Friday, July 27, 2012

“No-one wants to hear about your kids…”

I was listening to the equivalent of the extra disc from a Songs from The Blue House box set this morning as, while looking for something else on the CDR shelf, I had stumbled across a copy of some early mixes for ‘Tree’, which included the songs that didn’t make it onto the final album. We whittled our initial selection of around fifteen or sixteen numbers down to the final running order after a lengthy process of deliberation and reference to outside panels of the great, good and discerning of taste (Mark Ellen, then editor of The Word magazine, gamely took part and expressed his concern on a later podcast that he may have mortally offended “Boggins the bass player” by marking an entry down. He hadn’t).
The main thing that the excluded items share - in common with a couple of things recorded for, but due to be left off our forthcoming album - is a lyrical theme based around children - their care, maintenance and/or lack of presence in the room. It seems that although we as listeners are prepared to make time to hear about loves lost, life on the road and the increasing difficulty in procuring quality pharmaceuticals whilst on tour, nothing stubs the metaphorical toe of the sombre artist’s listener than a not so subtly-nuanced reference to the pram in the hall. Even semi-carnally. For example who among us hasn’t reached for the skip button when John Lennon’s Beautiful Boy delays the arrival of Watching the Wheels by a full four minutes on Double Fantasy? Don’t answer that, by the way - there’s always one. The pram in someone else’s hall, on the other hand - that’s fair game – I mean who doesn’t love Hey Jude? (this question is posed on the same rhetorical basis as the above, by the way).         

Obviously there are clear reasons why a couple of the other songs I listened to this morning didn’t make the cut which are completely unconnected to their lyrical direction – quite why we were so enamoured of the concept of kicking a shed down a flight of stairs that we persuaded drummer Paul Read to unleash his inner Keith Moon in order to enhance the coda to a sensitive little acoustic ballad of Helen’s called Move is lost to posterity. That the session occurred on the same day as we had already spent fruitless hours getting him to overdub the sound of cutlery-as-percussion* may not be entirely unconnected. In the meantime, I’d forgotten we had even ever written a song called Move, let alone recorded and mixed it.
That we would dispatch a car to deepest Oxon. in order to collect Dame Judy Dyble, late of Fairport Convention and Trader Horne, so that she could deliver a beautiful reading of a nursery-baroque song called Little No-One and then leave it off the finished product seems an act of willful perversity. Playing it in the car, the string arrangement alone had me welling up, and that was even before I remembered that I’d had one exegesis of the lyric delivered to me with such blinding clarity** that I physically reeled at not having spotted the obvious before.

My Twinkly Lights was an early and obvious candidate for the cut, even before its twee and clunky sub-Springsteen blue collar narrative became bedecked with the sound of sleigh bells and a festive flute and fiddle part as a result of the banjo player identifying at an early run-through that the descending chord progression lent itself perfectly to the overlaying of the melody*** of the carol Good King Wenceslas, which was funny the first four times or so, but which we all agreed would pall over repeated listens – that and because we weren’t sure if Jingle Bells is out of copyright yet. We occasionally dig it out for downloads in December on the website however, and it is the first thing we offer to donate to festive charity compilations.             
The real pearl in the out-take oyster though, is When Mama Sings, wherein Our (ostensibly gruff and unsentimental) Glorious Leader fires up the ringing open chords and delivers a quite, quite moving paean to the smalls, featuring a remarkable intertwined violin and cello arrangement trumping even that of Little No-One. And a bouzouki. I think in the end we already had a slow ballad, possibly based around the pursuits of loves lost, life on the road and the increasing difficulty in procuring quality pharmaceuticals whilst on tour, and so it missed the final cut, or it may, of course, have been the bouzouki all along. Perhaps we should put them all on a special compilation for new parents to give to one another when they hit the three month mark and are so coincidentally full of love and bereft of sleep that they’ll listen to any old thing at three in the morning. We could call it “No-One Wants to Hear About Your Kids”.

 ps; ...and, as if by magic
Thank you, James.
*”More fork, more fork!” I remember being one of the instructions being bellowed over the talkback from the control room, which is not something anyone particularly needs in their headphones, let alone a drummer who’s taken the day off to help some mates out.       

