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If you - like me - are a big fan of the work of the
actor George Clooney, you will doubtless be familiar with a pivotal scene in
the Coen Brothers’ marvellous film O Brother, Where Art Thou, wherein the
self-styled Soggy Bottom Boys perform the song I Am A Man of Constant Sorrow in a recording studio, set snugly around a
single microphone which captures their performance in real time. “Aha” you may
have thought to yourself “Those days are long gone – it’s all feeding digital
files into computers and auto-tuning and cut and pasting these days – look at
those hicks with their ancient depression-era ways! Those days are over, and
good riddance - I, for one, welcome our new sonically curated digital overlords!”
So when we gathered at The
Unitarian Hall in Bury St. Edmunds in order to record some demonstration tapes
under the kindly aegis of folk singer and technical crackerjack Sam Inglis, we
were surprised to find that the screens and baffles we were expecting to litter
the place were notable by their absence and the technical arena seemed to
consist of a pair of microphones on a stand, a shovel, a pair of angel’s wings,
a goblet, a dagger and four candles. Most of this equipment, we quickly
surmised, wasn’t really anything to do with the session we were involved in, but
was more probably connected with the play that a local theatre group was
putting on in the evenings while we were - if you will - sunlighting on the opposite shift during
Tape Op Steve put the kettle on. This would be a
feature of the course of the rest of the day – whenever there
were a lull in proceedings he would appear almost magically bearing tea,
coffee, Lemsip and/or biscuits. For all my analogue inferences up there ^ we
were actually recording onto a shiny laptop, however the vagaries of the room’s
sound, the acoustic properties of our instruments and whether Helen had had a hot
lemon drink and a vocalzone recently meant that Steve’s honorary title actually
translated into a practical series of tasks, as he delineated the optimum
position for chairs and feet with masking tape in order that the best balance
be effected for each track depending on instrumentation, who was singing, and
whether there was a banjo involved or not. Mr. Wendell spent the day facing
slightly away from the group, playing his Gibson acoustic into the well of the
hall. Helen was instructed to rotate through 360 degrees in order to ascertain the optimum angle
for her flute to cut through tonally and then had to take a step forward to sing. Each
take literally began with the entreaty “On your marks…”.
Having six people performing live in a room brings its own
complications. “We seem to have a tuning issue in the last chorus there”
remarked our de facto producer at one point. “No – it’s just that the closer to
the end we get, the tighter I’m gripping the guitar” replied Mr. Wendell
affably. It was fairly obvious when someone had got an intro wrong, but if
somebody happened to stumble over a vocal well into the trunk of a take we
stopped and went back to begin again. Turny forgot the order of a couple of his
characteristically momentous lyrics; for some reason I purported that the
protagonists in one song would be entranced by each other’s 'furniture' rather
than their 'flirting'; I sang ‘totches’ rather than ‘notches’ right in the last
verse of ‘Harrogate’. “It’s okay – I can drop that in later” said Sam guilelessly.
We all looked around within our circle of concern, processing this new information. Significantly, we
stopped looking at each other at the conclusion of a take and started deferring
We relaxed between takes with small talk and noodling.
The theme from Crossroads became a recurrent…theme. Fiddly’s theorising about
the placement of the microphones** and other such technical concerns gave way
to a philosophical “Well, you know what they say – it’s not so much about the quality of the recording as whether you’ll be
whistling it on your way home that counts”. Mr. Wendell reminisced fondly about
the days of four track recording. We waited for passing cars to plough their
torpid furrow through the drizzled streets outside before we recorded a particularly
quiet intro to our token cover version. Steve shielded my amplifier with a
cushion so that the sensitive recording equipment wouldn’t pick up its ambient hum
during the same. We ran through the outro of one song half a dozen more times***
for posterity’s sake. We checked the clock. It was half an hour before we had
to be out of the hall. Packing instruments back into cases, gathering cables and leads,
unscrewing stands, disassembling improvised risers, replacing the chairs and
finishing off the chocolate brownies, I motioned Fiddly to pause and listen, as
from the other side of the room came the unmistakable melody of Love Minus Zero/ No Limit.
“There’s your old grey whistle test, right there”.
*This was obviously a lot easier for Wendell, as he
was partially turned in that direction anyway.
**”No – I’m just using that one. The other one’s just
there in case the first one breaks”.
