Wednesday, December 30, 2009

"The stars are alive and nights like these were born to be..."

I was rather hoping for a nice review of All These Little Pieces in the local paper, and so when one duly turned up I was not only gratified but also quite touched that it started with congratulations upon the delivery of not only a finished manuscript but also of Archie - my new son, heir to the Kirk estate, and future King of the World. 

As I mention in the book itself, over time we in Songs from The Blue House developed what could comfortably be referred to as a (does that thing with the fingers in mid air) 'relationship' with local journalist, promoter and music producer Stephen Foster, engendered principally on our ability to string a sentence together without resorting to base Anglo Saxon epithets, to not bump into the furniture and to say 'please' and 'thank you' when we're offered coffee in the BBC Radio Suffolk green room, and it was good of him to step up to the plate, as it were. 

I ended up with a nice cover shot for the book and so with the two threads of this particular process wending their way together it would seem that the good people who put together The Grapevine - since 1991 Ipswich, Suffolk and East Anglia's best free music guide - considered that a combination of Foz's good word for us and the striking image of my Eric Clapton album cover pastiche was enough to throw us on to the cover of the January 2010 issue of the magazine. 

Now, I've been on the cover before - in fact if you go to The Grapevine's website you'll see a number of me, featured in the photo from the front of the December 2001 issue, where The Final Twist - the gig we promoted at The Manor Ballroom in Ippo to herald the last hurrah of our Beatles specialist band The Star Club - was quite rightly heralded as many folks' gig of the year (it was definitely mine, and there were certainly three other guys who to my knowledge I'm sure would go along with that). 

To find myself in the position of being back on there though, is exciting (and humbling) not least because the reason I'm pictured, in all my faux-Backless glory, is thanks to the publication of a happy collaboration with friends upon what is, essentially, a very long love letter to SftBH. I will be scooping up copies of The Grapevine (alas, now that it has downsized in format it shan't make for such a splendid framing opportunity as did its predecessor) and showing them to friends, sending them to family, and also tucking a single copy away in Archie's special bag o' papers, so he can dig it out in thirty years time, smooth out the dry, cracked and yellowing paper, and pore over the words that someone wrote about some words that someone once wrote. Holding the fading photograph up to the wan light of the window, he can trace the outline of the photograph on the cover. "So that's what he looked like..." he'll say "...before." 

Read all you like about on the electric interweb about why us people do these things - everyone's got a theory. Writers, performers, bedroom arrivistes with their Garageband mix tapes and their pro tools-heavy downloads. Self-publicists, self-publishists, pamphleteers, buccaneers, YouTubers, cover bands and tribute brands, lovers, thieves, fools and pretenders. Why? In the words of a song somebody once wrote; "I just want to be up here you see, with something of my own".

Thursday, December 24, 2009

A Tale of Two Singers

Before we start, it is important to establish two facts. One is that Judy Dyble, the one-time lead singer out of Fairport Convention, and current solo artist in her own right, very kindly agreed to once appear onstage with Songs from The Blue House. At the time we featured our friend Steve 'Kilbey' Mears on vocals. The other is that Anthony Costa, one of the blokes out of the pop group Blue, is currently appearing in panto in Ippo. Now then, let's begin...

So. Kilbey's out on a works do, the sort of thing where you get introduced to people and have to find some common ground over the canapes and then rather uncomfortably skip out to the car park for a restorative Marlboro light as soon as possible, ruefully considering that if the company spent half as much on your annual bonus as they did on forcing you to go out with clients then everybody would be a lot happier in the long run. But then, as they say, that's the difference between a bonus and a penis. You can always find someone willing to spend time enjoying making the most of your bonus. Apparently, on this occasion Kilbs gets into conversation with a nice chap who, as it happens, likes music and bands and enjoys conversing with people who like music and bands. The inevitable question comes up - "So, what sort of stuff do you like?". The chap pauses, knowing that this is a hole he's had to dig himself out of many times before, and tentatively asks "I don't suppose you've heard of a guy called Richard Thompson...?". Kilbey, after many years in my company immediately spots an in. "Mate" he says "He wrote Meet On The Ledge, yeah? I love that song - one of my best friends (he's not talking about me) says it's his favourite song, and I think it's a beautiful song, and every time I hear it I'm close to tears through all the connections and stuff..." The chap is visibly impressed. "Oh, so you're familiar with Fairport Convention?" he asks. "Oh yeah..." replies Kilbey " fact I wrote a song that Judy Dyble sang with some friends of mine". "No, way!!!!" says the guy "I BLOODY LOVE JUDY DYBLE!!!" At this point, Kilbey remembers something else. "Oh yeah" he says "We did a gig with her once - so, y'know, I've duetted with Judy Dyble on stage!". "YOU'RE FUCKING KIDDING ME!?!?!?" replies his new friend and, calming into lower case, responds "That's awesome, mate, you're so lucky!" Kilbey confirms that he is, indeed, very lucky, does a whole back story around our friend Big Paul (who first introduced him to FC), what little he knows about Jude, reflects on the band, some of the people we have in common, swaps numbers, and promises to keep in touch. A group formed over forty years ago has provided, through chance and connection, a conduit for people to start a social relationship, converse, swap stories over common ground and rediscover their love for its music. Jude will infer that when Jimi Hendrix got up to jam with the band back in the day she was busy knitting. But she was busy knitting there.

In the mean time, after two (count 'em) performances of the pantomime at the Ipswich Regent, it is agreed that the lead actor should mime both (both!) of his songs as he can't really hold up the rest of his performance if he strains his throat trying to hold a tune in his featured spots. As a result and an aside, the talented young actress playing opposite him now also has to mime. The actor has a VIP area reserved at an Ipswich nightclub where he is gifted champagne as a consequence of his exalted status. The free champagne (I've talked to one of the staff) costs about 70p a bottle at trade prices and last week the club DJ put on 'Killing In The Name' and pointedly dedicated it to manufactured pop stars.

Here's a question. Whose CV would you rather have?

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Made in the Eighties.

Bob Geldof commented that getting The Who to play Live Aid was like getting a man and his three exes back together. It wasn't quite so fractious when the four of us who made up the As Is (mk.III) line up reconvened after a gap of about nineteen years to play at one time Behemoth of the Bass Ross Geraghty's birthday party in darkest North London this weekend and anyway, there was only one of my exes there. Having rooted around in the attic for a set of matching drum sticks, drummer Malcolm, the rocking barrister from Followill, Followill, Followill and Followill (I believe he is formally attached to Molly's Chambers) was limbering up gently at a table in the corner when James and I arrived fresh from the same route that he used to take into London in the olden days of the Punk Wars, when horses and carts laden with turnips for market would also convey fun loving Adicts fans to dark, black-painted rooms, where they would drink snakebite and exchange copydex recipes. 

Rossco and the house band warmed up the PA with a brisk run through some pub rock standards (after the third I thought, "Well there go all the things I can play along on") garnering a series of huge rounds of applause in the process and then after a few ginger tweaks and tune ups we gathered together on stage and prepared to trundle through half a dozen songs we hadn't played in nearly two decades. To be honest, I don't think we'd actually all been in the same room with each other in that time. Bearing in mind that this was supposed to be a party and that there were only two other people in the room who had heard any of the songs we were about to play before, I don't think we were entirely sure how this was all going to come off. The band was so unfamiliar even to Ross's mates that one of them asked who our bass player was. There were four clicks on the sticks and then we were off, and to be honest, it wasn't so much that the years slipped away, it was more that it seemed that the years hadn't actually been there in the first place.

