Friday, 31 July 2009

Big Nights In Smallhythe

Nicol & Cool

Tuesday 14th July. The Railway Folk Club, Dartford, Kent.

When Jim told me that Phil and I had the opportunity to play at a folk club in Kent called the Railway, I was really taken aback, or maybe I should say - transported back, back - I thought - something like twenty years; it had to be about that because it wasn’t long after I’d come back from the US. 
On my return, I’d been spending a little time at John Hade’s house, a friend who lived in south London; he too had moved back to the UK from LA at around the same time.

I first met John on a golf course; he was in the music biz - managing the Thomson Twins; they were big, very big actually at the time, having already had at least two major hit records on both sides of the Atlantic. I had a band too, they weren’t at all big, in fact we were struggling, and we were called Versailles.

The golf course was on Griffith Park, not far from Hollywood; I would just turn up there, pay my green fee, and the woman at the counter would normally say something like, “there’s a threesome up on the tee, if you’d like to join them?”. 

On this one particular occasion John just happened to be part of the threesome, or twosome, I can’t recall just how many, but by the time we reached the back nine I was working out how to get this new found golf partner interested in managing a second band.

And that is what eventually transpired; I do wish I could say that on that fateful day a story of success and riches was born, but it wasn’t to be.

As is the nature of the business for a great many of us, there were a very good number of ‘nearly’ moments; numerous deals that were ‘as good as done’ but didn’t actually get done. Very often it was all about that specific person in some publishing company or another who talked about contracts, percentages and advances, before he either got moved to a different department, or lost his job completely.
However, John and I did remain friends through and beyond all of this, and continued to play a little golf together in Richmond Park for a time.

I recall rehearsing at John’s flat on the day of my Dartford gig. As stated earlier, I was thinking it was probably twenty years ago, but tonight when club organiser Pam arrived at the Dartford Working Men’s Club, where the folk club is held each Tuesday, she placed
 a small piece of paper in my hand; written on it was: KEN NICOL 23 AUG - 88.
She told me that along with her husband Allan, they have been running this club for thirty six years; in my books, that’s what’s called dedication and commitment.

It was a good night, the only questionable area being the house lights being left on whilst Phil and I were on stage.
These issues often aren’t regarded with any great importance in the rustic world of folk music, but it’s surprising what a difference it can make to the general atmosphere or ambience in a room. 
So when I kicked off the second half with ‘2 Frets From the Blues’ I asked for, and got the lights turned off in the house; it did make a difference.

Nicol & Cool

Wednesday 15th July. The Ellen Terry Barn Theatre, Smallhythe Place, Tenterden, Kent. 

This place, this Smallhythe Place is so Goddamn cool. It sits on National Trust land just outside the bustling metropolis they call Tenterden here in the Home County (I can now state with authority) of Kent .

It was almost two years ago when I last visited this backwater; they had just launched their maiden - full scale - music festival. There were two, maybe three stages–all fairly modest in size; the one I performed on that night was the same we perform on today.
And it is, as the title suggests, a barn that has been converted into a theatre.

You’d think maybe it was a venue for music by the shear fact that we are here tonight, but in fact it was founded by Dame Ellen Terry the famous nineteenth and early twentieth century Shakespearian actress - and originally she created it as a theatre for drama.
In fact, this is what it’s still used for the great majority of the time.

This coming Sunday there’s a poetry and reading evening presented by non less than Nicola McAuliffe, Jenny Seagrove and Martin Shaw, accompanied by Simon James, called: Horses and other Beasties.

To put this into perspective, the theatre has a little over sixty seats, each of which carry the name of its distinguished sponsor; this is an indication of how highly regarded an institution it is.
Many, many legendary names from the world of theatre have walked these boards.

Sunday’s production is a fund raising event for a horse refuge, and with names like Jenny Seagrove and Martin Shaw, it sounds like quite a coup to me.

OK, about our show; the audience, the setting, the atmosphere - all were fantastic. Now when was the last time you heard me say that?

To learn more about Ellen Terry, and the theatre: Smallhythe Place

Nicol & Cool

Thursday 16th July. The Met, Bury.
“We were made welcome from the moment we arrived”, - this is what I wrote on the ‘artist feedback form’ in the dressing room; and it was true. 

I know I’m always harking back to the last time I played wherever it is we’re currently playing, but it seems like the natural thing to do, and it’s always interesting from my perspective to compare the ‘then’ to the ‘now’.

Here at the Met, quite a bit has changed since my last visit with, it must be - the Albions; yes, that was at least nine years ago. It sounds like a long time ago, but it feels more recent than I can easily describe; in fact I’ve got a kind of Google search of my own going on in my brain - trying to locate what it was I’ve done here since, but it keeps telling me: your research did not match any documents. Guess it must’ve been the Albions then!

