Monday, December 15, 2014
Regular correspondents may recall the unlikely tale of how we ended up on the soundtrack of a movie. Word now reaches me from my erstwhile writing partner of an incoming cheque sufficient to offset the cost of buying his own copy of the film on DVD which has been derived from royalties accrued in, of all places, Brazil. One can only speculate on the circumstances behind our meteoric rise in the estimations of play list compilers from Vera Cruz to Itaquaquecetuba, but I do love a happy ending.
Tuesday, November 18, 2014
I was reading an interesting thing the other day on how to write a hit single (which I obviously then copied out by hand, annotated and tucked away in my homework folder for reference to later on) especially regarding the bit where they talk about the structure of the common-or-garden boy band hit generally being “…verse, chorus, verse chorus, middle eight/bridge, double chorus with a possible key change…” which, as any fule kno, is how it’s supposed to be. I was reminded of this old saw during some online correspondence between myself, Mr Wendell and The Fragrant and Charming La Mulley regarding a get-together at someone’s house in order to do some songing, make a few tentative plans regarding public performances and generally act in private like a latter-day hipster Peter, Paul and Mary (although to be fair, they were pretty hip at the time, and I’m sure it won’t be long before Puff the Magic Dragon is the sound track to the consumption of a thousand skinny mocha lattes out of old marmalade pots in pop-up Wagon Wheel bars - but I digress).We’ve written together before, the three of us, but this time I thought it might be nice if we just went into something pre-prepared so that we could get straight on with deciding which fret to capo up at and who was going to do the low harmony. ‘Twas then that I remembered the alternate version of Beartown Road. As regular correspondents will know, this was the opening track on Songs from The Blue House’s Tree album and secured our place in the cinematographic pantheon with its appearance in largely forgettable RomCom Coyote County Loser. When SftBH put out a Rarities compilation to help fund the release of our live album last year I was surprised to find that there was a version of the track with a whole, entirely different lyric, sung by Helen. Not only that, but the verses weren’t where the verse should be, the chorus was in a different place too, and as for the middle eight…
As well as the two-stools-facing school of composition that the various combinations of writers in the band had long employed, we also favoured the bang-it-down-on-a-cassette*-and-hand-it-over-to-play-on-repeat-in-the-car method, by which means we had curated a great deal of the preceding Too album. The tracks Then There Was Sunshine and the award-winning Waste of Angels had clearly been cut from the same cloth and this re-lifed outtake was clearly also a result of the vehicle-bound creation process. Not since the alternate version of Racing in the Streets had turned up on The Promise had I been so astonished that you could take one whole slab of writing or composition and drop it almost seamlessly into something else. I was also intrigued that either I’d completely forgotten about this version's very existence or that I had completely blanked it from my mind – it had effectively been coldly Stalinised. With the forthcoming challenge of completely re-interpreting the song foremost in my mind I considered how best to avoid what would effectively consist of playing the old version in new pyjamas. After some thought I concluded that this was clearly going to take more than eschewing counting bars in my head and an E flat-creating capo placement. Summoning my offspring and heir from his iPad-related avocation further up the sofa I adopted my best stentorian tone. “Fetch me the bouzouki…”
*latterly superseded by the compact disc and then MP3. I understand that even as I write those Google guys are working on a literal earworm. Like in Star Trek II.
Friday, November 07, 2014
...is linked to below, in which I am referred to as a putative 'George', a 'Miami Steve' and an - if you will - 'Fancy'. I prefer the sobriquet 'Sancho'*. Within his blog Mr. Shevlin refers to our seventeen year engagement, the onset of which we were reminiscing about only the other morning. Having been the only person to respond to our notice in The Grapevine seeking someone to fill the recently-vacated John spot in our Beatles specialist band The Star Club, he'd come round to the drummer's house for a run-through of some songs and to see if and how we all got on with each other. As it turned out, he wasn't able to fulfil any gigs immediately as he was being flown to Australia as a result of winning some song writing competiton or another, but it all seemed to go quite well and we agreed that we'd meet up again after he got back. We went for a drink in the local pub afterwards to celebrate and, as these things tend to do, the guitar case (containing the very Takamine referred to in the blog after this one, regarding recording acoustic guitars) he was carrying attracted the attention of the landlord - keen, it would appear, to engage the services of a musician such as he to enliven the quiet weekday evenings. Thursdays, I think he mentioned. "So, what kind of music do you play?" enquired mine host.
Shev thoughtfully placed his glass back on to the table and, with the practised ease of the professional musician, channelled his inner Sammy Cahn. "What sort of music do you need?"
*Sancho Panza offers interpolated narrative voice throughout the tale, a literary convention invented by Cervantes. Sancho is the everyman, who remains his ever-faithful companion, realist, and functions as the clever sidekick. (Wikipedia)
Tuesday, October 28, 2014
I recently ventured out on the weekend to see some old chums currently trading as The Rock Hudsons. Not - as one might imagine - a guitar-thumping tribute to Upstairs, Downstairs buttling screen legend Gordon Jackson in a post-Downton novelty act scenario, but a tight trio utilising the best in onstage technology and human three-part harmonies to make a much bigger sound than they really have a right to. Hence the horn parts in Midnight Oil's Beds Are Burning and the Farfisa-friendly* keyboard arrangement to Split Enz's I Got You which are wheeled proudly out at pub gigs and parties alongside a goodly number of fondly-recalled beat numbers from the last century and more recent pop chart hits, some of which even I had some idea of the provenance of. If this approach sounds familiar it is probably because Andy and Kilbey of the group were once Picturehousemates of mine and indeed some of the current set I could still air-guitar along to with no little semblance of accuracy. Along with some material, the pair of them (and drummer Dave) have also retained infuriatingly good hair since our parting, which I felt the need to upbraid them about during the half time break. Well it was either that or suggest that since S Club 7 are back together maybe it was time to (re)introduce Don't Stop Movin' to the set.
