Sunday, December 22, 2019

The Boy Looked at Johnny.

Jimmie Nicol, Alan White, that kid who stepped in when Keith Moon fell off his stool* at a The Who gig. The list of stand-in and dep drummers is long, illustrious and – like the road to hell** – paved with good intentions. To add this roll of honour we meet today to celebrate one Linda Stix who, upon hearing that we in The Picturehouse Big Band were one drummer short of quintet agreed to step up and learn our entire set, which as regular readers will know has been laboriously compiled over (literally) many decades of pop history and lovingly curated to the point where we daren’t listen to the originals any more*** in case we become distracted from our core mission of playing the songs in a form of which a pub audience would probably still recognise them, even without the aid of the Shazam (TM) app.

In return, Johnny-out-of-Five Mile High said that he’d guest on a couple of songs, and we learned a handful of theirs (FMH), which meant that for at least half a dozen numbers I would, essentially, be the guitarist in Five Mile High, for Linda is their drummer and The Other Guitarist, in a Clark Kent-esque twist of happenstance, is also their bass player. At one point, to emphasise the wile of the situation he takes off his glasses. Turns out that’s just because they fogged up when he came in from the car park, but you get the gist.

By about the Thursday before the gig I realise with mounting horror that simply recognising the titles of songs doesn’t, technically, count as knowing them****, especially when you have the added responsibility of not being the one who fucks it up for everyone else. (This is me having to (re)learn four songs, three of which I’ve played before by the way. Now multiply that by seven to get some idea of what Linda’s been going through). Hence there is an evening on the sofa with YouTube, a search engine tuned to those guitar tab sites you can get on the electric internet these days, and a Squier Telecaster (with individual saddle bridges and the three way selector switch rewired so that you can run the pick ups in series as well as in parallel. But I digress). In the olden days, of course, you’d be stuck in front of a turntable getting progressively worsening RSI from all that moving the tone arm backwards and forwards on the record, but we have crowdsourcing and the associated resources to cut and paste the same basic errors on to multiple sites these days, which saves a lot of time. And who doesn’t relish the idea of playing Judas Priest’s Breaking the Law in a non-ironic fashion, which is something that comes up less often than you’d like, but more often than you’d think.

Once in The Heart of The Stow***** we are reassured by the ever-avuncular presence of TOG, who assures us that he will be keeping a paternal eye on things****** and providing prompts and cues as required. This is a huge relief to the rest of us, who are frankly often never quite sure where we are during any given middle eight, or what we came in here for in the first place. Our default position in case of any navigation errors is to turn around and glare at whoever is playing bass at the time, which is a handy trope with which to engage. It also helps share the blame around a bit, however as it turns out, no-one demands a Paddington stare, and none of the audience need recourse to Shazam (TM) at any time, such is the diligence that Linda has paid in both listening to the original versions and also in taking note of our quirks and extensions when it comes to arrangements. Admittedly there was a point where I thought my kidneys were going to be dissolved slowly until they filtered out of my body in a coagulant mess, but it turned out that The Bass Player had just stepped on his octave divider pedal by mistake, and I’m sure the foundations of the building are sturdy enough to withstand a couple of verses of that. There was also another passing moment of disbelief and uncertainty, but that’s what being charged £3.20 for a pint of lime and soda will do for you.

The post-show playlist brings up Aerosmith’s Sweet Emotion – one of The Drummer’s favourite tracks to play. I remember to send him a text to the gig in which he is currently engaged or – more likely, as we are – packing up in the rain after. “Happy Birthday” I type, two-fingered. “You’re fired” {smiley face}.

Photo credit by friend of the band Claire Woodbridge. Ironically, you can’t see Linda or Johnny in this one.

*One of The Other Guitarist’s favourite jokes goes “Can I help push your stool back in?” “Well, you could buy me dinner first...” kerrtisshhhh

**Presumably that’s the one Chris Rea drives home for Christmas on.

***They later became The New Originals. I know – one paragraph in and three footnotes already. I’m on fire today.

****A handy aides-memoire for any potential audience members who fancy offering to help us out by having a go anytime soon.

*****Coincidentally also the title of an unreleased Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman, Howe demo from the 1990 bootleg Yesoteric.

******I know – there’s a whole complex uncle/parent thing going on there. I’m not sure about it myself to be honest.

Saturday, November 09, 2019

"What About That!?"

To the Theatre of Legends!* The Stadium of Light!** The Arena of Dreams!*** Actually, the second of those epithets is not entirely without foundation, as we have two sets of lighting rigs aboard the good ship Picturehouse this evening, as well as a sturdy PA system, of which sound engineer-du-soir Pat is attaching microphones to The Drummer’s kit even as I tune up. I express mild surprise that a venue of this capacity warrants such wanton frippery. “It’s so I don’t have to hit them so hard” he explains, inserting the second of his earplugs**** “Let the microphone do the work, that’s what I say.”