Like a lot of these small to medium size theatres, they’ve installed an automated tiered seating system. It’s very impressive to watch as the entirety of the theatre’s seats - either slowly retract into what looks like nothing more than a perfect symmetrical wall of compacted furniture; or - in perfect reversal - it expands into the only form the audience ever gets to see and sit on.

Officially called: telescopic bleachers, or retractable platforms, each of these inward and outward movements are accompanied by an unsettling noise, a loud siren that tells you in an indirect but unmistakable tone as it retracts, that if you were to remain seated, you would become ‘one’ with this telescopic process.

And I’d probably have to recommend the cafĂ© / restaurant - if the cappuccinos are anything to go by.

I often take the opportunity to write when Phil does his second half comedy spot; he’s presently doing his Rolf Harris impersonation. The audience is reacting in pretty much the same fashion as last night, only there’s a lot more of them. These last two evening have been tremendous.

I get to go home tonight; the next show I have to look forward to is with Steeleye in Doncaster a week tomorrow (25th) when we share the bill with Jethro Tull.

The weather’s pretty awful considering it’s supposed to be summer, so it doesn’t look like I’ll get much golf in over the next few days. It’ll be a good opportunity though to finish up the Hutchings/Nicol album that’s been on the go for the last eighteen months or so.
To launch it we’ve put something like ten dates in place through February 2010.

Also, the one project that’s been well and truly pushed to the back burner is my Ypres video.
Last December Carol and I went to Belgium for three days.

The First World War, and the history of the Western Front in the area of Ypres has a particular poignance to me. 
My interest was sparked by a visit to the Dranouter folk festival with the Ashley Hutchings Dance Band in the late 1990s.
The band had the best part of a day off; I think it might have been a Sunday, and drummer Paul Burgess drove the band into Ypres, a town I knew absolutely nothing about at that time. 

I was struck by how the restaurants carried English beers, and they had food on the menus that, again, were very English. I then took a walk, alone, towards the east of the town, and ended up at this considerably large archway; on it was inscribed hundreds, thousands, tens of 
thousands of names; this, I later discovered, was the Menin Gate, and I also learnt that it contains the names of 54,896 officers and men from all the overseas British and Commonwealth forces who fell during the Great War in the area that was known as the Ypres Salient before the war’s end on 16th August 1917 (these were just the ones that were unaccounted for).

To stand there, in this memorial, even before I knew very much, well - ‘anything’ about it, was a profoundly moving experience. And so my interest in the era, and in the region began.

When we visited last year we went to just some of the many, many cemeteries and battle fields; also to the ‘In Flanders Fields’ museum. 

I took my camcorder, and whilst filming away I suddenly thought to myself, ‘why not put all the footage together into something to which I could later add a soundtrack?’.

It’s the old ‘then and now’ perspective again; I was so struck by how beautiful a town Ypres looked - especially at this time of year, adorned with all the sparkling decorations of Christmas; the trees and the lights.

After the 1914/18 war the town was completely rebuilt to be the perfect replication of its medieval origins. 
When comparing this to the complete and utter devastation of its past, all I can say is that I think I’ll manage to convey more eloquently the mixture of emotions within me through the medium of music rather than words. 

On our return I bought the editing software (Final Cut), and got to work. There’s now a thirteen minute video that’s been sitting in my Mac waiting for a soundtrack since January.
Maybe now is the time.

Thursday, 30 July 2009

Ferals Of Fortune

Liam with (recording engineer) Mark.

Steeleye Span / recording

Monday 6th July. Propagation Studios, North Tamerton, Devon.
It had to happen eventually; I’m talking about the album, the new one, the 40th anniversary one. I have to admit to a growing sense of weariness; all these late nights, and all my early mornings are just beginning to take their toll.

This studio is a long way from Preston; yesterday when I put the address into my GPS I saw a milage of 221 miles, or thought that’s what I’d seen; it became quite apparent when en-route today that my selective brain had chosen to downsize the distance by slightly more than 100 miles.
The SatNav itself, of course, could’ve been giving a false reading, but if I’m honest I’d say it was most likely me who was guilty of the false reading.
I set off at 7:20 a.m. After three LPG/Coffee Nation* stops I eventually located the studio in an area more remote than any studio I’ve ever previously struggled to locate; this was at 2:30 p.m., that’s over seven hours of travelling by my calculations.

You might ask if such a long journey effects whether or not you want to get stuck into some recording on arrival, and let me tell you that - yes, it does effect whether you want to record or not, and the answer is ‘not’.

We’re here for a fortnight. Next week though I do have to leave for three days - having three shows to play with Phil; I’m truly hoping to get all my parts done and dusted by next Tuesday (the day I have to leave) so I won’t then have to return here and do a repeat of today’s journey.

