Tuesday, 28 April 2009

To The Manor Born.

Night 11. Sunday 26th April. The Octagon, Yeovil.

London Marathon day today. Here's a picture of my Brother Chris who raised a bit of money for charity. It was his first marathon, and he completed it in less then four and a half hours.

Played at this lovely theatre just three months ago with Phil on the Fairport tour (Third Night Nerves. Sunday 1st February, night 4). I seem to recall a rather excellent all you can eat Chinese buffet, on a very cold day. Tonight's attendance is pretty good again, an almost full theatre with a capacity of more than 600.

Today's hotel: The Manor. I was first given a room right at the end of a corridor in a building that is annexed to the main body of the hotel; I thought, great, less noise potential here. I'd been there barely five minutes when a woman of indeterminable European nationality began to speak very loudly in the one room adjacent to mine. There was just a locked door between the two rooms, so from a soundproofing point of view this was not looking good. She continued; I couldn't understand a single word, and yet I was left in no doubt whatsoever that she was less than happy, in fact - a lot less.

Then there was a reply; a male voice; he sounded calm and reasoning. There was a pause, then she either moved on to a new set of complaints, or perhaps decided to reiterate the previous ones. Next on the scene; children; they didn't sound so happy either. I reached for the phone, and dialled '0'. Would it be possible to move to another room?, I asked, there's a rather noisy family next door'. I was told to rendezvous with the receptionist outside room 3 in about five minutes.

Brilliant! From a twin to a double, can't be bad! And it wasn't bad - until 6:30 the following morning; I was awake - as usual, but not wanting to be - as usual. As I lay there thinking there might be the slimmest hope of grabbing an extra few minutes, there was a very loud bang; the room shook and I almost jumped out of my skin. It wasn't a deafening sound, but it had a kind of violent and deep resonance to it. There was a door, obviously, directly beneath my bed, well, with a floor in-between the two of course. People, workers maybe, they were repeatedly going through this door, letting it swing closed with whatever force it's over tensioned spring mechanism propelled it. This continued with unpredictable regularity for, I'd say - three hours. I found out later that it was indeed the kitchen I had been, in effect, lying on.

There comes a point when one realises that you can't spend your life expecting others to think the way you want them to - a time when the pragmatist within acts, and a downgrading of expectation takes place. This is for nothing other than practical purposes - a decision taken purely and simply on the basis of choosing a less troubled life.
I did complain though.

Night 12. Monday 27th April. The Queens Theatre, Barnstable.
Had quite a lot of time on my hands this afternoon, arriving at the Royal & Fortescue hotel at 12:30 p.m. The theatre is just a short walk from the hotel, so with the sound check at it's usual time of 5 p.m. there was a good four hours to kill after our check-in.

Sometimes I think that life is a series of tests within one big one. Recently there has been somewhat of a 'slamming door' theme to my writing. First it was the Travelodge in Worthing (Thursday 23rd April), and then just yesterday it was Yeovil.

Coincidence maybe? Or could it be that there's some kind of karmic scenario taking place? And now, here in Barnstable I have a room, room number 415, with a corridor door directly outside; and it's loud. Today however, I'm approaching this test in a creative, considered and business-like way; I have placed a crunched up plastic carrier bag in-between the door and the frame. It works.

OK, there's a danger that the bag will be moved away, or kicked from it's strategically placed position, to one side or the other of the door; then there's the possibility that it will be picked up by someone who thinks it's been dropped in error. But maybe, just maybe it might suggest to those journeying through the corridors of Barnstable, that peacefulness and quietness is, for some of us, the preferred option.

Took one or two pictures, and some video of the theatre's interior
I must say something about the amplifier I'm using. It's the amp with no name; made, and adapted for me by friend Steve Carter. For the last few years I've used a Messa Boogie Nomad combo amplifier, which has some good features, and has been very reliable. Steve's amp is based to some extent on reproducing a warm vintage tube / valve sound, along the lines of the Vox AC30. I love it. The guitar sounds much fuller.
An early night tonight, and then it's off to Redditch tomorrow morning

The amp with no name

Sunday, 26 April 2009

You’re Not Worthing.

An Accusation one could level at any place other than this - with the exclusion, of course, of any other location that might go by exactly the same name.

Arrived here from Crystal Palace in what seemed liked a blink of an eye, and pulled up outside our Travelodge hotel with almost three hours to go before the official check-in time of 3 p.m. Travelodge have a policy that gives you the opportunity for an early check-in - this incurs an extra £10 charge; this is what we all opted for. For another £10 you can have a late check-out the next day - 3 p.m. instead of 12 noon. I’m convinced soon there’ll be a coin slot by the bathroom door.

The more I think about it, with all these extra charges, Travelodge must be to the hotel industry what Ryanair is to the airline business. By the time you’ve added everything up, including breakfast, surely we could’ve stayed at the Hilton!

I’m often scratching my head in wonderment on this ever perpetual cycle of vacating one hotel room only to occupy another. I have a curious mind, I search for explanations, so when there’s a wash basin tucked away neatly into a tight corner of the bathroom, leaving only one option of accessing it from the side, I wonder - why?

When a deep shelf is placed over a wash basin, often one of these smaller ones, at a measured height so that when rinsing the face, one’s hands either strike the shelf from underneath, or the head strikes it from above, I wonder - why?

When a shower creates the kind of vacuum that leaves you ‘shrink wrapped’ by curtain, I wonder - why?

When the only supplier to hotels of TV remote controls cannot come up with a better way of keeping the batteries in other than using sticking tape, I wonder - why?

There’s an ingenious new door closing system I’ve encountered recently at all the newer Travelodges; as you let go of it, it creeps back to it’s closed position in the most controlled, steady, mega-slow fashion imaginable, like it will take forever to shut, and then with about an inch and a half to go, it’s as though it says, “oh, fuck it”, picks up incredible speed and smashes against the strike plate . What kind of mind comes up with this sort of thing?

