Saturday, 17 December 2011

Open Mic Travels 'Synopsis'

Chapter One - Coventry

My journey begins in Coventry and the city I grew up in. A meeting with a difficult bunch of NHS Managers is followed by a trip down memory lane, and an open mic at a pub just off the ring road. Here is where I meet Derek with whom I share a smoke and watch an alcoholic Shirley Bassey sing Gold Finger.

Chapter Two – London

My first trip to a London open mic ends in disaster. The organiser of the event at a Ladbrooke Grove venue has vetted and chosen all the acts, and it’s not as open as it appears. Most of the acts display that unfortunate characteristic of those with the stars in their eyes and are made dull as a result. An Australian song writer called Booker rages at a complacent and self absorbed audience across an empty dance floor.

Chapter Three – Bridgend

The South Wales event is a revelation and a night to remember. This time I am accompanied by a work colleague and we share moments of fear and then elation as a place we had been warned not to go, turns into a place that I would happily go to every week. I sang Mackerel Fishing by Old Man Pie and tracked down a hangover cure the following morning.

Chapter Four – Wakefield

The chill wind starts to bite and the cold climate arrives. Work trips and meetings have to be cancelled because of travel chaos and the frozen conditions. I find there is an open mic not far from where I live at a legendary music venue called The Hop. A proper comedian sings a song about digging to the centre of the world with a spoon. A band fresh from the School of Rock gesticulate and strut around the stage in a stereotypical fashion. My work with the difficult group of NHS Managers comes to a sticky end.

Chapter Five – Glasgow

I leave the relative comfort of a high rise hotel in the centre of Glasgow and find myself amongst folk singers and musicians. We occupy a circle of tables and each one of us offers a song or a reel to the group. A man with a permanent smile plays a banjo with fingers of fire and a Mother and daughter scowl at the ceiling whenever the Englishman sings a song. At the end of the night I walk through the pouring rain and discover the truth about music.

Chapter Six – Leeds

I see the writing on the wall as a contract slips through my fingers at the cutting of a budget. And I rediscover the wisdom of the pub landlord somewhere North of Leeds city centre where I also meet Robo and Vic, and play songs to an audience of five happy rvellers. A long haired man in his sixties sings about a soldier returning from Afghanistan – in an American accent, his voice is gruff and I am told this is how I should sing.

Chapter Seven – Edinburgh

I have an encounter with a man who makes fudge and walk a wobbly path to Scotland’s best open mic – allegedly. Later on, I find myself in a bar the size of a living room where Haggard from Harry Potter is chewing the fat. The Project Board learn they may not have a job to go to in 6 months time and naturally have little interest in the main purpose of the meeting..

Chapter Eight – Bristol

I go head to head with the norovirus and the virus wins during a round trip to the Llyn Peninsula and Bristol. I play electronic beats and spoken word between bouts of illness and hallucination. I meet a friendly bunch of drinkers who are high on fermented apples. Travis Bickle, from Taxi Driver, computes a song about a festival that took place on a burial ground. I go to Payback Records in Bristol market and see the history of music being forgotten before my very eyes.

Chapter Nine – Halifax

In Halifax a tired man plays a guitar through an echo chamber and tells the story of a whale that is dying. Later he tells me of his lost dreams and how he'd once hoped to become famous for his whale song. Then another singer with the tallest hat in the world plays a home-made twin necked guitar that is held together with gaffer tape. Hey Weirdo! I get punched in the face for the poetry.

Chapter Ten – London

I have unfinished business in London and am determined to play a tune somewhere in the capital. It’s Fathers Day, so I spend a weekend with two of my sons and find the music in Brick Lane. Finally I get to perform Smells of London (in London) and meet one of the busiest guys in the open mic game who gives us a warm welcome (there are some great places to play in London - they just take a bit of finding).

Chapter Eleven – Manchester

To the centre of the city at night!  The city that produced some of my favourite bands and artists. I find The Noise Upstairs and explore improvised and abstract walls of sound with a group of high brow players. Clarinet is mixed with amplified paper rips, boxes of printed circuits are mixed with toy drums. Then I head to The Deaf Institute for more random musicality. Sadly, I learn that an ex-colleague whose business had gone under has had a breakdown.

Chapter Twelve – Llandudno

The jewel of North Wales and the blue rinse brigade shuffle between the burly seagulls on the promenade. But there is also great music to be found at The Cross Keys, where a talented singer called Rachel presides over the evening’s entertainment and comperes the proceedings in a very unique way. I find I can see history in the rocks of the Great Orme and leave Llandudno with the taste of a spider in my mouth.  It's been a good year for the spiders.

Chapter Thirteen – Sheffield

The Steel City gives me a cold reception and I am stopped in my tracks by drunks and a teapot of death.  Poets and writers at a spoken word event don't have much time for music and noddy hats can't listen, they can only play with phones.   I find an alliance with a comedy duo that die a death at the hands of a skateboarding heckler.  I love Sheffield.

Chapter Fourteen – Brighton

It seems like Brighton is the open mic capital of England and there are so many good nights to choose from. But I lose my way on the train and head for the hills when I completely screw up a job application. In the end I find myself in the Druids Head and play electronic beats to a bar fly, two cougars and a man with a nervous dog.

Chapter Fifteen – Birmingham NEC, Britain’s Got Talent

Quite by chance I enter the belly of the beast and the arch enemy of everything I believe and have explained. I get an insight into televised wealth creation and the fame game explains everything to me. Now I know why the caged bird sings. I still meet some wonderful individuals who make me question the journey and the fact it is nearing an end. Daydream Nation is playing on my ipod.

Chapter Sixteen - Huddersfield

Work has gone quiet and it provides me with the opportunity to finish this book. Every cloud has a silver lining. There is no reason to travel around the UK anymore because the contract work has been hit by the cuts - I'm forced to think about my future. So I take to attending a nearby open mic and enjoying what’s on offer. I play ‘Life is for Living’ and it pretty much sums up my journey. That to take part and enjoy the things that we are lucky to be offered, or have created for ourselves, is enough.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Worcestershire Literature Festival (June 2011)

The first ever Worcestershire Literature Festival took place this year with many writers, poets and performers involved over a 10 day period.  My humble contribution was helping to organise an event on the first Saturday that included Supine Orchestra, Jazzman John Clarke and my good self 'Poet and the Loops' on electronic beats and spoken word (and some accordion thrown in for good measure).

