Free Range Musician…

A the end of January I decided to do something about my ‘free range musician’ idea so I started a page on Facebook and nabbed the top level domain. The idea is that musicians who are making a living out of playing music are a different breed from those who have day jobs – whether it’s in an orchestra or signed up to a record company (or whatever).

A Free Ranger is unlikely to be ‘famous’ in terms of the media scrum, they may have had their share of accolades in various forms, but the main point is that they get all, or at least a major proportion, of their income from performing or recording music. This usually means a ‘portfolio’ career, i.e. they do a number of things to earn a crust – usually with some link to their career in music. So they will often teach (music), MC or stage manage events and festivals, write, edit, publish, manage or work in the funded arts or music retail sector.

The Free Range musician may well have other sources of income outside of the music ‘industry’ but the significant point is that they have no ‘day job’ to fall back on. The difference between a Freelance and a Free Range Musician is that the former is a job description while the latter is a ‘life choice’. Free Rangers may well freelance but not all freelancers are ‘free range’.

On with the motley…

On the first Saturday in the month I did another dep gig, this time with Liz Scholey’s band (Fire Cracker) for a very posh household near Hampton Court Palace. The residence itself was a rather petite, but none the less palatial, affair with the actual gig in a tipi set up in the garden. The event was made more interesting by the fact that it started to snow heavily just as I pulled up at the front – which put a bit of a damper on the BBQ.

The household were very welcoming and the trio seemed to go down pretty well with a programme of barn dance. line dance spiced up with a few songs. The audience suitably attired in Counntry and Western gear, which for an English audience is a perfect excuse to to let rip and have a good time.

The next evening I went to listen to some jazz in Finchley with a couple of muso friends – Tim from The Quirky and Mike who drums in a number of my projects. This gig is a regular jazz session at the Safari Bar and Resturant on Finchley High Road and happens on the first Sunday of the month. It’s run by jazz drummer Rick Finlay and usually features members of his band Just East of Jazz. This particular night the band featured the well regarded sax player Derek Nash and the ‘house’ band played quite a few of his arrangements to great effect. This is a real session, so often features members of the audience who either get up and sit in, or do solo spots.

The club was quite full despite there being a couple of inches of snow on the ground outside. I usually feel that English audiences are easily deterred by inclement weather – which I find surprising since they have so much of it. However jazzers must made of sterner stuff, since the Sarfai bar was almost full.

On Friday 10th February we held the last Chiltern Ceilidh for the foreseeable future at the Polish Club in Dunstable. A sudden change in the management of the venue only made known to us the day before the dance. The new management basically gave us our marching orders and now seems that the Polish Club in Dunstable have no wish to engage with the local community. We oginally shifted from using St Mary’s Hall to the Polish Club two years ago due the fact that it was both a better venue and the management were very supportive. We had already looked exhaustively for a suitable local venue without any luck until we hit the Polish Club. The series had been “teetering on the brink” due to a numer of factors and this latest news was the last straw.

On Friday 24th, Bob Harding-Jones and I were asked to perform an excerpt of our “Thinking about our world..” show as part of the World on One Stage event. The gigwas organised by the Student’s Union of the Luton Campus of the University of Bedfordshire as part of their multicultural community week of events and took place in the new UK Carnival Arts Centre in Luton. This was a showcase of dance, music and theatre from a mix of students and performers from the local community. We had a 15 minute slot and we sort of ‘top and tailed’ a couple of segments with the show intro and outro.

This little spasm actually allowed us to try out some new stuff – a completely new poem / pairing on the topical topic of our friends the bankers. Bob wrote a completely new poem and I resuurected a song I’d written when Nick Leason broke Baring’s Bank – I just glad that the banks learnt that lesson and stopped doing dodgy investments (oh well, perhaps not). We also tried a couple of technical innovations. When I found out about the rest of the show content, I was worried that our acoustic duo version of the material would lack impact, so I mixed a set of full backing tracks for the music segments. These were played back from my Android ePad tablet PC and I played electric guitar through my new Blackstar HT-5R guitar combo. The segment went down very with aplause and laughter in all the right places and the Bankers’ Blues number was well received by the audience of mainly students.

Graham Goffee sent me a copy of his new CD. I’ve known Graham since I lived in St Ablans in the 1980s when we had a band (Innocent Bystander) which ended up as a pretty straight blues/rock outfit. During this time I wrote a number of blues songs including “Forty Days of Rain” which was finally recorded on the WoodworX album. For this CD Graham graham goes right back to basics. Just his guitar and voice going straight to tape with just a touch of reverb, like the classic blues’ men of the last century. I must say that it’s a bit strange hearing one of your own songs performed by someone else. Still, I really like the whole album.

Halfway through next month I head off to Australia for five weeks, so I’ll proabably start doing a micro blog again…

Posted in Brian's Diary, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Burns’ Night Shenanigans – January 2012

My oh My, doesn’t the time fly….

