A year of living dangerously… [part one]

It’s been more than a year since I’ve put my thoughts down in this blog and what a year it’s been…

So what I’ll do a quick run through peppered with some random thoughts. Pay attention, there may a short quiz at the end (only kidding!)…

January always tends to be a quiet and so after a quick trip to Egypt (the first real holiday for more than a decade) the gig action kicked off towards the end of the month with a Burns’ Night Event in Kimbolton Cambs followed by another one for our friends in the Army Medical Corps at the end of the month in Aldershot.

The first of these was actually a gig that should have been the previous September. An agent that gives me a fair amount of work had asked – as a favour – to give the client an especially good price as a ‘mates rate’. I agreed to this since it seemed to be a good idea to keep on the good side of the agency. The problem was when the client wanted to postpone the gig due to poor ticket sales so I had to decide whether to agree to this or not. To insist on the agreed date and fee would be likely to cause a kerfuffle with the agent, but the postponement meant that I had a hole in an otherwise full calendar.

Furthermore, he proposed new date was a Burns’ Night which tends to be a higher payer due to the demand for bands. I agreed with some reservations – and a higher fee – but still I feel the agent should have known better in the first place than to ask for a lower fee, and then to push me to change the date. The client may be forgiven for not knowing what the score was when booking a professional band, but not so the agent. A good example of the adage “no good deed goes unpunished” I guess.

The Army is almost always a good gig as they have a culture of putting on events, a tradition of how to behave and they know how to let themselves have a good time. This was the fourth year running that we had played for this bunch, though we almost lost the gig the previous year due to the agent (not the same as the one above). The venue was different due to the relocation of the unit within the town. A good time was had by all as usual. I’ve put in a video from an earlier gig to give you a taster…

February was also quiet with just one paid gig at the beginning of the month which was a Hoedown for a 50th birthday party in a church hall in Kent. This gig featured the amazing Liz Scholey calling who I would say is the best caller in the land for this kind of event. Liz is a dance powerhouse and the only person I know who can kick higher than her head. She manages to communicate her amazing enthusiasm for dance to the audience and a good time is guaranteed for all.

This gig was the second we’d done at the this venue and was in the Hoedown Party format which is a mix of rockin’ country songs interspersed with barn and line dance segments. This was the first gig that we used the small BOSE pole system (i.e. the compact) which was loud enough to require that I mic’d up the drum kit. I was very impressed with the system which we had borrowed off Liz for the night. This was also the gig that I realised that the fiddle player was pretty much an optional extra with respect to the band’s sound.

This gig also marks the transition from working mainly as a ceilidh / barn dance musician to mainly playing in the new Hoedown format. In 2012 60% of my gigs were barn dance / ceilidh, either with MoonDance or one of the acoustic lineups (MoonLighting / MoonDance Acoustic), 30% the Hoedown Band and the other 10% a mix of covers / celtic / original and poetry.  In 2013 the Hoedown gigs hit 60% with and increase in the overall number of gigs by over a third.

Since then I’ve thought a lot about the change in direction but, apart from the obvious commercial reasons, it does make sense since my path up to this point had been via the folk rock genre, and country music comes from the same roots, albeit via a different path. Also, the combination of social dance (i.e. barn/line dance) with songs is something that I’ve been trying to do ever since I arrived in England in the early eighties.

The mix of country music and dance is much more compatible than trying to use english folk (or folk rock) – which most English audiences don’t ‘get’. The other thing I tried over the last couple or years was bolting on a covers set to a ceilidh outfit which, with a few exceptions, was just plain awkward – neither fish nor fowl. Also, I reckon I have managed to put somewhat of an original feel on the whole thing, the resulting music having a distinct rock feel which differentiates the sound from a ‘straight’ country band – sort of folk rock with a north american accent. Anyway the audience vote with their feet, in this case by getting up to dance.

Brian Heywood

The Heroes at the Four Horseshoes in Luton

February finished with a rare live gig doing original material for one of the worthy PDM gigs at the Four Horseshoes in Luton. The gig also featured two other bands playing in the rock genre and though, it wasn’t well attended, we went down well. PDM is one of the few promoters around that don’t rip off the bands. PDM are dedicated to promoting original live music and musicians in Luton and Paul Curry – who also plays bass for Third Law, a well known local band that he helped form. I’ve done a number of gigs for him over the years and can highly recommend his dedication to the local music scene.

Hoedown Band

A great barn for a hoedown

March saw things starting to hot up with a Hoedown gig at a amazing barn in Wymondley near Stevenage. It was built by King Henry VIII and apparently has associations with the Knights Templar (not to be confused with the Barron Knights) though we didn’t see any evidence of Dan Brown there. It was a 60th and the birthday girl’s requested song was Country Girl (Shake it for me) which is an interesting mix of rock and (almost) rap. We liked it so much we kept it in the set.