We arrived mid-day in Worcester with the intention of attending an afternoon session and to drum up some support for the evenings event.  Unfortunately, the venue in question had shut down, so we found ourselves downing a few pints (shame!) in a pub called The Old Rectum (or something like that) over near the river.

Worcester is an attractive place to visit, and a little later we wandered into town to watch a group of young poets bravely reading out their work to the afternoon shoppers.  We also found the Literature Festival office, where there were free books and useful information on the festival attractions, which this year included John Cooper Clarke, Chris Redmond and a talk by the son of Mervyn Peake.

The festival was founded by Lisa Vector-Ventura who is the Director and also a talented writer and poet in her own right.  She and her team have worked hard to make this a two week long celebration of all forms of writing, with a little music thrown in for good measure.

My gig took place at the Worcester Arts Workshop, a funky left of field venue run by volunteers and with a great performance space in the old cellars.  Naturally, the night kicked off with an open mic session (if you've read any of this blog you'll know why) where anyone could get up and read or sing or tell a few jokes.

Nikki told us how she had come to like her men with muscles and not afraid of spiders.  Lisa, yes the same Lisa as above, offered a light hearted poem about reaching thirty.  Matt read some dark and effective horror texts by candlelight.  And Daniel (left) read a poem about someone taking ages to choose something in a shop, and another about a guy who had nothing better to do than dig a hole.

Jazzman John Clarke (below) from London was first on after the open mic.  John took us through a range of poems some of which were a homage to jazz and the beat poets, whilst others were reflections on modern life and intrusions such as lap tops and mobile phones.  Listening into a mobile phone conversation also gave John the word fragments for a 'found poem', which was made up of a one sided conversation.  I liked the idea that you could gather words and phrases in that way, and reflect them back on the world in a different context.

I was on after John and started off with 'Holding ourselves from the edge of the headland' and 'A good year for the spiders'.  The mid section of my set was blighted by feedback and some unpredicted chaotic kaoss, but I managed to pull it back with an accordion piece in homage to my least favourite tipple - L.L.Loopy Juice.  The beverage that sends you a little bit mentalist and sees you ending up trying to have sex with a table leg!  As I hadn't sound checked the accordion, I took the instrument to the audience and squeezed my way through each and every one of them.

Supine Orchestra ended the evening with an hours worth of quality song writing and clever lyrics.  Some new songs off their latest album and some even newer ones that I don't think they've recorded yet.  This was exactly the right end to an evening that began with spoken word and poetry, through to jazz and digital beat poetry, and on to the Americana tinged backwaters of songs about growing up in Coventry.  The whole evenings entertainment was a veritable feast of highs and lows, of the dramatic and the humorous, of lyrics and music, and all round cheerful depressions.

We had a great night at the Worcestershire Literature Festival and very much hope it will go from strength to strength.  A remarkable achievement to say this was the first ever programme.

And finally, I have to give a big shout out and thanks to Ruth Inglis, the festival organiser, who asked me to play and also looked after my family and other reprobates during our stay in Worcester.  We were inspired, we were entertained and we were always educated!

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Anticx Stage at Parklife 2011 - Manchester (Saturday)

Haven’t been around this  blog much of late.  Mostly because of gigs in Sheff, Leeds and Manchester.  So I thought I’d write up my most recent experience at the awesome Parklife Festival.
In the centre of Manchester the hard rain was beating me down as I wrestled two bags of electronic gadgets and a customised kaoss stand through the crowds and onto the bus.  The place was packed with weekend revellers who were also heading out to Parklife.  An hour later and the clouds had parted, the sun was shining and I was standing in a field full of wonderful artifacts, sculptures and all walks of life people.

I’d got the gig courtesy of Anticx Asylum, the Manchester based art and performance collective who are leading the way for all kinds of new music, cutting edge dance, poetry, comedy and performance in the City.  They had been given the Roshambo area of the park to fill with interesting and different goings on, and they had worked incredibly hard to make this an exciting and fun space to hang out.

Back stage I dropped my stuff off next to a Charlie Chaplin esque mime artist who sat quietly waiting his turn to go on stage.  Then I was approached by a woman who asked me if I’d like to "come in her vagina!"   In fact, I hadn’t taken a wrong turn down some dodgy back street, the vagina in question was an art installation made up of a labryinth of tunnels through which you have to crawl (see pic of bald eagle right).  When my turn came I was ejaculated into a dome shaped tent where various artists were entertaining a relaxed and friendly audience.  There was a good vibe in the womb, so I stayed a while and watched an all female choir singing some sweet songs.  Slap and Giggle doing a comedy piece about a Cereal Killer - the snap, crackle, pop variety.  Fun Box giving a retro BBC interview to a fictitious writer of erotica.  And the talented singer song writer Hugo Kensdale, battling valiantly against an amplified back drop of a highly danceable Dubside set.

After the Busking Tent I headed towards the circuit bent screaches and blips of Noisy Toys and the men in white coats and thick rimmed glasses.  Here you could participate in making noises with friends and complete strangers, and every now and again the sounds would fit together, but most of the time it was just a horrible joyous mess.  I plugged in one of my own noise gadgets and played along for a while, until I found a sound fit to make your ears bleed, and the men in the white coats didn’t carry me off for interfering with their parts.

I didn’t much venture into the vast area of the park where gigantic stages and dance tents were attracting massive crowds.  Mostly because I was waiting my turn on stage and checking on progress through the long list of different acts (see pic left).  But also because my preference is for the eclectic and relative unknowns.  I tried the various arm chairs and seats which the Anticx team had carefully designed and put together - cut in half bath tubs, painted tyres, giant haystacks covered in turf.
On the main stage a young poet by the name of Greg Saxton was telling the audience how he went insane, to a background of classical music and dubstep.  An energetic band called Rachel Whatever thrashed out some rocking good tunes.  And the street dancers that had out performed each other on the main Anticx stage were now pulling crowds in the audience, as they entertained with one armed hand stands and head spins, whilst DJs played exactly the right beats and the sun continued to shine through. 

