Over the four days 26–29 July, I performed in three new contexts for me (and one very familiar one: a Kindred Spirit duo gig, this time in a Royal British Legion which seemed remarkably indistinguishable from sports and social, working men’s or Conservative / Liberal clubs English suburbia over). There will be appropriate times later to come back to my foray into free improvisation and a new function group, so I shall confine this post to the first gig.
Some while previously I had answered an advert for a mandolin / violin doubler. Those who read this blog frequently or know me personally will know that while I have had a mandolin in my possession for a couple of years, and have known the basics of the instrument and indeed played borrowed ones occasionally in public for quite some while longer, it has never experienced the regularity of use of the viola/violin ‘headline’ pairing of my musical career. Mandolin, like arranging and choral singing, has essentially been a second-string skill.
This is a necessary preamble to discussing the dep gig I had landed myself. It was at a wedding reception in a Brighton music venue (the wedding trade being what it is, musical standards and professionalism would have to be high!); the band were an established Pogues tribute of some substantial reputation, the Pogue Traders; and I was subbing for a mainly mandolin and bouzouki player who doubled on fiddle, rather than the other way round.
I duly started working with the set list and the near-limitless resources of YouTube to supply commercial recordings (mostly, I am glad to say, from the official band ‘channel’, which assuaged my incipient guilt about not buying at least digital downloads of the records!). Like many casual covers musicians, my knowledge of the Pogues’ output was largely confined to ‘Dirty Old Town’, ‘Fairytale of New York’, the collaboration with the Dubliners on ‘The Irish Rover’, and having played generic versions of some traditional songs which they also incorporated into their repertoire. I remain intrigued by this first conscious encounter with ‘Flower of the County Down’, which apart from a repeat of the second half of the tune as a chorus, is note-for-note for the same melody as the English folk song, of a much darker and less rambunctious mood, ‘The Unquiet Grave’, which I have known for years. Neither song entirely suggests the melody’s appropriation as a more (in some senses) modern melody for the hymn words ‘I heard the voice of Jesus say’, though the usual tempo and the structure of the words connect it to unquiet grave rather than Co. Down. But I digress.
The main thing I discovered on proper exploration of the 30-odd songs on the set list was that while the sung portions of Pogues songs are most often fairly straightforward (and not infrequently have no melody instrument line at all), the relief in texture that would normally be occupied by guitar solos is instead taken by jig-type instrumental melodies – some I gather traditional, others original – played for the most part and at breakneck pace by whistle, accordion, banjo (usually) and mandolin / bouzouki / fiddle. (To clarify here: the bouzouki, originally the Greek folk instrument par excellence with three paired courses of strings and usually a very slender body, seems to have been welcomed into Irish folk little later than the acoustic guitar, acquiring along the way a fourth course and a bigger soundbox which may resemble an enlarged mandolin or a petite guitar. It is a very common doubling instrument for mandolin players, though the courses are not tuned in the same pattern as the mandolin’s uniform fifths (at least not normally, though there does not seem to be total consent over a ‘normal’ four-course tuning) and the courses are I believe in octaves rather than unison. The mandolin’s bigger cousins the mandola and mandocello remain rare, though not unheard of, in British folk. I have never played bouzouki and did not attempt it for this gig, using mandolin for most of the numbers played on bouzouki by the regular player.)
It became rapidly evident that the biggest part of the challenge of the gig would be these interpolations – which very often bear little musical connection to the surrounding song, being quite capable of swapping from a straight rock rhythm to a compound time jig / shuffle / hornpipe / triplet one, or shifting from a typical punk handful of chords diatonic major to one of the related minor modes. The challenge was twofold: firstly, work out from the records what the melodies were. Secondly, get my fingers around them on the mandolin at the required speed!
Mandolin being double-strung and fretted, it is considerably harder work on the left hand than violin or viola. Equally, my handling of a bow has been trained off and on over 25 or so years and is in more or less constant practice; neither of them things that can be said of my handling of a plectrum, especially at speed. The flipside is that most melodic passages had doubling from at least one of the other instruments (in an eight-piece line-up pretty closely mirroring that of the original band) for ‘cover’ – which was particularly useful for some runs which I had to despair of playing picked, and resort to plucking the main beats and using pull-offs and hammer-ons to at least suggest the intervening notes.
So involved in this aspect, and in battling the personal issues of June and July at the same time, did I become that I somewhat neglected the songs on which I had to play fiddle (where at least technique was no real hurdle) and was still tidying corners of some of those by the one rehearsal around a week before the gig.
The other hurdle to be overcome was amplification, acoustic playing of my bluegrass-style mandolin having hitherto sufficed for the contexts in which I had used it. After some browsing and consultation with the string instrument repairer / alterer at Hillsound in Hampton, and considering options including buying a cheap ‘electro-mandolin’ (abandoned partly because they almost all come with electric-guitar style magnet pickups, rather than the piezo type which give a much more accurate representation of acoustic sound), I eventually settled on buying a Fishman pickup. Unlike the cousin which I have on my violin (after it initially living on my viola back in pre-pro days), their mandolin one comes only pre-integrated into a complete bridge, and fitting it therefore involves having the instrument re-set up with its, in effect, replacement bridge. I entrusted this task to Hillsound, and had two pleasant surprises as a result. The first was that the minimalist outline of this particular Gretsch mandolin have an uninterrupted taper from the centre to the edge, meaning the supplied ‘Carpenters-style’ (that is, fixed on with screw clamps identical to those on a violin chin-rest) jack socket would not grip; but this had led Nigel to swap it for a surface-mount jack socket and fit that into the side of the instrument, where the sockets on most electro-acoustic guitars are and without any external trailing leads or protruding socket to invite me to damage them moving incautiously! The second was that the instrument benefitted hugely from being set up again by a pro. I had always assumed it was in good shape when it left the factory, and had done no more than lower the adjustable bridge. The instrument came back easier to play, cleaner-toned and capable of being played above the octave fret (something I suspect few players attempt with any regularity on a mandolin!) in perfect tune, as I discovered, along with the impressively clear and acoustic-like sound of the pickup, using it for some low-key studio recording between the alteration work and the Pogue Traders gig.
The proof of the pudding, they say, is in the eating. So how did I fare at this gig? Well, I must give one caveat here, which is that I quite often could not hear much of what I was playing during the gig – an eight-piece band had exhausted the venue’s supply of wedge speakers, and so I was without foldback except what I could glean from other people’s, chiefly the whistle and accordion players stood in front of me. That said, the rest of the band, who all had monitors and could probably hear me a good deal better than I could, were very positive, indeed impressed and congratulatory – and I don’t think that was simply down to my Filthy Spectacula-esque gyrations and roving around what was accessible of the stage during the harder workouts, or to doing the gig on just one rehearsal, though both were certainly factors in seeming ‘a cut above’. I was also to have opportunity at another gig a couple of days later to establish that all that time spent on mastering Pogues instrumental breaks from record had made me substantially more fluent as a mandolinist in general, including playing by ear and improvising. But that is another blog post.