I was with my friend Simon, who was dolefully recounting the progress of a family trip to the glittering gold-paved streets of London that very day for which his only ambitions were to return with both a meerschaum pipe (all the better with which to ruminate on matters of import in the comfort of his own home) and a scale model figurine of Antman, from The Forbidden Planet. Neither of these schemes had come to fruition and so, although philosophical regarding the outcome, he was possibly not as chipper as he could have been. I pointed out both the couple at the front, so entranced with each other and caught up in terpsichore that they radiated waves of joy which inevitably embraced us all, and the trio of willowy femmes fatales who drifted across the dance floor, tucked themselves up at a booth in the corner and played chess for an hour and a half before sashaying equally insouciantly out, in an attempt to refocus and brighten his jibcut. Reminding him of that time he attempted to qualify the worth of a hypnotherapist who'd claimed he could teach anyone to play guitar in a month by embarking on the course and then joining us for a song** onstage in Felixstowe at its culmination seemed to help lighten his mood.
"Looks like Andy didn't get the dress code memo" said Si, regarding the two thirds of the group clad in regulation black. Simon had spent his own interval wondering if he could get the band to play any Shakatak (Andy, typically, was game to at least give it a go). I recognised Kilbey's attire, and since we were in Ipswich's reputedly oldest and most haunted pub*** I recounted the story of the time that he had been so spooked by the apparition of ghostly faces appearing before him during the post-gig load out that he'd dropped his amplifier, only to realise that it had been the reflection of his own Kiss t-shirt in the rear window of his people carrier that had surprised him. As I recounted the detail, I felt sure I'd written about that particular occasion before, but I couldn't seem to track down the blog involved, however in passing, I found this one http://skirky.blogspot.nl/2006/08/turn-em-all-on-then-turn-em-all-down.html from a gig at the same pub. According to my Google stats, no-one has ever read it online. Here you go.
*Possibly a Yamaha CS-80 on record.
** All I Have by Snow Patrol. There's footage somewhere.
**There are at least three others that I know of.
Friday, October 03, 2014
To The Steamboat for Suffolk Songwriters’ Night, where the great and the good (and occasionally the ghastly) of the Ipswich scene gather to show off their wares, try out some new stuff or, if you’re the informally-monikered Acorn Trio (Shev, La Mulley and Myself), get together over a couple of pints and play that fast thing one more time. Having secured non restriction-infringing parking round the corner we wend our way to the venue, guitar cases in hand like so many of the hopeful, the hapless and (on one occasion) the harpist before us. As we pass along Bath Street I note that the recently landscaped waste ground is where my father used to sit designing parts for the biggest walking dragline in the world (there’s a model of it in the Ipswich Transport Museum – I can point out the bits that he did much in the same way that Slartibartfast would recall the Magrathean fjords) and where I was catapulted headlong into children’s Christmas parties in the staff canteen. It seems so long ago, and far away. The past is a different country. They make things there.Onstage are the mighty Buffalo Road newly re-enlivened, as so many of us are, by a one-off reunion gig which sparks the old synapses back into action and which leads to at least a partial reformation. Some twenty or so years after the release of their last album they’re back in the studio and back on stage, kicking a grit pail down that dusty ol’ back road one more time. Singer and guitarist Mike appears to have spent the intervening years cryogenically preserved in a Memphis store room. Shev searches for a wisp of a name “Tall guy, hat, skinny jeans…”. “Dwight Yoakham?” I suggest. “That’s him”. I’ve been listening to a lot of Joe Ely recently. It's that sort of ballpark. Upon the introduction of a song from their debut album Ro, my niece, whispers “I wasn’t even born then”.
Taking the stage before an audience containing a good number of his performing arts students Shev observes that “We started this night, sixteen years ago…”* We run through our allotted three song set to a gratifying reception and remember to observe the unwritten constitution of SSW – pay attention, be polite, no talking during the turns – beforehand and afterwards. Next up is a band featuring one of the aforementioned kids from the college. He is a tall fellow who attacks his bass with the puppyish enthusiasm of a neophyte and reminds me simultaneously of my brother-in-law and of the bass player from Dawes. “He’s all over the place, he can’t wait to get around the neck” comments his mentor approvingly. “So as an exercise I made him play the full version of Papa Was a Rolling Stone. It drove him mad”. He chuckles into his beer. “We should do this again some time”.
With thanks to Mike for the photo.
*I had to check the date this morning through the power of Google to confirm it. Sixteen years ago we didn’t even have Google.
Monday, September 22, 2014
“The good news is…” Shev greets us at his front door “…at least there’ll be a bit more room in the car”. The season of promotion for his album Songs from the Last Chance Saloon which began in the bright spring sunshine of the acoustic stage at The International Workers' Day Festival in May, has wend and wound its way through the Felixstowe Carnival Fringe, The Secret Garden Party, the Grandma’s Porch Sessions, the BBC, Ipswich Music Day, FolkEast, not to mention TJS’s impromptu appearance at The Grand Old Opry* during his fortnight sojourn around the open mics and showcase nights of Nashville, and is now gathering its autumn skirts closer and wrapping a cosy muffler around her neck with a concluding performance at Acorn Fayre, a boutique festival in the wild Northampton heartlands. Tiny Diva, our vocal co-pilot, percussionist and latterly stunt bassist has had to call off with an unspecified condition, but one with which we are advised that close proximity within a moving vehicle would be inadvisable. Fortunately, along for the ride on this occasion is album-complementing flautist and singer La Mulley, ready to add a couple of harmonies when required but principally to add her haunting aerophonics as per the CD.We are approaching Cambridge Services (when the story of the beat scene of the early twenty first century is written, this will be our mythic Blue Boar) as Shev is telling me how he came to sell one of his albums in Minnesota, of all places. “We’re playlisted on Radio Heartland” he begins. “Some guy is driving down Interstate 94, he’s coming through the Twin Cities, it's night time, he’s got the radio on and he hears Nobody. ‘I like that’ he thinks to himself, and so he gets home – he’s not from St. Paul, he’s just passing through – and he gets on the internet, he looks me up, he finds out where the label is and he mails us, wants a CD. By the time we’ve put on the postage and the customs stuff it’s pretty expensive, but he wants the thing, the physical object. We asked him where he heard the album and that’s what he told us”. We are both impressed by the tenacity of the man who heard something on the radio and was so very determined to track it down. We pull into the services. I fill up with diesel. “I’ll get this” he says.