Sloane Rangers

Sloane Rangers at Cheltenham Festival

The following week, Dawn and I did a run of gigs at the Cheltenham Festival which consists of four days of horse racing near the Welsh border. This was the fourth year I’d worked here, but the first as part of a duo. Previously they (i.e. Keith Prowse) had booked me to provide a band playing a mix of celtic and other material. However technical problems with sound isolation at the venue coupled with a tightening of the budget due to the recession meant that they needed to scale down. Luckily we had just started putting together a duo (now called the Sloane Rangers) which meant that I could pitch a cheaper option to them. The new format went down very well and they promised to book us the following year (which they did!).

The end of March saw me playing at the Australian National Folk Festival in Canberra with my Aussie outfit – The Bluetongue Bush Ceilidh Band. This ensemble is designed to bring back to Australia my experience of the current UK ‘e-Ceilidh’ scene. The ‘Nash’ line up featured a great bunch of musicians from both the Australian and English dance scene – namely; Peter Anderson on button accordion (and calling), Greg Hunt on fiddle, Ian Blake on bass, Jon Jones on kit drums and Dawn Moore calling. My aim is to bring the energy of rock and funk that I’ve developed over the years in the UK to the bush dance scene. The band debuted at the Fairbridge Festival in Pinjarra, Western Australiain 2009 and wowed the audiences there with both the ‘full on’ dance music and their approach to calling bush dance. In 2013 the band played at the National Festival In Canberra, receiving comments such as “…best dancing I’ve done in Australia” (Andy Stafford, Chippenham Folk Festival). It’s early days yet, but I hope to develop this idea over the next few years.

Bluetongue at The Nash in 2013

Bluetongue at The Nash in 2013

Well that’s the end of Part One. My next blog will cover the Summer of 2013 and will be posted in the next week or so…

 

 

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The death of live music in Luton / Dunstable / UK?

(if you want it)

(if you want it)

Live music is the most engaging – and least monetised – of all the multifarious forms of entertainment available to us here in the UK – and perhaps the western world. 

When I started writing my regular live column in the Luton News & Dunstable Gazette almost exactly 17 years ago, I saw it that my task was to write about the best in the local music scene. I also thought that this was a good place for highlighting interesting stuff which otherwise might not get into the press. So in October 1995 my first column covered local funk band Longevity, a gig at Luton’s 33 Club from the Chicago style blues rock outfit King Bizkit, A Madness / Bad Manners tribute band at Yate’s Wine Bar, a Halloween gig from Longlights’ Promotions in Dunstable and a review of a fund raising barn dance at Whipsnade Zoo.

 

Queensway HallSince then Dunstable’s Queensway Hall has been knocked down and converted to a supermarket, the 33 Arts Centre in Luton has been closed and now sits empty. We have gained The Grove Theatre and the Hat Factory but neither of these puts on any contemporary professional live music. It’s very easy to view venues like the Queensway and the 33 through rose tinted glasses, but having worked at both venues I know that they had real problems in terms of the sound (Queensway) and the facilities (33artscentre33 Club). However they were both on the touring circuit and both had some amazing acts passing through.

For instance the list of legendary bands that played in Dunstable included Hawkwind, New Model Army, Blue Öyster Cult, Magnum, Killing Joke, REM, Thin Lizzy,  Metallica, Level 42, Uli Jon Roth, Steve Hackett, Dr Feelgood, Marillion, Gary Moore, Pretenders, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Motorhead and the Sex Pistols just to mention a few. The 33 Club had a different feel with many great American Jazz acts dropping in, sometimes doing their only UK dates there on the way through to Europe. While the Grove Theatre and the Hat Factory are technically far superior as venues, they don’t seem to be able to match the programming of the older (and now absent) inferior venues.
bjh

When I sit down to write my column every week, I get the information from a number of sources. First I rake through the emails people send me – which is mainly from the ‘professional’ theatres, venues, promoters and PR types. I then check any ‘events’ I may have flagged on Facebook and as a ‘last’ resort, search the web – usually via Lemonrock – for local gigs. It always amazes me how little effort most ‘up-and-coming’ local musicians and / or bands put into promoting their band / gig / album / whatever. If there are any ‘hot’ issues that effect the music scene – such as the recent changes in music licencing legislation – then I try to fit in stuff about this as well.

State of the local music scene Luton / Dunstable

One ‘feature’ of the local music scene is the lack of any venues that regularly put on acts that are active on the national music gig circuit. There are a few ‘one off’ gigs on occasion but generally you have to go elsewhere to see an act that you’ve actually heard of previously. You could argue that Luton and Dunstable fall into the ‘rain shadow’ cast by London, but surrounding towns don’t seem to suffer from this as much.

There seem to be more live bands appearing around the local area with mainly cover bands appearing at pubs and clubs in the area. The good new is that mostly the gigs are free to the punter with the venue owners realising that customers like a place with live music. In fact research from PRS for Music (Performing Rights Society) has revealed that live music is the best way for a venue to increase sales with 95% of publicans reporting an increase in takings when music is on their menu. It also turns out that pubs that don’t have live music are three times more likely to go bust than those who book bands.

PDM Gig at the Hat Factory..

