Thursday, 28 January 2010

Jill at the Blazer

Went to the Blue Blazer on Sunday past, to see Jill Hepburn play.  The Norm has written previously about how she can silence an audience, and her emotional honesty, with which I concur. 

Having not heard her for a while, what struck me was the quality of the songwriting; the lyrics were inventive, funny in places, and strange in mysterious in others, and the melodies and chords were pleasingly varied, from folk-tinged, to jazzy, to an almost Noel Coward-esque trip round the solar system in "Why Stop at The Moon?".  I was wondering if she'd be loud enough for the Listening Room, but she was perfectly clear and audible. 

Which reminded me again, that sometimes there's a difference between a voice carrying, and a voice's volume.  Some people have both of course, such as Peter Michael Rowan.  Some people can certainly be loud.  Not everyone can master the trick of having your voice heard well in a pub though.

Now I've gone and left her CD round at The Doc's place, and I really want to hear it.  That always seems to happen with CD's you like, aargh!!

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Scottish Links

The Storm unexpectedly played Celtic Connections last night, on the Danny Kyle stage again, which was fun.  Lindsay and Karen played there last year as a duo.  At least we got more than two hours warning this time (it was two days), so we could all make it.  That meant a first gig for The Storm as a four-piece, with new members Al and Peter.

I wonder sometimes what the remit of Celtic Connections actually is, beyond being a music festival in Glasgow.  There's oft-times a strain of folkiness involved, which I do my best to ignore.  There's often too a fair number of artists performing who don't appear to have any connection with Scotland, either in their music or their person, but hey, let's not allow pedanticism stand in the way of a good gig.

And, to be frank, it was a good gig.  It's also probably one of the best gigs we're going to play for a while.  Somewhere around 300 people in the audience who actually listen to you (for non-musicians out there, this is indeed rare), the sound engineers are polite and capable, the compere lady friendly and knowledgeable.  Compare that to a drafty Tuesday night at say, The Ark, and we're talking calcium carbonate and Scottish cheddar.

Why then, a certain lack of jubilation, a certain flatness, post-gig?  It's probably because we weren't quite ready for it, the gig came too soon in our new incarnation's development.  Nothing was obviously wrong, no horrendous notes were played, and I think we stayed in pretty good time.  And, people said nice things afterwards.  But I think we lacked that magical ingredient of togetherness that bands only develop after a period of time playing together.  And, one also holds out some hope that someone, somewhere may just here you and invite you to . . . dunno, but something good.  But, they never do.

Still, a good start to the Storm's doubtless phoenix-like rise from the ashes of the old Storm.

Monday, 18 January 2010

Listening Room Sunday

I suspect that for many, attending The Listening Room at the Blue Blazer of a Sunday, is akin to denying the existence of work the next day.  If you stay in the house, one's thoughts tend to drift towards the morrow, and can enter a sullen place.  No, we choose instead to be terrified by playing without a mic in a noisy environment, to often disinterested and/or drunk people.  At least it takes your mind off things.

Last night's affair was compered by The Norm, and the usual suspects followed.  Good and enjoyable though that all was, I'm starting to think that the night needs to find a few more "regulars" who play there, some fresh blood.  Fresh meat.  Open mics are like sharks, they have to keep moving and devouring in order to survive.  Promotion of the night is the key to that, but that is essentially an administrative task that no-one wants.

And that's really the root of the issue.  Musicians don't want to spend their time doing that.  If a non-musician were to organise a similar night, I think people might be a) slightly suspicious of their motives, and wondering what they got out of it, and b) probably think they have no experience of what being a musician is like, and so wouldn't respect them.  On the other hand, if an average musician organises a night, it's often a barely running disorganised shambles.

There's another problem, too.  Those people who are willing to do that stuff (but are also musicians), often get inspired by all that creativity on show.  As a result, they end up wanting to do more music, which gives them less time to do that boring admin stuff.  A bit of a catch twenty two.

I think perhaps Peter Michael Rowan's idea for OOTB back in the day is still valid; apply for a grant from the Scottish Arts Council or another funding body for a part-time person to do all the various admin tasks for running a successful original music open mic night.  Surely that must stimulate grassroots musical creativity.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

You say ego, I say . . .

Practising last night for my terrifying attempt at a solo gig (scream) with the creature known as the Fi, everything was running smoothly until an attempted cover version.  Being British, we didn't say exactly what we thought.  I could tell Fi wasn't too keen, but I insisted.  Eventually she offered the opinion that "we don't want it to sound like a bad karaoke version of the song".  Even I could tell that meant something not particularly good.

In the more objective light of the next day, I think she may have been right, and I think I may drop that cover.  But, it made me ponder over when to go with what you think, and when to listen to others.  Ultimately, there's no easy answer.  It probably is a valuable exercise to try and curtail your ego, and to do what's best for the song/set.  On the other hand, without the prompting of that ego, you'd probably have never got up on stage in the first place. 

I'm not talking about standing up and shouting "Look at me!  I'm the best musician you've ever seen!".   Just by being on that stage however, you are saying that you think you have something to offer, something slightly different, something interesting, something curious, a new twist, some energy.  Would the Beatles have been the same without John Lennon's ego?  Without Paul's?  Not really much of a Sex Pistols without an ego going on.  No Hendrix, no Who, no Public Enemy, no Kinks.  So, we have it to thank for some great music.

The hard part is knowing when your ego is being a twat.

Saturday, 9 January 2010

Edinburgh's most successful band?

I was shooting the breeze the other day, about how some Edinburgh-based musicians had found some sort of success in London.  I starting wondering what bands/artists from Edinburgh had actually managed to achieve any sort of success.  It depends how you define success of course, but I couldn't think of too many.  In fact, that horrific spectre of The Bay City Rollers always looms up in this type of conversation, like Banquo's ghost.  They had commercial success, and their breezy pop is fine in it's way, but I don't think too many people would rate them as being musically interesting.

So, what's left?  Er . . . hmm.  Pilot?  With two songs of note?  The Chimes?  Same.  Tempting though it is to claim The Cocteau Twins, they're from Grangemouth.  You could certainly make a case for Bert Jansch.  I don't want to mention The Incredible String Band, as I don't like them, and I don't think the passing of the ages has been too kind to their brand of hippy whimsy.  Surely there must be somebody since the early 90's?  Probably, but I can't think of them.

So, you may say, who cares?  It's just that I'm wondering if Edinburgh is big enough to sustain the illusion of having a music "scene", but not big enough to actually have one.  I mean in terms of enough decent venues and people willing to go to gigs, to sustain a healthy one in reality.  It's got the quality musicians, but you need more than that.

Thursday, 7 January 2010


I had the unusual experience recently of watching two TOTP's on consecutive weeks.  It's unusual for anyone, come to think of it, as they've stopped broadcasting it, but this was the Xmas chart, and the "Best" of 2009 chart. 

In the main, it consisted of stuff that I didn't like. But, watching with an objective head on, it was quite interesting to see what had sold.  Or what they had somehow persuaded us to buy.  They being the record company/promotion company.  I saw people that I'd heard of, but never actually seen.

One singer was Alexandra Burke, doing a fairly involved dance routine to a song called, I think, "Bad Boys", who apparently were always catching her eye, or some such.  Now, she's an attractive woman, she can sing, and there's nothing wrong with the song in that it sounds current and is catchy.  I still thought it somehow didn't work in some way though, but I wasn't sure why.

It took the Doc of Rock to put her finger on it, when we saw her on the second TOTP.  "Not very convincing, is she?", she observed.  I instantly knew exactly what she meant.  That was why I'd thought something was amiss before.  I just didn't believe her when she sang "the bad boys are always catching my eye".

Perhaps it worked for other people.  For me (and The Doc) though, the performance just wasn't believable, which kind of invalidated the whole thing.  I've seen the same thing at live gigs and open mics in Edinburgh many a time, when performers failed to convince.  Perhaps they were trying to imply they were a life-weary old traveller who'd seen everything, when in reality they were a fresh-faced youth from Penicuik, and the limit of their travelling was the bus to Edinburgh.

But sometimes people are convincing.  That's when the magic starts happening, and you believe for a moment what they're telling you, that they really were in prison for loving someone, or they had made time stop, or the character in the song really had kept racing pigeons, or whatever. 

Where this convincing-ness comes from, I have no idea.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Would you pay for it?

This is a question that is often asked by people in relation to art in general, and more often than not, in relation to music. Quite why people should ask that is possibly a more interesting question. Maybe it's something to do with the commercialisation of a large number of aspects of our life, including art.

Anyhoo, recently Mr Norman Lamont (yes, the same of "The Wright Brothers" fame), posted on his blog to the effect that he had a thin crowd at one of his "Waveforms" gigs. To those of you who don't know, they consist of instrumental pieces that are played on a guitar, and looped to build layers of sound, with effects added. They're also semi-improvised.

Jim "Hairy Legs" Igoe commented to the effect that he was sorry he'd missed the gig, but that he'd be willing to pay to hear a performance in future. That set me thinking: would I be willing to pay for the same? I came to the conclusion that I wouldn't be. But why?

After pondering it for a while, I had a few realisations. I've listened to Norm's waveforms in two different (free) venues, The Beanscene and St John's Church, at the west end. When I say "listened" in this sense, I mean they provided pleasant background music, and didn't occupy the whole of your attention. Which is perfectly fine, especially in those venues. The vast echo of St John's in particular gave them an epic quality.

But, to cut to the chase, what I really like about Norm's playing is his ability to connect with an audience, to beautifully turn a witty line in one of his songs, the banter with the crowd, the unique way he sings, the whole general emoting. None of that is present in Waveforms with what is, essentially, a guy fiddling with his loop pedals, pleasant and well-executed though that may be. Hell, I could probably do something interesting myself on a loop station and guitar. But there's no way I could do what Norman does when he plays his "normal" set live, as that is unique. And that's why I wouldn't pay for Waveforms, but why I have paid for his live performances and CD's.

But, as I said at the beginning, that doesn't mean that they didn't work in context; they did, and in a way that a more traditional "live" performance may have jarred somewhat.


Hello. "What the hell is all this, then?", I hear you ask. These are my random, unstructured thoughts on the music scene in Edinburgh and beyond. It'll probably focus more on the acoustic side of things rather than rockin' bands, as that's what I've been more involved in of late. Not that there's anything wrong with rockin' bands.