He may, indeed, have a point. As The Bass Player and I confer over half time refreshments, the sound does indeed seem to have an air of clarification about it. It is pleasing to be able to reflect on a notably good performance after so many years in harness. I adjourn to use the facilities. “Yeah, come in tomorrow, there’s a really good band on – I’ll pick you up” one patron is enthusiastically recruiting his companion, in the stall. I silently insert my own italics.
We are not ones for resting on our laurels, however. This evening’s programme features not only a first, but a second introduction of completely new material (to us) – one of the songs a mere thirty one years in gestation and the other, a Kinks b-side. For us, the former is pretty much like plucking something from the top forty although in doing our homework we realise both that time flies and that – curious as it sounds to the post-Millenial ear, once upon a time Michael Stipe could have passed for a young and vibrant Stewart Lee*****. It seems to go well, and there’s an extra tidy three minutes right there (the first set runs a tidy hour and ten as it is).

Sadly, it is upon more familiar material that I take a tumble. You’d be hard pushed to find a band that doesn’t do a version of My Sharona, in my experience, and so it’s a handy go-to when comparing like with unlike. Last time three fifths of the band decided to do a chorus of Tom Robinson’s Up Against The Wall in lieu of an actual guitar solo, which might have been a good idea this time round. I couldn’t even get away with describing it as a free jazz atonal exploration. Someone suggested I do it on kazoo next time.
With our brutal touring schedule being what it is I’ll now have to wait until the election after this one before being able to get it out of my system. Still, April’s not that far off when you think about it.

The Drummer is considering our dearth of bookings. “Maybe we could get a few at somewehere where there’s room for us?” he ponders. “We could give them a list of who we play and get them to buy into that?”
“The Waterboys?” - I adopt the role of both prospective entertainer and interlocutor.
“No, we don’t do the one you might have heard of.”
“The only song they didn’t play on that last tour.”
“Nope, not the one with the mandolin, I’m afraid.”
The Drummer reflects.
“I’ll tell you what though. If there was band that played Tiger Feet – and only Tiger Feet – all night, I’d join it in a heartbeat.”


The updated Picturehouse Big Band Spotify play list of songs is here. Unlike those Top of the Pops albums of the early seventies, these recordings are most definitely performed by the original artists.

*The Pickerel.
**Nope, really – it’s The Pickerel.
***There’s no dressing this up, it really is The Pickerel.
****One in each ear. He’s not a freak.
*****”That Michael stipe’s let himself go...” etc etc

Sunday, September 29, 2019

I've Looked at Crowds from Both sides Now

I was involved in an online discussion this week after someone posted in a music forum asking what the good folk of the internet thought was a reasonable amount of money for a covers band to ask for if performing for two hours. As you can imagine, the responses were measured, responsible and thoughtful to a tee. No, of course they bloody weren’t. Digressions included the suggestion that covers bands were the work of Satan, why anyone would want to play to an audience of people who buy their music in Tesco in the first place, and how music is a gift which should be freely offered and lovingly accepted. I’m paraphrasing, of course, apart from that one about the so-called Tesco audience, or ‘Clubcard Man’ as I like to call him[1].

Now, I actually have some sympathy for the former position, in that if you search in the press archive of my career[2] you can find an interview in which I express basically the same opinion. A local heavyweight on the band scene had a quiet word with me at the time and I accepted his reasoning and position without necessarily agreeing with it. You could that sort of thing back then[3], before all this electronic malarkey made it easier for people with no experience, knowledge or common sense to opine endlessly about stuff they know nothing about – that sort of “I don’t understand it and so it isn’t a thing” attitude. The sort of people who pooh-pooh the idea of Moon landings, or Beatles remasters.

I don’t want to tell your business, but I’ve seen a few things in my time, and so I feel it is only fair to share with you my wisdom and experience, gleaned over the course of, oh, about the last two weeks, as it happens.

The Pub Band.

Scroll back far enough and you will find the very first entry on this blog, which details a trip out to a provincial town, the consumption of a KFC and some interaction with the locals. Flash forward (checks, sighs) thirteen years and the process is alarmingly similar. Some of the set list is even the same. Only this week I pointed out that when we started playing 5ive’s “Keep On Movin’” it was in the charts. Since then they’ve had time to split up, reform (twice), collaborate with Brian May and release four (four!) Greatest Hits albums – that’s one more than their actual album albums. Whereas we...well, if our mission is, as some online commentators believe, to strangle the nascent indie scene in it’s birth pangs, we’re not doing a very good job. As I write we are a week away from Sound City Ipswich, a multi-venue celebration of original talent. I, on the other hand, am watching a shirtless man in a pub car park explain that people are afraid of him. It’s not all glamour in this game, I can tell you. Apparently I should be doing this exclusively for the sheer joy of making music and basking in the glow generated by the shine in people’s eyes as they look on fondly. I reflect on this as I drive home to pick up the case of leads that I have forgotten to pack earlier[4], watching the fuel gauge slide inexorably into the pink. Maybe if I smile at it, it’ll refill itself?

TOP TIP: The idiot check is your friend. Think “What would an idiot leave behind..?”
The Hired Hand.

