London Viola Player, Violinist & Arranger For Hire

The cashless economy

Caravan Circus were out and about on Saturday, playing the opening set of a broadly jazz-themed night at Luna in Leytonstone.

(No, not just drinking, despite apparent photographic evidence.)

On the plus side: we were given an hour to play in and allowed to overrun somewhat, the changeover times were hugely generous, and there were a reasonable number in the audience by the end of the set. On the minus side: We were told to start at 6:30, at which point there might have been more people in the band than the crowd (especially if you refuse to include the bar staff); and we were playing for two free drink tokens each plus a jug passed round to collect tips. Now there was something quite nice about playing a gig that didn’t have a door charge and opened onto the street – a certain sort of Continental café / boulevard culture rather than a rigid division between passing by and having paid to get in and hear properly (and then feeling effectively stuck in for the evening). And I don’t as such mind the playing for jug thing – it’s basically just busking with a PA, better weather protection if needed and a bar to keep punters around longer … However, thin audience numbers (and perhaps an ongoing squeeze on individual spending power?) meant we collected £35 between four of us, which is not exactly going to enable me to start paying into a pension scheme any time soon.

We were followed by another roughly jazz manouche band (I think the more loosely we can choose to define this term the better, in the interests of avoiding either stultifying stylistic slavishness, ethno-cultural exclusivity or cries of cultural appropriation … ), Hot Swing Bohème. I had barely started packing away when their vocalist-frontwoman Alisa, a petite blonde who I’m told is Dutch, though I didn’t pick up an accent at all, approached me with an opening gambit something along the lines of ‘You’re great! Can I steal you? put you in a car boot and take you away?’. This was to become a running gag as the evening progressed!

During changeover and their setup, I was hanging around, spending my second drink token, and buying a quality meal deal from the Tesco down the road (apparently we would have been fed as well as watered, but the manager who would have created the food was on the Continent – which also created an initial misunderstanding over timings that was down to the gap in time zone between her creating the calendar and her shift manager in the UK viewing it!), then deciding I would stay and watch / listen to the next set – it was still quite early, and I could probably do with keeping an ear out for jazz manouche tips and tricks in general!

Like us, Hot Swing Bohème had shed their drummer for the evening (it turned out they share him with the Tiger Lillies, to whom my old band the Filthy Spectacula are fairly regularly compared). That left them as a trio: Alisa on vocals, guitarist Ed (playing what looked like the very spit of a classic Maccaferri, but was apparently actually made for him), and wonderfully named Czech bassist Wratislav, using the most unusual bass guitar I’ve seen in use possibly ever: a fretless five-string semi-acoustic, with a bung clearly made with and for it to its unusually shaped soundhole, for avoiding feedback when playing plugged in.

Inevitably, their repertoire choices were swayed by being a vocal-led group (Caravan Circus, with vocals an optional doubling by two of the instrumentalists, probably do at least 50% instrumentals, mostly Django Reinhardt compositions led by guitar), both in the direction of the Great American Songbook and of significantly ‘hot’ interpretations of European chanson material, some of it of decidedly un-swing origin! It took me most of the way through their set to realise Ed was using what (see an earlier post) I’ll call the ‘Carl Orr’ technique regularly: playing a fairly neutral accompaniment during the vocal opening chorus, into a looper pedal so that it could provide harmonic (and indeed rhythmic) context for a guitar solo in another chorus. Of course, as he commented to me afterwards, it isn’t as responsive and flexible an accompaniment as a second guitarist reacting in real time to the lead lines; but then again after a certain number of gigs it takes less share of the band’s earnings than another musician…

Maybe it was just because the only seat I’d been able to find was pretty much front and centre of a small venue (and I do quite enough standing up busking, gigging, practising and on busy trains and Tubes thank you), or maybe it was my look of real attention, but the notion of carrying out some of the ‘stealing’ of me on the spot spread through the band. Wratislav had the most laid-back approach or the highest estimation of my impromptu abilities, simply miming violin playing and beckoning to me between numbers. Alisa, perhaps a little more intent on keeping control of the situation, instead rummaged forward through her folder during a guitar solo and held a sheet out towards me. Little did she realise that the number (‘Bist Du Mei Mir Schon’) was completely unknown to me, and my ‘sure, let’s do it’ nod was actually just directed at the fact she was working from a full lead sheet with chords and the melody notated, meaning I knew I could fudge it reasonably! Her forward planning gave me a few numbers to get the violin back out and ready (though I tactically decided to play forcefully rather than try to get myself plugged through the PA again) before squeezing my way onto stage for what I would call their last pre-encore number.

Note careful attention to the lead sheet, Ed’s headstock, Wratislav’s bass, and just how close the audience are! I had assumed that would be it, but also that it would be easier to defer unearthing the case from a huddle of people by the side of stage and putting the violin away until the band were packing away too, so I simply sat back down with it. Second and final encore was ‘Summertime’, and this time it was Ed and Alisa doing the beckoning up for a bit more playing, when the song was already well under way. I had thankfully by this time worked out they were doing it in the key I know (A minor if you’re curious), so no wedging myself in to peer at lead sheets this time!

I’m not sure of the chronology here, but in the course of the hour or so after the end of Hot Swing Bohème’s set (in which, remember, I had played on one and a half numbers out of an hour’s music), I was handed their two ‘extra’ drink tokens from having described themselves as a quartet and bought another two drinks on top of that by impressed and generous audience members. At London bar prices, it was probably more valuable remuneration than the full set I played, though as I didn’t buy anything all night in the monetary sense I don’t actually know what Luna’s prices are like!

Now I don’t want to end on too much of a downer, or to seem ungrateful. However, there are a couple of simple facts I would like to point out. Firstly, food is essential to life but alcohol is not. Secondly, musicians are notoriously unstable people, and plying a sector of society with such high incidences of depression, anxiety, mood swings, addictive tendencies, emotional or financial insecurity and frankly bizarre lifestyles with free booze may not be the best plan for their continued wellbeing or creative development. Thirdly, I would take £3 in cash over a free pint any day, because music doesn’t make much money and even more or less derisory amounts of money can be offset against rent, food and so on, which drinks on the house (or the audience) cannot.

So I do hope to sit in with HSB at another gig (they have a midweek residency apparently); but I also hope there will be payment in money, and ideally not in liquor. Watch this space!

All electric

Friday’s Dream Logic gig allowed me the first chance to use a new musical toy in anger:

No, I don’t have a new and better viola (I wish! though I am very fond of this one) – look closer.

Adam’s musical conceptions require the string quartet to be amplified – partly because we mostly play everything-through-the-PA gigs at much more than acoustic strings volume, but also because at times they, like the rest of the musical material, are fed through effect processing such as monumental reverb. Despite sometimes altering the sound, Adam is nonetheless the only one of my non-acoustic colleagues / clients to be sufficiently choosy about the quality of acoustic string tone to reject both electric instruments and contact pickups out of hand (I even tried the Fishman on my violin on him once; he wasn’t a fan!). Our first gig revealed numerous problems with playing into stand mikes, from massive spill if the front of house is filling the whole venue with sound to being unable to move to get a better sight-line without the level fluctuating wildly (most of these weren’t new to me). The acceptable compromise appears to be clip mikes, which at least move with the instrument, pick up far more of one’s playing than anything else, and if fixed on quite consistently are quite dependable.

It look literally one gig for me to decide I wanted one of these of my own! Not least, I’m reluctant to attach a pickup to the viola permanently because the majority of what I use it for is classical jobs, in which some people can be a little snobbish about non-classical work (or condescendingly curious and enthusiastic, which is almost as bad); but, it is good to have the equipment to back up the ‘acoustic or electric’ claim on all my serious instruments, and viola was the last piece of the puzzle. Perhaps having a recurrent gig where I could use it merely constituted a good excuse for getting something I wanted anyway. I’m sure I’ll find other pretexts to use it!

The set above – mike with built-in wire and separate adaptor to ordinary XLR connector; adjustable clip; carrying case – is a Thomann own brand under their T-Bone trademark, and cost me 70-odd quid (Thomann, while very useful, are a German supplier and their de facto prices vary both with the sterling-euro exchange rate and with what your bank charges for foreign currency transactions). They brand it as the ‘Ovid’ system, which given much of the works of that Classical poet are pretty disturbing as far as I recall I’m going to hope refers simply to its ability to ‘metamorphose’ an acoustic instrument into an electroacoustic one. It seems to me do everything it should, though it may be still a work in progress – in the few months between Adam’s research and mind, they expanded the ‘violin’ clip from one that wouldn’t go quite wide enough for the rather deep body of my viola, to a much bigger dimension with about a centimetre to spare. My only personal criticism would be the very thin and flimsy-seeming output lead, which would be long enough to take to a stage box or DI box if I trusted its robustness, ending in a mini-XLR connector I have never seen elsewhere (but which apparently dovetails with T-Bone wireless belt packs. See what you did there. Been studying Apple have we?). The effective result is a need to wear a heavyish metal lump at one’s waist (at least the adaptor has a belt clip!) with a long conventional XLR lead beyond it to whatever you are plugged into, and a bundle of unnecessary fine wire between it and the actual pickup. However, it’s a small price to pay for something that is significantly cheaper, and yet sounds better, than a piezo pickup, at fairly low stage volumes and without effects. I just won’t go jumping off stages with it! Apparently the next serious competitor up is a DPA product that costs a cool £500 for the mike alone, clip extra. I’ll pass, thanks.