** By one Keith Farnish by the bar at The Cropredy Festival in 1997.     
***"Tempus adest floridum" ("The time is near for flowering") first published in a 1582 song collection, if my Wiki cut and paste does not deceive me.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Old Friends, Bookends.

I spent a rather splendid evening rehearsing last night for one of my occasional forays into the live performance arena with gods kitchen (no capitals, no apostrophe), the group I formed with Stephen Dean and Gibbon after the largely unheralded demise of heavy big pop standard bearers As Is in 1991. That’s right, nineteen ninety one.

At the time we had a regular weekly routine of getting together every Thursday at Stephen’s house, where he had had the good taste and foresight, with the judicious application of a number of mattresses and some gaffa tape, to convert his cellar into a rudimentary rehearsal space. This meant both that we saved ourselves the unnecessary expense of renting out one of those proper air-conditioned soundproofed places with coffee making facilities and nice-looking rugs on the walls and that when we turned up we were already set up and good to get started. It also meant that during the week (in the days before cable TV and The West Wing box sets) it was possible to relax with one of those new-fangled discman CD players, a set of headphones, a full drum kit and The Best of The Band for an hour or so, until the next-door neighbour politely suggested that it was time for Coronation Street and while she was here, could she possibly have this month's rent?  
When he moved out I was only too pleased to take on the lease and the drum kit and occasionally extended the opportunity to rehearse in (literally) homely surroundings to a few friends having asked for contributions to the larder in lieu of something quite so vulgar as money. Hence the discovery on one occasion upon my return to the bachelor pile, having made myself scarce for the evening while a group made up of vegetarians practiced downstairs, of a box of PG Tips, two cans of ratatouille and a packet of runner beans. Some other times I'd get sausages. Occasionally there would be lewd notes referring to my girlfriend.

The deal with gods kitchen rehearsals was that we would warm up with a couple of things that we already knew (possibly last week’s homework) before moving on to polishing up some new material that I probably would have written during the week. At ten o’clock we’d finish off with another couple of songs from the repertoire or we’d busk a cover version someone had heard on the radio to see how far we could get through it before the momentum of the whole thing either overtook us and it collapsed in an ungainly heap in the middle of the floor or we miraculously made it through to the end. We’d then go to The Spread Eagle just around the corner to discuss the session over a couple of cool pints of Guinness. Regular as clockwork, every week at eight o'clock. 
The consistency of this routine meant that I had to come up with a regular stream of new material, if only to keep the rhythm section interested from one session to the next, which certainly helped keep my songwriting muscles supple and toned (the only things that were at this point) and also meant that we were pretty much in a constant state of readiness in case anything came up in terms of live opportunities. I’m not necessarily saying that we put our 10,000 Outliers hours in, but it did (and does) mean that even without having played together for a couple of years now we can pretty much get together at the drop of a party invitation, do a count in and rattle out half a dozen numbers straight off the bat without pausing for breath as, gratifyingly, we did last night.

One of the things I was most pleased about was that none of the stuff we went through sounded out of time (chronologically at least, if not tempo-rhythmically). With so much guitar music under the metaphorical bridge these days it’s hard for anything to not sound like it is tipping a nod and a wink to what has gone before anyway, but I know that our Muswell Hill still beat Oasis’s Kinktastic She’s Electric out of the gate by a good four years (“This is about that bloke who twatted you one in The Old Times that once, isn’t it?” enquired Mr. Wendell on second guitar) and the recorded version of The Boy Who Loved Aeroplanes still has an expressive grandeur that speaks volumes beyond its humble four track origins*.
By twenty past ten we have worked through the set we are going to play at the weekend. “Ted Bidits!” calls Stephen cheerily, the traditional The Big Wheel-inspired count down to curfew. I start a chugging rhythm with muted chords on the guitar. “When I said…” I begin singing “…that I loved you, I told a white lie, don’t you know?” It is an old song of the drummer’s, a twelve bar in E and we rattle it off with what passes for panache in a converted woodshed in the middle of the Suffolk countryside. “And that…” he chuckles at the song’s conclusion “…is what happens when you let twenty one year olds listen to George Jones”. Wendell and I consider the implications. “Wouldn’t it have been great at the jubilee concert if they’d booked the wrong G. Jones?” he posits. “George Jones, rocking a hula hoop and singing She Thinks I Still Care” I tender. “Now that…” he assents “…I would pay to see”.