It was terribly nice that so many people came up and asked if that was all our own stuff and how long had we been rehearsing for it afterward, but the main pleasure was simply being back in harness with the coolest rhythm section in town (one of whom surely has a portrait in the attic which has take on the job of ageing on his behalf), whacking up the distortion and wailing the fuck out. On the way home we picked up a kebab, just like the old days (and I understand it may even have been from the same shop as back in the day), and once I got home I realised that the eighties scarf I'd dug out to wear especially had been lost in transit betwixt stage and hearth. If I were a more spiritual man I'd say that it was a fitting metaphor for closure. As it is, I probably just dropped it in the pub. Probably the sort of careless act I would have done back then, except I probably wouldn't have bothered remembering to reclaim my spare plectrum and we really would have gone through with nicking the mics. But what sort of example would that be to the kids?

Sunday, November 15, 2009

I second that emulsion.

It's been said that being in a band is like being in a marriage*. I wouldn't necessarily go quite that far, being (as I am) in a conventional marriage already, but it's certainly one of the more intensive, if not invasive, relationships you'll ever be fortunate enough to have. It's more like, oh, possibly an open marriage, say, or a polygamous one. Certainly when your (ex) partner moves on to someone new, the situation has the propensity to be one of those times when you can't help but wonder out loud about their new love; you find yourself checking out pictures of them together, wondering if you should have stayed that bit longer, looking back on those special times and wondering if you should or could have done anything different. What is it, you think, that's so special about their new partner(s), even though, deep down, you already know.
Those reunion albums, those nostalgia tours, every one off reunion gig ('for the fans', naturally) that you nurture, they're all one step off've picking up the phone after one too many late night gins and asking what the hell went wrong (you've read/seen High Fidelity, right?) Occasionally you might look back, pausing long enough only to take your rose tinted spectacles off, wipe a nostalgic tear from your cheek and sniff that you were right to move on and that things will never be the same for them, that they'll never know what they're missing, and that if they don't wake up in the middle of the night clutching the space that you used to occupy, then they darned well should do. Then you take a long pull on your Jack & Coke, substitute 'you' for 'they' and move on.
Every once in a while though, it's good to flirt with an ex. I hope to be at my friend Ross's birthday party in December, and we'll see then if there's still something between us. We'll show those new partners, those exes, and those who've fooled around with us in the mean time what they've been missing. Oh yes we will.

*Brian Molko out of Placebo, since you ask.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

All These Littles Pieces

I am pleased and proud to announce the arrival of second best thing I've had delivered this week. Ease up on that scrolling finger, friends! No need to take the lap top into the bathroom with you when you get to a good bit! Highlights from the Songs from The Blue House back pages, lovingly compiled into one handy volume, for all your stocking-filling needs.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

"Thundering acoustic guitar licks..."

A recent review confirms that I really am in a band, and illuminates a few details which will also be be covered briefly in the forthcoming All These Little Pieces - available shortly.

Friday, October 30, 2009

My Phone’s on Vibrate for You.

May I take this opportunity to express the fondest regards and the best of wishes to the good folk of Halstead for inviting us into their second home, The Dog, and letting us take up a corner of their local with our country-folk-blues-pop stylings last night. A friendly crowd lowered the hubbub and made best of order for the SftBH show on October 29th, allowing us free rein to indulge our penchant for tales of love, loss, woe, hope, optimism and the occasional punitive exercising of the right to defend one’s farmhouse against those who would trespass against us. That last one always goes down well in the Essex borders. 

Also notable was the opportunity to fill in a string-replacing lull in proceedings with a fine version of “Love Hurts”, which I always enjoy imposing on the group as it gives me the opportunity to do my best Gram Parsons impression. Coupled with that was the availability of a couple of shelves’ worth of casks of ale which came associated with the imprecation to “help yourselves” and the wonderful opportunism of landlord Ady, who took our throwaway “This one’s in ‘D’ – I hope you all have your harmonicas ready?” to indeed scurry off upstairs only to reappear with an appropriately tuned harmonica, find a handy microphone and engage in a spirited instrumental duet with Tony Winn on “Rolling and Tumbling”. There was absolutely no call for the subsequent “…and if you’ve ever wondered what two cats fighting in a bag would sound like…” comment, there really wasn’t. 

In the break I got chatting to a chap who mentioned in passing that he’d once jammed on stage with Van Morrison. I enquired further. It turns out that he was once in The 100 Club with some mates who were in a band, and who should walk in mid-soundcheck but the late, great Lonnie Donegan. The skiffle legend was hastily invited up for a jam, and things were going swimmingly before Van the Man himself actually walked in, took in the scene and decided to join his old mucker up on the stage! As you can imagine, our friend was mightily impressed by this astonishing turn of fortune and was even more delighted when Morrison made come hither gestures toward him, indicating that he, too, should join in with the communal merry-making. Having protested that he couldn’t play an instrument, he was handed a tambourine with the comment that no-one could muck that up, and it was important that everyone be able express themselves. 

One lengthy improvisation later our chum was delighted to be approached by the great man, who extended a warm paw toward him. “Looks like I was wrong about that then. I’ll have that off you, if you don’t mind…” he said, witheringly.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Some days, you eat the bear. 

It's difficult to know what to say when you finish a set and one of your previously sane and rational friends storms the (admittedly minor) length of the venue, vaults on to the stage, embraces every member of the band within armshot and exclaims "That was fucking awesome!". It seems only fair to express gratitude, especially if he's also just bought dinner for the entire band. After sober and censorious reflection, said chum was willing to repeat his critical appraisal this mornng over a pub breakfast and so I'm going to have to trust him on this one.

It was a necessarily short set, tucked in between an extraordinarily personable percussion-looping open-tuned virtuoso guitarist and one Melanie Dekker, a wonderful Canadian singer/songwriter blissfully untroubled by any prior interaction with the ugly stick, the whole thing being introduced by BBC Radio's Sue Marchant, delightfully both free of spirit and scat of ty. 

There was a minor set list adjustment prior to the show on the grounds that it was "the wrong room" for one of the songs, but if you can't indulge the whims and fancies of one of your trusted bandmates in a cellar full of pews, when can you? She was right, of course. It was a good set, a good gig, a good show - hell, the sound guy even congratulated me on one of my jokes, that's how good we were. 

You know that bit in movies featuring bands, where the caricature singer turns up at the stage door, throws on a guitar, strides centre stage and without a soundcheck counts the band in, wows the crowd, throws off his axe, gets the girl and rides off in to the sunset on a powerful motorcycle all within the space of one anthemic number? It was like that all the way through. On the application form you have to fill in whenever you want to form a band (there's a central registry and a government department and everything- I think one of the Miliband brothers is in charge of it at the moment) there's a section at the bottom where they ask why it is that you and your friends want to be in a band. After careful consideration, on mine I wrote "We could be heroes. Just for one day".

Monday, October 05, 2009

I remember when it were all Fostex four tracks round here.

Being the old curmudgeon that I am, my advice to any up and coming young tyro who seeks me out in order to sit at my knee, all the better that he or she should benefit as I impart the wisdom of my years, is generally “Don’t bother – you won’t make any money, you’re definitely not going to become famous, and in five years’ time when all your friends have graduated and got proper jobs you’ll still be working behind the counter in Subway dreaming of your big break”. 

Sound advice, I think you’ll agree, and to be honest anyone who does actually accept and act upon it doesn’t deserve to be in a band in the first place. 

Proper tips however, always go along the same lines – don’t bother running a coach down to some ‘showcase’ gig in that London, it’s rarely worth getting involved with a self-funded compilation CD involving a perceived local ‘scene’ and never, ever, bother entering a battle of the bands competition (although, in the words of The Killers, all these things I have done).

However, in between my burgeoning radio career, finishing off the second volume of my memoirs, the warm thrill of confusion brought by Songs from The Blue House, and the space cadet glow formerly engendered by Picturehouse I realized recently that I have been neglecting the upkeep and welfare of Gods Kitchen, the post new-new wave Heavy Heavy Big Pop-lite arm of my ongoing dispute with the fates as to who has the more pressing need for that career, Elvis Costello or me (so far, he’s ahead on points), and so when our beloved local evening paper hoisted its freak flag high and created a social networking site for music lovers it seemed the ideal opportunity to poke awake the shuffling, dribbling near-corpse of the band, point it at the spot lights and wait for folk memory to kick in and remind it what to do.