PDM Gig at the Hat Factory..

There seems to be a dearth of outlets for any kind of original music. Apart from the Stirling work done by the chaps and chapesses of the PDM and LAMA the only way you get to hear new music / artists is via pub ‘Open Mic’ nights and jam sessions. A lot of pubs have jumped on the ‘Open Mic’ bandwagon and the ones I’ve been to tend to be pretty much of a “Curate’s egg” situation. Perhaps if they were just one part of a more vibrant local music scene then they would feed new talent into the mix. As it is it’s usually just a cheap way for a pub to be able to put ‘live music’ on its blackboard.

Public funding of the arts…

Lost ArtsFunding of the arts – or arts facilities – is a ‘hot topic’ at the moment as Local Authorities all around the country are under pressure to cut funding. In fact Newcastle City Council has completely cut its arts budget which has led to a lot of criticism being levelled at them. However this has also meant that other local authorities around the country are now considering following their lead as the arts are considered a ‘soft target’.

However, research shows that for every pound spent on the arts, two pounds of revenue is generated within the local economy. This means that massive cuts would essentially mean that the council would be shooting itself in the foot. I’ve not been able to get any hard information about the arts spend by the Luton council from their website, but I’m rather wondering if they are planning to penalise the local arts scene for the losses that they accrued from the big Olympic Torch Festival.

HatFActoryLogoThe recent Hat Factory stake holders meeting was an interesting insight into how the arts work in the People’s Republic of Luton. It seems that the council hived off the entire cultural part of the council’s remit to an independent charity that administers the libraries, the museum and all the arts venues. Luton Culture is currently mainly funded by Luton Borough Council (LBC) to the tune of five million pounds which is about 70% of the overall budget of the charity.

Anyway it seems that LBC will be slashing their contribution by around 40% over the next three years. Fortunately the fact that the charity is independent means that the council can’t just shut down the arts in the same way that Newcastle did. The reduction is pretty huge but the team at Luton Culture seem pretty confident that they can survive and continue to provide the core services including a Peripatetic Core arts team operating out the Hat Factory and Library Theatre. There will be cuts but arts will continue to be supported in Luton for the foreseeable future.

Heywood's HeroesWhile it is not the business of our local authorities to subsidise the local music (or arts) scene, they can – and should – consider both the cultural and business aspects of the local cultural scene. It is possible for the holders of our council tax revenue to provide ‘seed corn’ funding to encourage newcomers as well as established artists and promoters and help address any gross distortions in the local scene caused by factors under their control. This is part of their remit as our elected representatives .

The Alternative…

There is always the X-Factor and it’s ilk I suppose. While I realise that there is a place in the music world for the likes of Simon Cowell (presumably under a rock), the bands that really made the UK the leading light in popular music were those who got the top by the hard road through gigs in the pubs and clubs, playing to a live audience. The idea of Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, The Stones, Coldplay or The Police (to name just a few) getting to the top by going through the X-Factor sausage machine is a bit bizarre. No doubt the audiences will get bored with the pantomime of TV ‘talent’ competitions eventually.

The famous BBC Radio One DJ John Peel once said that the biggest enemy of new music was the music fan. As the mainstream music industry is run by bean counters whose only aim is to get their hands on the cash from the those same music fans then it’s not surprising that the music scene is constantly rehashing the old and ignoring the new. If punters are prepared to take risks and weather Sturgeon’s Law (90% of everything is crap) then there may be some hope of a vibrant music scene in the country and thus our local area. Otherwise we can look forward to a diet of rehashed hits from the 60’s (I can’t get no Satisfaction) and charming viral tosh from YouTube like Gangnam Style.

warning signThe Bottom Line…

We treat the British music scene as a given, a god given attribute of this cold and damp collection of islands perched on the north western edge of Europe. However if the ‘great British public’ don’t get off their collective backsides and go out to see some gigs then the whole shebang will wither on the vine and we’ll end up with a fantasy world of manufactured X-Factor style artists. These artists are chosen by a clique of promoters whose dedication to the music starts and stops at the bottom line.

My next blog will be a catch up on the gigs and other events from my arrival back in the UK in Spring 2012…

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Leaving on a jet plane…

On my recent trip to Australia I flew Qantas and, with one notable exception, I was very happy with the service of the flight and on-ground staff – both in the air and on the ground.

So, I’m at the departures desk at Darwin Airport to check in my baggage and pick up my boarding pass for flight QF0271 from Darwin to Singapore (Changi). Although this is a Qantas flight number, and I purchased all my flights through the Qantas website, this flight is operated by Jetstar (JQ061).

The guitar in question…

On checking in to this flight I was told by the check-in operator that I would be unable to take the travel guitar onto to the flight as the plane was ‘completely full’ (which turned out not to be the case by the way). I tried to explain that I only had one item of cabin baggage and that I had never had any other problems with other carriers. I also pointed out that the instrument was not in a flightcase and that it was likely to be damaged if it was put in the hold.

