Friday, February 27, 2009

Handle with care

It's 5 o'clock on Tuesday morning and myself and the long-suffering Shirley are on the road again. We arrive at Richard's in the dark; by the time he and me pull into Area G of the Long Stay Car Park at Stansted Airport it's not long after 6 o'clock and beginning to get light. We would have been in Birchanger Services on the M11 if Dave had called Richard 30 seconds earlier than he did to tell him that he and Mike were in there having a coffee- as it was we were just passing the exit for the services as the phone rang. By 6.30-something we're all in the car park and have met up by the magic of the mobile phone; it's the A-team (minus Tracy who was away working elsewhere) and we're off to Ireland for 2 CBB shows in Belfast and Armagh. Originally more gigs were planned but as so often happens with this sort of thing only these shows have survived which is a real shame as speaking personally I've always really enjoyed playing in Ireland. The first time I went there was in the summer of 2001 when I'd just started playing for Neck (remind me to tell you about coming out of a club at 6 a.m. to be confronted by a tank) and have made quite a few visits there since with various bands.
With everybody present and correct and various bits and pieces redistributed in various bags and holdalls we take the shuttle bus to the airport itself; the mood is good if somewhat bleary (it's early!) and extra jollity comes with the fact that it's Pete's birthday although said jollity is suddenly in short supply when we get the news that there's rather the best part of £80 to pay to get Squirrel's bass and my guitar onto the aircraft. It would have been cheaper to buy tickets for them! Pete is adamant that he's already paid, the check-in staff say he hasn't so he pays and vows to query it later when he can get on a computer. That aside check-in goes pretty smoothly (I'm wondering if the guy a few places away from us in the queue is Specials singer Terry Hall- surely it can't be? Then again, why not?!?) as does the flight during which I read the first few pages of the 'Mojo' magazine 1978 edition and chat with Squirrel about his time on Stiff Records with Lew Lewis.
We arrive at Belfast City Airport (a.k.a. George Best Airport) around twenty past nine. As we were waiting to disembark I look out of the window to see our instruments being unloaded with all the care and attention that you'd expect from airport baggage handlers i.e. none whatsoever. How annoying is that, especially after being obliged to pay for the privilege of bringing them with us?
Well since you ask, it's really annoying- 'though nowhere near as annoying as finding out that the carrying handle on my guitar case had been broken off. After uttering the customary oaths and curses Pete and myself register a complaint at the appropriate desk and get the relevant paperwork and the 'you'll have to take this up with Ryanair' speech from the lady behind the counter. I suppose I should look on the bright side and say that at least my Telecaster is still in one piece- but having stumbled around with it for the last couple of days I can tell you that a guitar case without a carrying handle is a very cumbersome thing...
We meet Darren the minibus driver/merchandise man outside the airport and head off to The Stormont Hotel, our base throughout our stay. We're early enough for breakfast (!) which goes down very well with all concerned; I'm sharing room 243 with Marc and since we're not leaving for the venue until half past one there's plenty of time to catch up on some sleep before meeting everyone down in the lobby for a quick pancake (it's Shrove Tuesday!) and the short drive to The Waterfront for the evening's show. It's a great venue- we're playing in the Studio as opposed to the much larger Auditorium- and using a backline supplied by Dougie the P.A. man. Squirrel's got an impressive looking Ampeg stack, Marc's got an unimpressive looking Yamaha drumkit and Ian's playing a Roland keyboard; I've got a one of the noisiest, punkiest amplifiers ever produced by Fender, a combo called The Twin (an 'updating' of the classic Fender Twin Reverb combo) which incidentally is a favourite of Neck mainman Leeson O'Keeffe (cue the theme from 'The Twilight Zone'.) By running it on half power and having most of the volume and distortion controls set low I manage to get something approaching an appropriate sound 'though it's still too loud for Marc ('All I can hear is guitar!') so rather than placing it in it's usual position on the drum riser I end up with it on the floor in front of the riser but tilted upwards so that I can still hear it. Soundcheck includes a version of that well-known Blues Brothers number 'Suspicious Minds' which suggests that we should make a good job of the Elvis songs next week in Zurich.
After some noodles at the Teppanyaki Japanese Restaurant across from the venue (set meals started at 50 quid! We just had a couple of starters...) Pete and myself went back to the venue to meet up with Sam Davidson, guitarist in the reformed version of Rory Gallagher's old band Taste. He's a mate of Pete's and he's joining us for the last couple of songs in the show- we run through 'Sweet Home Chicago' with me and him on guitars and Pete on bass and he sounds great 'though he's have to be to fill the mighty Mr. Gallagher's shoes.
With the venue rapidly filling up it's time to retire backstage to prepare for action. Dave's got Pete a birthday card which we've all signed- he lures him into the darkened dressing room 2 where he's put a large candle into a fairy cake, and much singing and cheering ensues as Pete comes through the door. He's also bought the wrong trousers with him- they're several sizes too big and he can't find a belt that will fit through the belt loops so he gaffa tapes himself into them. (I'm not making this up, honest! Actually while we're on the subject, what was he doing with a pair of enormous trousers? Answers on a postcard please, usual address...) He also spends rather a lot of time wearing the wig that Pete (or whoever is playing Jake that night) uses during the gospel section of the show, much to everyone's amusement.
The show's a sell out (hurrah!) and the crowd are up for it from the word go although judging by the number of people with their fingers in their ears my amp wasn't the only thing that was too loud... there was more than one 'Happy Birthday' moment during the horn solos, someone threw an empty Tic Tac box onto the stage during 'New Orleans' (no, I don't know either) and with Sam playing brilliantly during his guest appearance it's a great show all round with talk of returning next year for a show in the Auditorium. Oh and Dave wore the wig for the encores. Excellent!

