Thursday, February 25, 2010

“Like Gibbon, she dances across the porch as the radio plays…”

It is always an intriguing time, the gestation of a new band. From concept to concert, there are any number of pitfalls and pratfalls that can easily beset the righteous man on all sides. When Bob Geldof compared getting The Who back together for Live Aid as being like reuniting a man and his three ex-wives he wasn’t exaggerating for effect. I myself have recently gone through a very painful period of adjusting to the fact that a couple of my metaphorical ex-wives have moved on and are now in a perfectly happy relationship with someone new. I see them on the street in company sometimes, and it still pains my heart to watch them together – going to all the old places we used to, doing the things we used to do, seeing the people we used to see, but, you know, I’ve moved on, we all have.

*Sniffs, reaches theatrically for monogrammed handkerchief, dabs eyes*

And so, in pursuit of closure, and having found myself with a bit of spare time on my hands, I rustled up a couple of old chums and threw an idea at them. How about the concept of a floating band, with no real permanent members, who could take on classic albums, one reissue at a time, perform them in their entirety and then move on to the next? The idea appealed, and so in a nervous, baby steps sort of way we set ourselves a deadline and decided that we would perform three numbers from Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run in March at Helstock, the now annual celebration of the Diva’s Diva - La Mulley, out of Songs from The Blue House. We gathered together in The Blue Room at McGinty’s, made sure everything was tuned up, turned on and nailed down, and took our first tentative steps through the Backstreets toward Jungleland. Obviously this wasn’t a complete throwing together of strangers forced by necessity and/or penury to take any job that came their way, as can so often be the case with musicians, so we all had some common ground between us, but it was really grand to be in the sort of situation where the fine line between deprecation and dedication was admirably negotiated and, since everyone had done their homework, the whole get together was smoothly accomplished. By the end of the night we had passable working versions of three songs and a couple of pints of Guinness each in our slipstream. For a one-off Wednesday night’s work, that’s not bad going. The benefits of working in a warm, great-sounding and relaxed environment obviously include easy access to a bar, a smoking area, friendly and hospitable hosts and the sort of toilets that have both flyers for a Chap Hop event (that sounds a terrifically interesting concept, and one I made a mental note to explore further) and graffiti in the cubicles extolling the virtues of The Go Betweens. I mean if I had to quibble over the details I might say that access and egress is a bit limited, but then I catch sight in the mirror of a fleeting half-glimpse of myself from the Eighties, and remind myself not to be such a doddering old fool. It’s just that the car park’s rammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive

Sunday, February 14, 2010

"The Guitar's all very well Shane - oh, and there's some money in it..."

Frankly, it wasn't looking promising for this one. Out of the core Songs from the Blue House triumvirate James was laid up with a migraine, I had a sore throat and Gibbon wasn't coming at all. Along with all this, we were due to play a Valentine's fund-raising dinner in a hall in Essex, and there was going to be a raffle. As my radio co-host Neale had remarked when I brought the subject up this week "Why don't you just play happy songs and then everyone will get along and have a nice time?". With our set list? It didn't seem possible. Coming along for the ride was Mr. Wendell, who had been corralled as our sound man du jour although, as he remarked, when it comes to sound mixing he's more Steve Martin than George Martin. To make him feel at home I asked him to mention if there was anything he didn't like. "Well" he responded Scousily "I don't like that scarf..."
Sound check concluded, we retired to the backstage area where a nice table had been laid out for dinner and before too long we were thoroughly enjoying a nice meal provided by our hosts. "This is nicer than the KFC" remarked Diane. More bands should get together for a social evening - we had a splendid lasagne provided by our hosts (veggie for Wendell for, as we explained, he doesn't eat meat, subsisting as he does mainly on leaves and air), two types of dessert, and were thoroughly enjoying each other's company, with the conversation ranging from the correct use of grammar, through the likelihood of the existence (or not) of the spirit world (I particularly enjoyed the story of the ghost who was visible only from the knees upward, as the floors had been a lot lower in their time), whether The Double Deckers actually ever drove that bus, and how difficult it must be to lift things if you exist mainly on a diet of leaves and air. Obviously we were enjoying this even more as the clock ticked past nine o'clock and we were now being paid for it as well.
The old showbiz saw that "It'll sound different once there are some people in" was never more happily accomplished as the cabaret seating and supper club vibe somehow gave a zing to the top end (sounds impossible, I know, but it's true) and tightened up the woolly mids and the fluffy bottoms (there'd been a lot of this sort of thing coming up in over dinner chat so you can tell what sort of mood we were in) until we were in a bright bubble of beautiful sound. Everything came together wonderfully. TT was filling in down the dusty end of his piano to cover for the errant bass player as well as doing his usual wonderful job up at the top end on the plinky ones (it's technical muso term - don't worry if you're not perfectly au fait with it), The Fragrant and Charming Helen was on splendid form, Parters was inspired, Turny Winn - on home turf - was his usual raffish self on banjo (and that's not an easy trick to pull off) and Fiddly Richard, all the way from Thorndon, was taking the whole thing so seriously that he'd donned one of his extra special colourful weskits for the occasion and was sawing away at the back like a man possessed. Given the dinner conversation we'd just had, this may have been an actual spiritual happening.
Notable highlights of the SftBH love fest were a peerless reading of Aretha Franklin/Etta James/The Flying Burrito Brothers' (depending on who you listen to) Do Right Woman - a duet of such touching fragility that even as we were playing it I was cursing myself for not remembering to insist that James record the show off the desk so that I could luxuriate in its wonder later on at my own convenience. I was indulged a lengthy introductory speech for Rolling and Tumbling, Turny stepped up to deliver a beautiful and heartfelt The Girl With The Scrambled Yellow Hair (his own song, and another first for us) during which Fiddly delivered a sublime solo which had me cursing all over again, and then Our Glorious Leader stepped up to sing the third in a trilogy of heartfelt love songs. His was called Bike.
A brief break for the raffle - the band collectively won a bag of Rolos for completing the quiz sheet with one of the top three scores - a closing section during which my throat finally gave out leading to a swift on the hoof, off the cuff re-arrangement of a couple of verses, someone bought a book (All These Little Pieces - still available at http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/all-these-little-pieces/5939858 by the way) and a last number during which we introduced the band, the audience set up a rhythmic clapping beat completely of their own volition then dragged us back for an encore, and then possibly the best compliment of the evening - Mr. Wendell confessing that for once he wished he were on stage. Waiting in the dressing room there were chocolate-covered strawberries.
A gentleman from the audience came up to me afterwards, clutching two CDs. "You lot" he muttered, almost unbelievingly, "killed up there tonight".