I found myself back stage again and the white faced mime artist was still sat in the same place, quiet and unassuming, waiting for his moment, whilst all around him were scenes of an organised but chaotic human circus.  And I watched a humpty dumpty Mancunian in a track suit fall from the perimeter wall and scamper away from the security guards. 

Later, I was sorry to have just missed the young comedian Joe Greensdale in the busking tent.  When I got there Joe was outside being congratulated on a job well done by a succession of people leaving the busking stage.  His would have been a risky (or should I say 'risque') set I suspect, judging by what I’d seen at the auditions.

When my time came James, one of the Anticx volunteers, called me to the back stage area.  The mime artist was also waiting to go on, now quietly positioned behind the stage.  James had done a good job of keeping everything to time, not an easy task I reckon when you’re dealing with so many varied performers, characters and random happenings.  I was following a succession of dance troupes, so got a bit of heckling from two female students at the front “Excuse me! What you doing? This is the dance stage!” They shouted.  I meant to tell them to look to the sky and see that this stage was for everything and everyone CABARET!

I started up the opening synthetic strains of ‘Holding ourselves from the edge of the headland’.  I set a four part vocal harmony around an 80bpm machine beat and was so happy to see the street dancers moving to this challenging piece.  Then, for one night only, I played ‘The Smells of Manchester’ and noticed smiling faces and dancing feet remained intact.  I finished with a shortened version of ‘Disappeared Friend’ so I’d just about squeezed everything into the alloted time, which went by in the flash of a kaoss pad.

Have to say the PA guys did a brilliant job of getting through my rapid soundcheck and performance.  Not helped by the fact that I was constantly turning the volume controls up and down, and also using a vocal mic that has a feedback mind of its own.

It was a fantastic day for me.  And I felt very privelidged to be at Parklife in 2011 - particularly because I got to perform the new beat poetry.  So I’d like to thank all of the Anticx team for letting me play, the ones that voted for me in the auditions, the ones that didn’t, the ones that weren’t sure people would get it.  In the end, its all about the art, and having a proper good time. 

And what of the mime guy?  Well there was me thinking I didn’t like mime - but he was spot on, brilliant!  So I think that was the whole point of this stage, to expect the unexpected, and to be surprised at what you end up enjoying and how you end up finding that out.

Next week Worcestershire Literature Festival with Jazzman John Clarke and Supine Orchestra.

Friday, 13 May 2011

The Cremorne, Sheffield (10.5.2011)

The Cremorne is on the London Road in Sheffield, a mile or so out of the city centre.  The open mic is every Tuesday and run by Tom, a young musician and ex member of the band Blue Lip Feel.

When I arrive at the pub there aren't many folks in the place, but Tom tells me most musicians get there about ten.  We have a long chat about loop stations and recording software and a few more punters arrive.  I read the latest edition of a funky art magazine called Now Then.  There are some great illustrations in this months edition.

I'm not sure why, but finding a music open mic in Sheffield has been tricky.  There are many spoken word and poetry events going on, and even the wonderful Noise Upstairs that I wrote about in a previous blog.  But there's very little in the way of an anyone turn up, plug in and play music night.  So I was glad to have come across The Cremorne.  On top of that I'd got a gig supporting Sheffield's inventive synth band Conversation the following week, so I wanted to test out a few new things in a live context.

Tom and Steve take to the stage first.  Tom is picking the guitar and Steve is playing boran. They play three or so songs to get the PA and the audience warmed up.  Then Tom does some solo stuff and they are well played and intricate songs which I'd be happy to hear more of.

There's a mixed crowd of locals and passers by here at The Cremorne and its a real world pub, somewhere that isn't trying to be anything other than what it is, a friendly local that also offers up its inner workings to a spot of live music.

Then I take the kaoss beats and spoken word to the stage and its not what most people are expecting.  I run through 'Its been a good year for the spiders' and 'Smells of London' and have collared Steve, the boran player, to join in - actually he didn't need much persuading.  This has to be a musical first, combining electronic music with the beating of a traditional frame drum!

Have to say I wasn't sure what people would make of this left of field electro from an aging poet, but the response was bloody brilliant.  When I'd finished a good few people told me how much they liked it, and even if there were those who didn't (it's like marmite this stuff) - I was very happy with the outcome. 

There's a good bunch down at The Cremorne and its an honest place to play.  But I'd liked to have seen more musicians on hand to keep the night rocking from word go.  The rest of Yorkshire is spoilt for good open mics so I don't get what's going on in Sheffield at the moment.  So come on musicians and performers, what are you waiting for?  This is a top night that shouldn't be wasted!

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Return of the Bed Bugs by Poet & the Loops (animation)

Here's where Ive been

Here's where Ive been:
Bar 1:22, Huddersfield
Lauries Bar, Glasgow
Lebowskis, Edinburgh
The Royal Oak, Edinburgh
The Nook, Holmfirth
New Angel Inn, Bridgend, South Wales
The Hop, Wakefield
Primrose Pub, Leeds
The Duck and Drake, Leeds
Liquid Nation, London
Speakeasy, The Hubs, Sheffield
Olive Bar, Sheffield
Earl of Camden, London
The Puzzle Inn, Sowerby Bridge
Jack’s House, Todmorden
The Golden Lion, Bristol
The Cider Rooms, Bristol
Carpe Diem, Leeds
Fat Cat, Sheffield
The Vibe Bar, Brick Lane, London
Hole in t'Wall, Hebden Bridge
The Cross Keys, Llandudno
The Deaf Institute, Manchester
The Druids Head, Brighton
The Chemic Tavern, Leeds

Campbell's Landing, Clevedon, North Somerset
Hobgoblin, near Angel, London
Illusions Bar, Manchester
Trof, Northern Quarter, Mancheter
The Bookbinders Arms, Oxford

Britains Got Talent, NEC
The Fox and Newt, Leeds
Iguana Bar, Chorlton, Manchester
The Riverside, Sheffield
Taylor John's House, Coventry
Dry Dock, Leeds
The Bar Place, Hebden Bridge
King's Head, Huddersfield (part of the Huddersfield Literature Festival)
The Drop (under the Three Georges), Stoke Newington, London
The Mad Ferret, Preston
The Cremorne, Sheffield
The Tiger Lounge, Manchester
Worcester Arts Workshop, Worcester
Sand Bar, Manchester

Saturday, 30 April 2011

Musical Stereotypes # 11 - Check Shirt Jamie

Check shirt Jamie sings soppy songs about ex girlfriends and how they screwed him over in favour of better looking guys.  He never stands and strums, he always sits and picks - and he listens to folk, americana (that's pc for country) and the blues.  He is also a fan of Mumford and Sons (who aren't really any of the above).  His check shirt is from Super Dry (a present from his ex before she dumped him) but it might also be from Top Man or River Island - as long as it looks like its from Super Dry.  He has tried growing a beard, but so far without success.  Most of his songs use variations on Bm and Gm, with a very occasional cheerful major. 

