Tuesday, December 14, 2010

“Are you going to be long in there…?”

We have enjoyed another weekend recording – and ‘enjoyed’ is the operative word. Pig Pen Studio provides a most convivial working atmosphere – and ‘working’ is the key signifier in this sentence – and is helpfully free of distractions. There are no arcade games, pinball machines, Playstation boxes or Wii-based ephemera, the nearest town is five miles away and the village pub doesn’t serve food after three so if you aren't concentrating on the job in hand, there'd better be a darned good reason for you turning up. That’s not to say there is not fun to be had – there’s a Wifi connection for example, which makes it both easy to blog from the remote countryside and to Google Rihanna when the subject of X-Factor crops up in conversation, leading to the situation where the query “How was that?” from Turny Winn on banjo was greeted with the response “I’m not sure, I was looking at some tits” from the supposed production team on the other side of the glass (an exchange that shall not wither with age, as we do). This was then coupled with the further brief reflection that our Best Folk Newcomer award could have been stymied at that very point all because of Matt Cardle’s temporary squeeze. Curse you and your ungodly works, Simon Cowell!
Introduce someone like Nick Zala into the equation and the whole experience kicks up a further gear, whether it be him relaying the story of bumping into B.J. Cole whilst out walking the dog “…amazing coincidence! If a meteorite had struck, forty per cent of the UK’s pedal steel players would have been wiped out at a stroke…” or simply and sublimely receiving instructions which seem to go straight to his hands without needing to be processed by his brain. At one point I was talking him through the chords to a song and dropped “…and this is where the pedal steel solo comes in” in to the monologue whereupon he instantly pulled off the most sublime reading of a few country licks and still managed to be out by the next verse. In the end That Nice David Booth at the mixing desk gave up offering the option of “a quick run through” and merely started pressing ‘record’ at the front and ‘stop’ at the end of each track as he went down our list of things to do.
By the end of the day we’d cut seven tracks with Nick, a further few with Turny and, as always when we start layering things on, the whole thing was starting to sound like a record. By the end of the weekend and the addition of some of Tony ‘TT’ Turrell’s piano and organ parts, far from the happily acoustic trio with a couple of folky friends in attendance (the first album had a spoons player, remember), this thing was starting to sound ominously huge, powerful and imposing – we'd progressed a bit like how The Waterboys would have if they’d recorded the contents of their back catalogue in reverse order. The thread which links the songs was starting to become prouder in the weave as well. Unconsciously, we seem to have compiled a set which hangs together under the combined themes of politics and love – an all night conversation which starts with a cheery post-work pint and ends with the redemptive power of the sunrise framing those three in the morning attempts to make sense of the whole thing, with us in the middle, clasping the tenets that make sense close, and gazing with disbelief at the things that don’t.
David Hepworth made the point on his blog recently that musicians enjoy being in the studio so much because they like making records but can’t bear finishing them. When they finish them they know they will be judged. They don’t like that one little bit. Which, to be fair, is exactly the sort of thing you’d expect from someone who’s spent a large part of the last thirty years getting sent free albums and being asked to comment on them. You could argue that the point where we ‘finish them’ is also the point at which we have to start playing them live in the same fashion as they sound on the record, which is slightly more of a challenge. If you’re Bob Dylan, of course, you tend to skip that bit, but then look at some of the reviews he gets…
Personally, I love spending time in the studio – it’s like a combination between a grown up playgroup for musicians and an all day project meeting where if you lose concentration for a moment you could end up with something that will bug you for decades, but I can’t wait for this thing to get out – for once the phrase “to be released” makes genuine sense. Then perhaps I can stop talking about it and leave it to you to decide? For it to be judged.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

To inform, educate and entertain…

My heart’s beating like a steam hammer, the pounding in my head is growing stronger all the time and the cold sweat envelops my body like a damp, chilled carapace. My fingers fumbling, I reach for the packet of white powder and arrange it in the familiar manner, my body screaming for the relief it will provide, my throat already dry with anticipation. Pour into a cup, add hot but not boiling water and stir thoroughly. When you’ve got a bad head cold and you’re feeling a bit fluey, there’s nothing like a Lemsip to perk you up.
We are due at the British Broadcasting Corporation’s outpost in deepest Ipswich to record a few songs to be broadcast ‘as live’ (i.e. there’s not really much scope for going back and redoing your individual mistakes, but if everyone buggers it up, you’re in with a chance of a retake) on their early evening show. Having a wealth of new material in the locker we’ve decided to do mostly them, and have included one cover version - an old soul and country classic which we will later suggest might work on one of the other shows in the BBC Suffolk stable. While warming up we have naturally decided to do none of these and are instead working around a lengthy improvisation of Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer”.
Today we are six – Me, Gibbon, James, Helen, Turny Winn and Fiddly, and the room in which we have been billeted is as a result quite cosy in terms of elbow and/or knee room. Our Glorious Leader is rocking backward and forwards on a chair not designed for someone with legs as long as his, and our host and studio engineer, the similarly enlengthened Dave, expresses sympathy whilst telling tales of times perched on a primary school chair in governor’s meetings, chatting knowledgably about the SM58 Beta with OGL and setting up a plethora of mics, stands, and a weaveworld of cables and leads. There are two microphones on each guitar (“Due to the unique way in which the BBC is funded…”) and once he is satisfied that everybody will be adequately heard he retreats to the Outside Broadcast truck parked in the bowels of the building, which is to serve as the mobile control room and nerve centre.
Dave issues edicts and encouragements from this underground lair and we respond in kind, talking to a small speaker in the room which acts as our conduit to the otherword which he inhabits, not unlike Charlie’s Angels in Bosley’s office. “Are you very far away?” someone asks. “Not quite far enough” he responds drily, before interjecting to spark a brief discussion on whether we will be allowed to include the word ‘pissing’ in a song which is due to be broadcast during the drive time hour. Apparently there are any number of ways around this, including simply denying that the word had occurred, as they had previously successfully done when a surreptitious ‘fuck’ made it’s way onto the airwaves and a caller whose “Did I just hear what I thought I heard?” enquiry was gently but firmly patted away with a reassuring “No”. La Mulley asks for a set of headphones. “I’m doing the folky thing with one finger in my ear and I’m concerned it looks a bit wanky” she avers. “I’m down here with fingers in both ears, to be honest” responds Dave agreeably, before Turny Winn points out that we’re on radio, and so the wankiness or other of her aspect is a point moot at best.
A couple of hours, several takes of five different songs and a few coughing fits later, we have finished up for the evening to everyone’s satisfaction and are thanking Dave for his time, consideration and general all-round good humour and sunny demeanour. He, in turn, is pretty much doing the same for us. "Don't forget the PRS form..." exclaims OGL in a moment of clarity "...this could be worth up to a fiver for us!"

Monday, November 15, 2010

“Well I don’t like that tie, for a start…”

We have enjoyed another enormously productive weekend at Pig Pen Recording Studio, and the skeletons of the songs are starting to flesh out, put on muscle and wearing their jeans in an inappropriate fashion likely to upset their parents. 
Our Glorious Leader, resplendent in sandals and socks for reasons of comfort, has entered very much into active service after being an interested bystander for much of the time up until now while husbanding the work of Gibbon and me and generally overseeing the process with a benign but schoolmasterly air.

Now, brought to the fore of the fray, he chooses a guitar like a batsman selecting his willow, and discards plectrums much as a disgruntled golfer would despatch a club shortly before cuffing his caddy for providing him with the wrong iron. As is de rigueur in these situations, the introductions for many of the songs have long since outgrown their initial humorous intent, and have largely been replaced with anonymous click tracks and bip-bip-bip sounding electronic on-your-marks count ins, with the exception of one particularly notable introduction wherein Our Glorious Leader seems to have channeled the very essence of 1970’s Bruce Forsyth and counted off “one, two, three, fower”, which necessarily had to be temporarily excised before I could continue fluffing up the guitar part on ‘Rolling and Tumbling’ in my own good time.

There is a spectacularly good-sounding mystery cover version (to be revealed at a later date) in the works for which OGL decided to redo the guide vocal as he had initially extended the extemporisory theme of the count-ins to the point where the second verse consisted of a series of squawks and exclamations which wouldn’t necessarily have been out of place in the hubbub of Billingsgate in its prime. 

