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.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Showtime for the indiscreet, and standing on the stage…

After two days of singing in the car on my way to and from work I am pretty happy that I’ve remembered all the words for my comeback solo performance (“For one night only, folks, roll up, roll up”) at The Kelvedon Institute in Essex, sandwiched between Cambridge-based master of lugubriosity David Stevenson and club circuit veteran Mike Silver. To appropriate a metaphor I heard recently, I am the sauce between the burger and the bun – not satisfying on its own, but something that will hopefully make the whole experience a little more piquant. At least this is the theory. 

Both David and Mike are acoustic guitarists of the dropped tuning variety, and so to spice up the constituency of middle-aged white males with jumbo guitars I have elected to delve back into my formative years and perform on an electric and through a Marshall combo, all the better to coax out the subtle nuances of the sound of the Telecaster, and to embrace the inevitable Billy Bragg comparisons. Also, I’m a thrasher, not a picker, and this is going to be much easier with the benefit of amplification. Back in the day I actually played a few pubs in Peterborough where the locals still recalled Mr. Bragg honing his craft, including one locale called New England. True say, brothers and sisters. 

Since I’ve borrowed the amp I’m not entirely sure what it’ll sound like but things are satisfyingly simplified by there being a channel which simply has three controls – one for volume, one for treble, and one for bass. This should be a reasonably easy line check. Worryingly, no sound emanates from the rig once I’m all plugged in and so I start switching leads, jiggling knobs, looking for a previously unnoticed ‘standby’ switch and then am relieved to spot that I have actually plugged into the footswitch socket on the front of the fascia. Satisfied that no-one's noticed this elementary faux pas, I stride confidently to the front of the stage to check the monitors. Still no sound. Bugger! Friendly sound engineer James points out that after all the cross referencing of cables for brokenness, I have omitted to plug the lead back in to the guitar. The carefully constructed façade of effortless cool has thus cracked somewhat. 

Still, guitar sound done, there remains a popping on the microphone which has been set up for someone who can actually sing properly and since I subscribe to the Tom Robinson up close and personal method of waiting until I can feel the wire gauze on my bristles before emoting (and I’ve shaved today) this is clearly going to prove problematic. Luckily a pop shield is sourced and I am able to both relax into my usual mannered vocal style and also put it on the end of my nose so that I look like a muppet, a beloved tradition of many years standing. Sounding like one is something I'm going to have to come to terms with. Second up on the bill, I am introduced on stage by club MC Tony Winn, who gets my name wrong and I launch into the first number, a rowdy thrash about shameless marital infidelity written in the form of a confessional from a fictional third person. Most of tonight’s are, in fact, as I have decided to eschew the songs James and I have been writing for Songs from The Blue House entirely and play some old. 

After the first couple I am relaxing into the set, and although conscious that this probably not what most of Mike Silver’s audience were hoping for, they are kind enough to applaud the good bits and pass discreetly over the unintentional jazz chord in one middle eight which I decide to hang on for another fifteen bars in the hope that they’ll think it’s part of the arrangement. I think I got away with it. Adrenalin has given me an extra couple of notes on the range, and I’m enjoying the freedom afforded by playing standing up to pace the stage, backing off the mic for loud bits and coming in close to emote sections of what I believe to be breathy intimacy, but what the attentive punters probably understand to be character-led diversions into the persona of a nuisance phone caller. We’ll see, when we review the recording afterwards. 

The last song comes around and I haven’t fluffed too many chords, have got most of the words in the right order, and have a satisfyingly lengthy round of applause ringing in my ears. I get my gear off and out of the way and bump into Mike who is warming up backstage and who very kindly observes that “I’ve never heard of you, but that was great!” There’s nothing like a bit of peer praise to give you a readybrek glow in a situation like that. Obviously, he’s about to go on, play an hour of wonderful songs, sing in a rich, warm voice and pick guitar parts which are almost baroque in their composition and execution (and get most of the crowd singing heartily along with the choruses) and so he can afford to be generous, but it’s still very kind of him to take the time to mention it. Turns out I’ve sold a CD as well. 

“That sounded great” says James “I’m not sure what the recording will be like though because when I checked the headphone mix I could hear James Hurley and I’d forgotten to turn my interval mix on the iPod off “ It’s probably for the best. Nothing extinguishes that space cadet glow like listening back to the recording and realising that, yes, that guitar was out of tune for the second half of the set and, no, nobody really did laugh at that joke you put in to the introduction to that other one. Still, I have my memories. Misty Brewers Gold-coloured memories, of the way I was.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Well, this is a surprise - I’d never have guessed...