As we travel further on up the road we have a quick recap of the situation. Helen was due to pick a third harmony to complement Jules’s vocal but since we are currently deprived of her talents generally and Clare Torry-esque signature feature in Faith in Myself specifically, Shev suggests that this might create the opportunity for a flute solo instead. “Oh, and since she isn’t going to be taking the main harmonies you might as well do those as well. Think of it as having been down in the programme to play spear carrier and turning up to the theatre to find that you’re now principal boy". There is the slightest of pauses from the back seat. “Do you think we could listen to the album through one more time?” Helen says.
Upon arrival Tony is quickly appraised of what I meant by ‘a boutique festival’. I had sold it to him on the premise that although a bijou affair, the audience would be principally comprise bloggers and forumistas, and so what they lacked in numbers they would more than be making up for in terms of vociferousness. Maybe using the word ‘festival’ had been mildly misleading. Perhaps ‘showcase’ might have been a better word. “I’m beginning to think I may have oversold this to you” I confess. “Ya think?” he replies, Gobi-dry. “Did you keep the receipt for the diesel?” I ask. There is the subtlest gesture of assent, his visage a picture worth a good half dozen choice words. “It’s not a big college town” I reassure him. Come show time however, buoyed by the free bar, the company and the prospect of a complimentary barbecue to follow, game faces are on. Badinage is batted forth, the obligatory promotional plugs are delivered and (I shouldn’t be surprised) La Mulley plays a blinder – emoting and purring her way through the set like she’d been singing these songs her whole summer. “It’s amazing how you all fit together” remarks a post-gig admirer. “It is. It really is” I agree.
*To be fair, he was on a tourist tour, but he did get to play Your Cheatin’ Heart onstage during a photo opportunity.
Tuesday, September 16, 2014
I was included in one of those Name Your Top Albums things on social media this week and, being not only a bloke, but a huge record spod to boot, I was unable to resist the siren call of compiling a list. Similarly, as a victim of terminal verbosity, I was unable to keep my comments down to what I’d consider to be reasonable limits in terms of expecting folk to skip across pictures of anthropomorphic dogs and amusing pub signs on their Facebook feeds and dig into the equivalent of one of those buyer’s guides you get at the back of Uncut magazine, so I’ve put it here. All of these records have moved me (frequently to tears) have expressed emotions I couldn’t otherwise articulate and have inspired me to aspire to their lofty heights of artistic achievement – principally, I have to admit, by playing bad versions of their songs in pubs with my eyes closed. That’s a given. The individual addenda are merely mansplaining on my part. There are not a great number of what you’d call recent albums on the list – I mean, I work with people who are younger than most of these records - but to me it calls to mind the possibly apocryphal story of when Joseph Heller was buttonholed at a party by someone who pointed out that he hadn’t written anything comparable since the publication of Catch-22 many years earlier. “Neither” replied Heller drily “Has anyone else”.
Picking only one album by Thompy was the biggest challenge for me. Henry The Human Fly is inspiring in terms of a man (barely in his early twenties) finding his post-Fairport feet and melding trad folk and raga rock, Hokey Pokey has some of the most joyful music of his career (as well as the most doleful), Hand of Kindness is the break up album’s break up album but, significantly, when he (or at least Capitol Records) brought in a couple of left-field outside producers in the shape of Tom Rothrock (Foo Fighters, Beck, Moby, Motorhead) and Rob Schnapf he was able to really buff the formula until it gleamed. The notes on Dave Mattacks’ website regarding recording the drums are so boggling in their attention to detail that you wonder how they ever dragged him away from the recording booth in the first place. Key Track: Hard on Me.
2; Neil Young – Time Fades Away.Part of the celebrated so-called Ditch Trilogy, this is the album so ragged, on the edge and painful to listen to that Young has never been able to satisfactorily revisit the original tapes in order to get it out on CD - and he remastered Everybody’s Rockin’ . It is the soundtrack to a man falling apart on stage, aided and abetted by Crosby, Nash, a shitload of tequila and bizarrely, a Gibson Flying V. That it was recorded principally on the tour scheduled to support the release of Harvest only adds to its wayward charm in that the befuddled audiences on these dates must have wondered if they'd come on the wrong night. I would also hazard a guess that the yawling Yonder Stands the Sinner is never going to turn up on a Seventies Gold station on heavy rotation. This is careering, in the same way that my snowboarding would probably be. Key Track: Love in Mind.
3; Clive Gregson – Strange Persuasions.So clean, so compressed, so beautifully studio-bound (aside from the piano, which sounds like it was recorded in the pub next door after closing time), these are the songs that Gregson still had in his locker after the demise of the sadly underrated Any Trouble. Decamping to a demo studio in Oldham, he enlisted his old rhythm section (sparingly) and a young folk singer he’d come across by the name of Christine Collister to record what looked like it might be his farewell note to the business of show. Following the mantra of dour lyric/happy tune, I Still See Her Face is as jaunty a breakup song as you could hope to hear – the overdubbed guitar interplay presaging that which he’d enjoy with Richard Thompson on a couple of live promotional OGWT performances preserved in the digital aspic of YouTube. Thankfully the Gregson/Collister partnership blossomed and although their subsequent live shows didn’t feature the haunting French horn included in this version of signature song Home is Where the Heart Is they didn’t run to the Springsteen tribute bombast of American Car either. Key Track: I Fall Apart.
4; Jackson Browne – Running on Empty“Looking out at the road rushing under my wheels” the album begins, “Looking back at the years gone by like so many summer fields”. This is a record about yearning, the songs linked by the unlikely bedfellows of hope and ennui – almost a suite. Largely co-written, and recorded live this is (literally) the sound of backstage, the bus and the hotel room writ large. Overwhelmingly, everyone sounds tired. Danny Kortchmar’s Shaky Town is a postcard from somewhere in the mid-west, Lowell George and Valerie Carter’s Love Needs a Heart could have been written in the condensation on the inside of the tour bus window, in Rosie the guy on the sound desk comforts himself with, well let’s not dwell on that. Only in the joyous closing cover Stay do the band celebrate their incarceration together and even then there’s the sense that these moments, too, will be lost in time. Key Track: The Load Out.