That Nice David Booth and I were in the studio Control Room – me trying to angle my reflection in the glass so that it looked as if OGL’s body had my head on it and TNDB lining up the monitor mix to be fed through into the headphones in the vocal booth. “Are you alright in there?” enquired TNDB solicitously. “I’m really not getting enough bottom” replied Our Glorious Leader. 

We turned to each other in the control room, nodded an unspoken acknowledgement, and moved on.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Dedication, perspiration, eradication...

Another evening session at The Pig Pen for the Songs from The Blue House Steering Committee and Artists and Repertoire Liaison Working Party - or Me, Gibbon, Our Glorious Leader and That Nice David Booth as we are otherwise known. We are loaded with exotic bottled beers from the far corners of the off license, biscuits, and a still touching faith in the redemptive power of music. 

After a couple of days of familiarizing ourselves both with our surroundings and with each other, the atmosphere is relaxed, yet workmanlike. There’s a palpable sense of needing to get things achieved, and yet still enough room to make light of the process. At one point I comment that I see one of my guitar parts as probably being quite low in the final mix. “Low in the final mix” ponders OGL, savouring the phrase as it hangs in the air like a fine Old Holborn. “What a curious way of expressing the phrase ‘deleted as soon as your back’s turned…’” 

We are here mainly to get some more of Gibbon’s remarkable bass playing down, but since he’s being plugged straight into the desk we take the opportunity to record some more acoustic guitar parts at the same time, thus helping to maintain the organic feel of the thing and also to give Gib something to look at while he’s being creative. OGL, being temporarily surplus to actual performing requirements, quietly sets up a laptop in the corner and updates an anxious waiting world with our progress in real time. As he uploads a picture of TNDB slaving over a hot digital mixing program interface we learn that friend of the group Mr. Wendell is at a gig in Norwich and that the man standing next to him is reading a book. 

Such are the wonders of technology, where no-one needs to splice in the correct edit of a take with a razor blade and some tape, and we know that it’s the interval in a gig eighty miles away. After a few hours’ work we have made a great deal of headway, and Gibbon is surprised to learn how much he’s already got under his belt in terms of 'keepers'. Many of these have been first takes, with the odd fret rattle or snatched note subtly fixed almost immediately, Booth’s brisk work rate helping to move things along in terms of keeping things fresh and ‘live’, without unnecessarily compromising on the quality of the actual performance. 

The technology is used as a tool, not a pre-requisite. At one point he expresses a healthy disdain for all things auto tune - which certainly won’t help his application to be one of the judges on the next series of X-Factor - and at another he subtly fades out the click track we’re playing along to, the better to bring an organic feel to the end of the song. On the play back I can hear OGL in the control room, playing along on piano, sniffing inspiration in the air like a caged animal, then leaping from his creative keening to pace the control room, his hands weaving an elaborate tapestry of interpretive gestures in the air. I open the door from the studio to see what subtleties his inspiration could be about to engender.

Turns out there was a fly in the control room driving him mad and he was trying to swat it.

Friday, October 22, 2010

They call us the Diamond Dogs

The process of recording is, by necessity, a Hermetic experience. Solitary, intense, involved - a bit like blogging really. Once it's all underway however, it is hard to contain your enthusiasm in polite society about how well it may be going, and equally difficult to comprehend if you’re not one of the people actually doing the recording, and I speak as one who is both pleased and proud to read of my friends and acquaintances’ progress in their own endeavours and who once took a friend to the studio so that they could see where the magic happens, only for them to be so relieved at the close of play to be released from the air-conditioned hell in which we’d imprisoned them and made them listen to endless repetitions of the ride cymbal overdub that they never complained about not having enough time to do the Sudoku again. Nevertheless, on day three of recording for SftBH IV, Our Glorious Leader and I convene at the country estate of newly installed drummer, percussionist, recording engineer and all-round good egg That Nice David Booth in order to lay down some guitars, as we say in the trade - the trade in question being that of being stuck permanently inside an endless loop of eighties terminology. OGL was on acoustic, I was on electric and, having listened to ZZ Top all the way down to the studio I was feeling in pretty much the right place mentally to deliver my take on the folk-country-bluegrass-pop-rock niche that we have deservedly made our own. Us and Mumford and Sons, that is. This is where it gets a bit spoddy for the rest of you, but having spent three hours on various bits and twiddles – OGL in seclusion behind glass with his guitar and me in the control room armed with an amplifier cocooned in baffles and blankets – we burned a quick reference copy to CD and made our farewells. I listened to the very basic drums, bass, guitar and guide vocal takes this morning in my usual reference listening station, or the car on my way to work, as it is also known – and I genuinely haven’t been as excited by the prospect of an album being completed since I heard The Waterboys were back in the studio (mind you, we all know how that turned out). And I know that the intangible and the ethereal won’t mean anything to you, being mere constructs and concepts until I can lay something in front of you with a button marked ‘press to play’, but I can assure you that at least one of these things waiting to envelop your senses is the sort of monster that deserves a Glastonbury sunset behind it - and that isn’t even the sing-along one. As for anyone else investing time, money, thankless effort and endless ennui in a recording studio at the moment, or brimming with ideas and riding the carousel of creation and unable to quite get across fully how amazing the whole constructive process can be - I share your joy and I feel your pain, brothers and sisters.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

We have started recording what will ultimately become the fourth Songs from The Blue House album. It has been notable so far both for the number of guide vocal and guitar tracks we have laid down, some feral drumming, and the great bass playing by Gibbon. We were trucking along nicely today only for That Nice David Booth, our drummer and recording engineer, to at one point leave the studio monitors on whilst recording drums on a six minute track in the control room. Since everyone else was wearing headphones I was the only one who realised but, reasoning that Gibbon might do a good take in the next room, I didn't mention it until after they'd finished. As it turned out there was some bleed from the click track on to the drum mics, and so we had to do it again. When I skedaddled from the studio back to Ippo after the session as I was supposed to be going to a gig in Cambridge the same night, I missed my lift by three minutes.
Our Glorious Leader has employed the wonders of technology to record events. Here's day one. http://www.facebook.com/video/video.php?v=441554671035&ref=mf

Monday, September 20, 2010

“That means you, Holy Joe!”

Aside from all the peripheral issues surrounding our last show, it was good to be able to go out and play a set made up principally of our latest material. I was genuinely surprised and extraordinarily pleased at the number of people who made a point of saying afterward how much they had enjoyed the new songs, especially as a couple of them are in a subtle and understated fashion quite political, in a small ‘p’ politics kind of way (and one apparently goes into 12/8 during the end section, which came as a surprise to me, I can tell you). I don’t necessarily think there’s anything wrong in writing a song for your children if you measure the tone right, and “Believe Me” is certainly one of the more faith-enhancing songs I’ve ever heard regarding parental hopes for the future, while anyone who’s ever put their kids to bed will recognize the sentiment implied in “Where We Are” (beautifully and subtly enhanced by Turny Winn’s faux naïf squeezebox accompaniment). It was also good to be able to spray a bit of vitriol around the room during “My Boy” – (“Magna Carta’s authors spin, and wonder what they bothered for...” may well be one of my favourite lines so far) before pulling back the covers, leaping out of bed, throwing open the windows and shouting a metaphorical “Wake up, you sleepyheads!” with the climactic “Land of Make Believe” which, as Robert Plant once notably announced on stage regarding one of his own compositions, is “…a song of hope”. For instance I imagine that Our Glorious Leader, for one, in future really hopes that he doesn't break any more strings during his favourite bit at the end, which led him to hiss "You'll have to play the chords!!" at me just as I was mentally leading up to my exquisitely subtle volume control violin-effect coda and wondering why on earth he was telling me to play the chorus. "The chorus?" I gurned back at him. "The chords! The chords!!" he shouted back, nodding his head toward where the first of four strings to go was hanging forlornly from his guitar's bridge at one end and tuning peg at the other. "Ah!" I nodded back and tried to remember which pedals I had to turn off to return myself to the jangle setting. As I did I caught sight of the area just in front of the stage, where an acoustic guitar nestled in the dewy grass. "That's funny..." I thought "I'm sure James was wearing that guitar earlier...". As we came off stage I noticed through the entrance to the marquee that it had started raining quite heavily and noted this to bass player Gibbon. “Hmmm…” he chuckled “…and I’ll bet you thought that noise was applause, didn’t you?”

