Friday, 6 November 2015

Of Having A Whole Evening

So the gig that was threatened with the post-cold laryngitis has been and gone. It was a good experience and there is a masochistic part of me that suggests I should simply do more of these to get used to playing in such situations.

It is not often I have a whole evening to myself. I don’t mean that in the sense of being alone and of having nothing else to do, but a solo gig with no support.  I played in the bar of a local theatre where, each month, a friend - the keyboard player - organises performances, mostly by local performers or performers with local connections.  The standard is always high for something so in danger of feeling parochial - which it never does.  Consequently, it was a privilege to be accepted for a booking.  This was one of those gigs I chased.  I asked if I could play.  The keyboard player seemed unsure but after he had heard me he was more at ease with the idea.

Marshlander at The Angles 22 October 2015  3 by Martin Bright
Beret with singer and guitar.
I don’t know if I am a natural performer or not.  I suspect not.  I know my children think I am a show-off and love to be in the glare of the spotlight, but little could be further from the truth.  Despite often finding myself the front man in a ceilidh, an event with large numbers of children, the organiser of a folk night or, in recent years, a solo songwriter and aspiring singer of songs, I don’t like being in the limelight.  I do what has to be done, but always heave a huge sigh of relief when the gig is over.  In the time leading up to a booking I wonder why I put myself through such torture.  I have many times arrived at the point where I may have practised a song more than two hundred times and am still making mistakes. As Marshlander, my performances are like a carefully lined up set of dominoes.  Should my brain decide to take a holiday in the middle of a song the whole lot is in danger of falling over.  I used to tremble with nerves before a performance, but that doesn’t happen so much these days.  Maybe it’s time to take out the recorder again and do some serious work on that Bach flute sonata I come back to every few years.  Trembling nerves for a recorder player are very unrewarding.  Trembling affects breath control and fingers.  The slightest nuance of breathing changes the sound dramatically and the cross-fingerings can be quite tricky in allegro passages.  At the beginning of a gig these days, rather than trembling, it more often feels that my hands, my feet or my voice do not belong to me.  I try to find chords with someone else’s clumsier fingers.  I know the fingers belong to someone else because they don’t feel like my fingers.  My voice forgets all the useful things I have tried to get it to do through practice and to me sounds thin and feels strained.  The breathing goes and, frequently, my larynx feels tighter and will not allow me to sing in the lower keys in which I have practised.  During the middle of a song one foot or the other pings my brain with some unaccustomed nerve responses and I fall over the rhythm - even when I am certain I know what I am doing and should be able to do it on auto-pilot.  This is all very frustrating and can deliver embarrassing consequences.  The old adage that an amateur practises until he gets it right while a professional practises until he can’t get it wrong comes to mind every time.  the demons of doubt kick in - amateur, amateur, amateur, who do you think you are pretending to be a singer, a player, a songwriter?

There must be a reason why I put myself through this.  I’m not sure what it is, but firstly, I suspect the vanity I reference in “For Pete’s Sake" is involved.  Secondly, there is an element of challenging myself to see if I can do it - this time.  Thirdly, although I don’t want to feel like a man on a mission, I don’t know of any other people who tackle in song some of the subjects I try to explore.  There is a message that needs to be shared and if no one else will do it I suppose it has to be me - vanity again.  Conscience won't allow me just to let it go.  It intrigues me, but nearly every time I sing, for example, “Circumcision” at least one man will reveal his status to me.  I can think of few, if any other situations that might cause this subject to be raised.  Still fewer are the times a man might begin to explore how he feels about having been circumcised.  These can be people I have known for years or complete strangers.  If something I sing unlocks an idea for someone isn’t that what I set out to do?

Marshlander at The Angles 22 October 2015 by Martin Bright
Singer, guitar and foot drum kit.
I arrived at the venue, the charming Angles Theatre in Wisbech, in good time to unload my p.a. and go and park the van.  The Angles is not blessed with good get-in-ability.  There is an area in front of the building, which I am sure I recall once allowed sensible and safe access, which has now been blocked by concrete planters.  One is forced to park on a narrow road, which at night can be risky.  P. had cam he o’er frae France the day before to see the gig and to offer moral support so it was helpful to have someone to keep an eye on things at street level while I humped my heavy load into the building.  John the barman was as friendly and helpful as ever and indulged me in allowing P. and me to move the furniture around so I could set up the p.a along a wall where I wouldn’t have to peer round a structurally significant supporting pillar.

