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…

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.

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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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April 24/25 – Morris on…

Ali's new face paint design...

Nothing much happens on Sunday but on bank holiday Monday we head off to Pitstone Museum to play for Wicket Brood Morris. Both Ali and Lisa dance with this border morris side and we all play in the band. Technically, I may well be breaking the law when I do so as I play my headless stick bass through a small battery-powered amplifier (sort of a solid body, electric trombone). This means I risk up to a six months prison sentence and/or a fine of up to £20,000 as I don’t have a licence for public performance. Some might say that this too lenient for playing morris music but in fact the morris is specifically exempted from the legislation as long as the music is ‘unamplified’. As usual we turn up too late to take part in the first set. It’s another cracking day weather-wise.

I’ve not been to the museum before and found it pretty interesting. It’s all run by volunteers and usually only open on every second Sunday and Bank Holidays. More of a collection of local exhibits than an integrated collection.

There were also quite a few external displays such as vetran motor cars and trucks – including some military vehicles. There was also a display of small utility stationary engines – mainly internal combustion petrol driven units. I chatted to a retired farmer who had also worked as tractor salesman / delivery driver. He was telling me how, as the tractors had two stroke engines, it was possible to accidentally start them up in reverse which could baffle the farmers who used them.

Had to leave early to get Lisa to the station so she could catch her train back up north. On the way back we drove though the back of Slip End and Caddington to suss out whether ththe area is worth considering when we decide to move.

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April 23 – The concert…

The day of Lisa’s concert. Finish tidying up the back room and garden (including mowing the lawn!). The weather for once is warm, fine and sunny so it looks like the garden party aspect is going to work as well.

Lisa does some late tweaks to the set list which is a mix of songs and instrumentals with two cameos from Ali and myself – we also accompany Lisa on her songs which include Katie Shaw, Cousin Jack, Light Flight, The Ploughman’s song and Sovai – the latter three unaccompanied. The instrumentals are largely from our dance set but there’s a couple that aren’t – The Empty Wallet Waltz and Scot Free, a 48bar gig written for Ali by Graham Goffee (in B flat). Ali lays out the cakes that she and others have baked for the event. I really like Cousin Jack, I think I might use it somewhere myself – perhaps The Fatal Shore show I’m working on.

The audience starts to arrive, a mix of neighbours, relations, friends and morris buddies – about 18 people in all. After socialising for a bit in the garden the audience is assembled and Lisa and crew launch into the concert which seems to go down pretty well – at least no rotten fruit is thrown.

All in all a sociable and successful event with over £150 being raised on the day and donations from friends who were invited but couldn’t get there. The charities that will benefit are The Exodus Project (runs activity clubs in Barnsley, specifically targeting disadvantaged communities), Autism Plus (a local South Yorkshire charity that provides support for people with autistic spectrum disorders) and the Multiple Sclerosis Therapy Centre (South Yorkshire). Donations can also be made via Lisa’s Just Giving web page.

I can see why House Concerts are such an attractive proposition as they are can combine the attributes of a social gathering along with entertainment. As our back room is a suitable size I’ve been wondering whether to look into running something like this.  We’d need to get more chairs though… (Watch this space)

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April 22 – Good Friday

A day spent getting ready for Lisa’s charity House concert and I also finalise the design a new brochure for live music targeted at wedding couples.

Found some interest statistics about the wedding market..

  • There are 250,00 weddings in the UK every year
  • The average cost of a wedding is £16,000
  • The wedding industry in the UK is worth £4 billion

This sounds a lot but if you consider most couples want to get married on a Saturday then this means that all wedding busnesses (i.e. catering, venues, bands etc) have to make one day pay for the entire week.

So if wedding couples were to spread their weddings over a working week (i.e. 5 days) then the cost would reduce to 20% of the current prices. Say around £4,000 on average.

So the next time you hear someone complaining about the cost of a wedding the ask them why they’re not getting married on a week day!

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April 21 – Hoedown Band rehearsal

Most of the day is taken up with a Hoedown Band rehearsal. We’re doing an important gig on May 7th in Aylesbury (a Bar Mitzvah!) and we’re getting the new ‘dep’ bass player up to speed.

The Hoedown Band arose out of a gig that we did back in 2007 when a wedding client asked use to play a set of country and western material as part of their wedding celebration. Andrew King was playing bass for me at the time and he introduced a jazz singer called Martyna who also was into new country. The set went down very well and was very enjoyable to play.

When the banking meltdown occured later the same year I realised that the wedding entertainment sector – which is a pretty high priced market – was propably going to take a dive. I can remember hearing the news report about the government taking over Lloyds Bank on the way back from a gig near Arundel. I pretty much decided then that I’d have to diversify musically and one strand of this was to look at doing more non-wedding gigs.

