Monday, December 11, 2017

"...and a tenner on Mince Pies".

I have received notification of the accounts pertaining to Helen and The Neighbourhood Dogs' gig at the weekend and, unusually, we appear to have made a profit, insomuch as we didn’t actually lose money on the night and everyone involved in the production got at least some pocket money to take home. This may, you might contend, be the idea of the game in the first place, but as anyone involved on the live gig circuit will tell you, the easiest way to amass a small fortune in the field of local music promotion is to start off with a large one.

Fortunately we were able to harness the goodwill built up over many years’ toil by the good folk of Live at The Institute (see blogs passim), who were prepared to adopt their old roles for one night only in order to throw us a Christmas party. Neighbourhood Tony was to readopt his role as MC for the night – a popular host always seeming endearingly within reach of forgetting the name of the act he is about to introduce. As well as The Dogs, we were Fern Teather (and sidekick Bongo Boy) and one Rob A, one of my imaginary internet friends who, although I had corresponded with at length via the electric internet, I’d never actually met in true life. I’d invited him on the strength of his group’s new vinly album, which I’d ordered out of solidarity with a fellow artiste and of which I was pretty uncertain how it would be received by the Kelvedon crowd, a constituency generally used to being treated to the sort of acoustic balladeering frequently unleashed by (say) Ken Bruce during his daytime radio reveries - Jamie Lawson, for example, is a LatI alumnus. Rob, it quickly became clear, was not of this persuasion. As he worked his way through the line check under the watchful ears of sound factotum James, Mr. Wendell sidled up to me. “I wasn’t expecting that” he muttered. It wasn’t exactly Daft Punk getting up at the Newport Folk Festival and launching into ‘Get Lucky’, but it wasn’t far off. Helen grinned a grin. “I feel like I’ve been transported back to the eighties and have just seen a really early gig of a really massive band”.

A massive band was quite the opposite of what he was being, however, given that The Disappointment Choir traditionally follows the time-accepted notion of the pop duo by having two members. Disappointment Bob was however, tonight, a man on his own. Facing down the crowd, singing all the songs, playing guitar, triggering the drum machine, cueing the synths – all of these things could, on their own, be considered to be quite a stressful night’s work, but to do them all at once could be regarded as unnecessarily penitential. After Fern’s thoughtful circle-squaring set of beautiful acoustic ballads, during which she mentioned that the last time she’d played The Institute she was just starting her Kickstarter campaign to pay for the recording of her album and here, two years later, the last available copy of the CD was on the merch table, Rob hauled his keyboards centre stage, the lights dimmed, and he began.

I was at a table with Mrs K. a woman of generally forthright opinions on the potency of cheap music. The number of times we have to skip stuff that comes up on random play in the car doesn’t bear mentioning. She leaned over attract my attention. I braced myself. “This is wonderful” she breathed “We need to own this….”. I breathed a little sigh of relief of my own. Why had I doubted him, them, and myself? With the no-bar set up (the venue is a bohemian bring-your-own kind of gig, which means there’s none of that lobbing J2O bottles at the glass skip behind the bar that you get at many other listening venues) the audience were able to give The Disappointment Chorister their full attention, and we in turn received his.

After a quick tune up backstage, I had to put on my roadie shirt to go on and adjust Helen’s microphone back down from Rob’s height (he’s a lot bigger in real life than he looks on screen), then those lights come up and we hear that crowd and we remember why we came. Our set was a bit of a blur after that. We spoke (at length), we played some old songs, some brand new songs (agreeably, the new ones received many appreciative post-show compliments, which is in the direction we really should be going), we enlisted Bongo Boy to add some percussion to our set (somehow James managed to find another couple of channels on the desk post-sound check – it was either that or Sam was going to have to hit them really hard), and we sent the good people of Kelvedon back out into the night, musically satiated to a man, woman and (one) dog.

For we are Helen and The Neighbourhood Dogs. And this is what we do.

Monday, October 30, 2017

"Hello Bongo..!"

We are not entirely strangers to the concept of experimentation over in The Doghouse. Having negotiated the potentially choppy waters of one-take, in the round recording on previous occasions and employing techniques involving things like rehearsing, playing the songs live prior to the session & maintaining exhaustive crib sheets regarding time, tone and instrumentation, we decided to embark on our latest day out at an austere Baptist Chapel in Cambridgeshire in the spirit of those freewheeling troubadours from the seventies, who got it together in the country over a pot of steaming lentil soup, a few massive joints, and the sort of record company largesse that we can only reflect in wonder at these days. Being booked into a five-star hotel for a week’s suite swapping and songwriting might sound like a great deal to some, but you’re hardly likely to come away with something like ‘Dear Mr Fantasy’, no matter how many hours you spend finessing your top line. So, swap the lentil soup for a cafetiere of Dark Roast Italian Blend, the joints for McVitie’s digestives and the record company largesse for some homemade Ginger-free Gingerbread People and you’ve pretty much got the picture. To enhance the period vibe, we hadn’t all rehearsed together for about two months and had decided to do a couple of new songs, one of which we’d played live, once, in 2016. So far, so Traffic.

One might presume that this reckless approach to our limited recording time would stymie the creative flow, but having being through the early stages of the Kübler-Ross model of recording (over-anxiety, slight relaxation, knocking it out of the park) we found ourselves at the point where we generally agreed that getting a good performance was going to be more of an end point to aim for than spending many hours of studio time nailing down a stone-cold classic single which we could then give away on the internet to as many as eight or nine of our friends (other oblique strategies in a similar same vein to this included going out in the street and randomly handing out ten pound notes to strangers, which we also decided against as a band exercise). After all, if artists like Richard Thompson, Neil Young and The Rutles could produce classic albums by dint of knocking out three takes of a number, deciding on the best one and moving on, why shouldn’t we? Shoot Out The Lights apparently took three days to record. The follow-up took even longer.

