Wednesday, December 05, 2007
Tuesday, October 30, 2007
Friday, September 28, 2007
st james infirmary. (actually st james social club in swansea's uplands district - but lets stay in the groove)
firstly: try to play within my capability. basics i know. how often do i need to learn this one? well this time i stuck to it. chose satin doll and ladybird. which are as tricky or otherwise as you want to make them. i kept them basic. good.
secondly: get there early and try out the sound on the pa before anyone else turns up. did this too. as it happens charlie hewitt* was already working out on a stand up bass. i waited till he'd got himself comfortable before asking whether i could blow a few notes myself. when i did charlie, along with alan vaughan on drums and dave cottle on keyboard piled in. the numbers worked. relief.
of course you're never as alone as you think you are. lawrence and walter, a pair of seasoned jazz scene heavyweights overheard my efforts. and were very encouraging. which gave me that warm soft glow .... which is not to be mistaken for incontinence for the simple reason that its neither wet nor smelly.
Monday, August 20, 2007
Tuesday, August 14, 2007
its all in the touch apparently. in the wrong hands it has all the majesty of a peacock sliding down an electrified razor blade on its rump.
which is why the unsheathing of a fiddle can draw gasps from any audience. anticipation growing no less as the zorro of the stave flourishes his hirsute rapier, preparing to caress the strings to the point of exquisite release.
a moment later you know whether you are dealing with a master of sonic art .... or an arrogant drunk who is going to dump his tortured squawking in your ears as loud, and for as long, as he likes whether you want him to or not.
well i'd only sat next to the guy for a minute before i understood which one he was. with an attack as abrasively insistent as his personality he was ok on the fast stuff where he flew from all angles on mach 10 beer drive. when coasting however it was a different tale. foot off the gas and he was a good quarter tone flat.
and who got the blame? me of course. the harmonica player.
its happened before so it was no surprise that the flack came my way. if the crew you are playing with are not right on the button tuning wise you're stuffed. they sound ok. you sound rubbish. and there is nothing you can do to compensate. you can't retune a harmonica as you go as you can a stringed instrument. you've just got to grin and bare it.
however my stoicism did momentarily falter when one of the guitarists pointed out that 'the harp and the fiddle don't sound too good together man, perhaps you should sit out for a bit.'
'they don't sound too good together,' i thought to myself 'because he's out of tune you tone deaf .....*'. but realising that making the point would only seem like sour grapes i let it go. there was enough ugly sound around at that moment without creating more.
i flew the coop.
oh i do suffer for my art.
*as this is a family blog, gentle reader, in deference to your personal proclivity for profanity i invite you to insert your epithet of choice here.
peace and love
Saturday, August 11, 2007
Tuesday, August 07, 2007
*my old secondary school in swansea, uk. quelle durmp!
Thursday, July 19, 2007
it didn't feel like a milestone at the time. but i think its starting to now. i'm surprised at how much effort and energy i have invested in this project without realising it. and consequently how much release i am experiencing now that i've accomplished part of what i set out to do.
i have definitely achieved something. there's no doubt about that. what it is tho is not quite so clear. i've been working on the chromatic for two and a half years. well actually since the beginning of 2004 if truth be told, but i have discounted the first year as that was taken up sporadically familiarising myself with the tongue blocking technique.
it is true that i managed to contribute throughout the set without the rest of the band glaring at me for screwing something up but i'm certainly nowhere near to being the player i feel i ought to be. is anyone? ever? and does that mean you shouldn't keep trying?
its an interesting issue but there is always the temptation to accept oneself in terms of other people's responses. don't. you can't trust 'em. you can't trust yourself i have found. what was last night's master work is this morning's garbage. what a good job i didn't triumphantly e-mail the recording to my long suffering mates. lucky for them. lucky for me.
so there is still a long long way to go. many obstacles to be overcome.
the game plan is to work until the nhl festival at the end of october and see where i am up to then. the band have invited me to play at the next pontardawe festival. which is in a month. there will be time for rehearsal and the event itself should be loadsa fun.
having said that there isn't any money involved and i could do with some paying gigs really. to keep the wolf from the door. i am sure they are out there (wolves and paying gigs of course) if one can achieve a suitably proficient standard.
but at the mo i am exhausted. motivation at an all time low. maybe i've got one of those sleep deficit wassnames that are so fashionable just now. perhaps what i need to do is sit back and husband the resources. regenerate the energy and have another go in a bit.
watch this space ........... if you can stay awake.
not sure i will.