By delicious chance, the nice people at the website have opened a battle of the bands competition, and rather than having to drag our weary bodies out to some godforsaken church hall somewhere and perform for the afternoon DJ on Heath Road Hospital radio like we had to in the old days, they’ve just asked for an MP3 to be sent their way. Well, what could be easier? We don’t even have to rehearse! By further fortune, should we make it through the first round of online voting and get as far as the five-band showcase gig, one of the judges deciding on our artistic merit and musical worth will be the singer from a band that one of our guitarist Kilbey’s kids formed a group with not long ago. 

It really was too delightful a chance to miss - and with any luck there'll be a place on a compilation CD to go with first prize too! Gods Kitchen is a four piece band and our combined age is over one hundred and seventy.

Friday, September 25, 2009

All These Little Pieces...

So, what's occurring then?

Firstly, Thursday nights will continue to reverberate to the haunting sounds of Why The Long Face? on Ipswich Community Radio 105.7 FM between ten and midnight or at where you can also listen again to last week's show. Neale and I have been recommissioned for a second series and we're in a rich vein of form at the moment, so catch it before the bubble bursts. Regular features include Philip Bryer's None of Your Business, Brian Blessed Playhouse and Celebrity Death Watch (for instance we were on air the night Michael Jackson bought the farm, or Neverland as some folk refer to it).

The follow up to Do You Do Any Wings? - everybody's favourite rock memoir of 2008 - is currently under revision and should be out by Christmas. The new volume will deal with what we like to refer to as the Songs from The Blue House years and inside you'll find reflections on such things as The Oxford Folk Festival, playing Cornbury with Robert Plant, Acorn Fayre and writing songs with James Partridge, who has also supplied an introduction, prologue or preface, depending on what we decide it is. We did a photo session for the cover last week and it should provide ample amusement for album sleeve trivia spotters.

Songs from The Blue House have a couple more gigs to go this year (see for details) and we're rather hoping that the soundtrack to new independent movie Coyote County Loser will include our Beartown Road should it surface. Also in the pending file, we're still waiting on Dame Judy Dyble's retrospective boxed set to see if our unreleased Little No-One makes the cut.

Finally, I was privy to an extraordinarily kind communication from a friend of the band from California today, the actual content of which which must remain private, but which reaffirmed my faith in the generosity of talented people. Thanks, Monkey. :-)

Be kind.
More soon.

All These Little Pieces updates also on Twitter @doyoudoanywings

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Let’s go fly a kite.

A gratifying number of people have enquired why it is exactly that I’m leaving Picturehouse, the group who have provided me with so many great memories, a wealth of experience, occasionally the warm thrill of confusion - that space cadet glow, one might say - and the material for Do You Do Any Wings? (still available at in case you didn’t want to scroll back through three years of bloggery). 

For some reason, today’s answer wasn’t the usual “Well, er, time to move on, new challenges, baby on the way, that sort of thing….”, I simply said “Have you ever flown a kite? You know how you get up, and it’s really blustery, so you get wrapped up all warm, and you go out and run along trying to get your kite in the air? You’ve put the thing together, you’ve unraveled the big ball of string, you’ve seen it crash into the ground a couple of times, but then when you finally get it aloft it goes soaring away, you can just about control it, occasionally it crashes again, but then you get it flying once more, and it’s swooping, dipping, swirling - it’s exhilarating, exciting and you think it’s the best and freest feeling in the world, and you vow to come back on the next breezy day and do it all again?”

“And you do. And again, and again. And then one windy morning you wake up and you look out of the curtains and you can see that it’s great kite flying weather, but you don’t really want to put on all your warm clothes and find the bag with the kite in and unravel  the string and stomp up the hill, even though you know this time you might  have the best flight ever, you think that you may just stay in bed this time? Well, that’s the feeling I get now”.

I think that’s the most stupid metaphor I’ve ever heard” she said.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

A Farewell to Things

The great Picturehouse farewell tour* is limping to a close. On Friday night, we were in Stowmarket, where pretty much every band I've ever left, dumped or folded has come to a timely demise for one reason or another. It must be either something about the three pound-forty pints of Guinness or the unique approach to making a band feel special that has contributed so emphatically to the Stowmartians place in rock history. "Oi! Some of us were enjoying that!" may well be a heartfelt expression of one person's desire to hear more of our work once we've called it a night, but it's hardly a refined cry of "Encore, encore! Bravo!" is it? I'm guessing it wasn't from the couple who walked out after three songs who'd maybe popped back to see if we'd got any better. 

You can see how, once ruminating on these sorts of things starts occupying more and more of my day, it's probably best for all of us if I take some time out, now can't you? It was kind of both Neighbour Neil to come straight from his job spreading tabloid filth in that London (I knew Peter would never cheat on Katie!) and for Stalker Bertie to provide custom stage wear for the occasion ("I coudn't get 'Rock in Stowmarket' so I brought one of the Iron Maiden Rio shirts instead') but by the time Wendell got up to guest on "I Predict a Riot" it had the feel of a wake rather than a celebration. It did give me the chance to silently dedicate The Scissor Sisters' number to my late friend Big Graham, however, who used to come to many, many of our gigs and would go out for a cigarette religiously every time we played it because he didn't like "...that gay shit". None of this sounds particularly gracious on my part, some people, as we know, were enjoying that. 

Next day it was my turn to drive and so I popped some vintage Fairport Convention in the stereo, wound it up nice and loud and hot-reeled it round to casa Trill. When I got there he was listening to Rush's "Cygnus X-1", which he'd been playing along with on bass. It's nice to know that we would meet later on the middle ground somewhere around the work of Vampire Weekend. In the meanwhilst however, time to get to the gig, unpack, set up and perform. We were first there, even though we were running late ourselves, and walked in to find the lady behind the bar recounting how the last band who were late were phoned at home, only for the person who answered the call to say that the errant frontman was " the bath". 

Subsequently every member of Picturehouse who came through the door that evening walked straight up to the bar to apologise for their tardiness with the words "I'm sorry, You see I was in the bath..." to an element of some intrigue ("If three of us do it, they'll think it's a movement!" as Arlo Guthrie once spake). Shortly after Kilbey's extraordinary rendition of this phrase he was heard to be muttering something about "a bloody idiot!". Naturally assuming that he was referring to Frisky Pat we wondered what could possibly be the cause of his outburst. "I've forgotten to put the P.A. amp and the speaker stands in the car" he 'fessed up, miffedly. "And the mic stands".

We all soon came to a band consensus that he was, indeed, a bloody idiot. The extraordinarily patient staff and audience were mollified with a promise of a short break, and Pat was despatched back to base to collect the gear. "No rush to set up then?" I proposed with that plucky spirit that took so many of us Brits through the blitz. In the film, I should have been played by a young Richard Attenborough. Bass player Peter Lorre looked on, suitably hangdog.

Of course it all ended happily - Pat was back in what seemed like a trice, the combination of musical talent finely honed over many years of experience and excessive drinking in both of our frontmen combined to make a special night of it in front of a vocally and terpsichoredly appreciative crowd, and to cap it all at the end of the evening, a terribly pretty girl in a strapless frock and with matching (pink) belt and shoes expressed no little admiration for the louche charm of our "singer". After expressing her regard in expansive terms she wondered if I might effect an introduction, pointing out plaintively that she had "a good job!" I thought that at the very least a 'hello' would be a nice bit of band/audience interaction in terms of PR and so persuaded a very reluctant group member to pop over to acknowledge her appreciation in warm tones and thank her for her support. 