Also along for the ride on this occasion, Sam ‘Bongoboy’ Thurlow, who had incidentally been at that gig where we’d done ‘As Yet (Untitled)’ and had so impressed all of us with his percussive work with Fern Teather that we took the opportunity to invite him along for the day, if only to give Fiddly something to keep us all in time on his behalf. Open-minded, amiable and above all, cheap, Sam did indeed keep things on track, and previously perilously floating tempos became grooves under his beneficient percussedness. Once we’d warmed up with something we did know, time came to start jamming on autologically named new item ‘Snug Song’ (if you think that’s lazy you should have heard the working title*). Gibbon tried some different bass lines, tuned down, retuned, forgot he’d retuned and played a non-dropped ‘E’ by mistake. Turny Winn alternated between squeezebox and harmonica, Fiddly regaled us with another tale from ye olden days – this time about an acquaintance who ate garlic butter sandwiches for lunch and rolled his glass eye betwixt buttery fingertips in between times in order to clean it, and Mr. Wendell attempted to impose some authority upon the situation by striding up to the performance area, a flurry of Christian leaflets in his wake and rallying the troops with a declamatory “Right – now let’s nail this fucker!”

Dude – look around you…” I admonished with an appropriately Saintly import.

As a team bonding session the day struck all the right notes, as did the group albeit – paraphrasing, if we may, a response to the great Andrew Preview – not always on the same take. We ran down a couple of versions of a pretty-much improvised song which took us up to clearing out time. Perfectly, as it happened. As the last chord died ambiently down, an arpeggiate sequence of notes trilled across the fading Dsus2 I was holding on the Tele. I glanced sideward, searching for the gently flailing fingers which would indicate that Turny was finishing off the song with a gentle banjo coda. Helen, next to me at the microphone blushed and scrabbled to turn the alarm off on her phone. “It’s five o’clock. Time for me to put my eye drops in...”

*’None More Eighties’, as the chord progression in the bridge and chorus are...go on, have a guess.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Another Happy Day

I’m occasionally of the opinion that if I were to write an autobiography, and simply stop at the point at which we started getting gigs in London, it would be a rip-roaring success with an unholy clamour for the sequel – of course in reality wouldn’t even be worth the tax Amazon would dodge on it. I’ve very much lived my career so far in a sort of parallel universe to those who have made it though, and who have retired to a life of speaking tours, and the occasional showcase gig in (say) Pompeii. Nevertheless we share many of the fundamental aspects of our life and experiences. I’ve got sleeping in the van stories, sleeping in someone’s kitchen, sleeping in a dormitory at a community centre in Denmark…in fact upon reflection, very many of these rip-roaring anecdotes involve either finding, or being overly concerned with securing, places to sleep. There more I consider it though, the more I tend toward the school of thought which holds that I may have misjudged the mood of the memoir-buying public in this respect.
Neil Young has a great (now confirmed) urban legend about him listening to mixes of his new album whilst sitting in a boat on the lake outside his home in California with the house serving as one half of a stereo speaker system while his rehearsal PA, set up in the adjacent barn, served as the other. My equivalent story involves listening to Magical Mystery Tour whilst leaning against one wardrobe - which had the left-hand speaker atop it - while the other side of the harshly split stereo was being channelled via a chest of drawers on the other side of the room. Admittedly I didn’t have Graham Nash in the boat with me while I shouted “More barn!” at my road manager, but we were stoned and looking through kaleidoscopes at the time, and if anything’s going to convince you of the genius of Paul McCartney’s bass playing, that’ll be it.

You see what I mean though – it’s hardly doing our second gig at Woodstock, is it?

I do have my own little moments though – like this morning, when the SftBH song ‘Another Happy Day’ came on in the car through the magic algorithm of random play. I see by reference to the electric internet that it came out over twelve years ago. Twelve years before that I was covering Gram Parsons songs in gods kitchen, which had a nice sort of synchronicity when we put a GP in-joke on the credits for our next album. Back in 2005 though, we were in the middle of a hugely creative and collaborative patch. I think we were still making up the set list as we went along whenever we played live, which certainly kept things interesting for the rest of the band, whilst at home the creative nucleus of the band swooped and dived around each other like two starlings hatching a plot. Helen and I were chipping in on songs with each other remotely, but I think this was one of the first times we sat in a room and decided we were going to write a song together. She wrote the words, I came up with most of the progressions and Mr Wendell, along for the ride for the evening, provided a vital intervention with the odd passing chord in the bridge (he described it as either a “Paul Weller chord or a Beatle one…”) which forever after I had to check the fingering of before we played it live, and without ever quite getting it quite right.

The whole thing was intended as a sub-Bible tribute song (certainly on my part) - an intent further magnified when everybody else declined to sing it and I had to adopt my best Boo Hewerdine croon in order to perform the vocal. It was never going to win me first place on an obscure singer-songwriter edition of Stars in their Eyes, but given that my usual party trick up to this point was a note-imperfect rendition of Tonight’s the Night I reckon I got away with that one. Occasional auteur Pete ‘Radar’ Pawsey – a man who had (and I strongly believe still has) the uncanny ability of being able to tinker seemingly pointlessly for hours on end before coming up with a moment of inexplicable genius which puts the cherry on top of whichever Bakewell you’re currently involved in icing – put on a Skywriting dobro part to counterpoint Russ Barnes' lovely answering mandolin. As evidence of both our creative and collaborative instincts we then decided that what the outro really needed was a sung/spoken rapid and rhythmic vocal at the end, which we duly adjured from our friend Matt* who accepted both the commission of writing a short essay on the theme of Another Happy Day and the lack of attention afforded him when he actually came to record his part with impressive equanimity. To be fair, his wife was wearing an astonishingly short skirt when she accompanied him to the studio, and the sofa in the control room was not a forgiving place to sit and think, or even to just sits, so at this remove perhaps you’ll forgive us our temporary distraction from the job in hand.  
We also overdubbed and timecoded the sound of James’s camera, which we’d noticed made a sound in the same key as our song when he switched it on, and which he was duly credited with playing in the sleeve notes. Studio engineer and unflappable sound guru Steve Tsoi arranged the stereo microphones with an impressively straight face for that session, I seem to remember.

Upon reflection, I guess this isn’t the sort of anecdotery by which rock memoirs are judged after all. “We wrote a song, we recorded a song, we hung out with our friends and ate rotisserie chicken from the Tesco’s in Tiptree” it pretty much runs. Still, whenever he hears Harvest on the radio while out cruising in his LincVolt, I wonder if Neil Young chuckles to himself and thinks “That day with Nash on the lake. Man that was fun…”?   