Even better defended

Hearing loss, and its prevention, is a hot and still hotting up topic among musicians. Where concern was once limited to rock players and club DJs who were hitting middle age, now even classical musicians are being advised to get used to playing with earplugs in, preferably from the start of their career, and volumes in (for instance) opera house orchestra pits seem to be causing almost as much concern as monumental PA systems.

I found soon after going pro that a real rock band with a full drum kit and a high-energy drummer needs a lot of volume in monitor speakers to hear what they’re doing, especially in small spaces where the rest of the band might be practically sitting on the drums. Kindred Spirit use in-ear monitors when playing as a full band and supplying their own PA, which is really another story, though IEMs do effectively double up as monitors and earplugs. For all other purposes, I acquired a pair of off-the-shelf ‘guitarist’s earplugs’ – supposed to bring the volume down without cutting you off entirely or distorting what you hear too much. They have served me well for rock gigs, but I found that if I was being blasted by (say) an over-zealous trumpet section right behind my seat in the violas, I could only really play with one of them in – otherwise in really quiet passages I couldn’t hear myself at all, which is definitely a bad idea.

Since moving to London, I’ve also acquired some cheap block-everything-possible earplugs, intended for flights. I wouldn’t try and play with these in, but they are useful for making the intermittent screech of wheel and rail in the deep Tube bearable rather than torturing, and for slightly improving chances of, say, zoning out particularly annoying conversations on the train, or getting some sleep at a festival.

The gold standard, however, has always been something made for the purpose – earplugs not just designed to filter sound in the way a musician needs while playing, but specifically to the individual’s ear canal and current hearing response. They have been around for a while, but it’s not at all long ago that they only could be got by personally stumping up a couple of hundred pounds. This would have been another thing that just wouldn’t have happened till the mythical point my musical income rose, the proportion of it spent on music expenses fell, and I felt I could invest in music more freely.

Enter the Musicians’ Hearing Health Scheme. In partnership with a private hearing clinic and the Musicians’ Union, they provide very heavily discounted assessment appointments and custom-made musicians’ earplugs. It’s particularly cheap for MU members, but for anyone else who meets the criteria the total still only comes to £44 (including a £4 postage charge which remains hidden until relatively late in the process).

The criteria are important, and slightly opaque, though it boils down to having to be a professional musician (at a guess, MHHS is registered as a charity and its goals are limited to pros). In my case, I filled in a form with MU number, website, recordings / videos / social media and a referee contact. I got an email somewhat later announcing they had ‘been unable to assess your eligibility, based on the information you supplied in your application’. It therefore went down to my referee making a persuasive enough case for my professional status, which she evidently did (thanks Elaine!). Maybe they should have asked for my tax return instead (which, for some reason, they didn’t).

In any case, I progressed to the appointment in Camden (with a very private medicine non-urgent lead time of under a week from when booking to first appointments available). This had essentially three phases:

  1. A form-filling and check of general health exercise. Fortunately one of the few things neither type 1 diabetes, nor depression, nor antidepressants seem to impact is hearing.
  2. Capturing the shape of my ear canals to mould the earplugs to them. This involved big lumps of green waxy stuff (it looked just like plasticine) being pushed into my ears while I held my jaw wide open, and then pulled out, preserving two casts attached to remaining lumps of wax which hadn’t gone in. These sat carefully untouched on the audiologist’s desk, looking vaguely like implausible dog turds or half-melted erections, for the rest of the appointment.
  3. A detail hearing test. This was even more surreal than the ear fitting. I was closed into a sort of glass vocal booth, my ears encased in a pair of very expensive-looking closed-backed Shure over-ear headphones, and holding a trigger button. A succession of very quiet beeps at all sorts of pitches were played into first my right ear, and then my left; I had to press the button whenever I heard one. To start off with, I didn’t know the two ears would be done separately and had a significant panic that my left ear was seriously damaged as all the noises seemed to be on the right …

It turns out, in fact, that my hearing is pretty good – still within normal range, though that is no reason not to continue to be at least as careful as I have been. After all, I want to hear well enough to play classical music to a marketable standard for something like the next 50 years …

The plugs arrived a couple of weeks later.

The principle is that they fit so snugly they block the ear canal entirely, the only sound reaching the middle ear coming through the filtered sound canal down the middle. I had opted to get mine on a piece of string (which itself comes with a crocodile clip) to hang round my neck if I need to take one or both out; anything that makes me less likely to lose the things is worth having! The carry case, ear lube (yes really, though it isn’t called that) and sound canal dewaxer (which sounds like a mythical Swiss Army knife blade if ever I heard one) are standard.

I’ve so far trialled them doing a bit of practice; busking for a couple of hours; and doing a gig with Caravan Circus last night. Not even the last of those was loud enough to really need them, but it’s generally recommended to get used to playing with them in, and the more likely problem is struggling to hear quiet sounds rather than loud ones still being dangerously so. In that sense it was a good trial.

The trickiest thing is probably actually getting the plugs in my ears properly! I’m getting there, but of course there’s only way round they will go in properly, and I think there are still two ways round the outermost portion might fit with my external ear cartilage. A certain amount of pushing, twisting, screwing and being willing to pull it out and start again is currently necessary, but I’m sure I’ll get used to it soon.

Once on, I certainly didn’t do any cringing from a relatively quiet gig (no drums, and a decibel meter set with a 100dB trigger, which is pretty quiet for an amplified gig). On the other hand, I could have a perfectly normal conversation, and hear what I was doing quite adequately. I did realise that when wearing the plugs, a particularly large proportion of what I hear of my own playing has in fact been transmitted through the chinrest and, beard cushioning notwithstanding, through my jawbone. The drop in apparent volume if I lift my head away from the instrument is perceptible! It also seems to me that they do stifle certain frequencies of the very complex bowed-string sound waves, giving the impression of a duller and flabbier tone quality than I usually create for an unfiltered listener. Unless I was having a particularly bad busking session, which given how much I earned seems unlikely.

In any case, a little more getting used to should see these become a valuable and fairly trouble-free part of my musical kit bag – and with a lifespan of 4 years before I’m expected to need to get another round of tests and see about a new pair, I can hardly complain of the value. I recommend having a try yourself!

Less Spectacula but less Filthy

The observant among you may have realised the gig list on my homepage has run out of gigs with the Filthy Spectacula. The super-observant might have realised I haven’t written about the several performances I’ve done with them this summer. There is a connection between these two things, and it isn’t by any means that the band is ceasing to exist.

However, the real news will, I appreciate, probably come as a disappointment to several highly enthusiastic fans, as it did to the rest of the band. I think I owe it to those people to offer some kind of public explanation (if only to save me explaining the same things repeatedly to different ones). It is simply that Saturday’s gig was my last with the Filthy Spectacula; I have now, bar a couple of bits of admin, left the band.

This is not the result of some epic rock-n-roll feud, involving torrid sexual liaisons with band members’ wives and communicating only through lawyers; nor of irreconcilable artistic differences that will see me release a solo album carefully opposed to the band’s idiom as soon as possible; nor of being in such a state of drug-addled collapse that I’ve been booted out in favour of someone who can actually turn up able to play. Rather more prosaically, I realised the band had been ending up further and further away from my musical needs and I probably should have got out earlier for my sake, even if it might not have benefitted anyone else.

Firstly, in case anyone needed reminding, I am trying to music my career or more importantly my job, and work towards (though I may well never manage this) making my income entirely from it. Certainly I want to drive the money I make from music up, even if it means being slightly less of an artist. The reasons for this are too lengthy to delve into here, but are largely tied up with observation of my mental health. Conversely, the Filth have always been a hobby for everyone else in the band. This makes a difference to how they go about business, and also the finances of the band. They aren’t always paid peanuts and don’t play for free or in general for door share, but the overheads are huge compared to the gig fees, and on thinking seriously about it I realised I was making a massive loss on the band. Hiring rehearsal rooms for frequent practices makes up one proportion (ten quid a time EACH), as does travelling to rehearsals and more importantly gigs – and this summer we have done a lot of far-flung gigs from my starting-point, including in Powys, Derby, Matlock, Hartlepool and Durham. Sometimes I have had to book accommodation overnight to be able to do the show, and there is always a bundle of takeaway or restaurant meals whose cost I don’t keep track of when I could be eating cheaply at home otherwise for 24 hours or so.