As I opted not to set an alarm Wednesday got off to a late-ish (10.15) start- I made it down in time for breakfast just as they were packing everything away. With several band members opting to go for a spa and sauna at the nearby Culloden Hotel (it's in the same chain as The Stormont, Pete Mike and Tracy did several playback shows in them just before last Christmas) myself and Marc decide to walk up the hill to The Stormont Parliament Building as it's such a nice morning. It's an extraordinary building that looks almost impressive from a distance as it does close up 'though the number of security guards and cameras are reminders of some of the other things the area has been well known for... back at our hotel it's time for some food in the La Scala bistro (excellent!) before a bit of time spent catching up on a few phone calls and attempting to unravel one of the great mysteries of modern life- just how do you register a complaint on a company's website? In this case it's a broken item of baggage with Ryanair but, let's face it, you can e-mail anybody about virtually anything these days and yet to complain about something you have to do so in writing within 7 days of the incident taking place- tricky in a case like this if you're away from home for a week don't you think?- and proof of posting is not proof of receiving, and, and, and...

Anyone would think that they were trying to make it difficult for you, wouldn't they?

Everyone meets at the allotted time of 3 p.m. in the lobby for our journey to The Market Place Theatre in Armagh. We played here 2-and-a-bit years ago and it's a superb theatre; sadly not so many tickets sold this time (that was a Saturday and this, as Pete points out is Ash Wednesday- the beginning of Lent) but there's still enough people in to make it a good, if somewhat eventful, show...
Halfway through the first number 'Peter Gunn' Richard steps forward for his solo. He uses a radio microphone which allows him to walk around the stage while he's playing 'though he's been having a few problems with it lately; at first I thought it was cutting in and out as the notes were all a bit abrupt, but when I looked at him I saw that his face was bright red from trying not to laugh whilst playing. In the background the look on Dave's face could only mean one thing- Richard had broken wind before walking away and, without getting into too much unnecessary detail here, he's almost as good at that as he is at playing the saxophone... when he returns to the horn section riser Dave is cursing and Richard is still laughing. Boys will be boys eh?
Anyone who's seen our show will know that during the aforementioned gospel section Jake becomes the Rev. I.C. Delight, resplendent in church robes and wig whilst myself, Squirrel, Dave and Richard appear as a choir dressed in ill-advised outfits (see the photos on our website for the full gory story) to the general amusement of all and sundry; for this show Dave had kept the candle from the previous evening's birthday celebrations which he lit and carried out onto the stage, an act which I suspect would have given any passing health and safety officer a heart attack. We were just warming our hands around it when it went out; a couple of seconds later Richard's microphone decided to malfunction and send a loud bang through the P.A. and monitors- quick as flash Dave dropped to his knees pretending that he'd been shot (a rather risky attempt at humour in this part of the world if you think about it!) and in doing so his right knee landed on Richard's left foot. Squirrel and myself looked on incredulously as Richard hopped around with Dave on the ground next to him- it was a good job the candle had gone out... brass section eccentricity continued in the second set with the theme music from 'Starsky and Hutch' finding it's way into 'Funky Nassau', and with a somewhat subdued audience finally getting into it all's well that ends well and we all agree that these have been 2 of the most enjoyable shows we've done for ages.