You'll likely see Jamie frequenting the many candle lit open mics up and down this land.  His main aim at this time is to form a band that is willing to play his songs (and maybe a few covers), but he's been struggling to find the 'right' musicians.  They keep leaving him because of musical differences - the main one being that his music is so depressing.  As a result, he is now writing songs about about ex band members and how they screwed him over in favour of better bands.

Thursday, 28 April 2011

Acoustic Club, 1:22 Live, Huddersfield (26.4.2011)

The Acoustic Club takes place every tuesday night at 1:22 Live in Huddersfield.  The night has been running for over 10 years and the 1:22 website estimates over 1500 different performers have occupied its stage.  Some of the nights I've written about in this blog haven't even lasted 8 months, let alone 10 years, so I reckon the longevity of the Acoustic Club is a great achievement.

1:22 (a bit like The Mad Ferret in Preston) is a venue that does loads of good work for live music - encouraging new bands and local music, and also bringing in some great artists from all over the world.  The Acoustic Club is part of this picture, with a stage that is open to anyone who wants to sing a song, tell a few jokes, bang a drum or maybe even act the scene from a movie, anything goes - as long as its unamplified, because on this night, 'acoustic' means exactly that, totally unplugged.

Now I have to say I have a preference for electrification.  The availability of a PA makes for a more diverse range of musical possibilities.  But I also think as a musician its good to put yourself outside of your comfort zone and try different things - that's how you learn and develop your skills.  Without a PA there is only you, your voice and the instrument, and it if it goes horribly wrong, it really doesn't matter on this friendly night.  You can still walk away having learnt something about what works, and what doesn't.

Stevo is the compere for the night and he does this in good humour and in a way that makes everyone welcome.  He also introduces the 'shit quiz' which is so called 'because..., its shit!'  Thankfully, this is a reference to a rubbish quiz, rather than the shit performance art I described in my last blog.  The prizes for the quiz are equally shit, and on this night include a shot glass for one, a broken bar sign, a plastic fork and a tin of obscure something.  Each question in the quiz follows each performance, and as each performer gets only one song, the night moves quickly once it gets cracking at around about 10pm - its a late start and a late finish down here at 1:22.

Caleb begins with a song about the acoustic night.  Marky plays a Naked Ladies cover.  I play an Old Man Pie tune on accordion (rather badly).  Ken plays a lovely 12 string guitar.  Dan plays Clear Blue Sky, a cover of the masterful Chris Whitely tune.  And between each performance there is a shit question (something like):

What was the name of the sheep that scientists cloned in the 1990's?
(a) daisy
(b) dolly or
(c) rose, from Marsden. 
Marsden comes in for some stick on this night and if you don't know Marsden (which most of you won't) you should visit it some day to find out why.

Joshua Blinkhorn is a regular here at 1:22 and he plays a jazz piece 'I can't get started (with you)'.  I've seen Josh play a good few times now and I love what he does.  I would have liked to have heard one of his own uniquely crafted songs, but he certainly does this jazz number justice.  In fact, last year Josh let me put out a couple of his songs on my own 'virtual' record label and I've included them here for your listening pleasure (check out the free guitar tuner while you're at it):

There are more performers. Will plays a cover of Nothing Else Matters by Metallica.  Liz plays a Crowded House song and Natalie plays Billy Jean by Michael Jackson.  Tom and Andy, a father and son duo, play a bluegrass number.

The Acoustic Night is an assett to Huddersfield's musical goings on and gives everyone a fair hearing.  Because the night is unamplified a shhhh policy is enforced so if you want to go somewhere for a good old chin wag this night isn't for you.  But if you want to listen to people of all abilities and skills simply enjoying playing a little music, or you want to have a go yourself, or if you like shit quizes, the club is definitely worth a visit.

For more info check out their website:

Monday, 25 April 2011

A Spoonful of Poison (Number 2)

When you push the boundaries with a night that embraces everything, you're taking a few risks and supporting experimentation.  But sometimes experiments can go wrong!  A Spoonful of Poison experienced this in the shape of the Russian/Austrian couple who I mentioned in the previous blog.  Their 'performace art' if you want to call it that, consists of live defecation and dirty protest.  Vis the Spoon, who runs the night, sent me the video as proof and I've linked it here but..,


The 'performance' takes place around 4:20

Mad Ferret, Preston (20.4.2011)