Obviously my definition of 'cute' didn't really match up with hers, as an embarrassed  mumble indicated that the singer I'd procured on her behalf wasn't necessarily the one that she was prepared to risk an argument with an attentive young local in order to actually engage in casual conversation. My bad. Meanwhile, a calm and sober drummer (and that's not a phrase you get to use too often in my line of hobby) reflected on the Jack Daniels-inspired pupils of our four string player. "You look like you've popped an E!" opined the batteriste. "At my age it's more likely that I'll have popped a knee" quipped the stand-tastic front man. "By the way" added Pat casually "When I nipped round to yours to pick up the P.A. I reversed over your garden and knocked down your fence"

*I should stress that it's only my farewell - they're carrying on, and as Michael Stipe said about REM - a three legged dog is still a dog. See how I put the 'limping' thing in there though?

Sunday, July 26, 2009

It's not that Fiddly came out of The Ark that bothers us, it's just that we don't know where the other one is...

It seemed that since there was a huge marquee, and people had been so kind, it would be rude not to make a grand closing gesture. So on the last song I took my guitar, hurled it into the air, caught it on the downslope, strummed a perfect G chord and sank to my knees. As I walked off, Parters casually tossed his acoustic from the stage in my direction. Without missing a beat I stretched out a languid arm, caught the thing and carried on toward the (free) bar. It was almost my best rock n' roll moment ever.

Monday, July 13, 2009

A simple twist of fete.

A nice day out in the country for stunt bass player Kilbey, who stood in on behalf of Mr. Gibbon for the Songs from The Blue House expedition to Littlebury, where we completed the latest leg of our summer tour of bijou and boutique festivals, the sort which are usually hosted in either a field or someone’s back garden, depending on which is the more convenient for accomodating a stage, several hundred metres of cabling, a sound desk and a couple of PA stacks. Obviously if one’s back garden happens to be of the dimensions which look fully capable of attracting EU subsidies in the first place, that does tend to help things along in terms of deciding where to install the Pimms pergola.

The night before, Kilbey and I had been cruelly inveigled into playing at a wedding by the simple expedient of booking Picturehouse for a pub gig and then holding the reception there at the same time. “We’re big fans of the band and really looking forward to the set” the groom explained. “Catch you later, Steve” he added. The evening didn’t get off to the most auspicious of starts as a Gentlewoman of the audience procured umbrage at the volume setting of Barry Trill’s screaming Fender Twin. “Can’t you move it?” she enquired with all the charm and decorum of a bad tempered docker in the throes of a particularly irksome hangover* “I can move it all the way back to my house if you want!” responded Barry, somewhat peremptorily. Two songs in and it already looked like it was going to be a long night.

Things picked up though, and by the time we got to our atmospheric and deeply moving rendition of Snow Patrol’s “Chasing Cars” we were expecting a good crowd reaction. We weren’t necessarily expecting the bride, still in her big white frock, and her best friend to actually lie down in front of us on the quintessential pub carpet and act out the line “If I lie here, would you lie with me?” in real time but that’s what happened anyway. 

To be honest the pomp and gravitas of the number is necessarily compromised in my mind, as just after Barry delivers the line “...those three words…” with all due solemnity, the unbidden voice of Mrs. Merton pops into my head and interjects “…if you must.” After a hearty slap up barbecue supper we were on our way home by half eleven rather than just starting in on the second set, and we’d made some new friends at a new venue. If Disney had employed Elton John to write the songs to soundtrack the Picturehouse story he’d probably have come up with something very much along the lines of The Circle of Life to accompany this particular bit. As it was, Barry had some particularly fine thirties Gypsy swing jazz in the car, which worked just as well. 

And so, with all good speed the next day to Saffron Walden and the village fundraiser, where we reclined lazily by the river while jugglers practiced their art (or is it craft?) and we made the most of the hummous and samosa-laden buffet. It had the feel of a date on a tour promoted by Ratty, Mole and Badger and we fully enjoyed the sedentary vibe of our exclusive compound, venturing out mainly to utilize our vouchers for a complimentary Saffron Blonde, which turned out to be the ale on tap in the beer tent and not, disappointingly, a willowy teenaged girl from the village who’d been laid on for our amusement (as it were). Think what you like, but I defy anyone with a taped off “Artists Only” area, an ice bucket full of chilled Sauvignon Blanc and a selection of spinach and ricotta filo parcels on their rider not to put on their darkest glasses, kick back and get the teeniest attack of haughtschmerz. 

Of course there was the gig to play too, which in itself was a pleasure and a privilege - too rare an occasion in life, I feel, is having the opportunity to invite the technical crew to fire up the dry ice machine by bawling “Go on – pretend we’re the Dennis Stratton Band!” at them in an entirely irony-free manner, and it’s always a nice touch when the running order on the main stage has to take a break for evensong. Sadly, we had to depart at this point, leaving behind the families relaxing in the soft summer haze, the dancing children, and, in an alternate universe, Elton John on a deadline to get the score for the Blue House musical finished and desperately trying to find a rhyme for ‘bucolic’ that wasn’t ‘alcoholic’. Those roses smelled lovely.

*To be fair, that may have been exactly what she was, and it may be wrong of me to make these sorts of allusions purely for comic effect. Still…

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

It is a truth universally acknowledged…

...that any pub covers band in possession of a set list must be in want of someone to tell them what they’ve missed off it. In the past, apres show, I’ve had to explain why we’ve dropped one song from the set (two of the members of the band who knew had left the previous year and we’d not got round to replacing it), why we do one James number rather than another, and why, honestly, I’d rather not have anything to do with ‘Mustang Sally’ if that’s okay with everyone else. 

Well, I say ‘explain’ - mostly it involves nodding as if in rapt attention while being on the receiving end of a polemic on the subject of intra-group politics that really should be written down and addressed to some sort of discussion forum in order to fully realize its potential for putting the world’s affairs in order. To be fair though, they are probably right, they probably do know better than I what should be on the set list, how it should be played and what the encore should be. Furthermore, they’re generally not the sort of person who looks like they’d bilk a non-paying audience by finishing at two minutes to one in the morning after a Springsteen-esque three set session beforehand instead of on the dot of the hour, and certainly not the types to feel a twinge of ennui when faced with someone shouting “Come on - earn your fucking money!” during the now-traditional breather between the end of the second set and another half hour’s musical diversity to close the evening. Not like me. 

A couple of weeks ago Picturehouse played at a social club. The function room at this place is the merest thickness of a sliding room-partition away from the bar where we were, and so when we set up we were pleased to hear that the wedding reception disco next door was of the gentle, non-Granny frightening variety, which meant that we were free to turn on, tune up and rock out, as is our wont. Barry had brought his Flying V and I my semi-acoustic, just to add a little flavour of variety to events, and by the end of the night the gig was so rockin’ that even the bride from next door was cutting a rug on our side of the great divide declaring it to be a “great party”, while on the shoulders of a gently bouncing Dad a three year-old earnestly mimed along with the drummer with a look of such serious concentration that I missed the cues for several choruses in the last number through being too busy laughing at the joyous absurdity of the situation to play properly. Afterwards I was approached as I completed my post-gig ablutions. “Aw man!” said the guy, “I can’t believe you didn’t play ‘Sex on Fire’!” and then sang a bit of the chorus to me, which while you're in a gentlemen's lavatory with your whole world in your hands, is a mildly diverting experience, take it from me. 

While I'm still finding this sort of thing funny or absurd it's still all well and good, but before too long I can see that going to the pub with my mates is going to morph seamlessly into going to work with some people I know quite well. I was out from six o'clock in the evening until two in the morning last week, and although (don't get me wrong!) I enjoyed spending the wages of sing the next day at a festival, there was point at which the disco chick rave showcase which followed us (backing track, two songs, floor filled and out) started looking increasingly attractive as a career option. How many roadies must a man run down before you can call him a man who needs to lighten up about things?

