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.