Monday, March 31, 2008

I Want Your Essex

This is relatively unfamiliar territory for us in The Barry Trill Experience, as I have come to affectionately rename the covers band for my own amusement - we’re still Picturehouse on the posters – for the second time in as many weeks we are venturing into darkest Essex, home of the white stiletto joke, Bluewater and one of a national chain of faux-Irish pubs which the last time I saw the inside of was on the telly being featured principally as a venue for fights between, and a good place to pick up, squaddies. The previous week we’d driven out to Mersea Island, which by only a cruel misplacement of geography avoided being the home to a thriving seventies R n’ B scene but is currently home to a number of caravan parks, an outdoor activity centre, a rugby club and, improbably, a vineyard. We were there to do our bit for charity and play a few numbers amid the swirling dry ice and spotlights of the Cosmic Puffin festival, issued with wristbands and load-in instructions after registering at reception, and more than happy to parade ourselves atop the stage behind the barriers, which only slightly slipped by about three feet when someone had the temerity to lean on them. There’s nothing like dry ice, lighting, a stage and crash barriers to bring out the poseur in your average pub bander, and so it proved. Blissfully unencumbered by having worry about what we sounded like out front (that’s, like sooo the sound guy’s problem, yeah?) we had a whale of a time enjoying two of the other great benefits of doing a festival – the chance to hear some other bands for free (look out for The Fancy Dress Party – a sort of Arcade Fire juniors) and the chance to enjoy some bracing outdoor weather. Thankfully the event was staged indoors, as the teeth of a howling gale and sub-zero temperatures are no place for sensitive artistes like ourselves to be throwing shapes and so our enjoyment of the elements came principally as a result of the smoking ban. Apparently some folks had taken up the option of the weekend camping tickets, and as we drove away after our slot (a physical allergy to reggae forcing our driving bass player to vacate the premises) the St Bernards were being readied for action, their collar-mounted brandy barrels being topped up and their slavering great chops dribbling in anticipation of the night’s work ahead. I’m no expert, but I wouldn’t put any money down on the 2008 Mersea Island sparkling white being a great vintage.
And so to this week’s foray. Now then, Essex comes in for an awful lot of stick when it comes to stereotyping. A lot of it is very beautiful, the people are kind and generous (hey that little shindig to raise money for a children’s ward wasn’t organized by aliens y’know) and many of its pubs are charming rural affairs with great ales and fine dining opportunities, it’s just that if all you ever see of the Essex clay is the bit which is either side of the A12 then you are likely to get a bit of a singular impression of the place. So, we drive down the A12 and set up in the bar where we are due to play, right under the humorous Gaelic-scripted shop sign and opposite the blurry black and white print of stereotypes of a different stripe wielding fiddles, bodhrans, bouzoukis and the like. I’m always cheered up at times like this when I recall reading that the popularity of the bouzouki in Irish music is due in part to a combination of its modal tuning, which lends itself ideally to the playing of traditional jigs and reels, and the increase in availability and lowering in price of cheap flights to the Greek Islands in the late sixties and early seventies, which meant that the Gaelic sun seeker of the day could bring a few back as souvenirs of their balmy evenings spent relaxing outside the Taverna trying not to think of Monty Python’s Cheese Shop sketch and wondering if they’d ever develop a taste for olives. I find it intriguing to wonder at the benign influence of Freddie Laker on the modern folk-rock scene.
All of this is far away from the theme of this evening’s adventure, which is based principally around getting ourselves into the allotted stage area contained within reassuringly sturdy wooden surrounds and ensuring that we have allocated a line out from the PA mixer so that they can plug us in to their in house speaker system and thus, theoretically, beam our performance all around the venue for the benefit of those who’d rather hang out at the bar than crane their necks to see what we’re up to over in the corner. That we only ever put vocals through the front of house speakers means that they are likely to experience some slightly off-key close harmony barbershop during the choruses and a bit of shouting during the verses, especially since we’ve had to give them the line out to our onstage monitors, meaning that we can’t really hear what we’re singing anyway and so we jury-rig a couple of mics onstage to point vaguely at the band (not unlike some of the audience will later do) and at least give some semblance of the fact that there’s a whole band there albeit one which sounds like it’s in another room to the singer (as many of the audience similarly will be later).
The gig itself is another surprisingly well-frugged event, with the cirque and pompenstance of our performance bringing out the soft shoe shufflers in a goodly number of our audience, not all of whom disappear at precisely eleven twenty five to take advantage of the half price admission to the club next door, which has a half eleven deadline. Singing along with the choruses is enthusiastically entertained by the punters, and the wiring of the vocal mics to several different points around the pub mean that a few of the ‘tween song announcements’ nuances that are usually lost in the flood of bar-room banter come through loud and clear. Bass player Kilbey’s brand new Jazz bass, a possession of his for all of, ooh, six or seven hours now, is living well up to expectations although his enjoyment of the subtle nuances of the Fender sound are reduced somewhat since I have my amp perched neatly on top of his at approximately ear level and am wholeheartedly enjoying a combination of the two main benefits of not driving to a gig for the second week in a row – those of being able to play extraordinarily loud electric guitar and also being able to be very slightly drunk (apologies to anyone who was especially looking forward to the solo in the Scissor Sisters song by the way, but that’s probably the way it would sound if BabyDaddy tied on a few Amstels during the gig too). We don’t usually get to play town centre pubs which serve as a warming-up venue for the night’s entertainment – we’re usually the main event somewhere out of town, and so it was interesting to note what folk wear when they’re frocking up for a night on the tiles. A nice fifties-style prom dress here, a gothic-looking black lace number there, a Bond-girl style oriental halter-neck thither, but whither the provenance that persuaded the very pretty dark-haired girl and her friend to pop out for the evening in the shortest dresses ever noted in the annals of England’s oldest recorded town? Still, they liked a dance, and with a figure like mine you can’t really be going around commenting on hemline/cellulite ratios or Essex girl stereotypes and it wasn’t like they were actually sporting white stilettos or anything.
They were red.

