Sunday, October 22, 2023

“Here today I drift away from carnal thoughts of sin, to the sounds of Little Epic and The Nights are Falling In…”

 The behemoth that is the This Much Talent promotional tour rolls on - The Bury Milkmaid Contemporary Folk Club one night, The Beyton Village Fete and now, The Coda in Colchester, for an afternoon session with the power trio - that is to say Me, The Bass Player and Helen, flautist, vocalist and registered pole dancer, resplendent in autumnal tones from top to toe. I consider having my colours done, but at present they might be a sort of cod-psychedelic mush. Or just the colour of cod.

The Bass Player and I are sequestered in the tour bus (my Skoda Karoq), he with the general ennui of his everyday existence and me with the sort of hangover that a quadruple gin and tonic snifter to finish a Friday night in front of HIGNFY will only be dispersed - we agree between us - by either a long nap or a serious infusion of caffeine, and at this stage we can’t decide which we need more. We are not aided by a listless wander up and down the high street looking for the venue which we intend to attend at a responsible hour before our scheduled three o’clock kick-off, but which it transpires doesn’t open until half two.

Upon admittance we admire the funky decor, and adopt bar stools. “Am I on a smaller stool or just a lot shorter than you?” enquires Helen. “I’m even wearing heels”. I approach the bar, somewhat shakily, and order three coffees. “What sort?” our host enquires. “Well, it’s after noon, so it can’t be a Cappuccino” I offer. “We’re not in Milan, but I will silently judge you” he responds, before putting together three amazing Americanos for an extraordinarily reasonable rate during which process which I apologise for delaying one of my my fellow drinkers’ orders. He’s just purchased a print of yachts in full sail off the Isle of Wight from the Emmaus charity shop opposite and is happy to chat while the coffee machine clicks and whirrs. 

We are to play at the end of the session, and so I look forward not only to the acoustic stylings of our fellow travellers on the afternoon showcase highway, but the additional recovery time afforded by the running order. The doors are wide open and so the high street traffic adds an ambient burr to proceedings when not drowned out by the world’s loudest toilet hand dryer. Before too long, and after a restorative Guinness which I manage to not spill entirely from my shaking hand, we are ushered onstage and fixed quickly and efficiently with a monitor mix and a DI pedal which contains an inbuilt tuner. As a veteran of the songwriter’s showcase and open-mic scene, and someone who has decided to play a twelve string guitar with a capo at one point, this is a welcome restorative.

 They also, quite wonderfully, livestream the whole thing on social media, so I would tell you about the performance itself, but you can make up your own minds. Helen works absolute wonders on transforming an old song called The Boy Who Loved Aeroplanes with her psych-folk flute, The Bass Player adds subtle harmonies and weaves wonderful lines throughout, and after a tight thirty-five we are off and able to indulge in the rest of our evenings. “Split the money three ways, yeah?” I quip. “Sure” says Helen. 

“How much do I owe you?”

Watch the This Much Talent Medium-Sized Band here:

Thursday, August 31, 2023

A Guest Blogger Writes…

A couple of decades and a few thousand miles ago, I ran a cosy little studio out of my back bedroom in Ipswich, grandly referred to by the cognoscenti as Chemistry Set East. Around about this same time, it came to my attention that the guitar player in almost every local band in the Suffolk-Essex hinterlands looked identical - coincidentally, they were all Shane Kirk.  Eventually I encountered at least one of the songs on this EP, with the proviso that this song "had been kicking around for a while."  As far as I recall, the only time I played it was in the upstairs room of a pub in Felixstowe which faced the deep blue void into which I would shortly disappear.

***recorded at Chemistry Set East, 2005:

Sometimes, not always, things go round in circles.  Some orbits are longer than others, of course, and somehow our world tours didn't cross paths again until late 2017.  The onset of the global pandemic had a way of adjusting priorities for us all, and 2020 saw the transformation of my office space/guitar storage hangar into Chemistry Set West.  Originally reborn solely as an experiment space for the reconstruction of some decades-old cassette tape montages, #CSW has spread locally and internationally. (#CSW is just a bit under 4000 miles west and a little south of #CSE.) Little did we know that back in the old country, Shane was revviving projects of his own.  Imagine my surprise when I found out those old tunes were *still* kicking around.

