Thursday, July 13, 2017

"There was a young woman from Bath..."


Say what you will about the Victorians, but they got stuff done. Take Nelson, the oldest city in the south island of New Zealand. The geographical centre of EnZed, bordered by mountains, with little or no arable land to its name, the plucky Victorians decided to settle there anyway, what with it having a nice harbour and that. I mean, the weather’s nice and everything, but after a while you’re going to need to grow stuff, and the market for Marlborough Sauvignion Blanc wasn’t as big back then as it is now. Still, that harbour, eh? What that harbour needed was a lighthouse, and so in 1861 the good folk of the Nelson Provincial Council bought one. Sixty feet high, made of cast iron, and only the second permanent lighthouse in the whole of New Zealand. Being Victorians, they had it built in England and then shipped half way across the world in order to be erected on the treacherous Boulder Bank. Obviously at this point though, the boat bringing the disassembled tower had to negotiate the entrance to the harbour without the aid of a lighthouse…
Back in the present day Mr Wendell, La Mulley and myself had gathered in The Snug with the idea of writing some songs. I had a riff which sounded like it might work on the fiddle (which would also help disguise its origins as badly-played version of the intro to a song by the band Heart*) which we played around with for a bit and then bashed out a quick reference demo, resolving to get back to it later. At our next session – hosted by Mr Wendell. I believe – we added a middle section, tinkered with the start and boldly resolved to eschew the traditional verse-verse-chorus-middle 8-verse-chorus formula rightly so beloved of songmongers everywhere and go with an A-B-C-B-A structure which maybe wasn’t right and proper in and of itself, but which felt like the sort of thing we should probably do in the circumstances. The only part of the jigsaw we hadn’t located in the box were any lyrics. The hive mind decided that the feel of the piece was stormy. Possibly a storm at sea, a traditional folk trope which might usefully incorporate the 12/8-ness of the verse in a swirling, discombobulating maelstrom of emotion. And that.

La Mulley and I have had conversations in the past about the folk tradition, and how many, many ballads would have had much foreshortened narratives if there had been better healthcare. Stories regarding any number of fair maidens out for a rove all of a May morning who have been deceived as to their lover’s true identity merely by them being all in disguise are legion. Provision of decent optometry and prescription bifocals would wipe out the provenance of most of these tales at a stroke. I’d been listening to Paul Mosley’s The Butcher a lot around this time. The album features a storm and a lighthouse as twin pillars introducing a splendid folk opera concept album. Thinking back to my foray to Aotearoa the previous year, “What if…” I suggested “A young fellow from, say, Bath were to be enjoined to help transport a construction to the other side of the world, promising his faithful young fiancĂ©e that he would send for her as soon as he was established in the exciting new land of opportunity..?”
 
Once Helen had constructed a beautifully poignant narrative, we corralled the rest of the group and set about arranging the setting for it. Parts were tweaked, suggestions made, instruments abandoned, capos surrendered; indeed all of this was still going on when we were called to do some recording in the latest of a string of roomy chapels – this one belonging to the formidably-named order of the Strict and Particular Baptists in Swavesey – up to and including the tea break where we figured that we nearly had it down, but not quite nearly enough. The arrangement was all there, and Helen was singing clear as a bell, but in one corner Wendell was having trouble with the bodhran-inspired twelve string part, and in the other my attempted Keith Richards-louche power chords were dropping like discarded skull-rings all over the place. In a moment of quiet desperation I suggested that we swap instruments, and immediately it became apparent that his proto-Paul Weller style was going to fit a lot better than mine into that particular pocket. Three takes later, we had it.

Naturally there’s a lot to take in there, with the folk tradition, the reimagining of a real-life story, the working through of the instrumentation and Helen’s brilliant, brilliant lyric, which I can’t read all the way through without getting a little teary even now, even though I know it’s a fiction. So when people ask me what the song’s about, naturally I have only one answer. “It’s about four minutes”.    

 

 
*We would also later discover that Refugee by Tom Petty, Hundred Mile-High City by Ocean Colour Scene, She Never Said by The Church and The Needle and the Damage Done all shared at least some of their DNA with our work, which cheered us all up no end.
 

Much help and inspiration was afforded by the work of B.E. Dickinson, who I’ve never met, but to whom I offer thanks and acknowledgement.  
http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/tei-NHSJ02_05-t1-body1-d2-d5.html    

Monday, July 03, 2017

Smoke gets in your eyes.