5; Bruce Springsteen – Darkness on the Edge of Town.I know – I couldn’t believe it either. I first encountered Springsteen in his Eighties, bulked-up, MTV, Arthur Baker Remix-fuelled pomp, and so it was understandable that I didn’t really take to him at the time. We all know what gated reverb did to a generation of drummers, some of whom are still not entirely over it to this day. It wasn’t until he’d got all that (and Outlaw Pete) out of his system that I found myself in Hyde Park watching the tangled Terence Malick narrative of Racing in the Street play out in front of me as the sun set over Hyde Park. All that stuff that The Boss bores tell you about the live experience? It’s all true. Better still is having the entire back catalogue waiting and ready for you to work through at your leisure. I was tempted to stop at Darkness, where the carefree street jokers of Asbury Park have aged and withered to become the enervated protagonists of songs like Factory and Prove It All Night. Even more astonishing, as revealed by the release of outtakes compilation The Promise, is what he left off it. Key Track: The Promised Land
6; del Amitri – Waking Hours,I listened to this album every single day on my way to work for three months solid. Anyone who is familiar with the lyrical content of the ten songs contained within will be aware that this is not necessarily a healthy state of mind to find yourself in. “I’m watching the fumes foul up the sunrise / I’m watching the light fade away” is never going to be a couplet likely to get your endorphins racing in the morning, and so it turned out. Eventually I moved away, before my small, small town turned around and swallowed me. I’d been entranced from the moment I first heard the opening track – I’d argue that it starts with one of the all-time great “Ah-one, two, three, four…” count ins - and from the off it was pretty clear that this wasn’t going to be a re-tread of their prior jangly buckskin fringed Sticks and Stones Girl period. I bought all the singles too – “Don’t I look Like the Kind of Guy You Used to Hate?” sounds as lemon-juice-on-a-paper cut as it reads on the page. Key Track: Empty
7: The Waterboys – A Pagan PlaceAnother Damacsene conversion for me was when Mike Scott turned the UEA into a swirling pit of heart, soul, twelve string guitars and tasselled scarves while I watched on unbelieving, the music like a massive wave simultaneously sucking the shingle from under my feet and pummelling me in the chest as it swept over and around and through me. This is the album where The Waterboys – then at least nominally a band – first successfully combined Van Morrison’s Woodstock Celt vibrations with the Chelsea Hotel attitude of New York’s CBGBs scene and produced the first great Big Music. Two albums later, they’d moved on - which is where we first met. Scott’s modus operandi is principally to set up a revolving door of four or five chords and then declaim across them, and that technique serves him beautifully here, notably on the epic Kazakh-referencing Red Army Blues. Don’t get the remastered re-issue, by the way. This album doesn’t need an extra verse, an extended outro or a bunch of extra tracks added on the end, no matter what the limitations of vinyl album running length might have you believe. Fun fact – the “What have I got to lose, somebody might wave back?” hook in track five is lifted directly from a line of dialogue in the Elvis movie G.I. Blues. Key Track: Rags
8; Warren Zevon – Transverse CityAh Warren – none more West Coast; you with your floppy-haired, plaid-shirted, harmony-contributing Californian pals and your breezy songs about werewolves and Chines menus and headless Thompson gunners. Who better to produce a late-career claustrophobic concept album about paranoia, alienation and chemophobia with added Dave Gilmour? Acoustic-led Neil Young-athon Splendid Isolation and familiarly-styled ballad Nobody’s In Love This Year aside, the rest of the record is synth-driven and intense – there aren’t any jokes on this one. Key Track: Run Straight Down
9; Spirit of the West – Go FigureAnother genre-hopping release was the 1991 effort by former trad-punksters Spirit of the West, who I’d been in the same room as in what must have been around 1987 and who I hadn’t heard a lot of since, independent releases by Canadian folk bands not being as easy to casually acquire in the latter part of the twentieth century as they were to become in the post-Amazon world. I seriously thought I’d put on the wrong CD in the shop, as what started the first track contained not the cheeky prod in the ribs of the bodhran I’d been expecting, but some sort of Pink Floyd power chordage underpinning the sound of a heavily amplified slide mandolin (and who came up with that idea!?) combined in turn with the tom-tom heavy percussive assault of somebody building a particularly impressive shed in the background. I fell instantly for it, a bit like the way in which Danny does for Sandy at the end of Grease. I’m generally a lyrics man, and so when further investigation reaped a limpid pool of intricate construction and shaded detail I fell in love with it all over again. Once you knew that they are about a children’s hospital, listening carefully to the words of Goodbye Grace had the tendency to prompt a whole new wave of Kleenex-heavy blubbery. And that was before I had any of my own. Key Track: D for Democracy (Scour the House).
10; Loudon Wainwright – HistoryBleak, introspective, heavy on the sarcasm, generous helpings of self-loathing and brutal as a kids’ party at Katie Hopkins’ house. Also does tit jokes. Either you buy into Loud’s schtick or you don’t, and I do. He edges past Randy Newman in the irony stakes while puncturing his own ego and that of every family member he can line up a bead on. Talk about solipsistic. Also, as I say, does tit jokes. The one-note riff which is the talking blues of Talking New Bob Dylan aside, the songs on this album are breath taking – usually a quick intake of breath followed by a long, reflective exhalation as you inwardly digest what someone who isn’t even a close friend of yours has just told you about their behaviour – see When I’m At Your House for example, or Hitting You. That this album edged out close contenders More Love Songs and Here Come the Choppers is probably down to his heart breaking performance on the Key Track: Sometimes I Forget.
