Tuesday, 31 July 2012
The OD’s evening enjoys a snug, fairly small pub, which makes it that much easier to hit the right numbers. To make an evening work in terms of musicians, any event needs at least five different acts with half an hour of material. This means each turn gets two goes and the evening is filled nicely. This, however, is only ten people at most. Not really enough to keep the bar staff busy. On top of this, there needs to be paying customers. OD’s is pretty full with about 50 people in it, so another ten people means you have sufficient to get the party started.
At The Plough last week, there were a good half a dozen people inside and another dozen outside. For OD’s this would have been good, but The Plough is that much bigger and you have to have a good 20 people inside the pub to spark things off… Okay, yes, I know, we only had four musos last week and one of them was a drummer, the second left after his set and the third was a singer. This kept me quite busy to say the least.
Last Thursday’s OD’s session saw ten acts show up (excluding Nick the Geetar, Skinny Hips Tomkins and me). A great number of good people turned up to listen and it was a blinder. I mean this, really. It was a great night. At least three people mentioned to me how high the level of talent was – and it was.
This brings me to a third factor – and in many ways the main reason for this blog. Another difference between OD’s and The Plough is the fact that OD’s (previously known as the Carpenter’s Arms) has had an open mic night on Thursday nights (with a few short breaks) since 2004. The various management over the years have stuck with it to the degree that musos and punters alike can be as certain that there will be a gathering in that place at that time as that the sun will rise in the morning.
The Plough session is new – very new. It is also a little off the beaten track. In order to give musos and punters alike the certainty that OD’s does, it needs to be around for a similar amount of time. I told East End Bob that he needs to give it six months at least (a message I know he has taken on board because he kept repeating it last week as he looked around his empty pub).
The thing about a tradition is that there is only one way to achieve it. Keep going!
Has East End Bob got the nerve? I’m not sure, but hopefully the six months he has given me will be enough to get a regular enough crowd along that can form the foundation of a tradition…
Thursday, 26 July 2012
(It’s an old Spitting Image gag (for those of you old enough to remember the satirical foam puppets). Orson Wells gathers the great and the good into a cinema to reveal (posthumously on film) that he lived his life backwards, starting his career as an old man making sherry adverts, fumbling through an average career as an actor, director and producer, making some critically sneered-at Shakespeares, then climbing to success through a stunning radio adaptation of the War of the Worlds (which had the southern states’ redneck population driving around with shotguns looking for ETs to shoot) and finishing off with his masterpiece, Citizen Kain – a film that turned cinematography and art direction on its head.)
It has always pleased me, that sketch. Maybe not so much now as the first OMN at The Plough was a scintillating party with drums, bass, sax and more artists than you could shake a rainstick at. The second was a good, solid evening, slow at the beginning, but growing into a perfectly reasonable (and much appreciated) jam at the end.
The third week… Well, where should I begin? Probably at the beginning…
Sassy Lozza came with me this week and helped unloading and setting up – and this, make no mistake, is how the tireless OMN organiser makes his or her money. That, arranging the turns and striking the stage again at the end. The OMN organiser has to be ready to forego his or her set list at any moment – and then we sat down outside with East End Bob, the landlord (more of him in a later post).
Psycho Deano turned up, armed with his very own cajon, and Andrew Williams – armed with nothing but an ability to dissemble. Lozza and I began to play and sing to the near-empty pub at about 8:20. Surprisingly, even the half dozen punters there still managed to produce a smattering of applause after each number – no small achievement that early in the evening, I assure you.
At about nine, by which time there has normally been an influx of musos and singers, the ratio of four performers to six punters had remained unchanged (another ten or so were sat outside, enjoying the first of this summer’s sun). No-one had left (a good sign) but no-one had arrived, either (definitely NOT a good sign).
