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.