In the past few days I’ve had two - producer related - moments of reconnection - or maybe synchronicity.
First was about a week ago when Carol and I were sat out in the back garden barbecuing. I looked towards the pond, and I recalled the time my Father was sat just to one side of it in one of those outside picnic style of chairs. The chair began falling into the pond - taking him with it. Someone, I don’t recall who, did manage to pull him back in the nick of time.

I often replay this event in my mind, and as on this occasion, it is always such a vivid picture, probably because I’m always in the same position looking towards the pond from the same place I was sat when it happened. My Dad was quite ill at the time, still, he, along with the rest of us could laugh about it. This event is one of a few that I associate with my Father’s illness; a marker along a process of gradual decline. Another marker is at the very beginning of that process, it was when I performed a concert at the Worden Arts Centre in Leyland, about five miles from where I now live.

It was probably 1994. I used to do these big shows once a year - well they felt big to me at the time - I used to call them ‘Across The Spectrum’ because I’d play music that covered so many years and styles of my music. It was at this show, sitting next to Carol that Dad spoke of his anxiety; he was having to visit the bathroom repeatedly, and was nervous about an impending doctors appointment.
It turned out that his fears were well founded; he had prostate cancer. He had another five to six years of life after that, most of it quite normal - apart from the odd pond he had to negotiate.

Back to the BBQ, and as these pieces of old footage were playing before my mind’s eye, I asked Carol, “and who was that producer that came to Worden to see me that night?”. “John … something, John Rav …?”, I asked. “I know who you mean”, she said, “it’ll come to me”.
It was time to clear things up and take the plates, napkins, leftover food, and those big long things you use for cooking at barbecues into the kitchen.

I walked into the house then looked over and saw my Macbook on the kitchen table; ‘might as well check the emails’, I thought to myself. Sure enough, I had one or two new ones; one was from John at Park Records; it was entitled: Producer.

This is exactly how it read … . . Hi Ken A while back there was mention within the band of finding a producer for the forthcoming recording.. Im not sure what your views are on this. I had put some feelers out .. and had some interest from a Producer called John Ravenhall.

He had been in America.. so have only just got to talk to him in depth He is interested and I feel he could do the job... for a reasonable price. I guess if we are to have a producer this is the time to think about it.

John Ravenhall has said that before we all commit it would be good to get together in a rehearsal situation.. I have spoken to Maddy and she is in theory up for it.. but could only do Wednesday and Thursday. Next week are you available and what do you think about the Idea.
I have emailed everyone else for a view.
With Best Wishes,

“Carol! Christ almighty! You will not believe this”. I think these, more or less, were my words. As it turned out, John Rs involvement has not come to pass; we couldn’t all make the rehearsal, and John felt that at least one such meeting would be absolutely necessary in order to move into a recording situation with the band.

The second piece of ‘producer reconnection’ occurred, or to me was apparent almost as soon as I arrived today at the studio. It was announced that the band was now considering using the production skills of a certain Joe Partridge, someone I’d worked with a good number of times when the two of us lived in London some thirty years ago.

As far as I was concerned this was great news; I always liked Joe, and I certainly always admired his guitar playing - not that he’d be playing guitar, but as a guitarist myself it’s quite reassuring to work with a producer who is particularly sensitive to how a guitar should be recorded. For the record, Joe had played with a host of top people which include names like Kiki Dee and Elton John.

Joe and I first met through mutual friends and colleagues who were associated in some way with Sarm Studios in London; it’s now called Sarm East, I think. This is where I recorded with Easy Street in 1976/77.

Maddy & Rick

From Sarm 'then' to Propagation 'now', and Mark our engineer, who has worked more recently with Joe, announced that Joe would call by at the studio at some point during the day to talk with the band. This actually happened quite late in the day, 6 or 7 p.m. perhaps. I was half expecting–after all these years–an ageing figure of a man to walk through the door (I bet he was expecting the same, also); well, my expectations were way off the mark - he didn’t really look any different, In fact I was quite taken-aback.

After the introductions, he watched as the band went back for a while to recording the song in progress; we were struggling with the arrangement somewhat, to tell the truth, and I had a strong and growing sense of collective self-consciousness in this disorganised attempt to illustrate to Joe how we go about our work. Eventually the band’s consensus was that we were heading nowhere with that particular song, and maybe it was time to sit down and talk business; to find out what Joe’s feelings are about producing Steeleye Span; and to tell him what the band’s vision is. All seemed to go well.

Next it was down to Joe and John Dagnell to do a little negotiating; to talk money–deadlines–percentages. Alas, I can tell you now that somewhere along the line these ‘high level’ negotiations broke down.

I would’ve loved to have worked with Joe again. In truth, it’s probably too late in the game in this project for a producer to either ‘take over’ or ‘blend into’ the process; such a thing would normally involve weeks, if not months of preparation and exchanging of ideas.