Monday, September 15, 2014
I’ve been doing a bit of stage managing and MCing recently – it helps keep the old chops in order when there are gaps between gigs - and an interesting discussion came up the other night during the post-performance cable winding when one of the crew remarked that he had enjoyed one of that evening’s performers a great deal, but was concerned that there was a point where their ‘tween song banter had threatened to be more entertaining than the songs. Having introduced said turn with a rather splendid quip I’d harvested* from Twitter, which sailed blissfully over the heads of many of the assembled, I'd been happy to hear someone engaging with the audience to such a degree that this might be an issue in the first place.Meanwhile, a knowing sigh issued from The Soundman Formerly Known as Our Glorious Leader (TSFKaOGL), who has endured many introductions on my part which have been in danger of lasting slightly longer than the songs they presage. Upon our return from a short tour of Denmark with Heavy Big Pop funsters As Is** some years ago we were in possession of two souvenirs, one being a live recording of a performance which had been recorded from a very expensive looking and immaculately maintained sound desk directly to stereo, and the other an only very slightly shorter cassette of all the on stage chat we’d edited out from between numbers in order to fit the gig on to a single C-90 in the first place. Many’s the time Songs from the Blue House emerged refreshed from a beer festival set to be enthused at by a passing tegestologist with a hearty – “You were great!” [beat] “Really funny!” “Not heartfelt, or moving..?” sighed TSFKaOGL ruminantly, back here in the present. A sympathetic assent came from latter day drummer TNDB, busy unravelling a monitor lead over by the power amps. "That guitarist..."
The thing is, we didn’t really do any outright comedy songs – certainly a couple of wry observations on the human condition, and one light-hearted skiffle through my romantic past, and yeah, maybe the hick yokel faux-country rendition of Fat Bottomed Girls was played for laughs, but most of our set was definitively bedsit confessional Americana. Certainly the one about killing burglars had a neat pay-off and couldn’t really be described as a romp (it was also the one which usually got the biggest cheer with theatre audiences in the Essex/Suffolk borders region). I just couldn’t help chatting away between numbers, especially if someone was busy tuning, retuning, changing instruments or trying to decipher the set list – all of which can conspire to create an uncomfortable silence, especially if you’re in that first date frame of mind which so many performers and audiences find themselves in during their inceptive experience of each other. This is how Peter Gabriel got started, you know. One minute you're explaining who came up with the chorus that time in the dressing room in Sudbury, the next thing you know you're dressing in an evening gown, wearing a fox head and hanging your balls round your neck in a burlap bag*** for effect. However, just as nature abhors a vacuum, I can’t stand a stage full of people busily going about their business whilst fortifying the fourth wall and so I feel compelled to fill the gap with chunter. I know. It’s a knack.
Since my role with my current employer is to mainly stand at the side, play the twiddly bits from the album and occasionally do some Pat Donaldson-esque harmonies I’m not called upon to speak. Regular accomplices may be astonished to learn that I am blissfully happy with this arrangement. It’s not my circus, after all. Besides, I don’t want him to ask me pointedly to work up a version of Talk Too Much…
*Or 'stolen', if you will. Thanks and kudos to whoever came up with that 'Miss Marple' gag. It may have misfired slightly with the audience but two of the band who had yet to make an entrance remarked that "...that was hilarious!"
**I found a copy of our twelve inch single in a second hand record shop last weekend. Ooh it took me right back, it did.
***We never quite went that far.
Thursday, August 28, 2014
I am pleased to be able to report that the second volume of Philip Bryer's contributions to the notorious Sony Award-dodging late night hit ICRFM radio show Why The Long Face? is now available at a reputable online bookshop near you. For almost all of our five year run on air Phil's lugubrious monologue, presaged by an announcement that we were handing over live to the studios of Radio Somerset and heralded by the curtailed intro to Rickie Lee Jones' Chuck E's in Love*, marked the mid-point of the show, giving us a chance to reflect, regroup and, if nothing else, put the kettle on and relax, say as a couple of PG Tips chimps given the keys to a broadcast suite might do. Bryer's slot soundtracked the consumption of innumerable cakes, a plethora of sweets and many, many cigarettes - these were the days when you could still smoke without fear of one of your lungs exploding, although an early episode cured us of that particular misconception. In written form it presents itself as a series of vignettes, snapshots, selfies even. From Led Zeppelin to Laurel and Hardy, he walks a pith-strewn path in his William Connor gumboots and Keith Waterhouse mackintosh. Why not join him for a stroll?
*Just as you're expecting her to start singing co-curator Neale burst in with a barely-compressed "...Bryyeerrrr!". I heard the intro on the radio the other day and was almost surprised to find that there was still a song following on behind it.
Saturday, August 23, 2014
Some time ago, we recorded some tunes and put them on CDs (remember them?). As I recall, it was frosty and cold outside, I had an hour's drive to and forth the studio and at times we had what we in the post-HR world call 'opportunities' with the session staff. Luckily, Our Glorious Leader was on hand with a recording device in order that future generations should be able to recall what life in a typical noughties recording environment was like. Watch and learn, kids, one day you might have to coax a septugenarean into playing on a track he's only just heard that day...
Tuesday, August 12, 2014
I have had a piece included in the Fairport's Cropredy Convention programme. They get about twenty thousand folk in on a good year and the 2014 festival was a sell out, so at a conservative estimate I'd say that was the most readers I've ever had in one hit. In case you couldn't make it, or you didn't buy a copy, I've included the full text below. And if you did so, yes, I am 'SK from Ipswich'.
