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.