***”You’re all slowing down at the same time, just at different speeds”.
Big up and props to everyone who came out this week to support our continuing efforts to combine the haunting lilt of the banjo with the sublime mellow wash of the bouzouki in pursuit of the perfect East Angliacana stadium anthem. Inclusive of - but not limited to - The Earlybirds, Fern Teather (and Sam - "Hello Bongo!"), whoever put money in the hat, bought us a drink and who made the effort to come out on a wet Tuesday night* to hear us perform songs we'd made up out of our own collective heads, a couple of Dylan numbers, one by Moses and an utterly sublime The Queen and The Soldier on Fern's part. Lastly, and very much not least of all, James out of Blue House Music who put in a sterling shift in the face of a deliberately provocative fiddle, squeezebox, flute, whistle, bouzouki, bass, twelve string, acoustic and electric guitar-based line up with four singers, and who came up smiling nonetheless**. Thanks buddy - obviously we could have done it without you, but it would have sounded shit.
*Yeah - we could do it in Stoke if we needed to.
**Or at least not grimacing any more than he normally does.
So, our final rehearsal before next week’s expedition to
darkest Colchester is completed. You couldn’t really call it a dress rehearsal
since when performing on stage Turny often puts on a skinny tie that makes him look like a member of a late
seventies post-punk power pop combo – how you always picture Ric Ocasek out of The Cars during their Just What I Needed pomp, say. Mr. Wendell has taken to
wearing a polka dot shirt which lends him the slightly whimsical air of a Robyn
Hitchcock, and Helen had taken to sporting a pair of spray-on leggings covered
on Shakespeare quotations until she noticed that the ‘Ham’ from ‘Hamlet’ was
emblazoned perfectly on her upper thigh. I myself usually pick out the cleanest
checked shirt in the wardrobe, which is frequently the one I wore at the last
gig, so carbon-dating the age of any band I’ve been in through the medium stage
wear has become an increasingly knotty issue over the past two decades*.
We ran through everything a couple of times, just to
bed in new yet enduring bassist Gibbon, whose arrival in our midst has been
necessitated firstly by the departure of original stand-up guy Ant and then also of his
replacement, Producer Andy, whose lucrative side line in playing bass for Purple Rain – A Tribute to Prince means that since the recent surge of interest in the
work of one of Minneapolis’ favourite sons he gets to fly by private plane into
tax havens to perform the music of the Stack-Heeled Sex Impness of Funk rather
than the slightly more staid East Angliacana’n fare we cater for, with, and to**.
Also along for the ride is SftBH alumnus Fiddly, in whose shed we are
rehearsing, and whose pre-match chocolate cake and tea we are fortified with.
Not being a self-styled full-time filler of the ranks, Fiddles describes himself as a Three
Legged Dog. Their approaches to the run through are both familiar and
heartening. Gib wants to know which key to start in and after that pretty much
anything can happen, and Fiddly wants to know how many bars we’re going to do
at the end, so he knows when to stop. The only thing they really have in common
is that they’re both actually called Richard.
We have secured the expertise of a proper sound engineer
and their bespoke PA system for the gig itself, mainly because they haven’t received any more
better offers since we asked if they’d do it for us a favour***. We have engaged two guest
turns (“…a couple of mics please, and a monitor would be great!”) , arranged
load-in and sound check times, forwarded details of parking, run off some
posters, created events on three separate social media platforms, alerted the
press and I have worked out the settings I’m going to use on all three electric
guitars, the twelve string, and the bouzouki. I’ve also forwarded a copy of the
stage plan and technical specs (although I did lose brownie points on that as
it wasn’t formatted to print in landscape). And that’s just for one Tuesday
night, low-key run through of some material before we go to record it in a couple of weeks' time. At one place I’m playing shortly they won’t even let your gear in
the room unless it’s got an up to date PAT certificate****. Imagine what it’s
like then for your local arts centre, folk club, open mic, songwriter’s showcase or
blues club promoter who does this every week!
We’ll leave a tips jar on the bar for you to show your appreciation.
*If I’m wearing a white shirt with a heart overlaid
with an ‘X’ on the breast pocket it’s a photograph of As Is. That was a gift
from a grateful record industry on behalf of Duranduran, whose “1988 single “I Don’t Want Your Love” fell swiftly from its debut chart position of #14,
despite EMI’s best efforts to promote it through the dispensation of
form-flattering wardrobe. Go on – try and remember how the chorus goes. See?
**To be fair, he also plays in the Tony Winn Trio, so it's not all "Twenty minutes, off, helicopter, back to the Warwick Hotel, two birds each."
***i.e. ones that pay, and at least at time of writing.
****You’ve got Google – go and look it up.