Sunday, November 30, 2008

The lore according to Wendell Gee (a guest blogger lends a hand);

Just lately I have been having strange feelings. Over the last couple of years I have suffered from a falling interest in music – nothing terminal you understand, but one of those fallow periods in which very little excites those sound nodules in your brain. Everyone has them. Some make it through the other side, some shrug and accept that maybe music simply doesn’t float their boat anymore. I’ve been waiting for the gates on the other side for a while now, and since seeing The Feeling and Billy Bragg in recent weeks, and now Songs From The Blue House with Kim Richey on Saturday night, there seems to be a light, just over there…We leave Ipswich at 5.30pm, amidst the football traffic and the early evening November rain, and hope that reports of an A12 hold-up are exaggerated. In the car is bass player Gibbon, fresh from carrot related domestic incidents, guitarist and emcee Skirky, and the nominal guitar roadie – me. We stop for dinner at a fast food joint famous for it’s unique blend of herbs and spices, and I insist on sitting ‘in’ to eat my fries and coleslaw – to ensure that, as a confirmed vegetarian for over 25 years, I get the full experience during this rare visit to the church of modern life.We arrive at the venue to find a barn full of Blue Housers, but only a couple of Kim Richey’s band, and it takes a long time to say hello and hug everyone before tea is brewed. With ten minutes to go before doors open the lost Londoners arrive in a flurry of equipment, leads and soundchecks, leaving Blue House the only option available – that of just making sure everything works. There is, however, a general feeling of optimism, The High Barn being one of the band’s favourite haunts, and the soundman being familiar with both the band and their songs means that, well, it’ll be fine.My role becomes a bit woolly after taking the guitar stand out of it’s bag, but I fill time with a bottle of Brewers Gold and a chat with Andrew ‘Toddler’ James, friend and former band-member of both Gibbon and Skirky, and as the barn fills up with the well-dressed and polite audience, the Blue House take the stage. The previous night they played a two-setter in North Norfolk, and the benefits associated with playing regularly are clear from the start. Tonight it’s a 40 minute support slot, the set is a selection of songs from ‘Too’ and ‘Tree’, they look and sound comfortable and confident, and it’s the best performance I’ve seen for a while.The vocals, especially Gibbon’s backing, are clear and bright, and Helen’s cold isn’t hindering but shifting the sound of her voice. The addition of Alone Me’s David Booth on drums is a big plus this evening. About half of Blue House’s songs benefit clearly from some percussion, and the other half sound good with it, and it’s a shame that they mostly do without. The crowd are quiet and respectful, with one shout for ‘Incredible’, and it’s over almost before it has begun.Kim Richey is, apparently, responsible for reviving James’ interest in music a while ago, and is also therefore partly responsible for the existence of Blue House. This is self evident while watching Parters watching Kim, but a quick scout around shows that most everyone is as entranced by the American’s songs and voice as the Blue Houser. This show is with her full UK band line-up who, with the exception of the drummer, all played on her new LP, Chinese Boxes. No surprises that the majority of the set is drawn from this LP, but Kim does a short solo spot in the middle of the set and almost instantly you feel drawn in to a much more intimate and cosy cocoon of her voice.Again the crowd seemed almost too polite, and Kim seemed less connected than she had a month or so back the last time she played with Songs from the Blue House, talking less and engaging with the audience less. No matter, her songs are beautiful, and they were played and sung beautifully by her band.More hugging means it takes nearly half an hour to actually leave the venue, and we are in the car just in time to hear Whispering Bob Harris play the new single by Thunder. All three of us are at a loss for words.However, and probably despite the new Thunder single, that light is a lot closer today than it was yesterday.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

"It's just The Matrix rebooting...."

One of the most pressing concerns in a musician's life is not so much "What are we going to play?" or "What shall I wear?" (nice shoes Hel!) as "How am I going to get to the gig?" The prime concern here being not just the importance of being on time and fully relaxed and prepared so much as "How am I going to be able to drink an inordinate amout of the finest wines known to humanity and still get home in one piece?" If you are extraordinarily lucky, someone like Tony 'TT' Turrell will utter those most wonderful three little words that you can hope to hear in a musicianly, or any relationship - "Yes, I'll drive". Hence I am able to board the Songs from The Blue House tour bus (or more accurately Tony's Renault) tonight safe in the knowledge that whatever the outcome of our gig in far-off Norfolk, at least I'll have the comforting hand of ale to help guide me through the night's festivities. TT of course, as a proper musician, is used to someone else entirely driving the bus, but has manfully adapted down to his newly adopted circumstance like a true gentleman. As a passenger, of course, one has duties and responsibilities of one's own - to partake in polite conversation, not monopolise the CD player, and to at least stay awake for two thirds of the return journey which I, a far less succesful social animal, manage to accomplish only partly, immediately demanding that we listen to Radio Four for part of the journey there, and slipping into the sort of half delirium on the way back, which produces a succession of non-sequiturs that sudden wakefulness demands an explanation of. That I half dreamt the text message "S.OK?" and giggled at its absurdity demanded an explanation which I'm not entirely sure I was able to satisfy. that and a succession of phrases which, although containing actual words, never seemed to have them in an entirely coherent order at first, and which even I, as their progenitor, was never entirely certain that I could rearrange into even vaguely well known phrases or sayings.
In between the there and back, of course, there was also the 'there'. The Fox and ounds in Heacham was our destination and we played to a 'locals' pub. The locals themselves were generous to a fault, once they'd tested our mettle with a few good natured barbs along the lines that bass player Gibbon was a spit for Alan Davies (to be fair we're pretty much of the same opinion) and that La Mulley, a flute player in tights, was bound to be called Jethro (as in 'Tull'). We managed to mollify them partly through the power of our deeply moving and spiritually uplifting music, partly through the cheap tactic of handing out a party-sized bag of jelly babies mid gig, and partly through the unfortunate interface of Gib's shoes and some dog shit from the car park, which we noticed about three songs into the second set and which everyone except he found inordinately amusing, with the possible exception of Tony Winn, who was standing next to him. We suspect the provider to have been a slow, sad-muzzled old hound who seemed to be doing circuits of the pub, in that every third number or so she would waddle slowly past again, always left to right. It seemed unlikely that there should be several identical dogs about the place and so we ascertained that someone was letting her out one door and back in another, although we never worked out who. Deja pooch.
Post-show we chatted to some lovely folks, checcked out the forthcoming attractions - "Dickensian Fayre - bouncy castle" one read, and they're apparently thinking of reintroducing the white tailed eagle to the area according to another flyer. Thankfully Mrs Skirky wasn't at the show to comment. She can't stand The Eagles.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

“Christ, I think he’s even combed his hair…”

"Are those new shoes?” I enquire of Our Glorious Leader. “No” he replies, “I’ve just polished them”. “He’s also had the car valeted” adds La Mulley helpfully. We are in the presence of greatness, you see, for thanks to a happy set of incidences we are due to play a couple of shows with Nashville-based singer/songwriter Kim Richey, the woman who OGL credits with bringing him back from the brink during his “My soul went dead to music” period (a process which ultimately led to our current incarnation as Songs from The Blue House, so all credit to Kim for any number of things).

To further replenish his well of human happiness Ms Richey will be staying chez Partridge at The Blue House itself, and so usual the post-gig process by which he retires to The Snug (it’s a glorified shed) with a couple of Brewers Golds and an endless supply of post-prandial roll ups to wind down and reflect while listening to (say) Kim Richey will be complicated somewhat by the actual presence of Kim Richey herself - the prospect of which, I think it’s safe to say, has Our Glorious Leader about as pleased as a dog with two tails. He loves that girl like a Mentee loves chocolate cake. 

When I meet Kim it is post a round of interviews, radio sessions and an extended lunch in the pub, all of which she has been chauffeured to by you-know-who, and she is charming, friendly and about as un-Nashville-starry as you could possibly imagine. This is a default mode that she will maintain throughout the course of the evening, subtly self deprecating as she tells a story onstage about volunteering for the five-to-seven session at her local store, working on voter registration. When she turns up to relieve the prior shift she is apparently informed that to her great good fortune she will be “….working with Kim Richey!” 

I think it’s fair to say that general household recognition has eluded her, despite the fact that she writes some great songs, is a capable guitar player (some of her finger picking stuff had a grown man in tears of happiness at the gig in Kelvedon) and has one of those clear, pure, keening voices that seem so effortless when you’re watching but an absolute bugger when you’re trying to do it yourself in the shower next day. 

She is also endearingly scatty. I’m moved to enthuse about a YouTube performance I’ve seen with her singing with one of my personal favourite songwriter/performers, Darden Smith. She clearly has absolutely no idea what I’m talking about, which makes it quite challenging to carry the compliment through. “I’m sorry” she graciously returns “I have the memory of a goldfish”. “Tell her it’s her turn to pay for lunch” I stage whisper to James. 