Showtime came to us originally as just a guitar and vocal piece recorded by Ian Crow at Amblin' Man.  We overdubbed the rhythm section (Deric McGuffey and Sean Dowdall) and then asked for further guidance from the horse's mouth.  "Well," said Shane, "You know some horn players, don't you?"  I had to admit this was true.  In one of my self-appointed roles, I operate a de facto international dating service for musicians.  When temporarily stumped for arrangement ideas, it's always a good idea to consult Trent Jackson, an accomplished songwriter himself, trombonist, and leader of the Unsustainables:

Jen Strassberg and I rounded out those arrangements with a touch of flugelhorn, after all of which we sent it all back to Ian to work his magic on. Isn't technology marvellous?  In the old days, somebody would've had to get on Concorde with a 2" multitrack tape stuffed under their coat.  I do hear, however, that 2" tape and supersonic travel are both due for a revival, much like the time capsules presented here.  

Thursday, August 03, 2023

You get what you play for.

 ‘Twas ever thus – a tale as old as time - somebody well-meaning puts out feelers on Facebook to see if there are any bands prepared to play for no money, but good exposure, and is swamped in the subsequent pile-on from justifiably annoyed creatives who point out in varying terms of kindliness how you can’t trade exposure for groceries*. The reaction tends to be especially more energetic when the hosts are charging eight quid on the door or, in the case of one country show** I performed at, invoicing traders sixty quid a metre of stall front, plus electricity. It’s all very well claiming they’re providing footfall and merch opportunities, but they’re also advertising your services on the poster in order to entice paying customers.

And there – just in that paragraph above – is the rub. Yes, I performed at The East Anglian Country Show. It was a nice day out, I was with friends, and the joy of an unpaid gig is that you can do what the hell you want. Any teenage dirtbands invited to an unpaid genteel pub garden beer festival gig should, in my opinion, pitch up in full fishnet and death’s-head make up and play a set of Extreme Noise Terror covers, no matter what genre they usually perform. We happened to do some genteel East Angliacana, as I have at Ipswich Music Day, The Cornbury Festival, The Kelvedon Community Festival, Maverick and countless radio sessions and open mic nights, so I’m not about to start scrabbling around for two sharps, two flats and a packet of gravel with which to cast about my glass house, galling as it is to know that the car park attendant at many of these events is earning more than you are. To be honest, the portable toilets are earning more than you, and they don’t even have to dress up in a hi-viz tabard. 

On the other hand, there’s that marvellous faux-personal ad regarding a dinner party that someone is planning for the weekend and how it would be a splendid opportunity for a chef to demonstrate their talent as many of the guests would tell their friends about the food and maybe even post it on Instagram. Sadly, the ad concludes, the host cannot afford to actually pay for the years of experience and practice their cook will have employed, the kitchen implements they’ll have to bring, or indeed the food, as the budget is a bit tight. Show me a musician who’s played a wedding and I’ll show you someone who has been asked if they can do it a bit cheaper. I frankly wouldn’t swear the same about a caterer, a florist or dressmaker.

It's a tricky conundrum – and very much one that seems to principally concern those of a musical bent, to whatever degree. “You can play here but you have to sell X number of tickets/fill a coach” is a familiar refrain from the last century, whereas its modern equivalent seems to be “Songwriting Competition – Get Your Song Heard by Nashville Legends!” and then in extraordinarily small print somewhere on the third page you*** click through to “Only ten dollars to enter” by which time you’ve got more cookies swarming over your hard drive than at Sesame Street Sid’s birthday party. It’s the sort of approach that starts with Learn Guitar for Fun and Pleasure and ends with you**** being advised by the government to retrain in IT.

