Thursday, September 30, 2010

Autumn leaves

A couple of weeks ago I received a call from a chap called Mark Moody who'd picked up my card 'ages ago from somewhere' and who was enquiring about the possibility of me giving his son Joe some guitar lessons. We got talking and fairly soon it was obvious by the number of 'I'm sure I know you' moments that we had quite a lot in common, not least when he mentioned that he had a Bartram guitar that he'd purchased from Thames Valley Guitars back in the 1980's. This was one of the Uxbridge musical equipment shops that my fellow Blue Five member Pete a.k.a. Voltarol used to run back in those dim and distant days (he also ran Pete's Gig Shop among others) when his many and varied musical endeavours included promoting jazz gigs at, of all places, The Load Of Hay. When Mark and Joe turned up the other night for a 'let's see if I can help you' meeting (it turned out that Mark had seen me playing in The Others which was the band I had before The Price! Oo-er!) they bought with them the afore-mentioned guitar (and a very fine instrument it is too) and the poster that you can now see on the above left, which had languished in the guitar case since way back when. I sent it by e-mail to Voltarol who reacted with great enthusiasm, and you can see his thoughts and memories here, along with some tremendous photos from the time. I went to most if not all of the shows (I definitely remember the bloke with the concertina!) as it was a chance to hear music that was somewhat outside of the mainstream at the time, which in my World is always a good thing; with that in mind I've included this Autumn's 'Acts Less Ordinary' schedule at said venue on the above right hand side - there's some great stuff coming up, and since the excellent David Bristow played to an audience of less than a dozen on the Sunday just gone if you can make it along to any of the shows it would be good to see you there.

If nothing else this shows that in addition to being two halves of one of the World's least likely guitar duos both Pete and myself are bonkers enough to think that promoting minority interest music in a back street pub is somehow a good idea - which reminds me, I'm playing with The Ali Mac Band at Tropic At Ruislip this coming Sunday evening - it's the first Sunday night gig there for a while, and co-incidentally there's nothing on at The Load Of Hay that night...

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Handel with care (sorry!)

Now, who are these friendly little fellows? Well the picture on the left features sax maestro Richard Pardy with trumpeter Steve Walker posing furiously in front of a shower curtain, whilst the right hand image shows the afore-mentioned Mr. Pardy's usual partner in crime Dave Land with, well, a right hand other than his own. If they all look pleased with themselves then it's almost definitely because they're wearing their new Balcony shirts. But how did they all come to have them?

This week has been book-ended by two Chicago Blues Brothers gigs. We played our first theatre show for a while last Saturday, at The Everyman Theatre in Cheltenham. It's an 'almost-the-A-team' line-up with Marc and Ian returning on drums and keyboards respectively; Steve's on trumpet in place of Dave but other than that everybody's where they should be (Matt and Mike are Jake and Elwood, Squirrel's on bass, Richard's on sax, Tracy's on vocals and Pete's playing the extra characters in the show.... that's it I think, although I'm sure someone's missing from the list... oh yeah, I'm playing guitar!) and by the time the long-suffering Shirley delivers Richard, Tracy and myself to the venue Phil's nearly ready for us to soundcheck. I'd been working in the shop until 3 o'clock and when they arrived to pick me up Richard was unable to resist (a) coming in to see what all the fuss is about, and (b) buying 2 t-shirts depicting their hometowns for himself and Steve. (For the record this one's his and this one's Steve's - pretty cool eh?) Oh and he bought this one for his son who's learning the drums - rather a costly visit don't you think? Good man!
The gig itself was a bit of an uphill struggle in many ways. It's a lovely old theatre but I thought the atmosphere was a bit 'cold' from the word go; add to that the fact that for some unknown reason (principally because I didn't ask!) I didn't have a monitor, which meant that it was hard for me to hear what Ian was playing. I usually have a bit of my guitar in the monitor too (more is more don't you think? No wonder my ears play up sometimes!) so had a bit of trouble hearing what I was playing, and on a couple occasions thought it all sounded a bit odd... halfway through my solo in 'She Caught The Katy' I decided that it definitely sounded a bit odd - in fact it was cutting in and out. In a move that surprised most people (including myself) on the stage I decided that the best course of action was to kick my amplifier - so I did. I wonder about myself sometimes... a quick - and I mean quick! - bit of fault finding at the end on the song revealed that it the lead from my guitar to my pedal was faulty; fortunately I had one behind my amp for just such an emergency, and was back on the air in time for the next song. I try to keep my gear in good condition and check my leads regularly so it was an annoying occurrence, although why I thought booting my amp would help I don't know. Oh well - at least I'm told it looked good! But I wasn't the only one with problems - Squirrel's bass fell over and knocked the mains lead for his amplifier out of the plug (what are the chances of that happening?!?) causing a moment or two of mid-set madness, and Richard inadvertently dislodged the cable from Ian's monitor when he walked past it leaving him with no sound for 2 songs. Maddest of all was the incident during 'Natural Woman' when a couple who had been sitting at the front looking horrified throughout our performance decided to leave as the song drew to a close - Tracy said something like 'I hope it wasn't something that I said' and then was laughing too much to be able to finish the song. One of 'those' nights as they say... still I managed to fit the riff from 'Purple Haze' into my solo in 'Riot In Cell Block Number Nine' so it wasn't all bad news!

