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….

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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.

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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”

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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

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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…

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April 29 – A wedding gig…’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

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

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April 26/27/28 – ‘Nose to the grindstone’ and AV…

Back to business this week with mainly office work and a rehearsal on Thursday.

Thursday also marks one week from the referendum on whether Britain is going to bring their electoral system wheezing in to the early twentieth century (that is not a typo!). It seems to me a pretty obvious improvement if you assume that the electorate can count up to the number of candidates on the polling paper.

The Alternative Vote (AV) system has been used in Australia for the lower house of the Federal parliament for many years and if the Aussie’s can understand it then I can’t see why the English couldn’t get a handle on it. I assume that the Welsh and Scots would be OK as they have a more modern voting system for their regional assemblies.

One argument against AV is that it is more likely to produce a ‘hung’ parliament – unlike the ‘First Past The Post’ (FPTP). Funnily enough both systems have done just that in both the UK and Australia. I would argue that a hung parliament is a message from the electorate for the political parties – a sort of a ‘none of the above’ vote.

It’s also pretty breathtaking that the Tories are opposing AV when they use it themselves for internal elections. I guess they have done pretty well out of the FPTP system over the years, so why change? I suppose that if anyone is going to oppose AV then the tories are the perfect candidates for the job. Being the party of reaction and hankering after the ‘good old days’ – i.e. sending children down mines, slavery, entrenched privilege and so on.

I’m more surprised by the stance of some Labour MPs, the argument being that a fair distribution of preferences might reduce the number of Labour seats. I would have thought that anything that makes the electoral process more transparent and democratic would be more important than clinging onto to seats unfairly. Either you subscribe to the philosophy of democracy or you try to achieve power by other means.

However the best thing about AV is it will mean that one travesty of the UK system will be put to rest – the ‘Tactical Vote’. You could argue that the fact that the Labour landslide in 1997 was in part due to a lot of Lib-Dem supporters voting tactically means that Labour have already benefited from an unofficial form of AV, so any MP who benefited from this is hypocritical if they oppose AV.

This is not just my opinion. In a paper published by Geoffrey Evans (Nuffield College, Oxford), John Curtice (University of Strathclyde) and Pippa Norris (Harvard University)  they state “in 1997 more people voted tactically in order to try to defeat their local Conservative candidate than did so in 1992.” The fact that voters feel that they have to vote tactically surely means the current system is ‘broken’. Anyway I could go on for hours about this. If you are interested then I guess that you will have pretty much made up you mind by now.

Anyway, their have been some fun videos supporting AV doing the rounds – my favourite at the moment takes a cat perspective…

I guess the main thing is to get out there and vote. If you want a reminder why we need AV, here’s a message from Show of Hands…

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