I am required and requested to attend, at Mr. Shevlin’s behest, a gathering of The Chancers – a combo assembled in order to better promote a selection of his recorded catalogue in the live performance arena. I am to play rhythm guitar, keep my mouth shut (he’s heard me sing) and not trip over the furniture. He has sent me the prospective set list on Spotify – in the olden days he’d have had to put a cassette in the post and fax me the chords[5] – so I can play along with it in the comfort of my own home before we get together and he can let me know that they’ve changed the key of most of the songs and can I play bass on these three? Nevertheless, he buys me lunch after practise on at least two occasions and lets my dog on his sofa while we run through the songs until we drop. At the gig itself, since I’m also playing in the other group on the bill, I cunningly disguise myself by wearing a different shirt and a hat, thereby melding seamlessly into the background until people hardly even notice I’m there. That guy who said I looked like something Shev had found by the side of the road and brought back from America aside, that is.

TOP TIP: You don’t realsie how much heat is expelled through that bare bit at the back of your head until you put a hat on it. Bring a spare shirt.

The Original Band.

Once you’ve admitted to writing the songs, you really have to own them. And sing them, and play them – frequently all at the same time. Also the phrase “This is a new one” is often redundant in that for many of your audience – if you are lucky enough to have one in the first place – they’re all new. This is also why many people don’t like going to see bands that they haven’t heard, or even heard of, because they don’t want to take the chance that they might not like it. It’s a bit like Morris Dancing, or incest[6]. We are lucky enough to have an open venue willing to put us on (once the pre-theatre dining crowd has cleared out), a supportive local radio DJ or two, and since there are seven of us in the band any venue that we play in looks like it’s getting a good crowd in early doors, at least up until we get up on stage, at which point it tends to look as if there are now many more free tables than there were before. Three of us were in a pub in Stowmarket playing ‘Take It On The Run’ last week, and now here we are doing three part harmonies on a song called ‘Easy Money’ which its author wryly introduces as being “...about being in a band.” Mr. Wendell takes the second verse. “Jimmy Boy sells used cars, but the owners never know...” and I silently fill in my response “His fairies keep him sober for the day.” I don’t know why, it’s not even the same melody, but it’s stuck there now. I think that’s why they don’t let me sing other people’s stuff. Toward the end of the set there is a lengthy slow ballad. “Are we emoting?” asks La Mulley. “We are” I reply firmly. “This song has been played twice on local radio in the past two weeks” I announce. “Which is once more than ‘Down By The Jetty’, and if you know anything about Radio Suffolk that’s quite the achievement.” It’s also a testament and tribute to the goodwill of broadcasters in the field who are willing to play a six minute track by an unsigned band, and without whom we’d all be culturally worse off. I mean, you can’t even Morris Dance to it. To close, we unplug and array ourselves amongst the audience and play an acoustic song. Luckily there are some free tables at the front. “Thanks for taking us on” I say later as we’re being paid[7]. “No worries, we’ve had a good night” she says.
TOP TIP: Be yourself. There’s already one of everybody else. Ironic, I know, coming from someone who spends some of his gig time pretending to be Kevin Cronin.

The Singer-Songwriter.

“Do you know anyone who could do a twenty five minute set to open the show” came the question from a local impressario. “Yes” I thought to myself “I bloody do!” Back around the time I used to get interviewed by the local paper and asked to give my thoughts on whether covers bands were a good thing or not I used to do that sort of thing at the drop of a hat. I used to wear a hat in those days you know. I volunteered myself and was pleased to be offered the commission. Now then - if you thought standing on stage playing some songs you’d made up out of your own head was a nervy prospect in company, imagine doing it all on your own, just you and a guitar (or piano, or accordian, or triangle – although songs performed on the latter do tend to be all in the same key). If you’re particularly intent on making things easier for yourself, and have been inspired by seeing Steve Kilbey or Marty Willson-Piper perform recently, try borrowing a twelve string guitar and using that. The extra tension really puts an edge on things. I’m talking here about the high-tuned octave ‘G’ that if you’re not careful, could have someone’s eye out if it pings mid-show. It didn’t. I performed a six song selection of my back catalogue to a standing ovation[8] and totally failed to sell any Merch. Neither of the CDs and not one of the three books I had on display in the foyer. And I had to buy my own sandwiches.

TOP TIP: There’ll always be someone who talks loudly and at length through your set. We have a name for you people at Singer-Songwriter Club[9].

The Crew.
If you’re the sort of person who has read this far, you’re probably aware of that meme – I think it’s attributed to Henry Rollins – regarding the behaviours appropriate to a performer when dealing with the stage hands. Essentially, they should get paid more than you, and Don’t Be A Dick. One could argue that no-one goes to a gig to watch the stage crew, and that's why the musicians get paid so much but that's the tinder for a whole different kettle of online conflagration right there. As Jackson Browne so memorably put it in his song ‘The Load Out’ “They’re the first to come and the last to leave” and I can tell you from personal experience that a ten hour shift can be extraordinarily tiresome if not ameliorated by the sort of drummer who offers to lend you an appropriate microphone and a clip-on tuner when the pick up on the twelve-string guitar you’ve borrowed turns out not to work after all. Run the power[10], allocate the channels, vacuum the carpet, tune the guitars, find out if the singer prefers a boom or straight microphone stand, have a spare guitar lead, a tuner, a capo. A spare guitar even. If you’re doing your job properly, they won’t even know you’re there. Have a set list to hand with the guitar changes (if any) marked on them. Go to the toilet before the set starts because if you go in the middle that’ll sure as hell be when the guitarist breaks a string, or that drink someone’s perched on the edge of the stage falls over into the power supply you’ve carefully Gaffa taped down beforehand. All of these things and more should be borne in mind. And after the show is over, you have the pleasure and privilege of loading all that equipment out and into the van, possibly in the rain, while the performers gladhand each other[11] and sign things. On the other hand, out of all of the roles that I have played and described – and here’s one for the online community to chew over – guess which one I actually made money on? Backatcha Rollins.
TOP TIP: An onstage proposal of marriage provides an ideal opportunity to tune the guitarist’s instrument while he’s not looking

