I read an interesting diversion on the electric interweb recently, wherein a newbie to all this going out and playing a full two sets in public malarkey was buttonholed after a recent show and informed that his band hadn’t played enough songs that his audience member knew. His query was intended to ascertain what the correct ratio of covers to originals in a set should be and the forum responses varied from a wholly reasonable explanation that some people are never happy with songs they don’t know to an explanation of how another group member divides up his set list to provide reasonable periods of known and loved covers before sliding in a couple of their own, stealthily under the cover of contented familiarity. An answer that wasn’t posited was to reply that if the audience member didn’t know a few of the songs then perhaps they should get out there and listen to a bit more music and then perhaps they’d broaden their horizons a little. This, however, would only contribute more to the eternal battle between those on the stage, who are sure that they know best what an audience should be listening to, and those in the stalls, who are equally but almost always skewiffedly convinced of the same. You’d think they weren’t all there for the same reason sometimes. So when the call came through to The Blue House at three fifty nine from The High Barn to participate in their monthly acoustic showcase, by four we were on our way. To a lengthy discussion about what we should play. The first job was to round up the usual suspects – a band-wide group email revealed that some were busy, some were free, (some of them were angry at the way the earth was abused, by the men who learned to forge beauty into power, but that’s a different story) and some didn’t respond as the word ‘barn’ somehow set off their over-sensitive spam filter and they didn’t get the message in the first place. They didn’t get the mail that included the word ‘document’ either, because if you knock out the first two letters and the last three….you see? Well, it’s political correctness gone mad. Either that or health and safety, I can never remember which one I’m supposed to be cross about. The victim of all this de-spammery was our esteemed bass player and so he was excluded from the discussions about what to play, which took place between myself, singer-guitarist James, fragrant chanteuse and flute-monkey Helen and our wild card for the ride, Picturehouse frontman Wendell, who’d been thrown into the mix because he’s a both chum and because every so often we like to mix it up a bit and see what happens.
At a hastily-convened rehearsal the discussions really picked up pace. “So, what’re we doing?” enquired James, once he’d finished his baked potato with cheese and beans. Nothing fills a vacuum like that like opportunism and so I proferred my CD copy of the first Buffalo Springfield album, which contains a charming little sixties pop song by Neil Young called ‘Burned’ which I’d long hankered to have a go at. I have an advantage in the ways of Neil Young in that having learned to sing and play by strumming along with his Live Rust album I can pretty effortlessly drop into an appropriation of the Young-esque style at the drop of a harmonica. It’s uncanny, chameleon-like shading means that several people are fully convinced that I can’t sing properly* and lead one past band member to informally dub our Beatles specialist band “John, Paul, Ringo and Neil”, which if nothing else would make a great Willy Russell play, let’s face it. In the face of overwhelming ennui we were now one down in our quest to fill half an hour’s worth of hotly sought after stage time and moved on to the next selection. With our new album being due out on the HB label, we thought it only right to preview something from it and so started on stripping down the full band version (including pedal steel and banjo) to an arrangement for two acoustic guitars and a couple of singers who hadn’t even been on it. That took another twenty minutes, so by now we were flying. After a few more forays into our respective back catalogues of performances and writing credits we ended up with a couple of my old songs that didn’t get an airing often these days (one of which involved La Mulley transposing a three part saxophone part to flute), a song by Helen which was currently going through some discussion as to whether it was going to make the album at all, and a duet between Hel and Wendell on Gram Parsons’ version of ‘Love Hurts’. Oh, and James had decided to play bass. This was not a set list devised by a committee of movers and shakers looking to influence and win over an audience eager to soak up the familiar. This, surely, was tomfoolery? So, anyway, on the afternoon of the gig Wendell was spending a lot of time on YouTube instead of working and came up with the idea of doing The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, so we lobbed that into the set too. And why not?
We didn’t see a lot of the evening’s entertainment, spending, as we were a good deal of time in the studio annexe next to the stage running through the set again just to make sure that we hadn’t made a series of catastrophic errors of judgement. It wasn’t that reassuring, to be honest, but we did enjoy the experience of watching several of the other turns walk past the studio window on the way to the stage alternately baffled and amused by our enthusiastic (to them) miming. At last our time came. We were to follow the excellent, splendid and thoroughly Blue House-endorsed Al Lindsay, whose John Martyn-esque acoustic stylings were beautifully counterparted by a percussion player and a double bassist and who indeed encored with a marvellous reading of Martyn’s “May You Never”. Uh-oh, an encore….we’d better be good.
So we took the stage, four people in a line up which hadn’t played together before, one of whom was playing an instrument he didn’t usually care for and with a set list comprising at least four songs which no-one outside the sound engineer was likely to have heard in their lives and, d’you know what? We bloody killed out there. In a good way. Helen and Wendell were on superb old-style country weepery harmonising form, James was ebullient, I jumped off a chair and windmilled during The Who song, which raised a cheer if not a faint sense that the audience were about to see a forty-year old man do himself an injury, and that hadn’t happened during “Won’t Get Fooled Again” since that time with the tremelo arm in San Francisco – you could sense the voyeuristic thrill, and cut the air of anticipation with a chainsaw, or some other very large petrol-driven cutting tool. We retired outside for a post-show cigarette of relief, smoking being banned inside the building (It’s health and correctness gone politically safe, I tells ya) and I considered the question of “what to play”. Nobody knows anything; performers, audiences, critics. It’s all about the shared experience. If it works, it works, there’s no formula “These people do it for financial gain and we’re entitled to pass our opinions however we see fit” a correspondent had said (I’m paraphrasing). Too right. Al Lindsay wandered up to the sound man. “Do we, um, get paid for this?” he enquired, not unreasonably.
*At least I think it’s the Young impression.