It's a rum old conundrum and no mistake, and I don’t think I’ve got all the answers. As a result of playing some of those unpaid gigs I mentioned earlier I’ve shared a bottle opener with Robert Plant’s road crew, won a shiny silver trophy I keep at my Mum’s house, been introduced to Peter Buck, blagged more free pints than I could shake a gnarly old stick at and, on one notable occasion, met the present Mrs. Kirk. All I will say is, that if someone you don’t know asks you to play a show for nothing, then that’s what they think you’re worth. And you’re better than that.                

*Don’t get me wrong – I was there front and centre with my passive-aggressively flaming torch and freshly buffed pitchfork

**in agrarian terms rather than the boot-scootin’ musical genre.

***You, not me.

****Me, not you.

Saturday, July 08, 2023

What You Give is What You Get

In the town hall square, tuning up for a daytime show with Tony James Shevlin and The Chancers. A massive stage has been erected, drum kit, backline and monitors are all complimentary and in place, the band on before us are tearing through a terrific version of ‘Barracuda”. It’s a long way from clambering up on to the back of a P&O trailer and peering twenty yards to your right to see if the other guitarist is playing the same bridge as you. Lovely, tight forty five minutes. Blinking in the sunshine afterwards I realise what a culture shock it is to come off stage and still have a good couple of hours of afternoon left.


The Maverick pop-up Medicine Show has been relocated to a leafy grove and looks, feels and sounds all the better for it. I am to wrangle a series of  short solo, small band and off-roading sessions from artists who are (mainly) appearing elsewhere at the festival. Charlie Austen*, who has a self-constructed suitcase-based percussion set up (“I’m playing all this myself you know, it’s not loops”) performs an as-yet unreleased balled called Four Tiny Frames which unaccountably sets off my hay fever**. Red-eyed and sniffing, I congratulate her on the perfect timing with which her sunglasses fell down on to her face mid-song. “I definitely planned that” she grins.


Matt Owens is playing guitar for someone else at the festival, but drops by to perform a few numbers of his own. This is the joy of The Medicine Show. He calls in two hours before his allotted stage time, checks out the gear, asks my name, returns an hour later with a beer and we chat amiably about his beautiful vintage acoustic guitar. By this time I would have done almost anything for him. He gently explains what he needs in terms of sound and we tweak things variously until he’s happy, or as happy as an ex-member of Noah and the Whale can be in a field adjoining the goat enclosure. During his set he engages affably with the queue for the portaloos, which snakes along the track fronting the paddock. “Good time to choose to go for a wee” he advises sagely.


Our Man in the Field are a trio with a guitar, bass, cello configuration who are setting up under the stars and by the light of a fullish moon which glints off the river. They’re using backline for the guitar and bass which means I have to work with their levels, and everything else needs to be carefully balanced against them. Two of their coterie have already advised me as to their sonic preferences regarding the performance and I have taken their suggestions on board, and then refer back to them a couple of songs in to see what they think. I’ve deliberately kept everything low so that we have to lean in to get the sound. One thinks I’m taking the piss. I explain that it’s a combination of my character of ‘Grumpy Sound Man’ and my naturally sarcastic-sounding tone that is probably misleading. Another admits that their suggestion about the balance of the backing vocal was probably wrong. My character graciously reverts to the prior mix. On stage they are joined by fiddle player extraordinaire Chris Murphy, who despite meeting them that afternoon and being invited to sit in, sounds like he’s been rehearsing with them for a decade. It’s enthralling, moving, breathtaking music - the sort that Guy Garvey might have made if he’d moved to Woodstock in 1968 and signed to Warners. I remark to his partner that Chris’s playing is exquisite. “Mind you, I guess I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know?” “Yeah, but it’s good to hear it” replies Barbara Hershey.