So if the band wasn’t going to help pay my rent, could I see it as a hobby like my bandmates? Plenty of pro musicians do some other music – often something they don’t get to do in their regular gig – on the side, because most of us are kind of music addicts. Well, besides my restricted finances to pay for an expensive hobby, this too has ended up being out of kilter with my needs – emotional rather than monetary this time. This next explanation may make for surprising, even disillusioning reading for people who only really know what I do on stage. When the Filthy Spectacula formed in late 2014, a point when I was desperate to be playing paying gigs and establishing myself as a musician and also was on a fairly high point of mental health in the range of the last 6 years, I developed a massively extroverted, hyperactive, irreverent stage manner. Partly because it suited the music; partly to act as a kind of banter sparring partner to Gary; partly in order to get a response out of crowds (and we started off, of course, playing generic original music unsigned band nights where it was pretty difficult to achieve that); partly because I do believe that if you’re going to play rock-n-roll you have to put on a show. It’s simply inappropriate (and perhaps pretentious, or perhaps just lazy) to play this sort of stuff standing rooted to the spot looking carefully at what you’re doing, as if either the playing took all your concentration or the music would, and ought to be allowed to, ‘speak for itself’. Hence why a fair bit of this schtick was transplanted to Kindred Spirit when I joined them 18 months later.

However, I also try really hard to be professional about music-making, whether or not I’m really doing it professionally in any real sense. So as my depression has deepened again, particularly over this spring and summer, I have maintained the act. It’s a significant part of what people, including the band, expect to see and hear from a Filthy Spectacula gig. But it has been done out of commitment and as hard work rather than from spontaneous joy in bouncing up and down, cutting little jigs and jumping off stages while playing. I have found that even with earplugs the gigs are very loud (I swear the worse I feel, the more hypersensitive my hearing becomes), and with earplugs and hastily-mixed wedge monitors I can only hear a very imperfect version of what I’m doing. Antidepressants mean I should (would that it were so easy!) avoid alcohol altogether, and Filthy gigs have always cultivated an atmosphere of inebriation even if it was always partly a pretence onstage (usually not at all from the audience). And the high-energy, slightly aggressive extroversion of those performances has gone from being partly the right-seeming way to behave in that context to a painful effort to do what I’m not feeling, leaving me drained, miserable and sociophobic by the end of most sets. At which point if the audience have ‘got’ us I usually have to try and deal with enthusiastic congratulations, when what I really want to do is pack up as quickly as possible, not deal with any people especially strangers, and run away to bed. Bed usually being a long way away by night-time public transport.

So Filthy Spectacula as hobby hasn’t been working either. And so it definitely seemed to be time I got out; and pursued things more appropriate to where my career and life has now led, 4 years after this story started. Do I regret having been in the band? No – I have had great fun at some points, have learned a lot about rock and stagecraft and many other things, have done a lot of playing and of effectively collaborating on arrangements, solos etc. (and even written a couple of songs that have entered the setlist permanently), and have acquired an assortment of startling onstage photos and videos which do seem to have pushed my career forward (especially in increasing the likelihood of Elaine taking me on for Kindred Spirit). But do I regret leaving? Just as emphatically, no.

Some people have asked me what I’m going to do now (as if I had just abandoned music altogether!). Of course, a large part of the answer is that my time and effort can go into projects I find less destructive and more profitable. For starters, I will have an extra dozen or more Saturday nights a year to try and fill with performances I will make significant profit on instead of loss. And even not having to pay for rehearsal rooms and Tube fares to rehearse on the other side of London will reduce the amount I have to do of the publishing work I really dislike (anyone in touch with OUP or Richmond, I didn’t say that). And extra time to practise my classical viola technique and try to push that angle, which I still see as perhaps the best hope for my career, further forward.

As if to illustrate the point, this weekend sees me gigging twice with very different groups. I may not be getting suddenly rich or famous, but I’m certainly still performing busily.
Friday 14th: Dream Logic at The Underdog Gallery, opening act of a bill of three
Saturday 15th: Caravan Circus at Luna, starting at the peculiar hour of 6pm
See you out and about!

Most of you will probably have read enough. If you really want to dig into the experience of the original rock music circuit, what follows is a sort of summary diary of the last few Filthy Spectacula gigs, so as not to waste the wonderful potential of tour disaster stories, an Eeyorish perspective and my raconteur inclinations. Times tend to be approximate recollections and a lot of names are omitted to avoid accusations of reputational damage.

19 May, Coventry

After a lift from west London, went first to the hotel, prebooked by the promoter. Rooms have been reserved but not paid for; collecting keys involves pre-approving my credit card, on the assumption I can invoice the promoter later.
Get-in and soundcheck scheduled for 5pm. We arrive and find the performance space is not a grand high-ceiling part of the art gallery cum museum where we are playing, but a small and rather featureless ‘studio’ room within the same building. Start setting up, but there is no sound tech and only half the PA until he arrives. A frazzled-looking member of gallery staff tells us yesterday’s event was too loud and they had to ask them to turn down because the vibration was starting to pose a hazard to centuries-old paintings and artefacts. Last night’s gig did not involve an acoustic drumkit, which usually forms the ‘floor’ for rock band volume.
One band member is lost and rings to get directions. Doesn’t know exactly where he is either, and keeps citing landmarks (eg pubs) we can’t see. Phone gets passed round the other three of us; lost bandmate gets frustrated and aggressive, particularly when I tell him the postcode is in the email (assuming he can locate the email and feed the postcode into a map app, all on his phone). By this point the support acts (we are headlining and so soundchecking first; everyone else will soundcheck in reverse order afterwards), who can’t do anything till we are set, have got bored and started bringing beer in from the off licence over the road.
Band eventually complete about an hour late, which is still rather earlier than the arrival of the sound guy (actually one of the performers from the daytime events) and his remaining gear. Soundcheck hasty (though he displays little sign of hurry), support acts effectively do not get one, job is finished as punters are starting to drift in.
We perform late, after a long cabaret-style sequence of acts including other music, circus skills and burlesque. Many audience have sloped off home by our set, and of the remainder only about half a dozen dance. However the room is small enough that that does not feel stupid!

26 May, Peterborough

We are playing 4 half-hour sets (to be timed pretty much when we choose) in a bar space at a hot-rod / custom car show and tattoo convention in the vast Peterborough showground. We are told start playing at 11. The bar doesn’t open till 12. At no point are we much more than background music to a bar queue or entertainment for other halves and children dragged along by car-mad attendees but who are bored or tired of walking around looking at motor vehicles.
Stay overnight in the least welcoming AirBnB – clearly effectively a guesthouse – I have ever stayed in, though it still has a comfortable bed, a shower, electricity and WiFi, so at the price I shouldn’t be complaining. Dinner and breakfast at Wetherspoon’s because coffee shops do not seem to exist in Peterborough (and, again, WiFi and electricity).

27 May, Crewe

Same organiser and sound man as Coventry. Once again sound tech arrives hours after the arrival time we were given, almost at doors time; on this occasion about two hours after we were told he had ‘just gone for something to eat’. One bandmate wanders off, we think just for a cigarette, and comes back having scored drugs. After we have line checked, I am mindful of blood sugar and diabetes and set off to find some dinner. Coming out of the door and not knowing the town, I can turn left or right. Left it is; I find no cafés or takeaways open, not even the Starbucks where I had lunch. Pub kitchens have closed for the evening (apparently no one here makes getting drunk more expensive by eating on weekend nights). Eventually I despair and my tea consists of a pork pie, a bag of crisps and a pint of porter (the latter probably having about one-third of the nutritional value). Fairly good set however, and a decent fee plus accommodation organised (and paid for in advance this time!). Vegetarianism unheard of at breakfast (included with room), but they are happy to simply remove the meat items from the full English and there is plenty of stuff left.

28 May, Hay-on-Wye

Long car journey to a festival gig. We are playing early evening at a philosophy and music festival. Exhausted so not doing much looking around at other acts and speakers, but this is the best treatment I’ve ever had as a performer – backstage area with deckchairs, haybales and a gazebo in case it rains, a container to lock up possessions while we are hanging around and then playing, and stewards, seemingly all walkie-talkie equipped young women, getting free entry by basically waiting on us hand and foot, including free drinks. In this area, I encounter a former Oxfam colleague in whose kitchen I once attended a jam session. I still have a book by her husband.
We are the first act in our particular outsize tepee construction, followed by Badly Drawn Boy and then some others. David Miliband, a late addition to the line-up, is doing a talk and Q&A at a marquee a hundred yards along that will overlap. He hears our soundcheck (once again set to the volume that will balance the unamplified drums) and protests to the stage managers we will drown out any discussion. After protracted negotiation, the entire schedule in our tent is pushed back by about an hour. However I think those who turn up to our set were ready for something less demanding than philosophy panels!
We had to wait about 6 weeks to get paid a couple of hundred quid for this performance.

5 July, Hemel Hempstead

This is effectively a homecoming gig for our frontman, who had his first band and played some of his first gigs living round here. We are even doing that band’s encore number (itself already a cover) with another of their old members as a bonus – the only cover the Filthy Spectacula will ever perform in my time with them. I’m rather proud of my violin part to a 60s surf song. I am massively delayed arriving due to chaos on the rather short train line from Euston – by the time I arrive I have spent considerably longer hanging round that station than actually on a train. One of the band is hanging around edgily and has already set up, another has left stuff and gone to a hotel room (I later discover he hates driving in the dark) to change, the drummer is nowhere to be seen. I haven’t really missed anything.

It eventually turns out the drummer had gone to the Oddfellows Arms in Watford (which also does live music), not the one in Hemel.

