Another biggish gap in publication means that I’m going to try and wrap up the rest of 2011 in this blog in one rush. Please try and keep up…
August turned out to be quite a busy month for me. Apart from the usual run of function and pub gigs, I started a regular Thursday night gig at the Four Kings Bar and Cafe in Dunstable. The idea came to me as I was walking past it on the way to the regular Tuesday night session at the Globe pub on the other side of town. It occurred to me that there was no live music going on in Dunstable on a Thursday and I thought that I could exercise my acoustic repertoire as well as try out new songs, collaborate with other local musicians and so on.
It could also give me the opportunity to encourage other local musicians to come and try out new material or even just socialise. What I had in mind was a sort of halfway house between a session/open mic and a full concert. In short it could provide a stepping stone for anyone who fancied stepping up to the next level. As the Four Kings has a house PA and a small stage, all I needed to do was get a couple of mic stands and modest microphones to handle two or three players. I spoke to Jamie (the manager) and he was keen, though there was no money to make it a paid gig.
I’d been doing the gig a couple of weeks before I realised that this was the first solo performance I’d ever done. Apart from sing-arounds and open mic nights, I usually work with a band, or at least in a duo, so I sort of side stepped into this without giving it two much thought. In general the regular event went well and it was a bit of an education for me. The first is that I felt very exposed sitting up there on stage by myself. When you are part of an ensemble, even just a duo you feel you have some support from the other players so it becomes a team effort – sort an ‘us’ and ‘them’ situation. When you are solo it’s not only exposed, but you’re up there all night so you have to have a certain level of confidence to be able to function.
August was also the time of the riots in London which didn’t directly effect me, but caused a gig to be postponed. The Hoedown band had been booked to perform at one of the open air venues at the “Elephant & Nun” Festival that was taking place at various parks in and around the Camberwell area of South London. The festival was sponsored by Southwark Council which covers the Elephant and Castle, Walworth, Kennington, Camberwell, Peckham and Nunhead areas – thus the slightly odd name. The decision to postpone the festival was taken at very short notice as the riots were at their peak the weekend before the festival. The main reason was that the police felt that they could not guarantee the safety of the participants if the rioting continued.
This was almost certainly the right decision, but somewhat disappointing as the new date was in the second half of September. The weather in September can be cooler and wetter and this turned out to be the case when we did the gig. However the band went down very well and everyone had a good time despite the thin drizzle. There was an ace ukulele band preceding our slot who doing everything from Britpop to jazz standards.
The end of August, beginning of September is also usually when Dunstable Town Council tends to put on a big outdoor event – at least for the last decade or so. First a bit of history; the idea of having a music festival in Dunstable was first conceived as a folk music based event by the Town Council back in 2000, around the time that the Queensway Hall was knocked down to make way for ASDA. I was approached to help with the music programming of the music due to my involvement in the folk scene and I persuaded them to broaden the remit to make it more of a folk / world music fusion event. As well as the Saturday night concert in Grove House Gardens, there was a showcase of local music on the Sunday hosted by local folkie and author, Martin Banks.
Back in 2000, in addition to the outdoor performances at the then new outdoor performance area in Grove House gardens, there were music sessions at the Froth and Elbow and the Norman King, Morris dancing around the town and my contribution was an opening ceilidh /barn dance at Peter Newton Pavilion on the Friday with my new ceilidh band – MoonDance. The venue was still owned by the council at that time but the musicians performed for a share of the door. The video below is a 16 minute edited selection from this gig…
The festival was scheduled on the first weekend in September so that it wouldn’t clash with other larger events in the area – such as Towersey Folk Festival – on the bank holiday weekend. This also meant that local residents – who after all paid for the festival – would be back from their holidays. The intent was to encourage local businesses to get involved, putting on live music events that would be included in the festival brochure. Despite the success of this format, the council decided to turn it into a more general rock music festival which meant it was pretty pointless doing the ‘Festival Ceilidh’ so we didn’t bother this year.
There was a fair amount of local involvement from bands such as Subset, The Nimblewits, Sarah Doe and Jonny Fever, Macband and the big headliner (sic) being Soulfish. All the acts did a splendid job and the technical support as always was great. This year the stage management was organised by local promoters the Majick Music Group. It didn’t quite have the seamless approach of previous years when Rick Christian filled the change-overs with his folk country style songs.
Anyhow, while I was watching the concert I was wondering whether the music content was losing some of its broader appeal and becoming more focused on a particular age group. The great strength of the festival was that it was very inclusive appealing to all ages. This might be a reason that numbers were down this year, though this might be simply due to the fact that there wasn’t a ‘name’ band on the bill.
At the end of September we did a little northern tour of our four piece outfit – The Kickin’ Ceilidh Band. This has been going on and off for a few years and is based around a free reed instrument player who can also call, me on guitar and a bass player and drummer. This is somewhat unusual for me as one the attributes that differentiates my dance bands from the great mass of ceilidh / barn dance band is that the sound revolves around the cutting edginess of electric fiddle and electric guitar and ‘Prog Rock’ influenced arrangements. To quote Tom Nelligan from the US magazine Dirty linen; “… aggressive, top notch fiddling set off by periodic guitar explosions.”