Picturehouse have assembled in a community hall to see if our old PA still works and to run through a few of the more untenable numbers in the set for our forthcoming quarterly show in Stowmarket. “It’s a long time since I rehearsed in a village hall” I say. The walls are lined with portraits of benefactors and plaques recording gifts of clocks, indoor toilets and the addition of a kitchen. The Drummer is on his phone. “Someone’s added me to the village WhatsApp group and I need to tell them it’s not my drone” he mentions by way of explanation. “In the old days” someone sighs wistfully “the only way you’d get a call out here would be someone ringing the phone box outside to complain about the noise”.


The Bury Folk Collective have invited me - the newly appointed head of a benevolent dictatorship - to bring my This Much Talent project to perform at their monthly contemporary folk night. For someone so used to hiding behind a microphone and an amplifier, the bare bones of an acoustic evening bring forth a whole new set of challenges. Fortunately audience interaction is not only permissible in such circumstances, but encouraged. I emerge from an acoustic guitar instrumental reverie to enquire of Mr. Wendell whether that really was a rendition of Metallica’s ‘Nothing Else Matters’, which he assures me it was. By the time we’re on someone has located the switch for the mood lighting. Gib on electric bass*** and Wendell on Gibson jumbo are seated, I’m front and centre telling a lengthy introductory anecdote about how thrilled I was when Geoffrey Kelly out of Spirit of the West had agreed to play on my new CD****, how that never would have happened during the era of phone boxes and what an incredible job he’d done playing on it. “Whereas, tonight…” smiles La Mulley, holding her flute up to the light. “Such a tiny little thing, and yet so expressive!” remarks a flute-loving audience member afterwards.

“Isn’t she just?”

*Explaining to my neighbours in The Moonshine Bar, who are back-announcing their turns and then inviting folk to pop round the corner to see who’s on, I explain “It’s ‘Charlie’ as in the BRIT Awards drug of choice, and ‘Austen’, as in the author…” 

“I had not made either of those connections” remarks MC Smithy, drily.

**I don’t get hay fever.

***”Judas!” etc etc

****”It’s three tracks and lasts…well, it’s a compact disc, it’ll last for ever…”

Saturday, June 17, 2023

What Four Words?

I did my first gig in 1980 - that’s the year before Dare, Moving Pictures, Tattoo You and East Side Story were released. Not that that’s got any real relevance here but I see a lot of biographies that start this way.

In between then and now, I’ve been the guitarist in a blues rock power trio, and a baggy-shirted visionary playing The Big Music; a foil in a heavy-big-pop four piece jagged soul band, an acoustic troubadour, an electric wanderer, a founder member of the East Angliacana movement, festival stage manager, three-time author, the quiet one in a Beatles specialist act, and someone who was once part of a group who convinced a theatre audience in our home town that we were a travelling family of Appalachian musicians named the Guitarres. Good times.

I was supposed to have sung my final hurrah in Y2K with the release of an album called ‘This Much Talent’ which bade farewell to both my so-called career and the CD format and yet, here we all are. 

This Much Talent - an all-encompassing body of artistes and auteurs - first made its appearance on a fundraising compilation in 1989, the purpose of which was to raise awareness on behalf of the Venue for Ipswich Campaign. Veterans of the VIC wars still talk fondly of the infamous Caribbean dressing room wrecking exploits of (probably) Noel Gallagher and in hushed tones of the Carter USM expedition with which certain members of the support band still, to this day, bore their partners rigid whenever ‘Sheriff Fatman’ crops up on re-runs of Top of the Pops. Well, one certain member does, anyway… 

I am overly pleased to reflect that some people who were on that compilation (and on This Much Talent Volume 1) are also on this EP - not least my de-facto co-producer and recording mastermind Ian Crow, who probably rarely has thoughts of re-recording the seminal oeuvre of his band at the time, Edible Vomit. Few who purchased the bargain £3.50 twenty-six track cassette look back from a distance with anything but fondness, I’m sure, on the haunting refrain of ‘Chunder Violently’.