Gigwise, January is usually a bit like the Parson’s Egg, starting out quite dead with a burst of activity near the end as people put on Burns’ Night events to celebrate the Scottish poet Rabbie Burns (for background see here). This year the Burns’ work was pretty well absent, with just one gig – a regular one for army medical officers down in Aldershot. More about this later in the blog.

At the beginning of the month I depped on guitar for the Jellied Reels, a barn dance band who can also do a rock’n’roll set – sometimes during the dances! The band is run by melodion player Steve Howe, who I used to work with in Nightwatch (the predecessor of MoonDance). Steve is one of the few melodeon plays that I’ve worked with who I rate highly, the others being Martin Hallet, Roger Watson, Simon Care, Paul Scourfield and Simon Bannister. Dave Good, who was also in Nightwatch, plays bass with the band and it was good to ‘rock out’ with the guys.

This year marks the start of my second stint on the Executive Committee (EC) of the Musicians’ Union (MU). I was elected with three other candidates by MU members in the East and South-east Region of the union. It turns out that next year is very special for the union as it marks the 120th anniversary of the meeting that started the organisation that was later to become the union we have today. The meeting was called in 1893 by Joe Williams, a 21 year old clarinettist at the Comedy Theatre in Manchester who wrote an anonymous letter calling for the formation of a union. In his letter he wote;

The Union that we require is a protection Union. One that will protect us from Amateurs, protect us from unscrupulous employers, and protect us from ourselves.

Still no change there then! You can see the history of the MU here. By chance the MU’s biennial conference falls on the anniversary year so the plan is to hold it in Manchester to celebrate Joe’s initiative.

The one Burns’ ceilidh I had was at the Officer’s Mess in Aldershot to a bunch of medical officers who were just about to head off to Afghanistan as part of the international force based there. This is the fourth year we’ve done this and they all had a great time. You can see a video from one of the previous events below.

I don’t know why there were so few Burns’ gigs this year – perhaps the thrifty scots were hanging onto their cash in these financially straitened times. On the other hand it could be that there has been an increase in ‘hobby’ bands who are seriously undercutting the professional outfits working in this field.

I reproduce the experience of a professional muso friend of mine (with permission) to illustrate the problem…

Epistle To The Amateur/Hobbyist Ceilidh Bands

I just received a request from someone (via a mutual friend) to find a dep accordionist for a ceilidh gig next weekend. The gig was one of those function-at-a-military base things that people who aren’t me seem to play at this time of year. Timings? 11pm-1am. The “fee”? FIFTY QUID FLAT. I’ve posted part of my reply here because I think that it’s important. Many of the modern folk scene’s movers/shakers/kingpins could use increased awareness of the problem, in my humble opinion.

“Not sure whether it’s your band or somebody else’s, but I thought I should highlight the fact that, if everyone is being paid a similar fee to the above, then the band has gone out for not much more than their expenses to play a function gig at a decent venue. To put it bluntly, this kind of thing is becoming a real problem for people like me whose livelihoods depend on these gigs. Most professional traditional musicians in the UK rely on playing for dances at private engagements fairly regularly as a major part of their annual income, and every year amateur bands going out for anywhere between expenses only to, say, 60% of a proper fee seem to be on the rise. They get away with it because, sadly, Joe Public’s quality threshold for trad or “folk” music is relatively low (south of the border, at least). These bands are undercutting professional outfits up and down the country and every month they eat up hundreds of gigs that could’ve paid, say, each musician’s council tax for that month, or vehicle insurance premium, or gone some way towards getting the rent together for the 1st, or … etc. etc.

It undoubtedly has a lot to do with the fact that I have no Burns ceilidh gigs in the diary this year, and had none last year either. I won’t bore you with my Scottish dance-band credentials, but trust me, that’s ludicrous. It’s squeezing every pro player I know on the circuit (whether they realise it or not), and in this tough financial climate it seems wrong not to point out that people with day jobs taking these gigs and charging next to nothing are helping to kill off an entire profession.

Now unlike many of my contemporaries, I don’t believe that either my decision to play music for a living or reasonably meagre existence give me a God-given right to be given gigs over players with day jobs. I believe in the pecking order of skill and have no problem with better musicians than me getting the gigs no matter what their employment status – but if your band’s in that league musically, please PLEASE charge a professional rate for function gigs rather than undercutting everyone. If you’re not professional-level players, surely there are other outlets to express yourselves musically or get a buzz from performing (that are probably more fun than playing for somebody’s wedding or whatever)? Sessions, open mic nights, floor spots at folk clubs, gigs at festivals, even running your own series of local public ceilidhs if you’re particularly into playing for dances, the list goes on. In the past, people running amateur function bands have indignantly pointed out to me that “…the audiences always tell us that they enjoy us and we put on a really good show!” to which I say “Then make them put their money where their collective mouth is, simple as that.”