Plan B looks like once the recording is completed we’ll put it in the hands of someone who will mix the tracks; someone who might be able to add a little of the proverbial and illusive ‘fairy dust’.

Our accommodation is fairly basic here in North Tamerton; Liam, Rick and I are staying in a bungalow that sits adjacent to a farm, and from what I gather belongs to the farmer. In the interior it’s kind of old looking; Liam says it’s like ‘visiting your auntie’s.
We’ve befriended three farm cats that hang out at the back of the house; see the pictures I took. We couldn’t help but take some pity on them; they’re really not in very good shape. At first they were very timid - very frightened of us, and very, very hungry. Now they eat like kings. They will never forget this fortnight.

I can’t tell you how painful it is for me to see anything live like this - and I’m fully aware that it’s only because it’s there in front of me. I’m also fully aware of how easy it is to project one’s own pain onto something or someone that lives in a manner in which most living beings have lived since time began.
We, in our ‘developed’ and ‘privileged’ existence, by default, consider ourselves to be the fortunate ones, yet we’ve largely become detached from the fullness of what we are; the process that created us - and largely that which we are in constant denial of being a part of.

And despite all the repercussions of our evolved order; the anxieties, depression, alcoholism, violence, and at least a pervading sense of unfulfillment; we then feel sympathy for those who don’t have more food than they actually need.

I’ll still go on feeding them though. I can’t help it. One thing is certain though, back home our cat Flossy doesn’t know she’s born.

*Coffee Nation is, in my view, the best coffee to look out for when you're 'on the road'. One of the problems with many of the big names, for example Costa, is how incredibly inconsistent it is on the motorways as opposed to the high street. Many times I've spent good money on a cappuccino that's either bitter, or over-milky; and once you're back in the drivers seat it's too late to do anything about it. With Coffee Nation you know what you're going to get - and it's good. I recommend the cappuccino with a double shot - but with a little extra chocolate dusting mixed in. Coffee Nation.

In God's Afterimage

Schools (with Ashley Hutchings)

Tuesday 23rd June. Springcroft School, Staffordshire.

One of the schools in which Ashley I work every year. For me it’s marked by Bernadette, the Head of the school - well, more marked by the fact she was once an Olympic cyclist; I can’t help but be impressed by such things.
There’s something about spending so much time on the road that is diametrically opposed to any level of physical fitness to speak of; I’m not sure what it does for your emotional fitness also. 

When I’m spending time at home I do reasonably well at staying active - visiting the gym three or four times a week, and in the summer months golf plays a fairly large part in my life - regularly spoiling a good walk. I’d love to be able to play golf to a very high standard, in fact if I were to have my time again–which I wouldn’t want, to tell you the truth–but if I did, I don't mind the idea of being a professional golfer; that, as well as a doctor or an airline pilot. 

Anyway, as things stand I’m presently not so bad on the guitar, so I’ll get on with that for the time being.

Nicol & Cool

Thursday 2nd June. Assembly Rooms, Derby.

If I check my records, I see it was only six weeks and three days ago I walked onto the Assembly Rooms stage with those legends of folk rock - yes, you know the ones.
On April 18th we played the main stage; tonight we, Phil and I, play on the other stage; it is, well lets say - cosier. 
As we perform our carefully selected set to our very select crowd we are being well and truly dwarfed be the event taking place in the other part of the theatre, the main part I mentioned earlier. It’s a major production based on the history of Derby County football club, with some of the clubs personalities and players of past and present in attendance. If you are not all that familiar with the support and general sway towards the game of football in this area of the East Midlands, I can reliably inform you that it is considerable. 

Derby County has a very rich history, as does my club - Preston North End; however, despite Derby’s very questionable recent fortunes, they still can expect a large turnout of fans at any given match, very unlike - Preston North End. 

Jim (who by coincidence is from Derby) and I found ourselves deep in discussion on our final descent and approach towards the Assembly Rooms, on the topic of why such a contrast should exist in this tale of two cities. 
Jim believed it was down to a gradual expansion of the city itself, not one that necessarily creates more urban areas, but rather gathers up the already outlying ones, creating a bigger populous with a more collective identity. 
It’s not easy for me to comment on these things, I haven’t spent time on the subject; Jim, however, has a considerable background in politics, and I would suppose that politics concerns itself very much with things like boundaries, and how many people live within them.

What I do know is that the show next door could have, according to the theatre staff, been sold out a number of times.
Hmm, lets see; maybe it’s time to introduce one or two football songs into the act?

Nicol & Cool

Friday 3rd June. Porkies Folk Club, Poynton, Manchester. 