Our first date together is at The Kelvedon Institute, a non-profit project run by James and resident SftBH banjoista Turny Winn. It’s not, strictly speaking, supposed to be a non-profit organization, it simply seems to have developed that way, but the intimate atmosphere, subtle lighting and ‘listening’ audience have all been carefully cultivated by the pair, honed through a generous combined experience of what it’s like to play bad gigs, and so backstage is generously appointed, the sound man doesn’t wander off half way through your set for a fag, there is a lighting engineer who actually listens to the music and adjusts the lamps accordingly and the turns are of a consistently high standard. 

Unfortunately in order to avoid accusations of nepotism and unnecessary overkill, they won’t let us play there very often. Kim Richey goes down a storm, her solo set perfectly suited to the low lighting, the cabaret set up of the tables and the good-natured feedback from the audience. Oh, and we played, I rambled on for far too long between songs (as usual) and we had to drop a song from the set as the bug on the bouzouki was playing up. 

Unfortunately Turny was counting songs rather than listening to them and so when he timed his re-entry to the stage after a section of the set where he doesn’t play he didn’t realize that we’d skipped one on the list and consequently joined in half way through an extended “Not That Kind of Girl” intro. In the absence of anyone who sits down to play I stepped up to take the solo in my own all-too-imitable fashion. Half way through Our Glorious Leader sidled over to me. “Stop it!” he hissed. 


Monday, September 15, 2008

Across the evening sky, all the birds are leaving.

Just like in the old days, it is a fresh Saturday morning and I am picked up from my front door by Our Glorious Leader to be transported to a place of magic, wonder and enchantment – no, not an Ipswich Town away game, but the one and a halfth Acorn Fayre, a long-mooted but hastily-organised get together for bulletin board members of Talkawhile, an interweb forum on all things folk rock (and beyond, as will be evidenced by later discussions I will overhear on my traverse around the mini-festival during which subjects such as the nature of infinity, the possibility of the co-existence of an irresistible force and an immovable object in the same universe, the decline and fall of the fast food industry and the amount of mud involved in extricating a camper van from the Beautiful Days Festival are earnestly and wittily under deconstruction.) I find it comforting that even in the digital age of long distance action and reaction there is still a primal need for people to get together over a couple of drinks and actually interact, in real time as it were, and it is an uncommonly pleasant experience to amble around in the warm sunshine, roast pork roll in hand, catching up on what folk are up to, how they’ve driven two hundred miles in order to avoid stripping wall paper and to be here, browsing the t-shirt stall in the marquee (I buy a rather fetching woven shopping bag with our logo on it) and enjoying the weft of music coming from the small but perfectly formed stage within. It’s mainly singer-songwriter time during the day, and each artist puts their own spin on the form, from the rambling to the sharply focused, the confessional to the oblique and, of course, the simply bleak. Once again our dear old friend David Stevenson brings his high and lonesome tenor to bear on a number of unbelievably moving vignettes, and hatches plots to collaborate with us on recording new songs, and later our new friend Hannah Scott picks up the baton and performs a lovely set, marred only by stifled good-natured groans as she reveals that she went on a songwriting seminar with Tom Robinson “Who had some hits in the eighties, I think, I don’t really know who he is…”. There is at least one “Kids today, eh!?” Actually, looking back, that might have been me.
Before that, outside, the autumnal sun lowers in the sky, the shadows lengthen across the lawn and the full moon rises like a ghost in the east. Silent, or at least out of earshot, vast V’s of geese in perfect formation traverse the sky, one flock after another in groups of various sizes with wings beating steadily and in perfect time as they start their long migratory journey. It is a sight to instill peace and calm in the heart, and wonder at the brilliance of nature to somehow get these things so perfectly right while we on the ground tend to struggle with anything less primal than a road map and a set of directions. I am reminded of some of the beautiful passages by T.H. White in The Once and Future King, and as the burnished sky glows red also that it is suddenly, unbelievably bloody cold.
Vikki Clayton appears on stage - a woman of a certain age, slim, blonde, wearing white trousers and a large, comfortable-looking but stylish example of quality knitwear – she looks in fact, in the low light, uncannily like my mother-in-law who, although I’m very fond of, I had never previously imagined performing a perfect version of Bob Dylan’s “Is Your Love in Vain” on stage in a marquee lit principally by (appropriately) hurricane lamps and glow sticks. It lends an air of surreality to the occasion, and when flashing fairy lights appear on the merch stall at the back of the tent she is not alone in wondering whether there is a chance that someone may have dropped something into her coffee. Meantime she warms her hands on the impromptu lighting rig between songs, and watches her breath in the air during them. She’s started her set with “Matty Groves” done a Sandy Denny number, and one by Ralph McTell. At a folk forum-based get together. La Mulley leans over and, apropos of our recent beer festival hoo-ha, mutters mischievously in my ear “Play something we know!”
Around the tent, people are dealing with the temperature in their own ways – on stage, Hannah Scott reaches for her ‘manky old’ jumper, Gibbon resorts to a number of extraordinarily souped up Irish coffees, Fiddly is swathed in overcoat, gloves and Indiana Jones-style hat, and although I’m usually very good with personal hygiene anyway I’m washing my hands every visit to the toilet mainly in order to enjoy the hot air hand dryer. The long sleeved t-shirts at the merch stall seem to be shifting slightly faster now.
OGL goes to help out with the sound for Circus Envy, who have had the audacity to trump our number three chart placing for “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” on The Big L with a number one placing for one of their original songs in their own local chart in Hull. They are both rootsy and poppy and have a singer who, according to TT, has “The best vocal mic technique I’ve ever seen” and that man has toured the world with proper musicians, so he’s someone to cock an ear to when he starts doling out compliments.
After a quick turnaround, line check and much stamping of feet and rubbing of hands we get the Songs from The Blue house show under way. By now resourceful Talkawhilers have jury-rigged stage lighting whose soft light through yonder scaffolding breaks, and with the grassy surface now bearing a raft of picnic benches liberated from the pub garden proper, provides a nicely bucolic feel to the performance. The gloom of the room is dispersed by many, many glow sticks which are being snapped into action and worn as necklaces, earrings, belts, bracelets, glasses and even garters depending on the audience’s preference and/or level of exhibitionism, it’s all terribly enchanting to play to, and quite, quite funny to watch an otherwise darkened space looking like one of those animations that The Old Grey Whistle Test used to put together (or dig out of the filing cabinet marked ‘Acid Trips’) when Frank Zappa and the like couldn’t make it over for a TV appearance. That at one point the combined and melodious sounds of a didgeridoo and a theremin float from the ether at the back of the tent merely adds to the other worldliness of it all. I think it’s fair to say we have another rollicking performance. OGL and I eye the distance between the lip of the stage and the top of the vocal monitor warily – it’s going to be a stretch, but we manage to make it for the crowd-sweeping guitar tomfoolery in “Not That Kind of Girl” without pulling anything untoward and we are happy to encore with a version of Fairport Convention’s “Rosie” which we always dedicate to absent friends as does (as it turns out) does one of our friends, who shares with us afterwards a private moment which is both moving and humbling but must also, alas, remain private. I suspect La Mulley’s rendition of the second verse is rather more responsible for any attendant eye-moistenedness, as Our Glorious Leader confesses that he can’t actually remember the first line and so I deputise in a key-strangling shriek which it strikes me is likely to move even the most hardened of bowels. Don’t mention the “WWoooaarrghhh!” I think I did once, but I think I got away with it. Rather more impressively, Gibbon is teaching TT the song as we go along, and they both put in a fault free performance between them. You can go off people, you know…
An angelic-looking blonde and blue-eyed child wanders up to the group as we congregate outside where we can smoke (and it seems somehow warmer than inside) ands regards me impassively. With the finality that only the young can bring to their pronouncements she informs me that I have “…a big nose”. This, frankly, is not news to me. She turns to Gibbon – “You two look like brothers”. It transpires that one of the things we have in common is that he, too “has a big nose”. At times like this we have only one course of action to possibly pursue – we turn and point to Our Glorious Leader and, as one, say “Now – he’s got a big nose” It is all getting very Pythonesque. His is not big apparently, but ‘wonky’. Ah well, the (little) devil’s in the detail. As the man who asked if he could video our performance passes, he hands us a bag of custom-inscribed stage towels. It’s an act of spontaneous kindness and the sort of thing that’s been going on all day. TT is providing transport home and Gib and I clamber aboard the people carrier. “TT”, I say “Have I got a big nose….?”

Friday, September 12, 2008

Train Kept A-Rollin’

A combination of some of our favourite things this week as we in Songs from The Blue House entertained not only delusions of our own grandeur, but the radio-friendly listening public of East Anglia and beyond, and a disused railway station full of ale drinkers. 