I invited Andrew Williams up to do a few. He took my acoustic guitar, went through his usual routine of explaining how he couldn’t hear anything and being told it sounded fine out front, to which he invariably says that he is deaf anyway. He then proceeds to tell anyone within ear shot (without the use of the microphone) that he only knows obscure songs. “Ah! Here go,” he says with glee, “you won’t have heard this one.” He then launches into a rendition, almost totally devoid of discernable rhythm, of a song that, indeed, no-one knows… Well, a song that you are aware of from somewhere in the dim and distant past that you might have heard once or twice.
His voice is tremendous. He can scale great heights and he sounds not unlike Roger Chapman of Family. His guitar playing, however, is that rare thing in public performance that involves a good knowledge of chords, but an inability to move from one to another, so each song he performs tends to stop and start in mid-flow as he contorts his hand into the next chord shape. Often as he reaches the chorus, he gains some momentum and flow, but then the verse and the middle eight rear their ugly sequences and he returns to his staccato, arrhythmic rendition.
Each song is separated by his explanation (less microphone) of where that song came from, where the next one came from and how we might have heard of it, but probably not…
Bless him. I love his voice and he is certainly a regular and loyal participant of both my OMNs. Long may he ramble on.
I took to the mic again and played a couple of self-indulgent numbers using my looper (Boss RC-300 if you’re interested – marvellous piece of kit), then I got Psycho Deano up to accompany me, then Lozza, then me, then Andrew Williams left, and so we chugged the evening away, just the three of us. Deano sang a couple of numbers (White Wedding – acoustic version – and Sit Down) and mighty fine they were, too. He is a pretty good singer and he has a natural rhythm, which makes him highly sought after at my evenings.
Thus the evening drew to a close. We finished off with 500 Miles and Perfect Day, Deano picked up his cajon and made his way home, and Lozza and I starting packing up. (Did I mention that this is how OMN organisers earn their money?) East End Bob came over. “Well, that was diabolical!” he said. I knew what he meant, but still said, with a delicate amount of surprise and hurt, “What?!”
“Oh, not you, you’ve earned your money tonight, but we’ve got to get more people down here…” And off he went on an explanation of how this is all about getting punters and musos into his pub. I wanted to explain how I know all of this, but that we had spoken on many occasions that sometimes it will fall a little flat. I needed to point out that the first two weeks had been beyond our expectations and he had had good takings from a full pub – in the main because of me. I wanted to say that next week would be better for him. All of these thoughts scuttled around my head, but remained there. There was no point. East End Bob is not one to use his logic or his ears very much. He speaks from instinct, very much in the moment.
After the first two sessions, he kissed me goodbye. There were no intimacies this week. (Actually, I was quite pleased about that.)
The great thing for me was that I got to play as I wanted to play – and God, I enjoyed it.
Tuesday, 24 July 2012
Last Thursday’s (19th July) session at OD’s in Marlow was yet another variant on the theme – I’m beginning to wonder how many there can physically be!
The usual opening – with me, Andy Keys, Swampy Bass and Nick Geetar – was performed to about six or seven people. Sassy Lozza joined us after three numbers to do Mad World, Night Like This and Sweet Dreams and I got Skinny Hips up to take his regular introductory slot as I headed out to sort a running order. By this time a whole host of musos had arrived and I begged a pen and a piece of paper from the bar.
Harmonica Phil had showed, so Skinny Hips kept Andy and Nick and Swampy up to do a short blues set with him – and I’m grateful that he did.
The running order grew as I wrote it, as more and more musos arrived. In the end I had Andrew Williams, a new guy called Mario who did a couple of Nick Drake numbers, The Incredible Bailey Boys and Sassy Ann (five numbers combined), Jack the Laid Back (“this is a song about a friend of mine who is no longer with us”… Aaaaarrrrgggghhhh!), the wonderful Atomic Mutton, Slowhand Sally (bloody brilliant – stole the show that night with her cool versions and honeyed voice), Sandy the Power (usually the show stealer, but just pipped by Sally this week), Bill the Blues (in fine form), Country Frank and Big Billy, Slowhand Rob and then (hopefully, I was thinking) Diva Dad John to finish things off.