I’ve made some people really angry by saying similar things in the past (I once had to get myself out of Spain in a hurry, long story) and I really hope that I haven’t made you feel the same way, but I do feel that strongly about it. It’s not even my personal opinion, it’s a solid fact – this is what’s going on all year round, and particularly at times of year such as Burns’ Night season.”

We both work in a field that requires a lot of skill, professionalism, dedication and which people are quite prepared to do for free, or at least at well below the market value. Amateur and hobby musicians often don’t have the supporting skills needed to support their musical hobbies, boring stuff like Public Liability Insurance or an appreciation of Health and Safety.

From the client’s point of view, it’s a bit like employing a ‘cowboy’ builder. The work may be very good, but what happens if something goes wrong and how reliable are they. I do a lot of wedding work and I get regular anguished emails from couples along the lines of;

Hello, I’m looking for a band to play at our wedding. It’s very late notice because my friends’ band who were going to play have disbanded! I’ve contacted a few bands but they are already booked and said that we’d have difficulty finding a band who wasn’t! I wonder if there is a way of finding out who IS available at such short notice? I’d be grateful for any advice.”

So, leaving aside things like Public Liability Insurance and legal contracts, it seems strange to me that bookers are prepared to trust such a vital aspect of an important event to someone who does it as a hobby?

The stupid thing about it is that (as the above points out) there are many opportunities for low pay / no pay gigs out there without having to steal the bread off the table of pro working musicians. Perhaps the truth of the matter is that English society just doesn’t want to have a cadre of dedicated professional musicians to perform live music. Instead, music would be provided by cheapo discos and bumbling amateur bands.

I was at a jam session in a Dunstable pub recently and saw this slogan on the back of a sweatshirt which kind of sums it up…

ORIGINALITY IS DEAD (if you want it) 

The same could said of skill in, and dedication to, performing music. Perhaps as the famous conductor Sir Thomas Beecham once said;

“The English may not like music, but they absolutely love the noise it makes.”

(New York Herald Tribune, 9 March 1961)

Oh well, as they say on top gear, your mileage may vary…

Posted in Brian's Diary, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Summer, Autumn, Winter – via Spain and Tetbury…

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…

Performing at the Four Kings in Dunstable - Aug to October

Performing at the Four Kings in Dunstable - Aug to October

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.

Hoedown Band performing at the Elephant & Nun Festival, delayed due to the riots in August.

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.

Yes at Sheffield City HallEarly 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.

Performing on the seafront in Villajoyosa (that's the Medterranean in the background)

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.

Chiltern CeilidhsThe 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…

Posted in Brian's Diary, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

More Summer Shenanigan’s….

In July the sun is hot… (is shining? No it’s not!Flanders and Swan)

July kicked off with an appearance by the Chiltern Ceilidhs band at the Leagrave Youth Work Action Group Youth Festival to try and drum up some more local support. This was followed by a dash down to Berkshire for a MoonLighting gig for a town twinning event with a town in the Champaign region of France. This meant that many of the audience have only a passing acquaintance with the English language so the caller (Ali) has a bit of a job on her hands. However the audience still have a lot of fun which is the intent. The rest of the band was made up of myself (guitar), Sian Phillips (fiddle) and Jo May (percussion). Not much evidence of the bubbly tho’…

Next day (Sunday) I head up to Sheffield to help install Lisa in her new ‘shared’ house which will be her abode for her second year at Uni. It’s not very far away from her previous year’s halls of residence but is further up the hill. The previous occupants have left the place in a bit of a state – to be expected from male students I guess. Lisa’s room is right at the top of the house which means that it’s a bit a trek to get her stuff up to the attic. I then had to get back for my students who I teach on Monday evenings.

The next gig was another MoonLighting on Friday the 8th at a School in Wandsworth. It was meant to be out of doors but as the weather was very windy and we were worried about rain we managed to pursuade then to relocate it indoors. Unusually for us, there was no percussion and Ali played sax and accordion, with Sian on fiddle and myself on acoustic guitar. Lisa called and everything went very well indeed – she’s becoming very experienced – not surprising since she’s pretty well grown up in a social dance environment.

The following day I had my first Hoedown Band gig of the month in Rochester (Kent). This was a wedding function with the fantastic Liz Scholey calling. She is an amazingly engergetic and skill dance caller and teacher and the only person I know who can kick higher than the top of her own head. The band has been working on a new – black – playing kit for this kind of posher function gig and Sian was showing off her new fiddle design on the back of her shirt (see photo).

I actually managed to get some quality time in the garden with some summer sunshie. One of the great things about having a camera on a mobile phone is that you can take snap a spontaneous snap without having to lug a seperate image capture device around with you.  Here I’ve caught Dazzle in full ‘jungle mode’. As you can see the alternating heavy rain and sunshine has turned the lawn in to a lush velt – which caused the mower to fail.