So I'm backing away slowly, remarking casually in passing how warm the kitchen's gotten recently, before nipping out of the back door for a fag in the car park, and allowing Picturehouse to move on to the next phase of its metamorphosis - maybe into that three piece the guys were talking about a couple of years ago, or into a fifteen piece mariarchi marching band, or maybe they can finally start work on that Rock Opera of the life of Jack the Ripper? "Wow, guys!" I'll be saying to them at the glittering West End premiere, "I can't believe you didn't do 'Saucy Jack'!" In the meantime, so long Picturehouse, and thanks for all the stories about Mr. Fish.

Monday, June 08, 2009

In my line of work, it’s not all bouquets, awards ceremonies and eating sushi backstage off the bodies of naked supermodels.

Oh no – occasionally I like to give a little something in return, to put back into the business of show a little something to repay the debt I have for nearly a lifetime of brickbats, pay-to-play band competitions and eating Ginsters pasties at service stations at two in the morning. And so it was that I found myself calling in at bandmates’ houses early on a Sunday morning in order to round up various bits of P.A. equipment and stowing them carefully next to my handy stagehand’s survival kit – spare strings, leads, capo, marker pen, guitar strap, stand, and a tool for getting the pegs out of acoustic guitars so that you can swiftly restring them, with an additional attachment in case any passing horse should become unfit for purpose due to a stone finding ingress to its hoof. 

Also a spare shirt, trousers with plenty of convenient pockets, a waterproof jacket, sturdy boots, a bottle of water, a copy of The Sunday Times and a chocolate Boost bar for the soundman for I - keeping it real and giving back to the kids - was due my day in the sun as stage manager (or “My stage bitch” as James the Soundman rather unkindly put it) for a small one day festival upon the town recreation ground where no less a turn than Pink Floyd had previously strutted their stuff in the heady days of the sixties, just before they broke into the pop charts and very shortly before (I imagine) firing their booking agent. 

We were running the acoustic tent. It was going to be an acoustic stage, but then what with the weather being foul and forecast fouler we reasoned that being under cover for the duration might be a pretty good idea and so what had served merely as last year’s stage area was transformed into this year’s intimate and bijou acoustic marquee, the running order of which was to be kicked off with an hour showcasing young talent from the Amplitude project, a scheme whereby the keen and the curious can be mentored, encouraged, given opportunities to perform and such like. 

We could see them gathered under canvas by their dedicated stage a few hundred yards away, no-one seeming overly keen to brave the hair gel-sapping force of the drizzle for long enough to get to our place and perform until, stately as a galleon, a Goth in full trenchcoat, corset and long skirt regalia loomed over the horizon. Say what you like about Goth wear, but PVC is absolutely perfect for inclement weather. 

Upon enquiry as to the lack of music emanating from our stage James pointed out to the organiser that if the talent wasn’t prepared to walk eight hundred yards across a playing field to perform there really wasn’t a lot that he could do about it. Meanwhile we consoled ourselves regarding the lack of rising young talent keen on storming the barricades with complimentary cups of tea from the next attraction along – the Salvation Army ‘Rapid Response Vehicle’. In our excitement we almost missed the delivery of our own dedicated portaloo.

Chivvied along by the organisers, a few minutes later we had a respectable number of asymmetrically fringed youngsters milling around, and it was merely a matter of finding out who wanted to go on first.”What is this?” enquired one gamine young thing on behalf of her group “Is it some sort of practice?” We assured her that we were more than happy to provide a stage, a P.A. system, microphones and even guitar leads (one blue, one green so we can tell which channel they’re going into even from way back by the sound desk – a good fifteen yards in my estimation) but it was really rather incumbent on them to actually get up and play something.

 “Right” she considered “Because we haven’t really practiced”. We rather revised our requirement to ‘some people who not only wanted to play, but had learned some songs in advance’. A couple of young tyros stood up to the challenge and got on with their work. They had a bass, a guitar, a set list executed in exquisite calligraphy and a number of lengthy songs which went through a bewildering number of time changes, and stops, to the point where I couldn’t quite work out from my position at side stage whether we’d moved on from one number to the next or whether we were just in the middle of a complex instrumental section. Still, they gave it a bash, which is the important thing. 

Next up were a group who wondered if they could do two songs and then come back and do a couple more later when their other singer turned up. I reflected on the very first pub gig I managed to wangle, the course of getting which involved the landlord making us turn up and audition or, as it turned out, run through our set about four times, in his cellar until he found time to pop his head round the door, shake his head sadly and tell us that we were awful but could play anyway.

I’m still not sure whether he did this on the grounds that anyone who gave up after the first three hours didn’t deserve a gig or that as a jazz buff he really couldn’t bring himself to sit through more than twenty seconds of our version of ‘Heartache Tonight’ and having heard the first run through from his vantage point in the bar above, had taken the rest of the evening to steel himself with a few stiff ones to see if we got any better. What we certainly didn’t do was turn up and ask if we could, like, do a couple of numbers a bit later on when our singer turned up, as in the mean time she’d gone to the bakery. Well, you know how it is when it’s a choice between the once annual festival gig and a nice Chelsea bun. 

It may have been about this point that I started muttering something about “kids today” but fortunately I was distracted by the arrival of the first ‘proper’ act on the itinerary, or rather her mother’s dog, who was taking a crap in the middle of the tent. The dog was very much a feature of the next half hour or so, being tethered to the sound desk while Mum mixed the sound until she (the mother, not the dachsund) relinquished control of the desk back into the care of Soundman James for long enough to march onstage (taking the dog with her) to add a haunting wordless Gaelic keen to one instrumental number and then return to her post to oversee the end of the set, which came slightly earlier than expected as, having been given a thirty minute slot, the talent had only brought twenty minutes of material and so ended up looking hopefully over at the desk for further instructions. 

Onstage as she played the first song again James surreptitiously noted the excellent reverb setting her mother had worked out. You’re never too old to learn. Over at the Amplitude arena, the crowd swelled ominously in numbers, all black t-shirts, studded belts, and concealed blue WKD. It was like being caught at the county’s biggest bus stop. I nipped over to the burger stand to procure sustenance for the crew (“Do you want some money?”, “Don’t worry – I’ll get a receipt!”) as a four piece whose combined age wouldn’t have added up to any more than mine were running through an irony-free Teenage Kicks, and the crowd was going wild. I returned to the quiet sanctuary of our little house on the playing field. 

Here singer-songwriter-guitarist Kevin Pearce executed an amazing set full of open chords and octave-defying vocals – I actually bought his CD off the back of it (and so I’d be able to throw out the Lily Allen album I’d very stupidly put in the car to listen to on the way to the show), The Proposition were fun and good-timey in a rollicking folk-country-blues sort of way, and The White Gospel played a hypnotic set which managed to combine the vocal stylings of Radiohead with a flat back four to the floor soul beat and choppy licks, which is certainly a phrase I never thought I’d see myself (or anyone else) writing. As their set drew to a close they thanked us (“Hey – sound guy, some people we know, bloke in a cool t-shirt, man with a dog – you’ve been great!”) and the rain, again, came down. Yards away, some passing kids aimed kicks at our precious mobile toilet facility. "Oi", I shouted, "Don't fuck with my shitter!" 

In my line of work, it’s not all bouquets, awards ceremonies and eating sushi backstage off the bodies of naked supermodels.

Friday, June 05, 2009

This isn't really an update of any description...

... but I've just learned that if you go to the MySpace page set up for Danny Kustow (out of the Tom Robinson Band) my picture is on the front of it - that avatar thingy just to the right there. I've not been this happy since someone found that photo of me on a website dedicated to mullets. Thanks to Lord Tilkey for the heads up, as it were. More music-related bloggery shortly. As you were, everyone.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

“BAH! Bah bah bah, BAH!”