That sorted out and soundcheck completed, I remember this going rather well from an audience point of view but me feeling like death by the end. I leave as quickly as possible (would rather be on an empty platform than in a crowded pub), but have a long wait on a station platform followed by an unannounced platform alteration leading to a desperate sprint along, up and down a footbridge and a yell to the guard, fortunately heeded. When I get to London I’ve forgotten it’s a weeknight and so there is no night Tube. My phone is also dead so I have little chance of identifying a route home by night bus. I despair and shell out for a taxi from Euston to Lee. The first taxi driver takes a while to realise where I’m talking about and, when he does, changes his mind about taking me because it’s so far away, though he drops me by a taxi rank and doesn’t charge me.

14 July, Durham

Strictly speaking, not Durham but an outdoor adventure centre nearby where a small steampunk festival is being held (its first year). At least we get accommodation in bunk dorms and there is good value cooked food from the kitchen, so less fend-for-yourself than a traditional canvas festival. For reasons I forget, I arrive quite early in the afternoon and have effectively nothing to do for hours. I don’t want to spend money on steampunk-aligned clothes, home décor, accessories and craft stalls, let alone old-fashioned sweets, and should have brought a book.

We play after a rather interesting but totally not steampunk local band who have the elaborate arrangements, feature guitar solos and tight drilling of heavy metal, a lot of folk-derived rhythms (and their only non-original songs are traditional) and a social/eco sensibility, dress sense and occasional drops into rhythm from hippy reggae. Also an incredibly virtuosic bassist. Two people dance during their set closer of What shall we Do with a Drunken Sailor; one of them is me. Then an eccentric, middle-aged, gaunt American who invents his own instruments in decidedly Heath Robinson vein. Some things are highly effective, notably his use of a pocket electric fan to play tremolos (and tremolo chords, by moving it around all six strings) on guitar, which is atmospheric and ethereal and I actually want to try for myself; some are definitely comic gimmicks. We are politely received but the two people most consistently visibly enjoying the set are only prepared to do so from the back of the tent until our last number. I conclude most people are there for subculture superstar Mr B, who raps in a very posh English voice and plays banjolele, using backing tracks, loops and one startling solo on a purple plastic trombone. Steampunks would probably pay and show up just to see his striped blazer, horn-rimmed glasses and immaculately waxed moustache.

The following day, I take a bus into Durham and the train all the way down to London.

4 August, Matlock Bath

I have combined this gig with an early afternoon set with Kindred Spirit, at a beer festival in Fleet, Hampshire. Not the best idea for my energy levels and mood, but less of a whacking loss than turning down the relatively nearby gig. Trains towards Hampshire are disrupted by strike action, with last-minute cancellations, so I end up getting a train to Basingstoke (further away) which should enable me to get a slow train back to Fleet and arrive at a not disastrous hour. The Basingstoke train is delayed and I sprint through the station with instrument, assorted audio-electrical gubbins and an overnight bag to emerge onto the platform as the Fleet train is accelerating away. I talk my way out of the barriers (my ticket isn’t valid to go to Basingstoke of course), grit my teeth and jump in a black cab, watching all profit for the weekend evaporate. I text a comprehensive tech spec ahead and we are set up with enough time to spare before starting for me to tune, go to the loo and drink water (it’s a swelteringly hot day).

The beer connoisseurs really get into our set in the last couple of numbers and will not be denied an encore. Once I have done a speedy pack up, a moderate jog of the mile to the station enables me to catch the necessary train to London – just about. (I was going to get a later one, but it was cancelled due to strikes.) The Thameslink to St Pancras is also cancelled, but it’s quicker by Tube and I have a lot of time to kill there in the end anyway.

St Pancras has at least two public pianos – these in train stations have become a thorough fad, though I wish someone would donate money to tune them periodically. While I’m eating lunch, I have difficult in working out if someone nearby is operating a pianola or playing live. On walking past in search of the loos, I find that an elderly gentleman is indeed playing the same ragtime/early jazz-like number over and over again, in barely-varying arrangements involving the same set of variations; while his mate is playing a tambourine but without the combination of desire and ability requisite to actually stick to a beat for more than about 16 bars straight. They seem to be having so much fun that I force myself not to say something sarcastic. As soon as they are more or less out of earshot, I encounter another piano, this time with a toddler bashing it at random. Children’s sense of discord develops so late, and they have such delight in appalling noise at younger ages, that I am forced to conclude any notion of harmonious or unharmonious sound (as opposed to of rhythm) is purely culturally conditioned.

The train journey to Derby is actually rather pleasant – quiet, air-conditioned, comfortable and with phone charging, though WiFi is charged for. And I have a book this time. If I waited for a train to Matlock Bath I wouldn’t arrive until partway through our set (largely due to waiting time at Derby), but thankfully the drummer’s wife is giving me a lift.

The Grand Pavilion is a vast old space dating from when this was a spa resort. The stage is impressively large and very high; the body of the room appears on arrival dark, shadowy and containing very few people, which remains my impression. We are playing middle of three acts as part of the Matlock Bath Pirate Mutiny. When I arrive what seems to be the most numerous covers band ever are mid-set. Several women of varying ages are doing backing vocals and tambourine, but I think I can only hear one of them and suspect the youngest (slim, blonde and definitely inaudible) is there either because her parents are in the band or to up the sex appeal. Besides two guitars, bass, drums, keys and male lead vox, there is a three-piece horn section. When I start listening, only the baritone sax player seems to be playing and he can barely be heard, which given my love of the instrument I am inclined to resent. Later, I hear him and the trumpet and trombone clearly and wish I hadn’t – out of tune, ragged and with no blend of sound whatsoever.

No accommodation with this gig and no joy whatsoever with local B&Bs and pubs (those that weren’t fully booked when I tried only take bookings for the whole weekend, not Saturday night alone). So I have booked a room in Matlock proper through AirBnB and warned them I may be somewhat uncivilisedly late arriving. When I come off stage and have packed up (about 10pm on a Saturday), I google ‘Matlock taxis’ and try the numbers that come up. Most do not pick up the phone and those that do say they are already busy for the night. Eventually I walk, with luggage, already exhausted and drenched in sweat, two and a half miles, the last half steeply uphill, to my room.

My hosts, on the other hand, are lovely, their house immaculate, possessed of stunning edge-of-Peak District views and over-equipped for my needs. And for less than every B&B going I get a fridge full of water, tea and coffee equipment, WiFi, an Alexa had I wished to use it, and a good-natured telling-off for not ringing to ask to be picked up. In the morning, breakfast to die for (fruit salad, cereal, toast, orange juice, a home-grown egg) and a lift into town to get the train. I feel myself relaxing after the previous 24 hours and wish I had stayed an extra night to get a mini-break out of it.

11 August, Abingdon

The night before, Elaine and I had played a Kindred Spirit Duo gig on the Isle of Wight and been put up overnight. However, Elaine wanted to catch some of Cropredy (north Oxfordshire), and so barely had to go out of her way to drop me in Abingdon with plenty of time to spare before our afternoon set at a scooter rally. I have time for a coffee and phone charging / internet using burst and a leisurely though pricey pub lunch before wandering along the river to the rugby club.

Timings seem to be extremely approximate here and I think we eventually play about 90 minutes late. Most (NOT all) of the crowd are a little too sober, dozy and probably hungover at 4 in the afternoon to enter fully into the spirit of things, but we / I individually make some enthusiastic new fans anyway.

18 August, Rhayader

Earlier this day, I played a late-afternoon set with the Mechanics at a wedding near Henley. We aren’t starting our festival set until midnight, so I reckon this ought to be doable. I should have looked at a journey planner before making that assumption.

Taxis have to be taken from Henley station to the wedding, and then on from there to Reading station in order to make a reasonably timed train further west. I meet a bandmate at Bristol Parkway about 8. He has been having car trouble, and has eventually had to resort to borrowing a car from one of his dog-walking clients. He only picked it up that morning and it’s a left-hand drive Audi TT, a little dome-shaped sports car designed for two people, two small children in the rear seats and minimal luggage, with the speedometer only marked in km/h. It already contains himself, bass guitar, a tent, overnight luggage for two and his girlfriend (who comes to all our gigs though he lives with his wife), before we add my violin, mandolin, tent and rucksack (I had asked about accommodation and been told ‘you’re welcome to camp’; I had to buy a tent specifically as my old one seems to have moved to the permanent possession of my ex-girlfriend). After a very stressful night drive through Welsh country roads the driver has never seen before, plagued by his glasses not allowing him to focus on night roads and a satnav without moving them (I navigate after a while), undipped headlights coming the other way and a Range Rover parked on the wrong side of the road with full beams on that nearly kills both of us with belief we’re about to smash head-on, we eventually reach the festival site about 10:30pm. We pitch tents (pop-up thankfully) by the car headlights and find our way to the stage. Our set is enthusiastically received by a willingly engaged audience who are smoking so much weed I smell it on the same jacket wearing it weeks later. Sleep is deferred by being able to hear the last main stage set perfectly clearly through my earplugs from my tent, and considerable bickering and canoodling from the other two in their tent about five feet away.