What other passengers were taking on board as cabin baggage…

I also asked for advice on what I needed to do to sort out the problem the operator basically told me to ‘go away and sort it out’. While this was not done in a particularly rude manner, the desk person was pretty abrupt and unhelpful. I would have thought that a referral to a supervisor or even the flight cabin crew as to whether they would consider that the item would be too bulky would have helped – just one phone call.

If this wasn’t bad enough, after checking the instrument in via the ‘bulky items’ facility and rather hoping that this would be handled separately  Imagine my horror when at Heathrow the instrument came out on the standard baggage carousel amongst all the huge (and heavy) cases that travellers use when travelling to the other side of the world. Luckily the instrument wasn’t damaged so I didn’t have to sort out a claim for compensation. I did have a very brief conversation with a Qantas customer support person in the departure area at Darwin, but while she was friendly, she was unable to help with this problem at that point.

This is the first time that I’ve been unable to take my travel guitar in as cabin baggage and I’ve flown all over the world with this guitar. Even United Airlines in the US – which has something of a reputation – didn’t hassle me. On this JetStar flight, most of the other passengers were taking two large bags – while I had just one small guitar case (see photos above).

I’m a professional musician who works mainly in the UK but, as I am an Australian citizen, I am planning to start working a proportion of the year in Australia, and as it’s such a big country, this will entail flying between various states to appear at festivals and so on. I am aware of the space contraints on flight’s and so for many years I have been flying with a Shapelywood Leisa travel guitar which is a very high quality acoustic instrument with a total length of just 81 cm.

The issue of taking instruments on planes is something of a ‘hot topic’ in recent years with some carriers making a point of being ‘musician friendly’ (UK’s EasyJet for instance). In fact US Congress has just passed legislation reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration to create a uniform policy regarding musical instruments on air planes  Specifically – “Any instrument that can be safely stored in the overhead compartment or under the seat may be brought on board as carry-on luggage.” This certainly would apply to the instrument in question – which is not only designed by the luthier to be so, but long experience with other carriers as proved this to be the case.

Up until this point I’d been extremely happy with Qantas. However, my advice to others in a similar situation would now have to be that musicians travelling with an instrument should think twice before flying with any carrier if Jetstar handle any of the hops. As Dave Carrol – who famously discomfited United Airlines with his “United Breaks Guitars” video – points out. Customer service in the age of the internet is judged on how an organisation handles the ‘special’ cases.

I did contact Qantas when I got back to the UK, though I’m not sure what I expected to get out of this. An apology would’ve been nice. Or perhaps, some kind of statement procedure or strategy that musicians can use when flying the Aussie flag carrier to prevent this kind of thing happening to them. I’d even be happy to distribute to UK musicians via the MU Journal’s correspondence page, my blog and through the various publications I write for. Even if the only advice is ‘Don’t fly Qantas’ if you want to take an instrument into the cabin then this at least would be a useful – and honest – response.

Instead, what I got was “Thank you for getting in touch and I’d like to let you know we were concerned to hear about your dissatisfaction with your Jetstar flight.” Which was good (ish), and then “As Jetstar is operated as a separate company to Qantas, you will need to write to them directly at: Jetstar Customer Care GPO Box 635 Sunshine VIC 3020“. It would seem that Jetstar has such a low budget that they can’t afford email (or is there another reason?).

I did actually write to the Jetstar Customer Care address and received a response along the lines that they were sorry I wasn’t happy with the their service and reiterating their cabin baggage dimensions. Perhaps they should read Dave Carrol’s book – “United Breaks Guitars – The power of one voice in the age of social media“, they may well find it a good read, especially as it happened in their industry.

Oh well, rant over. I’ll still fly Qantas but I’ll think twice (or thrice) before booking a flight via JetStar…

Next Blog I’ll go back to documenting the ‘happy-go-lucky’ life of a free range musician in the UK and elsewhere…

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Veni, Vidi, Exi – I came, I saw, I went away…

Time Flies like an Arrow, Fruit Flies’ like a Banana 

Finally the final instalment about my trip to Australia…

TANSTAALF rehearsal in 1973. Greg (Hough) is at the front playing flute…

After a packed musical weekend at The National Folk Festival in Canberra, I decide to drive up the Western side of the Great Divide to visit an old school friend who lives in Orange. Greg was also in the first band I ever put together – TANSTAAFL (i.e. There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch).

The trip takes me up some relatively minor highways so I get a really good look at the country. It takes this kind of road trip to appreciate the austere beauty of the Australian bush and the shear size of the country. The distance is around 280 kilometres – or in old money – 180 miles which for my English friends is like driving from London to Middlesbrough without going through or past any towns larger than Tring in Hertfordshire (pop. 12,000).

Watercolour by J R Heywood

Listening to the radio in the van, the interviewees talk a lot about the recent high levels of rain and how this has given a real boost to the local economy – which is basically based on cows and sheep. Looking out the wind screen I see a straw coloured landscape of grassy plains, dotted with copses of gum trees against a backdrop of distant ranges.  I have a watercolour painted by my dad on my bedroom wall that captures the mood pretty well.