The following weekend was Guilfest which we have been performing at for a number of years now. The gig is called Farmer Giles Barn Dance which takes place in one of the concert marques after the main stages shut down. This is another Liz gig who managed to introduce some Line Dance and Zumba into the mix this year. We always get a good crowd who patently enjoy themselves bopping around to out funked up celtic / folk rock sound. This year I took some video to make an EPK (Electronic Press Kit) and you can see the result below…


As you can see, we went down really well again this year and they have asked us back in 2012 – which will make it fives years in a row…

After this, my next gig with the Barn Dance Band in Whitchurch with my old mate Gary Munelly on drums. This was in a nice old barn and, despite Liz having a leg injury, everyone had a cracking time.

The month ended with the Musicians’ Union Biennial Conference which took place in Bristol this year. The conference allows the Union activists to review the actions of the Executive Committee and the secretarariat as well as put motions and generally debate the issues effecting the union, the membership and the music business as a whole. As a sitting EC member this mean that I had to get there are day early so we could see the final motions and help formulate the EC’s responses. There were also some great guest speakers – including a great speech from the labour MP John McDonald who is something of a firebrand.

There are also lots of opportunities to socialise through out the two days – to make new friends and renew acquantainces. We even had a a chance to make some music at a jam session in the bar on one of the evenings with Ian Lindsey (Black Diamond Band) and rock fiddler – Pete Hartly. I was also persuaded by jazz tromponist and fellow EC member Gail Brand to give Twitter another go – so anyone who wants to follow – I tweet under the ID of Brian8ch.

After getting back from Bristol I had two more gigs – another open air gig barn dance / ceilidh with MoonLighting with Mark Knight (madfiddler) and Gary Munelly on a Korg Wavedrum. I was very impressed with this device which is a hybrid acoustic / V-drum with the signal source being the vibrating drum head rather than an electronic simulation. This semms to give a lot more expression and dynamic range than a purely electronic device like the Roland HPD. I remember when the first model came out in the mid 1990s – a very cool instrument but priced outside the budget of most working musicians. The new drum doesn’t look quite so cool but is much more affordable – worth checking out if you need a very portable and flexible percussion instrument.

Sunday saw a covers gig with my band Stencil with our first gig at a local hotel called the Highwayman on the southern edge of Dunstable. I’ll have more to say about this venue next month.

Next blog will be about August/September…

Posted in Brian's Diary, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Summer comes, summer goes…

Wow! Turn your back for a minute and it’s already November. No doubt I’ll be taken to to task by my friends in the Blogoshere for dropping the ball. Oh well on with the motley…

End of May

Posh outdoor wedding gig near ShrewsburyThe MoonLighting gig near Shrewsbury after the Salisbury Live gig was interesting. We were playing out doors in the gravel drive to a small stately home (see photo) which is always slightly worrying in England due to the possiblity of rain. It was also educational as to how public transport is useless on a Sunday – especially in rural areas. Our fantastic percussionist – Emily Ward had to travel by train from Manchester. Thankfully our caller for the gig – Cate Bannister, who lives over that way – came to the rescue by delivering Emiliy to and from the station and providing overnight accommodation. Many thanks and a round of applause to Cate…

Flaming June

medieval babes...June started out with another open air gig, this time for the Hoedown Band. It was a wedding / hand fast with a medieval theme which was slightly odd gig for a country band. We made an effort to dress for the occasion – some with more success than others as the photo shows. A great time was had by all and I ended the evening jamming with Leatherat and Ric Sanders from Fairport Convention was a guest at the wedding. When I noticed him watching the band I reflected that I probably would have prefered to be playing something other than Achey Breaky Heart. Anyway it was a great gig and led onto at least one more booking later in the year. We also found out that country music is very big in France – though I’m not sure how we can capitalise on this…

Horrors of WhiskeyThe rest of the month was pretty busy with seven more gigs including an afternoon one at Sandown Racecourse with Sian’s acoustic trio Horrors of Whiskey which was  another mainly open air gig, and then entailed a dash down to Wincester for an evening MoonDance function gig.

Lost Arts logoOn the 15th I went into London to attend the launch of the FEU (Federation of Entertainment Unions) Lost Arts initiative and then afterwards to lobby my MP – Andrew Selous – about the damage the cuts will have on both the UK Arts scene and the economy as a whole. It turns that for every pound put into the arts generates £2 of income for UK PLC. Talk about cutting off your nose to spite your face… I imagine that the coalition won’t take any notice of this as they are more interested in the spin that the economics of the cuts.