In the morning, we are clearly not going to get breakfast on site until much later, so we wrestle the pop-up tents back into their bags (an exercise for which they were clearly never designed) and agree to eat on the road. Not long after breakfast, we encounter a road closure and diversion the satnav refuses to comprehend or adapt to. By the time we’ve gone round the diversion the wrong way and then I’ve found a way out by looking at Google Maps without any computer navigation, we are so fed up of the car that a stop to stretch our legs (literally in the case of the poor lass stuck behind me in the just-for-show seats) becomes a stop for lunch. When we set off again at about 2pm, we haven’t even got as far as the south Wales motorway to the Severn Crossing!

31 August, Isley Walton

Another genuine green field festival. Therefore, of course, in the middle of nowhere. Driving looks increasingly like it will be coming from the wrong direction or some such, and so I work out I can get to a couple of miles away by dint of a train to East Midlands Parkway and an advertised shuttle bus to the same-named airport (I only know about this because it was announced on the train to Derby for the Matlock gig). I arrange to be there well within daylight hours to avoid subjecting last time’s lift-giver to night driving, and to minimise the distance with me in case he is driving the TT again! In the end he doesn’t pick me up because he can’t leave London till after work on Friday and so will be travelling much later, but I reason that getting a taxi for 2 miles from an airport can hardly be difficult.

Shuttle between station and airport is not free (must be wishful misremembering of the announcement!), it is £6. Notionally a bus, usually operated by a Transit van turned into a minibus, I am the only passenger for this trip and it is taken in one of the same company’s ordinary taxis. The driver drops me off at the taxi offices in the airport penumbra and points me towards the main complex.

East Midlands airport rivals, for smallness and depressingly faded air, many of the places I flew in and out of on my backpacking gap year. I have lunch from Greggs. Wandering round the buildings, attempting to follow one sign and eventually asking an employee establishes that there are no black cabs here and one taxi firm has a de facto monopoly on the place. I grit my teeth and book at the desk inside Departures; the fee is a predictable leveraging of absence of competition, £15 for just over 2 miles.

At the festival, I have arrived with hours to spare before there is any music, let alone our set. I pitch a much better tent borrowed from my housemate, unroll a sleeping mat, blow up a neck pillow I reckon I can use as an ordinary pillow, and generally set myself up – no artist camping even here, just a free-for-all in a field. I wander around, decide not to buy somewhat expensive clothing or hats in a style that wouldn’t really suit any of my performance environments, get some food and have a reasonable amount of fun watching some of the earlier acts. I make a point of seeing almost as much as possible of the two acts on before us in the same barn. Both get crowded audiences and play originals-heavy music on the Americana side of ‘folk’ (whatever that means in a context of writing your own music). I reason we have been put here because of my violin in the line-up.

For some reason there is no house drum kit or backline (and the previous band were using cajon not kit), so we have to set up our drums from scratch, with (unnecessary) miking and together with miking up guitar and bass amps. The sound engineer spends 10 minutes working on the bass drum sound, leaving him with about 5 for the rest of the band.

A better night’s sleep this time, though the large group across a walkway from me seem to spend half the night arguing about the little bonfire they have built. It sounds as if they would have been happier without it. In the morning, wanting to get home, I pack everything up, consider getting a taxi to the airport and shuttle, and instead ring a taxi direct to the train station. It comes out cheaper than shuttle and taxi outbound did.

8 September, Hartlepool

Travel looked increasingly complicated for this, so as it’s urban and there should always be means of getting around I decide to take the train (and break journey to visit friends in York). The return ticket costs £40 more than the fee for the gig, although we do get accommodation as well.

On arrival in Hartlepool (it’s further north than you think – check a map), it turns out I’ve been on the same train as one bandmate. He prefers paying for a taxi to the booked accommodation (one mile south of the station, whereas the venue is over two miles north) to getting the bus, and for a free ride I’m not complaining. On arrival at something that looks like the set of a B&B rival to Fawlty Towers and smells of gas, the sour woman at reception checks with her husband before telling us the bookings were cancelled because the promoter’s card was declined, and by the time he showed up in person to pay the previous day they had let all their rooms to other people.

The two of us retire out of the County Durham drizzle to the nearest bar to regroup and replan. We do not have a phone number for the promoter and I know he doesn’t check emails while he is away for events, so I decide to book accommodation on my credit card for as many as need it (one bandmate and wife booked their own accommodation anyway) and invoice the promoter, hoping this will work as smoothly as in Coventry. Some googling and a text conversation with the fourth bandmate and his partner later, I have booked online two twin rooms near to the station. Another taxi back to where we started ensues, followed by collecting keys and a third taxi to the venue.

Of course, when I arrive the first thing I encounter is the promoter telling me the hotel has changed and trying to give me a card for where we are now booked in. I have to sheepishly explain I’ve gone over his head for the whole band.

The town of Hartlepool rivals even Crewe for rundown post-industrial shabbiness. Half the businesses of any sort appear to have closed. Almost all the shops are shut on a Saturday afternoon, and options for eating between soundcheck and set are a couple of low-end takeaways and a pub-hotel (which I opt for). Pubs seem to be mostly thriving, though some of those have shut too, but they only provide alcohol, no coffee or meals, as far as I can tell. The hotel place has an extensive menu, of which the only vegetarian main is lasagne. Our teenage waitress comes back after taking our order to inform us the lasagne is all gone but there is vegetable curry. It was probably better than the lasagne would have been.

Hartlepool Borough Hall is a grand place, set up with a theatre stage and a vast sprung dancefloor, clearly dating from a point when industry and trade up here were making lots of money and establishing a public-minded urban middle class. It is set out tonight with round tables and chairs ‘cabaret style’, and we have been told it seats 420 in that format. I would be very surprised if more than a tenth that number of tickets were sold. By the time we took the stage past 10pm, a few of the mostly elderly audience had already melted away. I watched in the first couple of numbers as about half the rest seemed to decide we weren’t for them and followed suit; only one table group turned out to have gone to the bar. I don’t think more than two audience members danced: the drummer’s wife and the burlesque artist who had been on earlier.

In the morning, I headed out fairly early. It was abundantly clear that I wasn’t going to get breakfast on a Sunday by wandering around looking for somewhere, and the station café turned out not to open Sundays either. I resigned myself to overpriced train food. Actually, the prices were fairly reasonable, but the hot water had broken, denying me coffee, tea or porridge, and they had run out of orange juice. I had apple juice and a croissant. Matters improved significantly when I got off at York and moved from gig trip mode to visiting friend mode – which is perhaps a remarkable statement considering Kim has an 11-month-old baby.

Outliers

I can just about remember the frisson of excitement the first time someone dropped a note (a lowly fiver of course) into my case while I was busking. It felt like I had graduated from being unsure if I was largely a pity case, to definitely providing a performance that was worth something.

That was probably an illusion. While there has largely been a gradual rise in my busking take, and getting the odd £5 or £10 note has become a gratifying extra bit of income rather than a memorable event, the vast majority of what I make from busking still comes in the form of pound coins, followed by £2, 50p and 20p; there has never become a steady flow of banknotes (as my back often reminds me when I pick up my violin case, with the session’s take bagged up for counting inside it, after two hours’ solid playing!).

I do have one vivid memory concerning a £10 note, though I very much doubt it was the first. I was playing in Victoria station, and halfway through the ‘Meditation’ from Thaïs that seems to be Massenet’s only living compositional legacy. An elderly gentleman came up to me brandishing a £10 note. He was clearly concerned that it would blow away, or be lifted by some opportunist, left in the open case. (This is a common concern, and one I share as well as concerned punters and donors; I resolve it by keeping a very sharp eye on donated notes to the end of the number (because in general some inflated sense of musical integrity prevents me interrupting one to deal with money) and then tucking them away in a pocket out of sight, wind and harm’s way.) However, I was unwilling to interrupt the continuous flow of the classical (or rather, Romantic) piece’s emotional melody. The donor resolved this dilemma by carefully tucking the note into my left (fingering hand) jacket sleeve while I continued playing …

The above increasingly blasé attitude to specific donations did not prevent me being pleased and surprised, even shocked, during yesterday’s busking session outside Clapham Junction (with National Rail’s blessing). It was warm and dry and I was essentially serenading the de facto smoking area, besides people arriving and leaving, over Monday rush hour. Several people had time to kill (and perhaps cans of lager to finish, as well as cigarettes, before getting on trains where they could consume neither) and were hanging round and actually paying some attention to the music, which makes a nice change. I was vaguely aware of a bloke wheeling a bike more or less behind me – I had the impression he was on the phone or checking messages or something. Anyway he can’t have been there more than 10 minutes when he completely blindsided me by dropping a £20 note into my case and hurrying off to catch his train. I make a point of thanking everyone who pays me when busking, along with the ‘customer service smile’ approach and catching the eye of as many of the people evidently watching me or enjoying the music as possible (yes, you attempting a couple of jig steps to make your mate laugh, I can see you!), despite the mental gymnastics sometimes involved in doing so without breaking step on playing; on this occasion I am very sure the ‘Thank you!’ came with rather more of a gasp and genuine emphasis than usual, but he responded with no more than the classic English ‘don’t mention it’ wrist wave.

