Sunday, February 28, 2016

Folk and blues at The Six Bells Chiddingly

I hadn’t been to the Six Bells pub in Chiddingly for more than 20 years. That occasion was a meal when we met my brother’s wife to be (and my brother). The last time I heard live music there was 30 years ago. Jazz on a Sunday lunchtime with Mad Andy, as he was affectionately known. Andy, whose surname I don’t think I ever knew, was a Glaswegian tenor sax player, renowned drinker and tractor driver, none of which appeared to be an impediment to his ability to do the others (although he didn’t, to my knowledge, drive his tractor into the pub). In fact we were so dedicated to hearing the man that we would also check him out at the Wednesday night jazz slot held in the, less appealing, basement of a Tunbridge Wells wine bar.

To return to “The Bells”, as we aficionados used to refer to it, after all this time and to attend a folk and blues open mic night (held on alternate Tuesday evenings) was as unexpected as it was a treat. Our main reason for being there was to witness the first public gig by our 14 year old nephew Neil Grove. In fact I never gave a moment’s thought to the idea that anything else would be of interest, but a high standard was pretty much maintained throughout the evening. As we arrived Ella Moonbridge was playing solo penny whistle, which was nice. Her next number was a paean to her father. “South London Irish” would probably move you if the word “father” doesn’t remotely make you uneasy and if you like your sentiment served up in overly generous portions.

Clive Woodman gave us a romanticisation of the Green Belt, and, a more poignant, ‘Burning in My Heart’.  Next up in what we learnt had been planned as an evening of original numbers was another singer/acoustic guitarist, Chris Mansell. He introduced himself by saying that he found it quite nerve-racking to be in front of us playing his own songs, rather than other people’s. He needn’t have worried. His first, the cleverly titled ‘Too Hot for Horses’, reminded me of Lou Reed/the Velvets as he thrashed out the rhythm and, lyrically speaking, took us to a fairly dark place. Well, darker than I expected at an open mic folk and blues night. ‘Platinum Blonde’ was sadly not in the same league, more serviceable than substantial.

To the delight of the regular audience, and especially of their populous and mobile fan base, two young performers then took to the stage. Pete and Roxy (so 1970s) performed a couple of Pete’s murder ballads. “I didn’t do it,” Pete mysteriously twice exclaimed. Roxy has a good voice, although more dramatic effect would have been maintained if she had sung the words from memory.  

We were then back to the oldies in the form of Martin and Mike. Martin is an undoubted wit. His opener, with Mike in guitar accompaniment mode, was a tongue in cheek appreciation of the devices with which you can offset the tiresome onset of physical decrepitude. ‘So Much to Look Forward To’ indeed. His second song was a comic take on the bourgeois blues, but less Leadbelly than a very anglo Randy Newman (minus piano). Sung as a twelve bar, ‘I’ve Got The No Reason to Sing the Blues, Blues’ bemoaned the comfortable cash and asset-rich life than many a middle-aged, middle class white blues man has to endure. Mike then quit to leave Martin to display his compositional talents. The first, a ‘Song for a Friend’ (if I have that right) was strong but left me baffled. The person in question, a man whose opinions, he sung, provoked you and who, we were told afterwards, made a pot of money, was, I think, supposed to be known to us all (among the string of recent entertainer deaths). However I am still none the wiser (it’s probably my age). The second was a more general song about friendship. We all need it. It’s true.

Chris Liddiard is a self-styled irascible old rock ‘n roll cove. Roughly calculating from his between song recollection of first playing live in 1955, he must be well over 70. If anything that gave his comically jaundiced ‘The Price of Fame’ even more of an edge. ‘Long in the Tooth’ followed – the clue’s in the title. Excellent.

Simon Watts, another singer and acoustic guitarist, followed. I think he found playing a couple of his own numbers a relief from having to take photos all night (for the 6 Bells Folk and Blues Club website). His first, ‘This House Will Surely Last’ has, he said in introducing it, something wrong with it, and he invited us to work out what it might be. I didn’t have the heart to say that the answer might be that it sounds like Neil Young’s ‘Sugar Mountain’. But hey, that’s no bad thing. His second was, he said, put together from lyrics of his wife’s that he had thrown in the bin almost as soon as she had proffered them. ‘Lifetime Blues’ (the clue is in the title?) turned out to be a romantic number (apparently). Either way, it was very good.

At last, after what must surely have seemed to him like an eternity of waiting, Neil Grove was next up, accompanied by the slightly older John Oddy (see pics below). The legend goes that they had been jamming the weekend before when the idea of doing this gig suddenly came up. 

Neil insisted afterwards that he wasn’t nervous about not only doing his first gig, but having to both play lead guitar and sing at the same time. Singing is though something he rarely does, even in front of his (renowned folk singing) Mum. He and John covered Elmore James’ ‘My Baby’s Gone’ and Muddy Waters’ ‘Long Distance Call’. Neil made playing guitar seem effortless, which, as he’s barely been playing it for more than a year, is quite something. If there were times when his singing seemed like a fill in between his slide guitar solos, that is something that more live experience will take care of. As, no doubt, will time resolve the disconnect between his youth and the worldly-wise sentiments he was expressing. John wasn’t bad either.

Folk went country in the form of Terry and Mel Martin (see pic below). They kicked off with the famous (infamous?) ‘Duelling Banjos’ (as in the film ‘Deliverance’), but played it on acoustic guitars. No mean feat. They followed this up with Norman Blake’s ‘Bill Gray’. While not original, this song was not known to me, even if the writer was. Mel’s convincingly country vocals and Terry’s accomplished playing made me want to check out some more Norman, and some more of them.

Blues standards were proving infectious. Next up was what I took to be the traditional closing, all-star, line up. Penny Payne is a bit of a blues shouter in the Etta James vein. She brought many of the older musical hands of the evening up there with her to help out on Ma Rainey’s ‘CC Rider’ and on the song popularised by Muddy Waters, ‘I Got My Mojo Working’ (whose sexually charged inferences are normally, and undeservedly, a male preserve).

As this point we made our excuses, rude perhaps as Ian was doing a decent cover of ‘Walking in Memphis’. As a consequence we missed entirely the singer, Rachel, accompanied by, once again, John Oddie. The evening was apparently closed by Corin and his band Cobretti. 

A great night out at The Bells. Well worth checking out again.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

One Hastings Many Voices - new CD of original songs by local musicians

‘One Hastings Many Voices’ is the first release by Hastings Friendship Group (HFG), a charity that provides a platform for musicians whilst raising money for local and international causes. In that same spirit, the album, due to be totally done and dusted by end-April, brings together a diverse range of HFG regulars with the strict remit of only singing original songs, all but two of which has been written by the artists themselves. The cost of performing copy-writed songs would be prohibitive for HFG. However this has provided a welcome discipline that some of the performers have benefitted from. The tracks have been recorded by musician Nelson King at his Empty Space Studio (located in a spare room in his Bexhill home, I am told – see pic below). 

Executive producer (i.e. part funder) and HFG mastermind Trevor Webb sees the disc as a welcome opportunity to promote local talent. “Helping those who have helped HFG,” as he puts it. He is also grateful to Nelson, who also plays on many of the tracks and wrote two of them, for providing his professional services at a very generous rate.

Inevitably, on what is an 18-track compilation, some songs make a stronger impression than others. However there are no duds, and some will undoubtedly repay further listening – “growers” or “slow burners”, as DJs used to call them. In the latter category I would definitely place Kate Maunsell’s ‘Deeper The Wheel’. 

Kate (see pic below from a recent HFG gig) is probably better known locally for having been the lead singer in various heavy rock bands, the most recent of which is Hastings metal outfit, Warhawk. Trevor says that when performing at HFG gigs and on this disc, Kate has a “different persona”. My impression is that this is a welcome transformation. Her style here is more laid-back, mid-tempo acoustic rock but performed with conviction. This particular song documents romantic troubles in a clever, not clich├ęd, fashion. Kate sings it well, and the song benefits from some fine guitar accompaniment by Nelson.

A man with far less experience but a whole lot of enthusiasm is Andy Ives (whose musical persona is Flashboy). Very new to HFG and to live performance generally, Flashboy benefits from singing Nelson’s ‘I’ll Fall for You’. Not having the baggage of the ambitious pop and rock classics he normally tackles, the number allows Andy to establish a comfortable MOR groove, aided by Nelson on synth “strings”.

Among the older hands performing on “Many Voices” are Nick Warren. His ‘Community’ is a humorous celebration of HFG’s shtick and should in my opinion open the album when the running order is finalised. Mike Guy, another HFG stalwart, performs an equally fun tribute, unsurprisingly entitled ‘HFG’, when performing live at their gigs. Nelson tells me that Mike now has the difficult talk of choosing one of the four different versions they have recorded for the CD. 

Saspirilla Sam (otherwise known as Peter Garofalo) is a HFG favourite. His song, ‘Hastings Town’, is a tribute to his adopted home. It makes you want to spend a lot more time there. In fact he ought to be paid by the local tourist board.  

Completing the old stagers’ contributions is Pete Williams (see pic below from an HFG gig). His country-flavoured ‘But How’ has the feel of a standard. It combines musical warmth, aided by Nelson on slide and bass guitars and percussion, with a performance rich in vocal and lyrical feeling.

Tony Peake (see pic below) is a Hastings poet and singer-songwriter. On ‘Vampires’ he is half deadly serious, half humorous in his verbal assault on the powers that be. 

Paul Crimin’s comments on Facebook ahead of his recording session this week showed how excited he was about making a contribution to the album. His track ‘Who's Gonna Hold Me Now’ is now done and in the bag, but was not available for me to review at the time of writing. Many of the tracks are though freely available via the performers' Facebook pages. However HFG are obviously very keen for people to buy the CD, not least given the effort involved and the cause, at the very reasonable price of £5. It will be sold at HFG gigs of course, and perhaps, until stocks last, at some supporting local venues.

Nelson King's contribution to the CD is 'Lost in You'. Both his vocals and the song's style are reminiscent of Dylan or Mark Knopfler in the 1980s (without the production bombast). I loved the line “last man standing on a lonely street.” 

Among the young guns present on the CD is the ever impressive Tom Cole. His self-penned ‘Push Me Out To Sea’ has a lyrical maturity that belies his years and sounds authentically, if a tad self-consciously, in the folk tradition. 

Irina sings in her native Russian in a polished (perhaps a little overly so) synth-accompanied track, ‘I Had A Dream’. Andrey (see pic below) is, Trevor tells me, half-Latvian, half-Russian, but sounds very English when singing Nelson’s song ‘Celebrate’, a jazzy arrangement enhanced by the latter’s acoustic accompaniment. 

The vocal style of Jerri-Leigh (Brody) is more urban. Her number ‘Runaway’ is a moving love song that doesn’t actually need its synthesised strings to create atmosphere. Nelson’s sensitive acoustic guitar alone would have provided a suitably pared back accompaniment to her affecting vocals. Suddenly it’s over, a little too abruptly. Remember the name though, this woman could get somewhere.

Singer and acoustic guitarist Dan Wahnon teams up with electric guitarist Dan Duke for ‘Reload’. Dan W has a cool, transatlantic, vocal style, and performs here a radio friendly number that would also work well live. Joanna Turner (see her Facebook pic below) performs ‘Right Time’. Like Dan Wahnon, she has become a HFG regular, performing with a pop and RnB ballad sensibility. To her credit Joanna normally plays several of her own songs, solely accompanied, as she is on this track, by herself on acoustic guitar.

Steve Avery sings and plays guitar on his up-tempo song ‘Someday’, with Nelson on drums and bass. Jazzi B (see pic below), otherwise known as Jasmin Bollen, is due to record her number this week, which will be the final track to be included on the disc.

The CD is dedicated to the much missed Jeremy Birch, a man whose popularity was born of being more than the leader of the local council. Jeremy was driven by his commitment to the development of Hastings for all who live in the area. ‘Song for Jeremy’ should in my view close the CD. Nelson had to squeeze its performers, the seven-piece folk ensemble, the Wobblies, into his home studio. The result is one of the strongest contributions to the disc. The Wobblies take their name from the nickname of the Industrial Workers of the World, the internationally organised trade union. With more than a nod to renowned local writer Robert Tressell, the main refrain goes, “No more ragged trousers in this philanthropy, justice and freedom is the song for Jeremy.” The Wobblies have been performing this moving tribute since Jeremy died on May 6th last year. Appropriately, the CD will be officially launched at an HFG gig at the Hastings restaurant, NUR, on May 6th this year. 

This is the provisional CD cover artwork, as designed by Nelson.

It is in tribute to the spirit that Jeremy represented, as well as to the man, that these musicians came together to record this, the first volume, in a planned series of HFG albums. A fundraising gig for Vol 1 was held at NUR in mid-February. In fact a few HFG gigs have already taken place to raise money to record the second, for which Sudanese charities, including ‘Children of Sudan’, will be the beneficiaries. An international cast of performers are planned for inclusion, including perhaps the renowned classical composer and pianist Polo Piatti. Polo movingly played at Jeremy’s memorial gig at St Mary in The Castle in Hastings last year. Let's hope that some Sudanese musicians will be on the Vol. 2 set list too.

Here’s to a lot more HFG albums and gigs, incorporating as wide a range of local musical artists as possible. You can keep up to date with progress on Vol. 1 via these links to the HFG, Trevor Webb or Nelson King Facebook pages.


Friday, February 5, 2016

HFG: Playing live for Hastings and Sudan

Hastings Friendship Group’s 61st gig for charitable causes was the usual semi-chaotic mix of highs and occasional lows. Held, as is often the case, at the friendly Gecko Bar in St Leonard’s, it showcased local musicians of varying abilities but who all share one overriding passion: to perform to their best for those much less fortunate than themselves.

To get the gripe over with early: the best performer of the night, saved ‘til last, was Eddy Odel. A man who over 20 years ago had his sax playing career cut short by not one but two car crashes within 12 months, plays acoustic guitar and sings country-style ballads in an exquisite manner. The trouble was I couldn’t hear Eddy’s delicate song style for the sound of two people sitting just a few feet away from him jabbering loudly. I or someone even closer to them should have politely intervened. We didn’t and eventually Eddy lost his rag. He instantly regretted it, but miraculously managed to carry on unaffected, barely missing a beat (as it were).

A performer who was perhaps better suited to the bar vibe, Oksana from Latvia, has her own way of drowning out the revelers. She belts out power ballads aided by a synthesised backing track care of a plug-in laptop. Cllr Trevor Webb, principal HFG organiser, was keen to explain to me that Oksana can play keyboards and that they are trying to hook her up with local musicians. Perhaps she should bring a portable keyboard next time. 

Oksana (pictured right) told me that she had written the song she performed in English, “When You Go Home”. While she is a better singer in her native Latvian, this was a well-crafted ballad that showed off her undoubted vocal skills and comfortable use of English. The second number, performed in Latvian and roughly translating as “After the Rain”, was, paradoxically, less interesting. It sounded a lot like 1980s EuroVision (which, if that’s your bag, may be a very good thing). 

Mike, ‘Taffman’, Guy often plays in the Ghostfinger duo with Patrick McGerr. Tonight he was performing solo, but was no less appealing for it. Beginning with an excellent cover of the wonderful “Angel from Montgomery”, by one of the world’s finest song writers and performers, John Prine, Mike is no slouch at writing and performing his own material either. “Sussex Hoedown” is a lively referencing of county life, as is “A259”, a touching reinterpretation of the more familiar "Route 66". Mike is available for hire. Check him out via

He is also one of the performers due to be included on the forthcoming CD, “One Hastings Many Voices – Volume 1”, dedicated to the memory of the much-missed Hastings Council leader, Jeremy Birch. Hastings Friendship Group (HFG) is currently recording a number of its regular musicians for the release of the CD this April. In fact Volume 2 is already being planned, conceived as a fundraiser for two Sudanese charities, Together for Sudan and Children of Sudan. Tonight’s gig raised money to kick-start a recording that will draw on a more international cast of performers but who, like those on Vol 1, are mostly based in and around Hastings and St Leonard's.

Another contributor to Vol 1 will be Dan Wahnon (pictured below right). Accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, Dan worked hard, alternating between reinterpretations of old and newer covers, including Skunk Anansie’s “Weak (As I Am)”. 

Andy Ives (AKA Flashboy), also included on the CD, was playing only his third ever gig, Trevor told me. With his laptop in tow this was akin to karaoke, but with a difference. Who else in the world would juxtapose Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” (sung ala Johnny Cash) with Neil Diamond’s “Love On The Rocks”? “Hurt” was the more rehearsed and is the easier of the two to sing, though no walk in the park. It came across well, even though the backing tape threatened to overwhelm the performance at one point.

Jim and Eric (see pic below, centre), so named for the evening only, were more like old stagers. Jim Westlake (from local band 'Bad Whisky') played blues harp accompaniment to Eric Harmer's vocals and acoustic guitar. Their covers were mostly of blues/rock classics and they performed them well. Surprisingly, he and Jim chose to end their set with an affecting cover of “Clocks”. Eric freely admitted afterwards that this is the only Coldplay song he can stand.

Paul Crimin is an unpredictable musician. Some covers he performs, as he would probably admit, fall flat. However his take on the Passengers’ “Let Her Go” was heartfelt and it showed. He closed with Chris Isaak’s "Wicked Game". It is not easy to sing in Isaak's distinctive style, but Paul succeeded.

Another good HFG gig. It was (mostly) live, and helps both local musicians and those in need beyond these shores. Credit to local councillors Trevor Webb and Nigel Sinden for all the good work that HFG does.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Fear and Self-Loathing in East Sussex

Do you lean towards the tragic? Do you like reading obituaries of those whose careers faded or didn’t quite reach their assumed trajectory? Are the stories that get you the ones of missed chances, also-rans, noble failures? Those who died face down in the dirt having crawled on their belly toward an imagined light and expired in the effort.

Do you admire handsome heroes who ooze sex appeal and gym locker swagger? Or do you want to celebrate the less easy on the eye, the awkward, the strange, those for whom emotion isn’t a contrivance as calculated as a push-up bra or another media revelation of an apparently tough childhood.

Do you want to turn the radio off every morning when you move the dial to a serious channel and hear news of football transfers, sports corruption, film award politics, and the unquestioned truth that marriage is an international human right?

Do you long for a new song, a new cause to believe in; the march of those righteous in deed, not the self-righteous in word?

In literature and in song tragi-heroes have had their place: an inspiration that sometimes shined light into darkness. Tales of those who failed the conventional tests of belonging, or whose mortal flesh gave out. A quiet dignity amidst a world of indifference, integrity amidst bravado and bullshit.

There are those who leave little legacy, save what others strive to create for them. Remembering them is surely important. Not to celebrate the mundane for its own sake. Why mark a life of no consequence for others? But those whose efforts helped their fellow man yet lack recognition, they surely need to be noted. Were they happy in their apparently selfless acts? Perhaps that should be reward enough. But we all want to leave a mark, don’t we? Reproduction isn’t enough. It can be cruel in its indifference, violent in its self-interest.

Give something back, they say. What though have we taken? Our health does not last long, our loved ones may depart sooner than expected, our life chances might be hard won and yet slender. We have food in our bellies and a warm bed at night. We have no fear of losing that, perhaps. Yet inside the fears may multiply, the doubts about what we do, think, and feel. Trust can be betrayed, making us fearful of others.

I have been told to embrace fear, assess its origins and to catalogue its manifestations. Physical fear can be exciting – in part as a distraction from the mind’s absurdities. Exertion brings its emotional reward. Yet we have to live inside ourselves a lot of the time. Ultimately, we are alone. One day that may become a physical reality too. Now that is truly scary.