Sunday, December 31, 2006

"Another year over, and what have you done?"

The final lap of this year's journey through the pub rock underworld arrives with a gig in our home town on New Year's Eve Eve, and an opportunity to celebrate with friends, each other and people we don't know. The John Bull has us dripping with sweat after three songs and wondering where to go after five since a young lady has taken it upon herself to read the setlist at The Singer's feet and announce each song as it comes up. For some reason I take umbrage at this and we decide to skip one just to throw her off the scent. There wll be quite a lot of skipping going on during the course of the evening, both by us, who are having the time of our lives, and by a large and enthusiastic circle of Billy Bunters, who are determinedly also doing so. Everything is good natured, however, and after a few shouts and a good few Guinesses, The Singer and I decide that maybe a run through a Take That song really is just what the situation demands? Fortunately the rest of the band are also game and, as ever, a cobbled together non-song gets the biggest cheer of the night. Still, it's not often that 'Back For Good' gets an outing, and doubtless theirs will be added to the list of CDs that an attentive fan has been collecting based entirely on our set list, which is a tribute of sorts and helps us feel that perhaps we really are putting something back, although how REO Speedwagon sits next to Graham Coxon in her collection is perhaps a matter for the more Gambaccini-minded amongst us. The party atmosphere takes over and we delve into singalong mode, to the point where we eschew traditional entertainment mores, take the Robbie route and simply let the crowd sing for us - they particularly enjoy an ad hoc 'All You Need Is Love' medleyed into 'Cum on Feel The Noize' which was certainly not on the set list I had. The New Drummer is bayed at to play his triangle, which he solos on admirably at one point before our chum Andy Trill takes the stage and simply rips through 'My Sharona' while I look on simultaneously awed and nervous - I have to go on again after him, after all and it's all I can do to handicap him with a long guitar strap, an unfamiliar amp and a guitar he doesn't like just to keep him in some sort of check. At last we close with an Undertones song and are let go. We don't really want to, but we've never been keen to outstay our welcome at the best of times. And this is the best of times. Five blokes, making a loud noise with bits of wood and wire and of skins and hearts. That's all we are, but at times like this it feels good. It feels better than good, it feels like home. We pack up the gear, we wish each other a happy new year. And we go home.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

"What's That Coming Over The Hill...!?"

It's christmas - hence there has been jollity, there has been consumption of fizzy drinks, there has been football in ill-fitting footwear at a party and, consequently, there has been a guitarist-related head/brick wall interface scenario resulting in the sort of look that says to a casting director "Yes, this guy could play Phantom, and what's more, we could save a bundle on make up". Consequently I have been spending a lot of time on the sofa worrying whether an aneurism is on it's way, or whether I'm just going to have a lot of explaining to do at tonight's gig in Stow. Hence when I roll up to the show I'm still waiting for blackouts, spots before they eyes, sudden memory loss involving that tricky solo in 'My Sharona' or a good excuse as to why I have a rapidly developing black eye. As it happens, only the third example manifests itself and that turns out to be confirmation that everything is, indeed, completely normal this evening. We haven't played for a couple of weeks and so we ease our way into the set, a couple of safety standards leading our way, and the vagaries of the room highlighting the lack of a soundcheck that is the hallmark of a veteran pub band. There are marker pen reference points against all the knobs on my amplifier, and that's the usual starting point at all shows - that the 'lead' channel usually ends up a couple of turns to the right bears less relation to any fondness for 'The Time Warp' than it does The Singer's enthusiasm for the latter, more guitar-centric part of the set, where his rhythm parts take on behemothtastic levels of indulgence. Still, the look on his face and that I can embark on tasteful little sweeps and arpreggios with absolutely no possibility of anyone hearing them well make up for it. As I canter through the set I am pleased that my position stage left means that I am principally hiding my weeping cheek from the audience while concentrating on frettery and frottery - the usual posing has given way to my default posture of sub-Frankenstenian Neil Young lumbering with a side order of beer gut, and I am momentarily discomfited to notice that it looks like my sons are fronting the band, youthful and well-dressed as The Singer and The Other Guitarist are. Or at least look. Something else that has come to my attention is that my return to active service, or at least uprightness, has prompted a healing sudden rush of blood to the head which, although welcome in terms of putting to bed those feelings that The Pickerel may be about to witness a dramatic on stage collapse, also means that my nascent black eye is swelling alarmingly, and starting to edge up into my field of vision. At this rate of not having peripheral (ie fretwards) vision I'll be playing by memory alone, which has happened a couple of times - and a couple of times too many. I resolve to take in more fluids and hope for the best. And the best is what it turns out to be. The second set kicks off full bloodedly and we start to get into the zone - that special feeling where everything is locking together, everything's kicking in and all the stuff is coming off. It's not about packing up the car in the rain, the dodgy leads or the odd covers, or the knowledge that someone, somewhere out there is playing this solo a lot better than you ever could, it's about being out with your mates in a pub full of whooping people having a great time. Time flies. There's an encore, then another, then another, and we're having such a good time that we don't want to stop. Alright then, we will play that thing we haven't done for ages, just for a laugh. I tilt my head a bit further back just to keep an eye on any errant notes that may have hidden away below my eyeline and get cigarette smoke in said eye as a result. When we finally finish we realise that for a band that subscribes to the "two forty five minute sets" school of pub bandery we have just played the second 'half' for an hour and a thirty minutes and are still being asked for more. I have seen rock and roll future, and it's five blokes in a pub. It's a shame we don't still do 'Born To Run' - that'd have been a good punchline.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Heathen Chemistry