Cromwell's statue outside the Houses of ParliamentThis was the first time I’d actually been inside the Houses of Parliament. I hadn’t realised that anyone can get in to the public galleries to see the action on days when the house is sitting – which is indicated by a light on the top of Big Ben. The security was pretty robust as you might expect and I had a small pen knife taken off me in case I ran amok (I got it back on exit). Inside the security area I could wander around and look at the great hall, though various flunky’s kept on telling me to take my hat off. Mr Selous was in the chamber as he is the Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS) to The Iain Duncan whole is the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and they had business in the chamber. I sat up in the viewing gallery which seperated from the main chamber by a huge sheet of bullet proof glass.

I spoke to Andrew after this in the atrium of Portcullis House which is across the road – accessed via a tunnel so you don’t have to go through security again. He listened to my points about the cuts and some further stuff about the proposed changes to the public entertainments licencing legislation. His comments were that while he appreciated the points I had made everyone had to endure the cuts to balance to budget (aside: presumably this doesn’t apply to bankers!). He then had to go back to the chamber again so I was escorted back to the palace, where I retrieved my dangerous pen knife and went home.

Towards the end of the month I went down to Barnstaple to premiere the two hander version of “The End of the World Show…” with Bob Harding-Jones at the annual Fringe Theatre Festival down there. This is the alternative name for the “Thinking about our World…” show. This version of the show is much more portable than the version with the band, with me on acoustic guitar and some additional sound effects played by Bob’s iPad. This went down pretty well though there was a lot of competition from other productions.

Venue for the show with Bob Harding-JonesI could only do the first day of the three day run, so I left Bob with pre-recorded version of the songs so that he could do the show as a solo. The festival coincides with a music festival of the same name and we caught the end of a set from a a jazz funk outfit called the Rural Jazz Alliance. I blagged their EP (CD) which is produced to look like a vinyl record and is the first completely black CD I’ve ever seen – very cool – still it played OK in the van CD player.

At the end of the month I got Mike Vishnick into the studio and put down some Dawn and Brian working the hats...drums for a Hoedown Band demo CD. the rest of teh Hoedown BandDepending on the quality of the final results I might release these so we have something to sell at gigs. We had to cut the last day to do a gig down at the RAC club in Epson which went down very well, and they treated us pretty well as well. Was a good end to a busy month.

Next blog will cover July….

Posted in Brian's Diary, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

May 15 to 21 – Hoedown Band at Salisbury Live…

I don’t usually rehearse on weekend’s but as neither of my regular bass players were available for next week’s gig at the Salisbury International Arts Festival (Salisbury Live 2011). I’ve asked an old friend and former regular enQ / MoonDance bass player Brian Jenking to sit in on bass. As fiddler Sian Phillips was busy with Acoustic Festival of Great Britain in Uttoxeter, we were doing the gig as a four piece and so needed to run through the arrangements with the smaller ensemble. Brian can only make it on Sunday so we get together to make some music.

The Salisbury Live series of events are essentially a musical ‘fringe’ for the main Arts Festival and is organised by a local promoter who contacted me via the Hoedown Band website. As it was a public gig we could do a different mix of songs with more original material. I find that my song writing tends to reflect the type of bands I gig with and recently I’ve been producing mainly country rock influenced songs two of which were included in the set list for Saturday.

On Saturday I head down in the van with Mike in plenty of time. After we have a fantastic run we end up at the venue with about 2 hours to spare. The weather is ‘clear and it is fine’ to quote my version of Honk Tonk Women (from Gram Parson’s version) though a bit on the chilly side. So after a quick word with the venue management we wonder down to the centre of Salisbury for a bite to eat before the gig. On the way Mike is totally amazed by the range of shops and we don’t make the distance without picking up some vintage vinyl – Alan Price in my case and a classic Genesis LP for Mike. We still have change for a tenner after the purchases.

We stop at a hostelry by the river and have a drink and a hot meal. While we’re munching away Dawn (the singer) and her husband Adrian turn up – they’ve taken a few days off before the gig to stay locally and explore the area. When it’s time to go back I show Dawn the second-hand shop we found and she vows to indulge in some retail therapy the next day.

Brian’s already there when we get back to the venue and we set up the stage in time for our kick off at 8:30pm. The audience is a bit sparse so we wait about ten minutes before we start-up. The audience was getting into it and during the break a photographer from the local paper came down for some shots of the band. On the whole it was a pretty successful gig musically with a good response to the original songs. The following week the promoted emailed and thanked us and said “the guy from the local paper said you were very good”. I drive back after a fairly leisurely load out and get to bed around 3 am.

Posted in Brian's Diary, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

May 8th to 14th – From Gigspanner to MoonDance

On Sunday we go over to the Stables in Wavendon on the southern edge of Milton Keynes to see Peter Knight’s new band Gigspanner. As I want to feature the band in my weekly Luton News/Dunstable Gazette live music column (Talking Music), I arrange to interview Peter before the gig.