We were pleased this week to be guests of Cambridge’s Sue Marchant, doyenne of the eastern region’s evening BBC radio network, and a deeply charming woman who makes the plate-spinning chaos of live radio seem effortless - not an easy thing to do when you have a live phone-in, a traffic report and half a dozen-or-so musicians clamouring for your attention all at the same time. We did a couple of songs, chipped in with a few witty remarks and generally tried our best to be both entertaining and informative, which I understand is the BBC’s remit. 

Sue was very kind about our music, we got some good feedback from the great listening public and we had a very nice post-show chat over a couple of pints and a red wine in the pub round the corner afterwards. “How is the single doing?” she asked on air. “We have absolutely no idea” replied Our Glorious Leader truthfully. As befits the members of a close-knit country-folk-bluegrass-pop autonomous collective, TT, Gib and I listened to Genesis on the way to the studio and Jane’s Addiction on the way back.

Another night, another show and we lugged our collective metaphorical suitcases to another hall – this time the Chappel rail museum in posh north Essex, where bass player and reformed trainspotter Gibbon was happy to be setting up amidst a veritable cornucopia of rail-related ephemera in what looked like the old booking office, now filled with cask upon cask of foaming ale and several hundred thirsty beer drinkers. So moved was he that he made one of his rare forays to the vocal mic ‘tween songs. “When I go, I want to be run over by a steam train” he said solemnly. “I’d be chuffed to bits…” 

Chastened by our previous Searchers-related beer-fest brouhaha we were not overly happy to hear the familiar cry “play something we know!” half way through the first set. Our Glorious Leader seemed to have the measure of the situation, however. “No” he said, quite simply. Mostly though, we encountered light hearted banter, and it was pleasing to see a succession of folk helping themselves to flyers and leaflets, all the better to acquaint themselves with our artistic oeuvre from the comfort of their own home computers (one would hope) when they weren’t being distracted by the need for more beer and a frightening array of warning notices from the London and North Eastern Railway. At half time we even sold a couple of CDs to a nice chap who’d already made up his mind about our worth. 

The Fragrant and Charming La Mulley was sadly on the receiving end of a rather more serious “play something we know” diatribe in the break, which was what probably, when OGL introduced our rendition of ‘the hit’ by saying that we were going to play something that the crowd would have heard before, lead her to announce that we were going to play the whole of the first set again (and at that point someone cheered). 

The rousing closing section of set two was enlivened (as ever) by some post-ironic foot-on-the-monitor antics during which OGL and myself were joined by Turny Winn, on scintillating form and clearly having a good time, and also very patiently enjoying (sic) the by now-traditional “Can you hear the banjo? Yes, sorry about that” routine. 

For some reason I ended the show lying down. This may have been partially due to the sterling service provided by regular camp follower Miss Diane, whose remarkable capacity for spotting and replacing a dwindling pint of Brewer’s Gold (other award-winning golden ales are available) earned my gravest and most sincere thanks, and I expect also contributed toward the appearance of some Pete Townsend-style windmilling during ‘Flags’, a couple of scissor kicks, and a Vegas-style hand-held mic foray into the audience at one point during the second half, as well as an onstage discussion with La Mulley as to who was filthier – Barbara Good or Margot Leadbetter. And why not? There’s no business like the business of show.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Beating chords into ploughshares

Through the benevolent auspices of Our Glorious Leader (he was selling them some beer) we find ourselves at The Maverick Festival in darkest Suffolk, at Easton Farm Park, where barns have been hastily cleared of goats in order to make room for the bar (the ferret cages remain, inviolate), stages have been constructed and residents of nearby villages have been mollified, lest the influx of thirty and forty something fans of Country Music turn this corner of sleepy Suffolk into a raging maelstrom of hedonism, substance abuse and downright boot-scootin’. 

As it happens, all of this occurs, but that’s just the way when we in Songs from The Blue House get together. The rest of the festival is engaged in being terribly nice, kind, supportive and enthusiastically appreciative of the music on offer, those who aren’t engaged in driving small plastic tractors around the site that is, but that’s five year olds for you. We are joined on this occasion by Nick Zala, McFly’s pedal steel player of choice, as well as a returned but not terribly refreshed Turny Winn on banjo and so are almost at full strength for our foray into a festival of Americana. 

We’re not sure how we are going to fit in, even though we’ve deliberately upped the twang factor to the point where we are due to perform a song from way back in Mine and Gibbon’s past which starts with a three part vocal harmony, purely because it’s “a bit country”. As it turns out, we start and a lone voice from the crowd exclaims, “That’s harmonies!” possibly just to try and attract the attention of a passing tractor-bound four year old, but just maybe because he recognises what we’re trying to do. A lengthy introduction brings the cry “Get on with it!” “Have you been to Cropredy?” I ask. “Yes!”, comes the reply. Ah, a festival veteran. 

Speaking as one of the same, I must say I enjoyed the whole experience tremendously. An accessible bar, a coffee cart, a friendly atmosphere, and ex-Picturehouse bass player Andy hanging out in a VW camper van and wearing a Stetson, just chilling, vending soft drinks and V-dub minutiae. Who could ask for more? 

The crowd were great; enthusiastic, dancing, clapping, having a great time, as did we all. I’m glad I bought a new shirt for it. Checked, natch. And I dug out my old cowboy boots. No, really, they’re surprisingly comfortable….

Sunday, August 17, 2008

“Load up the four by four, it’s festival time….”

Last week I was at Fairport Convention’s Cropredy Festival, as an enthusiastic onlooker I hasten to add, not as one of the turns, although I did get to give guitarist Simon Nicol an award (I believe it's on the wall on his office) and shake a passing Bob Harris’s hand and tell him I am a big fan of his work. Obviously, in an ideal world, both of these situations would have been reversed, but that’s pettifoggery of the highest order. As I understand it, Cropredy (never ‘Croppers’) started out as a fund-raiser for the village, held on the lawn in someone’s back garden and which used the toilet facilities in the main house. By a simple twist of fate we in Songs from The Blue House this week found ourselves at a small fund-raising festival held in someone’s back garden and where toilet facilities were available in what looked like someone’s shed. From small things mama, big things one day come, as Dave Edmunds once sang. 

In the ever-convoluted world of Blue House line ups, we were today to be driven by the percussive charms of That Nice David Booth out of AloneMe (new album ‘Sketch’ available now, everybody) but sans Turny Winn on the banjo and TT on the pianner. I am informed of this by a frankly woozy Our Glorious Leader, calling from Heacham where he has been roadieing for a visiting James Hurley, who shares a name with a pivotal character from Twin Peaks, has the best sculpted sideburns since the glory years of Midge Ure and is a wonderful singer-songwriter from darkest California whose “All the vampires live in Southern California” is never far from being my mental screensaver. OGL has indulged mightily on the Brewers Gold (no apostrophe) and appears to be attempting to resolve the subsequent hangover by diligent application of haddock and chips. 

We agree to meet up in Littlebury, near Ickleton (the parish sign of which someone has added a ‘T’ making us feel very much as if we have stumbled into a children’s TV programme upon our passing through it). Upon our arrival at the site of the concert we are ushered solicitously through the gate and down the driveway by our hosts for the day, greeted warmly by the soundman-cum-booker and pointed at an area marked ‘artists only’ which contains two crates of BG, and some chickens. It is always good form to get on with the guys doing the P.A. at this sort of thing – the onstage monitors are the great leveller for all bands, no matter how talented they are in the rehearsal room so we’re pleased to see that cabling has been sensibly buried, monitors are appropriately placed, and the out front rig looks more than capable of dealing with whatever we’re planning to throw through it. 

There is also another artist-only tent-cum-shed with a selection of filled rolls, beer, water, cherry tomatoes, hoummous and pittas – it really couldn’t be more middle class if it tried, and I’m sure that although seasoned veterans of the festival circuit would scoff at such largesse, when you’re usually treated to a couple of pints on the tab and use of the bar manager’s parking space at best, this sort of gesture does extraordinary things for the hearts and minds of the lowly folk-country-pop-rock-bluegrass-punk-shatner crossover artiste. As it turns out, we didn’t have a lot to be sold on. We were raising money for something which seemed to be called ‘Homestart’, which I’m sure is something I’ve got included on my A.A. package, but which actually helps new mothers with support and stuff that La Mulley enthusiastically endorses and also to help prop up the walls of the village church. As Camilla thanks us from the stage for coming, the church bells peal in agreement. 

