Thursday, December 06, 2018

"My style is not so good. As a matter of fact it's minimal".

Come hither, young shaver pull your coat and scarf tight around you, for the winter chill seeps inst through the door and wraps unwary limbs in its cold embrace. Sit here by the fire, and I shall tell you of the hinterlands, the dark places where old lore hast not yet been driven out by the briskness of modernity. The hoot of an owl, the scurry of the muntjack, a bustle in your hedgerow – don’t be alarmed now…

Mr. Wendell and I are on our way to an undisclosed location in Mid-Suffolk where, behind a hedge of epic proportions lies The Hovell and inside the rambling adjunct without, Fiddly Richard – a man as drawn by Quentin Blake as an approximation of what the protagonist of Roald Dahl’s great unreleased “The Woodcutter and The Canoeist” might best resemble.* We wipe the mud from our boots – he’s vacuumed in anticipation of our visit, after all – and put down guitar cases. We are here to embark on perhaps the most magic alchemical process of all – that of overdubbing the electric guitar onto an acoustic demo.{FX: Roll of Thunder}. It’s the sort of process which used to beget all those outtakes and alternate versions that now turn up on remastered reissues of classic albums, but with the advent of computer technology much of this “ it rolling, Bob?”-style malarkey has been superseded by the mere touch of a button.

To my left, sits Mr. Wendell, fully armed with a Fender Telecaster, an amplifier and an electronic effects board, which has a bewildering number of knobs, dials, pedals, and numerous flashing lights aglint. “I mainly use it as a tuner” he explains. Fiddly bustles off to make tea. At this point I should explain that Mr. Gibbon and I have already contributed a bass part and an acoustic guitar to proceedings, La Mulley has donated a guide vocal so we don’t get lost half way through the bewildering middle-eight and Neighbourhood Tony is due in to record some melodeon and harmonica the next day. He’s the banjo player, for those who haven’t been keeping up. We have experimented with many examples of the long-form recording format, however with the dearth of solid Baptist chapels in the area and conflicting diary commitments ever at our backs, we’ve decided to entrust recording the latest example of our ouevre to Fiddly. In his shed. 

He’s using Cubase which, again for those not overly familiar with the white hot development of recording technology over the past few years is - if you ask some people - somewhat akin to holding up a ghetto blaster outside a rehearsal room, pressing Play and Record at the same time and hoping the sellotape doesn’t fall off the C-90 your big sister used in order to enable her tape the top forty off the radio at the weekend. I’m not saying it’s old school, but he has to keep a spare elastic band in case the hard drive starts running slow and if the system needs rebooting he has to rub a balloon briskly against his jumper whilst pressing CTRL+ALT+DEL. This is why it’s obviously handy if there are two or three of us involved in each session.

Nevertheless, the actual sounds he records in the room are as the surroundings suggest – warm, woody, rustic. For someone who regards Neil Young’s Tonight’s the Night as the modern apotheosis of production capability, as I do, this is welcome fare. We’ve already had a discussion about Helen’s vocal take on the new song. “It fades in and out and there’s a bit where it wavers a bit at the end of the phrase” runs one argument. “It sounds like her...” I counter “...singing in a room”. Mr. Wendell runs down the chords, adjusts his vibrato and delay settings**, confirms that he can hear the monitor mix in his headphones perfectly and goes for the vibe. The tension rises as we reach the bridge – has he remembered the double-stop arpeggio and 6/8 chord reversal which introduces the breakdown before the penultimate verse? He has! We both relax – me with a gentle exhalation (we’ve got a DI from the Boss rack and a mic on the Marshall combo, so quiet please in the room) and him with a desultory swipe across a capo’d Em which breaks both the rhythm and mood of the song. Fiddly, in the control booth awakens with a start. “Do you want to hear it?” he enquires solicitously. “No thanks, let’s go again” responds Wendell. The endgame is in sight - but as the kids say these days, it’s not over until Ed Sheeran sings. The hum of the amplifier hangs sonorously in the room. “It’s what an amplifier sounds like” I say.

A couple of takes later and it’s almost in the bag. There’s one more chord to drop in – at the very last Mr. Wendell’s nerve has failed him and he’s waited a nanosecond too long to hit the climactic Am in tandem with my ringing double-tracked acoustic. One quick flick of the mouse to get us on to a new track and he’s paused ready to caress the strings of steel. Job done, we ask Fiddly to put it on the big speakers so we can listen back to our work. It’s already full and resonant, and the lengthy (five minutes plus) running time leaves little room for error in a one-take working scenario. Just before the last chord, we hear it. Someone suggests hesitantly “I think you fluffed that picked note just before the end”. I think I did, responds my internal monologue.

“Fuck it” I say out loud. “These box sets don’t compile themselves”.

*Spoiler alert – it’s the same guy.
**I know – once it’s down, it’s down. No post-production remix and remodel for you, Mister.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

"This was a museum in 1847" "Blimey, and it's only half eight now!"

We are already in a bus lane, and in a designated loading bay, when we are aproached by the bagpiper. “Are you looking for somewhere to park?” he enquires solicitously, having taken a break from producing the stirring and skirling sound of the pipes - albeit, rather incongruously, in the heart of swinging downtown Ipswich. We agree that we are indeed looking for somewhere to park. “Just down there” he indicates with a wave of his chanter before cheerily resuming his droning on. We park up and I hurry toward the service door, pausing briefly as I remember that Helen is negotiating a darkened car park in three-inch red velvet stilettoes. “Keep up!” I say brightly. “Are we in the right place?” she says. “Of course!” I reply “There’s a white van parked out the back”. And, I remind myself, a bagpiper parked out the front.

