stands in. “Right” said James “So where shall we put the piano….?” 

It was a good gig actually – the closeness and intimacy of the thing made it so that we were all playing together and off each other rather than performing our parts by rote, as being on the back of flat-bed trucks unable to hear what anyone is playing is wont to encourage. I was so into it by the last song that I didn’t notice that the rest of the band had retired to the restaurant and were accompanying my vocal from there, including a game TT, of whom only an extended forearm and hand could be seen playing a few low chords on the black notes. It was like being accompanied on keyboards by Thing from The Addams Family. They were very good about dropping into an unannounced Bob Dylan number mid-chorus and even a departure into some Buffalo Springfield didn’t throw them. Shaney let me follow you down, as it were. 

And last week we got a plum gig with the rather marvellous Derrin Nauendorf at a club in Chelmsford. Wendell came down for the trip and we were pleased to be able to greet Derrin’s drummer Mark outside the venue with an East Angularly drawled “Yew wanna git yower hair cut boiy!” (Marky sports an impressively perky Mohican at all times). “What the f*** are you doing here?” he responded, not unreasonably not expecting a couple of homeboys from the ‘hood (or pasture, in Ipswichian terms) to be pulling up at his gig. “We’ll be your support act for the evening!” we chirruped. 

Another fun night – a promoter working tirelessly to put on some good music in his town, bringing in veterans of Radio 2 and Glastonbury, American touring bands and up-and-coming singer songwriters just starting to make an impact on the scene, organizing the promotion, sound and lights himself and spending his evenings organizing flyers and promotion. There must have been fifteen people there. It’s not all Shea Stadium, ligging with Sting and all back to the hotel with two birds each for these guys, you know. Someone asked if the promoters had made sure that these gigs were worth our while. Oh yes, every single one. 

This week, a charity barbecue in the shadows of a nuclear power station. You can’t buy this sort of exposure.

Monday, June 11, 2007

It was forty years ago today….

Sometime in 1967, a strange and wondrous sound descended on the Stowmarket Recreation ground – an unearthly psychedelic occurrence, wrapped up in smoke and lights and gift wrapped in long hair and cheesecloth. Give it forty years and the Songs from The Blue House cavalcade is parked up in pretty much the same place as the Pink Floyd’s van (for it was they) must have been all those years ago, ready to gently sway the inaugural Stowfest, a one day celebration of live music, beer tentery and mobile burger vans, populated by gently grazing grown ups, and rammed with teenagers wearing jeans that seem to be either two sizes too large or one size to small for them, and who are delighted that for once they haven’t had to catch a train anywhere to hang out, do a bit of gentle emo-ing and drink breezers with their chums.

A day out for us players, too - a chance to check out the other bands, see who’s about, meet up with old friends and complain about the stage monitors to each other – a sort of bassman’s holiday, if you will. Some of the hair in our party is just as long as when Syd, Roger and the boys rolled up with their odd songs and crushed velvet trousers back in the day, but James’s Slovan Liberec football shirt is unlikely to have been de rigeur for the times which, as surely as ever, are a changin’. He isn’t going to though, as he likes it, he’s going to keep it on for the gig. Chanteuse and flautist Helen has turned up in Lily Allen chic, the rest of us are pretty much in regular Keith Allen chic – a selection of shorts and t-shirts, sandals and socks (aside from the immaculately-outfitted and coiffed Tony Winn in all white) which don’t quite challenge the black leather and spandex-clad combo setting up on stage two in terms of wardrobe exploitation. It is pointed out that if we had bottoms like that lady with the guitar, we’d probably wear a bit more spandex too, which I feel is a moot point at best, frankly. Still, no harm in checking, is there? 

The weather’s fine, the crowd is in expansive mood, the beer is on draught, and the organizers have very sensibly left a good deal of set up time between turns, given the double staged-ness of the event. We are looking forward to using this to the full as the advantage of being a nominally acoustic band and not having to lug heavy amplifiers and suchlike around is generally outweighed by the fact that at events such as these, harassed soundmen are usually momentarily stymied by not having heavy amplifiers and suchlike to simply stick microphones in front of and have to locate DI boxes to plug guitars into, once they’ve sorted out the four vocal mics we need first, of course. Add in a fiddle player and a banjo that needs a channel of its own and that’s usually enough to tip them over the edge into wanton despair. The upshot of all this is that, over time, the banjo player and the fiddle player have taken to lugging their own amplifiers around anyway as the monitors can rarely be trusted. Oh, and did I mention we’d brought along a drummer and a keyboard player for this one too? You can see the fear in the crew’s eyes already.

TT on pianner, a veteran of grander festivals than this (he’s what we like to call a ‘proper’ musician) has brought along his own in-ear monitoring system which means that he can hear himself perfectly, and also has the amusing side effect of making it look like he’s listening to his iPod throughout the set rather than concentrating on the job in hand. JP and I wait patiently, guitar leads forlornly in hands, as the time slips away. The breakfast DJ from local radio is filling in desperately in his role as compere. “Anyone got anything they want to say?” he asks. “Why don’t you play a record?” suggests Reado from behind the kit before making the poor man repeat his joke about two parrots sitting on a perch. The sheen of perspiration is now clearly visible to the naked eye. 

Come show time plus ten we are assured through complicated hand gestures and mimes that the out front sound is fine, although up on the trailer there is a palpable lack of guitars in the mix and, pleased as I am to be playing live in front of so many people and grateful that I know the songs well enough that a lack of foldback means that I can pretty much mime convincingly along with the best of them (a happy legacy of all those years spent in my bedroom with a tennis racket and a cassette of AC/DC’s “If You Want Blood” – I knew it’d come in handy one day. 

It’s never reassuring to be invited to start the set and be told that “We’ll sort out the mix as we go along” - we quite like the first song – it’d be nice if everyone was on it, but you don’t like to spend too long talking to the guy on the sound desk mid set, it’s terribly distracting for the crowd, who probably aren’t quite sure what “That terrible hum in the wedges” actually is supposed to be and you don’t like to come across as too much of a Prima Donna, especially James, who has officially been accorded the rank of Tertiary Donna so far, and hasn’t got all his badges yet in advance of an upgrade. 

Finally, during the last song, what appears to be the roar of a passing jet from nearby RAF Wattisham, but upon investigation turns out to be his errant guitar, emanates forcefully from the speakers at his feet. “They found it, then” he remarks in passing. We have become concerned over time that our departure from the stage is generally greeted by someone enthusiastically remarking that our set was “really funny”. We are spared this reflection today. “Wow” begins the DJ from the local radio station “You were really on time!” I wonder if Pink Floyd managed that ?

Friday, June 08, 2007

"You should do some Neil Young...."

The sweet, sweet joy of the music biz. It's been a busy week at Skirky Central - rushing up to Northants with SftBH for a party, then back down to Essex, where we narrowly missed the Asparagus Monks of Coggeshall before doing another set in a field and then off to sunny Felixstowe with Picturehouse, to play an extremely sweaty (and I never sweat onstage) set of covers with loud guitars and thumpy drums. In between, Songs from The Blue House got an airing on the radio and a mention in the Word podcast, we had a meeting with the record company and Wendell announced that his hard drive is on the mend and he's formatted the text for the book and just needs an acknowledgements list and some credits before putting the whole thing to bed. And then at the end of the Picturehouse gig, this bloke came up with a suggestion for the set....
Thumbs up to the bloke who wrote my horoscope this week, you got it bang on. It has been a good week. Now, about those lottery numbers....