*In the same way that Matt came up with the rap part on this song, our friends Wendell and Kilbey did some guitar parts, a friend of Helen’s Dad played the accordion and the mandolin player’s girlfriend came in and did a lead vocal for us. At times it was a bit like the von Trapp family in there, with us going “Adjure, adjure, to you and you and you…”.**

**Do it in the accent.

Friday, September 08, 2017

The Kindness of Strangers

 We - Helen and The Neighbourhood Dogs - are not, it should be stressed, a band of independent means. Our fragmented touring schedule (we are not the most hawkish of gig-mongers) means that since we don’t play much* our concert-related income stream does not stretch to budgeting for a week’s recording in the country, two days’ mixing and a subsequent mastering session with a devoted engineer, even at mate’s rates. Hence we are pleased and grateful that our munificent benefactors Sam Inglis and Fenton Steve are the sort of chaps who enjoy nothing more than spending a bucolic Saturday looking concernedly at a whirring laptop, making sure we don’t knock over absurdly expensive microphones, marking out soundtastic sweet spots with masking tape, and making endless cups of tea for us (see blogs passim).
Our latest foray into standing in a big room and playing a song from start to finish, all at the same time, and hoping no-one lets off fireworks in the car park has been lovingly curated once again by our benevolent uncles from darkest Cambridgeshire, and we think it’s the best one so far. Three songs – one of which I distinctly remember demoing with The World Service in the function room of a pub that Google informs me was decommissioned in 1997 – wherein everybody gets a bit of a play, most of us have a sing, and the majority of folk are happy with their arrangements. Fiddly likes to prepare meticulously and has his own form of impenetrable musical notation which future etymologists are more than welcome to try to deconstruct whereas by contrast Gibbon (on bass) is far more of an improviser and a wing-it kind of guy, and so to get a take with which both are happy can be quite the calendar event.

As I say, we recorded these songs live - mainly around one magnificent Soundfield, with additional booster microphones for those elements which were getting slightly lost when fighting against the sound of Mr. Wendell’s mighty room-swamping Gibson acoustic. Meticulous attention to detail was then applied to the soundscapes by Steve (a considerable step or two beyond my contribution of “Could you tweak the banjo a bit?”) who passed on his thoughts to Sam, who then curated the finished objets. Our continued thanks for outside audio perspective, chapel wrangling, and biscuit provision are once again well overdue.

Please have a listen, enjoy if you can, and share at will. We truly appreciate it.

*After the last recording session we did we immediately started looking to the next one. The first date that all six band members were available on the same day was five months hence.


Thursday, July 13, 2017

"There was a young woman from Bath..."

Say what you will about the Victorians, but they got stuff done. Take Nelson, the oldest city in the south island of New Zealand. The geographical centre of EnZed, bordered by mountains, with little or no arable land to its name, the plucky Victorians decided to settle there anyway, what with it having a nice harbour and that. I mean, the weather’s nice and everything, but after a while you’re going to need to grow stuff, and the market for Marlborough Sauvignion Blanc wasn’t as big back then as it is now. Still, that harbour, eh? What that harbour needed was a lighthouse, and so in 1861 the good folk of the Nelson Provincial Council bought one. Sixty feet high, made of cast iron, and only the second permanent lighthouse in the whole of New Zealand. Being Victorians, they had it built in England and then shipped half way across the world in order to be erected on the treacherous Boulder Bank. Obviously at this point though, the boat bringing the disassembled tower had to negotiate the entrance to the harbour without the aid of a lighthouse…
Back in the present day Mr Wendell, La Mulley and myself had gathered in The Snug with the idea of writing some songs. I had a riff which sounded like it might work on the fiddle (which would also help disguise its origins as badly-played version of the intro to a song by the band Heart*) which we played around with for a bit and then bashed out a quick reference demo, resolving to get back to it later. At our next session – hosted by Mr Wendell. I believe – we added a middle section, tinkered with the start and boldly resolved to eschew the traditional verse-verse-chorus-middle 8-verse-chorus formula rightly so beloved of songmongers everywhere and go with an A-B-C-B-A structure which maybe wasn’t right and proper in and of itself, but which felt like the sort of thing we should probably do in the circumstances. The only part of the jigsaw we hadn’t located in the box were any lyrics. The hive mind decided that the feel of the piece was stormy. Possibly a storm at sea, a traditional folk trope which might usefully incorporate the 12/8-ness of the verse in a swirling, discombobulating maelstrom of emotion. And that.

La Mulley and I have had conversations in the past about the folk tradition, and how many, many ballads would have had much foreshortened narratives if there had been better healthcare. Stories regarding any number of fair maidens out for a rove all of a May morning who have been deceived as to their lover’s true identity merely by them being all in disguise are legion. Provision of decent optometry and prescription bifocals would wipe out the provenance of most of these tales at a stroke. I’d been listening to Paul Mosley’s The Butcher a lot around this time. The album features a storm and a lighthouse as twin pillars introducing a splendid folk opera concept album. Thinking back to my foray to Aotearoa the previous year, “What if…” I suggested “A young fellow from, say, Bath were to be enjoined to help transport a construction to the other side of the world, promising his faithful young fiancée that he would send for her as soon as he was established in the exciting new land of opportunity..?”
Once Helen had constructed a beautifully poignant narrative, we corralled the rest of the group and set about arranging the setting for it. Parts were tweaked, suggestions made, instruments abandoned, capos surrendered; indeed all of this was still going on when we were called to do some recording in the latest of a string of roomy chapels – this one belonging to the formidably-named order of the Strict and Particular Baptists in Swavesey – up to and including the tea break where we figured that we nearly had it down, but not quite nearly enough. The arrangement was all there, and Helen was singing clear as a bell, but in one corner Wendell was having trouble with the bodhran-inspired twelve string part, and in the other my attempted Keith Richards-louche power chords were dropping like discarded skull-rings all over the place. In a moment of quiet desperation I suggested that we swap instruments, and immediately it became apparent that his proto-Paul Weller style was going to fit a lot better than mine into that particular pocket. Three takes later, we had it.

Naturally there’s a lot to take in there, with the folk tradition, the reimagining of a real-life story, the working through of the instrumentation and Helen’s brilliant, brilliant lyric, which I can’t read all the way through without getting a little teary even now, even though I know it’s a fiction. So when people ask me what the song’s about, naturally I have only one answer. “It’s about four minutes”.    


*We would also later discover that Refugee by Tom Petty, Hundred Mile-High City by Ocean Colour Scene, She Never Said by The Church and The Needle and the Damage Done all shared at least some of their DNA with our work, which cheered us all up no end.