And so to the gig. Our lack of banjo and keyboards has the potential to stilt the delivery of our smash number nine hit on The Big L Fab Forty’s performance, but the addition of TNDB drives it along in a sprightly fashion. He is also on hand to add a showbiz ‘kertisshh’ upon the incidence of a poorly received joke on my part, somewhat after the event as, as he explains, “I didn’t realise it was a joke”, something he shares with a majority of the happily picnicking throng. A good show, a good cause, and further grist to our celebrity star-spotting mill as it is revealed that the band on slightly lower down the bill is that of former Iron Maiden guitar-slinger Dennis Stratton, a text of which fact Stalker Bertie receives with barely-disguised glee. 

James Hurley grasps my hand and congratulates us on our performance, Keith the soundman thanks us for coming, and Camilla wishes us a pleasant journey home. There are many other friends, helpers and organisers, too many to thank individually, those I miss you’ll surely pardon, butterflies are drifting in the breeze, and we leave this English country garden.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Shall I compare ‘Tree’ to a summer’s day?

I was considering not writing anything at all about yesterday’s beer festival show in Heacham (pronounced ‘Heem’)* in an “If a gig happens in a forest and nobody blogs about it, did it really happen?” fashion or simply just writing that it was so perfect that I was adopting La Mulley’s policy of keeping it all in her head, all pristine and untarnished, and not daring or bearing to look at the camcorder footage but then I reasoned that in doing that I’d be referring to it anyway. 

I’m sure there’s some sort of proposition which deals with this sort of thing – Foucalt’s Third Theorem of Theremin or some such, there’s bound to be. Still, after having shared the pain of an ex-member of Picturehouse who was mourning the fate of his creation at a wedding gig last week – “That’s not band I formed…” it was nice to be able to reflect that SftBH in its current stripe is exactly the band I wanted to form.

Admittedly there was slightly less focus on three-way onstage monitor splits in the early days, and even Turny Winn was moved to comment that when he thought he was joining a nice folk/country/blues/pop acoustic autonomous collective (it isn’t, it’s a benevolent dictatorship, but as with all such successful regimes, the trick is to keep that bit from the proletariat. Or, as we call him, the fiddle player) he thought he might just turn up to gigs with his banjo, and here he now was in a people carrier humping (figuratively speaking) a couple of PA speakers, three guitar cases, a bass player, and a guitarist who appeared to have brought along the Sunday papers to help while away the journey (guilty as charged m’lud).

The show itself was really quite special – let me count the ways. The sound was great – I think I may be developing a mid-life obsession with having to hear properly on stage after literally decades of being grateful if I can even catch a low rumbling sound to indicate that the bass amp has at least been turned on. People, please believe that when I promise that if the Tertiary Donna up on the catwalk at your next festival gig is holding up proceedings for five minutes or so insisting on certain tweaks and turns in what seems to be a one-sided conversation with the ether, trust me, you’ll thank him for it in the long run. 

Good onstage sound equals porky prime cuts of performance off it, and the only thing that cheered Fiddly up more at a scorching hot Heem than having a monitor screaming violin-based foldback at him was the opportunity to concurrently have a nice cooling electric fan pointing up his shorts. He is a man of simple pleasures. We all are, aside from La Mulley who as an Oxford graduate sophisticate demands so much more from life than the rest of us. Oh, and is a girl. 

Whereas a certain proportion of the group find that simply being asked by the chap manning the barbecue to notify him when there are three songs left in the first set so that he knows when to put their steaks on (“I like mine rare” shouts Turny in response “Give it until the guitar solo in the last number”), our resident Diva demands more from life. Only such challenges such as expanding her harmonica repertoire by 50% in one sound check sitting (she now knows two songs, or six notes in total) can satisfy her continual thirst for knowledge, power, and good punctuation (she is one of those people who refer to Lynne Truss as ‘a lightweight’ and reading this sort of thing usually brings on a dull thudding pain in her temples and makes starburst flashes start to appear behind her contacts)… 

But it’s not all about onstage jokes, free food and relaxing into an abruptly terminated version of Born to Run in a marquee in an English country pub garden (although to be fair that does take up quite a large proportion of our time). Never, if you will, mind the bucolic - here’s Songs from The Blue House.

*It isn’t, except among the occupants of one particular people carrier somewhere on the A149 on that particular Sunday.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

"I say, can you see....?"


I suspect it may be one of the seven signs of ageing, but when I was asked this week about an outdoors gig I'd been to I enthused at length about the car parking, the stewards, the food outlets and the availability of paper in the portable toilets. It wasn't until I was prompted further that I realised they wanted to hear about the bands. As a performer, your perspective on festivals does tend to be coloured very much by pretty similar concerns, and that's before you even get to whether the sound engineer can hear you pleading for some vocal monitors while he has a fag and chats up some impressionable young thing, or if they've supplied some free water, or given you a shiny laminate to stick on your pinboard at home. 

Last week, for instance, we had rain, the stage manager was holding the tech spec upside down while we were setting up, I had a slippy B string and we were summarily dismissed with a curt "that's it" due to earlier over-runningwhen we still had three songs to play. That kind of puts a downer on your day, especially when you're playing real good, for free. At Kelvedon, however, we are happy to enjoy the hog roast, a refreshing coffee, the close availability of Brewer's Gold and a sunny morning before setting up, taking in the sights and sounds of the festival circuit - gazebos, pretty tea dresses combined with floral wellies and the sight of a face-painted circus refugee of the persona of the commedia dell'arte. "Who's that clown?" remarks someone.

On before us are Relay, a classic-rock styled band who feature veteran Songs from The Blue House recording engineer Steve Tsoi, responsible for knob-twiddling duties on the first two albums and a thoroughly good egg. Their set is reliable riff-heavy open air fare and at one point they break into a remarkable metal version of Wuthering Heights, which is a first for me. A short break and then we're up - the increasingly standard live line up of two guitars, bass, flute, banjo, piano and fiddle (Our Glorious Leader, Myself, Gibbon, La Mulley, Turny Winn, TT and, er, Fiddly who, as we almost always announce, is a hundred and four and comes all the way from Thorndon). 

We have left the bouzouki at home today out of sympathy for the stress levels of the traditionally hard-pressed festival sound engineer. We are introduced by an enthusiastic MC who whoops the crowd up and gets the name of the band right (check). The usual couple of songs go by while we sort out whose monitors need tweaking and we have a great onstage sound (check!). I'm enjoying the free water (check) between songs and it occurs to me that the coffee stall, rather brilliantly, advertise that they can be texted from anywhere on site and they will deliver your latte to you. I mention this onstage and enquire whether I can get a coffee. Before the middle eight of the next song a (recyclable) cup o' steaming java is popped onto the lip of the stage. This is all going terribly well - once again the infallible back-of-the-neck hair raising second verse in Rolling and Tumbling hits the spot and our proto Who/CSNY crossover (may sound unlikely, but I've just heard a metal band doing a Kate Bush cover so all bets are off as far as I'm concerned). 

Raise Your Flag continues its journey from demo to fully-fledged anthem, albeit one whose title we can't quite decide on. Even at this early stage in proceedings things are over running slightly and a considerate stage manager gives us the subtle "two to go" signal - excellent, we've fitted in the single (Don't Fear The Reaper, iTunes lovers) we can adjust the end of the set properly so we can include the big closer (check). Unfortunately there are three songs left on the set list (we've dropped one mid set already) and there appear to be every possible permutation of these being suggested from all quarters of the stage. OGL steps in with an authoratative decision and we're off, despite mutterings from the stage left cabal of myself and TT. The sun is out, and we're playing "Risk" - how good does life get? A good one, only momentarily interrupted by the Essex Air Ambulance, which hovers over the stage mid set as a sort of thank you for the day's fund raising.

We are able to offload pretty quickly due to the portability of our acoustic-based equipment, leaving TT to transform himself into a posh suited member of The Committed a (yes) Commitments tribute band. In the interim there is a set by that most ubiquitous of white, middle class week night hobbies, the samba band. It is soon apparent that they feature a heavily made up be-headdressed frontwoman who is dancing in no more or less than a star spangled bikini. One of the thong-style ones. She is soon joined by a more modestly attired festival dancer (leggings, cut off t-shirt, dreads) and there is soon an entertaining dance-off going on between the representative of the spirit of Brazil in the (electric turquoise) blue corner and the spirit of The Spirit in The Sky in the (henna) red corner. It's pretty much an amicable draw. I take a natural break in the clean and fully paper-stocked backstage latrine (check) and sidle up to the sidestage tent to help pimp some merch.

The Committed, a tribute band to a fictional tribute band, I mean, really, and that's not considering the couple of versions already touring the corporate circuit. The musical snob in me feels the bile rising until they start playing and they are...brilliant. We are, let's face it, watching a white-hot band playing Stax and Memphis soul party songs out in the open air. What's not to like? The band are almost as tight as the girls' little black dresses - at one point we're pretty sure we can tell what blonde number two had for breakfast, and they can all sing. Really well. Someone inevitably shouts for Mustang Sally - two songs in - but I'm pretty sure they've remembered to put that in the set. The frontman is pretty much a doppelganger for Andrew Strong, at least what I'm pretty sure he looks like these days and he halts the set while a couple of idiots are ejected to a round of applause from the four thousand people present. 

