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.