The “Angles Whatever” evenings, of which this was one, are interesting.  As mentioned, the performances are generally excellent quality fare which, for almost inexplicable reasons fail to attract audiences in any significant numbers.  Even for someone with as much of a cult following as Dan Donovan, last month’s event did not fill the bar. I have played there in the past with a five-piece band and we have outnumbered the audience by more than two to one.  It is not just the Whatever evenings that have audiences smaller than they should be, but for many years a local farmer (himself a serious rock music fan) has put on a weekly performance in Elme Hall Hotel at his Sunday Rock and Blues events.  Once again he somehow finds acts of excellent quality, often a band will be on their way back from a Saturday night gig somewhere in the area and a Sunday afternoon fits the itinerary perfectly.  The acoustics and ambience in the Elme Hall ballroom may not be your typical sweaty rock dungeon (I’m thinking of Stamford’s excellent Voodoo Lounge or any number of places in London), but really one might have hoped for greater audience interest.  As the Facebook page might have it - Wisbech, oh dear!  I was really hoping I would not outnumber the audience.  I was off to a good start, though - the presence of my boyfriend made the numbers start out even and if I counted John the barman ...

The keyboard player - the criminally underestimated Ivan Garford - arrived.  While he may organise the evenings, he usually has a gig of his own somewhere else and hasn’t been able to attend a Whatever for months.  Tonight he had sacrificed a school concert featuring his son - a sacrifice indeed.  Other friends began to drift in too including Neil Cousin - singer/songwriter, Dan Donovan - singer/songwriter/cult status musician/photographer/film-maker/renaissance man; three members of The John Preston Tribute Band (including John himself - songwriter/singer/visionary/activist; Mark Fawcett - singer/songwriter/guitarist of great talent/sound engineer; Les Chappell - songwriter/ lifelong musician having a cult following of his own and sound engineer); percussionist Martin Bright …  I knew everyone in the audience and have made music with them all except one.  I don’t know what it means that there was no one else there.  All men, no women - it was another boys' night out.  I suppose many people find it tougher to play to other musicians, but these were also people I count among my dearest friends and I was moved almost to tears to see them there.  It was very intimate and I just had to hope that I could deliver the goods.  Had P. arrived a few days earlier he would have supervised my rehearsal schedule and made sure I was ready.  Instead of P. I only had laryngitis for company.

So, the performance?  The biggest problem (apart from rehearsing efficiently) was in deciding which songs to leave out.  It may not sound much of an achievement, but I am pleased that in the five years I have been writing again I have composed a repertoire that is more than enough for a two-hour performance.  The audience was wonderful.  They clapped and vocalised with enthusiastic support and everyone listened intently.  I couldn't have asked for better.  It all felt very intimate.  Afterwards comments were positive and Les in particular with his decades of musical experience of performing on stages and televisions all over the world made some kind and helpful observations.  It is good to know I can manage a two-hour show on my own and now I know I want to get better at doing this performing thing.  This would be more possible if the opportunities were there more often.  I don't feel enthusiastic about organising them though, so I suppose I will have to rely on more open-mic events and bothering people for some playing time.  The intimacy of this gig reminded me of when, a few years ago, several of us got together to do a living-room tour to promote a cd we had recorded to raise funds for, and awareness of, a local environmental campaign.  Since then I have been of the opinion that living room gigs are my favourite milieu.  In order to make them anything like viable I think I need a cd to sell.  I guess I shall have to get round to recording something.  Recording is a subject for a whole different blog post.  I always put it off because I find the enormity of the task so daunting.  I think I recorded percussion parts for Neil Cousin's latest cd a couple of years ago and his cd is still not finished.  He has been recording that at the wonderful Grange Farm Studio with the assistance of talented and watchful engineer, Isi Clarke.  I know I could use the studio myself, but I think I would probably want to record on my boat - just to see if I can.  That means a lot of reorganisation.  Plenty of excuses for procrastination.  I have bought a new studio microphone though.  Maybe the cogs are grinding.

For the sake of completeness the set list for the Whatever gig was:

Feeling Disordered
Be Home Soon
For Pete’s Sake
The Ballad of Thomas Lewis
In Soho
Say I’m Sexy
Downham Market Monday Morning Blues
Pansy Potter

Blame It On Me
Fighting For Me
Never Say Never
Dear Mr Carter
In Your Place
Obstacle Race

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