Now the real work begins- time to write a letter to Ryanair. I'll let you know how I get on...

Check the Lew Lewis link above for a classic clip from 1980 with Squirrel on bass!

Monday, February 23, 2009

From Garageland to Switzerland

It was a l-o-n-g day yesterday, much of which was spent in Andy's garage/studio recording 3 tracks with Mike and Dave to use for getting gigs for our ongoing rhythm 'n' blues project and having a very good time in the process. Volume restrictions meant that we couldn't use acoustic drums (Dave did a fine job using an electronic kit) or our usual guitar and bass amps (Mike plugged his Markbass amplifier straight into the recording gear and I used his excellent Blackstar HT-5 combo which sounded so good that I might well have to get one for myself) and we couldn't record everything live (shame!) but with the backing tracks sounding good it only remains for Andy to put the vocals on and we should have ourselves a pretty good demo. I'll tell you what the songs are when we've finished them- I might even work out how to post them on here...

And it was a good evening too, with an excellent gig from Roy Hill at The Load of Hay. Andy and myself managed to remember 20 or so minutes of songs we used to sing, and Roy played for something approaching 2 hours (!) as well as introducing me to his mate Simon who, incredibly, is tour chef for The Rolling Stones among others. Apparently the stories about Keith Richards only eating Shepherds Pie are all true- Simon makes them to Joe Cocker's recipe and writes things like The Riffmaster in the potato topping. On any other night this would have sounded like a mad story, but on a night where the headlining act began his set with a story about swimming the channel aged 9 with an ironing board in his mouth aged it almost sounded ordinary. Brilliantly surreal and at the same time incredibly perceptive and poignant, if his long-delayed album 'Switzerland' is a good as it promises to be then it might just give him the breakthrough he deserves- let's hope so anyway.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

I see what you mean

I switched on the T.V. this morning just as they were showing a trailer for coverage of tomorrow night's Oscars ceremony- not being very awake I was convinced that they were advertising something called THE SCARS; when I looked again I decided it was actually THE O'SCARS. 'It must be an Irish punk band' I mused as I wondered why there would be a such a lavish evening planned in their honour- then I realised that I'd been right in the first place and it was actually a programme about ill-advised plastic surgery...

I got some new glasses last week- I have a feeling that they may need adjusting?

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Club less ordinary

Time to mention a couple of thing's happening locally this week:-

It's the opening night of Club Fluorescent this Thursday evening, at The Water's Edge in Cowley. With DJ sets from 3 likely lads (all of whom all make occasional appearances in these hallowed pages) and an acoustic performance from Colour Me Wednesday ('the greatest band ever to come out of Cowley') it should be a good night, and a venture well worth supporting in the future; I might even go along myself, if only to see if I'm the oldest person there!

Meanwhile Sunday sees the next of the occasional Acts Less Ordinary evenings at The Load Of Hay in Uxbridge, this one featuring the brilliant Roy Hill. Check his blog on his MySpace page- mad as hell and not going to take it anymore, his live shows are even better than I think they are, if you see what I mean. Actually if you do see what I mean can you please explain it to me? Oh and in an act of shameless self-publicity, I'm in the support act, so come along early to see what songs myself and Andy can remember from our headline appearance last August in a local barber's shop window. Marvellous.