[1] Since just now.
[2] My Mum’s house.
[3] And you could put anything in your dustbin, and the bin men would come right up to your drive and cart it all away. Not like today, with your coloured recycling wheelies and that. There were only three channels, and you had to get up from the sofa to change them. You never see white dog poo anymore do you? Etc etc.
[4] I thought “The last thing I should do is forget to put my gig case in the car.” And so, sure enough, the last thing I did before leaving the house…
[5] But, you know – the bins, eh?
[6] Joke. It’s from that quote attributed to (variously) Sir Thomas Beecham, Sir Arnold Bax, Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw that you should try everything once. And since I’ve looked that up, the phrase “Incest and Morris Dancing” is now on my Google search history. Honestly, the things I do for you people.
[7] The wages of sing.
[8] It was a non-seated venue.
[9] The first rule of Singer-Songwriter Club is YOU DO NOT TALK THROUGH SOMEONE ELSE'S SET AT SINGER-SONGWRITER CLUB. The second is 'No Smoking' 
[10] Someone will always ask if there’s any power at the front of the stage. The correct answer is ‘Yes’.
[11] Not a euphemism. At least not at the gigs I get to play.

Monday, August 05, 2019

"Back When I Was Someone..."

I  have pitiably few claims to actual fame, and those that I do entertain are closer in the actualit√© to pub quiz questions along the mildly obscure lines of ‘Name three Kinks drummers’ or ‘What links The Green, Green Grass of Home and In a Silent Way?’ One claim I do hang on to is that I believe I am the only person to have appeared on an episode of BBC Radio Suffolk’s Introducing and on Re-Introducing on the same evening. The former with the estimable Helen and The Neighbourhood Dogsmost recent digital release, and the latter being an archive performance from 1998, broadcast as part of Stephen Foster’s invaluable trove of live tracks, studio sessions and vintage interviews stored on a bewildering number of formats in a box room somewhere in 56 St. Matthew’s* Street. 

The show recently revisited the 2000 Ipswich Music Day, wherein I played as part of the Suffolk Songwriters showcase alongside such luminaries as Tony James Shevlin, whose reliable progress through the last three decades can be measured in the performance of his song Nobody,** which in this incarnation was a rather testy, Costello-esque rendition entirely apropriate for the times. It was during this year, you see, that barbs were exchanged within the letters column of the local evening paper regarding the value, self-worth and deleterious effects of the dreaded covers and tribute bands that were laying waste to a generational swathe of Suffolk music talent. I, and indeed Mr. Shevlin, were part of this scourge in no small part due to our continued insistence on playing in The Star Club – a Beatles specialist band which in no small way funded our ability to function as independent singer-songwriters outside of the (Star) club circuit. 

The only reason I remember this is because I made a dedication to one ‘Albert Herring’’ from the stage at the time - I’m guessing not the actual greengrocer’s assistant from the Britten opera, but a nom-du-plume/guerre intended to upset the apple cart under the aegis of which we were ruthlessly expoiting the limited music-going resource of the region, and this was when you actually had to write a letter down on paper, put it in an envelope and take it down the post box first before seeing if they’d print it later, not like all of this half-witted digital egregiousness you get below the line these days. Fittingly, the song I played was about starting your own band if you didn’t like the ones you were seeing (and later recorded by Songs from The Blue House). I also got my friend Matt up to do a proto rap on a track first recorded by my band gods kitchen (and which – rater cleverly I thought – references the Beatles track ‘I Feel Fine’) and dedicated my song Stretch Armstrong (about a band from Colchester who had unwittingly helped me through some dark times) to an old friend I’d first met when I was living in a kitchen and trying to make it in an Indie band. So, yeah, I guess I was a little put out at being told that the decline and fall of the Suffolk music empire was down to me and my mates playing some sixties hits. 

It was only upon listening back to the broadcast (it was the Alanis Morissette joke that gave it away) that I realised that this was the very same performance I had been gifted afterwards by sound visionary Dave Butcher of the BBC, and rather cheekily gaffa taped on to the end of my CD-du-jour ‘This Much Talent’ - similarly made up of homespun recordings and stories from the frontline of hearth and heartbreak that I was exploring around this time. The irony of all this being that almost my first appearance in the local paper’s music section about twenty years prior to all this had been a similarly primal howl about covers bands stifling the talent and invention that was surely waiting to break through. I still tut approvingly today when the never ending wheel of outrage spins, spins, spins on its axis of indignation.