Last night we returned to The E.M. Forster Theatre in Tonbridge - we played 2 shows there almost exactly 2 years ago (here's the story of those shows and the sat. nav.-powered confusion that surrounded them) with Chris in place of Ian on keyboards, Dave back on trumpet and Pete taking Matt's place in Jake Blues's shoes. Backstage signs warn NO BARE FEET (murder is ok then?!?) and Richard threw yet more money in the Balcony direction by getting these two shirts for Dave, who seemed overjoyed with both. And the two hornists had been out shopping too as we shall see... Richard bought his 3 sons with him, and Joseph bought his guitar along - he's doing very well with several Hendrix riffs, which he demonstated to me in the dressing room before the show. Excellent!
As a gig it was almost the total opposite of the previous Saturday's event, with the band somehow gelling better and small but enthusiastic audience ready to rock from the word go. And the atmosphere within the band was good too - a couple of numbers into the show I suddenly heard a shriek of alarm from Tracy's general direction - I looked across to see the two brass boys convulsed with laughter and a rather incriminating fake hand on Richard's music stand. It turned out they'd bought two earlier in the day (or as Richard put it, 'I bought one for the kids and Dave bought one for himself') and judging by their antics during the show they were determined to get their money's worth! Of course they could have made one almost as easily...

Talking of Hendrix, and following on from last weekend's posting (sorry it went on a bit, I got a bit carried away! Maybe I need an editor?!?) I spent Wednesday afternoon stumbling around the West End of London in search of 2 exhibitions currently running in commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the great man's death. There are 2 blue plaques on the wall outside the Handel House museum - one as you might expect is for George Frederic Handel, the other is somewhat incongruously for Jimi Hendrix. As so often happens in life there's a simple enough explanation - they both lived in the flat at some time - and there's an equally incongruous Hendrix exhibition on the first floor of the building next to the expected Handel artifacts, and very good it was too. Handwritten lyrics, a cartoon self-portrait, posters, a jacket worn on stage and more, although the centrepiece has to be the Gibson Flying V (the third one in this article) that he played towards the end of his life, notably at the Isle Of Wight festival in 1970. (Here's Red House from that show - that's the guitar, easily identifiable from the others that he played by the so-called 'split diamond' inlays on the fingerboard. Mad as it may sound I've actually played that guitar! No really, I have! I happened to visit The Vault at The Hard Rock Cafe when they were making a new case for it and so it was in there for a few days. I played lots of guitars there that day - remind me to tell you all about it sometime...) It's a shame in some ways that there weren't more items on display but maybe I'm being a bit picky - after all what was there was tremendous. You could also visit his actual flat on the top floor - I'd have liked to have done that as well but all the tickets were sold out. I didn't know you needed one! And the Handel exhibition was very interesting too, not least the portrait of concert promoter Thomas Britton who I learned came to a rather sad end. Apparently he was a very superstitious man, and a friend of his decided to play a joke on him by getting a ventriloquist to throw his voice to tell him that his end was near - he was so shocked that he had a heart attack... the second exhibition took place at The Snap Galleries in Piccadilly and featured photographs by Gered Mankowitz taken in 1967 and which are some of the best-known and iconic images of The Jimi Hendrix Experience. They say familiarity breeds contempt (whoever 'they' are) but in this case I think that they're wrong as the photos still look fantastic, stark black and white images of a man and indeed a band who went a long way towards both defining the times and showing the way forward. So impressed was I that I nearly bought one, and they weren't cheap... I bought a book instead, and might even go back for a deluxe edition... stop it boy, you can't afford it... although there must be something that I could sell... (continued on page 94 - I really must get an editor...)

Saturday, September 18, 2010

'I've been dead a long time'

Jimi Hendrix died 40 years ago today. He was 27 years old.

'Once you're dead you're made for life.'