2 great gigs within a mile or so of each other in the same week eh? We'll have to be careful or we'll use the whole year's worth up in one go...

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

All shook up

I checked my e-mails the other day- you know, like you did earlier and like we all do most days; as you might well imagine there have been quite a few flying backwards and forwards in the days since Mario left the show. I'll spare you the gory details- suffice to say that there are two sides to every story, however implausible that sometimes can be- but among the various missives was one sent to all the band from CBB supremo Pete headed 'Zurich Elvis' which for obvious reasons I decided to read first. I'm sure he won't mind me reproducing it here:-

Hi Guys,

Below is a list of ‘Elvis’ songs that Steve has put forward for the Zurich Gig.

We really only need a max of about 7 or 8.

Can you come back with what you would know.

The set I would figure would be:


Speak later,


I read it a couple of times then did the only thing possible under the circumstances- sent a reply to everyone along the lines of 'Er... who's Steve?' and then got back to reading the various bits of bile and vitriol from Mario as well as wondering who would be the first band member to tell me that Steve is a guy who works down the chip shop...
I didn't have too long to wait- Pete called a few minutes later, surely I haven't forgotten that we're doing an set with noted Elvis impersonator Steve Ballard at next month's Zurich gig?

Me? Forget about the Elvis set we're playing in Zurich? No, of course I wouldn't forget something as important as that; I just don't remember being told it in the first place...

I spent a fair bit of today in front of a CD player attempting to get to grips with the above songs and being reminded what great guitarists Scotty Moore and James Burton are. It's strange- like everybody I've heard Elvis Presley's music so many times, and if ever asked about it always said something glib like 'I only really like his Sun Records stuff'- but I can honestly say I never really noticed how great the TCB Band sound on the later recordings. The arrangements are brilliant, the playing's exemplary, and the singing's not too bad either... I'm really looking forward to playing these songs!
With this in mind I've just called Pete to ask if Steve sings the songs in the same keys as the original recordings and to ramble on about my new found 'Elvis-fan' status- he told me that Richard and Dave have played with him before and should have their parts written out so we can check with them, and has just ''reminded'' me that we're also playing 'a jazz set, you know, like the one we did last month in Birmingham except we're playing live rather than with backing tracks' and that he'll try to give me a list of songs to look at as soon as possible.

Hmm... either I've forgotten an entire conversation or I've got to get my hearing checked.


Friday, February 06, 2009

Weather- or not?

It's been snowing here this week, to such an extent that I like many didn't make it to work on Monday and so had an unexpected day off. Fortunately an early morning phone call to American Tom meant that Pro Music was able to open with him rather than me at the helm, and he tells me it was quite a busy day under the circumstances; I stayed in doing all those little jobs that I'd meant to do for ages but hadn't got around to before- you know the ones... yeah ok, I mucked about on guitar for most of the day (well, I had to test my amplifier didn't I?!?) and watched as the world went completely mad. Surely with weather forecasting as accurate as it is these days- and joking aside, it is pretty accurate- there could have been some way of ensuring that the entire public transport system in London didn't grind to an almost total standstill and that every road that wasn't deemed 'major' didn't become a no-go area for anything other than 4x4's and tractors? And when I did venture out on Tuesday morning I discovered that (a) what used to be pavements were now sheet-ice-covered death traps littered with the bodies of those unfortunate enough to have tried to walk on them, and (b) previously rational human beings had become brain dead automatons unable to talk about anything other the weather and it's immeasurable effect it had suddenly started having on their lives. I recall some heavy snowfalls when we were kids but can't remember schools being closed as a result; then again I suppose health and safety legislation wasn't as complex and strict then? As I overhead someone in the cafe saying words to the effect of 'if I hear those politicians going on about global warning I'm gonna go around switching all the lights on' I realised that suddenly common sense was as a hard to find as, well, a white cat in a snowstorm- and talking of cats, did someone really stay off work because the snowflakes frightened their kitten?!?