However, back to the update. ‘Showtime’ is on that very compilation, albeit with a bum chord which I’ve finally  eliminated, and which dates from so much earlier in my writing expeditions that I distinctly remember being inspired by a Bob Dylan quote that someone had pinned up on the wall of our sixth form common room. This dates its writing to about forty years ago.

As is the way of these things, I should point out that forty years before that, people were coming up things like Al Martino’s ‘Here in My Heart’, but it remains to be seen how far we’ve come in the meantime. It has certainly been an education in revisiting the thoughts and prayers of a fledging songwriter with the benefit of four decades of cynicism and disappointment but without barely having to change a word - maybe a tense or two.

Here it has been elegantly redressed by Pete Pawsey and his Twenty Bars / Chemistry Set West pals before having a last minute one-take flute part added by Helen Mulley. James Partridge, who recorded the original Tascam four track Portastudio version, insisted on the inclusion of four words which had been excised from the re-imagining, for which I am hugely grateful. It was our “…the movement you need is on your shoulder” moment.  

For ‘Stop That for a Start’ I was able to welcome back to the fold Stephen Dean and Richard Hammond, whose combined rhythm section propelled gods kitchen (no capitals, no apostrophe) throughout the nineties and beyond, and who were able to burnish their original arrangement before Nick Zala remotely added pedal steel and then Steve Constable - also of gods kitchen, The World Service, The Company of Strangers, The Star Club, The Perfectly Good Guitars, The Canyons and Picturehouse (no, not that one) – was in one session able to vocalise as Crosby, Stills and Nash and was conveniently on hand to nod meaningfully in the background when Ian mentioned that he had an e-bow kicking around somewhere. Steve also made a long and sustained case for a couple of Neil Young power chords to be subtly re-inserted into the outro right up until the final mix. He won.  

‘The Merchant of Venus’ is a recent write and has been through a few iterations. At one point, deep into a second bottle of Pinot Noir one evening I considered that ideally it would have a flute solo by Geoffrey Kelly, whose band Spirit of the West had been a massive inspiration when I was on the same bill with them at a club in Peterborough on the tour which inspired ‘Home for a Rest’. Through the modern medium of the electric internet I was able to secure that very thing a mere week later. Many thanks to Hugh McMillan from the band for facilitating contact and to Geoffrey for his help and encouragement.

Helen also sang on this one and Ian added – of all things – an autoharp he had just picked up for a song. As it turned out, this song. 

Dirk ‘The Drummer’ Forsdyke did a sterling job on the tricky task of putting his part on after we’d done much of the tracking work – never an easy assignment at the best of times – and then Ian was finally reunited with VIC tape producer James Partridge, who added the Steve Wynn-inspired guitar part at the end, advised on some harmonies and reflected on how different his life might have been if he'd signed up for Otley College, just down the road ‘pon the lef’ hand side, all those years ago.

And so here we are. Thank you to everyone who helped, advised, opined, and all the great performers and writers whose work I’ve absorbed over the years either at a distance or in person, and whose influence has inevitably seeped into every pore of this project. If you can hear it, it’s probably in there, maybe even on purpose.

Saturday, April 22, 2023


Once more unto the Gipping Delta, where Picturehouse are to inform, delight and entertain the good people of Stowmarket, as many as five of whom have turned up on the special VIP meet n’ greet package to watch us sound check. I begin with the riff Deep Purple’s ‘Burn’ (nearly…) The Other Guitarist does ‘Birds Fly (Whisper to a Scream)’, The Singer knocks off the intro to ‘A Thing Called Love’, The Bass Player masters the theme from ‘The Rockford Files’, and The Drummer hits things, seemingly at random, until we ask him to stop.

We reconvene in the car park to exchange pop trivia, holiday tales, retirement plans, four day working, weight loss plans and golf trips and wait until we are at least outnumbered by the audience before performing. It wasn’t always like this, you know. Whilst en vacances only last week I was regaling the family with a story about the time The Drummer tried to secrete a fan in the van on the way back from a gig in Lincolnshire. In a shock twist my father-in-law tells me a very similar story involving the West Ham reserve team and a trip to King’s Lynn. Seems there’s nothing new under the sun.