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Untangling the accordion knot.

Rehearsing with a PA and under lights was definitely a good idea. Getting in a few familiar parties to give the new material the critical once over was also a worthwhile investment, as friendly feedback in advance of exposing ourselves (as it were) to a live paying audience certainly helped iron out a few wrinkles here and there in the delicate folds of the fabric of our muse. For instance, like jazz, the Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black) version of The Girl With The Scrambled Yellow Hair was possibly more enjoyable to play than it was to listen to, and so bearing in mind that 'Harvest' sold a lot more copies than 'Time Fades Away' the second run through of the set had some minor tweaks in terms of arrangement and instrumentation, and sounded all the better for it. Don’t get me wrong – I far prefer the rough, untempered edges, discordant kerrangs and off-key harmonies of (the so-far unreleased on CD or Blu Ray, and there’s a reason for that) 'Time Fades Away' to the multi million selling middle of the road West Coast, patched jeans, Sweet Baby Jamesian Shangri La of 'Harvest', but I strongly suspect that I am in a minority - possibly of less than two. As it turned out, if I play exactly the same part with exactly the same emphasis, but on acoustic guitar, the whole experience is enhanced for everybody, which certainly backed up the reassuring “It’s not the notes or the playing – it’s the volume” précis of the first try out by newbie batteriste David Booth ("TNDB") during the break. I'm sure this reimagining also came as an enormous relief to the song’s long-suffering and faintly bewildered author, whose major revelation at the dress rehearsal was a hitherto unsuspected knack for a hearth and homely take on the squeezebox, which I suspect we would never have found about if we’d had a full complement of bangers and scrapers aboard, so props (as I understand the young folk say) to Turny Winn for that pleasant surprise. Next stop, Acorn Fayre and, after the initial part of the set (provisionally subtitled ‘Sway’) undoubted use of the phrase “Hope you like the new direction!” once we embark on part two (‘Thwack’).

PS - I should also point out that I was very pleased to finally find a legitimate home for my 'Richard Thompson harmony' on new composition The Falling Song. For those unfamiliar with the concept, it is best experienced on the Richard and Linda Thompson track Walking on a Wire, from 'Shoot Out The Lights', and is deployed to breathtaking effect in the chorus on the word (expediently enough) "Falling".

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

This is a public service announcement – with guitar!

The second rehearsal of the all-new Electric Blue House Revue, and things are definitely looking rosy for our unique foray into the world of electronical guitars. Firstly, of course, I wasn’t driving this time and so the enchanting, if time-consuming, tour of picturesque North Essex villages we undertook last week was eschewed in favour of getting to rehearsal in good order and in advance of the first cup of tea of the afternoon. This meant that co-member of the Ipswich contingent Mr. Gibbon was able to refresh himself fully with a nice brew before starting work, which helps a great deal when you otherwise exist principally on a diet of chocolate and cigarettes. The whole afternoon broke down into easily-manageable hour-long chunks of time; one for revision of last week’s work, one for tweaking The Falling Song, which we hadn’t previously exhumed since its initial outing at The High Barn gig many moons ago (when Our Beloved Record Company’s representative on earth said it was their favourite of the bunch), one hour on tea breaks (wherein at one point I got to play the drums while Our Glorious Leader whacked out the riff to “Walk This Way”) and one on everything else – which is not as tardy an effort as it seems, as that was mainly the chunk of stuff we’ve been playing regularly anyway, and so it was pretty simple for That Nice David Booth to stick some percussion on underneath, using his unique series of aides memoires in order to allocate the appropriate rhythm to the proper track. Keen lip readers among us may care to watch out for when he mutters “Don’t Stop” under his breath at the start of one song, as this is not an instruction to himself in terms of keeping a stiff upper lip and carrying on in the face of adversity, but in fact refers to the Fleetwood Mac song from ‘Rumours’ with which one of our new numbers shares a jaunty shuffle. The Fragrant and Charming La Mulley meanwhile, having not really been through the whole hanging out in a rehearsal room trying to figure out whether there should be four bars or eight before the guitar solo in her teen years (which she spent singing eight part harmonies on interminable roundelays in smoky folk clubs instead) is enjoying herself tremendously - drawing breath on another single-note harmonica part in one instant, and suggesting that there should be eight bars before the guitar solo the next, while Turny Winn remembers that he might have a melodeon in his attic with which he could play both of the notes that the arrangement actually in truth demands and makes a mental note to have a rummage when he gets home. Our Glorious Leader regards my replacement offering for the fiddle solo in Turny’s “The Girl with The Scrambled Yellow Hair” with barely suppressed opprobrium. “You haven’t really finished working that one out, have you?” he enquires with admirable propriety. “Or, to be fair, started...?” Fortunately we are rehearsing on the eve of a Bank Holiday, which leaves me plenty of time to annoy the family with a repeated sixteen bar guitar figure which slowly morphs into something resembling a melodic phrase in ‘G’ over the course of the next day, rather than bordering on a faithful transcription of the sound of a cat being dropped into a wheely bin, which was what it had most closely resembled previously. If I'd ever heard the sound of such a thing, that is. Which I haven't.


Tuesday, August 24, 2010

"Always pick the best banana"

Songs from The Blue House has always been, in terms of line up and repertoire, what we like to refer to as a moveable feast. Certainly the rhetoric of the early bluegrass ideal has given way to folk, country, blues and even grindcore* influences, but the organic feel of the group has been maintained throughout by a plethora of struck, strummed, plucked and bowed instruments which have both emphasised the rootsy feel of the songs themselves and meant that in terms of stagecraft all I have really had to do up until now is thrash away at an acoustic guitar during the songs and make jokes about the banjo player while Our Glorious Leader tunes up in between them. And so it will be interesting to see how we go down at The Big Finger Festival, upon whose publicity material our name has started appearing alongside those of Impaled Existence, Ignominious Incarceration, Bleed from Within, Viking Skull and of course, in The Scuzz Arena, the Extreme American Wrestling. In advance of deciding on a suitable set list the temptation here, of course, is to butch everything up, play it a bit faster and make sure the chicken wire is taut across the front of the stage before we start, but since we have tried to avoid conforming to the prevailing orthodoxy of the pub band ethos wherever possible in the past, we have reserved this approach for the folk festival we’re playing the month before instead where, due to a dearth of available strummers, pluckers and bowers, OGL and I have taken the opportunity to sneak in a couple of electric guitars for the occasion hoping that no-one will notice, in pretty much the same way that a fourth form schoolboy having a sneaky woodbine behind the bike sheds at break time would do. We’re also going to play an entire set of unrecorded material, with a drummer, and in front of one of the few audiences in the country that would actually be familiar enough with our oeuvre to ask for one of our old songs by name in the first place. It’s not a deliberately contrarian approach, but it certainly helps pre-empt any discussion about why we didn’t play the one about the rabbit this time round. It has also given me the perfect excuse to dust off the Gibson Les Dawson, sling some new ultrawound lights on, order a replacement for that toggle switch I broke back at The Pickerel, buff up the fretboard and start practicing a few (chord) shapes - albeit only after a couple of internal discussions as to whether it would be safer, more sensible or sonically appropriate to go in gently with a nice Telecaster with the tone control set on tickle and season the sound with some myxolidian tones, gentle arpreggios and the occasional flat-picked major pentatonic-based lick in the choruses. And then I thought, bugger that for a laugh, they can have that when we’re following Reality Killed Us at The Big Finger.


Songs from The Blue House will be playing at Acorn Fayre on September 18th this year. Also appearing at the festival are Colvin Quarmby, Red Shoes, Circus Envy and a host of others - please see http://www.acornfayre.org.uk/ for more details.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Do put your daughter on the stage, Mrs Robinson...