Phew! I don’t actually ever recall such a collection of worthy and eclectic performers. The variety was good, but the numbers were right there at the limit. I knew we would have to run over the half eleven ‘witching hour’.
Everyone was good, but (and here’s where my theory sneaks in) the party really got going when Atomic Mutton took the mics. The previous acts were great, but the alcohol wasn’t quite there. The alcohol reached optimum as the Bailey Boys and Annie performed, but Jack the Laid Back’s set didn’t have such well known songs. Atomic Mutton always sing classics – and with near-perfect harmonies – and this tipped the balance.
After this, it was a whirlwind of trying to get people up to the mic and then, very soon after, trying to get them off.
Poor old Frank and Billy suffered the most as I insisted that they perform just three songs together, but they took it well… I owe them one.
11:25pm and it is Slowhand Rob’s turn. Rob is a great singer with a loose guitar style and usually fits in nicely half way through the evening as a calmer. This week it looked as though he would be headlining and the last thing we needed was a calming set.
To his great credit, he read the situation perfectly and produced three big singalong numbers (Can’t take my eyes of you, Sweet Caroline and one other) and the audience went bloody crazy! It was a sight to behold. I don’t think there was a single person there not singing at the top of their voice.
I tried to get the band back up, but John OD was making savage finger movements across his throat. We had run over already by 15 minutes, the punters were up for anything and we had to draw the curtain.
Poor old Diva Dad John (and the late coming – and by ‘late’ I mean 10 o’clock, which would normally be ideal! – Diva Lizzie) had to go without. Sorry guys. Next time.
Thursday, 19 July 2012
Thursday 5th July, OD’s: As ever, Nick the Geetar and Andy the Keys accompanied my ropey vocals over a few well established numbers that always seem to get the evening going quite well. There was a good number of musos there – all of whom (I think) had appeared before. Skinny Hips was in good form and the evening progressed to a really high octane finish that had people shouting for more (ALWAYS leave them shouting for more… if possible!)
Tuesday 10th July, The Plough: The opening night of this new event. Setting up worries proved unfounded as both new and old performers turned up, supplying bass, drums and sax, as well as a variety of guitars and voices – again a high octane (if a little shaky) finish that had people shouting for more. The arrival of Colonel Aureliano Buendia at the last moment was the inspiration that tipped the balance from 'good' to 'excellent'.
Thursday 12th July, OD’s: I knew that the talented Diva Sandy would be along – a young girl who shows enormous potential on both piano and, particularly as a vocalist – and thus would bring her dad, who is a great frontman for a big finish, so I was quite excited about the evening. Plenty of musos were there to begin with, but not much in the way of punters
A couple of new guys showed up: Jack the Laid Back and a duo, Cool Luke and Canny Cameron. The former looked cool, with his nose piercing and tats and a feathered Madchester haircut and a teenager’s stubble. He didn’t quite get the audience going, however and then made the grave mistake of saying: “This next one is one I wrote…” Death to the Open Mic Night! Sure, slip your own songs in, but not on a first performance and don’t tell people about it, let them ask what it was.
Cool and Canny, however, looked anything but cool. They were oddly shaped and seemed to have just had their hair cut by matron at a local public school. Canny took up Cookie's drum sticks and Cool asked for an overdrive pedal for his acoustic! Oh dear, I thought. And they seem such nice lads!
Actually, they were pretty good. They played a few songs that the youngsters knew and had a good sound – in the main because of the presence of drums.
By now, a good contingent of punters had arrived and the atmosphere was finally building.
Then, two of Cookie’s friends asked to do a couple. To be honest, he looked as though he had just retired from a lifelong career as an accountant, she looked like a plain housewife and I was again dreading the worst. How looks can deceive in a cruel way! He was great! And even better when harmonising with her lead vocals. Again, cheers all round.
The amazing Sandy did her stuff to much acclaim and then The Incredible Bailey Boys and Diva Dad came up in turn and the evening ended as they always tend to… But the whole flavour of the evening was somehow different. Everything seemed like hard work. One gobby punter criticised the sound – quite rightly – and there was an uneasiness and aggression in the air.