We are at Arlington’s, where I’ve played before, at the behest of the new owners, who are minded to launch their new venture in a hail of free drinks, canapes and, as it turns out, the lilting sound of sweet, sweet music. Which is where Helen and The Neighbourhood Dogs come in. We have received an electronic mail inviting us to perform at the soiree at slightly shorter notice than one might expect – today being Wednesday and the mail having been received on Monday – but by fortunate happenstance all The Dogs are free* and so we accept the offer of a meal and a drink in return for two ten minute performances about an hour apart from each other, Which at least should give us time to get our small plate Tapas in between sets. And it doesn’t even look like they want a fumble in the car park afterwards, which is where quite a few dinner invitations have led me in the past. Out by the bins.

Now, I know what you’re probably thinking. “Two sets, an hour apart? But what the very devil are folk supposed to do in between?” Aha – you see, well, they’d thought of that too. We are but one of seven turns to perform on three stages set about the ballroom in rotation. Someone has clearly been watching too much Later with Jools… and some seasoned heads in the organisation are already muttering to themselves regarding timekeeping and logistics. Fixed upon my “Not my circus...” mantra I am nevertheless slightly taken aback that the promised eight channel PA does not come with microphones, mic stands or monitors**. In these sorts of situations one hopes that the fraternal and sororal nature of the musician’s creed will come to the fore and indeed we are quickly offered the use of the estimable This Machine Kills Fascists’ microphones and bass amp, Turny has a spare mic with him, fellow troubadours Blues Brother, Soul Sister lend a microphone stand, and before kick off TMKF even conjure and set up a vocal monitor onstage. hat'll be where the van came in. Or, rather more accurately, what came in the van.

Waiting staff circulate with plates of tasty morsels, the bar has a limited range of complimentary beverages. It’s not exactly Queen’s New Orleans launch party for Jazz, but it’s pleasant enough. Also on the bill are a couple of conjurors, who have already been asked to cut their sets as we’re running late. We sympathise, as this is a not unfamiliar experience at these sorts of events. I bump into one of them at the bar later. “Are you getting free drinks?” he asks? “I’m about to find out” I reply. “Are you paying for these?” enquires my bar steward. Miming playing an imaginary ukulele as the universal sign for being slightly musical I respond that “I’m with the band”. “Oh” she says, handing over my tasty beverage. “I’ll have one of those” says my fellow traveller. “Are you in a band too?” she asks. “No” he replies, whisking an instantly fanned deck of cards from an inside pocket. “I’m a magician...”

As the evening wends its way toward an end, the genteel hubbub has faded slightly with the thinning of the glitterati, the velvet among the palm fronds further between, and so for our second set we throw in the sort of mournful ballad that you usually need the rarified atmosphere of a folk club to perform. It’s clearly the right move for that time of the evening. There are a couple of solo spots before TMKF return to the stage with their scattergun punky ska approach***, clearly having similarly assessed the vibe of the diminishing crowd. “This is catchy” I remark in an aside to Helen as we tap our toes along to the chorus of something lively. “Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you!” they sing. 

We make our way to our carriages.

*This is virtually unheard of. Even at rehearsals we can only usually round up two thirds of us at best.

**For the layperson, imagine that you’ve been over to stay at a friend’s house and that when you wake up in the morning there’s a note on the fridge which reads “Gone to work, frying pan in the cupboard, help yourself to breakfast!” You open the fridge, and there’s nothing in it.

***Listening to them is akin to a experiencing tightly-condensed support bill at Beautiful Days.

Monday, November 05, 2018

In Praise of TT.

I won’t lie to you, I’ve been lucky. The number of people who’ve been willing to throw their talent at whatever dumb idea I’ve come up with has, over the years - the decades even - been humbling. I once formed a band called The Free Albanian Airforce which featured a punk singer on bass, me on guitar, and a guy who once auditioned for Generation X on harmonica, for instance. Then someone actually gave us a gig. Our big showstopper was a version of JJ Cale’s “Call Me The Breeze”. At that point I wasn’t entirely sure whether he or the bloke who used to be in The Velvet Underground were the same guy. That’s how much leeway my friends have granted me, over time.
I have played The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (in full – the whole album) to a The Jam-loving friend, who still speaks to me to this day. I have opened a secondary school talent show with a Uriah Heep cover. I have persuaded a folk band that a twelve minute version of Tonight’s the Night is a perfectly acceptable way to close a beer festival. Apparently, according to me, Status Quo’s What You’re Proposin’ makes for a fabulous Sunday lunchtime jam. I am, in short, blessed.
None of this was put in to sharper relief than when I idly tapped in a few digits on the electric internet and happened upon Tony Turrell (I know him as ‘TT’) doing an acoustic session with the singer from Genesis Visible Touch (GVT for short). TT was (and for all legal purposes is) the keyboard player in Songs from The Blue House. We came across him first in a pub in Essex (this happened a lot in our recruiting process) and invited him to come and play on our version of Blue Oyster Cult’s (Don’t Fear) The Reaper. His brief (and this was my idea) was to play the middle eight as if it were an extended version of the intro from Genesis’s Firth of Fifth. “Okay” he said, and rattled it off as if it were a thing of no consequence at all. Non piano players may disagree.

Subsequently, TT roamed around the highways and byways of East Anglia with us, occasionally making oblique references to his time working with Mr. Fish-out-of-Marillion and, on one occasion (most excitedly for me) Heather Nova. He ended up writing my second favourite Blue House song, and playing an exquisite piano part on my first; gracious enough to take on board my advice about the dusty end without the merest hint of doyouknowwhoiam-ism.

As I say, I just wanted to tell you how lucky I’ve been. 