As for the protagonists of Y2K’s music wars – well, that year’s headliners were Soul Kitchen, which tells you something about longevity in the club scene (they also closed the show in 2019), ten years later The Star Club (who also played later that day) were invited back*** and were hence unable to go and watch some kid called Ed Sheeran elsewhere in the park, who later had a stage named after him. So I guess we didn't manage to kill the scene off after all. And Harry, who I’d dedicated a song to earlier sought me out backstage. “Oh mate” he said “That was a really thoughtful thing to do. But I wasn’t in Stretch Armstrong...”

*Thrillingly, the signs in the underpass there put the apostrophe in three different places.

*He’s doing it a bit more Americanary, recently – although the last time I saw him do it was at Maverick, which may account for that.

**That’s where the photo at the top comes from.

Monday, July 22, 2019

Another Castle on Another Hill.

It’s been getting a bit embarrassing lately when folk stop you in the street and ask if you’re “playing much?” to simply and frankly answer “No”. More so when you’re in a radio studio, ostensibly to promote your work and career, and you have to give the same answer. A series of family commitments, unforeseen circumstances and parish council prevarications have reduced what was looking like a fairly healthy Summer schedule into a number of pop-up gigs and guerilla appearances, and so when the weather forecast looked like it was going to scupper our plans to perform outdoors at a fund-raiser for Bungay Castle, we were only too pleased to find that it had merely been moved to a nearby village hall for meteorological reasons.

Gibbon and I made up one travelling party, Mr. Wendell and the returning-to-duty Turny Winn another, the final part of the transport triumvirate being La Mulley, who was driving in from a wedding or a family camping trip or something. We were on this occasion Lockwood-less, suffering an absence of Lockwood-ness, in effect, experiencing Lockwoodlessness. This had led to a quick re-jigging (or, more accurately, de-jigging) of the set, which was further trimmed once the final runners and riders were revealed in terms of stage times. This also meant that we didn’t have to side-swipe the drum kit in order to fit a vibraphone on stage, or clear an area the size of Tunstall Forest in order to fit Fiddly’s stage effect rack, although that would have given me the opportunity to lift a couple of the tasty-looking strats that were already racked up to the side*.

Suitably checked in, Mr. Wendell and I went in search of refreshment, for although many of the audience had fully embraced the al fresco nature of the original event and were even now tucking into buffet-sized picnics and hip flasks of various warming nips, we'd not had time for us tea before we came out. Luckily, just across the street lay the village pub – a suitably flag-stoned, beamed den of a place with three hand pumps on and a further half dozen ales chalked on the board. “Are you from over the road?” enquired mine host deliberately. I though back to my first Glastonbury, where we couldn’t get a pre-festival pint in a nearby village for love nor money due to being festival people. We were just over the border, in Nelson’s County, so maybe we looked a bit too Suffolk for their liking. Perhaps it was a different kind of metaphor altogether – Mr. Wendell is a graphic designer, after all... “It’s just that I’ll have to give you plastic glasses if you’re taking them out” he concluded affably. 
We were third up, which meant that the team on sound had had time to sort out any issues with the lights and wiring, but not to have burned out from rigging and de-rigging the six turns scheduled to perform. With my Maverick stage-managing experience still fresh I ensured that we both thanked them from the stage and eschewed any of that “How’s the sound for you guys?” malarkey that bands sometimes like to engage with when faced with a room (or field)ful of civilians. We even missed out the “Can you hear the banjo?” lark that all but one of the group so much enjoy, although did mark Tony’s absence from our version of ‘Love Hurts’ with the proper respect that earned Bill Bruford a writing credit for the King Crimson track ‘Trio’. We also managed to shoehorn in a pub quiz moment regarding the number of fire-fighters in the Trumpton Fire Brigade, and Helen had her own Motley Crue moment prior to greeting the crowd. “Where are we?” she hissed “I have no idea!”

Fortunately Gibbon’s pre-match quip about Earsham Boys – Hunter boots and jumbo corduroys – had stuck, and I was able to stage whisper the same across to her as she combined saying 'Hello' with rummaging around in her flute bag**. “I think someone’s stolen my penny whistle!” she exclaimed before simply improvising a solo on flute in the first number instead, as those who are as such talented are wont to do. I sympathised, indicating the apparatus that keeps my guitar from falling over when I’ve finished playing it. “At Maverick I think I lost a stand bag”.

She arched a perfectly Lady Bracknell-esque eyebrow. “A stand bag..?”

*Of course I wouldn't. Not when there was a PAF-equipped Les Paul there as well.
**Not a metaphor.

Monday, July 08, 2019

Bury my heart at Stage Manager's Knee.

The post-festival comedown is generally not what one might term “a good trip”. There’s the unpacking, the washing, the nagging thought that you’ve left a mallet somewhere in a field or that cows will choke on that last tent peg you couldn’t quite prise out of the ground, and the knowledge that tomorrow, it’s back to the old routine. Admittedly, some might say that going to a festival in the first place isn’t a good trip either, but these people have not been to Maverick. Free from the incessant online drip, drip, drip of bad news, celebrity gossip, paparazzi upskirting and relentless political idiocy, it is a safe haven of heartsong music, positive vibes, late night sessions, good food and fine company. There are no below the line comments at Maverick.