By the time we had finished, all was forgotten and everyone was pleased and we all thought it was a job well done – but there was no denying the fact that it took a long time to get there. A week previously, we were in the zone from the off. This week, it was a fight the whole way.
Tuesday 17th July, The Plough: Knowing that a good portion of ‘The Band’ would not be along this week (for ‘good portion’ read ‘none’) and Skinny Hips Tomkins would be at the Open Mic at Stubby Ash, but I also knew that The Incredible Bailey Boys and Big Bailey’s best gal, Sassy Ann, would be along. The Colonel had said he would be there and a couple of the new guys the previous week said they would be back.
I arrived a bit late (due to traffic) set up and felt relatively comfortable compared to the previous week. My wife, Sassy Lozza, was coming and so I knew there would be enough talent to keep us going.
Eight o’clock came and no-one else did. Oh dear. I had a fag and got started on my own. Lozza arrived, smiling and picked up a tamborine, but I told her to hold fire until some people arrived. ‘No point in wasting your thunder,’ I said.
45 minutes later, I asked Lozza to come and join me as I was running seriously dry, although by then The Incredible Bailey Boys. Sassy Ann and Andrew Williams had arrived and so I was able to – finally – escape and sort out some sort of running order.
As it turned out, I got a wee telling off from Lozza as she explained that she was there to support me and do backing and percussion , as well as sing some songs herself… Damn! I’m not sure how I misread that one, but it would have been an easier 45 minutes with her, that is for certain.
No-one apart from Andrew Williams was back from the first week, but Tony the Tonsils and Sean the Bass showed up for the first time as did Diva Emma. Mixing them all up and giving a couple a second turn and then finishing off with The (late-coming, of course) Colonel, Sean, Tony, Lozza and Psycho Dean (who arrived late from a meeting with a famous psychiatrist) and me, we blasted out a hi octane climax that had them shouting for more…
It always seems to work out okay – but why does it have to be so unpredictable and sometimes so damned hard to get there? I can’t remember feeling so disillusioned and tired after that first hour last Tuesday, but by the end I was thinking that this is a great way to earn a living.
Right, time to load the car for tonight’s regular slot at OD’s… See you there…
Thursday, 12 July 2012
In the days when I would frequent other people’s open mic nights, I would turn up at nine o’clock, make myself known and take whatever slot I was given. It seemed the right and polite thing to do.
At my open mic nights (it seems – and as I write this I am thinking of dozens of exceptions) there are a good few people who don’t turn up until well after nine – sometimes ten, and in the case of a certain diva and another rather stupid South African, as we are playing the last number. Even then, they pull a face when you ask them to go up, as they are obviously far too important to take ‘that slot’ – whatever ‘that slot’ might be.
Here’s a lesson I learned many, many years ago, my fellow musicians and singers: Only one act can headline and only one act can support the headline – and the chances are neither are you!
Right, so, slightly unfair rant over. Unfair because the vast majority of people are very accommodating and understand that when you have a dozen acts to get through in an evening, then they should take whatever is on offer… Which they do… And jolly lovely they are, too…
Meanwhile. Back at The Plough in Stoke Poges on a showery evening, I was sitting alone, with the clock ticking towards the moment I had to start playing, whether anyone was there or not.
Imagine, then, my delight as I looked out the window and saw Kev the Bassist hauling a Peavey bass combo that was pretty much as big as he is (and he is by no means small) up towards the door. I went outside to greet him and a slight bloke hidden behind him, who turned out to be Angus the Drummer. A bassist and a drummer?! How’s that for open mic night luxury?
“Great to see you guys!” I enthused. “gggrrrmmmmmfffmmmmnnggg,” said Kev. I figured he wanted to avoid conversation for a minute or two. The good thing was, I knew, that if Kev and Angus were there, then Simon the Guitar, Caroline the Sax and even possibly Ruth the Sass would all be along shortly.