Someone asked this afternoon, as I was relaxing over a burger the size of Belgium and gently wrangling a small boy who was as interested in the house labradoodle as he was the feta on my plate, whether I was a full time musician. “Oh lord, no!” I answered, almost indelicately swiftly. “Only my son wants to be in a band” she said “...and I was wondering if you had any advice?”.

I think I responded that in order to become a full time musician you need either a very thick hide or an extraordinarily understanding girlfriend – the former so you can deal with the inevitable setbacks and brickbats you are likely to experience while pursuing your muse, and the second in order that you have somewhere to live whilst doing so. Preferably of course, you have both. 

It is difficult to reflect sensibly on all that when you're settled over a nice Pinot Grigio watching Deep Purple and Cheap Trick on Sky Arts from the comfort of your own armchair but I think it was the Purps' reading of Smoke On The Water that set me off on this train of thought – after all, if I hadn't been in a band I never would have enjoyed the experience of playing that song while simultaneously whispering the words into the ear of our singer and watching the bass player to check on the chords while on stage playing at a wedding reception on a set that (I believe) was used in one of the Harry Potter films. 

Those are the bits the careers officer doesn't tell you about when you fill in the form. I'm sure Rick Nielsen didn't approach the High School Dean and shyly hand over a piece of paper on which, under, 'ambitions' he had written ”To appear at The Budokan playing a Fats Domino song on a five-necked guitar” (which, of course, if he had've done, would have made a great deal more sense in the long run).
Similarly, that tufty-haired drummer-to-be from Clacton who I ended up sharing a hotel in Arras with probably didn't have high on his list of things to do “Seeing if you can walk around the outside of the hotel on the third floor ledge” but that's what he was gifted the opportunity to do through the power of music. Or would have done had we not been there to persuade him otherwise. 

Borrowing a corkscrew from Robert Plant's road crew, chatting to the drummer from The Minus Three backstage at a festival, nightswimming in a millionaire's pool and watching your lead singer throw up in a French ornamental fountain over the course of a four stage lunch. Rock n' roll you gave me the best years of my life.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

North to Norfolk

Happily, a number of new songs were succesfully launched upon an unsuspecting beer festival crowd at The Fox and Hounds in Heacham - we know they were succesful because three different people were whistling some of the choruses in the toilets in the break, and then afterwards - and that was just while members of the band were visiting. Notable moments also included the Springsteen-esque guitar-flinging stage dismount at the end (well caught, Mr. Wendell!) and a betwixt-song announcement regarding our violin player's ill-fated app launch - the iFiddle. Turny Winn's The Girl With The Scrambled Yellow Hair was a particular highlight of the musical part of the set, probably single-songedly prompting several of the enquiries as to when we are going to get our bottoms in gear and record a new album (or 'record' as Parters refers to them) while Risk got a particularly cathartic shoeing from James this afternoon, due in no small part no doubt to the tortuous journey undertaken to the gig which involved, variously, a car accident, running on empty in search of a garage, and the subsequent wait for the till while the old-fashioned shop service involved a conversation with everyone in the queue, at the end of which Our Glorious Leader was tempted to answer the question "Any fuel?" with a Fawlty-esque "Do you know, I honestly can't remember now...".
Some ideas engendered through the creative process during our group's voyage on the way to and from the show included simply replying to txt spk msgs with a series of vowels and commas wth blank spaces where the consonants should be, and designing a cycle-powered hurdy-gurdy, which would be played by bicycling around a circular track while the audience sits in the middle receiving the performance.
All in all, a return to traditional SftBH values, although there was some discussion afterward around whether My Boy, a Justin Currie-style rant regarding how shit everything is, was really Sunday afternoon Beer Festival material. "That's not really up to us, is it?" said Gibbon gnomically.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Donkey Horsey

Being in an unsigned band means that you actually have a great number of freedoms. Chief among these of course is the freedom not to have to spend interminable hours on tour buses, in recording studio lounges, or in a series of hotel suites being gently probed by Jude Rogers. As it were. One of the concurrent freedoms, however, is that you very rarely run the risk of your loyal fan base turning on you with some sort of backlash should you decide to go, as we like to call it in Songs from The Blue House, off-roading. At gigs this can involve unlikely cover versions (some of which a large proportion of the rest of the band have occasionally actually heard of) being introduced into the set at opportune moments – shortly after a member of the audience has shouted the title at us, say – but it occurs to us that in our extended period of recuperation between arduous recording engagements we have actually built up quite a nice catalogue of what one might refer to as ‘unreleased’ songs. Since the night shortly after the release of our album ‘Tree’ when we decided to preview a selection of carefully unrehearsed and barely-completed songs on an acoustic showcase night we have gently been feeding new material into the set and letting it find its feet, ground itself and quietly get on with the business of incorporating itself into the family. At a recent rehearsal we found ourselves contemplating yet another raft of new songs and since most of our audiences tend to be unaware of our extensive reasonably priced and beautifully packaged back catalogue anyway, we resolved to do a whole gig of the new material, brooking no argument as to whether we should “do some old” or not. As I say, hardly a move likely to strike up a correspondence in some of the worldlier blogs on the Net, but a small strike for self-validation in our artistic progress for us, nonetheless. This notion does, of course, have the precedential seal of approval – no less an august figure than Neil Young tried it on tour when the album we now know as Tonight’s The Night was but merely a gibbous glow in its creator’s eye (you may have heard the hoary old rock anecdote regarding the audience’s restlessness at being presented with an entirely unfamiliar set and their relief when Young announced that he was going to play something they’d all heard before, at which point he repeated his opening number, Tonight’s The Night. Then again he was already at the stage where his support band was The Eagles, and I still think we’re part way off that kind of action just yet) and no less a revered figure than Richard Thompson recently decided that since everyone likes his live stuff anyway he may as well eschew the whole studio process altogether and simply record his album on the road, as it were. And where would we be without Jackson Browne’s Running on Empty, parts of which were literally recorded on the road (you can hear the tour bus moving up through the gears on one song)? Well, faint heart never won fair Grammy, so we thought we’d give it a go ourselves. Oh, and we thought we might get a drummer while we're at it.

originally posted at http://www.skirky.blogspot.com/

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Some days, you eat the bear...

 When I was a mere stripling of a lad, fresh out of short trousers and recently upgraded from a tennis racket to a cricket bat, the better with which to mime along to Status Quo records, we had an informal air guitar club which used to convene on odd occasions in various front rooms in order to play AC/DC's Highway to Hell LP while we assiduously acted out the individual recorded parts, each taking our assigned roles very seriously indeed. 

I usually took the role of Angus Young, and our Bon Scott did some marvellous work on our behalf - occasionally becoming bare-chested in his pursuit of bringing authenticity to the character. As it turned out, while I was aiming at fuflfilling my destiny as a rock god, he had ambitions in a very different arena, and his professed goal in life was to become a farmer. 

Last weekend I was part of a reconvention of a band called The Star Club and performed onstage at Ipswich Music Day in front of some of the 36,000 people who reportedly passed in front of the seven stages in operation that day. Afterward I was asked to pose for photographs, congratulated on our performance, had a bottled water readily available in our tented dressing room and a personally allocated backstage artists-only portaloo. 

When I went to get my shopping at Sainsbury's this afternoon I stopped by one of their billboard posters showing one of the the farmers from whom they source their organic potatoes. "That guy looks familiar" I thought. 

And there he was, thankfully not stripped to the waist and brandishing a torch with which to opine on the merits or otherwise of Rosie, but suitably wax-jacketed, and still twinkling-eyed and handsome. To be fair, he looks like he's done slightly better at achieving his ambition than I have done of mine - by now he was supposed to be running my estate for me - but seriously, it looks like everyone's kicked a goal.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Footprints in the Sand.

I’m not one to obsessively go around putting my own name into internet search engines just in order to reassure myself that I do actually exist on some sort of spiritual plane (even though I am pleased to be able to report that the first three Google searches for the phrase “All These Little Pieces” do in fact reference my book) but it is nice to occasionally settle down with a fresh cup of tea and a bourbon, drop the band’s name, Songs from the Blue House, into the little box, hit enter, and to see just where we are referenced – a magazine mention mayhap, an eBay review copy of ‘Tree’ still sealed and available for a pittance perhaps, or a link to the Red House Painters’ “Songs for a Blue Guitar” album on Amazon, which is what most frequently occurs. 

