Pretty much all musicians know that the wedding business is one of the few near-goldmines left in the trade. I’m not revealing anything not known to anyone who has, or whose close friend has, planned their own or someone else’s wedding when I say that wedding musicians (like wedding everything elses) tend to cost about twice as much per head as ‘ordinary’ function / covers players (who are already, of course, earning something like double what you can generally get for playing original music) and get fed into the bargain – at the price, of course, of having web presence, professional video, audio and photo promotional material, slick service-provider presentation and professionalism, and generally being a business on the same level as the caterers and the waiting staff.
For rather much the same reason, spots falling vacant in existing wedding acts are scarce. It’s likely to be one of the last things a musician holds onto before ditching performing altogether. So there isn’t much opportunity for getting into the wedding business except a new act (for which, perhaps surprisingly, the market seems to have almost limitless capacity). You could go solo, of course. But that would certainly mean a car of my own and, for me personally, backing tracks; the one of which depends on a test I have yet to pass, and the other, as discussed in my last post, is a direction I am seriously loathe to take. Which then means either forming something of your own, or getting lucky on being able to be in on the ground floor in a new group of someone else’s devising. I made an attempt at forming a wedding string quartet (a safe product line by any standards!) back in Oxford – and discovered certain difficulties both with the supply of classical pros north of London and south of Birmingham, and with, a couple of years ago I will stress, my people management (as opposed to practical organisation / administration) skills.
I will come back to the ‘in on the ground floor’ theme at some point in the future, but for now: enter The Mechanics. Not ‘Mike and’, as we get asked an average of twice per gig.
As far as I was concerned, this started off as a one-off job: audio recording and filming (miming to the audio just recorded) with an acoustic trio in Aylesbury, expenses covered. What the renownedly laconic communication style of guitarist and musical entrepreneur Gary Mullins didn’t immediately reveal to my unschooled eyes was that I was in fact going to produce the promo material for a new function act (joining his managerial roster of a plugged-in, static ‘Mumford-style’ act and the fairly self-explanatory Ukes of Hazzard).
Anyway, material was duly recorded (with some surprise at my willingness to do a take sight-reading from the parts Gary helpfully provided for the showreel) and filmed (with some deliberate featuring of the Ash 70s-style biiiig hair that waves in the wind if I head-toss enough) in March (before I headed off to play a St Patrick’s gig, as chance would have it). And there the matter rested for some time and it had made its own natural way to the back of my mind.
In mid-July, I suddenly realised that we had a gig in the diary and I had no idea where it was, what I should be bringing or what the repertoire might be! Cue some chasing and planning, and a lot of YouTubing songs and googling chords to quickly get my head more or less around the set list (which was then significantly altered by singer-guitarist Mark to bring it into line with his fronting repertoire. Such is life, as I find myself saying too often lately). The key point rapidly turned out to be ‘chords and vocals will be covered; find other useful things to do on whatever instrument seems appropriate’.
On Friday 27 July, fresh or anything but from gigging with the Pogue Traders the night before (see a couple of posts back), I made my way into the Weald. Mark and I then attempted to track down the wedding venue by means of a postcode and the not exactly reassuring name The Lost Village of Dode. Mark’s satnav lost track of the internet a couple of junctions away from where it believed it to be, and led to us missing a turning, ending up at a farm and having to make the decidedly Indiana Jones-esque statement ‘We’re looking for the Lost Village of Dode. Can you help us?’ Fortunately the local subjected to this line of questioning knew what we were aiming for and was able to correct us, leading us to a medieval church surrounded by green space and benches (and, when we arrived, a fish and chip van and mobile bar) and overlooking a small stone circle. The gates read the slightly more plausible ‘Dode Church’, although elements of the fantastical re-inserted themselves with the emergence from the church as we were getting ready of two people carrying a communion set (chalice and patten) and two owls – the larger (barn or tawny, I forget) having apparently been charged with bringing in the rings, and the Scops (hilariously expressive eyebrows) brought along because he resents being left on his own.
A bit of extra discussion (particularly around the song requested for the first dance) had led to me letting myself in for bringing mandolin as well as violin – besides twangly melodic interjections, this offers the possibility of essentially strumming through chords in songs which have no discernible lead instrument in the original! In the end, I threw caution to the winds and took the viola as well, not least because its extra low end and ‘pocket cello’ timbre in that lower register lend themselves to playing oh-so-heartfelt sustained root notes in classic acoustic rep like Oasis ballads. I had also, for little more than curiosity’s sake, brought along the then new foot tambourine.
To clarify, a clarification I only acquired at this gig, the Mechanics are a completely unplugged group – we can perform anywhere with enough space to stand. I find this refreshing, after so much time enforcedly dependent on PA systems and on monitors; there is freedom to move and to make eye contact, you can be confident that the audience are hearing what you’re hearing (and that if you’re deliberately trying to make a noise so gentle it can’t be heard more than two feet away, you’re actually succeeding) and balance is under your direct control, rather than limited by amplification and heavily reliant on the decision-making of the sound engineer, if there even is one. In some senses it is popular music done a little like classical, or like acoustic jazz, and that appeals to me. My own contributions, often conjuring parts out of little more than chord progressions and being looked to take most of the solos, also implicitly improvised, certainly has some jazz-like qualities, though the chord progressions are generally much more straightforward! As to the roaming aspect, so far we have only been expected to change station every few numbers – perhaps the day will come when we are asked to perform literally on the move, and it wouldn’t be impossible, but I will happily defer that extra element of multitasking!
With two gigs under our belt, response from clients and guests has been uniformly positive, and they have been in general fun, relaxed gigs (and, harking back to the opening of this post, ones with nice profit margins). The foot tambourine has seemingly earned its place as a much more portable and rather less obtrusive alternative to Marcus Mumford’s rabble-rousing bass drum from fronting; the mandolin is certainly a useful variation, and I’ve even been prevailed upon (over initial resistance) to play a couple of solos on it; and the viola, while not essential, is quite literally nice to have. I imagine the number of largely outdoor weddings going on will taper down quite rapidly after the end of August, but it has been a good start and advance bookings for events in 2019 and even 2020 are already being sought by some forward-thinking planners, so hopefully we can put rather more dates in the diary over next ‘wedding season’. In the meantime, there’s nothing to stop us roaming indoors if you just don’t want the sheer volume and ‘on a stage’ isolation of a conventional function band …