Then, to my delight, Skinny Hips Tomkins rolled up in the house on wheels he calls a car. Even if no-one else arrived, I would not have to fill the whole evening by myself and there were even enough musos for a jam at the end.
“Glad you could make it,” I said to Skinny Hips. “Thanks for coming.”
“Thought I’d better check it out,” he said, beaming. “But I’m going to get in trouble at the session at Stubby Ash for not being there!” I assured him that I appreciated it very much.
I went inside and plugged in. I started with Mad World (using an acoustic guitar effect with choral voices on my guitar synth), then switched to straight guitar for Oliver’s Army… Then, as ever when performing alone, I went utterly blank – simply could not think what it was I should play, and thus played a couple of numbers unsuitable for my voice, if not the event.
By the time I had run out of steam, Simon, Caroline and Ruth had arrived, so I hauled them up to get things really going. They were great. A full band playing rehearsed numbers – it sounded excellent… With the small exception that I don’t think they have ever worked out how to finish a track.
While they captivated, I made captive my performers. There was Skinny Hips, and now Deano the Psych had turned up, as had Andrew Williams (I have to call him Andrew. Not for legal reasons, but because he hates being called Andy Williams) and another guy, John. This was all going to be lovely, I was certain.
I put John on after the band, as I had no idea who he was, what he did, and whether he was any good. Well, he was very good – probably better than anyone else there that night, actually, although very much a ballad singer. He played and sang very, very nicely and for his fourth and final number he said: “Right, a bit of a toe tapper for the last number, so, er, if you have toes, you can tap them.” And then promptly played another slow ballad. Bless him – I hope he comes back.
By now, another singer, Rob the Crooner, had turned up and, sure enough, as ten o’clock approached Slowhand Robin and Diva Michelle arrived, carefully missing any chance of being on early. I wasn’t remotely annoyed. Actually, I was delighted. By now I had attracted a good dozen people to the pub, many of them were drinking and the landlord was smiling… What is more, I had sufficient performers to keep me going till closing time – including a bit of self-indulgence at the end with the band, of course.
And if Slowhand Robin and Diva Michelle were late, they were nothing compared to The Colonel Aureliano Buendiaz, who managed to turn up at about five to 11.
“Thank God I’ve found you!,” he breathed. “I’ve been driving around here for hours! In the end, I had to put my sat nav on!” The Colonel finished off the set for us with a Long Tall Sally and a High Heeled Sneakers and everybody slapped each other on the back and said what jolly fun it had been.
I lit a cigarette (outside, of course) and breathed a huge cloud of smoke and relief. Not bad for an opening night.
Wednesday, 11 July 2012
I suggested that we split the evening, that they take on the new session and I would continue at the old venue. I figured the some regular participants would choose between the two and that others would try to get the mic at both… I was wrong.
Gez and Adam took the whole evening, lock stock and barrel and I never saw any of the old regulars again. Fortunately, I had a couple of contacts and John OD and I made a few calls, which led to Andy the Keys, Nick the Guitar and Skinny Hips Tomkins agreeing to come along to OD’s.
Those first few weeks were quite excruciating. Nick and Andy didn’t do solo material and we had never played together before, which wouldn’t have been a problem had dozens of musos and singers turned up to take a slot. They didn’t, of course, and the three of us bumbled through a few standard rock and blues numbers that we had in common and Skinny Hips has a good ability to keep both a turn and get an audience going – but it was seat of the pants stuff.
I’m not quite sure how, but there were always just about enough people there to keep the show and the atmosphere alive.
Seven months later and OD’s Open Mic Night is thriving. Adam and Gez’s night has closed.
Is this why, then, when a landlord from a pub ten miles away in a small village famous for… er… hang on… Oh, yes, having a large hospital two miles down the road, came and asked if I’d be interested in hosting the same at his gaff on a Tuesday night, I said – without hesitation, I might add – ‘yes’?
Thanks to the high of the successful Thursday nights, I had clearly forgotten the gut-wrenching angst that accompanies the build up to an evening that might well be spent on one’s own, shambling through a collection of songs to a smattering (if you’re lucky) of disinterested applause.
