Friday, 31 July 2009

Northern Rock

No guitar, as yet. That's waiting in Oakland. Right now steaming through Renegade: The Lives and Tales of Mark E. Smith, which is an amusing read and is inspiring me to listen to, and then complete, my collection of Fall albums.

Next up, The North Will Rise Again by John Robb. (What's with the sudden interest in reading about northern English rock, dude? - Ed)

Thursday, 30 July 2009

"Driving down your freeway.."

"Well I just got into town about an hour ago...took a look around me, see which way the wind blows"

LA Woman's the song I wanted to hear as we hit the freeway shortly after being picked up at LAX. The fact that the local rock station is playing Benny & The Jets instead, and the reality of being caught in a tailback for about 45 minutes, slightly spoils this romantic notion of hitting the freeway, but only slightly. It's always cool.

"Is there a Ralph's around here?"

Friday, 24 July 2009

A very English noise

I went to see Black Box Recorder last night at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on the South Bank. Last time I saw a gig there it was Arab Strap in the late-90s. It's a seated venue, and on that occasion after an all-nighter the previous night, the slow pace of AS's narrative songs gradually sent me off to sleep, only to wake me again minutes later with a cacophonous blast of noise and an explosion of light. (Oh, those heady days - Ed.)

I managed to stay awake last night.

Black Box Recorder is the band that Luke Haines formed after the Auteurs. The Auteurs were a band that were at the forefront of the wave of British bands that were bubbling under the tail-end of the US grunge movement of the early-90s. They, and Suede, were NME cover stars for a while back then. Suede, however, were the ones who achieved more commercial success in the long run. When Kurt Cobain died, this of course heralded the backlash movement we now know as Brit-pop. One wonders what would have happened had Cobain lived on?

BBR are difficult to pigeon-hole. As were the Auteurs, despite NME's efforts to do so. Because they, like Suede, simply made Rock music with English subject matter and sung with a very English accent. Any US influence is minimal, and probably consciously avoided.

People often say to me, as I'm sure they do to you if you're in a band: What or who do you sound like? I never give the same answer twice, cos I haven't got a stock one - I don't know, see. BBR and Suede must have had the same problem at some point. 'Cos like U2 and Queen, they sound most like themselves. They are rock bands. They are English, and they sing about being British. They have in common originality. Their own sound.

This is great if you 'make it' of course, and can add longevity to your career by continually updating your sound and image. Then you move beyond having to discuss what you sound like. You sound, and look like, yourself.

If however you languish in obscurity, being original can be mean that you don't sit well on concert bills with other bands. People don't know how to describe you to their mates or whether they like you or not. You are an acquired taste. (I see where this going -Ed)

Introducing Pocket Rocket. Brit-Rock at it's most British. Expect an EP release in the Autumn, and a support slot for Black Box Recorder or Suede.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

'God' unplugged

Since having to play solo to fill the gap in the bill at the Guildford gig, I have been reminded just how much I enjoy playing my songs on the acoustic. This in turn inspired a recent trawling of my songbooks, which reminded me just how many songs I have that suit this type of rendition. Many of them were of course written on the acoustic, so this isn't really a surprise.

Pocket Rocket also spend a good 2-3 years playing the acoustic/unplugged circuit, which was both fun and challenging. Playing to people who are listening intently. Who are silent. Playing with the audience's expectations. It's a totally different kettle of fish to plugging in and rocking out.

So now, with some encouragement from Colin, I am into the idea of performing this way again, either alone or with an 'unplugged' outfit. And the Sunday afternoon acoustic sessions that I'm promoting at The Libertine will be an opportunity for me to play a few songs between other acts, or even a set of my own. Not just when artists pull out of bookings at the last minute.

Quite conveniently, my newest song would perfectly suit such a performance. Having heard recently from my mate that his ex-partner Rachel had finally died of cancer, I was moved to write a tribute to her. Back when my mate and I met, Rachel was living with him and endured our crash-course friendship and our regular all-nighters, from which she would disengage early to take to her bed with a good book. I always got the feeling that she was doing so to leave us in peace rather than because she couldn't stand to listen to us any longer. Come the morning she would be down to find us still going, but sporadically moaning, and cursing "Oh God" to describe how wrecked we felt. "God" she would say from the kitchen, pausing momentarily to make sure we were listening, "has got nothing to do with it". How right she was.

Around this time my mum was diagnosed with cancer and a few months later she lost her battle with it. Rachel and my mate split-up soon after and our shared emotional turmoil gave my mate and me good reason, we thought, to let all hell loose, in both Abbey Wood and Highbury.

Anyway, that's another story. It's not quite complete but the song's called God Has Got Nothing To Do With It so listen out for it.