Much help and inspiration was afforded by the work of B.E. Dickinson, who I’ve never met, but to whom I offer thanks and acknowledgement.    

Monday, July 03, 2017

Smoke gets in your eyes.

After a couple of fallow years, during which time my body has had the opportunity to regenerate and recharge, I am to return to The Maverick Festival (I may have mentioned it in passing previously – here, here and here for example) in order to both curate the newly-installed Travelling Medicine Show stage and to perform as one of The Neighbourhood Dogs – proudly maintaining our tradition of avoiding doing consecutive shows with the same line up after I missed the last one, and with additional guitar and vocal talent supplied by The Artist Formerly Known as Our Glorious Leader, who is chipping in to celebrate that it is ten years since Songs from The Blue House played the very first Mavfest. In the interim, TAFKAOGL has scaled the slippery pole of ambition and adversity to inhabit his current hallowed role as Production Manager for the whole shebang, so he only has time to play a couple of songs before he has to scoot off to locate mandolin strings at four in the morning and chase up BJ Cole’s hotel reservation. Nonetheless, his timely contribution did help shift a couple of copies of the SftBH Live CD which I happened to have on me, so thanks for paying for Sunday evening's barbecue charcoal guys.   
The Dogs’ spot in The Barn is scheduled for eleven in the morning, which is the best slot to have if you have any ambition toward running an actual sound check - which we do - the changeovers between bands at the festival being a series of extraordinarily brief and time-bound operations. We are temporarily stymied in this endeavour as the entire Barn goes dark and quiet. Max on the desk scurries off to locate site electrical major domo Mick, who has already explained to me (with my Medicine Show stage manager’s hat on) that if such a thing were to occur, this would be a grave matter indeed. Thankfully, power is restored after a short delay, and in between subsequent wheelbarrow trips he cheerfully cracks that at least he now knows how long the generator runs on one tank of diesel. The wheelbarrows are loaded to the gunwhales with fuel containers. 

The Dogs are set up in good order and since we are constrained rather more by our finish time than when we are supposed to start, we decide to pitch straight into the set and add a couple of songs in the middle if needs be. Fiddly, a man of preparation and order, does not take this news quite as beatifically as we might have hoped, and scurries off to the car park to find his folder of notes and staves. By the time he has returned, it is just shy of our scheduled start time, and we ease into traffic for a lovely, great-sounding set. No disrespect to the gazebo circuit intended, but when we are on a big stage, with the monitors and lights and a willing audience, it turns out that we are quite good at what we do.
Twenty five minutes later I am off back to my perch by the side of the pop-up boutique section of the site, scheduled but not published, where turns from across the programmed stages drop by to give us the three songs they want to play in a stripped-back pressure-free zone tucked away (conveniently for me) just by the bar, across from the Coffee Link cart, and just downwind of Smokey Jones’ bespoke hand-crafted hog and brisket truck (wherein, ironically, prominently displayed is a stern ‘No Smoking’ sign). The three song theory is so that while bands in the barn are loading in and line-checking, our friends in the audience can stretch their legs, drop by the paddock and spend a short while looking at something unexpected rather than watch a couple of guys in black t-shirts plugging stuff in. It’s an inspired idea, and resembles nothing so much as speed-dating for artists and onlookers alike. I have a couple of questions for my production manager. “What does the button marked 'pad' do? Okay, thanks. On more thing – should the little blue lights on the DI boxes be flashing? Okay, cool. And where might the phantom power switch be, exactly? Grand! No, you’re fine, relax, see you later”. He does not look like a relaxed man.    

Between The Barn and The Medicine Show we develop a form of semaphore and signalling shorthand  in order to advise each other as to how close we are to set commencement and closure. The pressure’s slightly more on them since they have bands playing forty minute sets with ten minutes to change over between them, and I am pleased and relieved to be faced with exactly the opposite scenario, which means that at the very least I get adequate opportunities to graze the catering opportunities, which is not always the case for the hard-working festival crew member.  
As always, the turns with the most talent are also the kindest. One might for example forgive Lachlan Bryan*, who had already played a set on the main stage on The Green before pitching up to play for me, for thinking ahead to his lengthy flight back to Australia the next day. Instead, he responded to the awestruck boy congratulating him on his performance with a sprightly “Thanks man – do you play?” When answered in the affirmative he immediately handed over his guitar and hustled the young man off to a nearby bench where he devoted what might have been otherwise considered lucrative merch-signing time to encouraging him to continue to practise. Similarly, festival favourite uncles Police Dog Hogan ensured that the set list grabbed from the front of the stage by a kid who’d clearly been dragged along to a festival of Americana by his parents but had had a Damascene moment  - possibly in the midst of ‘Shitty White Wine’** - was passed around the backstage area and appended with every band member's signature before being returned, when they might more reasonably be concerned with packing away their gear and readying themselves for the long drive home. They didn’t see his face when he got it back, but I did.

An unbilled Christina Martin – not even playing the festival main this year – rocked up like an effervescent Sunday morning tonic and being in equal measure charming, funny and wonderfully talented gave a masterclass in making everyone in the field think she was performing just for them – me included. She was later bitten by a horse. Hugh Murray played a lovely, late-night set under the stars,  Stompin’ Dave Allen patiently and affably helped explore the crackling input issue (that sort of thing tends to get highlighted when you’re miking up a wooden crate atop which a man is about to tap dance whilst playing banjo behind his head). I don’t think either of them suffered subsequent equine-related injuries, but I’ve Googled it and there’s nothing on the wire.                              
As the Sunday sets drew to a close across the site and the stages started shutting down, a few stage wranglers drifted together and swapped personal highlights and lowlights from our scattered vantage points – as they say, twenty feet from stardom. “You know that drummer who was singing along so enthusiastically in (name of group redacted)?” said one. “Before the show, every single member of the band came up to me separately and asked if we could keep him in his monitor but mute him from going out front”.

As I say, the turns with the talent are generally also the kindest to their fans.  


*Progenitor of my new favourite sound desk catchphrase regarding echo on the foldback. “Noverb is goodverb”
**”This song has been very kind to us. In the same way that ‘Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep’, say, was good for Middle of the Road”.

Monday, June 19, 2017

"It's the most wonderful time of the year..."