A glorious spring evening on the M62 with the light of a descending sunshine glittering on a trail of vehicles heading West.  And this unstoppable road is split in two by a stubborn farmer who would not be shifted by the Highways Agency and Government departments.  The farm remains intact and still working as the road divides around it.  Supine Orchestra, the group I met in Coventry, is playing a sweet mix of mandolin and guitar as I pass by the highest point of the highest motorway in the UK, and it feels good to be heading for the M61, and on to an open mic at The Mad Ferret in Preston.
The Mad Ferret is a music venue in the heart of Preston that I'd heard good things about from my mate Jimbob who plays bass for Ottersgear.  A place that had dedicated its heart and soul to bringing quality music to the town.  The open mic is every Wednesday and run collectively by a range of local musicians such as One English Pound, Vox Population and Sully and Becky.  My contact for the night is Russell and he has assured me this night takes all comers.
The walls are covered with music posters of a rich variety of bands past and present.  Good to see a Wild Beasts poster glued to a post and also the classic Ramones poster over by the stairs.  The April gig listing boasts sessions by Middleman, Curtis Eller, Johnny Foreigner, The Crookes and many more.
Dan Jeoffrey, who also helps run the night, kicks off with a few songs on acoustic guitar, including a nice piece about making up his mind.  Then another Dan takes us through some covers and adds a little whistling.  The world always seems a better place with a bit of whistling in my book.  Chris Ward plays a V shaped metal riff and reproduces Anarchy in the UK and Symphony of Destruction by Megadeth.  He finishes with one of his own renditions and its great to hear a bit of electric guitar for a change, beating back the acoustic guitar takeover of the past few years.  I follow with the kaoss beat poetry and enjoy a bit of light heckling from a friendly bunch here at the Ferret.
One Man and his Beard plays some original songs, again on electric guitar, but this time in more of a punk rock vein.  You got to just love this guy.  He plays a song called 'Bring Back Top of the Pops' and there's some brilliant audience participation going down from his 'Pans People' who are formation dancing at the back of the bar.  It turns out he's made a video of this number so I've included it below so you can see what hilarious good fun this is.  Tom Robinson (not the one who gave us 2-4-6-8 Motorway) plays a light reggae number and then its the turn of the featured performer The Bees Neice.
The Bees Neice is from Oslo and Manchester I believe and she (for there is only her) starts with a song about a stolen bike and a request for the return of said bike rom the nob head who stole it.  She has a good voice and plays some sweet songs but I realise time has slipped through my fingers again and I'm going to have to leave before the end of her set.
The Mad Ferret is a top notch venue that supports music in all its guises and forms.  They got a quality PA down here and the open mic can cope with full bands, as well as solo peformers.  I'd recommend it and also many of the great gigs they've got lined up for the coming month.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

A Spoonful of Poison - The Drop, Stoke Newington, London (13.4.2011)

Following my last blog about the awfulness of Britains Got Talent, here's where the real talent is in this great Nation of ours - overlooked forever by the corporations and producers in favour of dumbed down rubbish.


The last time I was in London at The Earl of Camden, a blues guitarist called Laine told me of A Spoonful of Poison, an anarchistic open mic that took place out in Stoke Newington. When I tracked it down on the internet it sounded like my kind of time; welcoming musicians, bands, poets, performance artists, comedians, storytellers, magicians and even people who hit each other with sticks. This is a twice a week event run by Vis the Spoon.

So it was I found myself at The Drop, which is underneath the Three Crowns on ‘Stokey’ High Street. One of those basement venues with the smell of a damp dungeon, it felt like the right kind of place for bizarre goings on.

I got talking to Piers, a big guy with a beard and braces who it turned out was from Doncaster and working down in London during the week. Rather than sitting in and watching the telly, he frequented some of London’s finest open mics and introduced people to folk singing.  A mix of three hundred year old songs, as well as his own compositions.

A guitarist by the name of Oliver kicked off the night with some self penned tunes. There are two rules at A Spoonful of Poison and the first is strictly no covers. I’ll tell you about the second rule later, and it doesn’t involve singing. I’m with Spoon on the no covers ruling because its always more interesting listening to what people have come up with for themselves. There’s often more passion and personal involvement in original music.  Though I'm not sure how three hundred year old folk songs fit into that category.

A comedian by the name of Johnny Armstrong told us of how he took his wet suit to the dry cleaners and they didn’t know what to do with it.  He told us of a worm that fell through a worm hole and he’d seen that exact same worm a year ago. Turned out this was his 500th gig, quite an achievement I reckon and good on him for that.

I was on next and went through Iambic Vision, which is long rambling fantasy poem about missionary work and how it can do as much harm as good. It’s a poem I’ve only ever read once in public and then to a disinterested bunch of beanie hats in Sheffield. They were more taken with their mobile phones and iPads than with what I had to say, and there was no changing that. So I’d never read it again, but I like that piece so it struck me if there was ever a place to try it one more time it was here.  I followed with Smells of London and The Return of the Bed Bugs – the latter of which I’m turning into an animation .

Spoon was under pressure from a last minute change of venue and a PA he’d never worked with before, but he still does a great job of keeping things rolling.  Its good to see an organiser who is so involved in the art and entertainment of the night, and he does this twice a week.  A little later he told me of the second rule and it stemmed from a previous happening at this event, though at a different venue.  A Russian/Austrian couple who might be considered ‘performance artists' had 'performed' (as in bowel movements) all over the stage, and then smeared the result on themselves. Its not clever and its not original. So the other rule is ‘no live shitting!’

The almighty Jazzman John Clarke was up next with his carrier bags full of poems.  John must be in his sixties and a real live relic of the beatnik poetry scene. I’d seen a clip of him on youtube reciting his work over a jazz band. This guy is a natural born poet and at ease with his word smithing. One of his poems called Cautionary Tales particularly struck a chord and I’ve reproduced some of it here (hope John doesn’t mind):

“Never touch a wasp until it tells you its full life story
Never spill the beans on a banana skin
Don’t wind up an orange with the promise of a toffee apple
Don’t pour chocolate sauce over left over peanuts”

This is almost lyrical and I guess that’s why I like it so much, being half musician half writer, I’m drawn to that kind of thing. This country needs people like Jazzman John Clarke to talk us out of the mess we're in.

Becky Fury, a comedian, told us of her life in Pekham where she still shop lifts pick n mix and there’s a shoe shop that sells two shoes for the price of one. She was followed by another quality comedian by the name of Kristoff. Kristoff is from Belgium and he happily explained that Belgians are the only people who tell you where they are from with an apology. Dangerous T adds some hilarious material, including a wonderful piece about dealing in Night Nurse.  The comedy on this night is complete and accomplished stuff.

After this point things go a little hazy because I’d downed a few too many pints and finished with the worst of all night caps, a spoonful of loopy juice by the name of JD. I remember with fondness a woman on a megaphone blasting out emotive words over an electric guitar, and then an effective mix of poetry and acoustic guitar by Rob Monk and Jim Rhesus.  And I liked the way Rob’s poetry reading drifted into a vocal instead of pure spoken word.

The night was a mini-festival full of interesting surprises. A Spoonful of Poison is an entertaining and innovative event which truly welcomes all comers from all walks of life. I’d have liked to have seen more people in there, but maybe the last minute change of venue put paid to some attendees. As always with these kinds of nights I met some great folks and my only regret is that the Russian/Austrian couple didn’t turn up to perform (as it were) – because that really would have been something to write home about.