Rest in peace Rachel.

Saturday, 18 July 2009

Ramping up the gigs

It strikes me that the only way forward is to ramp up the rock-til-you-drop gigs come September. I think that I'm gonna move the emphasis away from promoting to mature musicians and mature music fans, and marketing these nights as networking opportunities for 'older' musicians, and instead focus on appealing to a wider audience. As we've discussed before, no one cares about age, they just care about watching good music performed by experienced musicians. So where it said 'mature', insert experienced. I think the obvious thing to do is to drop the whole 'Rock-Til-You-Drop-Night' thing and reduce 'Rock-Til-You-Drop presents' to small-print.

I have agreed to promote a series of Saturday night gigs, and Sunday afternoon acoustic sessions at the Libertine in Borough, beginning in September. I have two nights at the Fiddlers before Xmas, October and December, and the Dublin Castle punk special on 16th September. And hopefully, one or two more, here and there. This should step things up over the autumn and early winter.

I still find the difference in bands' expectations about payment for gigs disconcerting. I wonder why some even want Rock-Til-You-Drop to promote them. I suppose it's that they need to play away from home from time to time, to move forward. One guy I spoke to recently about the possibility of a RTYD gig, said his trio which comprises professionals, could get 200 quid a gig at his local. They don't play for nothing. This is intimidating to me, cos I can't guarantee his band or any band even 40 quid, so I would shy away from booking such bands until I felt confident I could pay them. I don't want to let people down, I just want to give bands opportunities to move forward, to move out of their neighbourhood and comfort zone, to build a fanbase beyond their friends and colleagues, 'cos without this they will struggle in the long run. You cannot continue to rely on the same people to come out and see you. You can easily get stuck in a local venue rut too, playing the same place month in month out.

I think eventually I have to decide who it is I want to promote more specifically, cos I dunno about these blues-rocks bands? They can pretty much, pitch up in any venue in any town, say they play the blues, and get a paid gig. I didn't start RTYD to help bands that don't need helping.

Sunday, 12 July 2009

Magic Ship at the Club'ouse

Went to Twickenham last night to see Magic Ship play a pub gig at the Clubhouse.

They sounded great. Their two sets included a mix of material from the first album Love Tel Motel, and the second as yet untitled album, which is in-the-making. Set two was particularly strong and dynamic, and gathered a great momentum by its culmination which saw Colin taking a dramatic leap from his amplifier to end the final toilet flush of the evening and tearing a bloody great hole in the ceiling of the venue in the process. Rock and fucking roll!

Colin and Sam were in top classic-rock form, pulling plenty of familiar rock poses and actions - foot on monitor, Townshend-style windmill guitar-playing - and just generally indulging in guitar hero emulations. And I was touched by Colin dedicating a version of my favourite Magic Ship song, Black Holes Don't Everything, to me. I was also pleased to meet Colin's good friend, fellow mature musician and serial blogger Istvanski, who is clearly one of the good guys.

The night ended in Colin's living room, with Colin and me in a fair stupor, playing his acoustic, and his old song demos. My kind of end to a great evening.

Monday, 6 July 2009

The Libertine gig

So after the debacle that was the Guildford gig, once again there is hope, in the form of the Libertine pub in Borough. What a nice little pub venue it is. Run by a friendly bunch of people in their late-20s/early 30s, who made sure the bands were fed and watered, with pizza and beer. It has a small stage at the front of the venue with tables and chairs. And couches at the back end. The bar runs down the left hand side of the oblong pub. If you got 30-50 people in there, at least at one end of the pub, it would seem busy. A hundred in the whole pub, and it would be rammed.

The stage is tight with five up there. Very. Four is okay, but still a bit tight. They have a vocal PA, which you could put an acoustic or keyboard through too. You have to keep the guitar volumes down or I think you'd lose the vocals in the mix; that's what it felt like on stage anyway. There's no fold-backs either. It's a basic set-up, but I kinda like that. In some respects I prefer control of the sound, as opposed to handing it over to a sound-man, who doesn't know your band. Having said that, I know how to turn down - some don't have that ability. (is this a dig? Ed.)

The result was that when my band Pocket Rocket played, I left most of the guitar duties to Lex, my left-hand man, to ensure the songs had space to breathe, and vocals we're clear. This meant the rhythm section was more prominent than usual, but this accentuated our 'danciness' and an aspect of our music which often gets lost during more raucous performances. We were on roll anyway, helped by a rapturous reception, and a small group of gyrating friends of our drummer, Nigel.