Obviously one doesn’t embark on these pursuits
purely for the kudos, the rewards or the shiny prizes that occasionally get handed out in pursuit of creativity and compassion but when, on the eighteenth of June 2017, I was actually awarded the World’s Best Dad trophy - by a jury of one - I was pleasantly surprised. Out of all of the Dads - me, officially the best! Admittedly it was in the form of a card, and slightly less monolithically impressive that one might have thought for such a prestigious accolade, but nonetheless a nice way to start the day off. In celebration, and in preparedness for the afternoon, there was no little nappage, for this dawn heralded not only Father’s Day but a resumption of hostilities for The Picturehouse Big Band, long after we thought we’d drawn stumps once and for all. We have been lured out of retirement by the promise of a chance to play at Portman Road (on the practise pitch – only the likes of Elton get to do the stadium proper) for our long time patrons and benefactors Ady and Karen, formerly of The Olive Leaf and The Milestone and currently curators-in-residence at The Dove Street Inn.
Rather than go through all that tiresome malarkey of hiring a rehearsal room and sweating it out on the streets of a runaway East Anglian dream, we thought we’d probably just set up in the courtyard at the pub and bash through the set to see how much of it we could remember, and so gathered we were on the hottest day of the year, sweating like an EDL member at a spelling bee*. We’d literally only parked the gear on the stage and there were already rivulets soaking the shirts on our backs.
"It’s open” sighed The Drummer. “We’re losing all the bottom end”.
“What do you want me to do – put the roof back on?” queried The Other Guitarist dryly.
“No – just turn the bass up”
"Ah, yeah, that would work…”

As it happened, great winding was done, and the oversized pub-umbrellas-on-steroids which make the Green Room at The Dove definitely-not-a-permanent-structure spread their pterosaur wings and sheltered our lobster-pink middle-aged** foreheads (and in one case torso) from the piercing glinty rays of The Day Star. The only problem now, of course, was that it grew increasing stuffy ‘neath the canvas carapace. Thankfully we all had separate microphones, so there was no need of that backing vocal buddy-buddiness so beloved of coves like Mick & Keith, which meant we could stay a respectable distance away from each other’s Dad shirts – already humming as they were like a backline of badly-earthed Marshalls.

Given the deleterious conditions, we survived intact, played all of the songs we should have done, and even attracted a few people in from their nearby gardens, where they had been enjoying a leisurely Sunday afternoon sojourn. “We’re looking for a band for our wedding” said one. “Do you do any Wings..?”   


*Thanks @zerojayz on the Twitter for that one.   

**Although, strictly speaking, this only works if I’m expected to live to be a hundred and three. The jury’s still out on that one.        

Monday, June 05, 2017

Art for Cure's sake.

I’ve played in an art gallery before. That time, one of our audience had rather over-enthusiastically pursued the pre-gig refreshments and as a result had been sick on the carpet next to where he was sitting. Having covered the offending result with his jacket until it was time to leave – we’d been warned about not creating a mess - if I recall correctly, he then put it back on and sauntered casually out. There seemed little likelihood of this sort of behaviour re-occurring in the genteel seaside ambience of the Garage Gallery in Aldeburgh, where by an odd set of diversions I had been contracted to play along with a friend-of-a-friend to accompany the launch of Art for Cure’s She - An inspired collection of paintings, sculpture, ceramics and prints, all about women. I had been promised fine wines, exotic nibbles and (quote) ‘minor celebrities’ and indeed the fizz flowed and the platters of oysters circulated, as did Clive Anderson. Since it was a Friday night and I was in Aldeburgh, I plumped for fish and chips for I felt it was not the time to break my “No oysters before the first set" rule, especially on a dep gig and certainly not after the unfortunate incident with the coconut chunks which so very nearly derailed the SftBH sound check that time.
Poppy, my employer for the evening, and I had spent every Thursday night for the previous six weeks working through her suggested set list – me trying to second guess the changes on a broadly unfamiliar selection of songs so I didn’t have to rely on crib notes and she reading lyrics off an iphone (which lead to the rather surreal incident where Siri tried to answer the question ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?’ mid-rehearsal) and we’d reached the point where, as we set the PA up in brilliant sunshine under a gazebo by the beach, we were feeling pretty good about our two-set ability to entertain the great and the good of the Suffolk art world. This was effectively our last night of the school play. There seemed to be a few people checking their phones and dire mutterings about weather warnings, but aren’t there always? No need to worry about it, I said. Always blow themselves out before they hit the coast these squalls, I promised. Probably go off down the river; I'd even reassured myself. It was during Belinda’s introductory speech that the storm hit. Great, vertical, inch-thick stair rods of thundering rain which quite drew the attention away from India Knight’s exhibition opening ribbon-cutting. Lovely woman, India, by the way. Vapes like a docker.
Having moved peremptorily into the nearest room, and with no end to the maelstrom in sight, the now slightly damp Pops and I re-struck the stage and embarked upon our performance to the accompaniment of conversational buzz and with a backdrop by Samantha Barnes. Obviously one likes to be the very fulcrum of attention whenever essaying one’s talent live, but it quickly became apparent that the level of appreciation I was receiving throughout our performance was less due to my almost zen employment of the fingerpicking nuances of Lindsey Buckingham (in this case ‘Landslide’ – many of the songs in the set were approved due to their agreeably four-chord nature) but more because people were checking the price tags on the prints behind us. “I’m sorry I’m getting so close” said one over the rim of her flute of pink champagne. “It’s just that I don’t have my glasses with me”. “In which case, I can assure you that I am terrifically good-looking” I bantered. “Oh, silly, I don’t need my readers to be able to tell that” she replied, raffishly. 

We finished up, high-fived ourselves at having started and ended all the songs at roughly the same time and in the same key, and looked out at the artist-customised deck chairs arrayed along the beach under a bruised slate-grey sky. The fund raising continued as we packed away. “Come on people" I heard someone say "Who wants to park themselves on a wet Maggi Hambling?”                  

Saturday, April 29, 2017

"Remember - they work for you..."

Mr. Gibbon and I decamp to darkest Mersea Island, where the sun is shining, the tide is out, and we are to perform at the behest of the curators of The River Stage at Cosmic Puffin, an entertainingly anarchic fundraising festival which has grown from modest roots to become a lively, six-stage microcosm of the sort of thing that stands for everything that (say) the Fyre Festival emphatically doesn’t. Ironically, the camping, catering, stewarding, music and facilities are a universe beyond whatever the Rich Kids of Instagram are paying to not see Blink 182; so I’d say we’ve already won the weekend.