Once again I had the pleasure and privilege of wrangling the small-but-perfectly-formed Travelling Medicine Show stage, where the unwashed and slightly dazed are treated to impromptu sets from many featured artists from the festival playbill proper, as well as guests, friends and – through chance, good fortune and a short notice cancellation, a respectable quorum of Helen and The Neighbourhood Dogs. I tend to treat it very much a series of personalised house concerts, and there are always a couple of undiscovered gems to be unearthed along the way. This year's main contender - for me - was Riley Catherall, whose intimate songs were so precious and fragile under the late-night stars that I almost daren't turn him up too far lest the magic burst. Having said that, the boisterous Lachlan Bryan set that followed was probably my overall festival highlight not least for the story that started with a reference to "...a famous Australian pop star. You've only heard of one. Yep, it was her" and the intro which ended "...and if there were any justice in this world, Garth Brooks would be living in a lodge at the end of Kim Richey's' driveway!" (audience cheers). 
I think I’m getting almost competent at this malarkey, in that there were only a couple of incidents of note – one being where my short term panic at the lack of foldback from the onstage monitors on Saturday morning was quickly forestalled by my inspired reckoning that the big On/Off button on the power amplifier at the side of the stage should probably be depressed. The other was when the missing output from the electric piano meant that the Mute button on the mixer amp should not be. Still, it’s one up from that time I called the site spark up on the walkie talkie to complain that I had no power from the generator to the front of stage four-way and he pointed out, with a somewhat meaningful look – more in sorrow than in anger - that someone had unplugged the relevant socket in the trailer in order to connect a phone charger...
There are also the little things that you pick up along the way that help oil the wheels of the day. Only one artist this year turned up without a lead, so having one to hand is important. A guitar stand on stage is always very convenient for the busy guest, having a capo to hand certainly endears you to a certain stripe of guitar player, and it turns out that a colouring book and a set of crayons also comes in unexpectedly handy. Some of these people are, after all, bass players.

My post-festival blues were largely mitigated on this occasion however, by a hasty pack up and run in order to appear on BBC Radio Cambridge (and Suffolk and Norfolk and Essex) as an artist in my own right with Helen and The Neighbourhood Dogs on the Sue Marchant Show. Sue, a tireless champion of folk, roots, country and all and any other sort of creative music making is the sort of old-school DJ who invites people in to her studio to play live, makes sure people know where to find you online and in concert, gently guides the broadcast where it needs to go, and carries a bag of CDs with her in case the central online server goes down and takes the extant BBC jukebox with it. As she points out, she would then be one of the few broadcasters in the country still able to put out a show.

We are to sit in between eight and nine in the evening and have been kindly invited to play a couple of songs live in the fairly compact and bijou studio while we're there, to which effect we have decided, naturally enough, to bring a vibraphone. Sue is not in the slightest fazed by this, and deftly organises a six channel mix on the go whilst simultaneously cueing up the next song, back-timing the fade into the traffic report and organising a Facebook Live post. It’s really quite the spectacle. We chat, we play, and Sue is audibly enthralled by the vibes, getting Robert to give us the audio equivalent of a twirl. After an all too quick hour, we are back outside broadcasting house and agreeing that what might have seemed a risky strategy (we did an old song that Robert had never played on before as our opener) had really paid off.
“I wanted vibes in Songs from The Blue House” says Fiddly, referring back to a previous musical venture “But it never came off for some reason”.
“Dad” says Robert “I was four”.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

You Take It On The Run, Baby.

For the latest date on our never-ending tour (of Stowmarket) we in The Picturehouse Big Band have decided to freshen up the set, and to this end had convened at The Drummer’s house to run through a couple of new songs. And by ‘new’ we mean “From !979”. With a nod to modernity, the other one was from 1982. No-one can accuse us of complacency or not knowing our audience, at least. During the meticulous deconstruction process at rehearsal we had discovered that the chords to the verse of the former rather neatly matched the intro to the latter, which at least narrowed down the number of different notes we’d had to learn, and the order in which to put them.

At the pop show itself we had a hearty turnout, bolstered by a number of familiar faces – The Other Guitarist wonders if, since we’d organised our diaries with each other and the landlady, perhaps the audience could do similarly, and then we’d all know where we were going to be, and when. This seems sensible, and we resolve to sync our calendars. We are also joined by a number of members of the Young Farmers Club, who are celebrating the birthday of one of their brethren and are intent on hearing some Fleetwood Mac. Happily we are able to partially satiate their needs, and relieved to learn that the acronym of their organisation is no to be applied, as so often in the past, to us collectively as a result.