At the merch tent someone comes up and asks if The Committed have a CD on sale. Well, perhaps they are unaware of the film. They play Mustang Sally. Very, very well. Party band and audience One, reformed cynic Nil.
I can't stay for Salt Dog or headliners Eddie and The Hot Rods, but I do catch Absent Kid. After a storming set a bunch of teens are giggling and trying to attract the attention of the excellent (and coolly good looking - think a slightly more handsome and much younger Alex James) drummer. I'm still in a good mood from the soul revue and so I go over and point them out. "Firstly, brilliant set, secondly, there are a bunch of girls who keep saying 'I wish he'd come over' and they're talking about you" I say. "I expect they are" he replies insouciantly. Twerp.

It's time to go, weaving through the smiling happy children and their picnicking parents, the indie kids, girls in tutus (check), dogs on strings (check), and the seventy year old man who's been grooving in the sun all afternoon (check). Thank you Kelvedon free festival. You ticked all the boxes.

Saturday, July 05, 2008


Hot news in The Blue House as our download-only single (Don't Fear) The Reaper bursts into online radio station The Big L's top forty with a bullet, or whatever means of propulsion is necessary to get a track at number thirty three and have Mike Read say "It's good". With the heady hand of success ruffling our hair, bass player Gibbon and I decamp to meet up with the rest of Songs from The Blue House at the Liberty Festival. In Romford. In a shopping mall. 

When Our Glorious Leader and I came up with a few hokey country tunes of our own I think we envisaged lazily strumming our way through them at a few bucolic beer festivals sat on hay bales, a refreshing pint of foaming ale to hand but fate is a fickle mistress, and a dreadful housekeeper, and so we find ourselves in a disused shop in a monument to mammon, waiting for Mungo Jerry to finish their set so we can hoist ourselves up onto the stage and whack out a faux-bluegrass cover of a (the) Blue Oyster Cult hit. 

While we wait for the unmistakable refrain of "In The Summertime" to echo out in the booming cathedral of commerce (surely heralding a call to arms for us) we amuse ourselves by spotting shop signs - "Sale shoes, £10 a pair or two for £15" is one, and in another fashion shop a notice advises "Female Upstairs. Lift at rear". Blimey, I didn't think it was that kind of shop. 

Meanwhile, Fiddly contemplates his grubby knees sorrowfully while spritzing his fiddling hand with a handy bottle. "I've spat on 'em up on the roof, but nuthin' seems to shift 'et" he says. "What's in that bottle?" asks someone. "Water" he replies. "Well, um, why don't you use that on your knees?". He is delighted by this train of lateral thinking. "They're good knees, they've seen me through a lot" he declaims proudly. "I bet you don't get this backstage with Duran Duran" remarks banjo- wrangler Turny Winn with no little measure of pride. 

Afore too long the unmistakable jug band stylings of "In The Summertime", albeit filtered through the blues-rock kaleidoscope of the current line up, are ringing through the halls, and we push out gear-laden shopping trollies to the stage area in time to see a spirited run through a Tina Turner number, complete with guitar, bass, keyboard and drum solos. 

There is a brief discussion as to whether the singer is Ray Dorsey or Dorset, but whatever the name, he's in remarkably good shape, all in black, and washboard of stomach, although one onlooker rather unkindly remarks that he's bearing not so much a six pack as a buy-four-get-two-free pack. In undeniably good voice and grinning from ear to ear throughout though. He happily signs autographs and poses for camera phone pictures and slopes off to the artists area, or disused shop for a well earned rest. 

Soundcheck over, we immediately ignore our own advice to keep chat to a minimum due to the well-like acoustics rendering any announcement well-nigh unintelligable and kick in to the set. A couple of feet finders, and then new songs "Rolling and Tumbling", courtesy principally of the delivery of OGL and TT on pianner does the remarkable trick of momentarily bringing the spirit of New York at christmas in a Romford shopping centre in July, remarkable work I think you'll agree.

“Not That Kind of Girl", a feisty grrrl power pop song delivered by the Fragrant and Charming La Mulley, and decrying the placing of spiritual value on material things is similarly succesful in denying the incongriguity of the venue of it's delivery, and by the time we hoist out my "Special Kind of Love" even I am moved to pay tribute to the nearby branch of La Perla as it closes its shutters ("I'm a big fan of your work"). 

Whack out the single, close with big emo number "Risk" and we feel like we've come, seen, and if not conquered, then at least made our own little contribution to righting the karma slightly. All credit to the people who put the whole thing together, ran the battle of the bands competition, compered, and helped bring real music into place. The crew are splendidly kind as they pack up the stage and prepare for tomorrow's challenge - it's The Real Thing. 

For us, it's Ipswich music day, and the threat of inclemency. Will the rain gods look kindly on our works and reward us, or are we going to be playing to a muddy park and umbrellas. Again?

Saturday, June 21, 2008

"They shoot hearses, don't they...?"

It has been a tricky day in Picturehouse terms. I have spent no little time corresponding with an employer regarding just exactly when and where we are required to be so that his big day runs logistically as close to perfect as is possible, which is entirely reasonable and proper. Unfortunately, this doesn't run quite so concurrently with the ideas of the bands' perfect days, which don't generally involve driving fifty miles to soundcheck at lunchtime and then be hanging around for eight hours until called upon to perform. This, we reason, is why proper musicians charge as much as they do for this sort of thing. As willing amateurs however, we're just grateful that we're invited to the barbecue afterwards. Mind you, we are tonight due in sunny downtown mid-Suffolk for a performance at a pub which is notable for the distance betwixt performance area and bar. This can prove tricky in terms of developing a satisfactory band/punter interface scenario, since we are pretty much stuck at one end of the building due to our reliance on fixed points of electrickery and they are free to sit at the bar, although guitarist/singer Barry does have one of those new fangled radio lead thingies, which means that he's pretty much free to wander as he pleases. This, it transpires, will not be an issue this evening as for some unknown reason a stag party of bright young things, none of whom look old enough to make this sort of decision, has chosen to pitch up here and enjoy the evening with us. Also along are regular supporters JohnandDonna and a lady who introduces herself at half time and is so charming and effusive that we break all our rules and do a request for her to kick off the second half. Not that we know the song to start with, but we have a head start in that it is by Snow Patrol, who may be one of the most popular bands in the universe but, my lord, talk about three chords and the truth...! Frustratingly, these half written anthems outsell anything I've come up with in the past by about three trillion to one, and so I'm really in no position to criticise, but hey, if A, A flat and D work for you, why knock it? Chasing Cars it is then. This goes down terribly well, as does Frisky Pat's Moon-like demolition of his kit at the end of the set. We then have to put it back together for the encore, for which someone (hmmm hmm hmm, la la la) forgets to turn the out front vocal p.a. back on. At the close of the evening it's Pat's turn to lie on the carpet groaning gently and muttering that he can't play the drums. Usually that's Kilbey's job... At some point during the evening I muse that there is a machine in the toilets that dispenses a 300mg capsule of fifteen blended herbs guaranteed to 'enhance performance'. I've had a KFC on the way to the gig which boasts similar properties and was 79p cheaper, but no-one seems willing to test this theory out. Frisky Pat comes out with the money and relays that we need to get out sharpish as they need to clear up for a function the next day. We are drones - disposable, of the moment and performing a function. An, if you will, function band. This isn't what I dreamed of.

See use of the Oxford comma above, as I tonight learned that it is called. We don't just waste our time between sets , you know.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

"Livin' the dream on G's and caffeine..."