*I like to think that the early work producer Owen Morris put in on some demos for me a few years earlier paid off in spades for him when called in later to work on Champagne Supernova.

Monday, July 09, 2012

How Mark Ellen made me a Rock Dad.

It’s been a bad month for those of us who like our popular culture expertly deconstructed and served up with picture caption jokes, as monthly compendium of aperçus The Word draws a discreet veil over its operations and ceases publication. The wailing and gnashing of cappuccino cups has been heard far and wide across the net – at one point the website turned into a virtual Kensington Palace – and among the tributes to the monthly’s wit and erudition and consensus that they really couldn’t have done any more in terms of positioning themselves in the new marketplace whilst determinedly fulfilling their manifesto to the last, there emerged smaller, more personal stories of how the magazine literally changed people’s lives. I have one such reflection, which even if the events therein didn’t move my life on to a different course, then certainly caused me to sail a bit closer to the wind than I otherwise would have done. In fact one could argue that the whole interactive Word weekend was a barrel of luffs*. It began with the July 2006 issue – number 41 – which contained a small article and jokey quiz about the rise of the Rock Dad. Tucked away at the end was a brief paragraph. “Are you a Rock Dad in a band?” it enquired, going on to suggest that if there were a collection of Rock Dads who had a demo MP3 and a decent photograph to hand then sending it in to the mailbox pretty sharpish might mean that such a group could find themselves opening The Cornbury Festival a few weeks later. As it happened, we did have a demo – a version of Blue Oyster Cult’s (Don’t Fear) The Reaper that we had recorded at High Barn Studio in darkest Posh North Essex a few weeks earlier in lieu of a fee for performing at their beer festival. The rise of the electronic communication age meant that we didn’t even have to find a jiffy bag and a clean C-90 in order to send it off. 