Everyone is on good form, and quips and rejoinders are soon bouncing around the room in what some might consider a totally unprofessional manner. Even The Keyboard player (normally taciturn to the point of hermitry) regales us with a good one about the pair of shoes he bought off a drug dealer. I am not yet fully aware of how fortuitous this act will eventually prove. At one point there is a small issue with the input socket proving to have a Norman Collier-like effect on the growling output of the amp during my stint on the bass, and which can only be ameliorated by tippy-toeing, twisting a hip and resting the lead on my thigh. The resulting pose could probably best be rendered as 'effete Phil Lynott'. At the time I considered that this would be the campest thing I’d do all weekend.

To be honest, a couple of the re-lifed additions to the set* haven’t really worked as well as they could have done, and we are reflecting on this in the car park, post-performance. “I’m not sure” says The Singer “...that ‘Go Your Own Way’ really worked. I think it’s probably the singing”. The playing didn’t really help pull it off” I add, remembering the solo which was probably less Lindsey Buckingham than Lindsey Lohan in its execution. The Other Guitarist wanders over. “We think that ‘Go Your Own Way’ didn’t really work” The Singer repeats. “It’s the vocals”. And the playing” I add. There is a pause as we consider the ramifications. The lights were good…” offers The Drummer.

In the meanwhilst I am happy that my signature big power ballad showcase - ‘Take It On The Run’ by The REO Speedwagon big haired big beat combo - has gone as well as it has.

Fast forward twenty four hours and I am outside a bar in Brighton**, about to drop into a Karaoke night organised and hosted by two flamboyantly coiffed and be-sequinned drag queens. I am unsure of where I fit into the current heirarchy in the grand scheme of things. Am I a Bear?” I enquire of my wife, upon whose invitation the pair of us are here. No. Phill Jupitus is a Bear”. She pauses somewhat deliberately. “At best you’re just a man with a Beard”. I think she’s doing it on purpose.

Unsurprisingly, the evening is a hoot. Toward the the end of the night, I am aware that there are moves afoot to coax me on to the stage in order that I can better be exhibited for the delectation of the throng. Mrs Skirky is being badgered to provide intel on something I might be prepared to perform for the crowd’s enjoyment. In order to try and stave off my blushes she thinks of the most heterosexual number - which they will absolutely, definitely not have in their library - that she can. He sometimes does ‘Take It On The Run’ by REO Speedwagon” she says, which is why, five minutes later, I find myself on stage about to perform for an archly critical audience. We are, to paraphrase Dorothy, not in Stowmarket any more. I am handed a microphone, and the crowd hushes expectantly.

So” I begin “I bought these shoes off a drug dealer...”

*We played basically the same two sets throughout our 2018 residency, but to be fair that was once every four months rather than twice a weekend straight for a year as some of our peers do.

**Long story.

Sunday, May 05, 2019

May Day! May Day!

I am drawn to Alexandra Park, in the heart of swinging downtown Ipswich, to celebrate International Workers’ Day in the company of Helen and The Neighbourhood Dogs, a number of worthies from the international community, and some musicians. Obviously, these are not mutually exclusive positions to keep. 
Upon arrival I am greeted with the news that Luke – on sound – has not received any stage specs, specifically our careflly crafted series of eight-by-ten black and white photographs with the circles and arrows on the back of each one explaining what each one is. He seems ambivalent about this at best. I explain that we need three mics, four DI’s, two amplifier hook ups and that there may be a marimba. He seems momentarily enlivened. “A marimba?” he says. “”No, not really” I reply. He is momentarily crestfallen.

The last time I was here Picturehouse performed on the morning after my stag do, which had - among other things – involved kidnapping the landlord of our local and forcing him to perform Leo Sayer’s “You Make Me Feel Like Dancin’”. The stag do, not the gig. However today I am not only playing, but ostensibly stage managing. This role will, due to the absolute professionalism of all of our performers, the aformentioned Luke, MC Jock Davis and a generous backstage binful of ice and beer, mostly be a blissfully stress-free series of tasks, principally involving humping drum kits off’ve stage left and replacing them with equally deep-throated kits from the reserve stash to the right. Jock – clipboard to hand and inviting all performers to furnish him with biographical, geographical and commercial details with which to entrance our audience – is on the stopwatch. I’m pretty much looking for band members for whom to hand their individually tailored thank-you letters containing their hourly stipend - again, a much-appreciated gesture which many, many other local events could save themselves a great deal of online opprobrium by adopting.

Mr. Wendell observes the young people’s stage equipment with a quiet bewondermont. “They’ve got so much!” he observes. “I was a bit concerned about leaving gear round the back, but they’d probably look at it and have a bit of a laugh". “If we’re lucky” I say “They might take pity on us and leave us something extra”.“Like Santa” he says. Later there will be bass player whose foot pedals control the time signatures, key changes and rhythm pads to the rest of the band via onstage in-ear monitoring. Satisfyingly, he also has a Flanger*.
The Dogs performance is brisk and hearty. There has been some discussion around what constitutes a ‘festival set’, but in the end we just decided to do what we do, including the power ballad and the polka number. Turny is not on singing form, and so a late couple of substitutions remind us of just how much we have in the tank, material-wise. Always a happy luxury to be able to afford. We get the ‘one more’ signal and finish with ‘Nelson’, which is really starting to adopt the show-stopping mantle we all quietly hoped it deserved.