We are without Mr. Wendell on this occasion – decamped to Patagonia and living like a King or somesuch - which is a shame because as a fellow veteran of the Stage Managing Wars* (from the other side of the monitors) he would doubtless have approved of the efficient and timely way we were ushered upon entry to the artist’s reception caravan, issued with wristbands and meal vouchers and directed to the backstage parking area where we could unload comfortably in good time for our set. Not that we’re the prissy, artistic types, but that makes a nice change from being told to unload in the road outside the festival, vaguely directed to a field “...down there somewhere” and told to look for ‘Ron’ by people who are charging traders fifty quid a day for access to a 13 amp socket. And that’s one we were invited to. There also looks to be much less chance of us being asked to give it a rest for ten minutes mid-set so that the Bird of Prey display can get started.

CP10, which we dutifully submitted a demo to and asked nicely if we could play at, is clearly being run by people with experience of being up at one in the morning tidying up cables as it has a dedicated crew catering tent, with two kinds of curry (whoever got ‘vegan curry’ in the pre-festival sweepstake was clearly on an odds-on no-brainer). This, also, we feel Mr. Wendell would appreciate, given his vegetarian proclivities. Sustainably, we were asked to bring our own eatin’ irons, which The Winns have sensibly forethought while Fiddly unveils a plate of simply Partridgian proportion which is duly laden down with rice, salad and chicken – all of which disappears in due course; Fiddly is nothing if not a child of austerity, and relates a story from his school days involving the resale of an ounce of Churchman’s shag and a briar pipe - “...and that’s when I gave up smoking!” he chuckles. Gib and I elect to make a donation instead and receive paper plates, some of which he suspects he may have ingested over the course of dinner, since at one point the realisation dawns that he is actually attempting to scoop up some varnish from the trestle table with his (wooden) fork.

Of course the main business of proceedings is our opening set in a charming bedouin/crusty tented amalgam of sofas, deep cushions, backlit fabric jellyfish and a swordfish-based stage proscenium which makes La Mulley sigh deeply and happily in remembrance of childhood festivals past. It is here that Mr. Wendell’s absence is most keenly felt, as in having stripped back the set where possible to abrogate his vocal abstenteeism, I have neglected to fully take into account that he also plays most of the holding role in terms of guitar, while I perform more in terms of a Libero. This is thrown into stark relief when I start ‘Elephant’ (“This song is about an elephant in a room, at a wedding. Not a literal elephant...”) both without the benefit of a lush Gibson-based accompaniment, but also with the wrong notes, and in completely the wrong order. However, we play through, finish well and on time – probably a bit too on time for the North Suffolk contingent, who will actually spend more of Friday evening in the car than on the festival site, all told. We tour the grounds one more time, and as we pack up to leave we espy Fiddly, flask of tea in hand, gazing wistfully out to sea. “Shoulda bought the canoe...” he murmurs softly. 


*The title of this post is inspired by sage advice given to me by the Production Manager at The Maverick Festival when I expressed some reluctance to start ordering the talent off stage when it started approaching changeover time. It's a good mantra.  

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The Hit Factory

During a discussion around the art of songwriting (or craft, or pastime, or however it is you prefer to refer) at The Blue House last night, we were trying to come up with a suitable simile for the process and preferably one which didn’t involve ‘evacuation’. After a tiresome day – the highlight of which had been an innuendo-strewn thread on her Facebook page regarding how much work she had to do – I had asked if anyone wanted to try and get a song together and so Mr. Wendell, Helen and I had assembled in order to knock one out. As it were.
I’d been inspired by a ‘Dangerous Building’ sign hanging on the outside of a house of someone we used to know, and an offhand remark made by The Artist formerly known as Our Glorious Leader as a police car drove by with its siren wailing as we passed it. I made a few notes, had a scrap of a melody and anxiously mailed Helen to ask if she knew of any songs called “This Property is Condemned”#, as it seemed too good a metaphor to have remained unused so far thus in popular song. I knew that there was already Love’s The Only House, and When It Was Ours based broadly in the same post code, however she suggested that this ground may previously have been adequately covered by Shakin’ Stevens. I did a bit of digging and it turns out This Ole House is quite the death ballad when it comes down to it, and about as lyrically cheery as You Are My Sunshine. This in turn reminded me of Gregson’s first tenet of song writing; Cheery words – maudlin tune / Downbeat lyrics – happy dance chords. Having mucked about with a Neil Young chord progression* at our last rehearsal (who doesn’t?) and, ahem, borrowed a couple of turnarounds I now had a traditional structure, a big chorus (which had a tendency to morph into Meatloaf’s Paradise By The Dashboard Light if I didn’t keep a close eye on it) and a middle eight. Which is where the guys came in.
As I say, we were all a bit tired, we all have inviting-looking sofas, and were of necessity making a late start on things due to domestic commitments in combination with that Helen lives about a forty minute drive away from where we do. And on a school night. On my morning commute, a chance selection of some Art Blakey (of all people) popping up in the mobile listening station had put the idea of making the song a kind of shuffle and so I gamely tuned up, ran through the structure for them and waited for the resulting opprobrium to manifest itself. “Hmm – that’s got something” I heard one of them say. Mr. Wendell attached a capo to his trusty Gibson acoustic and started transposing chord shapes. Helen hummed a harmony line. Twenty minutes later she suggested that the instrumental section not be the same as the verse, chorus or middle-eight but “…go somewhere else”. Accordingly we went somewhere else which, it turned out, meant that we’d effected an accidental key change which manifested itself when we got back to the chorus. Wendell smiled as he realised the new chords fit perfectly simply within his be-capo’d inversions. Helen hummed a solo, we counted in an ending, Wendell and I figured a little harmony intro riff which lent itself to an echo of Crazy Little Thing Called Love. All these little influences and hidden mind cupboards being opened up and rooted through in search of that elusive last ingredient to just finish off the dish before us. We played it through, then played it through again. Sated, we returned to our discussion about the process. “It’s like swimming” said Hel. “You never want to go, but afterwards you feel great”.
As Wendell drove home, we listened to XTC and talked about the writing process. Knowing I was going to post something up I wondered if there was an inspirational Andy Partridge quote I could use to illustrate and illuminate it further. And that’s where I found this.

