Monday, October 15, 2007

Guerrilla you’re a desperado…

I’ve seen the footage on YouTube of Babyshambles putting on so-called guerrilla gigs, oh yes. It’s the new showcase, apparently – surreptitiously circulate the news to a few discreet and loyal fans (on your MySpace site, say) sit back, and wait for The Man to be devastated by your circumlocution of the traditional album-gig-merch treadmill. It’s nothing new, of course. Back when I was someone, our band put on a gig of which we, the band, were only allowed to tell one person each and we still managed to fill a decent-sized room. Del Amitri once toured the entire US of States playing busker gigs and crashing on people’s floors and Ian McNabb-out-of-The Icicle Works recently cancelled a couple of ‘proper’ gigs in order to allow him to play at fan’s houses instead. Although his apologies to those who’d bought tickets to go and see the full, mighty McNabb experience live in concert were fulsome enough, there was a certain inference that popping round to someone’s house, being plied with booze and being able to crash upstairs shortly after emptying the fridge of three-in-the-morning munchies was far preferable to hiring a van and driving half way across the country to soundcheck in the afternoon, pay a support act, deal with a recalcitrant lighting engineer and then pay for a dodgy B&B with no room service having trawled the surrounding area for a curry house still open at two in the morning, and you can see his point. For we in Songs From The Blue House, however, these are not choices we are forced to make – no-one’s booking us anyway at the moment, and so my neighbour Neil’s query as to when we were going to get off our collective backsides and do some gigs so that he could see us again received the paraphrased retort that if he were so keen why didn’t he just book us himself? And so he did. With the privileges of promoterdom came responsibility for writing the set list, organizing backstage catering and booking a support band and so it came that on Saturday evening we assembled in his newly refurbished kitchen/diner with four cases of Brewer’s Gold, two kinds of chilli and Kilbey and Wendell from Picturehouse, who were to play a short set of their own compositions (see for an aural introduction) before we went on and did a slightly more drawn out version of the same thing. When I say ‘we’, the SftBH line up is a fluid and wonderful concept – the core quorum of three is usually enough to establish that a show can go ahead, however on this occasion the lure of good food, good company, and the possibility of crashing out upstairs once the fridge had been emptied of munchies had drawn out eight of us into the mean streets of the sweet, sweet candy town that is Ipswich, including occasional contributors Nick on pedal steel all the way from Rickmansworth and TT on keyboards; and we’re not talking about a big living room here, by any means. Fortunately the Picturehouse vintage synthesiser was smaller than TT’s regulation issue piano and so, with his encyclopeadic knowledge of all things keyboardy he was able to manipulate an approximation of a piano sound out of it, even if it did look as if he were permanently about to fall off the dusty end on the more expansive numbers. Fiddly (all the way from Thorndon) sat in a chair so he didn’t break his bow on the ceiling, everyone in the audience settled into sofas and armchairs, bits of vacant carpet, alcoves and the stairs (and in the case of Ruby, sleeping through her first gig at the age of two and a half weeks, her carry cot*) and we began. The first two numbers were songs that I sing, coincidentally in the same key, unfamiliar to Nick and so I was gratified to hear him enquiring of TT as to how the second one went, all the better to make his performance as sympathetic within the arrangement as possible. “It’s the same as that one” he replied. Everyone’s a critic… Still, on with the show! The constraints of playing as acoustically as possible (sadly there’s no such thing as an unplugged pedal steel guitar or, for different and more prosaic reasons, a banjo you can turn off, but I digress) mean that your performance in these sorts of situations is subtly altered – dynamics and interaction with your fellow performers, and indeed your audience, are much more focused than if you are all separated by coils of leads, banks of speakers, batteries of lights and yards of space, and so you end up playing differently, -odd as it sounds - more humanly (although again, in terms of banjo players this is a relative term**). It’s an exercise more bands should undertake, especially where it concerns the blending together of voices. At one point I got so excited by the sound of acoustic guitars, four part harmonies, a fiddle and the lonesome keening of the steel that I posited the idea of playing all of side two of GP and I had a pretty good chance of getting a majority vote on that if it hadn’t been getting on some. In the end we had a splendid set of our own material, the audience appreciated it, the promoter was more than happy (we’ve played to smaller crowds in pubs, believe me), and we had a good time playing together, not least because (a) we like it anyway and (b) someone else has invited us to play in their cellar next month so it was a nice advance dry run. We could still smoke indoors at this venue, hang out showing each other bits of guitar chordery that we’d come across, muck about with some covers, work on harmonies and invite each other round to our houses/sheds/studios to start writing the next album before staggering the two doors down the street back to my own home for the night. And forty eight bottles of Crouch Vale ale, thirty bottles of lager, two boxes of wine and a couple of chillis isn’t a bad rider to have worked through by the close of play. No wonder it’s the new touring.

*Sorry about that Ruby – when it comes round to “So what was your first gig?” in future years you’re just going to have to grin and bear it.

**I know – I’m doing it on purpose for cheap comic effect – Tony Winn, our resident banjoista, is a terrific player, a marvellous songwriter in his own right and adds immeasurably to the arrangements when he participates. He also knows when to leave a space, and sometimes it’s what you don’t play which adds to the sound as much as what you do play. Especially where banjos are concerned***

***I know – I’m doing it again but, you know, fish, barrel, shooting, it all adds up.

Throughout, I have referred to The Promoter. Obviously, as a happily married couple (happy anniversary guys) our neighbours JessunNeil make these sorts of decisions together, jointly and with a fond accord.

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