One market that I really hadn’t addressed was pubs and clubs so I thought that I’d try and get something together to address this sector. It seemed to me at the time that this area was awash with ‘covers’ acts and that the country approach might be a road less travelled. Although I’d discussed the idea of doing this kind of thing with a few people for high profile function gigs – after gigging with Infantasia at a military base – this was to be something aimed at an entirely different market/price bracket.

Musically, the roots of American Country music isn’t all that different from the folk / rock music that drew me into music performance in the first place. It all derived originally from old time music which in turn was derived from folk music from the Appalachian Mountains. The very same Appalachian Mountains that Cecil Sharp toured collecting English folk songs in the 1920s. There’s always been a lot of crossover between the north american and British folk song revivals both in content and style – demonstated on a regular basis by Mike Harding’s Radio 2 folk programme. 

A couple of years later the Hoedown band is starting to get booked for more gigs than MoonDance, though in turns out thtat the club / pub market are not prepared to pay anywhere near a decent fee for their music (see my earlier blog “A new decade of music making“). However, as we are one of the few bands in the UK that can do songs, hoedown and line-dance we seem to be getting more function gigs. Such is life…

I still want address the pub/club scene if only for mid-week gigs. Cue Heywood’s Heroes

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April 20 – Guitar tech…

Brian's guitar rig #2

I’ve been thinking for sometime that it would be useful to have someone to help me out with the technical side of gigs. I’ve been knocking myself out trying to do to many things during the gig set-up.

Not only do I have to set up my own gear and often the PA as well. I also have to do the managerial stuff such liase with the client (e.g. sort of the money!), make sure the band members have water, get food and drinks and generally troubleshoot any problems. This has meant in the past that the band is often rushed to start on time and a couple of times we’ve had to start without me being fully set up.

I’ve also had painful back and shoulder problems caused by the heavy lifting so it makes perfect sense to find someone who can help out. I remembered being impressed with a young bloke who’d helped out with the sound during the Local Music TV (LMTV) pilot. Anyway I interview him in the afternoon and it turns out (unsurprisingly) that he is a guitarist and that he wants to do music technology at college. He’s also very keen to help out even though I can only afford to pay the minimum wage. However he will find that the practical experience will help a lot with his college work.

It looks like I’ve got that one  sorted then…

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April 19 – not rehearsing…

I was planning to have a rehearsal with poet Bob Harding-Jones so that we could go through material for our show in Barnstaple in June. Called “The End of the World is Nigh!“, it’s a two person version of the “Thinking about our world…” show. Unfortunately Bob has had to cancel at short notice so I spend the day doing office work and updating the Heywood’s Heroes website.

So instead of boring you to death with that, I’m going to see if I can embeded a video in the blog…

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April 18 – Into London again…

I head into London again, this time to attend the East & South Eastern Regional Committee of the Musicians’ Union. The regional committees are the other way that the activists amongst membership can get involved in the union. The regional committees are meant to help the regional offiers take over the ‘local’ role that formerly were within the ambit of the branch secretaries.

While the Regional Organiser (Paul Burrows) and the Regional Officer (Alex Mann) do all the hard graft, the committee members provide useful local intelligence and can represent the Union on local Trade Union Councils. For instance I attend the Luton TUC when I have time and then report back to the committee.

While I’m technically not on the Regional Committee, as an EC member I can attend  any meeting as a guest and this is my region, and the one that the membership elected me onto the EC.  This is an important time for the committees, and the MU as a whole, in the run up to the MU’s biennial conference which is being held in Bristol at the end of July.

After the meeting I head up to a north London theatre to sit in on a song writing / composition course for musical theatre. It’s all very interesting and informative but I think that it’s probably a bit too specific for my needs. The course organiser says that he’ll get back to me after discussing my demo with the two course tutors.

When I get out of the theatre it’s still such a nice day that I decide to walk back to St Pancras. Using the GPS / map function on my phone (a Samsung Galaxi) I work out the shortest route. The stations is about two kilometers and my footsteps take me past the pub that I used gig at a fair amount. It used to be called the “Cross Kings” but is now called “The Star of Kings” – a somewhat naff name if you ask me, neither clever nor memorable. It used to be a very active music venue but the new version just seems to have DJs.

Regents Canal

A view of St Pancras Station across the Regent's Canal. If you are very eagle eyed you might see the heron perched on the other bank.

When I get to the Regent’s Canal I decide to walk along the tow path. This makes me overshoot the station somewhat but it’s worth it. There’s a lot of building work going on around King’s Cross Station (next to St Pancas) so I have to negotiate various barriers.

The canal is a little haven of calm near a very busy part of London. There’s even a small nature reserve nestling in the corner where the canal goes under the main railway line north. I also pass a plot of land where people are growing vegetables in a number of builder’s skips on the edge of the building site. The sign on the fence says that this so that they can be moved – sort of a portable allotment.

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