It is a scene which will be not entirely unfamiliar to any fans of Monty Python’s Four Yorkshiremen sketch* - a group of accountants are assembled in comfortable chairs, expensive drinks to hand and contentedly puffing away on vintage cigars as they top the others’ stories with tales of how little they’ve made from the music business in the last twelve months. This blog-perfect image is only very slightly skewed by a couple of inconvenient minor economies with the actualite in that the expensive tobacco is actually a Marlboro Light, a Golden Virginia rollie and some unmentionably budget corner-shop filth which Gibbon insists on smoking, the expensive drinks are actually a couple of gratis pints courtesy of our landlord host, and I’m not responsible for my company’s annual accounts. 

The rest of it is broadly true however, as the stripped-down, streamlined, go-faster-striped Songs from The Blue House line up reflect happily on our good fortune in being able to enjoy a balmy late spring evening in a pub garden, if not the material rewards from our craft to actually make a habit of it. We are gathered at The Peacock in Chelsworth, as Friend of The Blue House 'Big Paul', the landlord, has invited us to perform at his pub as he is both a fan of the group specifically and the whole acoustic folk-country-rock-based genre generally. Being the flexibly-manned autonomous collective-cum-benevolent dictatorship that we are, a glance round the table reveals that we are missing regulars Fiddly Richard and Tony ‘TT’ Turrell, and Nick ‘Sticky Wicket’ Zala also has a prior engagement, and thus we are missing quite a lot of melody banks, the shortage of which we have planned to counter in terms of our performance by installing occasional batterista Reado at the back and trusting that the driving primal rhythms he generates will be enough to beguile our adoring public so’s that they don’t notice we are a man or two down. 

Similar plans are being mooted for a future occasion, where a Pete Frame-like family tree of possibilities is being engendered to cover for Mr. Gibbon’s enforced absence on bass for a gig, depending on who can do what to whom at which stage in the proceedings and whether that’ll clash with their own plans for the day. When people ask what the line up of the band is, it is not unknown for flow charts to be employed to explain what could possibly happen. La Mulley has spiritedly entered into the spirit of things by changing into her scarlet silk dress and TMOTDAFM** strappy wedges, which counterpoint nicely the relative rough-hewn charm of the rest of the group, and we launch into our first, ordinarily fiddle-centric, number of the evening. 

This goes surprisingly well, all things considered – Turny Winn is initially caught out a little by the extended room for manoeuvre that the absence of the usual soloists affords, but covers with considerable aplomb, and stretches out into the spaces in the arrangements he is now afforded like a well-fed cat on a warm shed roof. It turns out that without the signature fiddling style but with a rhythm section we are a pretty tight country-rock group. Not in the way of the latter-day church of the Eagles dollar, but not so far away from the rough Laurel Canyon country bands that spawned them, which is something I’m more than happy to share a pigeonhole with. 

By half time we have relaxed comfortably into our personas, and also steadfastly into our bar tab, pre-allocated driving duties notwithstanding. The easy-going nature of the gig means that we have a pretty late start to the second set, but also that we don’t have to put up with any tortuous requests for songs we don’t know as it’s pretty clear that (to paraphrase William Golding) nobody knows anything anyway. La Mulley clings ever more dreamily to her mic stand stage right, part Dweller on the Threshold*** and part Explorer as we go momentarily off-roading with a ragged version of Fairport Convention’s Rosie to close the show – it’s our host’s favourite ever song, so it seems only fair to let him sing the second verse (it’s in “the wrong key”, natch) before the evening winds down with a first for us – a short performance of freeform beat poetry inspired, we are told, by our performance that very evening – the nature of our proto-punk do-what-we-want-and-damn-the-torpedoes approach has apparently re-stirred the anarchist spirit within one of our assembled audience and he is moved to verse.

It’s not really what we were expecting as the last time I played here the evening kicked off with an overbite**** of local youngsters streaming out of the side door of the pub with the very vocal lament that the bar had “No farking champagne!” (tonight Gibbon got in enough trouble for drinking a Guinness, so I don’t know how they though they were going to get away with that sort of attitude in a real ale pub for long) and it is a touching tribute. Spring is here, and with it the beer festival season is drawing itself up to its full height and waiting for the sun. I’m an urbanite by residence, and a power pop man by inclination, but when summer’s here you’re gonna find me, out in the country. 

*Actually originally written by Tim Brooke-Taylor, trivia buffs.

**The first six characters stand for “Take me out to dinner and…” – my acronym, she’s not that kind of girl. 


****I may have been struggling to find the appropriate collective noun here. 

 That potential stadium-filling set list in full; Antibike / Beartown Road / Big Dipper / On The Contrary/ Ophelia / Song III / Breakin' These Rocks / Happy Day / Her / In My Arms / Kings and gods / Bless My Broken Heart / Don't Ever Let It Go / Not That Kind of Girl / Then There Was Sunshine / Song V / Special Kind of Love / Risk / Come On #2 / Rosie

Monday, April 06, 2009

How Do Those Roses Smell?

Too often, the average gig means turning up at an indistinguishable pub, loading all the gear in, turning it on, having a quick line check to make sure everything’s at least making some sort of humming sound, and then getting on with the business in hand of making some noise. It’s become a ritual - not yet a chore - but as Friend of The Blue House Mr. Kilbey Mears mentioned before last week’s As Is show - we used to get a drink in before starting a gig, now we go to the toilet. So a demand that we be an hour and a half away from home at teatime wasn’t necessarily the thing I was most looking forward to when summoned to a Songs from The Blue House show in darkest Saffron Walden. Luckily bass player Gibbon elected to drive and having rendezvoused with him at an attractive little pub near where he spends time at the day job, we spent a very pleasant journey across country dipping in and out of pretty little Suffolk and Essex villages, admiring the countryside and generally catching up on the little things in life that the approach described above rarely allows. Upon reaching the centre of Saffron Walden we stopped the car to ask for directions. “I wouldn’t drive” said our guide, phlegmatically.
We were first to The King’s Arms, a delightful old beamed alehouse, and so were in time to catch the sound check of our headliner for the evening, the extremely talented, very beautiful and astonishingly desirable Cara Winter, who promptly announced that she was off to have a shower as she was ‘minging’ and invited us to do our check under the kindly watchful eye of her father and guitarist Keith. Combining these two roles with that of sound engineer for the evening had rather left him with a few different hats to wear during the course of the evening and so I felt that it was with great restraint that he balanced Our Glorious Leader’s impromptu nonsense vocal on Beartown Road (“Nyyer nyeer nyer nah nah nyeerr nurr nanana…”) before turning to me to indicate I should try the levels on my mic. I approached the front of stage with all the due gravitas and seriousness that the situation demanded. “Nyyer nyeer nyer nah nah nyeerr nurr nanana…” I said. “I think we’re just about done here” he sighed. Come show time, of course, the monitors sang as sweetly as could be, which meant that we could all relax and play our parts without spending the set worrying whether it was too harsh out front (and so a grateful band extends their thanks). Fiddly nestled comfortably behind the drum kit as that meant he could both tuck himself away in a corner with his own personal monitoring system and sit down between numbers - "What are you doing back there?" someone asked. "Everyone's gotta be somewhere!" he replied chuckling happily. TT hauled the keyboard round to create some room for Turny Winn’s banjo backline, and Gibbon’s extravagantly upholstered borrowed vintage bass rig loomed imposingly at the back, looking like something that a member of East 17 might wear on a chilly night in Walthamstow.
All sound checked up, we were then free to explore, and Gib, TT, WAG Diane and myself grasped the opportunity to check out the local fish and chip shop while taking in the atmosphere of the town and admiring the new pedestrianised square (it should be done in about a fortnight, we reckon) - something we don’t always get the opportunity to do when hit & run tactics are employed. The chippy’s owner and counter staff were more than happy to chat while we waited for fresh fish, battered sausages and curry sauce, and while we squatted on a low shelf eating our tea they asked where we were from, why we were here, reminisced about the old Ipswich dog track and greeted regular customers by name. It was all terribly civilized and we thanked our hosts politely for putting up with us and our running commentary on their business. All fed up and replete, the foraging party thus returned to the venue and the principal business of the evening. Next to the venue was a Chinese restaurant. “The Jade Garden” said Gib drily. “So that’s where they’ve built it”.
We in SftBH are not what you might call a ‘rehearsing’ band. Some folk are wont to get together on a weekly basis, fine tuning their performance and honing their craft whereas we tend to email out a set list a couple of days before the gig and trust that everyone remembers the changes and manages to keep up, but for some reason we’d got together before this one and it may have been either that or some other mysterious X factor, but it remains the fact that everyone was at the top of their game that night. Having sound checked so magnificently, I moved away from the mic to let Gibbon take front line duties on BVs, incurring a raised Engineering eyebrow in the process, returning to make ‘tween song announcements and short(ish) links before stepping out of the way further so that the folks could see Fiddly sawing away at the back. A nicely paced set, a lot of gab and we found ourselves at the end of our allotted time all too early (as La Mulley pointed out though, a bit less musing on etymology between songs and we might have had time for the big closing number, but there you go), reflecting on the anomalous audience who let every last note fade away absolutely and completely before applauding vigorously. I understand it’s very much the same in Japan.