Dove Jones' band kicked things off and warmed up the audience with a series of classic rock covers including Hendrix and the Stones. He is an enthusiastic, charismatic performer, and always a pleasure to watch. He and his band went on at 8:15 and my lot took the stage about 9:15. We both played for 45 minutes. If it has a downside it's the 10pm curfew for live music. 10:30pm would be better, though the neighbours obviously don't agree. I think a 3 band bill would be pushing it, too. You wouldn't want to start live performance any earlier than 8:15 - not on the weekend anyway.

The venue has a licence til 1:30am every night and DJ decks (vinyl). It filled up even more about 10:30 when the 30-somethings arrived in larger numbers. And Jim, DJ and friend of Pocket Rocket, played a great mix of 80s/90s/00s edgy-guitar music, and synth-pop.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

A Guildford Rock-Til-You-Drop: What's the worst that could happen?

Something like this.

You are being dropped close to the venue by a family friend at whose house you are staying the night, after the gig. It's 5:20pm. You've missed a mobile call from the singer from the second band on the bill. As you walk, you listen to his message which informs you that he has just received a call from the headline act to say they may have to cancel their performance due to the hospitalisation of their drummer's son. Having had a band cancel a gig on you the night before, you feel you can take this in your stride. You keep moving, as if nothing has happened. You will deal with it like a mature musician, and promoter, and improvise if necessary. No need to worry yet, though.

You reach the club and make a call to the headline act who put an end to any doubt about their possible cancellation. Thankfully, the second band on the bill are able to rustle up there own backline at the drop of a hat, to replace the one that they were due to borrow, that ain't now coming.

You are a band down. This will obviously affect attendance. But how much? The headline act say they have already informed their fanbase that they will not be playing (that was quick-Ed), so it is unlikely that any of their supporters will show up and be disappointed.

You discuss the situation with the venue promoter and during this conversation you suggest that maybe you should do an impromptu acoustic set to plug the gap in the bill now that the two remaining bands have been upgraded to first and executive class respectively.

You sit down with the house electro-acoustic and run through a 6 or 7 song set, remembering some words that you haven't sung for a while, and making some notes. Soundcheck goes smoothly and doors open. It's 7:30pm. People though, are not queuing at the door. A couple in their 70s or 80s walk in. I welcome them and give them a programme. One down - ninety-nine to go (programmes, that is). They sit down at a table under the sound desk directly in front of the stage.

A few minutes later, a few people, somewhere between, 3 and 5, enter the venue, and proceed to sit in the beer garden.

The room is still virtually empty. At 8:00, discovering that the club's electro-acoustic isn't working, you borrow a Fender Strat and take a seat on stage to play a few songs. Fearing how the afore mentioned couple will react at the sound of a heavy metal band playing 20 feet away from their table, you feel it is even more important that you perform at least a handful of songs that they can take away with them, when they are blown out of the room by the first band on. Songs that at least they will be able to hear the words of, if not fully comprehend them. It is a Story of Anvil moment. There is pathos in the air, and a sadness in the room which transforms happy songs into sad ones. But after a shaky start and a couple of fluffed chords you start to relax into the performance and even begin to enjoy yourself, relishing another opportunity to sing through a decent size PA.

Unable to afford to travel with your loyal MC 'Dove Jones', you are also forced to do the MCing yourself. It is not your forte. But in rehearsal on the train you imagine at least 20-30 people in front of you when you make your first announcement. This is not the reality.

To break even on the night, you need 45 people through the door. This, in your mind is what you expect at the very least, being that these are local bands, two of which are playing Guilfest, and the other which is always assuring you of its popularity and the success of its gigs. Since they have cancelled, your expectation has been shot to bits. All you know now, is that you are a band down, and there is no bugger here. And being that this isn't the Dublin Castle with its conveyor belt of bands and fans, there is unlikely to be a hoard of fans waiting in a nearby pub to arrive closer to the time that their favourite local band is on. This is Guildford, you'd think this gig would be in people's diaries and they would be here on time to get value for money and to see a couple of bands they didn't know.

You announce the first band, they play. At some point the elderly couple leave. You introduce the second band, and they play. Well. To an imaginery audience. During their sets, you dread to count the number of people in the venue. So you don't. You think about crying, but you don't.

You have clearly over-estimated the interest of local mature music fans and musicians in lcoal bands that continue to play original material. In the concept of Rock-Til-You-Drop. You have clearly overlooked the fact that "Wednesday is not a good night", not in Guildford, anyway. You have clearly deluded yourself somewhat. You are now brought down to size. The last busy Dublin Castle gig has been replaced in your memory by this. You are now not returning to your old stamping ground, triumphant, as you had hoped. Instead, you have returned unnoticed (Thank fuck-Ed). And now you wish you weren't staying the night here, but that you could leave tonight and wake up in London like it was all a bad dream.

You cannot.