I still have the email I received from Our Glorious Leader in which the earthly representatives of Development Hell communicated their pleasure with our submission and invited us to apply for wristbands forthwith. By lucky happenstance we had picked a song that David Hepworth used to have as his mobile phone ringtone, and so announcing our version with a banjo riff had apparently tickled the adjudicating panel and bumped us to the top of the queue. There followed a flurry of communications between (among others) a production manager now faced not only with Robert Plant’s backline demands but also some bunch from Suffolk who intended to bring a banjo, a mandolin and a fiddle player, but who remained the soul of affable helpfulness throughout both this period and the festival itself. A request for a publishing-spec photograph meant a hasty call to one James Kindred (@sketchybear) – now CEO of his own agency but back then the only guy we knew with a top-end camera and a Mac to edit on. His off the cuff art direction was of such quality that we ended up using shots from the session for the centerfold of our album Tree, and he got a call shortly afterward from the magazine asking if he was available to go and take some shots of Peter, Bjorn and John at Latitude in exchange for a weekend press pass. His portrait of them appeared in the next issue and he got a weekend out into the deal, so I think we all kicked a goal on that one.
We rounded up Simon Allen from High Barn to provide a friendly ear behind the mixing desk, and corralled James Munson to perform a similar task on monitors. They packed tents and gumboots and joined the parade. With our set to be shoehorned into the section immediately after Robert Plant’s crew’s sanctioning of the stage for his headline set and before the festival’s official start time he carefully line checked us all in the face of rising pressure, including our drummer’s rendition of ‘Moby Dick’ and appropriation of Rocco Deluca and The Burden’s cowbell, and then did such a sterling job on us that he was invited to stay up there for the rest of the day. I believe he may have had a hand in refereeing Hayseed Dixie’s sound – again, a case of good deeds not only being their own reward, but offering a little bonus on the side.
At one point a film crew came backstage to interview us. I answered the “What’s a Rock Dad?” question at length, a combination of nerves and bravado, for what seemed like fifteen minutes. The interviewer turned to vocalist Helen. “And what’s a Rock Mum?” they ventured. “Pretty much that…with stretch marks” she deadpanned. When, shortly afterwards, we were introduced to our host and sponsor - one Mark Ellen - he immediately pounced on the remark, which he’d heard relayed anecdotally by one of the film crew,  and guffawed his appreciation while making us all feel immediately at ease with his story of the crushed lavender sprigs in the VIP restaurant area and a good-naturedly dismissive Rock Stars today shake of the head as he compared and contrasted the catering at great festivals past – he may have mentioned Weeley, or Bickershaw. He complimented us on the photo we’d submitted and that they’d published in the magazine’s follow up story (“Oh, which cover did it reminded me of? The Allmans! That’s it - The Allmans – what’s the album that’s from…? ‘Brothers and Sisters’!”) and good naturedly denied being The Rocking Vicar (“No-one knows…”). To be honest we’d probably have spent the next twenty minutes quite happily chatting with him rather than lurking behind the stage checking our watches. Having carefully made a note on a card so as not to inadvertently introduce us as Songs from the Blue Room (“We get that a lot…”) he made a short and funny announcement about what was coming next and let us loose on a big stage in front of a field capable of holding twenty thousand people.
I’ve mentioned in past blogs how the next day I bumped into him, sans pass, and got him back past security (“This is the editor of Word Magazine, one of the festival’s biggest sponsors…”) on condition that I could meet Peter Buck (He made a point of ensuring that he got my wife’s name right so that when he did the introductions he didn’t confuse her with someone else), and there’s a whole chapter in All These Little Pieces devoted to our weekend out at the festival, but none of this would have been possible without someone at The Word coming up with the idea of the Rock Dad, green lighting the idea of an article and then throwing the idea that they might get an actual band of Rock Dads onstage at the festival itself into the ring to top off the cake (I believe that the next year Ellen himself took to the stage with his band The Love Trousers). For that alone, notwithstanding nine years of entertainment for lively minds, thank you The Word. I shall miss you.        

 *Other puns are available.

There is a video of us performing Reaper and a song called Not That Kind of Girl at Cornbury here -
It's MySpace, so mind the cobwebs and try not to disturb the dust too much.  

Monday, July 02, 2012

"Right, I've sawn all four legs off the piano..."

It’s a conversation which I imagine takes place between stage managers and artistes the world over all the time. “I’ve got you a piano”. I tapped the flight case propped against the back wall of The Maverick Festival’s Peacock Café reassuringly.
Rose Cousins, Canadian singer, songwriter, and woman who had flown in from Cork that morning, caught a number of trains and then been delivered slightly bleary-eyed to a farm in the middle of rural Suffolk bearing a guitar and a battered suitcase gestured toward the stage. “What about that one?” she enquired, not wishing to disturb the audience enjoying the country blues stylings of Brooks Williams, currently performing on stage.
“That one” I replied, with one eye on the sound desk and one attempting to convey an air of calm authority and professionalism “…belongs to Gretchen Peters”.
“And we can’t use it?”
“I don’t think so”
“Have you asked?”
“Why not?”
“Because I am afraid of her tour manager, who is bigger than I am”.
“You’re scared of her tour manager?”
“Very slightly, yes”.
“We could probably use her stool though?”
She brightened. “Well, there’s something at least”.