Iambic Vision

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Iguana Bar (Chorlton) & North Manchester FM

I wasn’t planning on writing about another Manchester open mic.  The test I've set myself is to get round as many different towns and cities as possible, and I’ve already written about two great Manchester nights here.  Problem is, to coin a phrase, Manchester is ‘so hot right now!'

The Iguana Bar in Chorlton has an open mic every Tuesday that is run by successful musician Charlie Allen.  There’s two good things about the night.  The first is that they got a decent sound guy who sorts out the PA, which means someone is always there concentrating on the levels.  It also means Charlie is free to organise and compere the night.  The second, and most unique from my experience, is that whole thing is recorded for radio.  The highlights of the open mic are played on the Late Junction with Jonathan Darwin on Manchester 106.6.

When I arrive at the Iguana Bar, Manchester legend Krazy Horse is singing about his own life.  Krazy Horse has long grey hair in a pony tail and leaps bare foot about the stage blasting out his songs.  This guy is an inspiration to anyone who thinks they are too old to enjoy playing music.  You watch Krazy Horse, who is in his 60’s (I know this because he told us) and his enthusiasm rubs off on you.  You'll be tapping your foot and shaking a tambourine before you know it. 

Because of the popularity of the night and the number of musicians that have shown up Charlie has reduced each performance to 10 minutes.  This is so everyone can get to play.  It also makes for a good evening, because you get to see more variety that way.

I follow Krazy Horse with kaoss plus accordion and it takes a while to set up, so I’m conscious of the time.  The sound guy isn’t phased by the unusual combination of instruments, but it clearly phases me because I forget to connect the sampler mic.  I play Disappeared Friend, which is digital beat poetry, and then Loopy Juice, which is a completely daft piece about the type of booze that sends you mentalist.  Jack Daniels is my enemy, what's yours?  This song went down well in Hebden Bridge the previous week and there were people dancing along, but I feel I’m making too many mistakes to get it off the ground tonight.
After I’ve played a singer called Rick O’Shea tests out some spoken word and guitar picking.  Then the awesome Alexx O’Shea plays saxaphone over a looped casio keyboard and kaossilator.  Here is a musician who likes to push the boundaries of her art.  You can read more of her in a previous Manchester blog I wrote about Illusions Bar on a Monday night.

Oscar and Greta play next and I’ve seen them at Iguana once before.  Greta has a cracking voice and theres also some quality, dark lyrics in these songs.  When Greta sings she has this meloncholy about her and it makes for a wonderful performance.  There’s something uncertain and lonesome about their tunes, and they are always well received.

A guy from Stoke plays slide guitar on an instrument he’s made for himself.  He tells us in a blues song that he built the guitar from an old wine box.  In fact, the chorus tells of getting wood and squirting glue into holes, so I start to wonder if the song is about something else.

The only down side of the Iguana night is the beautiful game.  They got major television coverage down here, so if there’s a big match on you may find yourself playing through the cheers and chants of a lively football crowd or waiting a little bit longer to play.  But there are no major matches on tonight and the football crowd have assembled at the far end of the bar for some lesser kickings.  The open mic and football coverage co-exists exceedingly well.

There are many more performers to come and this is a late night, sometimes going on into the early hours of the morning.  But I’ve got to get back over the moors before the witching hour and have to make tracks around about 11ish, so I'm sorry not to have seen all the other performers.

A few nights later and I’m knocking back a beer and just finished watching True Blood.  The second series was an enjoyable blood fest, but this new series is a disappointment.  So I tune into Manchester 106.6 via the internet and find myself listening to an interview with Naymedici who I'm pleased to hear are playing Friends of Mine Festival - they deserve it.

At around 11’o’clock Jonathan Darwin is joined by a laid back Charlie Allen who explains that there was technical hitch with the open mic the previous Tuesday, and none of the acts were recorded.  These things happen eh?  However, he is to play a best of open mic acts instead.  They play four open mic acts in total and these are mixed in with other famous performers of Charlie’s choice.  To be honest I’d like to have heard more of the open mic sessions but that’s just me, and I suppose they got to keep a broad range of listeners happy.

There was a particularly good song by an outfit called Sam Hayne and The Blood Flames.  They also use a cajon to good effect and there must be someone out there making a mint out of these things because they are popping up everywhere I go.  There was also some brilliant Irish music and fiddle playing.  And Charlie finished, neatly for me, because this is where my Iguana night began, with a song by Krazy Horse.

It’s a wonderful thing the people at Iguana Bar and North Manchester FM are doing for live music.  Giving performers and musicians the opportunity to play and maybe even be on local radio.  It’s not an all night long singer songwriter affair either and they actively encourage every kind of music and performance, which always make for a much more interesting night in my opinion.  You can listen to the open mic show on the link below (every Friday night) and they also provide a play again service if you got other things to do on a Friday night.

Poet and the Loops (new beat poetry)

Its all the about the poetry man!
Poet and the Loops - Smells of London

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Taylor John’s House – Coventry (13.2.2011)

News Flash:

I will be supporting Supine Orchestra at Esquires in Coventry on 26 March 2011 - starts at 7pm

A rainy night in the city they send you to when they stop talking to you, and the place I grew up.  Coventry is always on my mind and on the back of a weekend seeing family, I tracked down an open mic at The Tin Angel on Sunday night. 

Spinning round the 1960s ring round I weave in and out of cars weaving in and out of me in a completely chaotic fashion.  How we don't crash into each other is all down to timing and the excellence of the human mind, but it would only take the slightest of misjudgments to end up wrapped round a lampost.  I park up beneath a high rise and head down some steps, where moments earlier I'd seen two figures in the gloomy night disappearing with guitars.

Having searched the internet for open mics in Coventry, the results kept telling me of The Tin Angel in Spon Street.  A Kashmir night that promised to welcome all comers and all instruments.  It sounded just the job, but at the last minute I discovered The Tin Angel had been closed, something to do with a dodgy landlord and a change of locks.  The open mic had been relocated to Taylor John’s House in the coal vaults of the canal basin.

As a kid I used to come to the canal basin to do canoeing.  It was a rough and ready place back then, overgrown with a small community of hippy barge dwellers who had given up their houses for a simpler way of life.  Now the area had been the subject of urban improvement and there were no longer any canal barges to be seen.  The run down buildings were now upmarket offices and businesses.