Ladies and Gentlemen, Folk, People and Others; Tony Turrell.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

How to make a small fortune in the music industry.

In short, start with a large one. Out here in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy (despite the inference offered by their name, media and publishing behemoth Universal have been conspicuous by their absence in my career trajectory to this point) the industry is largely self-financed. You’ll note I didn’t say ‘financing’. Even as I embark on my nascent career as a gig promoter, I am grateful to the good folk at HMRC for doing their sums properly and giving me back enough liquidity to temporarily play the Harvey Goldsmith card here in the heart of swinging downtown Ipswich. At the library.

Yes, I though that too. Nevertheless, in ringing round the venues and cubby holes of Ippo, the one place that was cheap and available happened to be the County Library, where they are keen to make much of the available space and where Police Dog Hogan once put me on the guest list because I had berated myself on social media for being stupid enough not to get advance tickets for a sold-out show. In addition, due to the volunteer-based status of this evening’s staff, it is one of those hen’s-teeth rare gigs where the bands are getting paid and the bar staff aren’t.

Along for the ride are Californian songstrel and serial open-tuner Hanna Haas, and rising stars of the UK Americana scene Morganway, who sound like nothing so much as Fleetwood Mac in their pomp, but with an added fiddle player. All the members of the band who aren’t women have impressively Big Pink-era beardage. We, by way of contrast, can barely raise two and a half between us, but I have bought a new gig top, in a striking Paisley mode, which has de facto lighting tech Kilbey in rhapsodies. Also thinking of striking is TAFKAOGL*, here in the role of sound engineer, to which he has taken in an impressive fashion, all black t-shirt, cargo shorts and sturdy boots, and also seemingly able to exist on a diet of air and Timothy Taylor’s Landlord. I don’t think I’ve seen him eat since he started the job, although there was that Facebook post about a Scotch Egg once, so I guess he’s making the best of it.

He is also faced with the conundra of the multi-band gig format which means that once you’ve set up and soundchecked the headliners (Morganway) you then have to deconstruct the whole lot in order to mic up the openers (Helen and The Neighbourhood Dogs) who seem to have, unaccountably, brought a vibraphone. This will be operated by Young Young Bob, who I fondly recall used to come to SftBH gigs with his Dad and sit, bored, reading Harry Potter during the set. There is so much percussion euipment banging about that we decide not even to try to get him onto the stage and so he is secreted behind the PA and lights at floor level like some sort of shameful add-on that we’re not really supposed to admit to. At the sound of a bell tree many of our audience may have temporarily considered dark thoughts regarding triggers and samples. I get the impression that James, simultaneously manipulating an iPad and miking up a cajon, may be harbouring certain dark intentions of his own.

Mr. Wendell, over on stage right, is impressively bushy of face, and has transcended his intended initial role in the band as lead singer and strummer to take over harmonies and lead guitar and has reached the stage in his career where he has two identical Telecasters – one capoed at the fifth fret, one let to run wild and free in standard tuning – on stage alongside his trusty Gibson acoustic. Needless to say, his guitar amplifier is set up on the opposite side of the stage to where Kieron-out-of-Morganway’s is. James make a Fawlty-esque harrumphing grunt. “Right...” he says.

The doors are scheduled to open at seven-thirty. At seven thirty-one, we are able let the first of our impressively susbstantial audience in. Much of the past few weeks has been spent worrying about the number of online ticket sales, the potential walk-up and managing the guest list. We have fourteen musicians alone performing, so it’s not like anyone’s going to be playing to an empty room, but it’s still gratifying to see the bar area filling up, the tables all occupied and extra chairs being retrieved from behind the photocopier. It would appear that I’m not going to lose my (Paisley) shirt and I’m not going to have to pull any of that Peter Grant shit after all. I’ve not really put on a gig since all you had to do was put up a couple of posters in your local record shops, but now there aren’t any of those either**, as I ruefully reflect with a local radio presenter who gently chides me that I hadn’t been in touch with him at all and the first thing he knew about the show was when Morganway’s drummer called him on his mobile asking to rent a hi-hat stand. “I’ll play their CD on the show” he says after their barnstorming performance, before adding pointedly “I’d rather have played it last week...”

The good folk of the library are delighted with the outcome. Our unusually thirsty patrons have given them a good night, we’ve rattled out a couple of new songs and given away some flyers, Hanna’s sold some of her beautiful tote bags and lightened her Merch case considerably, and James is deep in conversation about a couple of festivals he might like to get Morganway to play next year. “How was your first promotion?” he asks me. “First one I did I got nine people, and that was with Matt Cardle”. I am relieved and very slightly post-gig euphoric. “Hey” says a passing Morganwayer. “Nice shirt”.

*The Artist Formerly Known as Our Glorious Leader. 

**Thanks to Chris at Out of Time in Fore Street for exemplary gig poster display, by the way.

Monday, September 24, 2018

"What's this song about? It's about four minutes..."

We are legion – those who, for whatever reason, have a handy compendium of easily digestible chapters on or adjacent to our coffee table, night stand or nightsoil disposal unit. The Meaning of Liff, Does Anything Eat Wasps, All These Little Pieces, any number of amusing anthologies of readers’ letters (until you realise that Telegraph readers aren’t doing it in a sense of irony or mildly-detached whimsy, they really are that bonkers) and/or Dear Mr. Kershaw, a collection of notes sent to musicians purportedly from a Mr. Derek Philpott questioning the logic and syntax of various lyrics. Julianne Regan, I recall was a particularly good sport regarding the perceived inconsistencies contained within Martha’s Harbour and Mr. Fish-out-of-Marillion even hosted his reply on his own Facebook page for a while. These are wrought, as one respondent writes, “ the style of a neighbour’s particularly strident objection to a routine owner-builder development application before the local council”.