The Boorowa Pub

I stopped at Boorowa for lunch which has a classic country hotel on the main street with deep verandahs that passing shearers would have bedded down on on their way to and from the seasonal shearing sheds. I wandered around the town a little, wondering what it would be like to live in a place like this. A good place to hunker down and go to seed I guess.

The road to Orange

Back on the road I pushed on to Orange and arrived just as the sun was going down. Orange is a regional centre and has pretty much the same population as Dunstable, where I live in England. Greg and his wife Sue both went to the same Highschool as me and they both went in to the civil service after graduating. They relocated to Orange when Greg’s department was moved there and have now taken advantage of the early retirement available to governments employees. It seems strange to me that one of my school mates is now a pensioner and enjoying all the perquisites of this station in life – including being a member of the lawn bowls club. I’m not sure that I’ll ever retire, or want to, but I don’t have any problems with anyone else taking advantage of the fruits of a life of hard work.

The van on Mt Conobolas

From Orange I took the road to Oberon via Mount Canobolas for the view and the good mobile signal so I could catch up on my email.  I was heading to Oberon to meet up with Mary for lunch. Mary (then Tierney) was a member of the first ‘pro’ band I was in – The Bluetongue Bush Band – back in the late 1970’s. She sang and played tin whistle and was (I thought at the time) from Tasmania. It turns out that she was originally from the same area of Sydney that I grew up in and had just spent some time in Tassie before returning to Sydney, the band and a teaching course. It was great to catch up and she returned to me a watch I had lent to her over 30 year ago when she needed a timepiece for an exam she was sitting. The watch was my father’s, presented to the first time he left Ainsworth Consolidated Industries, a company he helped found which later became extremely successful.

Leanne and friend…

From Oberon I crossed the Blue Mountains on my way to the next stop at Pendle Hill in Sydney where I planned to meet up with Leanne Lawerence, who was my neighbour in Kingsgrove when I was growing up. Pendle Hill is a suburb of Sydney that is just west of Parramatta and she runs a specialist firm that deals with VW parts and repairs called Volksbahn Autos. Again it was great to catch up and especially with someone who shared so many memories of our growing up. I was also very grateful of the offer of accommodation during my stay as she had a spare room available while her son was away.

The old team back together one more time…

During my stay in Sydney I managed to meet up with a few old friends including George Kyprios, who was also an original member of both TANSTAAFL and it’s successor – MSG – playing keys in both. In fact I met up with George a couple of times, once at his place overlooking the George’s River and once in town at a great little bistro overlooking Circular Quay.

In George’s garage, Kingsgrove

George took a different path from me in lots of ways and it was cool to compare notes. Mind you, I think that we may have got pretty much to the same place despite our different routes.

I also took the opportunity to wander around the Circular Quay area of Sydney, checking out some old haunts and just generally chilling out. It’s amazing to think that I can remember the Opera House being built and the number of times I went there to see plays and other gigs.

On the Sydney Opera House patio with the ‘coat hanger’ in the background…

In fact I remember seeing Split Enz (the predecessor of Crowded House) playing at the Recording Theatre soon after they arrived in Sydney from New Zealand. It was for a live broadcast by the infant 2JJ rock radio station and I was totally knocked out by the show. It was the first time that I had seen a band performance as a complete dramatic show integrating the music, lighting and stage antics of the performers. I reckon I’ve been to events in all the performance spaces of the Opera House at various times A great building, and a great feat of engineering. The iconic location also helps, on the harbour next the the Sydney Harbour Bridge (aka ‘The Coathanger’). Went I first saw the publicity pictures of The Sage in Gateshead at Womex in Seville back in 2003, it dead obvious to me that they had modelled them on the classic Sydney Opera House + Bridge pictures.

Where the dog shat in the tucker box, five miles from Gundagai..

From Sydney I had to get back to Melbourne in time for my flight to Darwin, and then back to England. I was originally planning to drive down the coast but a combination of bad weather (storms coming in over the Tasman Sea) and SatNav failure due to operator error I ended up heading straight back down to Melbourne via the Hume Highway. On the way I stopped at a little tourist stop just outside Gundagai which is famous for a story involving a “Bullocky Bill”, a tale of woe about his bullock dray getting stuck in the mud of the creek and all the things that subsequently went wrong, culminating in finding out that his dog had crapped in his tucker box (tucker=food). This is a famous story which was bowdlerised to “The dog sat on the tucker box”converting the dastardly deed into a “good and faithful” pal type story. The former is certainly funnier than the latter.

Crocodile rock…

The desert heart of Australia – Stuart’s Desert Pea?

From Melbourne I flew via Jetstar to Darwin to see my daughter Tahneen and grandson Brayden for a few days. This is the first time I’d been this far north. Darwin is quite a small place and relies on tourism and so has been hit badly by the dip in the tourist trade. During the flight I noticed that the desert was blooming, another result of the floods I guess – the desert plants have a very short life cycle due to the intermittent nature of the rain fall, so I was lucky to be able see this.