Stuart the guitar repair man and myself wondered about all of this and more on our near-interminable journey to the theatre Thursday morning; last week we'd been obliged to carry out our duties during auditions for a bassist for the upcoming 'We Will Rock You' tour when the presence of show bass supremo Neil Murray and Queen drummer Roger Taylor turned at least one applicant into a nervous wreck. A more straightforward session yesterday (good!) after which we walked across to the excellent Wunjo Guitars in Denmark Street to check out a Gibson Les Paul Custom for one of Stu's friends- it looked all but identical to Bondy's one as discussed in the last posting 'though is possibly in slightly better condition. I was given the job of plugging it in and trying it out and very good it was too; Shirley phoned me while I was playing it resulting in a 'I'm-not-buying-a-guitar-honest' moment from your humble narrator, much to Stuart and shop owner Brian's amusement.

Arriving home I received a call from Chicago Blues Brothers show producer Pete to say that Mario ('Jake') has left the show with immediate effect; from what I can gather he's got too many commitments with his own band to be able to do our shows as well. He's being replaced in the short term by Pete himself- 'Mr. Showbiz' returns!

No gigs for me this weekend 'though I've got an 'Acts Less Ordinary' show at The Load Of Hay in Uxbridge on Sunday night; it's the first of the year and features father-and-daughter duo Amo (they're better than the description might suggest, honest!) whilst coming up on the 22nd it's the excellent Roy Hill which I'm really looking forward to- if we're not all snowed in of course...

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Take your pick

Two in a row for The Chicago Blues Brothers this weekend:-

Our first theatre show of the year took place on Friday evening at a new venue for us, The Millfield Theatre in Edmonton, North London. Regular readers (assuming of course that I have any) may recall that with the help of a malfunctioning amplifier I'd managed to reduce our last performance to something that sounded uncomfortably like outtakes from the first Jesus and Mary Chain album; to guard against this re-occurring I'd delivered said Fender Blues Junior combo to Roger the amplifier repairman a few days earlier. He's a great bloke (think Monty Python-loving eccentric rock'n'roller and you're along the right lines) who's very good at his job, which makes it something of a worry to say that he had the amp switched on for two days and, you've guessed it, couldn't find anything wrong with it. No noises, buzzes, crackles or hums- nothing. After discussing tactics with him it was decided to replace the output valves and their seatings (the bits they plug into) as they were, as he put it, 'a bit loose' and see if that did the trick- after all, we couldn't leave it as it was could we? When I got round there to pick it up on the way to the gig (nothing like leaving things until the last minute is there?) he said something like 'it's still fine'- and it was. Hopefully...

Arriving at the venue sometime around 3 p.m. I was met by sound guru Ian Bond triumphantly holding a Gibson guitar case. Back in December he gave me his recently acquired Gibson Les Paul Custom to pass on to Stuart the guitar repairman for re-fretting (see the 'Andover Express' posting for the story) which I'd bought with me to return; whilst in America over Christmas he'd bought a new case for it as the one it came in is about to disintegrate. To say that he was pleased with Stuart's work would be a considerable understatement- and rightly so as the guitar's turned out splendidly well. It's an 'A-team gig'- same line-up as last week's Southend show but with Richard back on sax- and the mood is upbeat, which is always a good thing to see. To combat potential amplifier hell I've also got my old Laney combo with me, which is strategically placed behind the Fender one so that I can change them over quickly if necessary. I spent the soundcheck waiting for any untoward sounds, none of which arrive 'though it felt as if I was walking across a minefield. I remember Ben Elton doing a comedy routine once about 'Captain Paranoia', the voice in your head that says things like 'you look guilty' as you walk past a policeman- I think The Captain was sitting on my amp for the entire evening...
With soundcheck over it was off to the bar to meet up with the legend that is Brian Kotz. Fresh from the previous night's visit to a glam rock club (if you ever meet him ask him to tell you about the time he met Marc Bolan- priceless!) he lives locally so it was great to be able to invite him along. It's an 8 o'clock show and there's a good crowd in although we all agree that it takes them and indeed us a while to get going. With Captain Paranoia still very much in the building I find it hard to stop worrying about my amp going into meltdown and as a result I don't think I played particularly well so I was relieved when Brian told me that he enjoyed the show. He also commented that the last time that he heard 'Riot In Cell Block no. 9' in a seated venue was on the 9th November 1975 (Dr. Feelgood at The Hammersmith Odeon in case you were wondering) which means he keeps his title as 'rock'n'roll memory king'. A excellent evening's work, and my amp seemed to be ok- which was just as well because as he was leaving Pete reminded me that I'd need both amps tomorrow night too as I was also playing 'some jazz in the foyer'...