To be fair, she had every right to maintain a number of reservations regarding the stage management of The Peacock Café, as I had been the one who’d collected her from the railway station earlier that day and had been making small talk on the way back to the festival site principally along the lines of what I hoped would be a typically self-deprecating English description of my own shortcomings as a sound engineer, general factotum and stage hand, a triad of opportunities that I had been performing since the previous evening when Simon, the proper grown-up sound man off the main stage, had pointed out the Aux sends feeding the stage left and right monitors, the three phantom powered DI boxes sub-grouped on channels one and two, and the microphones on seven and eight with the gain up at two o’clock and the mid cut rolled off at around 250 hZ. I know. Me too. I’d just got to the bit where I described my main function as mainly ensuring that no-one fell off the stage when I remembered that Rose was due to perform under my benevolent supervision later that evening after she’d conducted a songwriting workshop in the Tack Room over past the main stage. I explained how a falling tree had missed me and Jason Ringenberg by minutes on my previous trip to collect The Talent. “The thing is, this isn’t my vehicle, and the last thing I got told was to not damage it. I’m almost sorry I didn’t get the chance to go back and say ‘You’ll never guess what happened to your car!’” I chortled. She settled back in her seat, tired, hungry, and apparently in the care of someone who was prepared to finish Farmer Jason’s career and total a perfectly good Skoda into the bargain for the sake of a cheap anecdote. It’s a wonder she didn’t bail out at that point right there.       
As Brooks finished his set I bounded on to the stage, thanked him, asked the audience to continue showing their appreciation and then mentioned that if a few folk could move their camping chairs slightly to the side that would be a great help as I had a piano to move. A mild wave of amusement swept the floor. “No, really” I said.

By the time I got back to the sound desk Rose had the situation in hand – “I’ll clear a path, you bring the piano” she said striding determinedly off. Ten minutes later we were set up, ready to go, I’d done the stage intro and she was half way to performing “Go First” a truly heart-rending break up ballad that I had to tear myself away from in order to get an update from Simon, who’d popped in to make sure that none of the red lights on the desk were flashing warnings at me. “It sounds pretty good!” he marveled. “Well, I’m not a complete idiot you know” I replied, mock-indignantly. “You will be here by the time Gretchen goes on though, won’t you?” The trace of nerves in my voice must have come through. “Of course” he said reassuringly. He slipped away, replaced almost immediately by Scary Tour Manager. “We are running on time, aren’t we?” The significance of the question was hinted at with undertones of consequence.
“How long do I have?” Rose invited from the stage.
“Fifteen minutes – make ‘em good ones!” I hollered back, cheerily.
“Oh, they’re all good!” she replied, ever the trouper.
I’d have said twelve minutes” said STM, flashing a wolfish grin and melting back into the crowd.

Next up, Otis Gibbs. “I just need a vocal mic, I have my own DI box, and what time do you want me off?” he said.
“Otis, you are a stage manager’s dream” I gushed.
“Well, you haven’t heard me play yet…”.

Back at the desk I tweaked the onstage mix as directed, trying hard to read the expression of a man in a baseball cap, wearing glasses and with a foot-long frontiersman’s beard standing forty feet away. “Aw heck” he said affably after a while “We’ll split the difference”.  
By the time Gretchen Peters was in the building (right on time, right on cue) the cavalry had arrived and I was grateful for the opportunity to revert to my preferred role of moving things from one place to another without dropping them. The professional sound engineer cast a benevolent, but critical eye over the mixing desk, alighting on a recalcitrant red fader hovering somewhere around the halfway mark. “Why have you got that there?” he enquired.

“Simon…I have absolutely no idea”.
Despatched to check the monitors (“Your ears are of considerably less value than hers”) I forwent the traditional roadie’s “One-Two, One-Two” and borne on wings of combined adrenalin release and post-responsibility Brewers Gold, launched into a spirited verse of Frank Sinatra’s “Come Fly With Me”. Came from behind the sound desk a thumbs up, and from the audience a good-natured round of applause. I turned to find Grammy-nominated, CMA Award-winning, Isle of Wight Festival-playing singer-songwriter Gretchen Peters, the woman who wrote ‘On a Bus to St. Cloud’, ‘Independence Day’ and ‘This Uncivil War’ regarding me wryly.

“...and how are we supposed to follow that?” she twinkled.