Cara and her band were stunning, of course. Piano, subtle percussion, sympathetic bass, gently swelling guitar, haunting vocals and a whispering violin – I was really quite taken with the whole experience, not least because the very lovely Kate on BVs, violin and tea dress/biker boots combo had been strategically placed in front of an extraordinarily strong stage lamp. I may have gushed my appreciation very slightly apr├Ęs show, but still being on a bit of a high from our own efforts I was in an uncommonly appreciative mood. Thank heaven for the half dozen pints of Bass keeping me sufficiently grounded, I say... So hypnotic was the performance that I completely missed the fight in the car park after someone had decided to solve the issue of the limited parking spaces by simply leaving their 4x4 foursquare (as it were) in the entrance, rather inconveniently blocking everyone else in, but still. Good friends, good conversation, pleasant company (Suzie from The Record Company and the man with the story about Nick Drake, the Scots gentleman whose sons were all musical and the lady who told the adrenalin pen story – all were a delight to connect with in corners and corridors), fine ales, stirring music, and a lift home afterwards. What’s not to like? As Tom Robinson once wrote, these will be the days that we’ll remember in days to come. Oh, it’s a lazy life but, y’know…

Monday, March 30, 2009

“Heavens above, this is Toytown…”

History, they say, is written by the winners, and so in the big book of British hit makers, you’re unlikely to find the name of As Is, and if you do, it’ll probably be the other one. Perhaps, if you delve far enough, you’ll find a reference to their NME review, written by one-time fanzine scribbler Steve Lamacq, or perhaps a series of unsurprisingly gushing features penned by Steve Constable in The Evening Star. For a while there back in the early nineties the As Is shadow loomed large over my life in that for a while I’d been one of the band’s guitar players and had laid my hat in a small alcove in the singer’s kitchen-diner, just beside the spare Marshall practice amp and near enough the foldaway dining table to kick away the legs if I stretched far enough in the middle of the night, but by now that is all long ago and far away. 

However you can’t get nostalgic about something too peremptorily and so when a safe twenty years had passed since the previous line up of the band had split, their original fracturing being the reason I’d ended up there in the first place, it seemed as good a time as any to call in a couple of favours and see if the we could get the old gang back together, just to double check. This wasn’t exactly the way I initially phrased it – I think the actual wording of the text message ran something along the lines of “Can you and those other three idiots get the band back together in time for my birthday?”, which injudicious phrasing provoked an almost immediate and positive response. All I had to do was find a venue, set a date, and hope everyone remembered what order the chords went in. 

There were a few other minor details to sort out – we wondered about putting on a support band of a similar vintage but my first chosen victims were busily engaged in the business of working for a living on the covers circuit (this being a service somewhat akin to singlehandedly being the flotation device keeping the Ipswich music scene from drowning in a sea of karaoke if you believe the mail out, this view and their newsletter both being something I subscribe to, with varying degrees of credulity) and the accepted view was that the Mk.III line up of As Is (of which I was part) would never be able to get it together due to the twin demands on the rhythm section of (variously) supplying the bottom end for a reformed skate punk pioneers The Stupids (several bonus points for keeping the dream alive there) and being both a human rights defence lawyer and father of two, which apparently leaves little room for manoeuvre when it comes to fitting in rehearsals. Them boys were going to have to go it alone. 

The venue itself was a godsend. The Blue Room at McGinty’s in Ipswich is set up with its own PA, sound engineer, downstairs lounge with audio and visuals piped in from upstairs and a twin CD deck for ‘twixt-set entertainment purposes, a selection of bars and (most importantly) happy and amenable owners who were only too willing to rent out the whole lot at a very reasonable rate, set out a table with ink stamp, cash float and counter-clicker, and then retire gracefully until there was a perceived need for a sweet-smelling orange, white and green after show cocktail which may well have added valuable minutes to the journey time home – I find that zig-zagging all the way ensures maximum ground coverage on a journey like that. They also gave us our own barman. It's the little touches which mean so much. 

The band had convened a couple of weekends earlier for a two day session of rehearsals and so were feeling pretty good about themselves – guitarists James and Paul (one tinkering, one blazing) having borrowed amplifiers, restrung ancient Ibanez guitars and resisted the temptation to set their compression pedals to Eighties levels, drummer Reado having bought a china crash cymbal for the occasion and then the rest of the kit to go with it, and still-gigging bass player Kilbey, remarkably not yet dead behind the eyes despite decades of cover-band hell, who had rounded up the eldest of his children (who missed the whole As Is experience first time round due to the unfortunate and unavoidable circumstance of not yet having been conceived – literally and figuratively) and a bunch of his mates.

Who else would turn up, we didn’t know. Perhaps a legion of ex-supporters, nostalgic for the days of the power pop hook and the big chorus; perhaps the band’s ex-manager, still smarting over that unfortunate incident involving the guitar player, perhaps no-one at all? As it turned out, we had a respectable assembly – a few interested onlookers who didn’t know the group from a hole in the wall but who had sussed that there was a band on upstairs, an ex-roadie and housemate from the flat downstairs at James’s, the ex-manager and, beautifully, the drummer from ‘my’ line up, who ghosted in during the second set and nodded approvingly throughout - and why not? After all - we were fans first. A few no-shows, and few promises not fulfilled, a few folks who desperately wanted to be there but couldn’t (and one who’d got tickets for Metallica at the O2 before he heard about it) but then after twenty years I guess some people have had time to make other arrangements, or forget them. 

And the band? The band were magnificent! Slightly thicker around the middles and more blurred at the edges, youthful mops of hair cropped into close buzz cuts or pulled back into a greying ponytail (with the exception of Kilbey on bass, who obviously has a picture of himself locked securely in an attic somewhere – as guitarist PT remarked, he is one of the few people whose children look older than he does) but still able to pull off a tight, fizzing two set show with nary a dropped lyric or chord (and, satisfyingly, no dropped keys either). The years suited the songs – what were once hectoring lectures now became sober reflections, the same songs, but drawn through the filter of time and re-presented as rueful asides. Pop history is, indeed, written by the winners but that, of course, depends on your definition of what it means to win. It turns out that As Is never lost the game because they never accepted that they were playing in the first place. To coin a phrase, they did it their way. 

