Thursday, 30 June 2016

Bellows, Books, Lamps and Dolls

An old garage lent by its owner...
I have said in other blogs that one of the joys of moving to London has been going to venues that until this point in my life had just been dates on adverts, or names on the back of tour tee-shirts. There has been another joy however, and that has been discovering small, intimate and independent venues. Tonight is one of those joys. Jamboree is in Shadwell and you could easily spend your evening wandering up and down Cable Street trying to find it, hidden as it is, and well camouflaged as a warehouse!

Once I have located the place and negotiated the gated security I find myself in a courtyard and I am is still not certain where the venue is! Venturing even further into the yard I scan the buildings for any sign that I am in the right place! Then on my right appears a door that looks promising, and with one or two people hanging around outside I guess this is Jamboree.

My guess is right and as I pay and receive my wrist stamp I enter into what for all intents and purposes could be an old garage lent by its owner to friends to rehearse in! There is limited seating around the edges of the room, comprising old trunks and various other shed junk as well as more traditional chairs - some covered with cushions others not! On the walls are hung banjos, other musical instruments, bottles (some with dried flowers - others not!), bellows, books, lamps and dolls giving the impression that they have decorated the walls with whatever was left in this disused garage!

The lighting is stark. Candles on the table and spotlights with no colour gels add to the disused garage feel, casting eerie cold shadows over the makeshift furniture and causing groups to huddle closer round the candles for warmth, light and safety!

On strings and operated by giggling friends...
At one end there is a bar, again giving the impression of being built out of what was found  rather than having been designed in anyway! At the other end there is a stage that occupies only part of the plaster-bare wall, framed with a front curtain and a main valence straight out of a child’s play stage. So complete is the ‘toy theatre’ feel that I half expect the musicians to be on strings and operated by giggling friends!

All of this creates a wonderful atmosphere and after a visit to the bar I take my old trunk, as the support act is just finishing!

Concrete Mountain start to set up on the stage and I realise that from where I am seated the sound isn’t going to be the greatest. This is confirmed as the band sound check. What also becomes apparent is that there is no sound engineer! The lead singer is busy setting up the sound and when he picks up his banjo he wanders as far into the audience as he can to check the levels and sound. The band play a tune as a sound check (which gets enthusiastic applause!) and he then asks the audience if the banjo needs to be higher in the mix. “Yes, and your voice too,” comes a reply. As the singer once again makes to leave the stage, one of the audience volunteers to do it, and suddenly we have someone on the sound desk!

They launch into their first song and the sound is so bad where I am I decide to move. Now at the back of the venue rather than on the side where the sound should be much better, I find it is not! The ‘would-be’ engineer on the sound desk is fiddling with sliders but there is no clarity and the mix remains atrocious.

The band is a four piece, and they are all clearly accomplished musicians, but the fiddle player and bass players are the stand out pair. The mix has far too much guitar and bass and is drowning the fiddle, vocals and banjo.  

And the lead singer moonlighting...
The ‘wanna-be’ sound guy adjusts a few more sliders and twists a number of knobs but nothing improves. He then leaves for a cigarette, at which point the lead singer tells the band to play an instrumental and once again he comes to the desk himself. In very little time has taken down the guitar and bass and ensured the fiddle cuts through. By the time he has finished we have a decent sound.

During the next song the sound engineer pretender returns from outside and heads straight to the desk – we are all thinking, ‘please don’t touch’! Although he can’t resist fiddling with a few knobs he fortunately does no real harm to the sound!

All of this performance with the sound distracts from the performance I came to see, and gives the night, at best, a laid back and, at worst, an amateur feel. The band themselves don’t help, with the fiddle player spending most of his time on stage with his back to us and facing his band-mates, and the lead singer moonlighting as a sound engineer. There is little in the way of interaction with the audience because, I assume, of the need for the leader singer also to be sound engineer. All this added to the venue’s ambience makes it feel like a practice session I have paid to see!

This is the start of a monthly residency for the Concrete Mountain at Jamboree and the night does get better and better once the sound is sorted. There is some phenomenal fiddle playing and unbelievable bass playing both supported by solid guitar and banjo, producing a forceful whole – but why, oh why, is there no sound engineer? They deserve more and we, who have paid to see the gig, do too.

The venue is great, the atmosphere created in this most basic of ‘sheds’ is wonderful, but a live performance demands a sound engineer as an absolute basic requirement, otherwise we take the homemade motif too far and the whole evening suffers.

There is so much to be said for listening to music in a small venue, the intimacy of crowd and performer, the connection and interaction between artist and audience, the raw talent of unsigned bands, the experimentation of people in love with music, none of the pre-packaged mediocrity of commercial music, judged solely by the cash-till ring. For these reasons, as well as for their quirkiness and character,  I prefer  small venues to the larger more well known ones – but it is neither quirky nor characterful to not have a sound engineer – it is suicide!