As of today, for instance, I can tell you that there have been 5369 views of our song “Little No One” on YouTube, which even if you take out the number of times I’ve been on to check that my bald spot isn’t too apparent under the stage lights is still a pretty reasonable return for a song that you can’t actually buy anywhere. Until quite recently this was a performance mentioned obliquely on Wikipedia, as well as being referred to unsentimentally on YouTube’s comments section as resembling nothing so much as a schoolteacher fronting a bunch of off-duty brickies (which in retrospect I can’t help feel unjustly reflects on the contribution to the performing arts made by many skilled manual labourers).

I had a bit of time during my lunch break today, so I thought I’d do a bit of a virtual catch up, and, upon checking the Wiki entry where we usually are, there we were, gone. I must admit, I felt a tiny twinge of regret. Still, we had our own whole entry once - for about a day, until some officious bastard deleted it over it not being referenced properly. Ah well, some days you’re the spaniel, some days the stick. 

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Excerpts from "Hold on Tight to Your Dreams - The Songs from The Blue House Story" by Simon Talbot with Lester Bangs, Paul Morley, Nick Kent, Charles Shaar Murray, Tony Parsons, Johnny Rogan & Steven Wells, and with a foreword by Andi Peters. *

"...Songs from The Blue House were brought together in 1991 by Coggeshall Town Council, who wanted a boy band to tour local primary schools teaching children the importance of washing their hands after going to the lavatory. 

At first things went well - debut single "Candy Coated Snuggles" entered the top 50 at a respectable 50, but the follow up, an ill advised stomp through Deep Purple's "Knocking at Your Back Door" reached a disappointing number 375 and the band were dropped. His music career in ruins, bass player Gibbon was bemoaning his luck over a pint of Old Scabby Tramp at the Chantry Beer Festival when he found to his surprise that the hop-flavoured vagrant who had broken out of the cask and was making a run for it was none other than Fun House presenter Pat Sharpe, who just had time to splutter "Why don't you write your own songs!?" before Gib forced his head back down under the dark brown syrupy liquid. 

The use of real instruments was a turning point for the band, and the succeeding fluctuating line up included 25ft circus giant James Partridge, erotic wax sculptor Tony Winn, King of Pop Michael Jackson and cyborg flute assassin Helen Mulley. Skag Rock, Bubble Pop, Tight Arsed Brazilian Loon Jazz, Skippy Dippy, Welsh Urban Shouting, Fringe Drone and Shatner were all mere passing fads to be used up and discarded in the quest for fame. 

On the way Tony Turrell joined - "I am like the sunshine, a butterfly's wings or the laugh of a small child" was all he would say - "Don't try and hold me for I will slip through your fingers". During the 'Keep Music Acoustic' riots of 1999 the band had themselves fired from a huge brass cannon. As they hurtled overhead they whipped the frenzied mob below into hysterics with their high speed rendition of James Taylor's "You've Got a Friend". 

Despite their best efforts however, certain members of the band still feel frustrated. "We've been going ten years now and there is still pain and suffering in the world" sobbed 103 year-old fiddle player Richard Lockwood yesterday; "Sweet merciful Jesus" he cried, his voice twisted with anguish, "Where's the love?". 

A couple of hours ago I asked Shane about the future. "By the year 2850 our enormous bald heads will be pulsating with ideas which will make the people of today look like monkeys" he replied. When I asked him about the band he paused; "I dunno - carry on playing gigs? We're doing the god yoghurt Christian dairy products festival at Copdock next month, so that should be good. To tell you the truth I just wanna make love in a hot air balloon".

*As originally stolen from Simon Talbot.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

It’s a life of surprises…

Driving five up in a Vauxhall Zafira with three amplifiers, four mics, a bundle of leads and three guitars in the boot doesn’t make any real sense in terms of propagating a career, however we in Songs from the Blue House didn’t get where we are today by following our base commercial instincts. So for all the strategy and street teamery that you can get tangled up in, when it comes down to it, someone asks us if we want to perform in front of some people, the default answer is always “yes”. That it may not always be the best facilitation of the long-term vision of the collective often comes into play, but then no-one ever broke a thousand hearts by singing about the withered rose of a relationship on their own in their bedroom, although I can think of many turns I’ve seen in the past who would have been well advised to take that course in preference to coming out and insisting on doing precisely that in front of me. I am sufficiently of an age where I already know that life is nasty, brutish and short, as are a few of the subjects of some of our more vituperative numbers, but I digress.

After eight years of not trying, we have been invited to perform in That There London (TTL), and although in the past this would typically have involved hiring a coach and transporting the same forty people who would have come to see you in (say) Ipswich down to TTL and charging them a fiver to watch the same set at (say) The Powerhaus, in these days of instant mass communication all it takes are a couple of well-composed Facebook posts and you have an instant throng at the doors of the venue, without all that tedious mucking about in hyperspace. In theory.

We are hurtling through the badlands of East London, bass player Gibbon driving, and Our Glorious Leader both navigating and advising on the morals and ethics of negotiating TTL by car. “Don’t show them the fear”, he advises sagely, “Otherwise they’ll have you all ways up”. This doesn’t sound like a good thing, frankly. OGL has taken route advice from one of his delivery drivers and confidently guides us to the wrong side of the river, whereupon Gibbon takes matters into his own hands and negotiates a manoeuvre which not only reinforces his alpha-driver status but, judging by the look in his eyes, clearly instils The Fear into an oncoming cabbie, and those guys aren’t easily spooked. I shouldn’t really comment on anyone’s map reading skills as I am notoriously the band, if not the world’s, worst navigator, Geography A-level or no. In the same way that your keys are always in the last place you look, my destination is always the last place that I arrive at, which sounds innocuous enough, but bear this in mind the next time you’re turning your house upside down in order to locate your keys, eh?

Fashionably late, we arrive at the venue to find that our cyber-messaging has indeed gathered the brightest and best of our hardcore travelling support, including Serious Keith, Gorgeous Mari, Dooog the Banter Hunter and one Philip Bryer, who I’ve never actually met in true life before, but who has been contributing weekly to the Why The Long Face? radio show for a couple of years now. The Fragrant and Charming Helen Mulley introduces herself to him – “I was going to ask who you were, and then I heard you speak” she says brightly. I imagine Alastair Cook used to get that all the time. We are a lean, stripped-down SftBH this evening, with only Fiddly of the auxiliary stringed instrumentalists able to make it, and fortunately so, as upstairs at Milfords is a compact and bijou venue with a performance area which would put many envelopes to shame. Indeed the entire pub has more people relaxing outside on the pavement enjoying the balmy summer evening than it does inside, which the landlord genially acknowledges. “You should have seen this place before the ban” he reminisces fondly, waving a be-cigaretted hand at an imaginary horizon ”a smoke haze as thick as you like”. Gibbon and I nod nostalgically.

In order to maximise the marketing potential of our foray into the cross-platform performance arena, and because we don’t have a banjo, pedal steel or piano player tonight, we have front-loaded the set with some of our more familiar works before veering off into unknown territory later in the set and debuting a couple of things that OGL and I have been buffing up in the fine-tuning lab of the Blue House song factory. Oh, and because the house PA only has four inputs, I’m putting my acoustic guitar through my Laney pub rock amp and OGL is rocking the Marshall valve combo. It does, he remarks glintingly later, give an edge to those harder-strummed chords. There are no monitors, natch. Having settled into the groove and the slightly unusual sound, by mid way through the set we’re having a good time and our new song “My Boy” brings a gratifying hush to the chatter at the back of the room.