A well know club that has been a venue of somewhat venerable proportions for as long as there’s been a folk scene. I played the club first in a solo capacity at the age of forty or thereabouts; it was a sensational night; I was taken completely by surprise by how well the evening went, and I was never quite able to repeat it.

Sometime later I went on to play Porkies with Chris While, and also a number of times with the Albion Band. The final Albion Band show I played here was actually on the day my Father died in 2001. Now that’s something - performing on the day you lose a parent, let me tell you. All I wanted was for everyone to stop telling me how sorry they were. That’s about all I remember of that evening; I just went into ‘coping mode’ - as is what happens at times like this.

I also recall the night I performed at the club’s old venue just down the road in Bramhall; it was 1996. I struggled a great deal with confidence, or lack of it, around that time, and the result of this often was the most incredible tension. I was constantly walking into one situation after the next - gigs, recording sessions, and the like, that I felt completely unable to pull off.
I was so terrified of fucking up that the amount of energy I used in attempting to appear as though I was in control was exhausting and debilitating.
 I remember arriving at the club feeling quite out-of-it; my psyche was in a knot; inside I was a frozen man; it was as though there was a film going on in front of me, and I was just the observer. All the time my thoughts were, ‘I have a whole show to do tonight, and have no idea of how I’ll do it, but there’s no choice’.

I forced my way through the two sets, each of fifty minutes or thereabouts in length. When I was finished, any potential sense of relief that I may have had struggled to break through the ever purveying feeling of defeat and disappointment of perceived failure.

I loaded the PA into the back of my car, and whilst doing so I noticed a trail that followed anything that was bright and had any motion to it; it was a stream, a tail of light. When I moved my hand slowly in one direction or another, there appeared to be a second hand trying to catch up with the first.
I used to call these visual occurrences, or illusions: afterimages; they were something I’d originally experienced during an absolutely wonderful and idyllic time back in 1970, when as a nineteen year old I spent the summer months fruit picking in Evesham, Worcestershire. 

Friend, Paul Daber and myself had what I can only describe as the time of our lives; living and working in the orchards, sleeping in the barns; befriending the travellers and gypsies, and me being a bit of a local guitar hero.

When August had arrived, and the fruit picking season was almost done, the two of us hitch-hiked our way further south, down to the legendary Isle of White Festival, the one at which Hendrix performed shortly before his death. 

It was during this period I first experienced the ‘afterimage’ phenomenon; it was most certainly drug related; on the handful of occasions when we took LSD, the spectacle of any moving object having this trailing blurred image of itself following behind was all part of the spectacle and adventure of the experience.

I recall one such day when I was fixated, mesmerised by the sight of an army of ants on the pavement; individually they moved - this way, that way, and with such purpose; each one of them followed by lines, tracers, that shot off in all directions.
The second time these afterimages became an unavoidable feature of my life was during my panic attacks and breakdown a couple of years later after I’d moved to London. This time they were terrifying - further justifying my view of impending catastrophe and the feeling of losing any grasp of the reality I thought I had.

Now they were back, shit!
Something was happening, something was going on in my head; was it physical? Was all this stress and fear just burning me out?
On the drive home I noticed a strange shape in my vision, a crystal-like shape; and my range of vision seemed to be narrowed; there was something different about the cars on the other side of the road, as if they were not really there.

Apart from tiredness, the following two days–Saturday and Sunday–were reasonably OK; I had to travel to Cumbria where a friend of a friend had hired me for the weekend to teach her husband some guitar (as a birthday gift). 
Then, on the Monday - BANG! My head hurt - big style; it was just on one side, but it was bad. I looked in the mirror; the pupil in my left eye was tiny, and not responding to darkness or light. Yes, I was worried!
I was too frightened to go to a doctor; it was probably a good fifteen years since I last saw one. But after three days in bed, as a compromise, Carol instructed me to visit the optician. And what did the optician do? He sent me to the doctor. Then I was sent to the hospital.

By this time I was convinced I was dying. They carried out all kinds of tests, x-rays, etc.
One young doctor told me I had something, it was one of those Latin names; it sounded serious, and he even said he was sorry. 
These hospital visits continued until the day I was to see a neurologist; as I waited, full of fear, I decided it was to be my last visit. I knew I’d feel better if I had a sense of being in control.

I walked into the consultancy room to be confronted by an array of people, with the consultant sat in the foreground. He asked me if I minded these people being there–I did–but I said ‘no’.
They were all scribbling things down into notepads. The chair I sat on became the slide on a giant microscope, and I was the subject.

I knew had to get out. 

He tapped me here and there; listened to what might be going on inside me through a stethoscope; shone a light into my eyes - all this while using words I didn’t understand, and discussing my symptoms with someone I assume was his junior. 

It was encouraging in a way to be told that he disagreed with the original diagnosis - even though I didn’t understand what it was. 