"Simon Nicol is round the back of the bus, parking the Tiger". That was the first time I saw reference to Fairport Convention founder member, singer, guitarist and de facto office administrator, in print. Q magazine, it was. Some time later I was at the bar at the Cropredy Festival (and let's face it, who hasn't?), anxiously awaiting the arrival of the winner of the Talkawhile forum's All Round Good Egg Folkie award, me having been nominated by a quick show of hands of those present to hand the self-style 'Norm' the glittering stained glass plinthette, and say a few words. He ambled up, all bonhomie and beard, and waited patiently as I relayed a story I'd heard from my friend Paul, who had written to Fairport towers expressing his appreciation regarding how the music of a group of chums from Muswell Hill had helped him through a difficult time in his life - a bereavement, as it happened. Simon had written back enclosing a unique mash-up mix of two versions of an old song, mixed on his own time, with a kindly but firm entreaty that this not be shared. As I said in my address, that's the sort of thing that you don't have to do. Simon was generous with his time, gracious, and very kind to a toungestruck fanboy like me. In between times I'd enjoyed his contributions a number of my favourite records, not least those of his friend Richard Thompson. That anecdote about having too loud a guitar strap for Art Garfunkel's sensitive ears tickled me, and his rendition of Rosemary's Sister reduces me to tears to this day. My first Glastonbury was defined by hearing that rock steady rhythm guitar holding down Sloth. When I watched a BBC documentary wherein a pink-faced post-Cropredy Simon confessed that he'd quit Fairport (for the first time) at the age of twenty one I was astonished that he'd packed so much in to that short a life. At twenty one, I was working in a record shop and trying to sell people Expletive Delighted (and explain why there was no lyric sheet...). There is an old saw that you should never meet your heroes. You should. Especially if they are Simon Nicol.
Sunday, July 27, 2014
I am, for my sins, a member of the PRS. They’re those annoying people who put stickers on the door of your hairdresser’s or your local artisan-curated coffee shop stating that the music played within will be properly attributed toward the account of whoever you’re listening to while you have your roots retuned, or your decaf skinny mocha frothed and served in a cup with your name on. That’s them. Last year they deposited £3.64 in my account with regard to my work on various works of interest, which at least paid for a latte. In truth, Paul McCartney gets most of it. That’s what writing ‘Yesterday’ gets you.
This weekend I played two engagements with my friend Tony James Shevlin - one at the Felixstowe Carnival and another at The Secret Garden Party. At the first we set up early and, in the way that gig-scarred veterans are prone to then retired to the pub to discuss old war stories. Gibbon related the first gig that he ever did, which climaxed with the guy from upstairs taking exception to the performance going on below and attempting to come to some sort of agreement regarding how it should proceed by laying about all and sundry with a baseball bat. Shev looked around the bar we were in and recalled dark evenings of watching folk getting slowly sozzled. One more chorus of ‘American Pie’. Gib reflected on the parade which passed our temporary home. “The brass band” he recalled fondly – “A bunch of bikers threw fifty pence pieces at us”.
Dirk the Drummer told a story about a student of percussion of his who had claimed that he wouldn’t need to know how to set up a set of drums. “I’ll just use the house kit” he said. We looked around us. If there’s a pub out there who actually has a house kit, we’d love to hear from you.
Today I played at The Secret Garden Party, which as far as I can ascertain seems to be a weekend-long excuse to get as fucked up as possible and dance all night, so the opening slot in The Living Room (anomalous sample menu, pot of tea and two crumpets - £4.50) on a Sunday afternoon would suggest that we were not about to experience any combination of the above approaches. As it happened, we had a lovely time – having had to validate your invitation online, check in with a PIN and provide license-quality ID notwithstanding. We nearly lost Jules at that point.
Once entrenched, the splendidly be-bearded stage manager loomed toward me asking about my monitoring requirements, and then provided them with a stroke of his iPad – no “One two…one two….bit more acoustic in the wedges” for him. We played what could reasonably be described as ‘the hangover slot’. Behind the stage walls, years of signatures paid tribute to the countless bands that had gone before us. A grateful Ed Sheeran had scribed in sharpie. “He was great, Little Ed” said the stage manager. “Came back and did a secret gig for us when he was big”.
We got the “Five minutes” warning through the monitors. Three minutes later, through the power of mime, Shev asked if we could do one more. “Short?” came back the universal sign language of the crew who have a long day ahead of them and don’t want to start their working day running over time after the first turn. We cut it short. We ensured we thanked the crew, we were grateful for our pot of full English tea, scones, cream and jam afterwards. Jules may even have sprayed the portaloo with Tramp. Or whatever it is she wears. A girl approaches us with a clipboard. “I need to know what songs you played” she says. “I’m from the PRS”.
Friday, July 25, 2014
To Coggeshall, where the annual cricket and beer festival demands to be entertained on its traditional Thursday droop as the good folk of Essex recover from the Wednesday quiz and look forward to the Friday night live band. La Mulley has assembled a crack squad of top-flight session musicians (or Myself, Mr Wendell and Ant Ragged) by the simple expedient of opening up her address book and texting the first three random names her dialling finger falls upon, and after some earnest discussion and cross-functional market analysis we have assembled a lovingly curated set of numbers based on our shared musical chronology and (crucially) things with not so many chords to remember.Rehearsals have been entertained – at one, held in The Snug at The Blue House, The-Artist-Formerly-Known-as-Our-Glorious-Leader (having been ejected from his office for the evening) thoughtfully sends a capitalised document of encouragement to the printer – and we are reasonably sure that our mix of jaunty self-penned fauxgrass and re-imagined pop hits will, if not cement, then certainly temporarily gaffa tape our position in the acoustic pop pantheon.
No little proportion of our practise time has been given over to set pacing, vocal arrangements, capo placing and relative dimensions in time and keys however much of it, admittedly, devoted to discussing the post-fame rehabilitation of the PG Tips chimps (upon hearing that one of the leads is now forty two Ant enquires solicitously if she is “…still hot” and “…has had any work done?”), upon which fonts are acceptable in a post-glyph desktop design landscape, and whether it is ever appropriate for a gentleman to sport Speedos in a family leisure pool. My inherent uncertainty regarding the difference between a font and a typeface remains unexpressed in such blistering company, however I'm pretty certain on my position regarding budgie smugglers. At one point this is our considered nom-de-musé, however upon hearing the howling response to Mr Wendell’s haunting melodica playing we are inspired to settle upon an alternate moniker for the collective. We are The Neighbourhood Dogs.Taking the stage at nigh-on ten o’clock after a day’s cricket and its attendant refreshment possibilities may be seen as a challenge to some, especially having to follow a rousing marquee-wide singalong of The House of The Rising Sun from the prior turn but the team rise admirably to the challenge with only passing reference to various bits of paper scattered at our feet – Mr Wendell wisely sits for most of the set to make it less obvious that he is squinting at chord sequences, ascending majestically to his feet in time for his flawless rive gauche melodica recital. La Mulley emotes in her signature style (and wedges), Ant slips between double bass, vocal harmonies and heroic levels of Yakima Gold consumption and even former SftBH banjo-slinger Turny Winn chips in with a couple of prime examples of our banjo-as-fried-egg analogy (in that if you pop one sunny side up on top of almost any foodstuff it almost always improves the dish - thus it is invariably so with the banjo in popular song).