This term we receive the difficult second album, more of the same but flavoured ever so slightly with the feel that most, if not all, of the correspondents are now in on the joke* – not least as there is a dedication thanking the various roadies, relatives, personal connections and fans who got responses through ‘the back door of the industry’ at the start of the book. “Oh, it’s you again” begins Saxon’s Graham Oliver’s note. Nevertheless, unresponded entreaties litter the volume, some little more than the sort of clever-clever Tweets that pop stars routinely ignore and some, beautifully flighted deliveries which invite you on to the front foot before fizzing away past the off-stump leaving you batting at air. Christopher Cross and Eddy Grant – and thereby we - are spun particularly delicious leg breaks, for example.

The emphasis here, then, is on the writers themselves – or more frequently their drummers, bass players and retired guitarists – to expand and explain according to their wit, sense of collusion and degree of detachment which some master better than others. Chip out of The Tremeloes deals with tremendous dignity in being addressed in a superb muso in-joke as one of ‘The Whammy Bars’, Henry Priestman overdoes the puns, Dennis Locorriere throws himself heartily into character and Chris Difford reflects acerbically on being hailed at airports as “Glenn”. Although there’s nothing quite so epic as Bruce Thomas’s lengthy exegesis on Oliver’s Army as contained in the first volume, Stan Cullimore’s letter wends at length with the sort of wry observation that got Alan Bennett two series of Talking Heads.

In the midst of all this there are some genuinely intriguing (and presumably) shaggy dog stories which I imagine we’ll all be seeing on Wikipedia before too long. One might well believe that The Big Figure once borrowed Will Birch’s floor tom-tom for an appearance on The Old Grey Whistle Test, but what to make of Roland Orzabal’s fond reminisce of an anonymous Scandinavian weather girl, or Verden Allen’s definitive Google fact check-inspiring commentary on All The Young Dudes?

In the end, there are countless hours of amusement to be had dipping in to this fun-filled compendium dotted, as it is, with occasionally inspired philosophical tenets. Who can deny Francis Dunnery’s almost Nietzschean “You can debate with your quick wit and your sharp mind, you can create intellectual pitfalls for us Northerners to fall into, you can outsmart, outwit, out flank and out manouevre all of us at the same time, but at the end of the day, all of your studies and countless hours spent in books and debate will prove themselves useless. Because no matter what you say, we’ll just kick your ****in’ teeth in anyway”? 

How much more bleak could it be?’ you think to yourself.

None. None more bleak.

*They, it has been confirmed, most certainly are.

Thank you to The Philpotts for inviting me to be part of their Blog Tour, and hello to all my new visitors. Welcome aboard, do have a browse through the back catalogue. Here are some suggestions to get you started. 'Moby Dave' always seems to go down well at parties.


Sunday, August 05, 2018

"Flew in from Alghero Beach BOAC..."

As the estimable Ian Hunter once sagely quoth, “It’s a mighty long way down rock n’ roll”. I don ‘t know where he wrote that line. It may have been on a tour bus, an aeroplane, a service station somewhere. These days the amount of popping over to do a quick gig in Europe many musicians do means that the departure lounge at Stansted Airport is, essentially, the new Blue Boar. For the moment, at least. Who knows what will happen under the great new freedoms of Brexit, although the queues at passport control are always a lot longer in the ‘EU’ section, so there’s that to look forward to, at least.

I am for once caught up in this impossibly glamorous lifestyle of expensive food, nervous scrutiny of the baggage carousel and seemingly interminable waiting as I have booked a holiday with my devoted family which ends on the same day as the third date of the Picturehouse Big Band 2018 Tour (of Stowmarket) is scheduled. This means that whilst on Friday I will be in a lovely restaurant with impossibly well-groomed Italian waiters insisting that I try the Seadas, I shall dine on Saturday in a branch a popular fast food franchise so irredeemably filthy that even patrons in replica football shirts are taking souvenir pictures of it to send to their friends. All the way from Gatwick...

Timings work out, and so I present myself to the group armed with my latest custom hot-rod job of a guitar*, a potentially blistering Fender amp, a brand-new vintage Paisley stage shirt, and a complete lack of hearing in one ear due to repeated immersion in a pool and/or the sea over the past week or so. Fortunately it’s the ear facing (earing?) The Drummer, who already has his own plugs in due to the proximity of said amplifier to his drum stool. I wonder briefly whether this condition will have the effect as when the folk singers – you’ve seen the folk singers, by the shop, by where the multi-storey is, and where the Corn Exchange is, by the Corn Exchange, the folk singers – stick a finger in their ear so that they can hear the harmonies better, however I am quickly disabused of this notion when I get up to do Keep on Movin’ by boy band 5ive (some wag responds to Kilbey’s introduction to the song that we might form a tribute band called 5ifty 5ive). With a blockage in one ear and raging tinnitus in the other however, I do get what must be a close approximation of the experience Pete Townsend has during The Kids Are Alright. My sympathies, Pete.

Kilbey ‘Two Beers’ Mears** is in fine form this evening due to a rare driving-free excursion - courtesy of The Singer - and as his introductions get more voluble, the jokes funnier and a tear comes unprompted to his rheumy old eye during one particularly moving rendition of 'Run' I reflect on the proportion of the set that we started playing contemporaneously and which are now the subjects of anniversary and milestone editions of their original release. Even REO Speedwagon’s Hi Infidelity has had the deluxe reissue treatment although, poignantly, they didn’t get around to it until the year after it’s thirtieth birthday. A mighty long way down rock n’ roll indeed.