We manage to crowbar Fiddly’s usual “…all the way from Thorndon” stage dedication into the set as well as a few pertinent remarks on our finding ourselves under the bright lights of London’s glittering Strand. Afterward, a gratifying number of bar staff, friends and pretty girls in vintage tea dresses remark upon how much they enjoyed the set. We’re feeling pretty damned pleased with ourselves, I can tell you - shortly after which, a couple of said girls strap on some instruments of their own and in the company of a double bassist, a fiddle player and the sort of drummer who sits coolly with a battered trilby on the back of his head and looks like he could get a nice brushes sound out of his stubble in a snare-snapping emergency perform the sort of down-home old-time set that makes grown men weep with joy, profess their deep, real and undying devotion and realise that there’s always someone around the next corner who can effortlessly put the ‘U’ in Hubris. On the way back we let Big Jan, who’s sailed across the The Pacific and The Atlantic in a thirty foot yacht therefore knows a bit about storage space, dictate loading the car, which she does with clinical professionalism. With fond farewells and hearty hugs we wend our way back through the city, and the country roads take us home.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

My dear and long-suffering wife took our baby son round to my parents' for a visit, and during the general chit chat and conversation about sleeping, waking and feeding also mentioned that I'd taken a couple of days off work to go and write songs with Our Glorious Leader James at The Blue House. My mother sighed. "He never gives up, does he...?"

Saturday, May 15, 2010

“Is it rolling, James?”


It occurs to Our Glorious Leader and I that the ‘new’ songs in the SftBH set are coming up for their second birthdays, and as such we should either start buying them some nice presents or, in the great tradition of parents whose toddlers have outgrown the first flush of adorability, get some news ones in to replace them. Thus we convene at The Blue House on a bright Spring Sunday afternoon and cloister ourselves away in The Snug on Lord Tilkey's estate with two guitars, a couple of chairs, some pencils and paper, oh, and enough PC processing capacity to have powered a series of NASA’s most ambitious seventies excursions (and then some). We sit opposite each other, nervously wondering what we’re going to say to each other for the next two and a half days if we don’t come up with any ideas, and contemplate our situation – part odd couple, part evangelical idealists, very much the modern Lemmon and McCarthy.

I had been mucking about the previous evening and came up with a simple repeating guitar figure and idly strummed through it. OGL’s eyes narrow suspiciously. “You haven’t pre-prepared this, have you?” he asks off handedly, almost too casually. I confirm that this is not something I’ve been working on, and he relaxes, almost imperceptibly, back into his seat. “Don’t Fence Me In” reads the legend on the cushion (by which I mean the slogan, not that James has had a tattoo). It's a homily and a mantra. Following the rules of what sounds good, we find the next chord to go to, then a third, a fourth, a bridge (as in “Take me to the…”), a chorus, and before too long the song has taken shape, it has bare bones and merely needs clothing in words, for a couple of people to have a look and decide whether the outfit suits it, and to be offered up to Canens for her approval. 

There is a settling down of guitar and a gathering of pad and pencil, some scritching and scratching (both on the page and betwixt the hambones), a nod to indicate that I should either continue or desist playing the verse through. Eventually, a furrowing of brows and a final decisive, “Let’s cut it”. When we started demo’ing tunes for Songs from The Blue House, at this point in proceedings it was time to rig up a couple of microphones, fire up the Tascam, find a cassette that didn’t already have stuff on both sides, demagnetise the recording heads, try a few levels, listen back to make sure it was recording satisfactorily and then capture the full, immediate intimacy of the moment. Younger readers may be astonished to discover that this was how we accomplished things way back in the Noughties. 

Now, James has merely to plug in a lead, flick a switch, hit the space bar on his PC keyboard and we’re away. Three and a half minutes of bewitching digital vapour trails appearing on the screen, a ‘normalisation’ process, factory-issue reverb and we almost immediately have a demo that some Seventies singer-songwriters would have rejected as being over-produced, and hence the modern disease - just because it sounds good enough to share, doesn't necessarily mean it actually is. We leave that to prove, and start the whole process again.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Picture yourself in a boat on a river...

Now visualise an American. If you're English, I'm guessing you've got an image of a slightly chubby guy in t-shirt and jeans, big walrush moustache, possibly shaking you warmly by the paw and saying things like "Real pleased to be here!". Reader, I met him. Mark Elliot is a typical American, in that he is warm, self-deprecating, polite, hard working, and desperately good at what he does. What he does do (hang on, I might need to check the grammar on that one) is stand up in front of people and sing simple songs in a rich, warm come-on-into-the-parlour-and-shake-the-dust-off-your-boots fashion which is both enormously endearing, and incredibly difficult to make look as easy as he does. Do.
The easiest and best way to form an opinion about any darned fool who's willing to get on stage with an acoustic guitar is to wonder what they'd be like at your local pub's songwriters night. This is all too frequently easy to visualise, as that's where you generally bump into them. Bedsit poets, protest evangelists, political flag wavers - I should know, I've played all these roles, and more. What isn't easy - in fact what is astonishingly difficult to do - is to make that singer-songwriter role still relevant in these days of the minimal attention span, loop technology and instant gratificatory downloads: to stand up and perform in front of people and draw them into your world, to tell them stories, to make them populate your songs with their characters - Mark Elliot can do this - I know, because I saw him do it tonight.
If I hadn't been in the other band playing, I would have missed it. Because of flight restrictions preventing him from flying in earlier this week, many people across the country did miss out on the chance to make their own minds up. I liked him. You should go and see him play, I think you'll like him too, and I say this about a man who lives at the foot of a mountain outside Nashville, writes songs for a living and who has therefore clearly got the job that was reserved for me...


Sunday, April 18, 2010

Take two drummers into the shower...?

Many, many, many years ago, The Star Club, a Beatles specialist band I was in, got booked to do a gig at a pub in Ipswich called Harley's. The landlord had inherited the booking and so wasn't expecting much, but he fell in love with the group. Heavily, deeply, seriously in love. And so when he went back up to his old stomping ground in Lincolnshire he invited us up for a gig. We demurred on the grounds that a one-off wasn't really worth the trip, and so he booked us into another couple of places and we went up for a few days, just to show willing really and basically, we let our hair down. A long way down. Every few months, or a couple of years, we'd get a call from wherever he'd pitched up and we'd go along and whoever had joined the band would pitch in, whether it be The Star Club, Picturehouse or, more recently, Songs from The Blue House. 

Since The Picturehouse Big Band is no longer extant, when the most recent call came in for volunteers we reckoned we could throw together something for the couple of days we had been invited for with Kilbey, Reado and Andy from various Picturehouse line up's new rock n' roll Maitre 'D Matt White crowning the affair with a trip up North for their new band Matt White and The Emulsions. Incidentally, on an early trip up to Spalding one of the posters in the Red Lion's back room for the Jazz and Blues Club featured Matt's old band, Swagger. 

Another listed the line up for the 1967 Bank Holiday festival, which featured Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd. Swagger cost more, by the way. However, from the initial expeditionary force, work commitments started picking people off, and by the time we departed, there were just the five of us making up the numbers - Picturehouse hadn't played for six months, I hadn't been in the band for a couple before that, and we now had two drummers. We couldn't pull out though - we'd made a promise, and besides, the name of the village where Big Paul's new pub was to be found was Donington, and the chance to drop that casually into conversation was too good to miss.

I decided to keep updates on Twitter. In between surreptitiously nipping out to text things on my phone I learned many things about the value of the friendship and companionship which is engendered by a shared experience in the musical trenches. And I learned that there really is something called "the meat sweats"... 