After a couple of fallow years, during which time my body has had the opportunity to regenerate and recharge, I am to return to The Maverick Festival (I may have mentioned it in passing previously – here, here and here for example) in order to both curate the newly-installed Travelling Medicine Show stage and to perform as one of The Neighbourhood Dogs – proudly maintaining our tradition of avoiding doing consecutive shows with the same line up after I missed the last one, and with additional guitar and vocal talent supplied by The Artist Formerly Known as Our Glorious Leader, who is chipping in to celebrate that it is ten years since Songs from The Blue House played the very first Mavfest. In the interim, TAFKAOGL has scaled the slippery pole of ambition and adversity to inhabit his current hallowed role as Production Manager for the whole shebang, so he only has time to play a couple of songs before he has to scoot off to locate mandolin strings at four in the morning and chase up BJ Cole’s hotel reservation. Nonetheless, his timely contribution did help shift a couple of copies of the SftBH Live CD which I happened to have on me, so thanks for paying for Sunday evening's barbecue charcoal guys.   
The Dogs’ spot in The Barn is scheduled for eleven in the morning, which is the best slot to have if you have any ambition toward running an actual sound check - which we do - the changeovers between bands at the festival being a series of extraordinarily brief and time-bound operations. We are temporarily stymied in this endeavour as the entire Barn goes dark and quiet. Max on the desk scurries off to locate site electrical major domo Mick, who has already explained to me (with my Medicine Show stage manager’s hat on) that if such a thing were to occur, this would be a grave matter indeed. Thankfully, power is restored after a short delay, and in between subsequent wheelbarrow trips he cheerfully cracks that at least he now knows how long the generator runs on one tank of diesel. The wheelbarrows are loaded to the gunwhales with fuel containers.

The Dogs are set up in good order and since we are constrained rather more by our finish time than when we are supposed to start, we decide to pitch straight into the set and add a couple of songs in the middle if needs be. Fiddly, a man of preparation and order, does not take this news quite as beatifically as we might have hoped, and scurries off to the car park to find his folder of notes and staves. By the time he has returned, it is just shy of our scheduled start time, and we ease into traffic for a lovely, great-sounding set. No disrespect to the gazebo circuit intended, but when we are on a big stage, with the monitors and lights and a willing audience, it turns out that we are quite good at what we do.
Twenty five minutes later I am off back to my perch by the side of the pop-up boutique section of the site, scheduled but not published, where turns from across the programmed stages drop by to give us the three songs they want to play in a stripped-back pressure-free zone tucked away (conveniently for me) just by the bar, across from the Coffee Link cart, and just downwind of Smokey Jones’ bespoke hand-crafted hog and brisket truck (wherein, ironically, prominently displayed is a stern ‘No Smoking’ sign). The three song theory is so that while bands in the barn are loading in and line-checking, our friends in the audience can stretch their legs, drop by the paddock and spend a short while looking at something unexpected rather than watch a couple of guys in black t-shirts plugging stuff in. It’s an inspired idea, and resembles nothing so much as speed-dating for artists and onlookers alike. I have a couple of questions for my production manager. “What does the button marked 'pad' do? Okay, thanks. On more thing – should the little blue lights on the DI boxes be flashing? Okay, cool. And where might the phantom power switch be, exactly? Grand! No, you’re fine, relax, see you later”. He does not look like a relaxed man.    

Between The Barn and The Medicine Show we develop a form of semaphore and signalling shorthand  in order to advise each other as to how close we are to set commencement and closure. The pressure’s slightly more on them since they have bands playing forty minute sets with ten minutes to change over between them, and I am pleased and relieved to be faced with exactly the opposite scenario, which means that at the very least I get adequate opportunities to graze the catering opportunities, which is not always the case for the hard-working festival crew member.  
As always, the turns with the most talent are also the kindest. One might for example forgive Lachlan Bryan*, who had already played a set on the main stage on The Green before pitching up to play for me, for thinking ahead to his lengthy flight back to Australia the next day. Instead, he responded to the awestruck boy congratulating him on his performance with a sprightly “Thanks man – do you play?” When answered in the affirmative he immediately handed over his guitar and hustled the young man off to a nearby bench where he devoted what might have been otherwise considered lucrative merch-signing time to encouraging him to continue to practise. Similarly, festival favourite uncles Police Dog Hogan ensured that the set list grabbed from the front of the stage by a kid who’d clearly been dragged along to a festival of Americana by his parents but had had a Damascene moment  - possibly in the midst of ‘Shitty White Wine’** - was passed around the backstage area and appended with every band member's signature before being returned, when they might more reasonably be concerned with packing away their gear and readying themselves for the long drive home. They didn’t see his face when he got it back, but I did.

An unbilled Christina Martin – not even playing the festival main this year – rocked up like an effervescent Sunday morning tonic and being in equal measure charming, funny and wonderfully talented gave a masterclass in making everyone in the field think she was performing just for them – me included. She was later bitten by a horse. Hugh Murray played a lovely, late-night set under the stars,  Stompin’ Dave Allen patiently and affably helped explore the crackling input issue (that sort of thing tends to get highlighted when you’re miking up a wooden crate atop which a man is about to tap dance whilst playing banjo behind his head). I don’t think either of them suffered subsequent equine-related injuries, but I’ve Googled it and there’s nothing on the wire.                              
As the Sunday sets drew to a close across the site and the stages started shutting down, a few stage wranglers drifted together and swapped personal highlights and lowlights from our scattered vantage points – as they say, twenty feet from stardom. “You know that drummer who was singing along so enthusiastically in (name of group redacted)?” said one. “Before the show, every single member of the band came up to me separately and asked if we could keep him in his monitor but mute him from going out front”.

As I say, the turns with the talent are generally also the kindest to their fans.  

  

*Progenitor of my new favourite sound desk catchphrase regarding echo on the foldback. “Noverb is goodverb”
**”This song has been very kind to us. In the same way that ‘Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep’, say, was good for Middle of the Road”.