It was the best of times, the worst of times. Well, not quite that bad as to be literally ‘worst’, to be honest. Not as bad, for example, as the time we decided to do a gig in Stowmarket with our Beatles specialist band and precede each song with a recitation of the relevant entry from Ian McDonald’s seminal ‘Revolution In The Head’. It may have been that which pushed them over the edge, or the first-set closing version of the (I believe) 1967 fan club-only flexidisc song “Christmas Time Is Here Again” (not one of their better known or artistically satisfying works, to be honest) but we were certainly let know in no uncertain terms that our outrĂ© approach to presenting the works of the mop tops was not appreciated. That and the “play some more, you fuckers” at the closing of the second set indicated that both the levity and brevity of our stagecraft left something to be desired. Everyone’s a critic, eh? So when we were contacted at a couple of days notice to fill in for a cancellation at a private party only for The Bass Player to reluctantly decline the opportunity to sit around toying with vol au vents for three hours waiting to go on for the second weekend in a row we probably should have thought again about the wisdom of approaching the evening as an exciting challenge. As it happened, The Singer and The Other Guitarists were posed mutely in a hotel room in Stoke and a charity fundraising dinner in Ipswich respectively, fingers hovering over the speed dial buttons on their mobiles, wondering if I had finally lost the plot by suggesting we could 'busk it'. Fate however intervened and those calls were never made. On such throws of the dice do the gods (possibly played by Larry Olivier) toy with our fates.
On the surface, it should be a relatively easy task to accomplish – we’ve got three guitar players in the band and so one of them just shuffles across and fills the vacant space on stage and plays simply two fewer strings than he does ordinarily. How difficult can it be? That The Other Guitarist was originally a bassist of no little repute anyway (one early comment on our line up was that having him on guitar was like Ipswich Town putting Richard Wright up front instead of in goal, although subsequent developments in his career now suggest that that may not have been as silly a concept as it sounded at the time). A few set list conference calls later and we’d settled on a respectable run of numbers and although we had bowed to circumstance and included a few Beatles numbers (sans prologue essays) we stick firmly and proudly to our No Mustang Sally rule. We have been warned that there may be a few musicians in the crowd, always the toughest of people to play to, and at the sight of one legendary local entertainer I am both anxious that he may see through our hastily constructed facade and relieved that at least we can get him up for a good twenty minutes' worth of "Come Together" if things tail off later. It transpires that he is merely dropping party guests off in his current role as a cab driver. I am not sure whether this constitutes a lucky escape for him or for us.
And then the wait begins for showtime. This, it transpires, is a tenth anniversary and Christmas party for a local firm run, it turns out, by a very nice man who also plays in a local band, and who is grateful for our turning up at short notice if nothing else. We have a few friends in common and he’s extraordinarily reasonable about the lack of a few numbers in the set, we chat about gigs, bands and all the minutae of musical life that occupies musos when they get together and he invites us to help ourselves to the buffet and call him if there’s anything we need. So far, so good. This particular ilk of office party is where you go to chat to colleagues, off-piste as it were, meet up with family members, talk to friends you haven't seen for a while and enjoy the sumptuous buffet at length. It is emphatically not where you go to drink booze and jump around to the band, especially one with as cobbled-together a repertoire as this, sounding as it does like the preliminary mixes of a particularly eclectic covers album that someone has forgotten to put the overdubs on. We are not exactly on a post gig high when a woman passes on her way to leave with her clearly embarrassed daughter in tow. “I loved your Haircut 100” she beams. “Bloody kids!” she adds, and is gone. Which brightens the mood a little.
And so it is with almost religious fervour that we greet The Prodigal Bass (and keyboard) Player the next night at a compact and bijou (and scheduled) gig within hiking distance of at least two of the band members’ homes. The first order of the night hence goes out for two lagers, a Guinness, a JD & coke* and a lime and soda. Stalker Bertie, back from a trek around Europe following proper bands is in attendance and is sequestered into guitar roadieing duties - just as soon as he’s back from the bar - and there is a healthy assortment of WAGs, friends and people who’ve seen us before building up an anticipatory air to proceedings. As we begin a more familiar set that on the previous evening there is a palpable sense of relief that guitar parts are being filled, errant harmonies are back in place, and that all is well within the camp. The newly relaxed atmosphere leads to showboating, mucking about and further calls for lubrication from the bar, and we are back again as a tight and groovy little team, playing to our strengths and enjoying the vibe, as are our mutually appreciative audience. At the start of the second set our good friend Andy Trill gets up to lead the rhythm section (including The Other Guitarist back on his original bass playing duties) through a spirited Snow Patrol rocker to marvellous effect. Mr Trill is also a bassist of enormous ability and at one point comments on my efforts with the four string that he fears that it seems apparent that I may have been attacked by a bass as a child. I also perform the patented Dave Pegg plectrum on the forehead manoeuvre mid song, which makes me smile to myself, if no one else. We are in a noisy mood tonight, and so the punk stuff is to the fore – ironically, this would have been a much better approach to take last night, as our host had told us he was due out to support the UK Subs next year with his band but, oh, that special component, that whole, and it’s missing part. We won’t be trying that again. Tonight however the sound’s great, everyone is in good voice, the solos are coming off a treat, and all is well with the world again. I could have danced all night, and still have begged for more. I could have spread my wings and, hang on…..