Night Nine. Thursday 23rd April. The Assembly Hall, Worthing.
A sell out show tonight (capacity 930). We’ve been getting good crowds so far; I know there’s a recession on, but so far I haven’t seen much evidence of it effecting audience numbers. I do like what I’ve seen of Worthing; it wasn’t all that long ago when I was here with Phil Cool, only it was the Pavilion we played that night, on the pier.

The Assembly Hall is quite an old theatre, quite ‘Art Deco’ I’d say; the acoustics are notable in that when we sound-checked, the onstage sound was remarkably clear, more so to my ears than any past venue on this tour; when the hall was full, it was the complete opposite. I do know from the response that this was a good show, yet it was one of the quieter audiences.

I have to admit, my playing was pretty rough tonight - definitely below standard. My performance was summed up by a complete lapse in presence of mind as the band launched into They Called Her Babylon. Just before this, I tuned my low E (6th) string down a full tone for the song Lovely On The Water, but had forgotten to re-tune. So Liam counted in Babylon, and I hit my F# minor chord with force - at which point everyone began looking at each other; I looked at Pete (bass player Pete) then it dawned on me what was happening.
I sang the first two lines of the song with my guitar sound muted, and at the same time had one eye on the tuner at my feet on the pedalboard below as I corrected the situation. Who says that men can’t multi-task? I never heard the last of it from the other guys.

Night Ten. Friday 24th April. The Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham.
The prospect of spending two days in Cheltenham is a welcome one, I’m ready for another break; of course we still have tonight’s show to think about. The hotel sits on the outskirts of the town, and two days here means I can think about doing my laundry; this is because of the drying time that’s sometimes needed. It’s a glamorous life style this you know! My preferred technique is to put all the laundry into the bath, add the water and then the Travel Wash. Next, the shoes and socks are removed and you walk around the over the laundry for approximately ten minutes before leaving everything to soak for a good while. A couple of rinses, wring out each garment, hang in any available area of hotel room, and - job done.

Managed to grab a half hour of hypnotic induction with the iPod before travelling into Cheltenham with Maddy in a taxi. The concert hall seems very old and ornate, not what you’d expect from the style of building that greets you at the stage door area; it’s as though they’ve built the new onto the old. All the staff were extremely friendly and helpful; maybe that that sounds a somewhat inane or banal statement, but it’s not always like that, and it can be striking when one observes others making a real effort. They were especially polite with us at the end of the night; I imagine one of the most difficult parts of theatre management is waiting for bands to vacate the building after a show - as they drink and socialise, and generally feel they can just ‘hang out’ for as long as they wish. It’s as though there are two very different realities; the ‘normal’ day-to-day reality of the worker that ‘has a home to go to’, and then there’re these other people in a bubble - on another planet basically.

The audience was quite superb tonight, and they sang the chorus on ‘Hat’ as well and as loud as I’ve heard it sung. I believe that much has to do with, not only the size of audience, but much with the shape of a theatre. I’ve noticed that in the longer, deeper venues, a sense of distance, albeit an unconscious one, is felt. In many of these older theatres, everything seems closer, with two or even three sets of balconies; the audience is near, and around, and above, rather than stretching away into the distance. There’s just a greater feeling of intimacy and interaction.

Saturday 25th April. Day off.
A laundry drying, blog writing, sight seeing, football watching, Indian food eating, day.

Took a walk around Cheltenham after breakfast at T.G.I. Friday’s. This place (Cheltenham) is ‘up there’ amongst the places I could most definitely live.

I went on a search for a pub to watch the Birmingham v Preston North End match in.
But there is a problem; ten minutes after the start of this Championship match on Sky Sports, another begins on Setanta - a big ‘title chasing’ Premiership one: Manchester United v Tottenham. So most places, bars and pubs can only show one match at a time, and I, with my viewing preferences, am very much in the minority.

I must have walked a good four miles, and was nearing the hotel with thoughts of maybe trying to watch it on one of these illegal Chinese internet sites in my hotel room; or I could just listen to the radio commentary? Or, what the hell, I might just get a train up to Birmingham, and actually go to the ground?
A visit to www.mapcrow.info revealed that Birmingham was only 39.76 miles or 63.98 Km away. And then I stumbled upon a pub, the last one on my route, that could, and would show both matches simultaneously. Fantastic.

The match began at 5:20 p.m. and I was there to see the kick-off. North End won 1-2; I won’t bother with the match report, but it was one of the most exciting Preston matches I’ve seen. They could even make the play-offs if next Sunday’s matches work out in their favour.

Peter (K) and Liam turned up at the pub at half time, then after the match we found an Indian take-away. If you really want to know - I had a Chicken Jalfrezi.

Friday, 24 April 2009

Along The Pilgrim's Way

Night Five, Saturday 18th April. The Assembly Rooms, Derby.
I distinctly remember the last time I played the Assembly Rooms with Steeleye; it was a cold early weekday at the beginning of one of our winter tours, probably in late November. The whole night seemed lacklustre. There were maybe 400 in the audience, and their less-than-enthusiastic applause seemed to echo perfectly our somewhat less-than-inspired performance.

Not long after, I ran into local folk, and radio personality Mick Peat at a Morris-On show who was quite emphatic in the critique he gave of that show; emphatic - in a very negative way.
So here we are again. This time it was all very different; a few hundred people different for a start. It’s a different time of the year, a different day of the week. And the way the band performed tonight? Well, it was just different - in a very positive way.

Friend, Big Al Whittle turned up before the show with a guitar he wants me to try out. It’s one of these guitars where you just turn a switch, and it transforms instantly from one model of acoustic to another, and convincingly I might add. It will also go from one tuning to another; regular tuning, to DADGAD, to open C - at the turn of a dial. As he has two of them he’s leaving this one with me so I can familiarise myself with it. They are called Variax - so good he bought it twice.

