Sunday, 13 May 2018

Of Sonic Warfare, Pink Smoke and Fairies

After breakfast on Friday, the day of my hour-long set for the festival I went off to seek Elric of the Dagda, who had seen me through the gate late the previous evening. The Dagda seem to be the security agency of choice these days at Pagan events. Elric had suggested I return in the morning to secure my wristband for the weekend. I found him and he made the necessary introductions to the committee member looking after the box office and with whom I registered my presence. Once strapped into my adhesive wristband (a fetching gold one labelled "Crew & Entertainment") I set off to chat to the music organiser.

Events for Friday
The M.O. was in the music tent and affably introduced me to SoundMan, who apparently had only been on the site long enough to unload the speakers, amps, desk and outboard, but nothing was plugged in or strapped down. "Come back at 3," he said. So I did.

In the meantime though, I went back to Camp Marsh for more personal rehearsal and warm-up, wandered round the site greeting old friends and making new ones. Chatting to stall holders who were getting ready for an expected inrush of the hoards, everyone had a tale to tell of the waterlogged swamp that was the site after heavy rain earlier in the week and every single stall holder had got stuck in the marsh when arriving to set up. Arriving the night before in the dark it looks like I actually got off very lightly as I drove round the whole site looking for "my" chosen spot. New arrivals continued to get stuck in their vehicles throughout the festival even after three days of hot sun and the often accompanying fierce wind blowing off the North Sea. On the final day an AA truck arrived in response to a distress call from a member and also became embedded in the marsh. The festival couldn't have been more aptly named, even if this time, perhaps a first in the collective memories of returning punters and long-time organisers, the weather was mostly very hot and sunny.

I watched Vic prepare the Beltane bonfire, destined to be lit with due ceremony an hour before my set and which was, in the spirit of Beltane, to be kept alight for the duration of the festival over the extended weekend. Every time I saw him I had to resist asking, "Is Vic There?" It was difficult. Most of the wood for the fire that was stacked up at the edge of the arena was in the form of old pallets. I couldn't see Vic getting much sleep if he had to look after a fire that was going to burn very quickly. In addition to the blistering sun, there was the stiff breeze to contend with and the fire was going to need lots of feeding once it got going. However, before the ceremony, it was a beautifully arranged pyramid of branches and twigs with sprigs of greenery and floral contributions around the base. What we didn't know at the time was that there was also a surprise ingredient that would produce a mass of pink smoke after a few minutes. Nice touch.

The main marquee and sound stage

Arriving for my soundcheck, there was still rather more setting up of equipment being done than one might have expected after six hours prep time. There were also gremlins in the signal chain. In the end my 3pm soundcheck was conducted just as I was due to go on at 5 o'clock. Although there were more speakers and amps than I use, even with my six-piece band on a village green, the set up didn't look massively more complicated than my own. It seems though that the equipment problems were difficult to trace and with appropriate fortitude, courage, panic and (I suspect) embarrassment and irritation SoundMan continued tracing them much of the way through my set. Unfortunately one outcome of his dedication was that I had no idea from which of the six monitors surrounding me I would be receiving the next blast of sound which took a variety of forms including me, any combination of the noises I was creating (except my snare drum which seemed totally absent from any cocktail), complete silence, a blast of ear-destroying feedback or a level of hiss one might expect from a generously large knot of snakes. As a wearer of hearing aids I had no idea what I was hearing and how much was my own internal squealing. Of course, the silences between the blasts were doubly confusing when I could not hear some of what I was playing and had no idea how much I was over (or under) compensating. Prima donna that I am I was worried about trying to pick the strings too hard and tearing a nail on thumb or fingers. I could pick up a hint of my kick drum from the sound issuing from the front of house speaker arrays, but my guitar and snare drum were sucked into the air long before I could hear them. That was unnerving, specially the more so because when practising at Camp Marsh with no amplification whatever I was perfectly well-balanced ... albeit admittedly only as far as the sound was concerned. The whole experience took me back to being a seventeen year-old opening for the Pink Fairies in a reverberant municipal drill hall. In a spirit of loving awareness, solidarity and cooperation I had agreed to play, severe vertigo notwithstanding, from a narrow balcony halfway along and up (very much up) a side wall between the floor and a very high arched roof in order that the crew could set about their business of preparing the stage. After working on my playing and writing for a couple of years and having plucked up the courage to begin to sing at folk club floor spots it was an honour I took very seriously being asked to open for such a popular band. That memorable evening in 1972 proved to be the end of my attempts to perform as a solo singer/guitarist/songwriter in any forum for the next thirty or forty years. Had I realised that setting up the (at the time) loudest band in the land involved a drum tech nailing Russell Hunter's kit to the stage during my set I may have been less cooperative about performing halfway up a wall with only a couple of microphones and very long leads daisy-chained into a domestic hi-fi more used (and thoroughly inadequate at that) for providing what we used to refer to as "sounds" before, between and after the live performances. I wouldn't have needed much of the stage for just me and my acoustic guitar and crew might have realised someone was trying to sing. At least the guerrilla percussionista later apologised, "Sorry mate, I thought it was a record playing," which could have been taken as a compliment of sorts I suppose.

Since, as the first act on, and with the majority of people on site yet to twig that any entertainment in the music marquee had begun, the audience could be totalled in spectacularly modest numbers. Most of the listening audience present were friends, friends of friends and their miscellaneously related family members anyway. A few songs into the set I asked SoundMan to stop putting me through the P.A. altogether. I announced to the audience that anyone who wanted to hear the rest of the performance would be welcome to bring their chairs to the front of the stage (the plan being to continue without any further assistance from electrically operated equipment). In those milliseconds of thought I also considered taking myself to the audience rather than making them move towards me, but I had already tried out a few seats in the auditorium and had already experienced the joy of gently sinking into the marsh. Putting myself at risk of such further distraction was plainly daft, so the audience kindly came to me. I think the same number were still above ground by the end of the set. Naturally enough I was berating myself for behaving like a prima donna, but playing three instruments simultaneously whilst remembering the strings of lyrics and chord changes with which I challenge myself requires at least a minimal degree of concentration. Unfortunately I was failing to attain anything close to such a level of focus. I had a bit of an insight into how Manuel Noriega may have felt being confronted by Delta Force during his days of sanctuary within the Nunciature of The Holy See as his final days in Panama drew to a close. For the record I have no ambition to become either a military dictator or a soldier in an invading army.

People were very kind about my performance. I suspect Words may have been had elsewhere. Over the next few days I compensated by treating friends and victims to guerrilla performances of my own, which turned out to be very intimate and rather less fraught affairs - much closer to the living room performances I would like to undertake once I finish recording the new album. Some of these were thank yous in exchange for bartered services, like for Amy who showed me how to make a dreamcatcher, braided my hair and treated me to a couple of baby dreads.

Photograph by Helen Cragg
Marshlander plays for a little gathering at Amy's stall in the main arena.

No comments:

Post a Comment