*At least that's what I say. Wendell reckons it's from Headstart for Happiness.

# Update; Friend of the band and recording mentor Fenton Steve points out that Maria McKee was indeed way ahead of us. I should have known that as I own this album. Ironically, it's the one where she looks a bit like Helen on the cover.

Friday, March 17, 2017

"Nobody Knows Anything..."

I spend a lot of time bumbling around on the internet, me - a touch of bloggery here, a little below the line action there and - of course - this occasional record of my glittering showbiz career, which I occasionally compile into book form. One of the places I tend to hang out online is at The Afterword, which grew out of the compost left over after the untimely demise of The Word Magazine. Colin Harper - journalist, biographer of Bert Jansch (and like me a one time musical employer of Judy Dyble) - is also on the AW blog and recently wrote that he really must get round to reading some of my efforts. I'd really enjoyed his John McLaughlin book and I thought it might be a nice gesture to share mine with him, so I sent him a copy. A short while later he posted this review on The Afterword, and I enjoyed reading it almost as much as I enjoy writing the blogs. In case you don't get over there as often as you might, I've taken the liberty of reproducing his kind words here; 

As of January 2006, Skirky had been playing guitar in bands, some of which had played original music, none of which ‘made it’. As he explains in the Introduction to this warm, witty, unpretentious and entertaining diary of a year-in-the-life of the bar covers band they had become, ‘we couldn’t just knock it all on the head and retire gracefully. Retire from what, for a start?’

As well as being written by a fellow clearly comfortable in his own skin, Skirky (who has, like Dr Watson did with Conan Doyle, employed someone to be his literary agent/name-on-the-cover, in this case one Shane Kirk) has produced a valuable anthropological document. It even helps that we never find out the name of the band (unless I wasn’t paying attention on that page) and only know the members by cunning soubriquets: The Drummer, The Other Guitarist, The Singer, et al. This is thus an ‘Everyband’ memoir – a snapshot of the life and trials of a bunch of music fans who have wound up exchanging the dream of Peel sessions and the right to say ‘Hello, Wembley!’ with feet on monitors for an evening at the Dog & Duck, a few pies and pints, and a regular cache of passing characters.

‘Scratch the surface of a contentedly strumming pub rocker and you’ll surely find the soul of a burned-out singer-songwriter still bitter that they came second in the 1989 ‘Battle of the bands’ competition, and as a result never got the acclaim they so clearly deserved then, and still deserve now.’

Along the way we learn that waterskiing trips can be cancelled because it’s ‘too wet’, that ‘the hog roast man’ is not always available, that ‘the healing power of REO Speedwagon is an underrated one’ that ‘only natural predator’ of the pub-rocker is ‘the Dixieland Jazz Combo’ and that, of Skirky & his mates, ‘folk in Stowmarket still talk in hushed tones of the version of ‘Rubber Bullets’ we attempted on the back of two quick run-throughs at which no more than 60% of the band were present at any one time’.

For the pub-rocker, when push comes to shove, ‘the show-off must go on. And you have to pay for the privilege.’ Then again, ‘the clarion cry of ‘Come on! Earn your money!’ never falls more easily than from the lips of someone who hasn’t paid to get in’.

This is a terrific book – great fun, an easy read, a glimpse into a loveably middle-English world of country pubs and creative dreams that aren’t so much broken as mended and making do, and a talent worn very lightly indeed. I wouldn’t bet against Skirky – whoever that mystery man may be – having a hit song in him. But even with the royalty millions rolling in, I have a feeling he’d still be down at the ‘Dog & Duck’ playing Kenny Rogers, Radiohead and everyone in between. And yes, he *does* do Wings – especially if they’re from KFC.

Length of Read:Medium

Might appeal to people who enjoyed…
Any light-hearted memoir, Rick Wakeman’s anecdotes, Brian Pern mockumentaries, pies, beer, Ipswich…

One thing you’ve learned
That Ipswich is called ‘Ippo’ by its denizens. Who knew?          

Monday, February 27, 2017

"I've marked you down two points for doing some Coldplay..."

A return to where it* all began this week, as a temporarily reconstituted Picturehouse Big Band conduct what we refer to (several times) as a Sunday afternoon ‘live rehearsal’ prior to one of our occasional forays back into the world of birthday-parties-by-request. The Singer, The Bass Player, The Drummer and The Other Guitarist are all present and correct, as is a cheerily receptive audience, thanks in no small part to our two televised support acts – The Old Farm Derby and an England rugby international, which we try very hard not to disrupt by sound checking the drums midway through.
Having originally set up an acoustic strum through a few appropriate covers, we have remembered an exponentially increasing number of things that we like to play, and so the set will eventually come in at a hefty couple of hours’ worth – and although that’s including the traditional onstage conversation and instrument swapping, it's still probably about an hour and a quarter more than we’re actually going to need on the night. Still, it’s nice to stretch out a bit, both figuratively and literally, as the big green tent at The Dove provides ample stage swagger room for all of us – not always the case in our heyday, when we would frequently be shoehorned into the last available space in the bar, whether that be by the dartboard, under the telly or – as on one occasion – tucked in next to the condiments station in the restaurant. The Other Guitarist had to stop between songs to hand out forks and mayonnaise.
After an understandably hesitant start (by our standards) – after all, some of this equipment hasn’t been out from under the stairs in half a decade – we get into our stride and as well as a few old favourite songs, some of their bespoke introductions are getting an airing too. “This is a rehearsal, after all” says The Drummer “So if there’s anything you need to practise, do feel free to join in. I’m brushing up on my drinking”. In the midst of the audience, my KS1 firstborn Lord Barchester is practising his joined up writing by noting down the song titles and marking our performance out of ten like a diminutive Len Goodman or a slightly less acerbic Craig Revel-Horwood**. He is also (naturellement!) wearing a cape, which adds dramatically to the effect of his whirling dervishness during a couple of consecutive Clash numbers in the second set. This is a set I am running behind for, and arrive onstage only just in time to hear the announcement that as well as performing at today's salon, we will also be part of a Summer free festival at Portman Road to celebrate our hosts’ twenty years in the booze and muse trade. “I’m so sorry I’m late” I explain “I was taking my son for a poo”. I consider it unlikely that Joe Strummer had occasion to present this as an excuse for not turning up on time to fight the law. It wasn’t always like this, I reflect.
Mrs K, having taken a temporary leave of absence from audience member duties is privy to a gentleman displeased with our current direction. “I told ‘em – if they play another Radiohead song I’m off!” he mutters as he takes his leave – this delivered in broadest Gyppeswyckian, which adds incalculably to the gaiety of the scene. Back inside, thankfully not everyone is as disapproving by our choice of material and at the conclusion of set two we are invited to continue our performance by an appreciative crowd, albeit one thinned slightly by childcare responsibilities and the realisation that some of them haven't had their tea yet. We use this opportunity to invite friend and former co-Picturehouser Andy Trill up to properly shred his way through My Sharona in his inimitable fleet-fingered fashion. He looks at the disappointing dearth of rack effects and flashing lights at his feet “Give me more gain than I could possibly ever need” he politely requests, before quietly and efficiently going on to tear the roof off the sucker while I look on with a cheese-eating grin of satisfaction. We attend to packing up, grateful that it’s eight o’clock in the evening as we call to carriages, rather than two in the morning - we're not as young as we used to be, you know, however much we might look it.
Back when I started writing about Picturehouse it was to capture and treasure these times for posterity – to keep alive the feel of the moment ere I forget in the fog of the morning after.