We encore with an unscheduled three chord thrash through North of Nowhere, which leads to an impromptu Breaux & Wood-esque routine being performed before us to the delight of the assembled Sunnydonians. “Thanks to the umbrella lady!” cries Mr Wendell at the conclusion of the set. A voice from the audience responds witheringly “It’s a parasol. You dick”.
Wednesday, July 09, 2014
You can see how it happens. You’re cooped up in a van or a car or - if you’re really lucky - a bus for hours at a time, and when you finally emerge blinking and yawning at your destination there’s some guy with a clipboard who wants to know if you can drop ten minutes off your set since they’re running “…a bit over”. That’s not your fault – you showed up early, you’ve got your own DI box all ready and you’ve even remembered to put on a clean shirt. What’s this guy’s problem? That’s the third time in a week… It’s no surprise that by the end of (say) three weeks on tour, the barricades are manned, the drawbridge is up and the metaphors are flying thick and fast.
For those of us who have taken a glimpse beneath the gilded cage’s security blanket it is obvious that the vicissitudes of a life on the open* road might well drive anybody to distraction - not every singer would respond to the news that no-one in the immediate vicinity has any idea how the (tech spec-promised) guitar amplifier operates with the grace under pressure demonstrated by Marty O’Reilly in The Barn at Maverick this year, who simply hoofed it back to the car park and borrowed one off The Rainbow Girls (they were a hoot and a delight last year, by the way). If you ask a random sample of stage managers what their favourite thing about the band they’ve just had on at their festival was - the music or the lyrics - they are more than likely to answer “their punctuality”. No wonder people employ tour managers. That way you can have someone else remark upon the poor quality of the piano you’ve been given without you having to get involved yourself.** Essentially, the stage manager/artist/tour manager interface runs very much along the lines of that of the late Johns Peel and Walters, whose relationship the lugubrious DJ and National Treasure once described as being “…like a man and his dog, each imagining the other to be the dog.”
So, in between assembling a forty-six piece gazebo from scratch with no instructions (then screwing it to the wall so it didn’t blow away), vacuuming the stage, disposing of untold bottles of half-drunk complimentary water, finding Mick the Electrician to install a lamp backstage (“I’ll be there before it gets dark…”), continually asking people to kindly move their camping chairs out of the way of the main thoroughfare and making subtle winding up gestures to folk who were far more entitled to be on the stage than I was - let’s face it, no-one’s ever spent fifty quid to watch a guy in board shorts make an announcement about the dog in the car park - I was lucky enough to spend time with some very good company, all of whose music I greatly enjoyed, many of whom I announced in terms which clearly left them wondering whether there was someone else due on stage rather than them, and some of whom I salute here;Sam Lewis was charm personified and greeted my standard artiste enquiry (“Would you like an introduction and how’s your time keeping?”) with an expression of glee that I hardly think it warranted, even at that early stage in proceedings. “Hell yeah” he enthused. “Make sump’n up - tell ‘em I’m the world’s tallest man!” He apologised for having to rush off to do a session for the BBC straight after the show and entrusted his complimentary meal voucher to me to pass on to some worthy or needy soul, which was lucky, because I hadn’t had the opportunity to get mine at this point. So, thanks for the ham and chutney bap, Sam.
Hannah Aldridge was very tall (we underestimated the mic stand extension both times she appeared for us) and so impossibly glamorous that we offered to line check her guitar for her so that she could make a big entrance on the first night. She played again on the Saturday and very politely asked if I would “…do that thing again?” Never one to turn down an opportunity to show off, I played the intro to The Who’s Substitute. “I know her Daddy” said Mary Gauthier later “fine songwriter”. It clearly runs in the family.
“You’re going to have to hurry us up” said Tim-out-of-Police Dog Hogan when we were getting close to kick off. “He’ll go on forever if you let him” he added, nodding over at the other Tim on the far side of the stage. For a seven (or was it eight?) piece band they set up darned quickly, with a minimum of fuss about who can hear what in the monitors (but then Rob on FOH did a sterling job all weekend getting mixes together quickly) and were one of the bands who occupied themselves by simply running through a few songs in the paddock backstage prior to their stage time. I didn’t get the chance to ask Other Tim whether people acted more outlandishly around him so that he would write about them in The Guardian. I shall be checking to see if my super hero-referencing introduction makes the cut anyway, even if I didn’t do it with that in mind. We all have our different approaches – for example Giff on the main stage was very much a Bob Harris-band whisperer (he took over on Sunday, much to the relief of anyone who’d already been on over the previous couple of days, I imagine).Another chatty and endearing turn was Thom Chacon, who was happy to hang out backstage and made a point of checking out other singers, complimenting them, finding out where they were from and eventually asking if he could watch Mary Gauthier from our snug hidey hole at the side of the stage. “She’s been such an inspiration”. I didn’t buy much over the weekend but I made a point of digging out his (“all analogue”) vinyl album from the company store before I left.
Sadie Jemmett’s set got switched from The Peacock Café, which I was more than happy about because it meant I got to listen to her beautiful songs. Even though her scheduled appearance had now been swapped, meaning that some people who’d planned on seeing her in the evening and would now find that she’d already performed she remained calm, grounded, and was by quite a long way my biggest crush of the weekend.Having helped out Hannah Aldridge with a spare guitar after she’d broken a string on hers, The Goat Roper Rodeo Band then went through three of their own themselves. They appeared last year and I was more than pleased to have them back with their close harmonies, big thumpy rhythms and feelgood stage performances. About twenty minutes in I noticed that one of their guitars was lying on the stage with a string hanging off it. Then I noticed one of the guitarists gesturing frantically to the (replacement) guitar he’d also broken one on. By the time we’d raced each other to restring our respective instruments (he was first – I think the combination of adrenalin and terror helped him through) he had just enough time to snap one more during the next song before I handed him back the one I’d now managed to tune. I last spotted them under a tree in the rain, at two in the morning, still singing gloriously together.