Of course, it’s still an outlier and doesn’t indicate my busking income is about to reliably move up a gear and allow me to drop another way of keeping the rent paid. If I have a point (besides finding something to hang another blog post on and therefore drive my website a little further up the search rankings), it is simply that in busking, or perhaps in music work in general, you never know what will happen next.

To be continued …

Jazzing it up

Wednesday 22nd August saw, as far as I can recall, the first time I performed in a bona fide jazz club or venue. (I’ve been to a few jam sessions, but I’m going to consider those a different class of beast.) And hereby hangs a tail of London’s, and music’s, habit of trying to reduce the six degrees of separation theory to two …

Back in mid-July, I went to to a Musicians’ Union London social (always aiming to get the maximum benefit out of my subs!). I gave out about half a dozen business cards and had interesting conversations with several people, including an illuminating but hardly cheering one with a freelance orchestral violinist who has been in this trade a lot longer than me. She was keen to draw my attention to her father, with essentially the same career path, having bought a five-bedroom house in the London inner suburbs, while she has a mortgage on a flat over a chippy down the road. I also learned that a certain well-respected south coast professional orchestra pays additional string players, when required, rather less than I have got for some concerts bumping amateur orchestra sections in London in the last couple of years.

One of the people I chatted to later on the evening – when my ‘networking’ will was starting to flag – was Australian expat jazz (and other) singer-songwriter Lauren Lucille (see photo above. No, not the bald one. No, not the one with the beard, that’s me.). My impression at the time was that I didn’t quite know what to contribute in a conversation largely between her and an, also expat, soul singer-songwriter whose name I have sadly forgotten who tours Europe on a regular basis with pickup bands. However, we sustained a meandering and intermittent email conversation afterwards, notionally about writing and collaborating to write music but reaching all sorts of comparatively far-flung corners along the way.

Ten days on from meeting, I decided to spend a Sunday evening trying something different. I have known jazz and eastern-Mediterranean focusing cellist Shirley Smart (whose music is fascinating, artistically ambitious and yet accessible, and I recommend to your attention!) slightly for what must be at least three years. I’ve seen her at a duo gig in Oxford and we’ve even jammed together once, though never gigged. This summer, she started running free improvisation nights in the tiny, L-shaped downstairs bar of near-legendary Camden jazz / folk / world / anything acoustic and interesting venue the Green Note. The format is fairly straightforward: a shortish ‘set’ from a combination of two or three invited musicians, followed by a series of jams involving the guest players and whoever has turned up and wants to play / sing, in revolving combinations of no more than again about three. I was intrigued, and I know very little about completely free improvisation (although isn’t the point in a sense that there is little to know about it, because it comes from no fixed material? Discuss … ).

The house group on this occasion consisted of Shirley on cello, a double bassist named Ollie (I could go and check these names, but maybe it’s better I don’t) and a tenor saxophonist, Rachel I think. Their two or three extended improvisations, totalling something like 45 minutes, included some spontaneously gorgeous moments, some effective uses of extended techniques and some (perhaps deliberate) temporary forays into sheer noise barely akin to most conventional music. Hearing Shirley’s cello in company of a bass (which I hadn’t before, live) had the enjoyable virtue for me of pushing her away from using the instrument plucked as a sort of piccolo bass instrument (which is the jazz role in which cello probably has most history, though often tuned in fourths an octave above string bass rather than its natural fifths), and towards a low-to-mid-range melodic role more like trombone, baritone sax or bass clarinet which interests me much more.

I’ve commented on how tiny the space was; it has hard surfaces as well, with pretty much only the people there to soak up some of the sound. I would probably have ended up putting in earplugs (musician’s earplugs, not the ones for totally drowning out a factory while working in it) for any tenor saxophone player in there. But the saxophone family are particularly abrasive played at the extremes of their range or with alternative techniques, and it felt to me like this one spent about 20% of her time playing the instrument conventionally, and the rest in the honks, squeaks, harmonics and rasps that are usually considered fringe (though by no means external) to sax playing. Perhaps this represents a release of, or rebalancing towards, what most gigs do not allow or only in very carefully restricted doses. Perhaps, though this would worry me more as to the player’s wellbeing, such extreme emotional territory is what she most wishes to express, given a blank canvas. In any case (and I am in danger of sounding like the carping and prejudiced jazz criticism of Philip Larkin here) I found it bruising both acoustically and mentally – ironically, the emotionally overwhelmed (those with, say, clinical depression, or anxiety) are usually terrible audiences for overwhelming emotional expression!

At the end of the ‘house’ set, I turned round to find Lauren stood right behind me (I cannot convey just how small the space was; suffice to say it would have made an unspectacular corridor), having managed to recognise me from behind in near-total darkness on one previous meeting. Clearly my hair is getting out of hand again. It seems she had met Shirley quite recently and been asked along in person (I just picked up a Facebook plug for the series).

First up in the open spots was a duet between the bassist and his uncle, who engaged in surreal yet unexpectedly hilarious stream-of-consciousness spoken word (sometimes, spoken noise!) improvisation – a welcome contrast from intense expressionism. Pretty early in proceedings, Shirley had me (viola in hand on this occasion – I want to give it as much jazz practise as I easily can) and Lauren join Ollie on bass for a stint. First dry-throat moment: when both the other two look at you (rather like the photo above) for an opening gambit and you realise you’ll have to take the lead for the first few bars at least. As we got going, I found ways of developing what I was doing that felt to me like they created satisfyingly ensemble music – I have yet to find real satisfaction in two or three musicians playing simultaneously but without reference to each other: a lot of what I did was probably nearly modal, and there was a lot of copying or semi-copying motifs, rhythms, phrase shapes etc. between all three of us. And some lending structure simply by repetition, or repetition with slight variation, particularly in Lauren’s hummed or scatted vocal phrases which seemed to be tracing out some kind of gradual large-scale architectonic arc much bigger than I was (consciously!) working with.

If that was a pleasant surprise, even if perhaps a little conservative for the free improvisation aficionado, I found my other slot that night rather a return to earth. Ollie was again in action (I hasten to point out he didn’t get made to play all evening, though he must have worked harder than anyone else), and another trio was made up with a virtuosic and wide-ranging clarinettist. On this occasion, while his playing had plenty of contrast and range, I felt it lacked any ‘gaps’ into which I could easily insert myself, or obvious responsiveness to surrounding players. Echoing his phrases under the next one did not produce results I found satisfying, I never really found courage of my convictions in any modus operandi and ultimately felt the other two would probably have produced a better duo for the audience than adding me to form a trio.

Major discoveries of the evening: I rather like having themes and some fixed content; my ears are over-sensitive for saxophones in confined spaces; and as a player I only really feel comfortable also always being a listener.

In the second week of August, my email thread with Lauren sprang into life again. Did I have any evidence of me improvising on standards? And was I free on the 22nd?

Yes, though not much, really just this:

and I could arrange to be. It turned out Lauren was doing a gig at Mill Hill Jazz Club, performing material from the substantial off-and-on collaboration between Ella Fitzgerald and Joe Pass with fellow Aussie guitarist Carl Orr; she was thinking of opening this up to an ‘and Friends’ vibe with trumpet, cello and perhaps me guesting on a few numbers each. Lauren duly picked a couple of numbers for me to look at and sent chord charts in the right keys (bandleaders take note – this would save me so much time on YouTube and Spotify!) and we were in principle ‘set’.

By the time I showed up, the other guests had pulled out, and despite some attempts at replacement I was the only guest (apart from Lauren’s father Craig, a retired genre-spanning pro double bassist, rolling out his Louis Armstrong voice for an encore version of ‘Mack the Knife’), leaving my presence rather unexpected to the club runners – I was greeted with: Lauren: ‘Oh, hi Martin!’ Organiser (to Lauren): ‘I thought you said this was a duo!’ Turns out this was only a panic over possibly being expected to provide 50% as much fee again, and was quickly disentangled.

Lauren and Carl’s performance was a superlative example of what one rehearsal, shared knowledge of a style and excellent musicianship can bring about. Carl, incidentally, was delivering a distinctive if not unique mix of mainstream jazz and contemporary practice. Inevitably, almost every performance started with an introduction, followed by a vocal theme statement (with more or less rewriting!). During that initial vocal chorus, Carl stuck to accompanying patterns, chords and basslines; but he was playing these into a loop pedal, enabling him to follow this by replaying his accompaniment and soloing over the top. What I find most testament to his musical sensitivity and prioritisation of good jazz over showing off is that, instead of leaving the loop running for the outchorus so as to noodle prominent lead-line responses to Lauren’s vocal, he reliably switched it off and returned to accompanying ‘live’ and interactively.

One anecdote from while I was not playing deserves preservation. Lauren has the endearing habit when ‘fronting’ of introducing songs by reference to other numbers by the same artist, but rather than purely listing titles, often singing a bar or two of them off the cuff (usually whichever bit of the tune contains the title lyric). Introducing (I think) ‘Solitude’, she did this with a call-and-response structured Ellington number, which I therefore think must have been ‘Don’t get Around much any More’. Carl, as if either not thinking about it or having been rehearsed, came in time- and note-perfect in whatever key Lauren had plucked out of the air, and it took them about 8 bars to establish they weren’t actually going to do the song (which wasn’t on the set list or the charts for the evening!). Lauren commented along fairly expected lines on Carl’s ability to do this, including finding the key etc., to which Carl responded ‘It’s because this [playing guitar] is the only thing I can do!’

