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.