The GRRB been hanging out earlier with The Mae Trio, who appeared a tad bewildered at what an Australian folk band were doing at an Americana festival at what was clearly a petting zoo, in England. Well, when you put it like that, I suppose, yes... They closed with an amazing acapella version of a Kate Rusby song which had me going round for the rest of the day collaring people who’d missed it and making them promise me they’d see them in The Peacock Café on Sunday.
Dan Beaulaurier and The Hallelujah Trails was my band of the festival – all great tunes, Tele lead breaks and backing harmonies over solid grooves. Having warned their extraordinarily affable drummer that Police Dogs Hogan’s guy had fallen off the drum riser the previous night because we’d set the kit up too far toward the rear of the stage he assured us that he would take extra care not endure the same fate. I had made a point of checking the pronunciation of everyone whose name looked like it had potential to trip me up, and so it was mortifying to announce The Hallelujah Trails being fronted by…um…ah...
Finally, a word for the magnificent Mary Gauthier (‘Go-Shay’) who demonstrated unimpeachable decency, dignity, openness, warmth, and not only charmed the crowd (and crew) throughout her time with us but delivered some songs of rare quality with a great performance to boot. Every one of the other artists who made a point of checking out the show clearly adored her, both professionally and personally, and I can thoroughly understand why.
And, for the record, she was very punctual.
Thanks to Des at www.nearthecoast.com (with whom the copyright remains) for the photo of me at the top. That's how I roll.
*Or, with five minutes to go before a sound check that the sat nav is telling you is in a field about twenty minutes from where you are currently blocked, diverted, rerouted or stuck behind a slow-moving tractor.
**For a tour manager’s point of view, please see http://www.ontourlogistics.com/wp-content/uploads/Maverick-Rebecca-Kemp-Interview.pdf
Monday, July 07, 2014
It’s called Under The Dome, I believe. The story is that a small town has been cut off from the outside world and in turning in on itself discovers the best and worst, the resourceful and the hurtful within its community. The Simpsons Movie is based on a very similar concept. Maverick is the myth made flesh, especially with the level of phone signal we enjoyed at Easton Farm Park, where the annual festival of Americana - now in its seventh year - played out all the drama and suspense of a disparate group of individuals thrown together and forced to use their basic knowledge, low cunning and improvisational skills to survive together. Ladies and Gentlemen, meet the stage crew.As Stage Manager for The Barn, my job was to make sure The Talent were on site, on time and to not get in the way of the guys from the PA company, who were doing the actual plugging in and switching on, and who conducted mysterious conversations over their walkie-talkies involving things called XLRs, DIs and SKGs. Across the festival similar ragged bands of folk were engaged in the same rituals – announcing the next turn, hoping we’d got the pronunciation of their name right and then, counterintuitively, given the astonishing level of talent that passed through our cobwebby portals, hoping they didn’t run over and were off in time for us to repeat the whole process again for the next act.
The crackle of the radio brought forth a fresh challenge with each new transmission and assistant stage managers were dispatched across site to beg, borrow, steal or otherwise rustle up amplifiers, drum kits, mic stands, drum keys, gaffa tape… Conversations between us took on a Masonic tone as we compared stories from the front line in hastily-taken breaks for coffee and food from whichever vendor had the shortest queue*.“Seven minutes over earlier, but we pulled it back after Hannah finished early”.
“Do you have an SM-58? Not on the entire site? No - not the beta!”“We need a spile at the Moonshine Bar. And bring a mallet”
“There’s a pig loose in the artists’ hospitality area”I don’t know what it is with me, tour managers and pianos, but I had another chance to shine this year. I mean, I don’t mind taking down an entire drum kit and replacing it on the riser with a piano whilst also clearing away the previous band’s equipment and all in a ten minute window of opportunity before your scheduled start time, but you could at least then get your employer to play it. Still, we should be grateful she didn’t set fire to it, as one washboard player did at the climax of their set, brandishing it above her head** in a Hendrix-esque fashion to the delight of the crowd. If only it had been a banjo.***
There were so many fine and talented people performing over the weekend that I couldn’t hope to do them all justice by summarising their skills in so small a space, but Mary Gauthier notably drew several of the day’s prior attractions back to the stage on Saturday night – part mother hen, part eccentric aunt, full-time inspiration, she was so down home and folksy I wouldn’t have been surprised if she’d tapped out a corn cob pipe before taking to the stage. I asked her if I could line check her guitar for her. “Oh, don’t worry about that honey, I’ll just get on up there and get started”. I pointed out lights and monitor tech Max and she made a point of checking who the guy on the front of house desk was. Sometime into the set she tuned her guitar down to a low, ominous D which rattled the fillings. “Push it hard, Young Rob, make ‘em rumble” she chuckled over the PA. I swear she winked at him. In the wings next to me Thom Chacon whooped with delight.I had to leave early on the Sunday of the festival in order to be available to perform on The Grapevine Stage at Ipswich Music Day as part of Tony James Shevlin’s backing band The Chancers. Here, the roper boot was comfortably on the other foot, so I made sure that I got my gear on stage as quickly as I could, turned the volume down on my guitar so as not to interfere with the acoustic guitar tweaking while I tuned up, and waited patiently as the sound engineer asked us to give him a line check on each of our instruments and on our vocal mics in turn. I also remembered to thank the stage manager for his attention after the show, said that I really appreciated the onstage monitor mix and hoped that we’d given a good account of ourselves. The MC gestured, palms down, to the audience who were generously showing their appreciation in a spirited way. Then came the line I’d been missing all weekend. “There’ll be more” he assured the crowd. “…just not from them”.
*When refuelling, time is of the essence. At one point I saw the production manager eating a full English breakfast off a paper plate without breaking stride as he stomped purposefully over to sort some issue with the bar.**The washboard, not the piano.
***I know. Open goal, I couldn’t resist.