Night Six, Sunday 19th April. St George’s Hall, Bristol.
I’m in my hotel room here in Bristol, a city I have the fondest of feelings for, on what is a beautiful spring Sunday afternoon. The television is on - it’s Manchester United v Everton, the FA Cup semi-final. The show was superb; well, what I mean is that the show seamed to go very well, and the crowd was superb. This is quite a unique venue, and a much better one for purely acoustic acts. The square interior and high roof can make this place a challenge for any sound engineer. The hotel, I’d recommend to anyone. It’s the Berkeley Square Hotel, and is completely and utterly stylish, with great touches in the room; cafétieres, loose tea, DVD players, even a sherry decanter with glass. And for breakfast I had Eggs Florentine.

Monday 20th April. Day off.
Arrived at the Express By Holiday Inn hotel, just outside Canterbury, mid afternoon. 
I stayed at the hotel, and got some work done. Bought some internet time at ‘through the nose’ prices. I’ll take my USB modem in tomorrow to the Vodafone shop, and see if they can sort it for me. 
Watched the Burnley v Sheffield United match on Sky this evening in the hotel foyer. As a Preston North End fan, in order to stand any chance of getting into the Championship play-offs, we desperately needed Sheffield to win. They lost.

Night Seven, Tuesday 21st April, The Gulbenkian Theatre, University of Kent Campus, Canterbury.
No luck at Vodafone I’m afraid, but I’m not going to get too upset about it - it’s a warm and sunny day, the perfect way to enjoy the sights of Canterbury. Did a lot of walking, too much if I’m honest. I know it’s good for you, but when you have this certain touring-tiredness, I reckon it probably better for you to rest instead. Saying that, I went and made the mistake of telling the band I didn’t need a lift up from the town centre to the theatre. I would make my own way there, thank you very much.
I figured it was about a mile, and it ‘was’ about a mile to the university, but then once in the university grounds it was probably about another mile to the theatre. When these matters of distance are coupled with the other considerations I hadn’t considered, such as - it was uphill all the way, and I was carrying a very heavy bag, it meant I had a little recovering to do on my arrival.

I’ve played the theatre a number of times, but I couldn’t believe how much smaller it was than I remembered it being. One of my Albion Band nightmare scenarios was driving back from here after a show all the way to Preston. I had to drop people off en-route, and I was coming down with a cold. It was 5 am when I eventually got home. I think these are what they call ‘learning experiences’.

In the interval tonight, one or two people complained that they couldn’t hear anything but bass and drums, so we made one or two adjustments, and kept the volume levels on the stage down for the second half. I think it worked well and had the desired effect.

Night Eight, Wednesday 22nd April. Ashcroft Theatre, Fairfield Halls, Croydon, London.
Arrived at the Queens Hotel in Crystal Palace at least an hour before the official check-in time, and contrary to the anticipated wait for rooms, there were just enough already cleaned and ready for the five of us. The sixth member that would usually be there - Pete Z, he lives just a stones throw away from here, so he’d gone ahead of us, travelling in the crew bus first thing this morning.

The hotel is strange, to say the least. It’s cheap. And from the outside, one would quite naturally think that the price of staying here was nothing less than a bargain. But as one moves from the car park, through the entrance, into the reception area, and eventually to the rooms, it’s as if you are going backwards in time, and one’s sense of economic satisfaction becomes as eroded as the weathered interior itself. It is a place where the ‘palatial’ and the ‘tacky’ meet - and not necessarily half way.

‘It’s only for one night’, I’ve been telling myself. I’ve been in much worse places, my God; it’s enough to bring back memories of a terrifying night in some kind of hostel place back in 1976 at the Greek port of Pareus, having missed my ferry. This place here doesn’t even come close, but it’s bad enough to remind me.

A day of mixed feelings and emotions. I once lived here, only five minutes walk from the hotel, in an area called Gipsy Hill. It was 1975, I’d been in London since New Year 71 - starting out in Harrow, then to Crouch End, from there to Blackheath where I lived in the Sandie Shaw and Jeff Banks household for ten months, from there I moved to Greenwich, then a couple of miles down the road to Lewisham to a nasty little bed-sit, and finally I ended up in Gipsy Hill.
The address: 3 Becondale Rd, London SE19. I had the top floor of the house; Pete and Shan Zorn lived in the basement, Shan’s mother on the ground floor.

Four years after taking up residency there I eventually left the UK for what was the beginning of a nine year stay in California.

It would be logical to think that ‘community spirit’ and ‘London’ are not all that synonymous with each other, but as I retraced my 1970s footsteps this afternoon I saw and felt a sense of community that at first surprised me a little, before remembering that, yes, it was just the same back then; apart from a few new buildings here and there, not a lot has changed.
I felt both fondness and grief together as I perused and remembered.

So much of my 1970s experience in London was lost to depression and anxiety; it was largely debilitating. It is only in retrospect that I realise how ill I was; and to get up to some of the things I did, professionally speaking, was remarkable. I was evidently equipped with the tools to create all kinds of opportunities for myself, but not with the tools that would equip me to cope with the consequences.

It’s now Thursday morning, and as I sit here in Cafe Nero having breakfast - a large cappuccino, I would describe these last thirty years as a fleeting eternity. And coming right back to the present, I’m aware of the impending deadline of 11 am, the agreed time we set off for Worthing, our next port of call.

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Steeleye Span 2009 Spring Tour.

The rehearsals for the tour began last Thursday, 9th April, at the usual place - The Warehouse studios in Kennington, Oxford. Maddy had travelled down to my house from Carlisle; actually, she doesn’t like it said that she lives in Carlisle, as her house is about another twenty miles further past in an area called Roweltown. But as I was saying, she came down to Preston on the Wednesday evening, and the two of us, on Thursday morning set off for Oxford.

The first day of rehearsing began at three-ish that afternoon (many things in this business can be best described with an ‘ish’ at the end); it was just Maddy, Pete Zorn, and myself on day one. I’ll write a little more about Pete’s inclusion in the band later. Liam, who had a gig Thursday turned up on Friday. Pete (Knight), arrived on Sunday; he’d been touring with the Feast of Fiddles band, their last show being in Milton Keynes the night before.