By the time I get home there are four live clips from the gig on Facebook.            

*This blog
**We scored an impressive 148 points out of a possible 150, I am told.
(The picture at the top of this entry is poster we used for our first gig together. The Other Guitarist got his kids to design it when they were around the age that Barch is now. The eldest of them is now a paramedic who you occasionally see tearing around town under blue lights and sirens. Time is round, and it rolls quickly). 

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Lazy People in Local Newspapers

I see from a report in Her Majesty’s Press that local landmark The Mulberry Tree is up for sale. Well, I say ‘report’ – what I mean is a non-subbed, non-parsed cut & paste from the selling agent’s website describing the assets of the building. This, I’m afraid, is what passes for journalism these days – this and an endless (re)cycle of former glories and nostalgic, misty mountain hop-flavoured memories of the way we were*. Still, you don’t need another reflection on the decline and fall of the local paper from me – there are many, many ex-journalists who are more than qualified to give you that, but if their modus operandi is simply to exploit the archive then surely one day they’re going to run out of history** - although I know of several bits that they won’t be able to lay their hands on, because at the end of his tenure as rock and pop correspondent (never a massive priority for the editor) Mr. Wendell*** lifted as many glossy 8x10 photographs with the circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one explaining what each one was as he could cram into his briefcase. There are more mullets in there than in a Floridian haul seine net.
In a spirit of research though, here are a couple of things I found with their look up function – here’s Picturehouse letting local radio presenter Simon Talbot play guitar with us and here’s me and James looking forward to our shot at Hollywood glory. Because we’d written a song the photographer for the latter story asked us to pose holding pencils and a piece of paper, and my favourite quote from the eventual published piece is “…several other talented musicians make up the band, some of whom play occasionally”. You see – [CTRL] + C – I could do that job. We took that picture in The Dove, by the way. 
Sadly, The focus of the current 'story' is on the value of the property, and not on the vital part the venue and it’s custodians played in my rise and rise to rock stardom and notoriety during the pub’s time as the rebranded The Milestone in the latter part of the last century and the early stirrings of this. Having moved from The Olive Leaf just up the road, Karen and Ady brought along some of the house bands who had kept them entertained so royally during their tenure there and here it was also that a nascent Songs from The Blue House made our live debut, and where we then backed La Mulley at SSW as she first presented many of the songs which would go to make up our second album.
Here The Picturehouse Big Band hosted a series of themed gigs – the Football Kit Night was going well until I tried to play 2-4-6-8 Motorway in goalkeeping gloves (don’t listen to those who tell you it improved the whole experience), our Beach Party drew admiring reviews regarding the nature of then-bass player Andy’s shortie shorts (Kilbey sported a Beckham-esque sarong) and the inevitable school uniform night came with the consequence that the music respectfully stopped whenever Katinka went on a glass-collecting run. There was the night that Limehouse Lizzy cancelled up at The Railway and we threw in a couple of impromptu Thin Lizzy numbers (“It’s Em, D, C and G all the way through – I’ll do the solo…”) and Pete Radar Pawsey did a harmonica solo in Take It On The Run. The Star Club played after-park parties which pulled in almost as many folk as watched us at Ipswich Music Day, I DJ’d a vinyl-only night - hell, they even let gods kitchen play.
All this reduced to “The property comprises of a ground floor L shaped bar, 50 covers, a tap room for beers & ciders from the barrel, ladies, gent’s and disabled toilets, a walled garden with seating area for 16 covers, complete with a BBQ dining area and a beer garden to the front of the premises.” Sorry, I do beg your pardon – that’s from the Penn Commercial listing – this is from the Ipswich Star story – “The property comprises a 1,599 sq ft ground floor L-shaped bar with 50 covers, a taproom for beers and ciders from the barrel. Outside there is a 1,237 sq ft walled garden with seating for a further 16 covers, complete with a BBQ dining area.” [CTRL] + P.
And this is just from my experience – think how many stories they could spin out if someone was just prepared to get off their big fat keyboard, pick up a phone and ring a few people. What about the night David Coverdale bought a round for everyone in the pub, when Tony Hadley got turned away from a lock-in because no-one recognised him, Dave Greenfield turned up at songwriter’s night and played Golden Brown or The Levellers were in there after their encore at The Regent before the audience were?
“Upstairs is a three bedroom flat with study, and a living room, attractive fitted kitchen and separate toilet and bathroom with free standing bath. The flat has also been recently renovated and decorated to a good standard” my arse.

*Although not entirely unlike much of this blog, to be fair.

**We listened to an interview with an executive from Archant regarding the future of local papers on the wireless one day on our way to a festival, and if he said ‘monetise’ once, he said it twenty times, and it was only a ten minute feature. When the Ipswich Star do the inevitable self-aggrandizing history of their new offices, I hope they remember to include this.

***Following in a distinguished succession of feature writers (Rob Hadgraft, Simon Berrill, Julie Adams), Mr. Wendell employed Our Glorious Leader James and Myself as (unpaid) singles reviewers and once interviewed our band As Is for a feature which appeared under the headline “Too Lazy to Work, Too Scared to Steal”, which was a mantra we’d adopted from Green on Red’s Dan Stuart – his response to the question as to why he was a musician.