Well, if I had forgotten it, I remember it now as all day yesterday I was moping about thinking that I needed to go to the toilet every five minutes. The car was loaded up shortly after lunch and I must have driven everybody I am connected to on Facebook and Twitter to distraction as I pummelled them with reminders about a new Open Mic Night at The Plough in Stoke Poges.
By five o’clock I was a wreck and the only thing I could do was lie down and listen to the dulcet tones of Eddie Mair on Radio 4 and try not to think about it.
I set out shortly after six and was there at six-forty. I humped the gear in, accompanied by quiet, smirking glances from the regulars that seemed to be saying ‘wanker’. People came and went as I set up, always maintaining a ‘crowd’ of about six people. I caught one guy's eye as he was sitting at the bar. I smiled. He turned away.
‘Bloody hell! Are we expecting The Beatles?’ commented the landlord at the sight of three mic stands. I laughed, hoping to exude a comradely ‘ho, ho, you old wag, you’, but I think it came out more like ‘oh dear, I think I’ve just pooed my pants’.
Once everything was plugged in, I ran through a basic sound check (you know, ‘one, two, one, two’ in the mics, a strum on the guitars – one acoustic, one electric – a tweak on the eq here and there) and went outside for a cigarette. The guy who had ignored me at the bar ignored me again outside.
I went back in and bought a beer – I needed it – and sat in silence. The clock read ten to eight. I was due to start in ten minutes. I have never felt more alone.
Monday, 9 July 2012
It’s been a while. A sort of ironic while at that. The reason I started this blog was to relate my latest (final?) effort to establish my niche in the music world and I think I might have missed my own point. It reminds me of the famous (apocryphal) tale of the rookie journalist being sent out on his first field report.
“The Deputy Prime Minister is arriving at Heathrow today,” the editor told him. “Go and meet him and get a couple of quotes about the vote in Parliament tomorrow.” Excited, the young hack scurried off to the airport.
A couple of hours later, the editor was surprised to see the journalist back at his desk. “The plane was only due to land half an hour ago,” he said. “How come you are here. Did you get the quotes?”
“No,” said the journalist. “The plane crashed. There won’t be any interview.”
In his focus on a minor piece of grunt work, the journo had missed the chance to scoop the world by being in the right place at the right time.
In my efforts to turn music into a living, I have focused on the minor (albeit delightful) attempts to write and perform my own music, while missing the fact that, since I last made an entry into this blog, I have left my job as managing editor of MI Pro and Audio Pro magazines, formed and performed with a successful function/covers band, taken on an open mic night (and made it extremely successful), appeared at two local ‘festivals’ and successfully formed a medium to large network of local musicians to the extent that I am about to embark upon a new, totally virgin, open mic night some ten miles out of my ‘comfort zone’. I am also learning a new style (for me) of guitar playing.
All of this has had the effect of making me ‘too busy’ to write my blog… Ha! Too busy, my arse. What it has been is a reluctance to make much of what I have actually been doing in order to keep some sort of focus on some sort of pipe dream that has yet to form into anything coherent. The real stuff is already underway and I have been too stupid to acknowledge it.
So, July 10th 2012 is the day. I am starting a brand new Open Mic Night out of town. Just me, this time. No tradition of several years to buoy me, no friends and neighbours in walking distance of the pub door, just me and the hope that ‘if you build it, they will come’.
It’s at The Plough in Stoke Poges, which in itself makes the weekly event a challenge, as, unlike my current, established Open Mic Night, there is no passing trade here. You are either a regular or not. O’Donoghues in Marlow is smack bang in the middle of the town centre with locals and visitors passing by all the time. In Stoke Poges you don’t ‘stroll past’. You are either there deliberately or not. This means I need to build a tradition that says that this is THE place to be on a Tuesday.
I have absolutely no idea whether this will fly or whether it will plummet. The one thing I do know is that, if the latter, I will have a cool Icarus analogy to relate.