Then he said I should, just to be sure, have a brain scan! I said, ‘no thanks’.
I had already decided I would rather walk away and accept whatever the consequences might be. It was, in retrospect, probably quite foolish of me, but hey - here I am. 

And I’m still playing at Porkies.

Nicol & Cool

Saturday 4th June. Wildlife Trust for Lancashire, Manchester & North Merseyside, Bamber Bridge, Preston.

This is a private event - a 40th anniversary celebration, and mercifully one that involves a mere drive of fifteen minutes to reach. 
I didn’t even know this place existed; it’s in lovely surroundings. I learned that this general woodland area was nurtured and developed by finance received as part of a deal reached with the very people that built the M6 motorway that runs adjacent. 
Here a link to the web page: Cuerden_Valley_Park

The celebration was for Ken and Sara Linford; Ken was also a partner of Jim Minall’s – for other reasons I should add – and for a much briefer length of time. They were creators and partners at Friends of Folk for a while, parting company not that long ago - and on extremely amicable terms I should say.
The two of them (Ken and Jim) are the political antithesis of each other, being respectively about as ‘right’ and as ‘left’ as you can possibly get without warfare breaking out. Jim was actively involved for a good number of years in the Labour Party; raising funds, campaigning door to door, and generally promoting the principles he believed in - those of fairness and equality.
Ken, however, over the years has been actively involved in developing various business enterprises, and creating a good deal of prosperity for himself. 

The one common denominator that seemed to override all their differences–for a while, at least–was their shared liking of folk music, and in particular Steeleye Span, in fact that’s where they met - at a Steeleye concert.
So they decided to promote concerts; to give more exposure to the artists that in their eyes were, and the music that was, being sadly neglected by the outside world. For this reason alone, they get my vote.

Jim, as you will have gathered from all my previous writings, gets Phil and I almost all our work.

Two days ago I received an email from Ken and Sara’s Daughter; she lives in Japan, and works as a missionary. This I can honestly say was the very first time I’ve had any communication of any kind from one of God’s messengers!
She asked me to read out a personal message to her parents congratulating them on their anniversary - and I enjoyed doing that on the night.

I was so struck by what Sara said when I talked to her at the very end of the night just before I left; she told me that her Daughter had lived in Japan for the last five years, and that she will continue her work there for ‘as long as God wants her to’.
The look of certainty on her face, and her comfortableness with the statement she’d made was, to me - striking.
Well, it's always possible that I read more into this than was actually the case, but as with Olympic cycling, I couldn’t help but be impressed - impressed more than anything, on the basis of imagining how I would be feeling whilst those words were passing my lips - if I ever did utter such words.
Before I go on, don’t imagine for one minute that I’m working my way towards an argument that is in anyway critical of such a statement; a smug, I know better than you sort of statement–or even implication. It's just that I don’t know how someone could know such a thing.

How does God tell you what to do?
I do a lot of soul searching; I tend to believe that there is an inner voice; one that knows and tells us what we should do.
Whether one listens to it, and whether or not one acts on what the voice is telling you, is not the point just now; but is this ‘inner’ voice perhaps easily, and maybe even mistakenly, interpreted as an ‘outer’ voice?
And let’s turn that around and say that even if it is an ‘outer’ voice that’s being wrongly interpreted as an ‘inner’ voice, why would it be God that’s saying it?

If I were reading this as something that had been written by someone else, I would logically be asking who or what the writer thinks God is.
I mean, if one actually thinks there’s an invisible person - THE invisible person HIMSELF, and he’s talking personally to YOU, then I am truly, genuinely and absolutely intrigued by the criteria used to reach this conclusion and the supposed certainty that seems to come with it.

We have little alternative but to represent all of our feelings and abstract senses with symbols of familiarity - and we only know ‘form’ in a way we have had experience of with some level of tangibility attached. This, of course, changes and develops as humans change and develop; but at any given time there are only so many symbols available to us. For example, many people these days who profess a religeous belief, would not use a male symbol to represent God, just as they wouldn't use the symbol of a throne in the sky as something 'he' sat on all day; but imagine how problematic it would have been once upon a time to profess such thoughts!

So I could have said to Sara, “what exactly do you mean when you say ‘God’?” But it was late, and I was far more concerned about going home.
I’ve not said very much at all about the show or the performance; to me though, next to such existential and theological issues, I’d have to say it’s just not as interesting.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Over-Egging The Collective

Nicol & Cool
Saturday 30th May, The Lighthouse Theatre, Poole.