Of course, this is a slight exaggeration, but it brings out a very important point about professional musicians. In order to join someone in time and in key without warning or pre-arrangement; in order to perform a concerto from memory not just flawlessly but interestingly and artistically; in order to hold a part in an atonal unaccompanied choral piece by yourself well enough to be recorded for posterity; music needs to be your full-time job. If you’re not performing or recording or rehearsing or (sadly) doing the admin and promotion that is a necessary part of a performing career, you need to be practising and studying up to a cumulative time total that probably approaches the horrifying hours per week of the medical profession. This is the single biggest threat posed by the underpayment of musicians: of course we can all do other work, but having to put time and energy into something else, even something as flexible as my self-employed proofreading from home, is a constraint on musical achievement – I’ve watched it in myself, to my chagrin, and continue to work to try and minimise it. Underpaid musicians will not lead there being no musicians, but to the standard of their playing, their musicianship, their understanding and how much they can do with a given set of circumstances gradually but unpreventably falling. In this regard, even the teaching which almost every professional musician except me seems to be engaged in is perhaps a necessary evil, though perhaps we should expect those who are truly good at something to share their insights with students advancing towards their level. Maybe we shouldn’t make them teach six-year-old beginners whose presence is entirely due to pushy parents though.

But I digress.

My contribution to the evening was joining Lauren and Carl for two numbers: the venerable blues-based standard ‘Why Don’t you Do Right’, and Toots Thielemans’ (representative of two rather small bodies: Belgian jazz musicians and jazz harmonica players) strangely un-blues-related waltz ‘Bluesette’. I had been warned not to interfere in the opening choruses, and so although my instinct to accompany or interact as well as, perhaps even more than, solo led me to a certain amount of carefully kept-in-the-background filling out of guitar solos and closing choruses, the main spotlight on me was on my solos. It’s not too evident in the photo, but there were literal as well as metaphorical spotlights, which is one way of making someone feel very visible; and there is really nowhere to hide in an understated jazz trio, especially when it is effectively a duo while you are soloing – vocal accompaniment to instrumental solos is definitely an experiment that will have to wait for another gig! Carl’s guitar playing is excellent, supportive and has the distinctive quality of really good jazz guitar since about the 1950s of being able to play at least three roles (timekeepng basslines, extended-chord harmonies and melodic improvisation) and at least two of them at once, but it certainly wasn’t going to cover me up if I parted company from the song, even playing acoustic violin. And the audience were very much an audience, all ears and only breaking silence during numbers to applaud particularly appreciated solos; no buying drinks and chatting during sets here.

If this wasn’t clear, I felt certainly outclassed and slightly out of my depth as a jazz musician in this context. I was certainly more following cues, including when to come in and when to continue (or not) for another chorus, than taking any command of proceedings! After all, I make a lot of my living from music but only a tiny fraction of that from jazz, and the improvisatory approach required in my rock bands is very different, not least because of the totally different harmonic language involved.

In that context, and the slightly ground-breaking nature of the gig for me (as I started by saying two and a half thousand words ago), I consider myself well content with having produced some nice sounds, been complimented by those who spoke to me and simply not having derailed anything (if I made one flub of structure then Carl jumped to catch it, I couldn’t now be sure) – even when ‘Why Don’t’ underwent an unexpected (by me) mid-performance key change from a fairly unremarkable B minor to a rather eyebrow-raising C# minor (try improvising on that in your own time). Here’s hoping I can make it the first of many (especially if I’m in for an equal cut of the fee next time!) rather than a one-off.

When is a folk club gig not a folk club gig?

Well, when it’s in a church, uses a full PA and is advertised as part of an arts festival fringe (and has no ‘floor spots’ – open performance opportunities), there must be room for significant doubt.

I don’t scrupulously write up every gig with the Filthy Spectacula or Kindred Spirit – it would not only leave me even further behind on blogging, but rapidly become boring for everyone, including me. News flash to nobody: bread and butter bar gigs are often quite similar to each other, and originals bands recycle a lot of their repertoire because writing, arranging, learning and rehearsing new songs takes significant time.

However, several things made 10 August’s gig worth writing about. For one thing, it was a rare duo outing for Elaine and I focused on her original songs – usually, the duo play at functions or in bars, social clubs and so on where the audience haven’t paid to see live music as such and covers they’ve heard before are very much the order of the day, and the original material is performed by the full band in ticketed gigs.

In this case, though, the gig was on the Isle of Wight. This in itself marks an unusually far-ranging engagement for Kindred Spirit, who (unlike far-flung festival-trotters the Filthy Spectacula) rarely play further from my current hat-hanging spot than Hampshire. The promoter was very good in providing a substantial fee (between two of us!), paying for the ferry, feeding us before the gig and putting us up in his house the night after (the headliners had to settle for a B&B being paid for for them!), but unsurprisingly couldn’t have found the budget to do the same for the full quintet.

We were opening for Rosalie Deighton and Edwina Hayes, whose performance I shall come to shortly. Our own set made up roughly half the evening though – no hasty 30-minute support slot for an expansive headline set here. In a way, it was a shame that going on, without coming home, to a Filthy Spectacula gig the following day had led me to bring the electric violin rather than the acoustic one – the church being used as a venue had a very nice acoustic, somewhat flattened by having a substantial PA put in it and everything plugged in; I’d like to think I could have ‘filled’ it unplugged. Another time perhaps; though if this weekend had followed, rather than preceded, the one in which I doubled up the second Mechanics gig (see previous post) with another Filthy Spectacula festival appearance, I might have changed things round anyway. Such is hindsight.

St Catherine’s is a medium-sized church, I would guess potentially seating nearer to 200 people than 100, and must have been something like two-thirds full; a fairly substantial crowd then. However, this is where the folk club element kicks in. We rapidly found that not only did the audience fall attentively silent during her quieter and more introspective songs (after all, a ticketed audience without a bar to visit may do something similar out of mere disinterest!) but they also joined in – both bidden and unbidden! – on her bouncy celebration-of-life numbers too:

Despite the bigger space, PA and spacial sense of an audience separated from performers, this was a combination of attentiveness and active involvement typical of unamplified, acoustically ‘vulnerable’ (even in-the-round) folk-club settings. Both Elaine and later Edwina fell naturally into the distinctively folk club habit of dictating the chorus lyrics to songs with easily joined-in choruses to the audience before they started (folk clubs are the only place I’ve repeatedly come across this presenting of the words alone done, as opposed to either leaving the audience to pick things up for themselves (rock gigs) or singing them the participation section in advance (churches learning ‘new songs’, and Jules Buckley at the Royal Albert Hall for last year’s Charles Mingus Prom)).

You may have gathered our set went down well – over significant hurdles in my case (wow, that must be my mixed metaphor of the year!). The single most frustrating thing about playing electric violin for me has to be that it makes so little noise under my chin and so I’m dependent on monitoring to be able to hear what I’m doing. In ‘touring’ gigs with house PA systems and sound engineers (even more so as here when the latter does not know the hired former well), my preference would be to not be dependent on monitoring at all, given it is usually and ultimately rightly bottom of the pile in limited setup time! On this occasion, we had plenty of time, but I still had a conversation with the engineer that went roughly:
Could I have a bit more violin in the monitor please? Because I can’t really hear it acoustically … OK, not that much! … Erm, still a bit less … Little bit less violin again please? … Thanks!
The bigger issue was that my A string chose to snap half way through the second number. Not only did I have to fit a new one (and tune it up a couple of times as it ‘stretched in’), but the change in tension had sent all the others out of tune as well. Luckily Elaine regularly plays solo, and was able to pull a number out of the bag while I changed the string – but it unsurprisingly felt pressured, and it slipped my mind to head backstage where there was normal lighting. For the record, I cannot recommend trying to get the end of a violin string though the hole in the peg, especially when the pegbox is painted black, against the clock with trembling fingers by dim lighting. Except to psychological masochists of a subtle bent. After that interruption we picked and chose a new route through most of the prepared set list – fortunately something we are used to doing in response to how rowdy, drunk or otherwise punters are at bar duo gigs and so not an extra source of stress!

Edwina Hayes and Rosalie Deighton (it seems invidious to worry about what order the names are listed in) performed more as a double act than a duo. Both write in what might be called a broadly Americana vein, without trans- or mid-Atlantic accents or restrictively ten-gallon-hat lyrical content, but with a distinctively country guitar approach (notably, playing almost everything in G with a capo used to arrive at the right key for the singer’s range) and harmonic language, rarely beyond four chords in a song but potentially swapping between them at high speed; and both perform a mixture of their own songs and ones by professional friends. Their set might best be described as a two-sided songwriters’ circle (geometrists, chew on that concept), with them alternating performances, occasionally harmonising on each other’s songs or adding a few extra guitar notes, and offering quite substantial explanation of and comment on the songs. Indeed they commented on having been barred from playing sitting down as it wouldn’t have been gig-like enough – which didn’t make their manner any less in-the-round, unplugged, again folk club-esque.

