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

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