Sunday, March 24, 2024

“Put down the cheese and get on the stage…”

 And so, again, to Helstock which as regular correspondents will know is the annual celebration of the continued existence of The Fragrant and Charming Helen Mulley and which has been running almost annually since the towards end of the last century. I get a free pass to perform since it’s also near my birthday and everyone else gets an admission pass if they bring a cheese of interest, echoing an approach first adopted in the late eighties by local band As Is, whom I once saw do a splendid gig at The Old Times in exchange for the wholly reasonable entry fee of a potato.

This year’s submission is along the lines of stripped-down power trio (Mr. Wendell is indisposed due to illness) This Much Talent who - let’s face it - are principally performing a gods kitchen repertoire from the roaring nineties, no longer available on handcrafted cassettes (we were way,way ahead of the hipster curve) but still available to listen to on the Bandcamp courtesy of the Bluehouse Records imprint. In order to fully embrace the retro feel of the occasion I have also dug out the very shirt I used to perform some of these songs in, courtesy of a grateful record industry (Duran Duran as it happens) in 1988. “How do I look?” I mutter to Mulley prior to kick-off. “Like someone I used to know” she whispers.

To climax the five song bijou settette I summon a pre-warned show majordomo (and proprietor of BHR) from behind the mixing desk to perform with us as a surprise eye candy treat for La Mulley who brings things bang up to date by needing both his phone as a prompt and his glasses to read it in order to perform. After a refreshing amuse bouche of a set by Mulley and Winn (“We’re going to play you a traditional folk song - don’t be scared. Oh, and Tony will be performing it on the banjo”) we are back on stage in the guise of Helen and The Neighbourhood Dogs - a dog or two down, but Dogs nonetheless and are so late on stage due to the buffet-centric distractions that we have to forgo our closing singalong and go out with the big folk epic about the dead sailor, in part derived from Heart’s ‘Barracuda’.

The stage is cleared and Lily Talmers, hot foot from New York and having absolutely smashed the entry fee by bringing fresh bagels, takes centre and utterly charms the room with her acoustic balladeering which hits the sweet spot between Joni Mitchell and - say - Paul Mosely, and if you don’t know how much of a compliment that is, you don’t know you’re born. She is concerned that the room is very quiet. Someone breaks cover to confirm that we are all simply entranced. At what is essentially a private function, the queue for Merch reaches back from the sound desk to the stage.

As per usual, my journey back is soundtracked by the random feed from all the albums I’ve bought and paid for and loaded onto a memory stick*. About seven minutes from home an eight minute version of ‘Thunder Road’ kicks in and I am minded that it was recorded on the night before Mr. The Boss’s twenty ninth birthday. Apparently he was staring down the barrel of his thirties, not sure if he had achieved everything he’d set out to do and worried that this might be it (his delivery of the line “So you're scared and you're thinking that maybe we ain't that young anymore” resonates through the ether even today) but was emotionally rescued, reassured and convinced by the music in the room that night.

You and me both Bruce, you and me both.

*OK Boomer.

Saturday, February 24, 2024

“I am breathing in, I am breathing out…”

 Once more to The Institute in/at/for Kelvedon (see blogs passim). I am employed this evening as go-to session guitarist for The Tony Winn Band, as we are promoting his latest (and best) album - Blue Speck, upon which I also make a small contribution. My role this evening, under Eno-esque direction, is to play as little guitar as possible - something which we take to the absolute apogee during some parts of the set, in which I am not on stage at all.

One of the joys of The Institute, aside from its convenient parking, lovely audience, adjacent Co-op and marvellous nearby Indian food is the appointed backstage area, a veritable trove of comfortable seating, occasional theatrical props, a clock to tell the time by, a lit mirror and a fully operational separate kitchen, which has been stocked with tea, coffee, milk and sugar by de facto TM, sound engineer and promoter James Bluehouse, seemingly from a stash of well-plundered hotel, motel and Holiday Inns’ courtesy baskets.

