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…”