Millions of words have been written about him and his effect on the music world (an indeed the world in general) and in many ways his presence is even greater today than when he was alive and making music. These are odd times for the electric guitar, as players are churned out on conveyor belts from nebulous 'institutes' which claim to teach the would-be guitar hero all that they'll ever need to know to play any type of music that they're ever likely to encounter - many would say that players who learn in this way are soulless and unoriginal, two words that could never be associated with Jimi Hendrix. To some he's the greatest ever exponent of the instrument, to others he's the most overrated player of them all, but few if any will deny his impact. Ask people who saw him perform about him and you can watch them being all-too-briefly transported back to a time when anything seemed to be possible, and when maybe, just maybe, music could change the World.

'My goal is to be at one with the music. I just dedicate my whole life to this art.'

His life story has been documented in almost Biblical detail, and as such doesn't need re-telling here; when he crash-landed on a swinging but nevertheless unsuspecting London in the Autumn of 1966 it's fair to say that no one had ever looked, acted or sounded like him. And I don't just mean musically - listen to recordings of him speaking and you hear a polite, almost impossibly gentle voice that redefines the word 'cool' and almost sounds as though he knew something that we (the rest of the population of the World) didn't but that maybe, just maybe, we could find out if we all listened closely enough. By all accounts he was a shy, intoverted person whose desire to please people is often seen as a contributory factor in his untimely demise - it seems the word 'no' wasn't in his vocabulary! - and as such his, shall we say, adventures with drink, drugs and women are all well-known. However the one thing it seems everybody agrees on is that above all else he lived for the music. Everything else just came along as well.

'A musician, if he's a messenger, is like a child who hasn't been handled too many times by man, hasn't had too many fingerprints across his brain. That's why music is so much heavier than anything you've ever felt.'

His first single 'Hey Joe' sounds almost tame compared to what was to follow but put in context of the music of the time sounds nothing short of revolutionary; the next two singles 'Purple Haze' and 'The Wind Cries Mary' pushed the boundaries even further both in terms of composition and sound. By the time you get to the first album 'Are You Experienced?' you're hearing a guitarist of unparalleled ability playing music that seemed to include elements of every style of popular music that had been heard up until that point in time but that somehow sounded nothing like any of it. The second album 'Axis : Bold As Love' came out only a few months later and was no less extraordinary, focusing more on his songwriting skills although it still contained some amazing guitar playing, and the third album 'Electric Ladyland' remains a sprawling masterpiece of monumental proportions that would still sound radical if it was released today. And the fourth album - well, the fourth album didn't come out, at least as far as Hendrix was concerned. The 'Band Of Gypsys' live album (featuring Billy Cox on bass and Buddy Miles on drums) released in 1970 was a contractual obligation not considered an official release by the man himself although it does include the incredible 'Machine Gun' which contains what for many people is some of his most inventive and astonishing soloing. His projected fourth album was to be 'First Rays Of The New Rising Sun', which he'd been working on for at least a year at the time of his death. Posthumous releases of some of the material appeared on albums like 'The Cry Of Love' and 'Rainbow Bridge', and a version of the album was eventually 'officially' compiled (by recording engineer Eddie Kramer among others) and released in 1997; although it's highly unlikely that it would have emerged in this form had Hendrix have lived to see it's completion it's a good indication of his musical direction at the time of his death. It contains some truly remarkable recordings, with many featuring multi-layered interlocking guitar parts of extraordinary inventiveness and complexity. It could be argued that without Chas Chandler's production and editing skills that were with hindsight so evident on the first two albums he was heading too far down the path of self-indulgence (something that can certainly be said about parts of 'Electric Ladyland') but he certainly wasn't running out of ideas, as further releases like 'South Saturn Delta' and 'Valleys Of Neptune' show. They're still finding recordings from the seemingly never-ending studio sessions that all but dominated the last year or so of his life today - they're not all good, but they're not all bad either.

' You have to go crazy. Craziness is like heaven.'

As a live act The Jimi Hendrix Experience (featuring Noel Redding on bass and John 'Mitch' Mitchell on drums) hit the ground running with a series of early club gigs in around London. Manager Chas Chandler invited the great and the good from the music industry including virtually every name guitarist in the country, all of whom witnessed a live performer who had paid more than enough dues in more than enough backing bands and was not about to let his chance to take the spotlight pass him by. His showmanship quickly became the stuff of legend, and again we all know the story - playing the guitar with his teeth, behind his head, using tricks picked up over years on the so-called 'chitlin circuit'. To me the most remarkable thing is not just what he did, but how he did it - watch this version of 'Hey Joe' and see if you agree with me that none of it ever looks any effort to him, as if it's all just part of how he plays. He apparently grew to hate it, but it rarely if ever looks like it to me. There are several live DVD's available if you've not seen it for yourself - the Monterey set established him in The U.S.A. and is high on pyrotechnics (it's a bit of a shame that 'Wild Thing' is probably the best known number as he really could do so much more than set fire to a guitar!) while the Woodstock footage has less showmanship but some of his most celebrated playing including the infamous rendition of 'The Star Spangled Banner'. Great stuff.