Pop history may be written by the winners, but somewhere, sometime, wherever you go, there’ll be someone there who never gave up, there’s someone there who will always be around.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Helstock – The Cover Years

As is traditional at this time of the year, heralds were despatched, proclamations issued and gold-embossed invitations circulated for the annual Helstock Festival, a bijou assembly convened each March to celebrate the anniversary of the birth of Songs from The Blue House chanteuse La Mulley. An occasion to gather, play songs, celebrate, and generally drink as much Brewers Gold as humanly possible while still being able to tell one end of an acoustic guitar from the other. 

Joining us this year were a stellar assembly of friends and relations who, to be fair, we usually refer to as ‘the usual suspects’ - my part-time combo Shagger, consisting of me and the wife, The Canyons, Helen’s brother and sister duo Giff and Moj (named in a moment of compering inspiration The Arctic Mulleys), wild card Paul Mosley, and raggle taggle bluegrass genii The Ragged String Band were assembled, given instructions on their duty to perform a prescribed cover version and handed over to the tender ministrations of perma-harassed sound man du jour James, who in another life is Our Glorious Leader.

We were denied the company of both Fiddly Richard and Turny Winn for various reasons and hence also denied the opportunity to air our well-rehearsed “Can you hear the banjo?” routine, but we did have the reassuring presence of Tony ‘TT’ Turrell which enabled us to include a couple of his recent co-writes in the brief set, and the mildly surprised percussionista Reado, who thought he’d just come out for a quiet drink, but who pursued his role with his characteristic taste and aplomb.

As with any bill that contains so many turns in a limited amount of time there was a fair bit of apologetic set trimming, the news being delivered by me in my de facto role as MC for the evening, but everyone took the cutting in good grace before delivering their sets in fine style.

The Canyons, especially, were on fine form during their nominated covers – a country honk reworking of Moses’ “But Anyway” rather nervously played out before it’s author and a frankly astonishing raga-inspired take on Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” being early highlights of their performance before they mustered a selection of originals from their new (and free giveaway CD – you don’t even have to buy a Sunday newspaper) and quite, quite brilliant self-titled album. 

The necessarily truncated Arctic Mulleys were measured and touching – an inspired “May You Never” being a highlight before Paul Mosley delivered half a dozen superb numbers of his own from behind the electric piano he’d lugged all the way up from Walthamstow on the train, and the evening was closed with a rip-roaring rollicking performance from The Ragged String Band, all close harmonies around a single mic, stand up bass, dobro and twin banjos. 

The entranced look on our host landlady Val’s face was a treat and a treasure, as was the impressive speed with which she conjured up a birthday cake, a baked potato and a Tupperware box of chilli for those who hadn’t had time, or had forgotten, to eat during the course of the evening’s festivities. There are no real funny stories about this night, no great truths revealed, no alarming behaviour, no dramatic incidence of idiocy to relate. Just a few girls and guys with acoustic guitars, telling stories.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

You Know That The Hypnotised Never Lie

An interesting diversion for The Picturehouse as we haul on board friend-of-the-band Mr. Tony 'TT' Turrell (no idea how he came by that nickname by the way, we must ask him one day...) on keyboards and head out for darkest Kelvedon to do two sets at the launch of Keith Farnish's "Time's Up", a book.
We were contracted to do two short sets - the first a 'negative' collection, which started out with The Clash's London Calling (if nothing else, they were wrong about one thing - the ice age, isn't coming - just see how quickly thinking on environmental matters has changed since 1979, but I digress) and the second a 'positive' set, the inclusion of TT allowing us to take on Don't Dream It's Over, which TT very creditably took over on lead vocals for. Before, between and after us there were a number of narrations from the text, however the potential incongruity of having loud rock music and quiet readings didn't really come into effect and a nice balance was maintained - a tribute no doubt to the meticulous planning which had gone into sorting out the running order beforehand - nothing to do with us, I must stress, wejust turned up and played the songs on the list we'd been supplied with. A splendid evening was had by all - there were nuts and cake, crisps and wine, beer and more beer, and Barry Trill stunned all of us (and not least himself, I imagine) with an astonishing take on Peter Gabriel's Here Comes The Flood accompanied only by our guest keyboard tickler. Having seen the bar raised such, Kilbey then manfully adopted the role of a full-tilt rock god for a rousing Won't Get Fooled Again during which Barry took over on bass, and there was much arch-backed mic swinging from our newly-liberated frontman. I contented myself with stomping around around in my big boots and turn ups channelling the spirit of seventies Pete Townsend. Windmilling may well have occurred at points during the performance. You just don't get this sort of thing with Guitar Hero.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Citizen Cam

Apparently there are now college courses in things like citizenship, responsible behaviour, being respectful to your elders and, very probably, not spitting on the pavement – all laudable aims and goals and all exactly the kind of thing that you never had to worry about when I was growing up, as these were the sorts of values that we had beaten into us with stout staves before having to fetch fuel from the outside coal bunker in the tin bath, shin up a few chimneys and taking a brief respite to marvel at the continued weekly riots involving Teds, Mods, Rockers, Parisian students and/or screaming girls, depending on whether it was a Bank Holiday weekend or if The Beatles had a new album out. Drawing a veil over the soft-focus hologram of my youth, however, and screwing my covers band hat back firmly on to my head, I find that Picturehouse are engaged to play a short set at a charity gig, the organization of which has been undertaken by some students from the Suffolk College as part of one of these courses. 

This is 'organised' as far as I understand it, as most of the shepherding bands on and off stage between sets seems to be being undertaken by bass player Kilbey and long-time friend of the band (and now ex-member) Wendell. That also looks remarkably like Frisky Pat’s drum kit, Kilbey’s bass amp and my guitar combo on stage. Fortunately for some of the young tyros who pop up during the course of the evening we also have guitar leads, plectrums, drum sticks and a spare distortion pedal to hand. Tcchhh – talk about spoon fed – at my first gig I had to manhandle my speaker cabinet onstage myself, behind a curtain while some girl sang a musical number in front of it – in a way very much a foretaste of the X-Factor v. Real Musicians conflicts of The Noughties to come. 

Playing an evening like this, as well as providing an audience who seem to know all the words to the songs (our set list is very much driven by the band members who have teenaged children), and who bounce enthusiastically up and down in front of us and who seem very much pleased to see us (all three are pretty much novelties for us at our stage of the game) gives us a chance to see what The Kids are up to in terms of what they actually do when they get together, and what it seems they do do is bay loudly upon demand, mosh politely, and pay particular attention to getting their hair almost perfectly asymmetrical before they go out. Whereas in the good old days ™ we’d have a few songs from the set that we knew worked and which we’d got a mate who owned a Tascam four track to bash down over a weekend, and then carefully copied using our elder sister’s dual-cassette deck music centre and packaged using the photocopier at the library, every band who popped up on the stage seemed to have come direct from recording that day and promised that the results would be “…up on our MySpace later”. 

One of the bands boasted that they’d “Already written two complete songs and are working on lyrics for a further three” - crikey, at that stage in our careers we were still about nine months and two replacement band members away from actually appearing in public! Most knew how to work a crowd, although the “Oh my God – it’s Gemma, hi!” at one point did rather crack the plaster in the third wall (or is it fourth?), and I’m not sure the singer’s mum turning up late and asking if she’s missed anything really added to the effortless cool and panache of the last band’s front girl. There was the sort of windmilling, bouncing off walls and headshaking that I used to enjoy tremendously myself before my hair started going and I started having that gyp with my knee, and all the bands seemed tremendously self confident, knew the moves, had great techniques, generally enough attitude to come across as cocksure rather than arrogant, and there were a couple of fabulous drummers, who I’m sure will one day make a pretty young indie girl with a taste for carting heavy cases around in her Mum’s Corsa very happy. 

As my rheumy old eye cast about the stage over the course of the evening I felt genuinely happy for the musicians thereupon – just starting out on the long journey of hope, achievement, disappointment, failure, ecstasy, disillusion, triumph and surprise that treading the boards can bring. At my first band gig I forgot to bring my fuzz pedal too.