I don’t normally do gig reviews in the newspaper column since I’d rather tell people about upcoming events rather than tell them about a great gig that they’ve missed. However, as the band is currently touring, there will be other opportunities to see them locally. Another reason that I’d like to talk to Peter is that, as well as having some mutual friends, he was a member of the band Steeleye Span who were one of the reasons I got into playing folk/rock music in the first place – with the album Commoner’s Crown.

I arrive at the venue about 3pm and hang around till Peter turns up. I end around a table with the whole band which changes the character of the interview somewhat. I’m interested in getting some opinions about the difference between working in a big band like Steeleye and the more compact Gigspanner and getting some comments about the health of the live music scene in the UK. I’ve had a similar conversation with Steeleye’s bass player, Rick Kemp and I was interested in getting another take. However, I get the feeling that Peter is bored with being asked about Steeleye, still I get some useful background. By the way if you are wondering about the significance of the name ‘Gispanner’ it’s muso slang for a bottle opener.

Later I have a chat with Deborah, who is Peter’s partner and the band’s manager, about the music business – both live gigging and recording. The band is pretty well self-promoting for the tour – and are usually on a percentage of the door. This makes me wonder what the role of promoters/venues is. Here we have a pretty well established artist taking – or at least sharing – the risk with the venues. If Gigspanner have to do this what hope have non ‘name’ artists getting their foot in the door.

Ali and I  have a couple of hours to kill before the gig so we drive around the Woburn Sands area to see if it might be somewhere we’d like to live. After zigzagging around the area we end up at The Swan Hotel at the Bedfordshire end of  the High Street. It’s a really nice area and town and ideal in terms of location, but I imagine we’d not be able to afford anything suitable within our budget. After a snack at the pub, we head back to the Stables for the Gigspanner concert which is excellent. Afterwards I chat briefly to the band and thank Peter for the kind words that he emailed me after I had sent him a copy of the enQ CD (Tear Down the Barriers).

“I have just listened to your CD for the second time and really enjoyed it.” he goes on to say “What I did like a lot was the energy that comes through and I’m sure this comes across even more on live gigs.”

Later on he says “It’s a great band and all the arrangements have been put together really well, the playing from everyone is excellent.” and “You have combined all the various influences in your music really well and you do sound like a band and not a bunch of musicians. You do have a sound.”

It’s great when you get complimented by one your influences even when he obviously has no recollection of the CD now.  However I still value his comments.

The rest of the week is taken up with rehearsals and a trip down to London for a Musicians’ Union Executive Committee meeting. I usually stay in London the night before an EC meeting as it is difficult to get there in time from Luton due to the London rush hour. I usually catch a number 59 bus from the hotel, which is north of the Thames to the MU National Office which is south of the river – which takes me past Australia House in the Strand and over Waterloo Bridge. I’m a real child when it comes to riding on a London double decker bus and try to get onto the top deck at the front and act like a real tourist, snapping away with my phone. I was so intent on getting a photo of the Thames that I managed to completely miss seeing the giant straw fox that had been constructed next to the South Bank Centre at the southern end of Waterloo Bridge. This just supports my opinion that photographers who go through life with their eyeballs glued to a viewfinder miss out on a hell of a lot of what’s actually going on.

View from the stage…

Friday is pretty much taken up with sorting out our monthly Chiltern Ceilidh event which takes place on the second Friday of each month at the Polish Club in Albion St, Dunstable. This is the second last of the current series before the summer break. We normally have some kind of interval entertainment but we’ve been unable to pin anyone down for this one. However Sally Mounter came to the rescue at the last-minute with her bluegrass band – The Ampthill Mob. Of course Will Hall did a great job calling as usual and guest musician Alex Cumming on accordion was fantastic. The turnout was better than usual and everyone had a lot of fun but I can’t see how we can afford to keep running this event unless we get more people coming on a regular basis.

On Saturday night MoonDance was playing for at wedding at the Coulston Manor Hotel near Croyden with Liz Scholey calling. It turned out that this was the third time that the couple had booked the band. I didn’t recognise the name as the previous time it had been through the name of the groom’s company for a corporate event. The nature of the functions we do mean that it’s pretty rare to get a return booking from the same client regardless of how well we go down – as most people only get married once! We have had one return wedding booking for a 20th anniversary and we’ve also been rebooked for a client’s 50th birthday after doing their 40th – both gigs at the Stationers’ Hall just across from St Paul’s cathedral in London. Needless to say we went down very well indeed and they took the trouble to email afterward to thank us…

“Hi Brian

Just wanted to say a big thank you to you, the band and Liz for making our wedding party so memorable for us both and our guests.

We really had a fantastic night.

I’m sure will be seeing you all again!

Thanks again

Karen & Dan”

Posted in Brian's Diary, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

May 1st to 7th – Harvey to Hoedown

On Sunday we head across to Hitchin in the evening to have a meal at the Café Rouge and then see Harvey Andrews at the folk club at the Sun Hotel. The food at the the cafe is as good as ever and the staff are friendly and helpful but the service is very slow which means that we get to the folk club late. Perhaps they were understaffed for some reason. We miss the beginning of Harvey’s set and sneak into the back of the room which is pretty full.