Wednesday, June 06, 2007
Tuesday, May 01, 2007
he was cool. pointed out a couple of strengths of my performance, which i hadn't recognised, and told me to keep turning up.
i felt much relieved. and encouraged.
as the spider says ....... 'a little sycophancy can take you a long way'.
went to a great funeral afterwards.
yeah, wasn't mine.
peace and love
Monday, April 30, 2007
alone? if only i had been. this project obviously still needs a lot more work. once again i couldn't get a handle on my sound and my normal jitters amplified themselves into a kind of shredded emotional pulp. altho the band were very good and not loud i just couldn't hear what i was doing and couldn't find myself again once i had got lost. which i did.
all very embarrassing and a classic 'beam me up scotty' moment. altho i understand that james doohan, the actor who actually played scotty in startrek, recently beamed himself up and had his ashes deposited on infinity's doorstep. ie in space. which would've felt like a pretty good option to me. certainly preferable to standing up with the band.
of course it could be that i haven't got a snowball's chance in hell of getting on top of the instrument. i've always been a feel player more than a technique player. maybe it's just too difficult? especially when you can't see where you are, because the machine's in your mouth, and you can't orientate yourself by your fingering, because there isn't any.
but i don't think i'm going to own any of that just yet. i've come a long way since i bought a hohner chromatic in 2003 and couldn't get anything at all out of the little blighter. trouble is it all takes time. it was the best part of a year before i got tongue blocking sorted. and i still haven't managed to memorise the landscape of the mouthpiece. i guess the question is how much time has one got left anyway. and who can answer that?
so what to do? keep going i suppose. as the spider said to robert the bruce, 'ye'll no play harp if ye sit there feeling sorry for y'sel, jimmy.'
angels? who needs 'em?
Monday, March 19, 2007
The Fate of the Good Ship Plentydough ... Part the First ... Whats A Songwriting Workshop Between Mates Anyway?
It was in the year of our lord 2007 on the 2nd day of March that my feet (actually the wheels on my vee-dub) brought me to the fair City of
As it happens my wildest dreams don't leave a lot of room for the scurrilous antics of music biz sorts. Any more than my even slightly wild ones do. I'm just setting the scene. OK? Anyway, back to the plot.
Cap’n of this barque was a very well spoken bloke called Dave who occupied pole position on the bridge. Dave was accompanied by First Mate, a sleek sea-lawyer, and the Bosun, a posh-and-hyphenated geezer from Bath-Spa-University amongst whose claims to song writing fame was once having been 50% of a duo that weren’t quite as good as the Eurhythmics. 'Hm, wild,' I thought. 'We're really going to rock this morning.'
My underwhelmedness remained undiluted as Dave, anxious to establish his own CV quietly referred to his own seminal works. Their titles rang no bells, nautical or otherwise, in my consciousness but t'was still a bright and breezy morn and I was not to be deterred. 'The fact that I haven’t heard of them or their work signifies nothing,' I told myself. 'I am nought but a scurvy wretch when all is said and done and have come to be taught the wisdom of the world by my betters.'
And my betters certainly knew a trick or two. Well they knew enough tricks to get their feet well under the music biz table thats for sure, as they were to demonstrate during the the days first 'Business of Music' session . A choir of angels could not have sung from a more focussed song sheet as they explained their arcane mysteries to us humble folks a-gathered afore them.
As you would expect from pros, their performance hit several Cs square on. They were considered, concerned and courteous. They stressed the difference between reputable and the other sort of music publishers. Then they pointed out that new songwriters really need to do their own legwork to find one of the latter who might want to listen to their sort of stuff. They also revealed the secret path to success, ie hang out on the big city scene and create a buzz about the songs. Which I translated as 'have some talent and be young and beautiful in
They went on to talk about moral rights, and the advantages or otherwise of waiving them, especially in the context of the
Sessioneer Raphael Ravenscroft’s sax solo on Gerry Rafferty's
On we sailed. Feigning a street wisdom that they hadn't had to scrape off their shoes since they'd scuttled up the gangplank themselves all those years ago Dave and the boys championed the vibrancy of the acoustic scene. They agreed that folk music was really rather jolly good stuff after all (even shanties probably) and referred to obscure uilleann pipers to prove they had done their research.
Suddenly we seemed to have run out of wind. Becalmed amongst artistic considerations the bridge didn't quite know what to do. They perked up on entering financial waters once more however, and got quite excited about how to charge YouTube for the use of Snow Patrol material in the myriad of teeny mimers’ posted video clips. (That'll teach the little bastards. Who do they think they are anyway?)
They were nothing if not comprehensive. But in their exposition of the intricate channels and bountiful lagoons of a music biz establishment they seemed to know like the backs of their hands, was there maybe one C missing? Were they actually convincing?