I’m finding some of the material quite testing, particularly a piece called The Royal Forester. We performed it last year as part of the 2008 Spring Tour, but since then we’ve decided to add a lot more harmony and BVs (backing vocals). It’s a ridiculously wordy song, and to try and remember arrangement, lyrics and harmonies, whilst playing some heavily syncopated guitar riffs is a challenge to say the least.

Night One, Tuesday 14th April. The Alban Arena, St Albans.
As they say, ‘it’s déjà vu all over again’. The Steeleye Span Spring tour kicked off here in St Albans last night, and before arriving at the town I could not recall a single thing about the place. I know I’ve written about this in earlier posts - just how easily one forgets a venue, that is until the bus turns into the high street, and there’s the first sign of familiarity - then, suddenly, everything comes flooding back.

This, of course, is where Phil (Cool) had his, his. . . how could it be described? His moment when time stood still, perhaps? He has described in detail to me this experience of when, whilst standing on this very stage, everything became ‘dream-like’; he drifted into a zone that rendered him unable to recall anything to do with why he was onstage in the first place.

You can read a more detailed account of that evening in Post 5, Tuesday 24th February 2009. I knew we (Steeleye) were sticking our collective neck out by playing our newer and less familiar material at the beginning of the evening. The logic is that there’s a sense of working backwards, backwards through the forty years of considerable and colourful history.

There were tentative moments, and I’m certain we will, at some point soon, be reviewing the song order. Here’s the set list:

Set One:
1. Madam Will You Walk With Me?
2. Lady Diamond
3. Thomas The Rhymer
4. Blacksmith
5. Let Her Go Down
6. I Live Not Where I Love
7. First House In Connaught (fiddle tunes)
8. The Scullion King
9. Sails Of Silver
10. Bonny Black Hare

Set Two:
1. Lovely On The Water
2. Black Jack Davey
3. Betsy Bell
4. Seagull
5. Babylon
6. The Royal Forester
7. The Three Sisters
8. Tam Lin

All Around My Hat. Gaudette.

Night Two. Wednesday 15th April. Woodville Halls, Gravesend.
A quiet audience. When we hit the sudden ending on Tam Lin at the end of the first set, I wondered when the applause was going to start; can’t remember such a long silent pause after a song. Again, an element of caution and uncertainty at times on our part; there are rumblings, it looks as though a change in the set order is afoot. There was one change tonight, we replaced Gaudette with Peter’s The Song Will Remain.

Night Three. Thursday 16th April. Bedford Corn Exchange, Bedford.
Bang! And it all started to fall into place. We were a different band tonight; this pretty much always happens at some point quite early on in a tour, and it almost feels as though some outside force determines when and where. We did change the song order though, quite radically, using the logic that it was important to make a confident start with material that we felt comfortable and familiar with, then work our way into that which is newer and less familiar. Here’s the song order:

Set One:
1. Blacksmith
2. When I was On Horseback
3. The Scullion King
4. I Live Not Where I Love
5. The Butcher
6. First House In Connaught (fiddle tunes)
7. Madam Will You Walk With Me?
8. Lady Diamond
9. Thomas The Rhymer

Set Two:
1. Bonny Black Hare
2. Seagull
3. Betsy Bell
4. Lovely On The Water
5. Babylon
6. The Royal Forester
7. The Three Sisters
8. Tam Lin

Encore: All Around My Hat. Black Jack Davey. The Song Will Remain.

Night Four. Friday 17th April. The Castle, Wellingborough.
Have run into terrible trouble with my Vodafone mobile internet modem. I took out a £15 a month contract a year ago for one of these USB sticks that enable the user to hook up to the internet, pretty much wherever you are.

On the basis of how much time I’d be spending away from home I upgraded the old modem for (supposedly) faster model a couple of months back, and apart from the fact that there appears to be virtually no difference in the speed between the two, I’ve been getting by quite comfortably with it. A few days ago in the rehearsal studio, after Maddy had been using it to download some lyrics from the ‘net, I leaned over to pick my laptop up from the floor, and as I was lifting it, I caught the modem protruding from the USB port, on my leg.

Somehow I managed to damage it, and now if I want to go online I’m basically having to pay silly hotel prices. I did call in to a Vodafone store to find out if it was possible to get a replacement modem, and yes, it is possible to replace it, for a grand total of £78. Carol has mailed my old modem to tomorrows venue; I think, I hope, it might be a case of just swapping the sim card back.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