As per, once the music begins, folk are lured in by our Siren-like* tones and are soon frugging away en masse. We seem to have a different crowd every time, from the Young Farmers’ night out to the Halloween dress-up gang, and this evening’s throng appear to be some gals who have probably organised the night on their WhatsApp group, along with some gently nodding types in beards, bandanas and leather jackets and - inexplicably - someone who appears to have channelled his Breakfast Club Judd Nelson to an impressive, if unsettling, degree.

Being the party soundtrack people we are, the packed area front of stage** grooves to the lilting tones of 5ive’s ‘Keep on Moving’ as we segue effortlessly into Radiohead’s ‘The Bends’ - a dance floor filler if ever I’ve heard one, and a song which does at least offer me the opportunity to make sure that at one point all the little red lights on all of my effects pedals are all on all at the same time. There’s even time for a (genuine) encore, at which point the slightly damp and wheezy drummer*** is as delighted as you might imagine to learn that he is expected to sing ‘I Fought the Law’, which, triumphant and climactically, he does with dignity and aplomb.

In an aside worthy of the great Douglas Adams he concludes the set. “I wish I’d brought my towel”.

*The mythological temptresses, not the fire warning.


***Incidentally, as I turn out of the car park afterwards and head for the A14, the first song on random play in the car is Camel’s ‘Breathless’.

Monday, March 20, 2023

The Passenger


I have, after many years and quite unexpectedly, joined a new union - that of the behatted bass players (official chapter). In lieu of a scheduled Helstock this year - times are tough for all of us, and the expense and inconvenience of assembling any number of bands to celebrate the official annual passing around the sun of La Mulley is tantalisingly beyond all of our reaches this year - I have been invited to step in to do the low notes for the Tony Winn Big Band in support of the estimable Marty O’Reilly at The Kelvedon Institute, and a mini-cheese fest has been laid out backstage in a nod to our traditional Helstock repast. Not in metaphorical terms - there’s actual cheese.

Marty himself is being filmed for what promises to be an - if you will - Rockumentary and is gamely discussing the journey so far through a fug of fatigue and Lemsip fumes. Tony, Helen and I are running through the set, which involves a selection of his back catalogue, and old song of hers, and me gamely thumping through the tunes channelling my finest Billy Peterson on a Westone Thunder bass which is - in common with de facto promoter, sound engineer and road mangler James - a veteran of the punk wars. Gamine co-support Lily Talmers enquires of these punk wars of which we speak. “He was listening to Neil Young” remarks James. “And we won” I respond.

Compere with the good hair Tony steps up on stage to set the scene and I remark that it would be amusing if he got his own name wrong during the introductions. Later he will throw his arms in the air despairing that he had got Lily’s name wrong during hers, but this is yet to pass. After a flawless rehearsal I inevitably fluff a couple of notes but, employing the tried and tested method of bass players through history in repeating them in verses two, three and four I present to the audience that when the progression resolves itself during the last chorus, it’s almost as if it was a deliberate attempt to build the tension throughout. 

Nevertheless, the post-show reaction is positive - in Kelvedon it is rarely anything but - both from front of house and from the Old Soul Orchestra sequestered behind the velvet curtain and stage door which separates our backstage lounge from the packed auditorium. It’s very kind of Jeff - another paid up member of the (BBP/O) union - to not point out my unique, jazz-inflected approach to doling out the low notes as he, unlike myself, does not play the bass like a guitarist who has been handed an octopus. Lily is magnificent. Marty and the boys even more so. They play an hour and a half of intense semi-improvised wild country-blues-jazz folk before they finish with a call-and-response gospel singalong, unamplified on the floor. It is wonderful.

Tony thanks me once again. “Any time” I say out loud. Internally I’m thinking “And I hope I passed the audition”.