'I've been imitated so well I've heard people copy my mistakes.'

In the 1960's the electric guitar was still a comparatively new instrument, and there were people around that were extending the sonic possibilities - Jeff Beck and Pete Townshend were both using distortion and feedback, The Beatles were recording backward guitars and Eric Clapton had stunned British guitarists with his work on the seminal 'Bluesbreakers' album. Hendrix did all of these things and more, armed only with what today would be seen as simple, even primitive equipment - a Marshall stack, a Fender Stratocaster turned upside down to accommodate his left handed playing (different than anybody else again) and the few effect pedals that were on the market at the time. Electronics genius Roger Mayer certainly contributed to the story by modifying his pedals and building a few exclusive devices for him, but that on it's own wouldn't have given him his sound. That came from him and him alone, and remains to this day a sound that many strive for but few ever approach. And then there's the playing itself, with elements of blues, pop, soul, jazz, rock'n'roll, even country picking, but sounding nothing like any of them but somehow sounding like all of them at the same time. Again, watch the footage - it always looks to me as though the music comes straight out from within him through the guitar, to such an extent that it's sometimes hard to tell where the instrument ends and the man begins. Does that sound pretentious? Watch and see if you agree. And here's something to ponder - next time you see a picture or a bit of film of him, have a close look at his hands. They're big. Very big. He could literally wrap his right hand around the guitar neck. If ever a man was built to play the guitar, it was Jimi Hendrix.

'If I'm free it's because I'm always running.'

So, 40 years after he left the building what are we left with? Recordings that still sound futuristic today, live performances that have literally become the stuff of legend, and a body of work that continues to captivate old fans and win over new converts with ease. It has been analysed so closely that it's almost devoid of any mystery, although of course the one great mystery remains - how did he do it? We all try to get the sound, but nobody ever really does. We all try to play the notes, but they never come out quite how he played them. And no one - no one - can get the feel of his best playing, where it sounds as though he's striving for notes that only he can play with a sound that only he can hear, making music that sounds like nothing else before or since. To me he was the man that the electric guitar was invented for, and it doesn't get any better than that.

'The story of life is quicker than the wink of an eye
The story of love is hello and goodbye
Until we meet again...'

Monday, September 13, 2010

Making poetry history

Here are a couple of photographs from Saturday night - I'm the (ahem) blurred action figure wearing an ill-advised hat in the top one, while the second one was taken in the last minutes of the evening and features on the left T.V Smith, in the middle John Otway and on the right Attila The Stockbroker. I'd imagine that Attila is holding the remains of a pint of 30th anniversary ale...

More about that in a minute - first things first though, and it was a roaringly good evening at The Horns in Watford on Thursday when Wilko Johnson entertained a capacity crowd as only he can. I sometimes wish that I'd kept a list of gigs that I've been to for many reasons not least to see how many times I've seen Wilko play - I must be up in the three figure area now, and I've never come away disappointed. Some relatively rare performances ('Western Plain', 'Hello Josephine') sat next to the expected classics, and the addition of Jerry Tremaine on harmonica and vocals for 'Twenty Yards Behind' (only harp on that one) and 'Roxette' pushed the level of mayhem up even further. Excellent stuff as always. Support came from The People's Republic Of Mercia (great name!) who went down well but who I found to be a bit ramshackle in places - and it wasn't good ramshackle if you know what I mean... still they were working that night and I wasn't so they must be doing something right! And The Horns are definitely doing something right - it's a great venue that's always good to go to. When I'm there I often think that I'd like to live nearer to it or somewhere like it given the standard (and indeed the diversity) of the acts that play there, and then I remember that I should occasionally be doing a few things other than watching people playing music, like playing some myself...