Not to everybody it seemed. ‘This is all old school,’ came a broadside from the woolly hatted mutineer in the front row. Sure enough there he was, five foot and a gust, and enough attitude to sort out a colossal cephalopod (thats giant squid to you) with one hand while packing the fathomles memory of his iPod with the other. ‘This is the internet age,’ he said, ‘I’m going to put my stuff on my website and make money from selling the advertising space.’
From a bridge who had already publically doubted the existence of an effective way of digitally tagging a song and had admitted that the music industry’s own system of digital rights collection was failing fast, there was a fair degree of cautionary huffing. Not a little puffing. And the unavoidable sense of nautical types pulling the deckchairs closer together as it got a bit cooler on the Titanic.
That young buccaneer definitely got up their Richter scale. It was just tricky to tell how far. Those intent on wriggling aboard didn't seem to want hear that their salvation might actually start leaking like a sieve at any moment. By contrast those who had already kicked, bitten and gouged their way up the gangplank, and who one might expect could read the wind better than most, looked mighty worried. Worried in the way that an opulent blancmange might look worried on hearing that there is a particularly malevolent tsunami heading right here, right now.
On the basis that the best thing to do when faced with something thats just too hard to handle is stuff your face, the morning's ‘Business of Music’ session hove to for lunch. Seeking shelter from the storm perhaps? But was there any? In the internet age things move fast. By the time the crew had started tucking into their tack (or tackling their tuck or whatever it is that matelots do when the rest of us are eating) the question blowing in the rigging had morphed into ‘Is There Going To Be Any Kind Of Music Business Left Anyway?’
..... continued below, shipmates.
Tuesday, March 13, 2007
The line up on the bridge had changed. Cap'n and his faithful Midshipman had survived but were now augmented by the Purser and Cliff the Cabin Boy. Purser was MD for a real music company. He brought along a bit of gravitas and not a little bottle. But who had ears for it? When he actually admitted that 'CD sales in the market are collapsing,' was it only me that sensed the Plentydough suddenly list alarmingly to starboard. Was it only me who could hear the straining timbers popping off their pegs below the water line? Guess so. Selective deafness had descended and on we sailed.
In contrast to the grizzled veterans abreast of him, Cliff projected an 'acceptable face' of the business. In Ramones T-shirt and geeky specs he had nailed his cred firmly to the mast. Youngish and innocent looking he was introduced as the notorious ex-guitarist of cutting edge minstrel brotherhood ‘My Sister’s Lesbian Tortoise Rocks.’ Huh?
Perhaps I’m wrong. I'll look at my notes. No maybe it was ‘My Fathers a Bit Dodgy - But Don't Say Nuffin About Him- He's Still My Old Man, OK’? Or some similar amalgam of high school angst and gender re-alignment signifiers? Come to think of it, it could have been 'My Sister's Lesbian Rocks Tortoise.' Or was that a headline in the Sun?
Whatever. No sooner had the crew handed over their tiny treasures than the Cap'n and his men (they were all men by the way - but thats another post, ladies) ripped into them like vultures on a new born babe. In some sort of counterfeit X Factor pastiche each on the bridge sought desperately to prove that he, should someone on a real TV show unexpectedly kick the bucket, could best pick up the role at short notice. Oh, and the salary check please.
As my mind takes me back to the cut and thrust of that gory afternoon I find myself lost for words. But not for long. I had thought, and I was not alone as I found out afterwards, that this session was to be about the craft of writing songs. ‘Behold,’ I had expected to be told, ‘this is how Ray Charles did it, or Coldplay did it, or Gram Parsons did it, or Amy Whinehouse did it, or The Arctic Monkeys did it, or Hoagy Carmichael, or REM, or Irving Berlin, or Kaiser Chiefs, or Christy Moore did it. And the people you should be checking out because they can’t half put a song together are her and him and him and her. And he or she is hot with the words and the other one will melt your soul with the tune.’ Well guess what, gentle reader, we didn’t get any of that poncy, artsy bollox.
Oh no. The cat o’ nine tails came out big time. And a lot of the below decks scum, ie us, were subjected to severe emotional laceration. While the few egos facing us, and who had actually imposed this punishment agenda, preened and strutted in as ugly a spectacle of tough boys beating up little kids as I have seen since junior school. I think its called bullying these days. Those who were quite good, and kow towed, got patted on the head. Those who needed most help were given a kicking. Justified as being for their own good. 'If you can't stand the heat etc etc.'