My friend James runs a monthly showcase night in darkest Essex called ‘Live at The Institute’ – not, as it may appear to the casual observer, an entreaty to move in to some sort of charity dosshouse, but an attempt to give a stage and an audience to a few artists he and his co-host Tony like and admire, and of course vice-versa, in that they’re giving (well, ‘selling’ to be strictly accurate) the good people of Kelvedon some quality entertainment that the village wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity of experiencing. 

Of course things can go wrong, which is why I found myself trying to come up with one good reason why I should step in to help when one of their featured artistes cried off ill in the week leading up to this month’s extravaganza. And when I say “trying to come up with one good reason” I mean exactly that – I was trying to persuade James that I was the ideal replacement, stand-in, or what have you, and he’d asked me if I could come up with one good reason why he should book me. If nothing else, he is determined to avoid the hollow sucking sound of his principles disappearing into the slavering maw of nepotism when it comes to doling out appearances for his friends, I’ll give him that.

Once I’d managed to convince him that I was indeed probably able to not actually physically repel his audience for half an hour while not tripping over the furniture, I looked toward putting together a set list consisting of a dramatic retrospective wade through nearly thirty glorious years of tunesmithery and the sort of pithy, incisive lyrical flourishes that have rightly earned me the epithet “That bloke who rhymed ‘phospherescence’ with ‘adolesence’” in certain hushedly awed songwriting circles. You can have a circle with two people in it, right? What it came down to, of course, was coming up with half a dozen songs I could remember the words to all the way through and which when combined in the same program didn’t actually serve simply to remind people how few chords there actually really are in pop music. Oh, and they had to be performable on a single guitar.

I decided to go back to my roots and, eschewing the acoustic guitar as a foppish affectation, grabbed the Telecaster and prepared to channel the spirit of Billy Bragg once more, even given that dear Billy is actually still with us and probably doesn’t take to the idea of being channelled by anyone all that kindly. The last couple of solo appearances I’ve made have been short two or three song hops at Suffolk Songwriter’s Night in Ipswich, where the reassuring familiarity of the surroundings and the relaxing effects of Guinness have combined to both make the experience easier and have my name annotated in the official club records as “Put on early – likes a drink”, however ‘Live at The Institute’ involves playing to a paying audience who are expecting a certain level of competency, or at least to be distracted from their olives and hummous (it’s a bring-your-own refreshments gaff) at least once during a set. 

With this in mind I turn to my back pages, when I wrote sadly and shockedly about pain, depression, heartbreak, misery, and listening to my friend Geoff Lawrence’s band on cassette while sailing (hey, the nineties weren’t all bad!). I think it was Geoff pulling out of the gig that made me think of it – that and the oft-repeated claim that my miserable period produced my best work – I think that’s a mere coincidence, it just so happens I was miserable for a much longer period and so, proportionally, that was bound to produce more stuff. I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now. Once the set is decided on, after much thoughtful consideration, crossing out, underlining and scribbling under, I’m ready for a run-through. 

Headphones on, guitar plugged into effects rack to simulate the sound of a small theatre just off the A12 and I’m away. Whoops, a couple of missed chords there, a repeated verse, a fluffed change, best to get it all out of the way now though. Twenty seven minutes. That’s too long for a half hour set once you build in the applause (I’m nothing if not an optimist these days) and the ‘tween song banter. What’s to go though? I could probably lose that one, but then the flow’s uneven. And that one’s a bit long, but it has got the best chorus. I realise that I’ve been hearing all the past drum parts, harmonies and bass riffs that have ever been added to these thing in my head, that they won’t be there on the night, and also that I have been singing along in the kitchen with headphones on in a ghastly mid-nineties Walkman-like manner. Pity the neighbours. More trimming, editing, rearranging and moving, and another run through. That’s better – twenty four minutes even. Should I drop out the cover, or is that more likely to pep up a flat spot in the set? Can I still reach that bit in the chorus or should I just drop the whole thing down a semitone? All these things to consider and no-one to bounce ideas off. 

Now I remember why I formed a band in the first place.