...which I'd completely forgotten about! It's two years since we last played at The I.C.C. in Birmingham, and I remember it being a vast hall with most if not all of the audience at the other end propping up the bar; as with last time it's a corporate event for Seddon and as myself and the long-suffering Shirley arrive Pete and Mike are loading their P.A. system onto a baggage trolley with a view to taking it over to the foyer so I give them my Fender combo then take the Laney along with my guitars, leads and clothes into the Hall 3, the CBB gig venue. With Richard off elsewhere Bev's on sax, and Pete's in the hat'n'glasses in place of Mario; Ian Bond greets me with the words 'I thought I heard a crackle last night' so I say a quick hello to Captain Paranoia before setting off in search of the dressing rooms. After waiting for what seemed like forever for the lights to be sorted out we set up (in the dark- why do they always turn the lights off as soon as they've got them working?!?) and do a quick soundcheck after which Pete, Mike, Dave and myself walked through the hall (they had Scalextric tracks set up and everything!) to the foyer to get set up directly opposite the large REGISTRATION sign for our show there. We're playing along with backing tracks and there's just time for a 'what songs are we going to play?' discussion before the evening gets underway with 'Moondance'. It's not false modesty to say that I'm not much of a jazz guitarist- it's something that I've always wanted to get more involved with but I never seem to have enough time to devote to what could politely be described as a 'big subject'- but if you've ever wondered what it sounds like when an old punk like me is allowed to run amok on such classics as 'Let There Be Love' and 'Swinging on a Star' then this was your chance to find out... and for all my incompetence I was once again reminded what a fabulous musician Dave Land is, he played the most superb trumpet and flugel horn parts to every song that even my hilarious attempts at joining in couldn't ruin. Mind you we must have done something right as we were told when we finished that people were standing listening to us rather than going in for dinner which was in danger of making the evening run late!
As we were packing our stuff away an unassuming gentleman came over to say that he'd enjoyed the music, and to ask who's Telecaster that was on stage. It turned out that he was Stuart Seddon, the chairman of the company; I showed him my Baja Telecaster that I'd just been playing, he put it on and commented that the strap was 'long enough to be Jimmy Page's' so I asked him if he wanted to do a song with us later- he laughed but Pete cajoled him into saying yes. With Captain Paranoia temporarily silenced (my amp had been fine- I've got it on in the room with me now as I type this, not a sound thank God!) we make our way Spinal Tap-style through the corridors (we decided it was best not to walk through Hall 3 as dinner was just starting) to the backstage area where some excellent food was being served for our benefit. From then it was hurry-up-and-wait time (it often is at these events) so Shirley and myself decided it was time for a visit to the foyer bar. There was a classical piano recital in The Symphony Hall (see the 'hall plans' on the I.C.C. website if you're interested in how this all fits together) which sounded great from where we were sitting and so must have sounded incredible in the hall.
Back in Hall 3 it's time for the speeches so we're on in a few minutes. Pete hands round some handwritten set-lists which he tells us have too many songs on them but we'll start with what's written and see how it goes- and it all goes remarkably well with people on the dancefloor more-or-less straightaway and Stuart the boss joining us for (you guessed it!) 'Mustang Sally'- his first words to me were 'shit, I'm too pissed' but he did a pretty good job all things considered and at the end he asked me if he could keep the plectrum he'd used as a souvenir.

No one's ever asked me that before! Excellent!