Tonight's the night, everybody - welcome, my friends, to the show that never ends! To recap, our mildly cynical neighbour, a member of Her Majesty's Press, has been contacted by a gentleman who claims that he can teach someone to play guitar using the power of the interweb in a month. One recent graduate of the course was playing with a band within two weeks, it transpires. We are doubtful and, as ever when these sorts of conversations are held on licensed premises, we determine that we must discover if this be true and so our friend Producer Simon is volunteered in his absence as a suitable guinea guitarist. Once he shows up at the pub and is confronted with a tableful of mostly pissed and therefore overly insistent friends of his that he undertake the challenge, he agrees, I suspect mostly for the sake of a quiet life. However, with a deadline to meet and a set list and programme of forthcoming gigs despatched to Talbot Towers, it seems there is no escape for our hapless victim. I mean hero. The Mighty Picturehous are coming down off our friday night gig - the third in rapid succession at a pub in Colchester where we are currently flavour of the month and have done so many shows in such a relatively short time that we not only recognise a few of the punters, but also the pub's 'twixt and post-set CD collection - to be honest it seems a bit high camp (Copacabana, some Abba, a bit of George Michael, Dolly Parton's Nine To Five) but I guess no-one's going to start a fight to I Will Survive. On this occasion we missed the vital timing slot which means that the pub pretty much empties bang on a quarter past eleven so that the nighthawks of Colchester can get in at the late night establishment of their choice by the half eleven price hike. It's unnerving the first time, but we're generally getting better at it. Barry is louchely sipping at a nice Merlot and considering his options, the freshly re-monikered Sweetpea Ibbotson and I are considering why they built the castle at the bottom of the hill and not the top ("Romans, fucking idiots" considers the former Frisky Pat sagely) and Kilbey is reflecting on his evening's Jack Daniels consumption from a prone and frankly horizontal position on the bandstand. His conclusion seems to be that an apple a day may well keep the doctor away, but is not a practical daily diet on its own if you're going to celebrate the end of your four year certificate in training course in the company of Kentucky's finest. Wise words indeed. It is friday though, and no-one has to work tomorrow, which is a mantra he has been repeating ever more forcefully during the course of the evening. "Did I mention it was friday?" he asks one last time.

Our trip to the seaside at Felixstowe for Simon's grand debut the next night brings out a fair smattering of supportive friends, all eager to see how he will face the challenge. A photographer from the paper, detailed to capture his triumph in digital form contents himself with getting Si to throw a few shapes while we're setting up and assures him that these are the best shots he'll get and buggers off conveniently early for a prior appointment, very possibly an urgent assignment at an Indian restaurant, we suspect. We have decided to not prolong the new boy's agony for too long and bring him on third song into the set. Any possibility of a low key entrance subsides pretty swiftly as Kilbey welcomes him to the stage by announcing that he has been playing guitar for approximately four weeks and this is his first ever gig. A breathless audience readies its camcorders. Well, if there were nerves, they were beautifully disguised. I think I may have held my breath sidestage for the duration of the song, but all his changes were there and he was at no point helpless. Cues in and out faultlessly executed and a happy man whose first words upon leaving the stage were apparently "I want my own band!" How potent cheap music is. As for us, we chuntered on with the thing that we do, enjoyed a cigarette break on the balcony at half time, and rounded off the evening's fun with a surprise "I Predict a Riot" that we hadn't planned, and indeed hadn't played for a while. A nice crowd, a bit of dancing, and it's always good when someone comes in their Lara Croft fancy dress outfit (as it were). The gig was upstairs - up two flights of stairs in fact, and the difference between the previous night's venue and this became rapidly apparent as just as we finished the place really started filling up (either that or they'd all seen us before and were just waiting for us to announce the last number so they could get the beers in). This was the half eleven place round these parts. As leads were packed and guitars put back in their cases the space between us and the door began filling up with bodies - bodies that were generally disinclined to leave a convenient corridor for some fairly tired and inordinately sweaty musicians to get their gear to. As we moved through the throng they magically swept around behind us like an ocean tide, and being the well brought up boys that we are it seemed impolite to ram knees and shins with heavy speaker cabinets, tempting as it was, and besides, most of this lot of incomers were breezered up to the max and it didn't look like it was going to take an awful lot to kick them off. Each trudge to the door, down the stairs, back up, through the throng and over to pick up another cumbersome piece of equipment seemed to take longer and longer, and still they came. "Yeeeaaahhh Bwwooiiii!" shouted one, patting my guitar case in approval and asking if he could blow into the piece in my other hand. It was an extendable speaker stand, but it seemed churlish to turn him down, and he seemed to enjoy the experience. "I'll give you fifty quid to go back on" said another. I may have laughed a little too risibly. By the end we were wondering whether it would be possible to simply drop drum cases from the balcony to the pavement below and try to catch them (rather than kick them down the stairs, which Sweetpea, determined to not be defined by his nickname was already doing by this point) but since one girl had already had the same idea regarding disposal of her wine glass we thought it was probably a step too far in the circumstances to start lobbing the lighting rig into the street in case some of the partygoers thought it was a good idea and decided to join in. We left and drove away, and still they came.

There is a theory (proposed by my friend and part time philosopher Neil) that those who live beside the sea are different to the rest of us. The expanse of water both constrains and excites them. It is, paradoxically, both a barrier and a gateway - "Come to me" it says, "See what mysteries I hide" while murmuring with another breath "You shall not pass". Those who turn their backs to the sea face inland, face a journey, face finding another way for themselves - to travel, to explore, to get away, to lose themselves. Or, as we discovered, get wankered on a saturday night, lob glasses off balconies and shout "Gary, he's not worth it!". It takes all sorts.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Fear and loathing in Walton-on-the-Naze

The events of the last three weeks seem to have thrown Picturehouse much more together, in both a fraternal and a musical fashion. After the debacle of a farrago of the Walton show, where regular viewers will recall we played to an audience best described as widely spaced, and less than hysterical in their response, we have enjoyed the good times provided by subsequent more enthusiastic audiences exponentially more, and we are on the verge of cancelling a couple of shows at some of our more low-key residencies as a result. 

Admittedly we have genuine excuses for the diary clashes, but there is a definite feeling that if we’re not going to have fun while we’re out then we may as well stay at home and have fun instead, which seems a sensible enough approach to adopt, especially when we consider the roll call of past members who have quit the band in the past simply because they’d rather see their wives, girlfriends and/or children at the weekend than get home at one in the morning having spent a unfulfilling Friday night with some people whose opinion of the merits of our set list seem diametrically opposed to our own. It’s not exactly going up the river after Colonel Kurtz, but there are some weird experiences to be had out there, believe you me (not least that time we encountered the team who play darts, at Harkness). 

There are only so many times you can enjoy the mantra of what you didn’t play being intoned at you before the thrill palls, frankly, but it’s so much easier when you’ve had a good gig to begin with, hence the clear out. We have some new and interesting places to be going over the next couple of months, so we’ll see what these box- fresh delights have in store for us – as in any relationship, we have to keep moving forward, other wise we’re just going to end up with a dead shark on our hands. 

Speaking of new and exciting things, we look forward this weekend to the live debut of our good friend and one time radio show producer (hence the name), Producer Simon. Some friends of ours in Her Majesty’s Press, charged with discovering if there was any truth in the proposition that someone could be taught to play guitar, from scratch, in a month, to a standard at which they would be able to play with a band happened to mention this to me. Of course, being in the pub at the time as we were, the obvious idea came that there was only one way to find out – ffiiiigggghhhtt! 

In the absence of that, all we had to do was find a suitable victim / volunteer and put it to them that the idea of potential humiliation and shame at the hands of a baying pub audience was exactly the sort of thing that would start off their weekend in a sprightly fashion. Producer Simon, being not only literate enough to record his experiences in written form for the paper but also a frustrated would-be guitarist of long standing seemed ideal for the job and after assuaging his doubts through the power of Kronenburg he signed up for the task. 

He was coming along nicely when he asked if he could have a sneaky advance run-through with us last week, although his combined bar counting, lip chewing and furrowed brow NLP learning technique did receive a bit of a set back when Kilbey quite rightly identified one small factor which may have affected his nascent guitar-flinging career in that he’d learned the single version of the song and we were doing the album version. There’s more to it than just sticking your fingers in the right place, splaying your legs and waiting for the adoration of the public you know (as the lap dancer said to the Bishop). More news, and hopefully Si’s update from the other side of the fear fence, as we have it.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

"It was the best of times, the worst of times..."