Post-encore we are collared by an enthusiastic fan who insists that we play her 5iftieth birthday party, in two years’ time. “Even if you have to reform to do it!”. "2020” I say to The Drummer. “Try not to die in the meantime”. 

**Or, on this occasion, Kilbey 'Two beers, a couple of JD and cokes and might as well make it a double' Mears. 

Photo: Louise Paine/Facebook

Monday, July 09, 2018

"Pay no attention to the man on the roof..!"

Once again I am entrusted with temporary stewardship of the Medicine Show stage at The Maverick Festival – an annual (now in its eleventh year) celebration of all things Americana. This year’s event has much to recommend it in terms of a Commonwealth take on the genre, with bands from Australia, Canada, Wales and the Independent Republic of Yorkshire alongside such luminary risers as The Cordovas and Southern Avenue, both of which I caught during drink breaks in the action on my pop-up stage and of whom I’m sure you’ll be hearing much more quite soon. Of course the Lingua Franca of the genre is Hillbilly, and it is often quite the disconcert to hear a Southern Gothic, gibbous moon murder ballad being back-announced in a broad Sudbury accent. I will later have a conversation with Alicia Best from A Different Thread about there being nothing more country than singing in your own accent, or whether there should be a mandatory short written exam before you are alllowed to adopt the argot of the Louisianans during your performance - “Describe, in no more than two hundred words, what a ‘bayou’ is, and how you intend to get under it. You have fifteen minutes”. Later I learn that Alicia is from Manhattan.

The Medicine Show is a boutique-within-a-boutique part of the festival, situated betwixt bar and barbecue, and intended as an acoustic sorbet during band changeovers in the adjacent The Barn stage. Basically I get a list of artists – all volunteers, for this is no contractually-obligated add-on for their part – who are going to show up, plug in, and give it their best ten minutes or until I get the signal that (say) Danny and The Champions of The World are good to go. It’s a spectacularly popular diversion amongst both performers and civilians alike, with the former eager to get up and indulge in what is for many of us an experience akin to musical speed-dating, and the latter almost equally as keen to let me know that “….the vocals could come up a bit”. Oddly enough, it rarely happens the other way around.

I do have a couple of trigger warnings. Anyone who asks for “...a bit more reverb in the monitors” clearly needs keeping an eye on. Anyone who asks if you’d like to try some delicious tequila from their hip flask, on the other hand, can have as much or as little reverb as they darned well like. This year I am not called upon to mic up a flatfoot stomp box*, however I am presented with a pre-bug mic’d version with a DI output. If this doesn’t mean anything to you, relax. This time last year I didn’t know what a -20dB PAD and ground lift switch did either. I am also reminded that the most talented artists are also frequently the most personable. This year’s above and beyond award goes once again to Lachlan Bryan, his band, and fellow travellers The Weeping Willows, all of whom gave selflessly and at nothing under magnanimously maximum effort. They also all had leads, capos, tuners and songs and were ready to go the instant the start flag fell, even if that did mean passing over a Thai Green Curry for someone to hold while they played.

But it’s not all about the performances. Offstage, there is camaraderie, japerie, cheese, a chance to meet up and let off steam with your fellow musicians. If you spend most of your time cooped up in a van, who can blame you if you want to stay up until two in the morning loudly creating metaphors to describe the size of Lenny Kravitz’s genitalia, or replacing the last letter in words that end with an ‘S’ with the letter ‘T’? Frankly, I think they’d been hanging out a little too long with the Yorkshire contingent at that point and some of it had rubbed off. As it were. Sooner or later though, the music takes priority again. “He’ll be here at about twelve” crackles my walkie-talkie. “Should be fine. Oh, and he’s bringing his three year-old, so you’re on child-minding duties for ten minutes too”.

*Confonted with a stompbox, banjo, acoustic double bass and vocal accompaniment, I ask a passing sound engineer for any advice. "Make a run for it?" he suggests.  

Monday, July 02, 2018

"I bet you say that to ALL the bands..."

And so, once more unto Ipswich Music Day! Long-term correspondents will be fully aware that I have held forth at length on this subject many times over the course of this Blog’s existence, and rightly so. It is the largest free one day festival in the UK, and up to forty thousand people spread around half a dozen stages is no small beer when it comes to sharing your musical wares. Having been lucky* enough to play a number of times in various guises over the years, I am keen to help with Mr. Wendell and Gibbon’s attempts to list all of our respective appearances. Pete Frame might be ordering extra stationery supplies if he were to try and map the various connections but a good leaping-off point might be, say, The Perfectly Good Guitars – a prescient delve into what we now call Americana and conceived and performed a perfectly good few years before festivals celebrating such roots and country touchstones as Hank Williams became established boutique events in themselves.

During my sitewide perambulation I encounter most of the old family. Tommy Lee is playing the Town 102 Arena with his band The Chancers, who include tiny diva Emmylou Mandolin. On stage when I pass by is a dance troupe who loudly proclaim their love for The Nineties. “It was all so cheesy! Before everything got so serious!”. I mean I reckon they’re understating the global geopolitical effects of the Gulf War, conflict in The Balkans and the collapse of The Soviet Union, but we did get Barbie Girl so, y’know, swings and roundabouts. Wendell G. Guitar is of course due on stage with Ophelia later, and even Billy-Bob is to be found lurking backstage at the BBC paddock. At The Grapevine Tent I encounter The PGG’s stage manager and roadie Kilbey Guitar, who is sitting in with the lavishly harmonious Walford and Bayfield. As is pointed out among the crowd, if you’ve got Kilbey on stage and you haven’t given him a mic you’ve got a serious excess of vocal to play with already. At one point he is introduced to the audience - “It’s Kilbey – I don’t know if that’s a forename or a surname?”
“It’s all one word” someone responds. “Like Madonna”.