Darwin puts the crocodile back into Crocodile Dundee (or visa versa)…

One of the big draws of Darwin is the number of crocodiles found there. It was the first time I’d seen these up close – and one of them was the one that appeared in the Paul Hogan film apparently. There was an opportunity to go swimming in the croc pool in a specially armoured enclosure for an additional which, needless to say, I declined. A couple did so but didn’t get any reaction from the big reptiles – perhaps they weren’t that hungry.

From Darwin it was back to old blighty to a temperature of 5 degrees C from 33 degrees at take off, with fun and games at the airport check-in with regard to my travel guitar…

In the next blog I will be expanding on my ‘customer service’ experience with QANTAS / JetStar – stay in tune…

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Off to Canberra for the National Folk Festival

On the road…

I head up to Canberra on the Wednesday (April 4) to get to the Folklore Conference on the Thursday. After a diversion to the centre of Melbourne to pick up a passenger (Wim) who offered to share the fuel costs. The weather is sunny and warm so it looks hopeful for the festival, though as Canberra is just over475 km away (about 300 miles) it could be quite different. It’s actually about 650 km by road (about 400 miles) but the road is pretty good all the the way, dual carriageway all the way except for two short sections, so the trip took about 8/9 hours with a couple of breaks.

One slightly weird stop was at Holbrook, which has the upper part of the Oberon Class conventional subumarine HMAS Otway in the town park. The point of this was that the town was named after a British submariner who won a Victoria Cross in WW1 for sinking a Turkish battership in the Dardinelles. The town had been called Germanton (i.e. German Town) after a German immigrant, John Christopher Pabst, who was the publican of the Woolpack Hotel. Like many towns with german names they changed it during the first world war – as did the the British Royal family (who changed their family name to ‘Windsor’).

The National Folk Festival (Canberra)…

After stopping off at the festival site to drop off my passenger and pick up my ticket and camping pass I head off meet up with Ian Blake who has kindly offered me a bed and – more importantly – a bathroom during my stay.

In evening I head down to the festival to have a look around and link up with Mandy Connell  and her merry crew only to find myself on-stage at the Flute & Fiddle venue as part of the band (along with Ian Blake on Sax and Marilla on vocals). This is despite the fact that the Festival hasn’t officially started yet. So it looks like it’s going to be a good one…

Thursday was taken up with the Folklore Conference which took place at the Australian National Library and featured talks on the role of music at the Australian Antarctic bases and expeditions by singer / songwriter Bruce Watson and a lecture about the bush poet (and Labour MP) John Keith McDougall who was a contemporary of Henry Lawson. This was presented by Dennis O’Keffe who has just published a book “Waltzing Matlilda – The Secret History of Australia’s Favourite Song”  which I had bought in the local ABC shop as part of my research into the idea of doing a vaguely historical show of Australian song and spoken word. At lunch time there was a concert called “Yarns and Melodies” with a couple of pretty authentic Aussie country / folk characters.

In the afternoon I ‘nicked off’ and walked up to the new Parliament House which I hadn’t seen before. The inmates (i.e. the federal MPs) weren’t there, but I had a wander around and a coffee on the terrace. I couldn’t help but compare it with the Palace of Westminster in London which I visited a few months ago to lobby my MP about the Lost Arts Campaign. As you might image the Aussie Parliament is a lot more relaxed than it’s British counterpart – also a lot more spacious and lighter than it’s predecessor.

On the way back to the car I pass the Aboriginal Embassy on the grounds between the old and new buildings. This has been there since before I left for England in 1979.  As I wander past I muse on the fact that their ancestors also colonised this land by sea, the first humans to do so apparently. It doesn’t effect the justice of their case, but might be considered an example of ‘what goes around, comes around’…

Meanwhile, back at the festival…

Back to the festival for the evening and another gig with Mandy, this time for the VIP Event before the main opening concert. The festival is a ‘green field’ type event except that there are a few permanent structures at the showground which can act as venues.

As I mentioned in my last blog, one of my main aims at being at the festival is to suss out what the state of the social dance scene is. After the VIP gig I check out one of the Bush Dance events and it all seems pretty staid, with an ageing audience and a low altitude band. I’m pretty sure that this audience wouldn’t be into the kind of stuff that I do in the UK. I was beginning to think that if I wanted to work over here then I’d have to apeal to a different audience.