The drive from Ilminster to Poole was glorious; this is 'postcard Britain'.
You know, on examination, I’ve never truly understood what the ‘home counties’ are; where do they start and end?
But this, I’ve always identified as home county country, and whenever I witness it, as today, in its full glory, without fail I imagine what it might’ve been like living in these parts during the war, and post war years of the nineteen forties and fifties. 
It’s about children playing in the fields; old valve radio sets; bicycles with baskets on; men smoking pipes; the Alvis, Bristol and Riley motor cars, with walnut dashboards and the smell of leather; The Famous Five; Haley Mills.

And then there was this parallel existence, the austere one the rest of us ‘up north’ were living; where children were seen and not heard; we knew our place; walked along cobbled streets; wore flat caps and clogs; at school corporal punishment was dished out with regularity; and wherever there was muck there was brass. Sounds grim doesn’t it?

Stereotypes maybe, but I do know a little about the second example.
Just did a bit of research, and I’ve discovered that these are not in fact the home counties. Here’s what I discovered …
What are the "home counties" ?
The phrase "home counties" has no specific legal definition but as a popular expression it appears to have been around for many years. According to the OED it is simply "the counties nearest to London, namely Surrey, Kent, Essex and Middlesex; sometimes with the addition of Hertfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire and ocassionally Sussex."

I love it: sometimes with the addition of Hertfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire and occasionally Sussex. Basically, that means you can just make it up as you go along!

 Anyway, I’ve learnt something new.

At one point on our drive, Phil turned to me and said, ‘Ken, I wouldn’t mind living round here’; I knew exactly where he was coming from.

Phil is onstage as I’m writing this; before he relieved me of my duties, I began our second set with two instrumentals and one song - the instrumentals - A.K. and R.B. from Initial Variations, and the song - On Holiday in Stornoway (13 Reasons album).
I’d say they went down well, but to tell you the truth it’s been hard to gauge the level of audience enthusiasm, due to the lack of audience. I’m not saying we haven’t got one, but I’ll say we’re not far off not having one. I think we have an audience of between 20 and 30 tonight.

Nicol & Cool
Sunday 31st May. The Corn Exchange, Exeter.

Similar size audience to last night, but in a much larger venue. I enjoyed the evening though, and I think the same went for Phil. 

The stage monitors were particularly good.
Stage monitoring is not so crucial when there are only two of you, but the quality of what comes through them often can significantly influence the way you feel about what you’re doing at the time.

For any artist, if your monitor sound is bad, and believe me a lot of the time it is bad, and worse than bad; even though the reasoning part of your brain tells you that it’s only you, and not the audience that’s hearing it, whilst you’re in the process of performing, that reasoning part of the brain has very little influence in the matter.

I’ve pondered many times on the subjective experience(s) of all those present at a gig - audience and artist alike. There are so many forces at play, collectively and individually, that make an evening what it turns out to be; but I tend to think that generally we downplay the individual, and we over-egg the collective - and as long we’re just OK with that, then it doesn’t really matter.
But am I wrong in assuming that the great majority of us believe our own individual experience automatically applies to everyone else at that time?

As an artist this is often very apparent in the way people will comment on what they’ve just watched and listened to you play; sometimes you have to ask yourself if they were all at the same show.
‘You were really going for it tonight’, ‘you seemed a bit held back’, ‘the sound was fantastic’, ‘couldn’t hear much other than drums’, ‘it was too loud’, ‘it could’ve come up a bit in level’, ‘it looked like you were really enjoying yourself’, ‘what was wrong?’.

And so it is from the performers position also; the monitor sound is dreadful, so you think, or rather - you feel that the audience shared your auditory experience with you.
Likewise, the monitors might sound brilliant, and after the show you’re told, ‘I’ve heard you sound better’.

Of course, there are the occasions, when the collective has a greater apparent common denominator than at other times; when the expressed views of all those involved appear to line up as if some planetary harmonic convergence has taken place. How much gravity one gives to this is, again, subjective; but I guess that in the end, all I personally can ever do, in the
(somewhat) words of Reinhold Niebuhr is: accept the things I cannot change; have the courage to change the things I can; and hopefully to even find the wisdom to know the difference.

Nicol & Cool
Thursday 11th June. The Bluecoat Arts Centre, Liverpool.

I wouldn’t have thought this possible, but tonight’s show was performed in front an audience that came close to the lowest attendance I’ve ever performed to.
It was in single figures; this is a test of character - not just for the performer, but for those in the audience too. 
I can’t say whether it’s down to the venue’s, or a result of our promotional skills. I hear so many reasons presented for this, but people constantly talk about how hard it is to get audiences into theatres these days, well, that is unless the artist’s popularity is a result of television exposure; TV is still to this day the most effective PR medium known to mankind - and tonight it is painfully apparent that we are not ‘on the telly’.

This is a wonderful, modern complex, and in its considerable size comes a width and intention that is seemingly designed to accommodate the length and breadth of all that might qualify as ‘art’. 