I bid my fond farewell to Picturehouse Big Band alumnus Andy Pearson and make my way over to the Monument Stage, where Helen and The Neighbourhood Dogs are to finish off the turns** at six o’clock. As a band wrangler of occasional calling myself I am pleased to find a sound engineer who has a copy of our stage spec, a stage manager who mentions that they are running slightly ahead of schedule and who confirms load on and off times and, most satisfyingly, a large, prominently displayed clock, attached to the side of the awning. There is also a shaded area backstage, a tent for tuning and string changing (this will become very much appreciated by Mr. Wendell not once, but twice during our opening four numbers), ample supplies of water and a dedicated portaloo. There is also a merch table which we don’t really have anything to flog on per se, but which does help shift another copy of 'SFTBH Live' on the back of our version of Not That Kind of Girl.

We have fine-tuned the set by the simple expedient of playing everything the day before at a small soiree in Thorndon and going round with a set list and asking people what they enjoyed most. We also helped raise literally thousands of pounds for Alzheimer’s charities and for E.A.C.H.*** by the way. Yes we DO do a lot of work for charity. The usual festival line checks, a quick shout into the monitors and we’re off into swinging East Angliacana shanty ‘Heaven’ which is a terribly effective opener at these sorts of events as each vocal comes in on successive verses and there’s an acapella bit at the end which makes mixing on the hoof a good deal easier than if we’d soundchecked with (say) The Bends. Coincidentally, at Thorndon the previous day we had actually soundchecked with The Bends. Mark on the desk**** is riding the faders with aplomb, relieved by our pre-show entreaties that we don’t need the monitors set to ‘stun’. “The fiddle’s too loud in the wedges” somebody prompts. “I haven’t put any in the wedges” replies Mark, remarkably sanguine for a man who’s been sat under a gazebo with only a Tesco value prawn sandwich and a two litre bottle of warm cola for over six hours already today.

We come in triumphantly under time and are mildly surprised to hear cries for another song, not least from our stage manager. It’s genuine encore time, and so we pull out something old and unrehearsed and bouncy from our shared back catalogue. In the mosh pit, Mrs. K remarks to her companion, “This one is about a girl who was in your class at school”. We finish on the dot of seven and since there’s no-one following us, we pack down at leisure, remembering to thank Mark again. “It’s a pleasure” he replies. “You were the best group we had all day”. There are some transport logistics issues and so La Mulley, Wendell and myself start the long, slow trudge across to the other side of the park, guitars, flutes and whistle in hand. It’s not until we’ve passed Waxie’s Dargle on the University of Suffolk stage that it occurs to me that Helen had three guitars in her car when we came in, and we appear to be carrying just the two. I phone Gibbon. “Um, sorry about that, do we need to come back for you?”. He is relaxed about the situation. “I could do with the walk”.

We ease our way slowly out of the park and make our way back on to the mean streets of Ipswich. You’re never more than twenty feet away from a musician, they say. “Isn’t that Johnny?” enquires Mr. Wendell, riding shotgun up front. “It is!”. I wind down the window. “Hey Johnny!”. “Raaarrrgggghhhh” he responds. “Raaarrrghhhh!”. Helen is transfixed, stuck between the Scylla of the red traffic light, and the Charybdis of Johnny struggling with the belt buckle on his shorts. It seems he may have caught the sun. Probably. “Raarrrghhhhh!!” he cries, triumphantly unleashing his bottom in our general direction. We are at least spared an introduction to Little Johnny on this occasion. Helen looks confused. “Who is that!?”
“Let’s not get caught” I say.
“What are you talking about?” she replies.
“Let’s keep going”.
“What do you mean?”
“You sure?”

*Or talented. Brushes imaginary speck off shoulder. 
**Some might say ‘headline’.
***Which, coincidentally, is what it also felt like we spent on rides at the attendant funfair for Lord Barchester (8) on Music Day. It seems an odd state of affairs when a Zorb Ball is on a considerably higher hourly rate than a junior doctor; but I digress. 
****Top tip for new bands – find out your PA guy’s actual name. Shouting “Mr. Soundman!” mid-set makes you sound like The Chordettes.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

“…The Phone Call”.

The Dogs try as best we can not to become encumbered by the possibility of us becoming a dead shark*. We also try not to jump the shark. The music business is, of course, a shark-eat-shark multiverse. If we were to gather together all the shark-based metaphors regarding our progress ever-forward, we’d need a bigger boat.

Endeavouring to keep the set list continually freshened up during the course of our relentless touring schedule means that we’re in no postion to let the alismatales grow under our feet. It only takes a couple of festival crowds to spot that you’re playing the same songs in the same order as you did last time and you’re bundled off the circuit quicker than you can say ‘SetlistFM’. With this in mind we hold regular song-wrangling workshops wherein tiny kernels of ideas are carefully fed and watered until they bloom (hopefully) into glorious panoplies of colour with which we adorn our set. That’s the idea. 

In reality Turny Winn, our banjo-frotting multi-instrumentalist, usually strums something unobtrusive at the end of a rehearsal which we all leap upon, divvy up the vocals and launch on an unsuspecting Fiddly Richard at the next gig. Meanwhile, carefully-manicured groupthink demo recordings continue to build up in our inboxes, patiently awaiting the flash of inspiration from whoever has volunteered to flesh them out with a narrative which will convert them into fully-fledged songs.