Both are north-easterners, but Hayes’ stage manner (or manner in general – she is barely different in conversation without a microphone and an attentive audience) conforms much better to ‘northern lass’ stereotypes in harmlessly mocking garrulity (she also has the slightly less gloomy song repertoire – but by a narrow margin; heartbreak is the chief vein worked by both). In the course of the evening, besides lots of specific information and one long story about a two-minute song being made up on the fly by Rosalie to try and impress a man she was trapped with during a New York power cut but who had already expressed distaste for ‘really depressing country songs’ (he turned out to be gay), we also gleaned the following nuggets:

  • both are members of different weight-control associations
  • being in a thriving relationship is highly damaging to the songwriting output of both
  • Rosalie’s guitars are custom-made by a relative (I forget which), but unfortunately the one she had with her was having an off day for holding tuning

I’m sure there would have been less chat had said guitar behaved itself impeccably – sure not least because of the two statements of: ‘I need to tune this – say something funny!’ Each followed by a (brief, but dead) silence.

The evening had one more surprise up its sleeve for the audience (not for us thankfully). At the previous night’s gig, both acts had joined in an impromptu collaborative encore. So much had this impressed the promoter’s wife and general fixer that she asked after soundcheck if we would do the same. I must have looked slightly uncertain about what we would all know when this was first mooted (Rosalie and Edwina had not yet arrived at this point), but it was pushed through on Elaine’s grounds that I would busk whatever it was perfectly well! Edwina, on being presented with this situation, took about 10 minutes to come up with a very practical Northerly solution: ‘Let it Be in C. I’ve written out the words – me, Rosalie and Elaine can take one verse each.’ Apparently what I played (unrehearsed) was lovely – as the near-silent electric violin hadn’t been brought back up in the monitor on my side of stage, I didn’t really hear most of it! I just wish I’d worked out the right note to start the descending scale prominent in the original lead guitar before we did the song, rather than nailing it down (it’s the second of the scale – D in the key we were doing) just after that figure’s last occurrence in our performance. Well, you learn something new every day they say.

No Mike

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.

https://www.themorrisagency.co.uk/bands-to-hire/mechanics-roaming/

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 …

Geared-up busking

From starting to busk as an income top-up before leaving Oxford, to early this summer, an acoustic violin and a pair of stomp-ready heavy-soled boots had sufficed me as busking equipment. (I experimented with singing and playing mandolin and dropped them again as it seemed most people weren’t likely to pay me for the trouble, though as discussed in the previous post my mandolin is a lot better now than then, so I could revisit that at some point.)

However, eventually the weight of unsolicited advice and in effect peer pressure from the other buskers I saw and heard around London led to me feeling I needed a better armoury on a couple of different fronts. Enter the new kit:

left to right: busking amp, foot tambourine, finger shaker

The most ‘obvious’ decision (but also the one I made later) was to amp up. Acoustic buskers are a rare sight indeed in London these days, even if this may have something to do with the quietness of the (not operatically trained!) human voice and the guitar unamplified (I can punch acoustic violin a little harder), and the frequent use of backing tracks or loop units. I wouldn’t necessarily want to use the electric violin for busking, for various reasons, but having the Fishman bridge pickup on the acoustic means I don’t have to make that choice – and if the batteries go flat in the amp, I can still play! Until recently, the Victoria station pitch required unamplified buskers – but is apparently now being suspended pending negotiations and will permit amplification when reinstated, leaving really no reason not to get used to using the amp whenever I’m busking.

The Roland AC-33 was a classic among buskers and indeed small-gig singer-guitarists in Oxford when I lived there. I think Roland continue to gradually add more bells and whistles, but the underlying principles remain the same: you get an instrument channel and a mike one, with level and EQ controls, it will run off a mains adaptor or a rack of 8 AA batteries, and two speakers are fed at a notional 33-watt power, plus there is an aux in (for, for instance, backing tracks) and a line out (for connecting through to a PA at gigs in a real sense of the word). The whole thing is less than a foot wide with depth and height smaller still, though it still weighs enough to be a pain (though perfectly practical) to walk a mile with!

My big surprise with it has been how powerful, and how directional, it is. With it set up pretty much in front of me, angled slightly upwards on the built-in folding stand, I can barely hear the amp over the acoustic sound of the violin under my chin. However, genuinely outdoors and amid the hubbub of Camden Lock Market, it still produced enough noise for those in front of it to ask me to turn it down a couple of times in succession. What I’ve settled on as a perfectly adequate setting is having the master volume at half and the instrument channel (admittedly the level on the Fishman pickup is quite high) at a little less than half.

I’ve had the amp with me at a couple of slightly annoyingly out of the way busking pitches where I’d found myself rather comprehensively ignored acoustically, and it certainly helps the sound ‘reach out’ of corners and be noticed (and enjoyed!) further across a noisy and acoustically awkward space – I can literally see people waving their hands to a beat, looking over at me or mock-dancing further away than before!

And what about those backing tracks, or looping (there’s a built-in loop function in this version of the amp, though I’d need a controller pedal for it to use it with any practicality)? Well, not for now at least. I seriously dislike the inflexibility and unresponsiveness of playing to tracks, an objection which also applies when the track is a passage I’ve just played, except that live loops are either to knock on the head or replace with another attempt. Equally, with the exception of a couple of classical pieces where I could probably get tracks near enough matching what I do now, I would have to build a new repertoire around playing over tracks or loop composition (a significantly different art to putting together any other kind of music, I do not joke). At present, I prefer to keep everything uncomplicatedly live.

However, the dimensions of what I can do without recording or playback are somewhat expanded by the other new additions, coming specifically from a fellow-busker’s suggestion that the fiddle dance tunes in my repertoire would gain from some percussive support. The straightforward addition is the foot tambourine, which does exactly what you’d expect – strap it around the arch of my foot and every time I tap my toe I get a fairly sharply-defined jangle. This is quite adaptable within its constraints – while the basic option (and the one I use most) is simply to bash it on each main beat, it is also possible to drop it in and out for variation, use it for stops or imply a phrase-end build-up by going double-tempo, or even play on off-beats instead of on. A lot depends on how much multi-tasking my brain is feeling capable of! Sadly, it will only really do ‘crash’ (though substantial dynamic control is possible) – efforts to rotate or wiggle my ankle with my foot off the floor in order to imitate the classic gospel shake-and-windmill tambourine roll haven’t really paid off yet. But it certainly adds extra punch to the fiddle tunes, points up speeding up, and is usefully controllable as a time-keeper.

Slightly more questionable is the finger shaker (though I’m still using it and haven’t yet had anyone say it sounds bad). These fit on one finger like an oversize ring, and the flying saucer-shaped shaker inhabits the same sort of sound area as the egg shakers so beloved of non-guitar-playing folk singers. The intended use is that people playing hand drums (djembe, congas, etc.) put one on each hand for extra definition and cutting edge in the same rhythm they are playing. I’ve been putting one on my right (bowing) hand – after some experimentation, on my thumb, as it seems to get in the way of holding the bow least there. Strictly only for rhythmic numbers where folk-style bowing (down bows on down beats at pretty much all costs – an approach which I think is perfectly valid for art music up to about Beethoven, but can attract some funny looks from players trained fairly exclusively in the Romantic style) means it rattling on each bow change and string crossing lines up pretty well with the main beat, with few enough extra sounds to be interesting. As those who have tried the shaky egg will know, however, getting a coherent rhythm from the innocent-looking items is nowhere as near child’s play as would appear. One ‘shake’ (move and then stop sharply) throws whatever is inside against the front of the shaker, producing a noise; but if that is all you do, the contents then fall back and produce another one. Hence why people who are any good at it base everything on variations (for emphasis) of a constant back-and-forth rhythm. The risk with shaker on fiddle bow hand is that with slower bow changes (say, a tune played with a lot of slurs) and particularly if there is less other noise (from a foot tambourine, perhaps!) going on, there is an audible behind-the-beat extra ‘shk’ that only really serves to confuse the beat, as if there was a percussionist using poorly-judged digital delays (an effect of which I’m no fan, sorry 80s music lovers). However, in general I think it comes out ahead on giving a thicker, busier sound that is less solo violin and more one man band (though you won’t catch me playing bass drum with my elbows and strapping a pair of cymbals to my ankles any time soon).

Of course, the real question is, are they worth it as investments? Few if any people are ever going to judge busking, particularly folk-heavy busking, as art … certainly not me judging myself. Well the minor cost of getting the percussion certainly is paying off in extra ear-grabbing ability and extra accessibility to a casual audience largely unaccustomed to encountering rhythmic music (or much music at all) without some kind of drum beat. The much higher cost of the Roland amp will certainly take longer to pay back, and it is always difficult to assess average increased earnings from a change when so many other factors, from the national economy to the weather to the time of the day, week or month, are in play, but by extrapolation from definitely being heard more playing through it, it should be upping how much I’m tipped as well.

So hopefully, busking gear taking busking up a gear. We shall see.

Breaking new ground

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.