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!’.