Gig: 43 of 50
Date of Gig: Mon. 18th January 2016


(apologies to the support act I didn't catch his name)
Concrete Mountain

Running total of artists seen 90

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

So Long and Thanks for All that Jazz

Pieces from six different puzzles...
I just can’t seem to get the pieces to fit together. I am attempting to finish the jigsaw but I seem to have pieces from six different puzzles.  I can fit some pieces together and form part of a picture, but they just won’t make any kind of coherent whole.

I’m at the Southbank Centre and I want to like what I am listening to. I hear the brilliance of individual band members and as I do, I form part of an image with some of the pieces before me. Yet try as I might I can’t quite make one complete musical entity from it all.

I look around at the aficionados of jazz who are clapping every solo and nodding their head to some vibe I just can’t find! What is it that they hear that I don’t? How can they force those pieces to fit together, when for me they quite obviously are not even part of the same puzzle!

Searching for the metaphorical musical scissors...
One of the early Father Ted episode has an opening pre-credit scene in which Ted and Dougal are doing a jigsaw and chatting together. At one point Dougal, having spent time unsuccessfully trying to fit in a piece, picks up a pair of scissors and chops off one of the ‘tabs’ and forces it to fit… This evening I am searching for the metaphorical musical scissors.

The band are led by Nick Costly-White, a guitarist, who during the sound check looks more like a last minute stand in than the band leader as he uncertainly shuffles his charts into their proper set list order. As each song starts he is concentrating so hard on the charts, almost as if he has never seen them before, yet when his solos come he is transformed into the confident virtuoso performer. 

After each of his solos there is a ripple of applause from the head-nodding jazz loving crowd, who have no problem understanding what they hear. Routinely applauding in the middle of a song is not something that sits easily with me - a piece of music is not a collection of solos however sublime they happen to be - but rather the sum of the overall parts, which are greater than the whole and which are to be applauded at the end.  Perhaps this style of Jazz is the musical exception that proves the ‘greater than the sum of the parts’ rule!

The band take their turns to play the solos and riffs for each song. The double bass player clearly picked his instrument to compensate for his own lack of stature and plays like David wrestling his own particular Goliath! He wins time and again! The piano player is hidden from view by a pillar – but I watch his hands reflected in the lid of the keyboard of the shiny Grand Piano, as they sweep up and down with fluency and attack, appearing as they do - Adamms Family-esque - disconnected from a body. The tenor sax and bass clarinet play together and solo, in parts as heavy as their instruments appear. Behind it all the jazz drummer drives the band on with rhythms that would give rock drummers nightmares!

A jazz novice with excellent jazz hands...
I make it to the interval during which I decide to visit the facilities. The queue for the hand-drier is too long to bother waiting for, so I leave the toilets shaking off the excess water as I go. I smile to myself at the irony  – a jazz novice with excellent jazz hands!

As the second half begins only a trio of the band play, and I suddenly catch myself listening and enjoying the song. However, I notice the Bass Clarinettist hovering nervously to one side of the performance area in what would be the wings. As the song ends he approaches Nick and whispers. Nick half smiles an apology and delves deep into his pockets and a key is produced, explaining that the Bass Clarinet has been locked in the Green Room! There is an extended intro to the next song, allowing time for the Clarinet to be retrieved, and as soon as the Clarinettist is back onstage -even before he has time to draw breath - he is into a long solo, brilliantly performed!

All this commotion has distracted me from jigsaw puzzle and as the next song starts I find myself nodding my head along with the aficionados! I enjoy the second half much more, although at times I find myself still worrying about how it all fits together. But I dismiss the thoughts, try to relax, and simply enjoy the live music.

After the gig I decide I probably will never love Jazz, but as with any gig I’m glad I’ve been here to see great musicians at work, and to be part of a crowd – strangers becoming a community for 90 minutes.

‘Did you enjoy that?’ The question comes out of the blue from the person next to me!
‘Err yes!’ I hesitantly reply. ‘You?’
‘I loved it – but you don’t sound too sure?’
‘I just can’t see how it all fits together,’ I blurt out in the form of a confession. By way of absolution I am gently given a lecture on the spectrum of Jazz and how not all Jazz appeals to all people.

This is my 42nd gig of this, my 50th year and we all know that the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything is 42. In spite of a growing appreciation of jazz, this gig does not answer many questions for me, but then again, I have never been entirely convinced that 42 offers a full explanation either. So perhaps all that is left to say is…

So long and thanks for all that jazz!

Gig: 42 of 50
Date of Gig: Fri. 15th January 2016

Southbank Centre

Nick Costly-White

Running total of artists seen 88