It took me a while to find Taylor John’s House, disguised behind patchwork arches that once stored coal for an industrial revolution.  Inside, a small gathering of musicians were sitting in the comfy chairs around a couple of microphone stands.  There was a conversation about car crashes and I reckon they must be talking about that ring road I just drove in on.

After I’d got a drink, I was surprised to be charged a £1 entrance fee.  In all my travels to over 40 different open mics this is the first time I’ve ever had to pay to play, and although a quid isn't much in the great scheme of things, it seemed a bit mean.  In Leeds and Bristol there were free drinks for playing, in Oxford you got a free MP3 of your set, in Lancashire I’d even got a free meal, in Manchester they put you on the local radio, but in Coventry you get to pay.  I love my home town!

The host for the night is Mason and he kicks off the event with some original songs.  The songs have a reference point somewhere in the iconic 60's, but with a contemporary feel and slightly Bowie-ish.  I follow Mason with the beat poetry, but unfortunately the major kaoss doesn't like the PA or vica versa, so I have to get by with the hand held version.  It works well, but the full set up would have been better.  A gravel voiced blues guitarist is up next and is well received, then two young female singers sing some ballads.  Throughout their songs a guy plays along on a cajon at the other end of the bar, and it makes for a party atmosphere.

More musicians arrive and I get talking to Rich and Joel who collectively are Supine Orchestra.  They liked what I was doing with the kaoss poet.  I gave them a copy of my lyric book and they gave me two of their Cd's in return.  This is what open mics are about, meeting different people and finding out about their music.

Unfortunately I didn't get to see Supine Orchestra play as I had to leave before they took to the stage.  But I listened to their Cd's all the way back to Yorkshire the following day and was struck by the depth of the music and the lyrics.  Country and folk influenced songs and some great stories, such as:

'Rodriguez and me, breaking into factories, stuck in the air vent when the alarm went, hanging by the thread of my jeans' (Rodriguez and me) - that one made me chuckle

'Round the back of the bottle bank where the seagulls fought me for my soul' (Feverish Dreams)

A lot of thought had gone into the lyrics and you can check out Supine Orchestra on their myspace:

There's a good crowd at Taylor John’s House and a decent welcome.  And judging by the quality of the music there is still some great song smithing going on in the old home town.

Friday, 11 February 2011

Noise Upstairs - The Riverside, Sheffield (9.2.2011)

When I was growing up, I remember with some fondness, forming a noise duo with a friend of mine called Ozz.  We were inspired by artists such as Throbbing Gristle, John Cale and Cabaret Voltaire into experimenting with music.  Our preferred choice of 'instrument' was a cassette tape recorder.  We would remove the back off these machines and poke our fingers around in the circuits so that they screamed back at us, as if we were harming them in some terrible way.  Maybe we were amongst the first of the circuit benders, but the practice hadn't been named back then. 

Over the years I have continued to dabble in using obscure instruments and household objects to come up with interesting sounds.  I often sample those noises and put them with something more melodic, because in the end I’m always pulled back to melody.   But these experiments with sound can be great fun, particularly when you find a sound that is like nothing else you’ve ever listened to.  So when I heard about Noise Upstairs, which is run by a group of enthusiasts in both Manchester and Sheffield, I was intrigued to find out more.

I opted to go to the Sheffield event because it took place at The Riverside, a venue I’d heard good things about and one which puts on a variety of eclectic and different nights, from theatre through to live bands and spoken word.  It’s situated on the outskirts of the city centre, in amongst a mix of high rise flats and next to a busy roundabout. 

On arrival at the venue I got a pint of Guinness and made my way upstairs.  I said hello to some of the guys running the event and one of them, Johnny, explained the set up.  You put your name in a hat and then they draw out three names at random, so you don’t know who your going to be playing with.  It could be any combination of instruments and objects.  They do this for an hour or so, and then there is a guest band, followed by more of the names in a hat.

I sat down at a table near the back of the room and picked up a copy of a free art magazine called Now Then.  One of the musicians was talking to another and it turned out he was just finishing a PhD.  A deep conversation ensued about the difficulties of acoustic and electronic combination in the key of F.  Another conversation related to sign waves, differentials and the availability of recording equipment in music departments.  It occured to me that many of the people here were music academics who had chosen the ways of contemporary noise over contemporary music.  I started to feel a little out of my depth and wondered whether the ‘anything goes’ philosophy was what it promised to be.  I’d had bad experiences with literature and poetry academics who looked down on anyone who hadn’t studied the subject at their high level.  Academics can be very elitist, and so can musicians - the fact was I needn't have worried.

When the programme got under way my name was the first out of the hat.  And I was teamed up with a saxophonist called Ian and an American by the name Rodrigo.  I made my way carefully into the noise proceedings feeling a little uneasy with the intensity of it all.  But as the process got going it became more relaxed and I decided to avoid the instrument samples on the kaoss pad and went for the sound effects.  Then I used the vocoder to loop some random words and sounds into the mix, speeding them up and slowed them down (trying to achieve an audio concrete poetry of some kind).  Ian threw in some sharp bursts of sound over the top and Rodrigo added to the ambiance with guitar.  Strangely enough, as random a collection of individuals that had never met before, we worked our way through the piece and found exactly the right place to stop.  The noise had its own life span and the ending felt very natural.

The next random set of musicians were Angie, Steve and Johnny.  Angie played an acoustic guitar upside down so that the strings were resting on a table.  She wrote on pieces of paper and then tore them up on the back of the guitar so that it could be heard through the PA via a microphone.  Steve played some chaotic bass lines.  Johnny stroked and tapped a small drum kit with an anti-rhythm, so that there was never a beat for the human heart to hook up to.  I watched the dark surging waters of the River Don outside the window, and it seemed like the reflection of neon lights was moving with this discord.  And again the ending came quite naturally, somehow deliberate, but never intended.

There were more performances from more trios and of particular note was an amplified cymbal which was played by another American by the name of Ray.  Ray had laid out what looked like a yoga mat on the floor and set the cymbal down on it.  He used various metal objects such as a fork, and an egg whisk, to scrape, tap and generally upset the cymbal into action.  At one moment it sounded like that noise you get when you run your nails down a blackboard, and another it resembled the ringing in your ears after you’ve run your fingers down a blackboard, the sound of the heart thumping in your brain.