Monday, January 05, 2009

“I shot a man in Chinos, just to watch him die”

All aboard The Steamboat, shipmates, for a gentle Sunday afternoon canter through the Songs from The Blue House back catalogue, a spot of light lunch and a couple of cheeky Vimtos before the idea of the whole horrid business of going back to the day job really rears it’s hooves and starts spoiling the view of 2009. The first task to be negotiated is lunch, or ‘breakfast’ as I like to refer to it, after the previous evening’s quiet social night out had lurched into a rather unfortunate impromptu case of “All back to ours” which is generally where the spirits start to come in homemade measures, and although every amount of self delusion can persuade your body that simply topping it up with a generous helping of orange juice makes vodka a health drink at the time, the morning’s tale will be a whole different story. Hence my contribution to the opening number’s “I am playing all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order…” form of presentation. To be fair, it’s difficult enough to remember what order they are supposed to come in after a fairly lengthy lay off anyway, without being encumbered by double vision, cold sweats, querulously shaking hands, and having to grip the guitar neck pretty hard in order not to fall off it half way through. Still, onwards and upwards – the show-off must go on, and so one generous helping of a complete roast chicken dinner is encased within a plate-sized Yorkshire pudding and dished up for the crew (which consists of whichever members of the band have turned up early enough to help assemble the mic stands and get in the way by putting their guitar on the stage before Our Glorious Leader has even managed to wire up and fire up the power amps). This is the sort of generous gesture that really defines the sort of musician’s pub which ensures that you’re (literally) suitably catered for and which will surely be a fond memory by the time the pub chains and their shareholders have finished wringing the last brass farthing out of the ‘industry’ as they see fit. They’re not even charging on the door.
Pre show chatter is a mélange of all the usual band natter and banter – OGL has a new set of PA speakers so box-fresh that they still have the manufacturer’s labels on them, I’m bringing folk up to speed on our sideways venture into the world of soundtracks, and Fiddly has a selection of cheeses which he hasn’t been able to finish over Christmas waiting at home for his tender ministrations and a nice selection of biscuits. Ah yes – the soundtrack! Toward the end of last year we were contacted by Our Beloved Record Company to see if we’d mind a film company in Los Angeles using one of our songs in a scene from their forthcoming movie ‘Coyote County Loser’ – oh, they mentioned, and there was a couple of hundred bucks in it for us too. Naturally we were delighted (at both instances) but since the world economy took a turn for the peaky we’ve been anxiously studying the IMDB for updates that say anything other than ‘in post production’. Lord knows we’re not going to be able to retire on the back of it - Banjoista Turny Winn can’t even do that with the benefit of someone else’s PRS cheques that keep being forwarded to him after an administrative error at The Discovery Channel (it’s alright, he always returns them) - but I’m really looking forward to that bit at the end of the film when the credits are rolling and seeing our name making it’s way slowly up the screen in letters almost too small to be legible.
“Welcome everybody, and thanks to anyone not related to us by birth or marriage for coming along” is my opening gambit. Today, we are seven – the usual suspects plus Reado on percussion, who has brought along a snare, hi-hat, a selection of brushes, split sticks and some heavy shoes with which to stamp on the stage and which he skillfully combines to make a series of surprisingly varied noises depending on what the song demands. “Whatever happens, I’m coming in after four bars” he replies to an enquiry as to how he’s going to play one number and “That’s actually all I’ve been doing so far!” half way through the first set when Our Glorious Leader suggests that the next song might benefit from a skiffle feel. He also, as is generally the privilege of anyone in the band who is sitting down to play, gets to do the solo in ‘Not That Kind of Girl’, which is an entirely creditable effort given the amount of kit available to him at the time and is also, I believe, the first time we’ve featured a drum solo during this segment of the song. Kilbey (“Author!”) steps up to play open tuned guitar on ‘Kings and Gods’ and one of the highlights of the set is the resultant duet on the solo betwixt himself and Our Glorious Leader. By the time the end of the second set is approaching “It’s necessarily short as Reado has to get home for his tea – anyone who’s disappointed can get a full refund at the door” the health-giving properties of vigorous inhalation (for the purposes of supplying backing vocals, natch) and the vibe-enhancing sweet, sweet sound of James’s new speakers have combined to enable me to launch with fair gusto and a considerably reduced possibility of either passing out or throwing up mid song – neither of which are generally recognized as experience-enhancing conditions by our sort of audience –into our closing medley of high energy fiddly-widdly (in ‘G’). “Congratulations” says occasional guest blogger, co-writer, additional guitarist and backing singer Wendell, about to unleash the highest of compliments – “It’s as close to Spirit of The West as you’ve got yet”.