Fri 16th; Arrived and grabbed rooms. Pat has not packed socks or pants for the weekend. Am not bunked with Pat. Andy has just created the gammon Amy Winehouse. Don't ask. Made fatal error in attempting to trade solos with andy trill. Floor duly wiped... Good news. Jane Goldman lookalike in audience. Well, we've never medleyed my sharona with pressure drop before, but i think we got away with it... "oi ate ‘coont’, that's a fookin' bastard word ent it?". The post gig party lacks that dorothy parker touch. Update on the jane goldman lookalike from earlier - more of a caitlin moran at a fancy dress party-alike. There is an element of tequila involved with tonight's aftershow party. Latest round, four black sambucas and a fruit shoot. Yes, Kilbey is still up. There are ukeleles... Trill now shredding molly's chambers on mandolin. It is a rare skill, but in the right situation... Right - let's turn the amps back on and do sex on fire. Who doesn't love that at two in the morning? Every evening should end with at least one person in the room saying 'awesome!' 
Sat 17th; Dressed for afternoon gig. Kilbey in all black, Pat in red and glitter. Not sure what he's planning for the swimsuit round. Nice to meet an old mate who first saw the band fourteen years ago when he had just been diagnosed with cancer and given six months to live. Pat and Reado are discussing correct ride cymbal emplacement at great length. Default opening conversational gambit in Spalding is an insult, followed up smartly with another insult. Incendiary born to run from reado followed by blagging of hotel rooms for the band. Excellent shevving i trust you'll agreeThe landlord was in dr who and the silurians. Top trivia. We've now been coming to spalding to play beatles songs for longer than the beatles were togetherBack at pub in donington. Pat is now taking orders in the restaurant and helping with the washing up. I think he may have found his calling. Trill eating a double mixed grill sans cutlery... Trill to be photographed for the pub's mixed grill wall of fame. Immortalised in Donington forever. 
Sunday 18th. Sharing a room with Reado. He showers to The Specials. Hope he's only skanking in there... I am reminded that this is the hotel where we were once so rock and roll that we threw a kettle out of the window. Well, the lead, at least. Have confused drummer by using the term 'zeitgeist' at breakfast. He is otherwise engaged spreading marmalade on his bacon

Twitter @doyoudoanywings

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

“Always pick the best bandana…”

As the dog days of winter shake the dew off their skirts and turn into bright spring mornings, a young man’s fancy turns to the Festival Season – a moveable feast traditionally bookended for us in Songs from The Blue House by Helstock at the start of the term and Acorn Fayre at the end. Betwixt and between we have a few shows already lined up, we’ve already declined at least one, one and we shall wait and see what providence and provenance comes up with regarding the rest. 

We are enormously pleased and privileged to be invited back to Acorn Fayre again (for details, see blogs passim), but our immediate thoughts turn to this weekend’s Helstock, where we return once more to The Steamboat in sunny downtown Ipswich for an evening of fun, frolics, light-hearted jollity, good company, fine dining and excessive consumption of good strong ale. This year we have a line up to appeal to the Fifty Quid Guy within all of us, with a slew of covers turns, a couple of surprises and, unusually for us, a weekend date for the Moot. 

In explaining to one of the people we’ve corralled into playing for us what the evening is about I usually embark on a lengthy explanation of how we initially started by having a birthday party one year for the Fragrant and Charming Helen Mulley at which a few people got up and played and then decided to do it again the next year, and the next, before Gibbon adroitly steps in and confirms that the whole thing is basically an excuse for me to spend as much time on stage during the course of the evening as possible, and with my participation in three of the five scheduled turns, I do have to say that he has a point.

The slightly off-kilter nature of the evening means that this year I will be taking the opportunity to experiment slightly and will be going electric with the previously all-acoustic SftBH and hoping to provoke catcalls of “Judas!” from stunned audience members before Our Glorious Leader goes off to find an axe somewhere with which to cut the power cables. To be fair, that’s pretty much his standard response when he sees me wielding an electric guitar anyway, and so there’s no real sea-change in attitudes there. Later on he himself will be taking to the boards as part of The Rainy Day Women and continuing the Dylan theme by covering some of the Bard of Duluth’s finest moments, which are not expected to contain renditions of either ‘Mozambique’ or ‘Wiggle Wiggle’, although as the old folks are apparently prone to say, c’est la vie; you never can tell.

I myself have been tangled up in Bruce, attempting to garner support and sympathy toward an idea I had to start a loose collective of musicians willing to go out and perform a classic album in its entirety a couple of times before dusting ourselves down and moving on to the next one. The first project to be undertaken has been Springsteen’s seminal Born to Run (or “That’s pretty much ‘Bat Out of Hell’ isn’t it?” as winsome young keyboard player Adam would have it as he patiently works his way through ‘Thunder Road’ on piano). Chief co-conspirator Tony ‘Shev’ Shevlin (there are no prizes for commenting on the exegesis of his moniker, by the way) and I managed to pretty much nail down three songs as a trial run, roping in Frisky Pat from the now-sadly defunct Picturehouse on drums, Adam, and stalwart bass player Gibbon before spending last week trying to track down a saxophone player with the necessary gravitas to fill the role of The Big Man.

After a few wrong turns and blind alleys we managed to persuade a very kind man called Steve to dep for us, who turned up with a sheaf of dots and squiggles on paper and a mildly concerned attitude which, certainly for me, brought to mind the early Songs from The Blue House days of persuading Fiddly that what he really needed in his life were a couple of non-reading guitar players whose idea of writing an arrangement was to hum things, play a couple of chords on the guitar and then go to the bar. Steve ran through the set a few times, crossed out and scribbled a few dots and pronounced himself willing to take on the challenge. “This Springsteen bloke” he enquired affably “…much of a following has he?” Having learned most of the horn parts off a bewildering selection of thirty five years-worth of clips of versions available on YouTube he had only one major concern. 

“You’re not going to run across the stage and kiss me, are you?” he asked.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

“When I get off’ve this mountain, I know where I wanna go…”

I received news this week that one of my old landladies had passed on. Not so big news in itself, especially to those who never knew her, but it did stir memories of what she facilitated by her general easy-going nature, for the house that I rented off her had a basement, you see. It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of an electric guitar, must be in want of somewhere to play it, and having a cellar, a couple of old mattresses and some egg boxes meant that this ambition was easily attained. 

Her forbearance had already been assured by the previous tenant who, by happy coincidence, was also the drummer in my band and so aside from the occasional intervention by bored policemen passing on foot patrol in the street above, we were perfectly able to spend every Thursday evening working on songs, mucking about with cover versions, writing, tweaking, recording demos and occasionally auditioning guitarists as the last one decided that they rather had more urgent engagements to attend to than to spend every Thursday evening…well, you get the idea. And at around ten o’clock we’d draw a veil over the evening’s work and pop around the corner to The Spread Eagle and ruminate over a few pints on what we’d achieved or, more likely, on whatever took our fancy as the subject of conversation that evening.

That we weren’t paying by the hour meant that work was conducted in a more reflective, quality-intensive way than if we’d been clock watching the whole time and of course the added benefit for me was that for the rest of the week I had a drum kit set up, a pair of headphones and The Band’s Greatest Hits on CD. I really couldn’t speculate on the amount of time I invested in happily plodding through those marvelous syncopations, but I do know that it was all time well spent. Without those evenings I wouldn’t have been teaching a song to the band when one of our members queried one of the lines by remarking that “Sadler’s Wells” was an odd thing to throw into a lyric. That wasn’t the original line, but that throwaway comment meant that the chorus got re-written on the spot to include it from that point on. Once again, that may not necessarily a biggie for you, but I still play that song sometimes, and not a chorus goes past that I don’t think about it. 

Anyone with such a facility is obviously going to become quite popular in the musicianly circles he mixes in and so there were occasions that I made myself scarce for the evening and left a key under the mat for others. I didn’t like to be too usurious about the arrangement and so I generally left instruction that the guys could use the place to their own content and help themselves to tea and coffee, but that I’d appreciate it if they left items of food in the kitchen for me to be pleasantly surprised by when I got back. Trust me to lend the place out to the only bunch of vegetarians on the block, but at least I know now not to trust canned ratatouille. On one occasion I came back to find appreciative graffiti from Big Ray regarding the photographs of my girlfriend I had on the kitchen pinboard. 

I had houseguest for a while too, and when I played an Eric Clapton record once he responded by playing the first Taj Mahal album to impress on me what guitar playing was really about. In response I upped the stakes by sticking on The Allman Brothers, and the silent one-upmanship went on all evening until he finally rooted around upstairs and dug out Electrif Lycanthrope by Little Feat then trumped all previous hands by simply sitting back and daring me to find anything better. Obviously, I couldn’t. 

All of this and more went on in the end terrace house, endured stoically and benignly by the kindly lady next door, who once a month I went round to see, handed over my rent to, had a cup of tea with and a chat and then padded back again to my place. According to their deeds shall you know them, and also by their tolerance of young men with electric guitars. So long, Vera. And thanks.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

“Like Gibbon, she dances across the porch as the radio plays…”

It is always an intriguing time, the gestation of a new band. From concept to concert, there are any number of pitfalls and pratfalls that can easily beset the righteous man on all sides. When Bob Geldof compared getting The Who back together for Live Aid as being like reuniting a man and his three ex-wives he wasn’t exaggerating for effect. 