With this in mind I realised that a forthcoming four hour train journey I had to undertake would be the perfect opportunity to devote myself to knuckling down and producing a finished piece of work to present to the collective** at our next get-together. There had been a couple of gigs where our carefully-curated set list had been subject to a skipping order part-way through, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity to knuckle down and see if I could do that thing that I'd read that proper writers do - sit down and work at their craft. Or craft their work. Either way, it was going to be something to occupy me on the trans-Southern Express.

As it happened, I’d been knocking around an idea called The Misfits for a while, engaged but not necessarily inspired by the film of the same name. I was interested in the idea of a pair who ride off into the sunset at the end of the song, and aren’t necessarily the sort of people you’d be rooting for in the first place or throughout the middle eight. Not exactly anti-heroes, but you wouldn't necessarily invite them round for tea without first hiding the silverware. As a melodic placeholder I used Neil Young’s Unknown Legend to hook the format together until I was able to hum something bespoke when I got in. 

By the time I was home again I had a notebook full of couplets, a couple of melodies and enough time to bang down a quick demo in Garageband which I sent out to Mr. Wendell and La Mulley to critique. A week later we were in The Snug at Helen’s, contemplating capos and ruminating on rhythms. Mr. Wendell considered my tried and tested Neil Young plod. “What about trying seventies New York white funk?” he said. Considering our reputation as the country’s finest purveyors of roots-based East Angliacana there was only one sensible answer. “Why not?” we replied as one.

A couple of weeks after that and after an extensive Doodle Poll had procured one of the three dates between now and our next gig that everyone was available we assembled at Mr. Wendell’s on a balmy late Spring evening to knock this sucker into shape. In line with the recording preset I'd submitted my demo version in, we were in a Nice Room. A fairly standard moot, in that Turny had remembered he had a prior engagement and so wasn't going to be able to contribute at this stage, Mr. Wendell didn't read his emails and so hadn’t realised we were all coming round to his, La Mulley was on a deadline to get back for the kids (their imposition of a curfew, not hers, I believe), Gib hadn’t listened to the song and Fiddly was just getting over having his fingering hand drawn part way into a lathe whilst hand-fashioning a set of castanets. As I say, a fairly standard get-together.

Helen suggested that we eschew the usual forty minute tea and biscuit icebreaker before getting down to work, and we embarked on the usual deconstruction of the exegesis (“So, what’s this one about...”). I moved a capo, Helen bespake a harmony, Mr. Wendell tried to remember what it reminded him of***, Gibbon effected some ersatz 1970’s New York White Funk and Fiddly reflected that this was “…quite a good one. Y’know, when you get the demo it sounds like all the others, but this is working out well”. I silently quelled my rising inner Ike Turner as I pressed ‘record’ on the reliable old Sony CFS-W338 we use to tape all our rehearsals.

“Yes, but is it better than something we’ve already got?” asked Mr. Wendell, invoking the formal statement of our songwriting creed.

“Well, we’re about to find out”.

*A relationship, I think, is like a shark, you know? It has to constantly move forward or it dies.

**We take it in turns to act as sort of executive officer for the week but all the decisions of that officer have to be ratified at a special bi-weekly meeting by a simple majority in the case of purely internal affairs but by a two thirds majority in the case of more...well, you get the idea.

***Luckily he doesn’t own Harvest Moon, so I’m pretty safe on that score.

Tuesday, May 08, 2018

Go, Compere!

We were out and about again over the weekend, on this occasion closing a boutique festival where – in accordance with the tenets of hospitality laid down in the Small Festivals Act of 1897 – we were fed upon arrival. Mr. Wendell, a staunch vegetarian ever since Paul Weller told him to be in Smash Hits, was even supplied with his own platter of meat-free goodness which, after twenty minutes of determined munching, did not seem to have decreased in any notable mass or volume. With the Cheddar included with his Ploughman’s taking preference over the Leicester cheese, even at this late juncture in proceedings there was still a significant remaining red wedge unable to be shoehorned into a Eighties-based Thatcherite reference for the purposes of blog-based pun enablement.

During our onstage introduction later it occurred to me once again how a good MC can build a positive platform for a band, akin to introducing one to an unfamiliar circle of the host’s acquanitances at a chi-chi cocktail soiree rather than welcoming you in through the front door and abandoning you to make your own cold open while they go and make sure the party platters aren't burning. Our host, Bill Pipe – formerly of the impeccably-named combo Fat Bill’s Platypus – made a point of finding something solicitous to say about every member of the group, which made our entry into song that much more agreeable. Admittedly I was temporarily distracted by whether Fiddly really did have more pedals than Jimi Hendrix and was moved to look it up after the event* but it didn't detract from our performance any more than our regular triple-checking of keys and capos usually does. He did the same for everyone else in the line up, finding a bespoke nugget of interest or a sincere compliment for all, and made a most amenable host.

It reminded me that with the festival season coming up I probably need to get my own Stage Manager’s chops in order once again, which means trying to (a) recognise and (b) pronounce the names correctly of the good folk of the entertainment world trusted unto my charge. I tend toward the egregious in the manner of my introductions, although having at least asked the turns in question if they’d like the audience built up into a whooping frenzy before they take the stage, whether they’d like the warm smattering of applause which might greet the achievement of a middling third-wicket stand via a glance to fine leg on a bucolic Thursday morning at Chelmsford, or whether they’d prefer to just get on with it and (if you like) crash the cocktail party. I won’t lie to you, most turns tend to go for the third option if they’ve been on my stage previously through the weekend.

At least it’s a complex mix of nerves and ego which drives me to such expansion. No-one who’s seen Fiery Jack insouciantly rattle off a few hat juggling tricks before welcoming one Dan the Hat to the Children’s Arena at Beautiful Days can seriously be in doubt of his deflatory intent, although sometimes it has the effect of driving the artiste in residence on to more sterling heights of performance if they find someone having parked a People’s Limousine square in their comfort zone prior to the gig.

My favourite MC’s are those quietly confident in themselves, appreciative, with an air of discernment which suggests that all of the turns have been hand-curated for our enjoyment, familiar to our hosts as comfortable old shoes, impressive to us as shiny brass buttons on a dress uniform but there’s nothing deflates my expectations more than a stage introduction which I know to be false news. Mind you, you can prove anything with facts. At one gala concert at The Barbican Joe Boyd introduced a former member of Fairport Convention to such a bristling reception from the audience that leader Simon Nicol had to go on stage a couple of numbers later and confirm that his parents had indeed rented the top floor of their house to bass player Ashley Hutchings lest the muttering from the hardcore in the expensive seats overpower the subsequent folk-rockery. Getting the name right helps too. No-one’s going to give you any credence as a host if you’ve just heard someone refer to nu-funk acid jazz pioneers Jammerocky, as happened to one Jamiroquai-loving acquaintance.

Know where the exits are, be able to point toward the lost dogs and children tent, don’t take the brown M&Ms**. In the best traditions of the be-dinner-suited BBC continuity announcers of yore. Pre-announce, back-announce (“You’ve been listening to XXXX – weren’t they great? One more time...”) and don’t trip over the furniture. It’s all we ask.

*It’s tricky – Fiddly just has the one big pedal board, and although it does contain a great number of different effects he tends to just use the one setting at a time, so arguably Hendrix overtakes him on that front. Nevertheless, the access to that number of delays, reverbs, compressors, distortions and loops suggests that Fiddly Richard might technically have the edge, even if they are not in use per se. If I were Alain be Botton I could go on for another couple of hundred pages in this vein.

**(Ed – please check).

Tuesday, May 01, 2018

"It's Just The Normal Noises in Here"

Anyone who’s been within overdubbing distance of a recording facility will know by now that each has its own vibe, its own personality if you will, driven and dictated by the man (and it usually is a man) behind the screen - swivel chair adjusted just so, mug of something restorative within reach, lips a-pursed, brow a-furrowed, studio tan topped up by endless nights peering into the glowing maw of the computer screen, and days very rarely broken up by the occasional snowball fight. From Maida Vale to Clarkson Street, these hardy (and frequently subterranean) folk are rarely happier than when the musicians have buggered off and they can get on with the actual business of tweaking the 60dB proximeter, re-routing the sub-service buss and overlapping the reverse Aphex so it syncs in with the Dobly pulse. And that.

It’s an intensive business, and one that requires an engineer to be part-therapist, part-life coach, part-technician, part-sparky, gracious host and full-time font of wisdom regarding rattles and hums. Good recording engineers are frequently also exceptional players of Connect 4 and Jenga. Obviously before all of this serious business gets under way the band themselves will attempt to curate a series of demonstration recordings in order to give their poor producer/engineer/record company/fiddle player* some idea of what to expect. After all, as one of the touchstone sayings of my glorious career so far goes – if you’ve got something, then at least you’ve got something to change. These demo’s may be extensively workshopped in the rehearsal room and presented to higher lights in order to attempt to extract funds for a proper studio trip, they may be self-produced in the artists’ home studio – whether that be an extensive remodelling of the former stables on their estate or knocked out in the bathroom during a break from the sound check** - or simply (in the case of one Green on Red album) bawled into a microphone while the singer shouts chord changes over his shoulder at the guitar player.

Whatever works best for each band, artist or writer is fine, and although no-one ever wants to admit that the demo versions are better than the expensively buffed and intricately mastered finished copies, it happens. It’s also worth hanging on to those early versions in case your album really does take off and you need something to fill out the remastered and reissued box set. I’m speaking to you from a time vault in the last century, obviously.

Mr. Wendell and I set out for Fiddly’s Hovel in the country more in hope than expectation. We rehearse out there when we’re likely to have to play something all at the same time and all in the same key in public and Fiddly likes to record these sessions so that he can laboriously work out what he’s going to do on the big night. He gets...not exactly cross, but certainly discomfited when we veer away from the prescribed performance format, and often volunteers to play us the original version so we can see where we’re going wrong. Having nagged us for months that he’d actually got some good performances lurking on his hard drive we agreed to go out there and have a listen, more to shut him up than anything else. It was a dark and stormy night...he emerged from the shack with a dead mouse. As usual the was preemptory chat – this time concerning rats, their lifestyles, habits and affinities. If nothing else, a trip to Fiddly’s is generally informative and entertaining before you even get to the music. Last time we were out there there was a lot about Robot Wars, for example. We settled into swivel chairs in the listening room, and playback began.

It turns out that while we were all relaxed and bashing out some reference versions, we were also turning in some astonishing performances. Not me, obviously – I was too busy hogging the backing vocals and adding unnecessary flourishes to perfectly good ‘C’ chords, but the others were, freed from the pressure of having to get it all right, paradoxically, getting it all right. Wendell and I looked at each other. We started scribbling notes. Fiddly expounded on the importance of high frequencies, decent quality microphones; words like ‘marimba’ started being bandied about. If you’re the sort of person who thinks that Tonight’s the Night has a better feel to it than Landing on Water***, as I am, this was a Damascene moment. By the end of the playback, we were humbly apologising to our host for ever having doubted him. Turns out the most important things an engineer can bring to the recording party are their ears.

We start work next month.

*Delete as applicable.

**As it were.

***And who in their right mind doesn’t?