Mr Midshipman, a bloke called Roger who no doubt to his great relief had avoided the role of Cabin Boy himself, managed to keep a shine on his karma. He was getting on a bit. Perhaps age had dimmed his appetite for other people's flayed spines? Having made the point that ‘I don’t have to be here,’ (as if any of us did, matey boy!) he softened up a bit. ‘The only person who really needs to believe in the song is the writer,' he said. 'It took me four years trying to find a publisher before I got my first break.’ Generosity of spirit roared for an infinite moment like a candle flame in a hurricane. And went out.
Fair as fair Roger had tried to talk about the songs in a creative sense. He even asked to 'hear a bit more' of one or two. But his fellow officers would have none of it and we were subjected to what was probably an excellent preparation for pitching a song in the real world.
But ‘Pitching A Song in the Real World' wasn’t the title of the session. I know, I’ve still got the paperwork, and it don’t say that. Whoever put the day together would do well to practise their communication skills and think a bit more creatively about what the membership were expecting and what would be productive. Maybe they could also put their speakers under a bit more pressure to deliver something that was constructive and had been thought through more intelligently.
Yes sure it might be a rough old whirlpool in the real world. But the real world also offers real prizes, ie a contract or deal or at least an expression of interest. I don't know what happened after the event in
Amongst the carnage there was some good advice. There was unanimous emphasis on the importance of presentation. All experts agreed that submitting the best quality demo was essential and that front (or was it top?) loading the CD with the best song was a really good idea. As was front loading a song, with the chorus for example, so that when the record company earholes gave it the customary thirty seconds listening there was at least the vague chance it would impress.
But what about the broader picture? There was a little dissent on the bridge about what was an acceptable song. But not much. And the songs were judged in terms of what? Their artistic content? Their political impact? Their marketability?
I'll leave the answer open. But I would suggest that those parading about the poop deck should take a brief break from preening to check their course. There are some dark shapes eyeing their succulent hams hungrily from the foam below. Maybe the Plentydough is set to run aground and the days of tricking the natives with comodified garbage are numbered. Maybe Cap'n Dave and his not-very-merry men are about to find, as they cling to the timbers of the quaking hulk, that those looking for an authentic listening experience are legging it for Port Download as fast as their mouses (mice ?) will carry them. And could it be that they will choose to while away the final slow minutes wondering what sort of deal John Williams cut on the Jaws theme? Oh and by the way, does anyone know if the internet has a triangular dorsal fin?
Hang on tight boys.
Peace and love.
Monday, March 12, 2007
While I'm on a roll: as you might have deduced from the names, although women were well represented amongst the rank and file at the musicians union songriting event in Bristol on 2nd March 2007 (see main Plentydough blog 13 March), the officer class was all boys. Not that I've got anything against boys mind you. I've been a boy all my life. And boys ain't all bad. Unless you ask them really nicely.
But where was the crumpet? A bit of eye candy on the bridge would have improved matters no end. At least I could have tried to look up their frocks when I got bored.
Thats irony by the way. Point being: where were you ladies? Apparently at one time it was thought to be unlucky to allow girls onto a boat such as the Plentydough. Despite this the female principal is often invoked in matters maritime. Ships are referred to as 'she' and historically representations of ample lasses, Brittania for example, were often to be found breasting the billows on the sharp end in the same way that substantially proportioned damsells such as Britney, Madonna, possibly not Amy Whinehouse, but certainly my fave Dolly, can be seen to be fronting up the music industry.
But surely women don't stop there? Y'know, up under the lights shaking their thang. There must be some in the business side of the business too, no? Steering a course for the open horizon and leavening all that yang with their yin. Someone needs to be.
Or perhaps girls who can't sing are only allowed to make the tea? And the few who rise above this humble station become so testosterone packed that you can't tell 'em from the boys?
peace and love from the bunker
Monday, March 05, 2007
Sunday, January 28, 2007
An ageing rockstar once told a friend of mine how much he enjoyed listening to my friend's harmonica playing. ‘You’re great mate,’ the raddled one opined. ‘Oh,’ thought my pal, ‘perhaps its my phrasing? Maybe my tone, or my sense of dynamics? Even that oh so subtle touch of distortion that I have been working hard to perfect?’ He was brought brutally up to speed by the guitarist’s next comment. ‘Yeah, man,’ he slurred, ‘for a harp player you sure know when to shut up.’
Having played harmonica alongside one of country music’s major talents for over three decades that’s a skill Mickey Raphael has in bundles. He sure knows when to shut up. And theres no disrespect in the suggestion that Mickey is the living proof of that much quoted, but seldom practised, folk dictum ‘less is more.’