The Kickin’ Ceilidh sound is much more influenced by World Music grooves and the arrangements are more influenced by Roger Watson’s ‘mantic’ approach. These are simple and repetitive sequences in which the groove is more important than any harmonic cleverness. Roger developed this concept with his Afro-English band Boka Halat but in Kickin’ we were moving towards a more afro-latin feel. It was a great shame when Roger had to retire due to ill health, but after a couple of experiments we linked up with Alex Cumming – a young accordion player from Somerset who exhibited the high energy required to keep the smaller ensemble from sounding weedy. The video below is from the version of the band with Roger Watson on melodeon and calling…
Anyway, we were asked to open the new season of Manchester Ceilidhs and the freshers’ ball for the Sheffield University Ceilidh Society. The gigs were two days and 30 miles apart, albeit in opposite sides of the Pennines. The gigs seemed to go down really well though, as the fees were very low, they really didn’t pay for themselves. I guess the social dance will remain in the hands of amateurs and hobby bands.
October saw a performance in Hertford of the duo version of “Thinking about our world” with poet Bob Harding-Jones. It’s a spoken word and music show which takes a wry look at the state of the world we live in. The performance took place in a Quaker Meeting House which turns out to be an ideal venue for this kind of thing. We invited special guest Sarah Doe as a support and it all seemed to go down very well. I rather like the idea of putting on this show at friends meeting houses around the country – the format and the subject matter fit in very well with the Quaker philosophy.
Gigs started to tail off in October, though will the regular Thursday night’s this didn’t seem obvious at the time. One high point was an invitation to perform at the 15 Minute Club in Milton Keynes which I did as a duo with Hoedown Band singer Dawn, doing a mix of my original material and some acoustic country songs which included the first outing of a slow ballad that I had written specifically for Dawn. I also started using Soundcloud to make public demo’s I’ve made over the years. You can checkout the tracks by going to my Soundcloud home page. I will be adding new tracks on a regular basis so be sure to follow me if you want to be notified when I do – or you can follow me on Twitter (@Brian8ch).
At the end of October I stopped doing the regular Thursday gigs as the audience response was extremely variable in return for the considerable effort I was putting in. Looking back I remember that there were some pretty good nights and great performances from other musicians who turned up on occasion; especially Sarah Doe, Paul Hegley, Gerard Haughy and Rick camp. But in the end, for any thing to be viable it needs to return something to the players, or at least get a regular audience. Whoever said ‘Thursday night is the new Friday’ obviously doesn’t live in Dunstable.
Early on in November I went up to see one my favourite bands – Yes – perform at Sheffield City Hall. I don’t really consider myself to be a fan of any band but Yes would be the nearest I get. I guess thay must have influenced me since I just missed their tour of Australia in 1973. My best mate at the time, Rex, saw them and raved about them so much that I bought their current album -Close to the Edge – and was immediately hooked. I have seen them live a couple of times now and like the way that they are always adding to their cannon of work, rather than simply rehashing old stuff like some ‘heritage’ bands. This the first time I’d seen them without Jon Anderson on vocals and – while the current incumberant got close to Anderson’s panash – he didn’t quite manage to pull it off. Still, the concert was immensly enjoyable.
Later in the month I went over to the Costa Blanca region Spain for almost two weeks with the rest of the ‘front line’ of the Hoedown Band to try and see if we could get some work for the full band. Sian, the fiddle player’s dad lives in the area and we had the use of an apartment via a friend of the Dawn (Hoedown’s lead singer). These connection’s meant that we some leads and we did manage to get some acoustic gigs in the area, though not as many as we’d hoped. The area has a high concentration of ex-pat Brits which means that country and celtic music is in demand though as most of the Brits are on fixed incomes, they don’t want to spend much on entertainments. However we did make some good connections and it looks like it’ll be commercially to do a couple of weeks over there next summer with the full band. Hopefully I’ll get us out of England during the chaos of the Olympics.
December kicked off with a recording session for a local country acoustic trio called Americano in my studio. The band members include Alan Hewson and Hamish Currie who I’ve known for sometime along with bass player Rich Banks. They were very pleased with the result describing the demo tracks in their press release as being “beautifully engineered by Brian Heywood”. The tracks are on Soundcloud if you want to have a listen.
The Chiltern Ceilidh in the middle of the month marked something of turning point of the public dance series when it ceased being a monthly event. Unfortunately, with a few notable exceptions, the series never managed to attract enough of a local audience to make the events viable over the year. This is complicated by the fact that the active members of the Chiltern Ceilidh management team have moved away from the area and not enough local volunteers have been forthcoming to fill the gaps. So from the start of 2012, the series will be reverting to quarterly, using local musicians and callers who are prepared to donate their services for expenses. Whether this a permanent arrangement will depend on both audiences and the availability of volunteers to help out on the night.
December also marked the end of my first tenure on the Executive Committee (EC) of the British Musicians’ Union (MU). This is the governing body of an organisation that represents the interests of over 30,000 working musicians in the UK and has an annual turnover and assets measured in millions of pounds and employs fifty staff. The EC is broadly equivalent to a board of directors and all the members are elected by the members of the various regions. Broadly speaking the EC decides on the MU’s policy while the secretariat led by an extremely capable elected General Secretary – John Smith – advises and implements these policies. After some thought, I decided to stand for re-election and was voted in by the members on the East & Southeast region of the union for another two year term.
The end of the month saw a couple of gigs my covers band Stencil over in Gloucestershire for Boxing Bay and New Year’s Eve. The latter of these was a repeat booking from a couple of years ago which was memorable as the van broke down on the way to the gig and though the AA relayed us to the venue they refused point blank to take us home afterward, despite the fact that there was four AA members involved. You can imagine how easy it is to get anyone to transport you 100 miles at 2 am on New Year’s morning. In the end I managed to find someone available, but they had to come from Bristol. The cost getting us back wiped out any profit from the gig but at least the punters didn’t have their evening spoilt by no arrival of the band. It makes you wonder what 30 years of AA membership is worth to the organisation. I very nearly told them to go to hell after that, I may still do so…