East Fife 4 Forfar 5

Please excuse the plagiarism. For me, the above heading is one of the greatest, and one for which I cannot take any credit. It was in fact an old album title by folk singer and comedy artist Stanley Accrington; if I remember correctly, on the cover he’s captured pointing to a road sign that reads: Forfar 5.
And why? I can hear myself imagining you asking. Because I’m back in Scotland. My God, for years I never came near the place, now if my arithmetic is correct it’s been four visits in just nine months.
This time it’s purely for pleasure. It’s a - take advantage of the time you have before you haven’t got any - kind of trip. 
Carol and I found a sort of ‘3 nights for the price of 4’ deal at a hotel / restaurant called the Tigh Na Mara in Sandhead near Stranraer, Dumfriesshire.
We set out late morning on Thursday 02 April. On our journey north along the M6 we stopped of at the Fylde Guitar workshop in Penrith; I was pretty exited about this - not because I had to drop my Signature guitar off for a service, but because I was, at the same time, to collect a brand new one. 
It has to be a year ago now when Roger (Bucknall) told me of a guitar he wanted me to try. When I did try it I thought it was fantastic, and so he said he would make one for me. Over these last twelve months I lost count of the number of times he was going to start this new guitar, until eventually, I’m very happy to say, he offered me the original one. 
These next three days are an opportunity to familiarise myself with the instrument, as well as just relax and clear my head.
Played golf at Stranraer Golf Club on Friday; it’s a beautiful course. This was the first time I’ve picked up my clubs in over six months, and I learnt something, though I’m not completely clear what it was that I learnt. But it was about practising. 
I played as well as I had played six months ago, perhaps a little better in fact, yet last year I worked hard, and practised hard on my game without any significant improvement. I took one or two lessons even; much of what I was told to work on, although interesting and logical to a point, served, more than anything, to confuse my game.
I know that teaching, and those doing the teaching can be dangerous things. How can it / they be dangerous? I’ll tell you why; because so, so much of this is based on the ‘right’ way, the ‘only’ way, the ‘new’ way. And it’s more than just about putting yourself in the hands of someone who you think knows something you don’t, they might well know something you don’t, but the problem really is all about the promise. Not the promise that is made to us by anyone else, but the one that we seek when there's the absence of self-belief.
It’s the same with guitar playing. Although I’ve had many students over the years, I can’t think of one person that I’ve come across who I would have wanted to have teach me. I see it like I see religion to some extent, in some ways. There’s a human propensity towards belonging to societies, sects, schools of thought. We want to be able to identify with the like-minded. 
So what you get in guitar teaching is: ‘the instrument must be held in this way’, ‘one must learn to play scales’, ‘the thumb must be placed in this position behind the neck’, and so on.
Same with golf; whether it’s a technical ‘old school’ approach, or the instinctive ‘new school’ approach, what you are told by one pro is very often contradicted by another. And yet we can choose to look at these people as messengers of truth.
I always tried to teach my students to trust their own ear; if it sounds right to you, it is right. All we need is the confidence to be able to admit to ourselves that we know more than we think we know - in golf, as it is in music. Amen.
In the end, as the saying goes - it’s more about the notes you leave out; only your heart can tell you which ones they are.

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Back To School

As I mentioned back in post 3 (Nicol & Cool / Fairport Tour, 9th Feb. The Gatehouse Theatre, Stafford), twice a year, for what I think has been the last ten years, Ashley Hutchings and I do a little school work, teaching grades four, five and six children all about folk music; well maybe it’s best described as our folk tradition, seeing that it’s more about the history and way of life of a time that gave rise to what we see now as traditional music and dance.

Ashley definitely does most of the work, but then - he’s the expert, and he’s spent most of his life as both servant and messenger to this cause. Don’t think for a minute though that this implies the kind of narrowness one might often identify with such focused intention, particularly in folk music; Ashley is seen as one of the original, if not ‘the’ original folk-rocker(s); he has an innate ability to incorporate and to work comfortably within the contexts of both past and present.

We normally work down here in Staffordshire for two weeks at a time, and we do this twice a year - February / March and June times. This time round, due to a number of reasons, it’s just four schools. Basically, both Ashley and I have more work commitments than usual; but this is also not to ignore the reality that a significant number of older school Heads, those who’s awareness of folk music has it’s roots in the student days of the nineteen sixties and seventies, are, one by one reaching retirement age.

Although I’ve never been drawn specifically toward this notion of having to keep our traditions alive, I must admit to finding the idea of a culture dominated solely by the mainstream superficiality that is increasingly afforded so much unquestioned regard really quite disturbing. And far from having concern over whether there will be any schools to work in before too long, I do fear a little for the children, and wonder as to whether generally there is enough emphasis on, not just folk music, but any of those things outside of ‘the three Rs’ that add a little more fullness, richness and meaningfulness to our lives.

The schools that we visited, all in the Stoke / Leek areas are, in this order:

Monday 16th March. Forsbrook Primary School, Forsbrook.

Tuesday 17th March. Bursley Primary School, Newcastle-under-Lyme.

Wednesday 18th March. Woodcroft Primary School, Leek.

Thursday 19th March. Westwood First School. Leek.

As usual, the dynamics, and the way in which the children relate to one another, and indeed to us, varies enormously in terms of their willingness, interest, intelligence and all round behaviour from one day to another. There’s no doubt, they can be a real handful.
Speaking as someone whose school days were little short of a nightmare, these days I have high regard for those who choose teaching as a profession, they deserve a little admiration.

Friday 20th. St Bede’s, Clayton-le-Woods.

A solo gig, and although a welcome change, this turned out, personally, to be a very difficult night.

The evening has been promoted by Dominic Finley, who, along with keyboard player Chris Stewart I shared the bill with.
Arriving at the venue at around 4 pm; tonight I am the provider of the P.A. the sound man, and later on a performer. My P.A. has been perfect for what I’ve needed it for over the years, and is more than adequate for the size of tonight’s venue. The 400 x watts a side amp, and the Bose 602s have been incredibly reliable.
After setting everything up and sound-checking myself, I set about getting Dominic and Chris sorted out.


Somewhere, sometime, I don’t quite recall the exact point in time, the mobile in my pocket vibrated. Opening up the phone as I walked out of the building, and into the car park, I was slightly surprised to see on the display that it was Carol calling me; she sounded a little shaky. “Ken”, she said, “I’m at the vets, we need to make a decision about Mavis”.
I’d been dreading this moment, but wasn’t in the slightest bit surprised of it’s timing.

I asked the inevitable and obvious questions: what has the vet said then? Is an operation completely out of the question? Have they given an indication of how much longer she might last?

Mavis, as well as becoming very thin had been getting progressively more unsteady on her feet. The plan had been to give her these steroids that were supposed to build her strength up. Then when we deemed her to be strong enough we would pay a considerable sum of money to have the offending section of intestine removed. Contrary though to what we’d been led to believe, the moment that the very first of the steroid injections was administered her condition declined in dramatic fashion.

It had been upsetting to watch this decline in her health, as you would imagine, but the most striking thing to me was that in the whole of her sixteen years of life I’d never seen her this happy. Really, all you had to do was look at her, and she’d be purring. The more she seemed to struggle physically, the happier she became; I even wondered if half of her was already somewhere else - waiting for the other half to follow. There was a beauty and an innocence about her that made me want to cry, and that would fill me with hope both at the same time.