I myself have recently gone through a very painful period of adjusting to the fact that a couple of my metaphorical ex-wives have moved on and are now in a perfectly happy relationship with someone new. I see them on the street in company sometimes, and it still pains my heart to watch them together – going to all the old places we used to, doing the things we used to do, seeing the people we used to see, but, you know, I’ve moved on, we all have.

 *Sniffs, reaches theatrically for monogrammed handkerchief, dabs eyes* 

And so, in pursuit of closure, and having found myself with a bit of spare time on my hands, I rustled up a couple of old chums and threw an idea at them. How about the concept of a floating band, with no real permanent members, who could take on classic albums, one reissue at a time, perform them in their entirety and then move on to the next? 

The idea appealed, and so in a nervous, baby steps sort of way we set ourselves a deadline and decided that we would perform three numbers from Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run in March at Helstock, the now annual celebration of the Diva’s Diva - La Mulley, out of Songs from The Blue House. 

We gathered together in The Blue Room at McGinty’s, made sure everything was tuned up, turned on and nailed down, and took our first tentative steps through the Backstreets toward Jungleland. Obviously this wasn’t a complete throwing together of strangers forced by necessity and/or penury to take any job that came their way, as can so often be the case with musicians, so we all had some common ground between us, but it was really grand to be in the sort of situation where the fine line between deprecation and dedication was admirably negotiated and, since everyone had done their homework, the whole get together was smoothly accomplished. 

By the end of the night we had passable working versions of three songs and a couple of pints of Guinness each in our slipstream. For a one-off Wednesday night’s work, that’s not bad going. The benefits of working in a warm, great-sounding and relaxed environment obviously include easy access to a bar, a smoking area, friendly and hospitable hosts and the sort of toilets that have both flyers for a Chap Hop event (that sounds a terrifically interesting concept, and one I made a mental note to explore further) and graffiti in the cubicles extolling the virtues of The Go Betweens. 

I mean if I had to quibble over the details I might say that access and egress is a bit limited, but then I catch sight in the mirror of a fleeting half-glimpse of myself from the Eighties, and remind myself not to be such a doddering old fool. It’s just that the car park’s rammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive

Sunday, February 14, 2010

"The Guitar's all very well Shane - oh, and there's some money in it...“

Frankly, it wasn't looking promising for this one. Out of the core Songs from the Blue House triumvirate James was laid up with a migraine, I had a sore throat and Gibbon wasn't coming at all. Along with all this, we were due to play a Valentine's fund-raising dinner in a hall in Essex, and there was going to be a raffle. As my radio co-host Neale had remarked when I brought the subject up this week "Why don't you just play happy songs and then everyone will get along and have a nice time?". With our set list? It didn't seem possible. Coming along for the ride was Mr. Wendell, who had been corralled as our sound man du jour although, as he remarked, when it comes to sound mixing he's more Steve Martin than George Martin. To make him feel at home I asked him to mention if there was anything he didn't like. "Well" he responded Scousily "I don't like that scarf..." 

Sound check concluded, we retired to the backstage area where a nice table had been laid out for dinner and before too long we were thoroughly enjoying a nice meal provided by our hosts. "This is nicer than the KFC" remarked Diane. More bands should get together for a social evening - we had a splendid lasagne provided by our hosts (veggie for Wendell for, as we explained, he doesn't eat meat, subsisting as he does mainly on leaves and air), two types of dessert, and were thoroughly enjoying each other's company, with the conversation ranging from the correct use of grammar, through the likelihood of the existence (or not) of the spirit world (I particularly enjoyed the story of the ghost who was visible only from the knees upward, as the floors had been a lot lower in their time), whether The Double Deckers actually ever drove that bus, and how difficult it must be to lift things if you exist mainly on a diet of leaves and air.

Obviously we were enjoying this even more as the clock ticked past nine o'clock and we were now being paid for it as well. The old showbiz saw that "It'll sound different once there are some people in" was never more happily accomplished as the cabaret seating and supper club vibe somehow gave a zing to the top end (sounds impossible, I know, but it's true) and tightened up the woolly mids and the fluffy bottoms (there'd been a lot of this sort of thing coming up in over dinner chat so you can tell what sort of mood we were in) until we were in a bright bubble of beautiful sound. 

Everything came together wonderfully. TT was filling in down the dusty end of his piano to cover for the errant bass player as well as doing his usual wonderful job up at the top end on the plinky ones (it's technical muso term - don't worry if you're not perfectly au fait with it), The Fragrant and Charming Helen was on splendid form, Parters was inspired, Turny Winn - on home turf - was his usual raffish self on banjo (and that's not an easy trick to pull off) and Fiddly Richard, all the way from Thorndon, was taking the whole thing so seriously that he'd donned one of his extra special colourful weskits for the occasion and was sawing away at the back like a man possessed. Given the dinner conversation we'd just had, this may have been an actual spiritual happening. 

Notable highlights of the SftBH love fest were a peerless reading of Aretha Franklin/Etta James/The Flying Burrito Brothers' (depending on who you listen to) Do Right Woman - a duet of such touching fragility that even as we were playing it I was cursing myself for not remembering to insist that James record the show off the desk so that I could luxuriate in its wonder later on at my own convenience. I was indulged a lengthy introductory speech for Rolling and Tumbling, Turny stepped up to deliver a beautiful and heartfelt The Girl With The Scrambled Yellow Hair (his own song, and another first for us) during which Fiddly delivered a sublime solo which had me cursing all over again, and then Our Glorious Leader stepped up to sing the third in a trilogy of heartfelt love songs. His was called Bike

A brief break for the raffle - the band collectively won a bag of Rolos for completing the quiz sheet with one of the top three scores - a closing section during which my throat finally gave out leading to a swift on the hoof, off the cuff re-arrangement of a couple of verses, someone bought a book (All These Little Pieces - still available at http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/all-these-little-pieces/5939858 by the way) and a last number during which we introduced the band, the audience set up a rhythmic clapping beat completely of their own volition then dragged us back for an encore, and then possibly the best compliment of the evening - Mr. Wendell confessing that for once he wished he were on stage. Waiting in the dressing room there were chocolate-covered strawberries. 

Agentleman from the audience came up to me afterwards, clutching two CDs. "You lot" he muttered, almost unbelievingly, "killed up there tonight".

Sunday, January 24, 2010

We're just four lost souls, swimming in a fishbowl...

I went to the last Picturehouse gig tonight. Obviously, having been in the band previously, and having departed on unusually good terms, this was not a thing that I necessarily wanted to be a part of, the farewell, I mean - I never wanted it to end. The whole Picturehouse ethos has, and had, always been one of giving the people not necessarily what they thought they needed in terms of light pub rock entertainment, but what they should have. Satisfactorily, the band pulled out an old Charlatans number toward the end of the evening in order to get Mr. Wendell back up on stage, and then followed that with a song which allowed me to overact tremendously in a shape-throwingly hammy performance of a Kings of Leon track. Earlier, bass player Kilbey had pointed out that the only song which had stayed in the set from day one of the band's existence all the way through to the final gig was an obscure REM cover of a song by Wire. As it happened I was called up for an encore, and channelled all I knew about fronting a band, armed only with a mic stand and working elbows, and tried to do justice to Toddler, who was the first singer I ever saw who threw his arms about, smoked a cigarette and performed Suffragette City in a way that made me think that one day I'd like to do the same. Tonight, I hope I did that legacy justice. You know that thing that goes "blah di blah just a band...hmm hmm hmm - just a band..."? Well, Picturehouse were - just a band, but a tiny piece of me died tonight with that group. They - no, we, were just a band, but they were my band, and for some of us, they were the best thing on the planet. They gave me the opportunity to be Jimmy Page; for a while I was Pete Townsend, on a couple of occasions I did Mick Ronson.
You probably won't have seen this band, you didn't clap for the encore, they didn't even once play your wedding, but if they had, oh, if they had...
Odd, this - a eulogy for a little combo that we put together just so that we could go to the pub with our mates. And we did. Boys, oh we did.