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.