Anyway, it was decision time, and both Carol and I knew that - there was no decision. Out of the two of us, Carol was the lucky one - lucky to be with her as the injection was given. My instinct was to not to want to witness the reality of Mavis’s death, yet I absolutely knew that in some way being safe in the short term, meant I would suffer in the long term. It’s all about being able to move on.
And move on I will do - to the show I’m about to play. It wasn’t easy; I felt drained.

Me and Mave.

If I'm being honest, I’d have to say that in my view, Dominic’s set just went on a bit too long. It was so hard sitting, waiting.
When eventually it did come time for my bit, motivation was something I had to dig very, very deep for. My own assessment was that though I may not have been at my liveliest when I took to the stage, I did actually play well.

Sunday 22nd March. RMMGA Gathering, Hargate Hall, Derbyshire.

Another solo gig. I drove down from Preston, calling in at Bill and Sue’s in Endon, just outside Stoke on the way. I’d left a guitar there (unintentionally) during the past week of school work. It was just one of those fortunate things that it happened to be somewhat on my route to Hargate Hall. It was nine years ago when I last played at one of these annual meetings.

RMMGA stands for: Rec.Music.Makers.Guitar.Acoustic. Not certain what the ‘Rec’ is; ‘recording’ maybe? Recreational?

They’re a great bunch of people though, and they travel from far and wide to be at these events, some even flying in from the US.

It was a perfect mixture of organisation and chaos. There were barrels of real ale, a whole row of them in a small corridor that led away from the main room where everything seemed to be taking place. A fair number of those in attendance were exhibiting signs that would suggest there had been a significant number of encounters made with these barrels.

The evening meal, a curry, was served at 20:30, then when everything quietened down I was ‘up’; ‘up’ on stage, that is; as ‘up’ on stage as one could be without there actually being a stage. There was a performing area though, and a PA, quite a good PA in fact.
The set went well; I enjoyed the whole evening. I especially enjoyed seeing some old faces - guitar maker Alan Marshall, who I first met back in 1969 when I lived in Derby; Gillie Nicholls, whom I worked with in the Albion Band back in 1998/99; plus, all the others I know from my previous encounter with the RMMGA group.

Pete Gay, one of the organisers seemed slightly put out that I wasn’t staying over, after all the effort he’d made to get a room prepared for me, but I had no recollection of saying I’d do anything other than travel home after I performed. I was very appreciative though. I got back home at around 2 am. Sat 28th March. Nicol & Cool, Ashover Village Hall, Derbyshire.
You could say this is one of the first fruits that the Fairport tour has yielded.

When Phil and I played in Chesterfield on the Fairport tour, the guys from Xeli promotions were there (http://www.xelipromotions.co.uk); it’s a team of people local to that area that have promoted some good quality concerts for the last few years, usually in the village hall in Ashover, a small village that sits just outside the Peak District National Park.

On February 25th I received an email from Stephen Preston asking if Phil and I could fill a date that had been booked for another act, but for one reason or another had been cancelled.

Despite the last minute nature of the event, with over a hundred in attendance, the hall seemed quite full. It was a good night, promoted by an organisation that appear to know exactly what they’re doing.

Thanks For The Memory Stick.

Absolutely everything can be observed, interpreted and written about from an endless number of angles. When it comes to touring, in many ways every single night is different from the last, and yet there is also a brain numbing repetitiveness to it all.
On the whole, the differences that do occur from one night to the next are to do with things like: what the parking is like behind the venue; the number, and the size of dressing rooms, and who gets which one; the shape and size of the stage; whether the show starts at 7:30 or 8pm; if you performed well or not; what the sandwiches backstage were like; who changed their strings that day . . . and so on, and so on. Now I’m sure that already I’ve named a few topics that might be of interest to some, and I’d have to say that to an extent I am also interested in some of the above - that is, for a very limited amount of time.

Some changes come with consistency and regularity; they can be expected. I am aware of course, that the familiarity that causes contempt in my world is not the familiarity of another’s. So when offering anything in way of one’s music or words to others, it has to be a considered process; by that I mean it is considered in view of how much of the writer’s own world might be of any relevance to the listener or reader. Of course, if you are trying to please everyone, then there’s the danger of not expressing who you are.

There are those who are completely individual and self-focused in what they do; some of them are seen as complete and utter heroes, heralded for their disregard of what anyone else might think; others are ignored, or are written off for being self-indulgent.

This has always been an issue for me with music, and it leads me to the loaded question of - on what basis an artist goes about their work, and why.
I would stay with this subject if I wasn’t typing this in my dressing gown, and I didn’t need to take a shower.

Later, and cleaner:
I am aware that there are those who would like to know more about the day-to-day events that take place behind the scenes; the musicians curious as to the kind of amplifier, mandolin, effects pedals that such-and-such-a-body uses; curious of who said what to who, and when; whether everyone ‘gets on’ or not.

And ‘friction’, yes, in particular this is what grabs the attention of a great many out there; it’s remarkable to me just how drawn we can be to watching conflict - in any shape or form. I’ll stay with this point for a moment longer because to me it’s so striking (and so disturbing) a part of the human condition. I can speculate as to what it is exactly that slows us down as we pass a motorway crash, or that makes the conflict of the Big Brother household such compulsive viewing for many; in fact I will speculate.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying this is
exactly how it is, but I’d have to start from the premise that we are, on-the-whole, somewhat fearful creatures; we carry fear with us - as probably all living things do in their own way. The truth is, of course, that it helps keep us alive, or it certainly has done so far. We quite naturally want to be safe, and being such a creative species we’ve developed so many ways of removing ourselves from real life; so consequently we become removed, bored, depressed, etc.

 These are unique symptoms of, what we call - modern life.
Being bored and depressed might be extremely boring and depressing, but there are perks; along with it comes a sense of safety, albeit not necessarily a conscious one. What, in this context, I’d have to ask, could be more self serving then than having ones position of safety enhanced by the observation of disaster?

