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?