*A post gig conversation runs thus - "I've only had five JD and cokes and I feel fine". "You do realise Pat got you a treble, don't you?"."I've only had eight JD and cokes and I feel fine..."

Monday, December 11, 2006

"It was a very good year...."

“Who’s in charge here?” A question like that this early in the evening can only mean one of two things – either we’re about to be handed an inordinate amount of money or we are to be informed of some restriction on our activities – either a line we have to stay behind, a sound level we must not breach or, as on this occasion, a dire warning about the state of ‘the electrics’. “We’ve got trouble with the electrics” a man informs us succinctly. We enquire further as to the nature of the ‘trouble’, mindful that we will be holding electric guitars for a period of time later, plugged into electric amplifiers and very possibly singing into microphones which are routed into a PA amplifier which, in turn, will be connected to the ‘electrics’ with which there are, apparently, ‘trouble’. “We’ve had problems with the supply, so if you could just plug in the bare minimum of stuff you need, that’d probably help”. We consider what the ‘bare minimum’ entails and reflect that the laser show spelling out the name of the band in fourteen foot high letter against the night sky will probably have to remain in the van. ”You should see our fuse board” he carries on mournfully, “charred black, it is”. The Singer and I exchange glances. “If the lights go down, who should we ask for?” he says, mindful of the need for calm heads in the event of a crisis. “If I were you I’d ask for an electrician” is the guileless reply.
We are in a good old-fashioned social club on the outskirts of our home town at five o’clock on a Sunday afternoon, and setting up the gear in front of the regulation sparkly gold curtain and stashing instrument cases in a box room behind the stage which is festooned with stern notices concerning band running times and dark warnings about the abuse of the ‘one free drink for the band’ rule on Saturday nights. We are to play at a birthday party for The Old Drummer’s Mum, an irony not lost on those of us who nodded sympathetically as he explained his reasons for leaving the band some weeks ago and are to share the stage with a conjuror, a choir, and The Old Drummer, who will guest behind the kit before closing the show with a bit of Frank Sinatra to a backing track, for which he needs simply a microphone and a stand to perform – a long way away from all that setting up of drums and stands and cymbals that he used to have to put up with on these sorts of occasions. I ask where he is. The Singer replies that he’s gone home as he forgot to bring a microphone and a stand with him. Any old irony? Any, any, any, old irony? Slightly later, as the room fills with the young and the old, the long and the short and the tall, The New Drummer, resplendent in his “Uzi does it” t-shirt, is setting up his drums and stands and cymbals in the midst of a swarm of ‘tweenagers, all variously helpfully tapping, crashing or tightening things around him. It’s like a post-My Chemical Romance ‘Lord of The Flies’ up there and he mouths “Help me!” silently toward the rest of us, now happily set up and recumbent (as all mindful bands at this sort of function should be) at a table conveniently close to where the queue for the buffet will start. We wave brightly back and reflect that it’s lucky he’s not wearing his glasses as surely by now there’d be one of the kids trying to use them to magnify one of the stage lights we’ve (recklessly, in view of the parlous state of the electrics) left shining brightly stage left (and which will later give one of the Choir a frankly demonic hue throughout her performance) before smashing them and leaving him crawling around, a pitiful mewling wreck in a circle of baying children, their faces painted with scary, primal patterns. Well, they start wearing mascara so early these days, don’t they? A member of The Choir wafts past, resplendent in their purple stage robes. “I do wish you wouldn’t smoke” she sniffs at our Bass Player “It makes me feel sick!” Clearly she is of an age where you don’t have to introduce yourself to someone before being rude to them. At the bar, another member is polite enough to introduce herself first before asking someone what they think of the stage gear. “Er…very nice” replies the interogee, not sure what to say. “Really?” she replies “I think I look like Aladdin….”. The spectre of The Good Life’s Miss Mountshaft hangs eerily in the air.