Something else I’d have to ask also is, how many individuals who are damming of those who slow down at a crash scene, if they put their hands on their hearts, would not have to admit that in truth they too are just as interested as anyone else?
If we do have anything to be critical of, or indeed self-critical about, then surely it’s not our innate humanness that’s the problem, it’s more the unwillingness to becomes conscious of what we do.

It’s a bit unfair, I know, lumping those who want to know what strings you put on your guitar with drivers who slow down at crash scenes, in fact right now I can’t see any connection at all - I will work on it though.

Monday 2nd March. Day off.

Just hung around Dumfries. Other than a visit to a Costa coffee house and a walk round a very chilly Scottish town centre, I’d describe this a stunningly uneventful, yet welcomely restful day.

Tuesday 3rd March. Theatre Royale, Dumfries. 

Some of these Scottish theatres most certainly have a bit of character to them, this one is most probably the smallest on the tour, with a capacity of just a 200. It was full, and the audience was fantastic and vocal.

As well as CDs, we’ve been selling memory sticks; 1GB USB drives that hold good quality MP3s of both the N&C album, and also my Initial Variations album. Apart from it giving me something to talk about on stage, they carry a few extra bits and pieces; bonus tracks from other albums, info, pictures, etc. These are selling more than the CDs.

On Sunday I was given the cash from the Nicol and Cool merchandise sales thus far; I won’t disclose exactly how much the figure was, but I can assure you that I will not be retiring in the foreseeable future. Still, it was enough to feel nervous about having it sitting in my pocket and not in the bank, so I found the only Post Office in Dumfries, and handed the cash over to the teller with the usual imagined scenario of ‘this money will vanish without trace into the ether’ going through my mind. I’m always so surprised when I check my online balance to see the money sitting there.

I’m forever undecided after a ‘rest day’ as to whether or not they are a help or a hindrance. I recall that old and very politically incorrect gag, the one that goes: why don’t they allow Irish workers to have tea breaks? Because it take too long to re-train them. Certainly a non-PC joke from the dark and distant past, I know. But sometimes after a day off that’s just how I feel - as though I need to learn everything over again. In similar vein, Phil made a comment today about reaching the point where we were feeling blasé about being on-stage. I knew exactly what he meant; this is nothing to do with ‘not caring’, contrary to how it might sound, it is more to do with the idea of the stage, and being on it, becoming so familiar that the division between that and any other place you might be, becomes virtually non-existent.

After the show, instead of heading for the usual Travelodge, we headed home, well, ‘my’ home. The journey was, in one respect, straightforward - almost all M6; the weather though was horrendous. Still, we made it back in around two and a half hours. Phil slept in the spare room.

A Sensational early morning sky in Peel, Isle of Man.

Wednesday 4th March. Centenary Centre, Peel, Isle of Man.
I knew this was going to be tight; the ferry left Heysham exactly on time at 14:15 arriving in Douglas at 17:30. Peel is on the opposite side of the island (the west side) from Douglas, and although the width of the island is only 12 miles, by the time we were off the ferry and had negotiated our way to the venue there was about half an hour to set up equipment and sound-check before the ‘official’ door opening. The show was one of just three on the entire tour due to start at 8 pm, all the rest having a 7:30 start, but as this time approached, all kinds of technical issues with the PA were holding everything up. I couldn’t help feeling somewhat sympathetic towards the audience, many of who were lined up outside the building for a good forty five minutes to an hour on a far from warm evening. Some, I later heard, had not surprisingly got so fed up with waiting in the cold that they asked for their money back.

There’s always a point in a situation like this when you just say, ‘OK, lets busk it’, and you get on with the show despite all the known or potential hitches; more often than not though things do take care of themselves.
Chris the promoter had arranged for everyone to eat at friend Nicola’s house just around the corner from the gig; he’d made a Thai curry with fresh scallops. The band members went and ate while Phil and I stayed at the hall; we had a show to do. When we eventually did get a chance to check the food out for ourselves, the wait was truly worthwhile, the scallops were sensational; and having our part of the show behind us meant we could just sit back, relax and enjoy .

Thursday 5th March. The Brewery Arts Centre, Kendal.

Here in what’s called The Malt Room at the Brewery Arts Centre the dynamics were quite different to all but one of the other shows on the tour. The other show I’m talking about is The Phoenix at Exeter; at both these venues there was no seating for the audience. It’s quite notable the difference it makes to the entire feel of an evening. I know it was a problem for some people tonight; you see, much of the Fairport audience are now of an age where sitting is by far the preferred position from which to observe pretty much anything, well, at least for any length of time, that’s for sure. A few did leave, but not that many - they’re also a hardy bunch.
Coincidence of the year was walking straight into Ray and Joyce, my previously mentioned friends from Newcastle-on-Tyne, as they were leaving the very café that Phil and I were about to enter. They had, en route for Manchester just decided on a whim to have a brief visit to Kendal. They had no idea I was performing there. They re-entered the café with us and we sat, chatted and ate on what they recommended to us.
Phil’s daughter came to the show, and later took Phil back home. For me, also, it was a welcome case of sleeping in my own bed again, this time not just for the one night, but on a somewhat more continuing basis; there’ll be no more Travelodges for a while.

Friday 6th March. The Arts Centre, Southport.

A local gig, near enough even for my Mum to attend. Exactly where the lines falls between a local gig, and one that’s not local, is something I’m unclear about. 20 miles? 30 miles, perhaps? More to the point is the fact that there only appears to be two categories; the first one describing a venue falling within this unascertained distance of up to, lets say for now 25 miles; the second category is literally ‘any’ distance beyond that. It could be that it’s just one of those things in life that has been given a broader category, being designated as inexact subject matter. This is fine as long as one doesn’t have an overriding need to put everything into some kind of imaginary box that says everything that needs to be said about what’s in it - that’s what we do though isn’t it?
My first thought would be to create zones, with zone ‘A’ being a gig played in your own house, and zone ‘B’ in your own town. We’d have to get the Musicians Union to rule on the rest.