I also get a chance to see the band that Ian plays with at the Flute & Fiddle venue – Cassidy’s Ceili – which sounds pretty good, despite Cassidy wrecking her foot in the preamble to the gig – the show must go on! The repertoire consists of some fairly tasty ‘old school folk rock – right up my street…

Sitting in with the band at the National...On Friday I get to play with the Old Empire Band which is led by Peter Logue on keyboard. There are about 16 people on stage – including Brian Peters and two percussionists – so we’re quite tight for space. I wheel out the electric for this and quite enjoy the music – getting a number of compliments from band members which was nice. A lot of the tunes were familiar as they are from the New Victory Band and similar repotoire. I played a lot of these tunes when I first played in the the UK with the Cluster of Nuts and Roger Watson was still using some of them when we worked together more recently. Still, looking at the audience I’m not sure how Bluetongue / MoonDance Bush Ceilidh would go down…

‘The Nash’ is a great festival as it has a load of things going on at any one time including at least three sessions in the ‘session bar’ as well as at least five ‘blackboard’ venues which have a mix of booked acts, acts which have come down ‘on spec’ to showcase and ad hoc collabourations of performers just taking advantage of the moment to try something new. While I’m not a great fan of musos doing something for no pay, this gives everone an opportunity to have a go. A bit different from the ‘closed shop’ that you get at British Folk Festivals.

Anyway, getting back to my mission of sussing out the social dance scene, by Saturday I was getting the distinct feeling that there wasn’t any space in the Aussie social dance scene for anything as raucous as the sort of stuff that I do in Brit-land with MoonDance. However I popped in to see the Rapscallion album launch (Vagabond King) and was immediately reminded of the gigs that we’ve been doing at GuilFest in terms of the sweaty energy generated by the audience. I spoke with one of the festival organisers later in the week who was very keen on the idea. So as long as I can my act together…

Sunday saw another gig with Mandy at the Bohemian Bar which when down very well, though the stage was pretty crowded. This was a much longer set of one hour so we went though a fair amount of material. I had the electric again and put a killer solo into a rather tasteful harmony song.

Monday saw me performing under my own name at the ‘Stock Camp’ venue with the assistance of Ian Blake on sax and a spot with the lovely and talented Marilla Homes  for a somewhat under-rehearsed version of Summer Time. In the evening we had a final session with Mandy’s band – nicknamed ‘The Minions’ – which had gradualy grown in size over the weekend until it managed to get ten players on stage for the last gig at the Scrumpy Bar. All through the weekend I was knocked out by the wonderful voice of Lindsey Meldrum  who was helping out Mandy on backing vocals and credits also go to Stirling Gill-Chambers on fiddle (Spooky Mens’ Chorale), ‘Charles De Vermin’ (Rapskallion) on mandolin and Leonard Podolak (banjo) from the Dry Bones.

Acts I saw a the festival I would recommend checking out are;
Gleny Rae & her Tamworth Playboys
Rapskallion
Mark Cryle & The Redeemers
The WhooHoo Revue
The Lurkers
Jeff Lang
– Dry Bones

My next blog will cover the trip from Canberra to Sydney via Orange and Oberon…

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Back in Australia – and a week passes by….

Another week just flys by in Melbourne…

The weather is not great but still warm enough to have breakfast on the verandah. I spent the the first few days on the phone to various contacts and trying to get into the right time-zone. Somewhat frustrated by people not getting back to me. Basically I use the ‘rule of 3’ which is basically that if I don’t get a response after three tries I write it off.

I do manage to arrange meetings with Bruce Shephens who was a member of my first professional outfit – The Bluetongue Bush Band – which used to gig around Sydney in the late 1970’s with residencies at The Dispensary in Anandale, The Covent Garden Hotel at the bottom of Dixon St and, later, The Governor’s Pleasure in The Rocks. This was the band that originally got me into ‘social dance’ scene as we tapped into the bush dance revival, running a regular monthly dance at the Surrey Hills Community Centre. I also got into this as a dancer and remember going to dances at Balmain Town Hall  including one which featured The Bushwackers.

On Thursday spent all day in Ringwood where my brother lives. The weather had heated up to a nice 28 degrees and the flowers were in bloom at the war memorial. I don’t know if this random chance but the path to the memorial was flanked by blood red blooms . Appropriate I guess, but slightly macabre. It’s ANZAC Day at the end of April, but I’ll be back in England by then….

On Friday I head over to Kew to see Hugh McDonald to say ‘hi!’. I did the track laying to about half the tracks of the WoodworX – Two Short Planx album at his studio and have kept in touch. On the way there I start to wonder whether it would be possible to record my solo album over here with Hugh producing it. As one of my favourite albums of all time is Redgum’s Midnight Sun, this idea appeals to me a lot. There would be quite a few practical difficulties with this, especially with the preproduction phase,  but with the help of Skype and so on it would work. I would mean me spending a couple of months over here next year (Oh dear, what a pity, never mind).

Melbourne is just getting into Autumn and Melbourne is far enough south to support a lot of imported deciduous trees, so it has more of a European autumn than Sydney, where I was bought up.

After Kew had a few hours off before my evening meeting in East Brighton so I drove down to the shore of Port Phillip bay and went for a bit of a walk. Saw some guys para surfing/boarding on the bay, it all looked pretty cool. The edge of the bay is lined with beaches but there’s no surf as it almost completely landlocked. I heard that the bay is actually in pretty good shape in terms of the ecology. There was a potential problem with nitrate run-off, but they are addressing that. More power to the Victorians, they can probably teach the north a thing or two about how to look after the environment.