After the extensive buffet - we are back in our seats and chowing down on chicken drumsticks and nibbles and dips before The Choir has made its way half way across the dance floor toward the paper plates, although to be fair a good number of them are walking with the aid of sticks – we are treated to a selection of show tunes, a couple of pop numbers and some beat poetry of the Pam Ayres variety. Clearly the smoke inhalation has done Rude Lady no good at all, judging by her solo number, but you can always learn from a fellow musician, if only if it’s what not to do. Attempt a three octave song with a two octave range being the obvious example on display here. There is also a solo piano number featuring the overture from “Kiss Me Kate” which is an object lesson in how to put songs together, and is terribly well played. From our vantage point behind the charming and friendly young lady on the keyboard we can see the chords being played out with the right hand and the alternating bass notes and fills courtesy of the left. It’s fascinating and, being an overture, you get all the songs packed into one handy five minute package which in my own humble personal opinion is, frankly, the best way to ingest your musicals. It’s always a pleasure to be able to appreciate a talent first hand and see the magic which can be weaved with what (I believe) Fats Waller once referred to as ‘a handful of keys’. Our own, dear, Bass Player, who doubles as onboard keyboard monkey and whom I strongly suspect is several grades behind her in terms of exams is looking slightly less enthralled as he has to follow her by opening our set with a pop song in ‘E’ which he still hasn’t quite mastered satisfactorily. This, it will transpire, will be one of the three songs he is required to play this evening, thus making it one of the highest pound-per-chord evenings out he’s ever experienced, and if he can avoid the choristers now circling the room armed with charity collection buckets, he could be quids in on this one.
Once the chairs that the ladies have been resting on between exertions have been cleared from the stage (by us) it seems that the funky beat rhythms of The Scissor Sisters are not strictly to the tastes of the majority of our support act and they gather together their bags, shawls, fleeces and sheet music to their persons and sweep out majestically into the night, a squadron of song, an armada of Andrew Lloyd Webber. To be fair “Take Your Mama Out”, a deliberate choice to mark the occasion, isn’t strictly to the tastes of the band either, as The Old Drummer declines the opportunity to sing it on the grounds that it’s “fucking rubbish”. The things you find out about that you never knew about someone, really. He contents himself with some absent-minded percussion tapping, and some tambourine waving in the distracted style of someone who’s popped into the office where he used to work only to find someone else at his old desk and his workmates a bit too busy to sit and chat about how he’s getting on these days. After a couple of numbers TND is however ejected affably from the stool and TOD takes his place behind the kit. Thus, similarly, The New Drummer seems to have spent more time as an unofficial children’s entertainer than he has as a drummer (and was not only more enthralling to the kids than the actual conjuror, but in his bow tie and dinner jacket combo, actually looked more like one too). The show closes with The Old Drummer’s big Sinatra number – mic in one hand, whisky and cigarette in the other, he croons like a good ‘un, living the dream, dinner jacket secured with a single button, the glittery curtain a suitably Vegas backdrop. We’ve been here five hours, for around twenty minutes of actual onstage playing time. Still, like the man says, that’s life.