One thing’s for sure though, Southport wouldn’t have seemed all that local to me once upon a time; a lot of it is, of course, about the distances you’re used to travelling. There was a time when most of what I did was in Zone ‘B’, that’s going back some time now, but it wasn’t so easy back then getting people to book me in other towns. I was dead big in Preston though, could work all the time there. I was one of those, somewhat valued, but not really respected all that much people that fall into the category of - ‘local artist’.
It’s a strange and weird paradox you know; you can be liked very much as this ‘local artist’ but it doesn’t equate to the kind of respect given to someone who is not quite so easily available.

This reminds me of an event some ten years ago, could be a bit less, no, come to think of it, it was more than ten; well, this event, a fund raiser, was organised by a committee of people who had the intention of giving Preston an Arts Centre. The town (now officially a city) has never had the kind of arts centre found in many other towns and cities around the country; a place where different areas of the arts are combined, but not necessarily in the traditional manner of that which is found, lets say, in local museums and art galleries. I should add that in Preston we have the Harris museum which also incorporates an art gallery and library, and is, in my view, superb.
But if it’s theatre or music you’re after it’s either the Guildhall, which is a fairly major venue, or it’s all the way to the other end of the spectrum - the pub scene.

There are two problems here; the Guildhall is run more and more on a purely commercial basis which, of course, means that many of the less populist and fringe areas of the theatre are excluded. The other problem is in the pub scene, here music has been so accessible and available for so long that a great many of the public have come to regard it as little more than something you have on in the background. It’s a culture where many of those in it happily spend 10, 15, 20 pounds on a round of drinks, but don’t like the idea of paying money directly to a musician.
The ‘arts centre’ as I see it is a place that falls between the two, maybe closer to the theatre end than the pub end, but a meeting place for those actually interested in listening, tasting, and having their thoughts provoked. It’s also a venture that has to be, as most if not all arts centres are, heavily subsidised.

Now when it comes to organising a fund raising event like this, one would imagine that both the organisers and those in attendance would demonstrate the appropriate level of respect for all those giving up their Saturday night (yes, I remember it was a Saturday) to perform there. There were singers, comedians, actors and musicians, some better than others, but nevertheless they gave a part of themselves to this cause.
I sat there for almost the entire evening awaiting my cue to perform, and as I sat there I witnessed both the audience’s intoxication level, and consequently their noise level increase, as one artist after the next took to the stage only to be drowned out by the rabble.

‘What was I going to do?’ I asked myself. It was obvious that nothing was going to suddenly change for my spot; but I knew I couldn’t do it - if I wasn’t going to be listened to I’d just be unable to continue; and I was already angry.
Over the years, and with the nature of the work I’d had to do, I’d become somewhat accustomed to having at least a proportion of my audience(s) talking through my performance(s), but little by little I’d grown increasingly resolute toward the idea that there was something just plain dysfunctional and disrespectful about this.

I wouldn’t want to imply for one moment that the disrespect is just on the part of the audience; an artist or musician who puts him or herself in that position, and I should add - is unhappy about being in that position, is essentially the other part, and willing part of a jigsaw puzzle of disrespect and denigration.

So there I was, waiting. Now I was up, it was my turn, in fact the next ‘turn’ was me. As the din continued I took a number of very slow deep breaths as I carefully placed each of my guitars onto the small makeshift stage. Once I had everything into position, I looked over towards the MC, and nodded; a signal that I was as ready as I’ll ever be.
‘Now ladies and gentlemen, please put your hands together, and welcome to the stage . . .’ went the introduction. The crowd was silent. ‘Hmmm, I wonder how long this will last?’ I thought to myself.

I launched energetically into the first number, and as sure as eggs is eggs, as the song developed so did the crowd noise. When it was finished I had to have a serious word with them.
It was a long time ago, and the memory is a bit foggy but I do remember appealing to them quite earnestly to demonstrate a little more respect towards the performers.
All had become quiet once again, for a while at least, and then alas, the pattern of events started to repeat itself.
I could feel my set list becoming shorter by the minute, and the third number was to be my last.

My party piece back then was an arrangement of ‘Last of the Great Whales’, a song with a powerful message, and a guitar part swathed in a particularly big reverb effect that would make the guitar sound just massive. Into the song I went, and once again, what began as whisperings, this time developed really quite seamlessly into much more, so seamlessly in fact that maybe they figured with it being such a gradual and incremental increase in volume that I might not notice.
Two and a half verses in, and I’d had enough; I hit the guitar hard over the sound hole with my hand clenched, with enough force so as not to not damage the guitar, but with just enough force to create a catastrophic and Armageddon-like effect, it literally sounded as though the PA had exploded. Now they were bloody quiet. I told them to ‘shut the fuck up’, and I walked off.
I should make it clear that this is not a tale of bravado or anything like that, it is more an account of a position I felt brave enough to take after a great deal of doubt and soul searching.

I’m glad to say that these days it’s a problem I don’t run into very much if at all.
Tonight at the Arts Centre, Southport had a certain feel to it; a winding down; one gig to go, a good to see my friends, feel.

Saturday 7th March. The Town Hall, Birmingham.

Four thousand, three hundred and twenty eight miles later, and the last show of the tour. A striking venue in what can be described as Fairport’s stomping ground. To the eye the building is incredible; it’s hard to miss; however, if you’re negotiating the one way system it’s then hard to find.
But find it we did at the end of a leisurely drive down from Lancashire.
Everyone had a good final evening I think. There’s always a tinge of sadness; an air of sentimentality to a last evening. And the gathering at the evening’s end; it’s difficult to say goodbye, not just from an emotional angle, but it’s the logistics also; there are so many people to say it to.

I felt glad though that the tour had come to a close; I was tired. It’s back to life on civvy street now, with all of the mental adjustments that go with it for the next couple of weeks, or even longer; yes, it really does take a while to remember who you were before everything was reduced to a process of only having to concern yourself with putting on a bit of a show at the end of the day.
I have just about enough time to collect my thoughts, to get my laundry done, then it’ll be back on the road with Steeleye Span.