Ray stroked and attacked his cymbal with relish.  He waved his arm out at the audience and then twisted his hand on his wrist in an odd gesture of defiance.  He shut his eyes and screwed up his face as the noises he was making got louder and more awkward.  He fidgeted and hesitated throughout the set in the manner of the edgy sound he was creating, and it was good to watch his amplified cymbal getting a right pasting. 

Meanwhile, a musician called Anton, filled the room with a sweeping synthesised feedback from an acoustic guitar.  In normal circumstances you would be fighting to prevent this from happening, but in this upside down world it was positively encouraged.  It complemented the sparse moments of the cymbal abuse and the quick bursts of the clarinet from the third of the players.

The guest act brought together Ian, Ray and Rodrigo as 16 Figures.  Rodrigo produced a stringed instrument almost like a guitar, but not a guitar, and he played it alongside a home made electronic box which was covered in switches.  From talking to Rodrigo earlier I’d learnt the box contained a paper circuit, putting together transformers and resistors in such a way to create random buzzing and whirring noises, as you changed the parameters and setting via an array of switches.

16 Figures created a vibrant and agitated noise and I had to stop myself from stroking my chin too vigorously.  Ray fidgeted around in his kneeling position even more than before, hovering over the amplified cymbal, whilst Ian seemed to relax into a burst of saxophone that started to sound almost classical, before stopping himself and using the instrument in a more percussive way.  I guess this is one form of music where if you hit on a pleasing melody you have to work yourself away from it because that ways lays convention.

When 16 Figures had finished I retrieved my stuff from the back of the stage and then bought a copy of the Noise Upstairs compilation.  When I got talking to a few of the Noise guys I realised very quickly they were not at all elitist.  This was an error of judgement on my part and one that was born out of bad experiences with academics in the literary field.  In fact they were as friendly and genuine a bunch as you could possibly come across, and passionate about their chosen art form.

The Noise Upstairs is something to be cherished and valued in a society that is dominated by manufactured sounds of the most banal and unimaginative kind.  I despair of the mediocrity of music, and even those who think their songs or creations may not be part of the middle ground, are actually more middle ground than they realise.  All singer song writers with a desire for creating something different should try a session of noise and see whether some of this creative experimentation rubs off on them.

I've included a video of Ray with the amplified cymbal below.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Earl of Camden - London (31.1.11)

I had unfinished business at the Earl of Camden.  The last time I was at the open mic here I bottled it.  The kaoss poet was a new concept and I was still testing the waters.  Lack of confidence and the evil twin was riding on my shoulder, going on at me like no tomorrow.  A shifting sands of an audience turned from diners to lads night out.  The fear of prejudice and the fear of non-conformity was haunting me, so I made my excuses and left.

It felt very different nine months on.  I’d been through the mill.  I’d played harsh venues in small towns and bars all around the country.  In one of them the people turned their backs on me.  In another I got a load of verbal from a drunk who wanted to kick my head in because of the poetry.  And I’d played to indifferent all comers who wanted the familiarity of safe covers and songs they could sing along to.  At this point, I still hoped people found something in my words and beats, but I was beyond caring what they thought.

The Earl of Camden open mic is run by Treana and takes place every Monday night.  This is lively spot with a diverse range of punters, some of whom are here to watch the football, whilst others are here to have a few drinks with friends and work colleagues.  They're not here for the music, but they aint a bad crowd either, and are willing to give it a listen and show a bit of appreciation. 

There’s also a good crowd of musicians and their friends who take up the tables around the stage area, so you’re always guaranteed a responsive audience at the live music end of the bar.

Whilst Treana is setting up the PA, one of the staff switches off the plasma screen and drapes a surreal picture of alien beings and a horse’s head at the back of the stage area.  He adds some cut out stars to the scene by hanging them from the overhead pipe work.  Once the stage lights go on, the whole place is lit up by primary colours, and you feel like something good is about to happen.

Treana plays a white semi-acoustic guitar (I wish I knew what make it was) and it sounds impeccable through the PA.  She has a strong voice and a song called ‘The Wheel’ is a particular favourite of mine.  I later find out Treana has released a few albums with a band called Wire Daisies via EMI and has also had her own solo album out.  In fact, according to wikileaks, Treana was ‘discovered’ by Roger Taylor of Queen, and also supported Robbie Williams tour of South Africa in 2006.  I’ll bet that was a wild tour and one which required much in the way of 'fruit and flowers', if you know what I mean - wikileaks (I mean wikipedia) wasn't letting on.

I follow Treana with three bursts of the kaoss and spoken word.  I can’t carry all my electronic gear around with me on these visits to London, so I’m relying on a pocket sized loop generator.  The PA does it justice and I have to make a note of the quality sound they got here.  I just wished I had control of the mixing deck to crank up the volume, so people couldn’t hear themselves think, let alone speak!

A string of good quality singer songwriters follow my set and the evening proves to be a guitar dominated one.  A guy called Laine introduces me to London Pride which is a very nice pint and only £2 a throw, a real bargain for spend thrift drinkers.  Turns out Laine does the sound at the nearby Wheel Barrow in Camden and is also a fine blues guitarist. 

I watch the bags of the women at the next table while they nip outside for a cigarette, and on their return they buy me a pint by way of a thank you and because there are notices saying that you got to keep an eye on your bags on account of the bag thieves.  This is London after all. 

Laine plays some down and out blues and is using his own amp and microphone.  The blues is made all the more authentic by his choice of instrumentation, but the authentic sound is still not quite loud enough for me, and then I start to think I must be going deaf after years of over doing it with the volume control.

One of the best musicians is a mild mannered geezer called Simon who picks and strikes the strings on Treana’s guitar to give out a warm and gentle music.  He taps the frets with his fingers to deliver a complex melody which is spot on.  He gets a resounding and positive applause from all of us who are listening, and even those who aren’t.

The Earl of Camden is well worth a visit on a Monday night and I certainly met some great people there.  The musicianship is top quality and I guess you’d expect that in Camden, and Treana is a very friendly and welcoming host.