One of the interesting things about playing in two different bands, one a principally acoustic-based vehicle for original songs and collaboration, the other an electric guitar-heavy covers combo, is the contrast between the two, the, if you will "little differences" as Vincent Vega once so notably mused. On friday, for instance, Songs from The Blue House played at one of the country's finest venues, The High Barn in Great Bardfield, a sixteenth century edifice reeking with history and redolent of a great beamed cave, with perfect acoustics, a sympathetic crew, and an appreciative audience. We were there ostensibly to launch our new single, but since the download isn't ready yet, the vinyl idea had been nixed, we forgot to video the performance of the track at the album launch gig and it wasn't deemed worth pressing up any CD's, it was a low-key sort of shindig in terms of pimping some merch, so we decided to play some of our favourite songs, mix it up a bit and have a good time. And a good time we indeed had. A healthy turn out of family, friends, regular band devotees and interested and enthusiastic strangers, and a liberal application of Brewers Gold, meant that we enjoyed bantering with each other and the crowd to what would probably be regarded as an unnecessarily lengthy degree if it weren't for the fact that we were all enjoying it terribly. We had some new songs to play, the joy of which were that some of them were better than the ones we'd already recorded and released, and so there was a great feeling in the group that we were still moving forward, still stretching, still improving, and the performance itself reflected that. As a writer it is gratifying in the extreme when generous and talented souls apply themselves to the performance of something you've had a hand in creating and it's especially pleasing when something you've lived with for a while can come alive and bring hairs up on the back of your neck when it's being exercised in front of a roomful of people who are getting the vibe, feeling what you're trying to do and more than willing to show their appreciation. A microphone and a handful of chords make for a potent course for your endorphins to flow freely along, and so it's no real surprise that when the aftershow finally wound up back at The Blue House, the sky was blushing pale and the rooster next door was already crowing. I know how it felt.
Next night I was in a windswept seaside town in a bare white hotel back room, setting up my amplifier next to the toilets. It was, shall we say, a compact and bijou turnout in terms of audience attendance, most of whom preferred the sanctuary of the bar and the sanctity of the sea view, a long grey North Sea miasma, where even the gulls had battened down the hatches for the night and abandoned the promenade to the gale whipping down the east coast. The dismal evening which followed wasn't our fault, I know this because a large gentleman with a forked beard and bike club patches told me so, (and besides, last time we played for a Bike Club we had a whale of a time - on that occasion we were more than happy stay stay on for an extra half hour, but then on that occasion there were more than twelve people to play to) - We were simply the wrong band in the wrong place at the wrong time. But, the lesson here seemed to be that if you're going to organise a motorcycle club rally and bike run to the coast on a Bank Holiday weekend, best make sure The Eurovision Song Contest isn't on on the same night first, eh?
It was a long old drive home, but as I pulled into my home town, just feeling about half past dead, Roddy Frame sang to me from the CD player - Life's a one take movie. I don't care what it means.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

The Call Came Through at two fifty-nine....

Friday afternoon at the office, and the phone rings. It's Kilbey, who is in a bar with Barry The Singer. They've popped out for a quiet half of mild and a bowl of chips and been buttenholed by the manager, who's frantic at the band cancellation he's just had - can we fill in? Initially, of course, the idea holds no appeal whatsoever, what with it being friday afternoon and me having a serious work head on, and I point out that since we haven't any gigs in the duiary for a couple of weeks, I've put my amplifier into the shop for a service, but Kilbey points out that he's got a spare and can pick me up and drive me there and back, at which point the prospect becomes a whole lot more attractive. I agree that we really should help out, and check out early from the day job to power nap in preparation.
We set up, me with a borrowed amp and a selection of effects pedals that I've only seen from a distance but which offer a pleasing variety of echo, flanging and other kid-in-a-sweetshop like effects, which once I've sorted out, I am now very much looking forward to playing with. Over a pre-gig fag and a beer I am aware that I am being shouted at. "John Terry !" exclaims a voice. "John Terry!". After the last gig we played here, when a chippy young gentleman held the door to the toilets open for me and beckoned me through with a cheery "There you go Dad!" I have taken the precaution of applying groomtastic hair care products in order to give me a certain spiky facade, but I'm not entirely sure that I'm quite in the Chelsea captain's league, quite literally, however a nearby gentleman of restricted height is convinced that am the spit of him, and insists that his friend take a picture on his mobile, all the better to fox gullible friends (and presumably those with reasonably poor eyesight). Having said that, someone else (astonishingly) said the same thing later, and it makes a nice change from being mistaken for Darren Anderton.
The wee fella made another appearance later on as, mid set...well, you know how your parents used to make an arch with their legs and you used to run through it with a beaming smile on your face? That happened, although I'm pretty sure that wasn't his mum hoisting her skirt up to allow his passage, as it were. Spirits were high, comments were exchanged and someone decided to pick him up. Brilliantly, he responded by then hoicking a couple of people over his own shoulders, barging out of the back door and depositing them in the garden with a determined "...and let's see how you like it!" expression on his face. When he requested a song later, it would have been churlish not to accede.
It was a good show - lots of dancing, not least between some ladies who were obviously very close friends, and two of whom helped put some gear in the car afterwards. Celia, if that was indeed her real name, was absolutely charming and proud enough of her four piercings ("It's alright, there's nothing south of the border") to show one to a fortunate member of the band, possibly because she especially appreciated the Kylie song we did as on off the cuff encore. As we relaxed afterwards with a nice Merlot and reflected on the random chances that incidence sometimes throws your way we agreed that it really was splendid way to spend a friday evening. It really was just like going to the pub with your mates.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

"We'd like to do a song that's been very kind to us..."

In the world of Songs from The Blue House, we are preparing for another assault on the hearts and minds of the great listening public by winding up into the release of our version of Blue Oyster Cult's seminal classic "(Don't Fear) The Reaper". At a meeting some time ago with our beloved record company this was to be a combination tie-in vinyl seven inch, CD single and download as well as an upload of our performance of the song at the album launch gig last year to YouTube.

As of now this has been downgraded slightly in that it will certainly be available as a download, but we're still waiting to hear if anyone at the studio has had time to look at the live footage yet, let alone edit it all together into a seamless performance-based file for posting on the web. Reading yesterday about how Jimmy Page had to recreate the ambience of Madison Square Gardens at Shepperton for some of the close ups in The Song Remains The Same, I'm also concerned that the shirt I wore for the gig has lost a couple of buttons since then and so any retakes we need to do present the potential for horrible continuity errors. Possessing the twin virtues of impatience and compulsive worry, as I do, you can probably imagine how I'm feeling at the moment. 

We are hoping to use our forthcoming gig at The High Barn in Great Bardfield (home of OBRC) next month as a launch party. I'm sure everything will come through in time - it usually does, and I then manage to enjoy the sensation that there was really nothing to worry about all along. The second album turned up on the morning of the launch gig for instance, which saved us the ignomy of having a big sold-out gig for which there was no actual tangible product to be presented. Same thing with the download, really, as it is unlikely that folks will be sitting rapt in the audience with their laptops, all ready to simultaneously hit the 'buy' button after a dramatic countdown, possibly involving streamers, party poppers and a big back-projection of a stopwatch, and besides, I understand the wireless coverage out there is awful. 

The genesis of the song's arrival in our repertoire is a tale long and convoluted. I distinctly remember Our Glorious Leader James messing about with the riff in the studio for the 'Too' sessions after a bit of tuning up and remarking that it would be a good thing to try and reinvent, and after we'd done a beer festival for what was then merely our favourite venue and not OBRC, the payment for which was a day's studio time, we thought it would be rather a laugh to have a go at it. 

Anyone familiar with the original album version will note that there is a lengthy middle section involving wailing guitars, and since we are principally an acoustic-based folk/country/bluegrass/blues/pop crossover hybrid (there isn't a genre sub-section on iTunes, we've looked) this was clearly going to be somewhat of a challenge to pull off. As in so many of these situations however, we simply rang Fiddly Richard and told him that he'd have to do something with it, and then contacted then friend of the group, now stalwart associate member and songwriter, Tony 'TT' Turrell with a view to filling in the gaps underneath. 

I had an idea that he could do something like the piano intro to Genesis's 'Firth of Fifth' while Fiddly wailed away over the top of it and since he can pretty much play anything at the drop of a hat (his 'Theme from Roobarb and Custard' is a thing of wonder) he acquiesced, came round to The Blue House, showed us a few things which we applauded warmly and then arranged  to meet us at the studio. The combination in the final version of his rolling piano chords underpinning Fiddly's swooping solo, underpinned by Helen's ghostly counterpointed flute and the cymbal swells really is quite an aural experience. Naturally, that's the bit we've dropped from the single/radio edit version for reasons of time and concentration constraints.... 

It's a lovely barn, The High Barn, and so we determined to record as live as possible in the centre of it, with TT at the grand piano on stage being flanked by Fiddly and the fragrant-and-charming Helen Mulley, who was to add spooky flute, and the rest of us, including two (count 'em) banjo players seated in a circle down on the floor of the barn. Tony 'Ellis' Winn came up with a banjo intro which we all loved, and we settled down to enjoy a day's mucking about in the studio. 

People came and went, bass player Gibbon and Helen improvised some backing harmony vocals, Hel introducing the elusive 'blue' note to proceedings, Pete 'Radar' Pawsey enjoyed his usual studio technique, which involved running the track over several times while he blew, hit, strummed, stroked and stared at various things (the look on producer Chris's face as Radar unpacked what looked like a child's zither and proceeded to hammer on it for a bit while trying to get a level is still one which some members of the band treasure as their favourite moment of the day) and Fiddly improvised and practised until he'd got several takes that we thought we could work with. 