I ended up up at the St Kilda marina. The pier has a nice little cafe on the end which we went to last time I was in Melbourne when were doing the Fairbridge Folk Festival a few years ago. I was looking forward to a nice cold beer there but unfortunately it was closed for a private function to I had to trek back to the beach where I managed to assuage my thirst.

The weekend started well with a Nudgel’s gig at the Penny Black playing a mix of Cajun influenced rock and blues. The Melbourne music scene at this level seems to revolve around a relatively small number of music venues like the Penny Black (a converted post office) and The Lomond. On Sunday I went to see a gig at another of these venues – the Edinburgh Castle – with Mandy Connell and her band, but unfortunately the agent double booked the venue, and she’s agreed to postpone her residency there for a few weeks. It seems that agents are pretty useless on this side of the world as well…

Later this week I head up to Canberra for the Nation Folklore Conference followed by the National Folk Festival. I have quite a long list of people to meet up with there, so I should be kept pretty busy. With any luck I should get some playing in as well…

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Back in Australia – the first four days…

The plane on the tarmac at Melbourne International AirportAfter about 24 hours in the air on QF030 I touched down at Tullamarine just before 8am on Thursday morning. It was quite a comfortable flight with an aisle seat on the first leg to Hong Kong where they turfed us all off the plane with our hand luggage. We had to go through security again (twice) before we got back on the plane giving us a welcome opportunity to queue (twice).

Peter Anderson, an accordion player of some note, picked me up from the airport and took me back to his place in West Heidelberg where I will be staying during the Melbourne portion of my visit. I spent the rest of the day sorting out a local mobile phone, getting a data dongle for my net-book PC and trying to stay awake. In the evening we went out to a local pub for food and I had my first Aussie steak for four years.

Nifty Nissan NomadNext day I had breakfast on the veranda watching Aussie birds while  I munched on my corn flakes. Pretty much another rest day apart from making some phone calls and so on. Peter sorted out the tappets on his nifty Nissan Nomad window van which he has kitted out as a camper.  After being introduced to the secrets of the dual LPG / petrol system I took it for a spin. Driving in Melbourne is pretty easy compared to London, except for the trams which still make me slightly nervous.

Saturday I go over to see my brother in Ringwood and pick up my lovely Yamaha Pacifica electric guitar which is in a dire need of a restring after four years on the shelf, so I pop into the really excellent Five Star music shop nearby. G7th Performance capo...Also pick up a new clip on tuner and capo both of which I’d forgotten to pack. After chatting to the guy behind the counter I decide to go for a G7th ‘Performance’ capo which has a clutch mechanism rather than a spring or screw adjustment. I’ve heard good things about these and some guitarists I know use them, but they cost quite a bit more than more standard types.

Dancehall Racketeers (Deluxe western swing)In the evening I go down to the Lomond in East Brunswick to catch a bit of a set by the Dancehall Racketeers who bill themselves as Deluxe Western Swing. They certainly have the sound but I think that they more eclectic than that, with some excellent blues with the aid of a couple of friends in the audience who come up to help out with vocals. Last time I was over here we did a gig here with an acoustic version of the enQ line up – it’s a great little roots venue, check it out if you’re in Melbourne.

Mandy and Richard playing at IDGAFF in MelbourneOn Sunday arvo I catch the fabulous Mandy Connell at a small venue on Hoddle St called IDGAFF (which is a variation of DILLIGAF). I first met Mandy at a session on my last trip here and then at Fairbridge Festival in Western Australia where we were both performing. Since then I’ve bumped into her a number of times in England and did some gigs on bass for her in Coventry. For this gig she has long term collaborator Richard on double bass and she is swapping between mandolin, guitar and some powerful unaccompanied singing. She really has an amazing voice and the skill to use it properly. One to watch I deem.

Later on I bump into her again at the Lomond when I drop in for a bite to eat. It turns out that she’s going to The National Festival in Canberra, so may well get a chance to do some playing together there. There’s some more great live music happening there with the Monique diMattina Band (Honky-tonkin’ jazz).

Contra dance in Melbourne...Finish the night with a visit to a local Contra Dance at a nearby church hall in Northcote. I want to get an idea of the ‘state-of-the-art’ of the local dance scene, and as contra is often cited as the the north american equivalent of e-ceilidh, I thought that this is was worth checking out. Despite the the rather bleak hall and unsympathetic lighting the dancers were pretty welcoming. The event had rather the feel of an English ‘Dance of Dance’ event with only a few youngsters leavening the older dancers.

The 'contra' band...The band were young, and pretty good too, though they were playing in more of a celtic style than the smooth rhythms that I would normally associate with contra. All the dances were long ways sets (improper) and there were some very good dancers, as well as a few pretty lumpen ones. The overall impression was of a club, albeit a friendly one, and I went away with the feeling that they would be pretty appalled by the sort of thing that I do in the dance department.

Anyway, I’ll get more chances to see examples of the local dance scene at the National Festival and up in Sydney. However I starting to think that I’ll need to start from scratch if I’m going to get E-ceilidh (Bush Ceilidh) onto the scene here….

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