I settle into an armchair and catch up with the rhythm section - on bass, the artist formerly known as Barry Picturehouse, currently engaged in a quest to bring the music of Prince the length and breadth of the UK and on percussion (“Congas and bongas”) Sam ‘Bongoboy’ Thurlow, who tells us of his ukulele-based exploits with his Anarchy in the Ukulele quasi autonomous syndicalist collective. “Occasionally we break them” he confesses. “That must be popular!” I say, cheerfully. His mood darkens perceptibly as he glowers under beetle brows and mutters in a meaningful half-tone. “Not always…”

We are joined by Maverick scion Ella Spencer, who is to be the principal supporting artiste and who is gratefully checking the mirror to see if - having enjoyed a curry earlier - she has spinach in her teeth, on her face or (and I quote) in her piercing. “There’s always a first time”. Bass player Trill and I reminisce fondly about what we refer to numerous times as being “Back in the day”*. Ella seems fascinated at the idea that one might book a venue in London, guarantee to sell thirty tickets, organise a coach and then play to the same people at The Powerhaus as you would have done at (say) The Caribbean Club in Ipswich.

These days of course, one might set up a phone in a cradle, film yourself with a filter and put the resulting demo on YouTube for much less effort, and without having to pay a clean up fee to the bus company. A passing Tony Winn dolefully recalls the attendance figures at his Edinburgh Fringe residency (spoiler - you could have fitted the entire run’s audience in tonight’s venue) however we brightly point out that the subsequent press merely reflects that he had a show at the Edinburgh Festival. 

Before too long it is time to mach show ourselves, and after my brief Little Feat-esque groove to ‘South Australia’ (the presence of a conga player named Sam to my left helps enormously with getting into character) and a career-spanning guitar solo, I am off for a bit of a sit backstage and a cup of tea before resuming duties for a bit of light arpeggiation, the climactic audience singalong and some off the cuff volume control swell work. For the arms-linked audience bow at the end, Trill and I engage in lunges, at my behest. “Christ” he says “You could have warned me. At my age!”

*To be fair, when I drove La Mulley home from rehearsal earlier in the week she actually said “Of course, it was all fields around here when I was growing up” at one point.

Friday, January 19, 2024

A to the M to the E to the Ricana

“Jazz” opined the songwriter and philosopher Otis Lee Crenshaw “ain’t nothing but a blues quartet falling down a flight of stairs”, thus neatly labelling an entire genre of music which encompasses everything from Louis Armstrong’s gravel-coated reading of ‘Wonderful World’ to Pat Metheny’s atonal ‘Zero Tolerance for Silence’, which one critic called “…an incendiary work by an unpredictable master” while another called it, simply, “rubbish” which is, frankly, nitpicking. Thus, to define ‘Americana’, we need to dig into its - appropriately - roots. 

I was having a conversation about authenticity in music at The Maverick Festival at Easton Farm Park, where if nothing else the presence of horses, goats and sheep lends a bucolic air to the self-styled first and finest Americana music festival with a visiting musician who posited that folk should really sing in their natural accent, prompted not by an outbreak of MacCollesque revisionism, but by a performer who had sung a song in a broad Tennessee twang and then explained the genesis of the ballad in an accent which reflected nothing so much as a deep immersion in the history and culture of (say) Beccles. My companion nodded approvingly at the next turn, who provided a thorough exegesis of the Appalachian ballads she had wrought regarding mining disasters and backwoods stills. When we looked her up in the programme it turned out she was from New York.

And so we try to define ‘Americana’, the granddaddies of which are probably The Band, who after all were eighty per cent Canadian and steeped in rock n’ roll and Motown roots. ‘Roots’ being the term many thrusting young women and men adopted in order to avoid being pigeonholed as ‘folk’ (too finger in the ear), ‘country’ (big hats and songs like “When You Leave Me, Walk Out Backwards so I Think You’re Coming In”) or blues (literally endless versions of “Sweet Home Chicago”). Put them all together though, and you have a form which encompasses all the best of everything. To paraphrase Sanjeev Bhaskar’s grandfather character in ‘Goodness Gracious Me’; “Guy Clark - Americana”, “Police Dog Hogan - Americana”, “John Craigie - Americana”. It’s a convenient shorthand for an all-encompassing genre which wends its way from the close folk harmonies of The Black Feathers to the (now) bombastic Zeppelin-esque onslaught of Larkin Poe or the stadium-bound LA-centric Morganway.

If Beyonce opined that you should really put a ring on it, Americana suggests that if you like it you should put a fiddle on it. Or a dobro. Or a banjo. Our old friend Otis might suggest that Americana ain’t nothing but a folk singer in a lumberjack shirt, but the breadth and scope of the genre is the most welcoming of churches. After all, one of the early adopters of the opportunity to simply get up and perform songs from the heart-worn highway in a checked shirt is immortalised on You Tube in an early performance at Maverick.

Local lad. His name was Ed Sheeran.