“Thank you” says Helen. “I’m now off to put on a big jumper”.

*I know. Me too.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

This just in...or ‘out’, rather.

Helen and The Neighbourhood Dogs, as a band, has always been very much a live entity. Songs tend to be stretched and manipulated, so that cues and endings are dictated by the feel of the moment, and communicated by nods and cues. This does not not always sit well with Fiddly, a man who prefers to operate under formal arrangements, at least in musical terms. “That’s not the way we did it last time” has become a familiar, if plaintive, refrain at Dog Central. With this in mind he suggested that we record some rehearsals in order to fix the format of our material, and put an end to all that tedious mucking about in hyperspace once and for all.

We did so, and it turned out that when we listened back to our efforts we had some pretty special performances on disk. What if, we thought to ourselves, we tidied up a few of the looser ends and mixed these down properly? And so on a few spare evenings and weekends we tramped out to The Hovel – Fiddly’s rehearsal studio-cum-shed – sometimes singly, and on occasion en masse, in order to redo a few errant harmonies, fix the odd timing aberration and generally buff up the bridges.

Sometimes we dropped things out entirely, and on one occasion a couple of us turned up to find that someone had had a moment of inspiration and added a complementary vibraphone part while no-one else was watching. It was very much an old-school approach in terms of getting it together in the country without click tracks, sans autotune, and eschewing cut and paste technology. What you have here is essentially the sound of a bunch of people playing some songs in a room (even if – admittedly - not all on the same day).

Our thanks are due to the devotion to duty of Fiddly Richard, who spent an awfully long time in his back garden either compiling endless alternate mixes for our approval, wiring up headphones, tracking down errant buzzes in the system and enthusiastically chasing pigeons away in order that their incessant cooing wouldn’t bleed onto the vocal tracks.  

Singing and playing by Steve ‘Mr. Wendell’ Constable, Richard ‘Gibbon’ Hammond, Shane ‘Skirky’ Kirk, Richard ‘Fiddly’ Lockwood, Robert ‘Young, Young Bob’ Lockwood, Helen ‘La’ Mulley and Tony ‘Ellis’ Winn.

The Misfits written by Shane Kirk
There Is Nothing (The Wave) written by Helen Mulley and Shane Kirk
What’s The Moonlight For? written by Tony Winn
Harrogate written by Shane Kirk

Monday, February 25, 2019

If it ain't broke, don't break it.

This crazy business of what we call ‘show’ is, as the more spiritually inclined of our brethren might say, a house with many rooms. Up the top end of the East Wing are your international hyper stars, charging the far side of your average pub band’s five way split for a single ticket. Over there, a multitude of jobbing musicians who are prepared to sofa surf and forgo weekly laundry in the hopes of some day becoming one of the former. Round our neck of the woods there is a carousel of fetes, festivals and showcases that you can hop on to sometimes merely by being in the right place at the right time, above averagely talented or simply charming to work with. Having all three in your locker doesn’t hurt at all. Luckily we have Helen for that.

Having been on three sides of the great divide (artist, promoter, hands-on stage wrangler) I appreciate that there are traditional mores to be maintained if everyone’s going rub along the same way. That’s not to say that there isn’t a way to kick over the statues and revolutionise the industry, but I don’t see it happening at my level any time soon. Trying to set up some summer shows for my (our) band can involve filling in multiple application forms, which in turn might require three different social media addresses, or you might remind those nice folk you played for last year that you’re still available, pulling in some personal favours (at this level more in hope than expectation) or simply being pleasantly surprised when someone gets in touch and asks if you’re free on such-and-such a date. It’s all-consuming, and I don’t even do this full time.

Being part of a seven piece band means that these can often feel like Sisyphean processes, and so if you ask me, the least you can do is try to be prompt, concise and polite. It was a pleasure and a privilege indeed to speak directly to an actual human on Friday night and have a gig booked with them by lunchtime on the following Monday. Similarly, a club got in touch with us over the weekend, and by this morning I was compiling a fifty word biography, sourcing a half-decent photo and reading their mission statement regarding what PA they did and didn’t have, how they’d like it used, looking up a couple of references they’d given us as to what to expect and agreeing a fee in advance. And this is for a show in December.

In contrast, we were approached at the end of January by a venue who are proclaiming their commitment to showcasing the best in local original music (thanks for the inclusive vote of confidence, by the way) and really looking to make their mark on the local arts scene. They’re doing it their own way, eschewing the norms and forging forward with all confidence. Good for them. Being in at the ground floor at such a venture can be the making of a band like us. Right place, right time, and all that. We replied straight away with a stage spec, links to our music and a pretty generous offer for our time and services, all as requested, and suggested a date when everyone could make it from the list they proffered. That date is now next week. So we don’t know if we’re playing, whether we need to grab our own PA, whether we’re being paid what we asked for – or at all - and if the gig is confirmed we have less than a week to round up some (or any) of our semi-devoted fanbase, many of whom are in the invidious position of having to organise a babysitter before they can think about devoting their occasional date night to listening to us over two-for-one cocktails.

I can’t help thinking that the old way works better.