Friday, March 21, 2008

In between days off

A two in a rower for the mighty Picturehouse this week, as we kick off the Bank Holiday weekend by rocking a blustery Felixstowe and then continue our tourette with a trip to uncharted waters in darkest Essex, quite liderally mate, as we are scheduled to play on Mersea Island which is linked to the rest of Essex by causeway, and visitors are advised that during spring tides the place is temporarily cut off. It is, I confess, a first for me in having to check tide tables before embarking on the voyage to the gig but fortunately bass player Kilbey has done his homework and advises that the sea reaches its height at one in the morning, and frankly if we’re not out by then something has gone seriously wrong with our timekeeping. Speaking of timekeeping, an adventure in the land of the forgotten for Frisky Pat yesterday as it temporarily slipped his mind that one of his duties for Thursday’s gig was to collect the PA speakers from my house on his way. Oh, and also Stalker Bertie, who was joining us for the trip, what with him having some shady social connections in The ‘Stowe. It wasn’t until Pat was happily setting up his drum kit at the venue that Kilbey, with that razor-sharp mind for which he is so justly renowned, noticed that the big black boxes we use to sing through weren’t anywhere to be seen. As an afterthought, he also remembered something about Bertie – no offence should be implied that he was an afterthought, but then we don’t take him to every gig, whereas the PA is a fairly integral component in the performance. With a sigh and a shrug, our drummer sped off into the night to collect his passenger and freight, only to be called half way there by our increasingly Holmesian bass player who spotted that he hadn’t got any cymbals either. Poor Bertie, who was just expecting a quick ride to the show, detouring only past the KFC fine fried chicken emporium (other fat food outlets are available) for supper ended up in a real life version of Grand Turismo and although we estimate that he must have been driven past the Colonel’s around five or six times, he never actually got to stop off there. I hid my empty carton carefully away from him, for Neighbour Neil and I had indeed had time to call in on the way – and there was me thinking that I was going to be holding things up.
The show took the recent guitar-centric direction rather well, and with this only being our third or fourth actual full new-line-up outing it was good to feel things slotting together more comfortably, front line banter being more relaxed, Barry The Trill and I finding our levels together (generally one louder…) and, jings! A whole moshpit dancing audience! A new one for us, so perhaps all this testosterone-charge guitar frottage is the way to go after all? Nice to have a report from the front line from returning ex-front man Wendell, whose appraisal of the Foo Fighters number was considerably enhanced by having seen them a week previously at The L.A. Forum – apparently our version measured up reasonably favourably which is a credit to all that hard work slaving over a hot YouTube. In the old days you used to have to work out the chords yourself, you know! Oh yes. These days it’s possible to simply punch in a song title and study the footage to see where the shapes should go. Thus I was able to discern that the distinctive guitar figure in Long Road To Ruin was achieved partially by moving the chord inversion to the fifth fret, and partly by having ex-Germs and Nirvana guitarist Pat Smear just over your shoulder helping you out, a luxury I was sadly unable to employ, although Wendell did mention that I had the guitar tone exactly right. Which is nice, but a pure happy coincidence. And also good to hear that the crowd were indeed responding to our entreaties to “help us out on the chorus” (from the Boys Own Book of Big Rock Cliches, number 34). By the time Neighbour Neil pogoes across the stage and back again like Mr Punch on legs unleashed by a particularly refreshed puppeteer during the last number, we’d acquitted our selves jolly well, notwithstanding the stress undergone by Frisky Pat as a combatant and the almost equal stress experienced by Stalker Bertie as his passenger, which is always nice when you’ve come out on a Thursday night not really in the mood. Ah, the healing power of song.
As we pack up Kilbey relates the exchange he’s had with an enthusiastic punter who is asking on behalf of his friend, who is either too shy, too full of himself or too genuinely apologetic to speak for himself – we are, at this stage, none the wiser. And I quote;
“You see my mate over there?”
“Yes?”
“He’s the UK human beatbox champion – can he get up and do a song with you?”
“No”.
“Can he do one on his own?”
“No”.
“Well, you’ve got to ask, haven’t you?”
“Um, on reflection, no”.
The thing is, I’m sure this is the second time this has happened. So, all round, a good show, a rocking gig, a loud foray into new and guitar-loaded territory. At the end, a girl is haranguing our ex-singer who has been enjoying the show from the other side of the footlights. “That song you used to do, the Five one, what was it called, they don’t know it, you see…?”. You can check out any time you like, it seems, but you can never leave….