Fair enough, Willy Nelson, with all his raggedy edges and nuggets of warmth, is the show. Especially, as it turned out in the Cardiff International Arena on 25th January when Tony Cresci and I were lucky enough to get to see that show, his guitar playing. But good as he was he wasn't the top of our list. We'd gone there to hear the harpman, and if our luck stayed in, meet him afterwards.
Huddled in the centre of the stage the band looked as if they thought they were playing in a mean honky tonk, in a dusty one horse dorp in the middle of the back of any beyond. Perhaps they didn't feel they could rely on the monitors? Perhaps they just liked each other? Whatever, there didn’t seem to be much in the way of ego going on. They were there to accompany Nelson while he delivered a selection of his and others big songs. It was all pretty laid back. And that’s where Mickey Raphael so subtly and seemingly easily shone like a diamond.
Whether he had more than 10 solos all night I doubt. And nearly none of those lasted more than half a dozen bars. Yet although the flights of full throated harmonica warbling were kept to a minimum he continued to season the musical stew throughout the whole set. He’d blow a couple of notes here, in the intro to 'Blue Skies' for example, or some sensitive chording there, as in 'On the Road Again', before turning his tongue to rhythm chugging when the country bus got gently rolling.
Far from trying to grab the limelight he helped craft the groove by building on the dynamics of what was essentially a mature set of mature songs played by mature musicians to a mature-ish audience. (And before anybody out there gets sneery, maturity ain’t a crime. In fact it’s a damn site better than the alternative.) Mickey’s main strength seemed to me to be his awareness of the dynamics of the songs and of the band and how his touches of harmonica could contribute to pushing the whole thing forward.
He’s a neat player more than flash and the audience loved him. When his boss got a laugh from a bit of clowning around with the Welsh flag during one of Mickey’s solos they waited for the harp to finish before setting the record straight with a serious round of applause. He was one of the last to be released from autograph signing duty.
On stage he looks a youthful 35. And he's tall. Up close however, although still tall, he is more forgivably older than that and while you wouldn't say he has a face like a road map, you can tell he's clocked up a few miles. ‘Hey Mickey,’ I said as he rushed past us in the freezing backstage labyrinth, ‘we’re here to meet you.’
He was courtesy itself. We chatted about harps.
Now listen up, gear freaks, and remember you read it here first.
Mickey likes the Lee Oscar Natural minor tunings and uses Hohner Echo harps as a melodic pad on a lot of tunes. He plays Hohner Marine Band, the Deluxe, and the Special 20 and for his favorite solos like '
He likes Seydels too. He just got one in circular tuning which he's trying out on Amazing Grace. He also uses Suzuki's SCT 128 chromatic tremelo harp. He says, "I may sound like I'm all over the place on my choice of harps, but I have my favorites from all the companies. Playing with Willie, and working with many different artists, calls for a plethora of harps."
He certainly achieves a broad tonal spectrum and blows a great Tex Mex accordion sound, reminiscent of Ry Cooder's old mucker Flaco Jiminez, out of the tremelos. Neither Tony nor myself had come across this technique previously but agreed that it is a useful addition to the range of sounds in a harp man's grip. While much of his solo work is weighted towards blues he also has some of his harps tuned up to a major seventh in second position a la Charlie McCoy, for more traditional country phrazing.
The man came across as not being in love with technique for its own sake. He has no interest in overblows for example any more than he has in the Green Bullet pathway to harmonica excess. He goes for a deceptively simple and pure country sound. To achieve this he uses Beyer M 160 ribbon mikes, both in a stand and handheld, and routes the signal directly into the pa via a HHB Fatman tube preamp and compressor.
Next time he comes he told us we can show him around. He hadn’t had a chance to see anything outside his hotel and the venue. Next time he comes I would really recommend getting to hear him live. Some harp players sound better recorded but to my mind Mickey isn’t one of those. I mean he sounds fine on Willy Nelson albums, as he does with Emmylou Harries, but if he is musically courteous on stage he can seem to have been edited to oblivion by the time his work has left the studio.
Before the concert I checked some of the numbers he is credited with playing on in my own record collection. Of course there are the outstanding pieces such as Georgia but on other tracks where he gets a credit you might be able to make out a faint tinkling of reeds way back in the mix. When you think about what the guy can do it seems less than fair to use him as musical background. But such is the session man's lot. We can only hope he got a good fee. Which he probably did.
Yes get out and hear him. His playing is an education in harmonica as an accompanying instrument. Many of us can learn a lot from him. Or even get back in touch with stuff we once knew and have let slip. I'll definitely go and hear him again. But if I get the chance to talk to him next time I think I just might ask him what its like to play harp for thirty years with a guy like Willie Nelson. Now I bet thats a tale worth the telling.