Harvey is a veteran of the folk scene and has been writing and performing songs live for 45 years. He has also produced 17 albums, collaborated on at least one musical and a memoir. In 1996 he was voted International Artiste of the Year in the Canadian Porcupine Awards for Folk music. However you’ll never see him at a UK folk festival though he still plays extensively across the what reamains of the folk club scene and at Arts’ Centres. The festival scene seems to be hung up on a relatively small number of ‘young’ acts and folk royalty and the like. When MoonDance were doing festivals last year the festivals we played at tended to have a fairly predictable line-up, usually featuring Seth Lakeman. The English arts establishment don’t value their core talent and tend to be hung up on fads like Bellowhead (who are good) and The Unthanks (who aren’t). There is a huge pool of talent out there who don’t seem to get a chance to play on a festival stage…

Running through the rest of the week; on Tuesday I rehearse with Tom who is playing fiddle for Saturday’s Hoedown gig in Aylesbury and we discuss business bits afterwards. Wednesday Bob Harding-Jones comes over and we discuss the format for our ‘The End of the World is Nigh!’ show at the Barnstable Fringe Theatre fest in June. Thursday is a full Hoedown Band rehearsal (albeit without fiddle) and on Friday Dawn and I do a harmony rehearsal to work out what we do when reduced to two part harmonies – i.e. when Sian is not available for gigs.

On Saturday have the big gig – which is a Bar Mitzvah for a very wealthy family who own a race horse stud near Ayslesbury. The event is being held in a large marquee which has been constructed on the edge of the stud’s showground out of four large teepees with a canopy slung in front of them. No expense is spared – apart from the Hoedown Band, two professional dancers and the disco for entertainment there are Western themed side shows including a rodeo steer, quick draw, a Wells Fargo stagecoach and a display from a stunt team called The Devil’s Horsemen who give an extended display.

We are using the new stage gear for the band and we finished with a special dance for the Bar Mitzvah boy which segued from a Western dance (Turkey in the Straw) into Hava Nagila – which we called “Turkey Nagila”. Our part of the evening ended with the younger members of the family being carried around on chairs.

We make our gettaway and I get home about 11pm

Posted in Brian's Diary, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

April 30 – Off to Cambridge…

Ali and I head off to Cambridge to meet up with my son Alex who in the third year of a Natural Sciences (nat-sci) degree at Trinity. We arrive a little later than we planned and immediately head off to the Rainbow Café to meet up with his fiancée Kirsty, her mother and brother. We have a pleasant, if slightly cramped, lunch and start to get to know the rest of Kirsty’s family who we’ve not met before.

Trumpington St from the corner of Silver St

After lunch we head off to the Orchard Tea Gardens at Granchester which is just over two miles away. The weather is fine if somewhat chilly and a bit breezy. We start the trek though the streets of Cambridge which are quite busy as there seems to be some kind of graduation event happening at one of the colleges. A “pleasant walk, a pleasant talk” to quote Lewis Caroll, but along the river rather than the sea shore.

A load of punts on the River Cam...

It seems that taking tea in The Orchard has been a tradition for Cambridge students since 1897 and was the stamping ground of the ‘Neo Pagans’ which included Virginia Wolf and the poet Rupert Brooke who concluded his poem ‘The Old Vicarage, Grantchester’ with a reference to the orchard – Stands the church clock at ten-to-three And is there honey still for tea?

His most famous lines are;

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England

… which he wrote a few months before he died on the way to Gallipoli.

After tea we have to power walk back to the car as Ali has tickets for the Woburn Sands Band concert at The Stables in Wavendon. We seem to have quite an agricultural day with orchards and stables. The Stables is an interesting venue founded by jazz musicians Cleo Laine and Johhny Dankworth in a stable block in the grounds of their house in the village of Wavendon which is just south of Milton Keynes. The Dankworths started using the Stables as a venue when they wanted to put find a local venue for a show they were doing. John Dankworth described it in an interview he did with John Rober Brown as “with Cleo singing a variety of different styles of songs, with Laurie Holloway and myself doing instrumentals in between.”

The building was pretty much a shell when they started but a little help from the local council and with a lot of help from friends, family and local volunteers they turned the building into a small theatre and started running concerts, and later educational sessions, from 1970. By 1995 they realised that the venue was too small, and not properly equipped for the amount stuff that was happening there so they put together a plan to expand it. In 2000 the new venue was opened with a lot of financial help from Jim Marshall (i.e. of Marshall Amplifiers ilk) which is why the main auditorium (448 capacity – 398 seated and 50 standing) bears his name. One interesting fact that I came across researching this blog is that the original building was used as a factory during the war manufacturing code machines for the Bletchley Park Enigma code breakers.