Rough mixes taken away and listened to, Chris very kindly agreed that we may as well do the whole thing properly if we were going to do it at all, and so invited us back to finish off some percussion and do some mixing once everyone's ears had recovered slightly and so we, naturally, turned up with a drummer and the news that we thought it could probably do with a proper rhythm track. Now at this point you may have sensed a slight flaw in our plan - you'd think that the sensible point at which to lay down a drum track in these days of computerised mixing desks, click tracks and digital edits would be at the point we recorded the basic backing for the song, wouldn't you? And you'd be right. 

Paul 'Reado' Read however is a man who is unlikely to shirk a challenge and so having listened carefully to the sound of some musicians sitting in a circle in a barn and playing a song some of them barely knew while trying to monitor a piano some twenty feet away committed the tiny yet significant tempo changes, lapses in concentration and fluffed intros to memory and, incredibly, managed to play along with the whole track as if he'd been there in the room in the first place. His only bone of contention being that there should be significant amounts of cowbell present in the final mix. 

For those of you who have seen the YouTube footage of that sketch featuring Will Ferrell and Christopher Walken, "More cowbell", I can assure you that it is a barely-fictionalised account of what went on that night. Then, of course, those nice people at The Word magazine ran a competition to find a bunch of 'Rock Dads' and since we pretty much fit the bill, we sent them a version of it, and blow me if we didn't win! An experience to treasure, not least for the little things that went unremarked at the time. 

As an example when, having waited for Robert Plant's crew to finish their lengthy soundcheck before we could load our gear on stage Reado then soundchecked his drums and cymbals by playing part of the mid-section of Led Zeppelin's 'Moby Dick', it was probably an in-joke too far for most of the anxious waiting audience. ). Then, when we were putting together the track listing for our latest album 'Tree', James and I kept coming back to the fact that we had this old thing in the bag somewhere and if we didn't drop it somewhere into the mix it'd very probably be lost for ever. 

Patient and with good grace as ever in the face of our ideas, our friend and engineer Simon Allen went delving through the hard driven archives to dig out our performance, dusted off the files, reformatted the mixes, tweaked, tuned and remastered the thing so it sat kindly next to our more recent efforts and probably wondered what else we'd come up with before he could relax and stop doing fourteen hour days for us. 

And so, with a little fanfare heralding our hopes and dreams of a foray into the pop charts, we are nearly ready to thrust ourselves upon the pluggers, producers and publishers of the industry, all because James decided one day to fool around with a half-rembered riff. It could all have been so different. The other thing we used to muck about with was Robyn Hitchcock's 'Brenda's Iron Sledge'. I wonder how things might have turned out if we'd gone with that one....?

You can listen to, buy or make a gift of the album version here:

p.s. In the great file of "what might have been", I am reminded that Reado stepped up to the plate and offered to get us back on when The Waterboys didn't turn up. One of the great regrets of my life is that we didn't get to do our covers of 'Medecine Bow', 'The Whole of The Moon', 'This Is The Sea' (complete with Sweet Thing' segue)' and 'Fisherman's Blues' and get off before anyone noticed... :-)

Monday, March 31, 2008

I Want Your Essex.

This is relatively unfamiliar territory for us in The Barry Trill Experience, as I have come to affectionately rename the covers band for my own amusement - we’re still Picturehouse on the posters – for the second time in as many weeks we are venturing into darkest Essex, home of the white stiletto joke, Bluewater and one of a national chain of faux-Irish pubs which the last time I saw the inside of was on the telly being featured principally as a venue for fights between, and a good place to pick up, squaddies. The previous week we’d driven out to Mersea Island, which by only a cruel misplacement of geography avoided being the home to a thriving seventies R n’ B scene but is currently home to a number of caravan parks, an outdoor activity centre, a rugby club and, improbably, a vineyard. We were there to do our bit for charity and play a few numbers amid the swirling dry ice and spotlights of the Cosmic Puffin festival, issued with wristbands and load-in instructions after registering at reception, and more than happy to parade ourselves atop the stage behind the barriers, which only slightly slipped by about three feet when someone had the temerity to lean on them.

There’s nothing like dry ice, lighting, a stage and crash barriers to bring out the poseur in your average pub bander, and so it proved. Blissfully unencumbered by having worry about what we sounded like out front (that’s, like sooo the sound guy’s problem, yeah?) we had a whale of a time enjoying two of the other great benefits of doing a festival – the chance to hear some other bands for free (look out for The Fancy Dress Party – a sort of Arcade Fire juniors) and the chance to enjoy some bracing outdoor weather. Thankfully the event was staged indoors, as the teeth of a howling gale and sub-zero temperatures are no place for sensitive artistes like ourselves to be throwing shapes and so our enjoyment of the elements came principally as a result of the smoking ban. Apparently some folks had taken up the option of the weekend camping tickets, and as we drove away after our slot (a physical allergy to reggae forcing our driving bass player to vacate the premises) the St Bernards were being readied for action, their collar-mounted brandy barrels being topped up and their slavering great chops dribbling in anticipation of the night’s work ahead. I’m no expert, but I wouldn’t put any money down on the 2008 Mersea Island sparkling white being a great vintage.

And so to this week’s foray. Now then, Essex comes in for an awful lot of stick when it comes to stereotyping. A lot of it is very beautiful, the people are kind and generous (hey that little shindig to raise money for a children’s ward wasn’t organized by aliens y’know) and many of its pubs are charming rural affairs with great ales and fine dining opportunities, it’s just that if all you ever see of the Essex clay is the bit which is either side of the A12 then you are likely to get a bit of a singular impression of the place. So, we drive down the A12 and set up in the bar where we are due to play, right under the humorous Gaelic-scripted shop sign and opposite the blurry black and white print of stereotypes of a different stripe wielding fiddles, bodhrans, bouzoukis and the like. I’m always cheered up at times like this when I recall reading that the popularity of the bouzouki in Irish music is due in part to a combination of its modal tuning, which lends itself ideally to the playing of traditional jigs and reels, and the increase in availability and lowering in price of cheap flights to the Greek Islands in the late sixties and early seventies, which meant that the Gaelic sun seeker of the day could bring a few back as souvenirs of their balmy evenings spent relaxing outside the Taverna trying not to think of Monty Python’s Cheese Shop sketch and wondering if they’d ever develop a taste for olives. I find it intriguing to wonder at the benign influence of Freddie Laker on the modern folk-rock scene.

All of this is far away from the theme of this evening’s adventure, which is based principally around getting ourselves into the allotted stage area contained within reassuringly sturdy wooden surrounds and ensuring that we have allocated a line out from the PA mixer so that they can plug us in to their in house speaker system and thus, theoretically, beam our performance all around the venue for the benefit of those who’d rather hang out at the bar than crane their necks to see what we’re up to over in the corner. That we only ever put vocals through the front of house speakers means that they are likely to experience some slightly off-key close harmony barbershop during the choruses and a bit of shouting during the verses, especially since we’ve had to give them the line out to our onstage monitors, meaning that we can’t really hear what we’re singing anyway and so we jury-rig a couple of mics onstage to point vaguely at the band (not unlike some of the audience will later do) and at least give some semblance of the fact that there’s a whole band there albeit one which sounds like it’s in another room to the singer (as many of the audience similarly will be later).

The gig itself is another surprisingly well-frugged event, with the cirque and pompenstance of our performance bringing out the soft shoe shufflers in a goodly number of our audience, not all of whom disappear at precisely eleven twenty five to take advantage of the half price admission to the club next door, which has a half eleven deadline. Singing along with the choruses is enthusiastically entertained by the punters, and the wiring of the vocal mics to several different points around the pub mean that a few of the ‘tween song announcements’ nuances that are usually lost in the flood of bar-room banter come through loud and clear. Bass player Kilbey’s brand new Jazz bass, a possession of his for all of, ooh, six or seven hours now, is living well up to expectations although his enjoyment of the subtle nuances of the Fender sound are reduced somewhat since I have my amp perched neatly on top of his at approximately ear level and am wholeheartedly enjoying a combination of the two main benefits of not driving to a gig for the second week in a row – those of being able to play extraordinarily loud electric guitar and also being able to be very slightly drunk (apologies to anyone who was especially looking forward to the solo in the Scissor Sisters song by the way, but that’s probably the way it would sound if BabyDaddy tied on a few Amstels during the gig too).

We don’t usually get to play town centre pubs which serve as a warming-up venue for the night’s entertainment – we’re usually the main event somewhere out of town, and so it was interesting to note what folk wear when they’re frocking up for a night on the tiles. A nice fifties-style prom dress here, a gothic-looking black lace number there, a Bond-girl style oriental halter-neck thither, but whither the provenance that persuaded the very pretty dark-haired girl and her friend to pop out for the evening in the shortest dresses ever noted in the annals of England’s oldest recorded town? Still, they liked a dance, and with a figure like mine you can’t really be going around commenting on hemline/cellulite ratios or Essex girl stereotypes and it wasn’t like they were actually sporting white stilettos or anything.

They were red.