I have heard it suggested that when such an institution’s sustenance is so strongly based on Arts Council funding, there is compromised motivation there to promote and push events in a manner that exists through necessity out there in the real world. Now whether this has a part to play–in regards to our attendance figure(s)–I wouldn’t want to speculate about too much. But it does seem inconceivable that here in the great city of Liverpool there would potentially not be at least a reasonable sized audience available to us. 

Nicol & Cool.

Friday 12th June. The Rock @ Maltby, Rotherham.

This was the BBC Radio Two Folk Awards ‘Folk Club of the Year’ a year or two back; run by Rob Shaw; I think this must be my third visit, the previous two being solo gigs.

I’ve just remembered I played here with Julie Matthews before that; I might’ve done an Albion Band gig here too, perhaps a couple. Maybe it’s more like my 23rd visit! However, all of these past appearances were at the club’s previous venue: the Rockingham Arms in Wentworth. 

It’s one of those extremely well run clubs; I’m not so sure how the organisers of those ‘upper echelon’ of folk venues do it, but it couldn’t be done without more than a good few years of dedication and plenty of sacrifice. And there’s always a built-in audience, a hard core group of people that have their Wednesdays, Thursdays, or whichever part of the week the club night falls on, etched into the script of their day to day lives. And after some of our recent shows, that sounds exactly like something we need.

Actually it’s somewhat unusual for a folk club to run with regularity through the summer months; a great many of them ‘shut up shop’ in July, and reopen in September - a time when - as the days start to get shorter, and as the nights begin to draw in a little, so the general public start to instinctively venture out to such places.

Schools - with Ashley Hutchings.

Wednesday 17th & Thursday 18th June. Meir Heath Primary school / Fulford Primary school, Staffordshire.

Managed nine holes of golf yesterday before getting packed and leaving for Stoke-on-Trent.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Bill, the headmaster of Forsbrook Primary School, and the man who organises our school tours, is also the man that accommodates Ashley and myself while we’re down there in Staffordshire. 
I arrived at Bill’s at 9 p.m. to be told there was a surprise in store; tomorrow there was to be a school concert at his school; OK, so what! And I was billed as the star turn - that’s what!
As it happened it turned out to be fairly painless. In fact it was interesting to see various pupils of various abilities demonstrate there singing and musical skills. And anyway, it only lasted an hour - just long enough.
My own spot at the end consisted of just two numbers; I plugged the new Fylde (guitar) into the school’s public address system, and away I went.

My reward for playing came in the form of an ‘all-you-can-eat’ Indian buffet in nearby Blyth Bridge; I’m almost tempted to say that I’d accept such payment for all my concerts in this way.

Nicol & Cool
Saturday 20th June. Alcester Folk festival.

If I was to tell you that this was a long day - a ‘very’ long day, I would be understating the day’s length. 

Alcester, the quaint and historic town that it is, lies precisely 129.37 miles from Preston - according to the RAC Route Planner; we knew that if we were to have our sound-check we’d need to arrive definitely no later than 12 noon. The afternoon concert began in the main hall at 1 p.m. and we were the headline act which meant that once we had everything set-up and sounding OK there’d be a wait of four hours before taking to the stage - and this was only our first spot.

The second spot was at 11 p.m. - that’s right - eleven o’clock at night! 
In my books that’s just too late; I feel that in the fullness of a festival day there comes a point when people are just too tired, and many too drunk for there to be any real focused attention.
On reflection, maybe the organisers felt that the comedy element would work at this late hour, and to some extent I'd say it made the best of a job, not necessarily a ‘bad’ job, but one that would have had a livelier dynamic to it had we taken to the stage an hour earlier, lets say.

Going onstage as the last act might have something going for it symbolically, but I can vouch from a number of personal experiences that when it’s late at night the audience can be lost - as in ‘you have lost your audience’ before you even step onto the stage.

The last time this happened to me was at a charity event, one of these ‘Swarb aid’ concerts (to raise money for Dave Swarbrick) that took place at The Swan in Leek - one of my favourite folk clubs run by one of my favourite club organisers - Dave Rhead. 

The format was simple, all of the artists–and there were a good number of them–had no more than ten minutes available to them. Yes, simple, simple that is until all of those extra minutes or two, and the I’ll just do one more short song to finish with scenario, pushes that final spot schedule further and further towards, and eventually into, the twilight zone - a time when everyone's middle-aged body-clock is pleading earnestly with its owner to ‘go to bed for Christ’s sake’! 

And once on that stage there’s nothing you can do; it’s not just you that’s trying your best, the audience is also. You cut your set short.

A good few members of the audience have left by now, along with most of the night’s artists - leaving you with the remnants of what once looked like a promising evening. Afterwards you shrug your shoulders, set out on your early morning journey home, and you say to yourself, ‘what the hell, it was for charity anyway!’.