I’ve only played at the venue once – and that was for a charity blues day in the old venue. I was just finding my feet in my conversion from mainly playing bass to guitar and the band was called ‘Blues on the Edge’ which was pretty appropriate – for all the wrong reasons. It seemed like a good idea at the time, doing a low profile freebie to ‘blood’ the band for its first public performance. I can’t remember much about the gig except that the keyboard player couldn’t get his organ to work (ooh er, missus!) and we spent about 15 minutes standing about on stage – which felt like forever.

Anyway back to the present, we were going to The Stables to see the annual concert of the Woburn Sands Band which both Alex and Ali used to play in. The band is an amateur brass band with up to four active groups (A thru D) and exists “to provide a focal point for brass band music in the Milton Keynes area” according to their website. The band is very inclusive and welcomes members at any level of skill providing training and even instruments. The Band is self-supporting and is registered as a charity (number 266275). The concert programme was a mix of big band, classical, jazz, pop and brass band music – excellently played with a good deal of humour and joie de vivre.

Well this is the end of my micro blog for april and I reckon I be going back to a more sparse blog, perhaps one per week, with extras when I do something interesting or just want to comment on something. It’s been an interesting exercise for me (hopefully for you too), but quite time-consuming.

See you on the flip side…

Posted in Brian's Diary, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

April 29 – A wedding gig…

http://genevalunch.com/wp-content/blogs.dir/1/files/chapatte//british_royal_wedding_announced_chappatte.jpgI’ve managed to avoid paying much attention to the Royal Wedding. To be honest this media feeding frenzy is a bit of a bore. Intellectually I support the idea of a constitutional monarchy as it acts as a brake on the political side of the government, as well as being sort of a ‘super’ ombudsmen.

The problems of a politically appointed, or influenced ‘head of state’ was well demonstrated by the Australian political crisis in the mid 70s when the Governor-General – who is the Queen’s representative but appointed by the Australian government – sacked the elected administration and installed the opposition. You can see full details here.

Tonight's band...

Anyway, I shouldn’t complain about the Royal Wedding as it made my journey to tonight’s gig – also a wedding – a real doddle. The M25 is usually pretty much of a parking lot on a Friday afternoon as all the suits try and take a POETS day (‘Push Off Early, Tomorrow’s Saturday’). The gig is in a lovely converted barn near Petworth in Sussex and Liz Scholey (the caller) is on fine form as usual. The rest of the band is made up of Debbie Chalmers on fiddle, Tom Fairbairn on bass and Sam McEvoy on drums.

Tom is the band leader for this gig and has decided that we’ll be doing a lot of the new arrangements which involves a certain amount scrabbling about finding the dots for Debbie and correcting the pad. I’ve spent a fair amount of time earlier in the day sorting out the music pad. I’m finding that my new Android tablet is extremely useful for this type of gig apart from the fact I can’t scribble corrections on the sheets. Luckily I’ve printed out copies as a backup which means that I can take a note of the changes for when I get back. I’ve set it up so that I can velcro the device to my RAT music stand which makes it very stable and can be placed in a convenient, but unobtrusive location on stage. The 10″ display is just large enough for the chord charts (or lyrics if it is a song gig) to be visible and the back light means that I don’t need to sort out an extra light if the stage is dark. This piece of technology has been quite a good investment – it’s not as fancy as an iPad, but it is about a third the price. I got mine from Amazon in the UK (see here). 

A lot of barn dance / ceilidh musicians don’t like doing weddings but I differ. Weddings are usually fairly hard work, but the results are usually a great time for a lot of people, many who’ve not had much contact with social dance (if any). If you have a good enough caller / band combination then you are giving the happy couple a day to remember the rest of their lives.

I reckon that the ceilidh / barn dance – either wedding or other social event – is the last example you’ll find in our society of real ‘folk’. My definition of ‘folk’ here is that it is music (or dance) that fulfils some social function and actively involves the participants – i.e. they are not simply a supine audience. With social dance the ‘audience’ are part of the activity. Even if you have a professional band, the dancers are vital to the whole event.

So things like morris dancing is not ‘folk’ by this definition as you have a small bunch of people providing a display for  entertainment. By contrast, a wedding ceilidh has the dancers and musicians are working together as one unit. As a dance musician – and a ‘social’ dancer – I am very aware of this synergy – and can event make use of this in the tune arrangement. Basically, you can regard the dancers as part of the rhythm section.

By the way, speaking of wedding ceilidhs, I’ve created a website which is a sort of ‘fact file’, FAQ and general resource for anyone who wants to find out more about haveing a ceilidh (or barn dance) for their wedding. You can find it at www.weddingceilidh.info.

Anyway, I get back about 1:30am and realise that I have managed to miss the royal event completely.

Posted in Brian's Diary, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment