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.