2 gigs with the mighty T.V. Smith this weekend, and the first one was a real one-off - a show at The Ropetackle Centre in Shoreham to celebrate 30 years since Attila The Stockbroker played his first gig. Joining Attila (both solo and with his band Barnstomer) and T.V. on the bill was the incomparable John Otway, and when we arrived everyone was present and correct - well everyone except the soundman, who it turned out had been told that the gig was on Sunday. Doh! After 4 soundchecks in 20 minutes (that's the way to do it! Or is it..?) the show began with a solo set from Attila before T.V. and myself took to the stage. Halfway through the first song 'Tomahawk Cruise' I realise my vocal isn't in the monitor and T.V. can't hear his guitar (it went off altogether during 'In The Arms Of My Enemy' - I turned mine off and we played acoustically until his guitar came back on) so maybe our soundcheck was a bit too rushed after all... still we go down very well, and with Attila joining us on violin for our last 3 songs ('One Chord Wonders', 'Lion And The Lamb' and 'Runaway Train Driver') our set ends to tumultuous applause. It's good when that happens! After a short interval there was a suitably surreal set from John Otway including excerpts from 'Cheryl - The Rock Opera' with Attila, before a final set with Barnstormer bought a cracking evening to a close. Just before we left I happened to find myself in the dressing room with the 3 stars of the show, and in what was a rather unusual move from your humble narrator, I took the photo that you can see at the start of this posting. I never do things like that! Still, it turned out rather well don't you think? Oh and I'm told that the 144 pints of Anniversary Ale that were on sale at the event sold out in 1 hour and 43 minutes - Attila had predicted that it would take 4 minutes more...

And Sunday night's show at The Load of Hay turned out rather well too, with our 23 (23!) song set running from the start of T.V.'s career with The Adverts and The Explorers through his solo albums (including this song) right up to the present day, finishing with the as-yet-unrecorded 'Man Down' then encoring with some old Adverts favourites. We're playing in Croydon next month with Dave Sharp - that should be a good night. And the evening had a real ale moment of it's own - East offered Upper Cut bassman Terry a drink who asked for 'a half of Doom'; East replied ' would you like DO or OM?' He went for OM... I forgot to wear the afore-mentioned hat (which is becoming something of a trademark at these gigs, albeit an accidental one) until halfway through the show, and T.V. earned the undying gratitude of the bar staff by removing a spider from the kitchen. They all agreed that he can come back anytime - so that's how you get gigs!

Monday, September 06, 2010

Diddy wah diddy

Shameless self-publicity time again, and I'm trying desperately to think of a vaguely witty way to use the word advert in connection with T.V. Smith; I'm failing dramatically so I'll just say that I'm playing 2 gigs with the man himself this coming weekend - Saturday we're at The Ropetackle Centre in Shoreham (Attila The Stockbroker's 30th anniversary gig with John Otway - excellent!) and Sunday we're at The Load of Hay in Uxbridge. Details are on T.V.'s website, hope you can make it to either or indeed both of them.

Since the last posting Morrissey has gone mad again, this time about the Chinese - not quite this mad though! Meanwhile East, Big Tel and myself watched a DVD of the Broadway stage show (what could our seemingly sudden interest in musical theatre signify?) of 'Rent', and very good it was too. I also spent a highly enjoyable afternoon in a rehearsal studio running through a variety of rock classics with some familiar faces (more about that another time) and The Chicago Blues Brothers played at a very peculiar venue in Arundel...

Back in the 1980's there was a club called The Carioca in Worthing. No, I hadn't heard of it either although I wouldn't have minded being there on this night... Mike and Graham used to go there all the time, not least on the disco nights when the likes of Tony Blackburn, Peter Powell and David 'Kid' Jensen used to appear there. I know this because I read it on the posters on the walls of the barn that we played in on Saturday night, which the afore-mentioned Mike and Graham had decked it out to be a painstaking recreation on the original club for their joint 50th birthday party. Tracy returns on backing vocals, Chris is on keyboards and Eric is on drums but other than that it's the same line-up as last week's Abingdon show, and soundcheck is more of a rehearsal for Eric's benefit with medleys figuring prominently. Our first set is at 9.30, then it's a set from 'Radio 1's David Hamilton' (that's what it said on the poster!) before our second set at 11.30. There's time for a visit to the burger van that's been laid on for the occasion (oh yes!) before our first set which get a fair bit of dancing despite the odd hiccup here and there on stage . David Hamilton comes on while I'm queuing up at the bar, he wearing a gold lame jacket and plays 'Blame It On The Boogie' and it's suddenly 1978 at The Carioca Club on Saturday night with 40 and 50-something men and women turning into their teenage selves again (I'll leave you to think about that for a minute shall I?) amid much dancefloor merriment. By the time we're back on for our second set the free bar has had quite an effect on proceedings, and we encore with 'Gimme Some Loving' to more than a little hysteria. Sad to say it had also turned some of the revellers into inconsiderate imbeciles, at least judging by the number of beer bottles on or around various group members cars - or maybe they were inconsiderate imbeciles anyway? A depressing end to an otherwise enjoyable evening. I blame it on the boogie myself.

Must go - I've got some T.V. Smith songs to re-learn. That's more like it.