What’s the Deal?

Audiences regularly baffle me.  Sometimes in terms of their composition, but more often in terms of their numbers.  I rather suspect this is because I extrapolate from myself and, despite attempts to correct for my musical (and other cultural) tastes (broad though they may be), I am clearly not coming up with a decent model for the general public.

Most of this post will be about the Southampton scene, but I thought I’d start in the nation’s capital.  On Saturday evening, I went to a folk gig in a London venue I assumed to be somewhat famous to see a pair of musicians I also assumed to be famous: I was anticipating a fairly packed 200 seater.  I think I may have been confusing the concepts of “known to me” and “famous”.  The music venue at The Harrison was a surprisingly small cellar with dangerously low ceilings (well for me, my mother would have had nothing to worry about).  While the cellar became moderately busy by the end of the gig, I think I was in a very small minority having booked ahead and I suspect the only person to have travelled even a fraction of my 70 odd miles.  It was a lovely gig and Tom Moore and Archie Churchill-Moss (footwear sponsored by Adidas) do some amazing work with viola and melodeon (I am listening to Laguna as I write this post).  Even better, the boys finished in time for me to catch the 22:35 train home (albeit with some fast footwork across the Waterloo concourse): an important aspect of any night out in London!

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Moore & Moss: too formally attired?

I have been to some stunning theatre in Southampton, often very highly reviewed by professional critics (rather than random, self-obsessed bloggers like me), but very rarely in a mid-sized theatre even as much as half full.  This fact has proved quite handy for me as I can book very late once I know I will be at home, rather than over the Irish Sea, but can’t be ideal for the funding of the arts.  I also feel that lots of the folk of Southampton and its environs are missing out on some reasonably priced treats: I can generally go to the theatre half-a-dozen times locally for less than the cost of one trip to the west end (and this is very much what I do: there’s nothing wrong with thrift!).

However, the main thrust of this post will be about music and my totally inability to guess how busy a gig will be.  Part of this must be down to my rather sketchy musical knowledge: especially in regard to the popular music of my lifetimes.  There would appear to be large number of touring bands of yesteryear that visit Southampton, perhaps with some changes from the original line-up, of which my memory can deliver no recollection whatsoever.  I have, for instance, noticed that there were a lot more punk bands than I have any memory of and can also observe that the years have not treated the fans of these bands kindly.

I do have a feeling that a significant audience prefers to go (or only goes) to see musicians they fondly remember from a formative period of their youth.  Luckily, I don’t do this – or I’d never go out.  My youth seems to have been formative in non-standard ways, if at all…  Recently, in an unexpected (and now forgotten) context, I heard a JFK quote about not looking to “the safe mediocrity of the past“.  I’d been planning to use this in a savage indictment of the recent politics of both left and right – and perhaps typified by Brexit.  However, I shall instead – and perhaps more in keeping with the character of this blog – apply the principle to being culturally adventurous, with particular application to music.

I do wonder if there may be a certain lack of courage when it come too programming music – though, there may be some financial wisdom to this cowardice as I suspect audience caution robs them of experiences they would love.  Just this Sunday, I went to see the Armida Quartet playing at the Turner Sims.  My reading of the audience – including a few I chatted to over cake at half-time – was that the most enjoyed piece was the least safe choice in the Bach, Mozart and Beethoven: the third string quartet ‘Jagdquartett’ by Jörg Widmann.  It was the presence of this piece (well, that and the free half-time cake) that was my trigger to book the gig, but I suspect I was in a tiny minority (if not alone in this).  I was not disappointed: great music and visually exciting to watch as well – particular snaps to the acting skills of the cellist!

However, sometimes I am positively surprised.  Last Tuesday, I went to my Sofar gig – as part of Sofar Southampton.  These were traditionally held in people’s homes, with the venue announced only 24 hours ahead of time.  This has been an issue in the past, when I have been dependent on public transport or my bike.  They also have tended to require booking ahead of time, which has also been an issue with my rather variable availability midweek.  However, I now have a car and decided to take a punt.  As well as not knowing the venue, the artists performing are not announced at all: you find out who they are when you arrive at the gig.  So, no safety net: you are entirely relying on the skill and judgment of the local Sofar team (I will admit I do seem to know several of them).  I always feel slightly ambivalent about music taking place in unusual places: it is always great fun to see new places (I’m as nosy as the next man – more, if you’ve seen my face), but I feel I should be supporting established venues which have a hard enough time financially without the nation’s reception rooms filching their raison d’être.

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This is not the droid you’re looking for, it’s busy enjoying the music!

No cause for guilt last Tuesday as the ‘front room’ was upstairs at the Art House (a music venue I have often visited).  However, they maintained the usual Sofar vibe by having much of the audience (including me) sitting on cushions on the floor: I’m too old for this, I have come to realise and next time I’ll sit on a chair with the old codgers.  All four acts were great fun: Tom Pointer was originally from Southampton, Djuno are a local band and Ciircus Street had come from exotic Reading.  I enjoyed all of these, in each case sat underneath the neck of some sort of guitar, and would certainly seek them out again.  The headliner (or at least he was on last), Will Varley, claimed to have come all the way from Deal, however, post-gig conversation (as I was buying CDs) revealed he actually lives in Kingsdown (but he did have a range of Southampton gigging experiences, so I think we might still claim him as a son of the city).  I spent chunks of my youth in Walmer (I lived there for four years, as a blonde!  All natural!  Where did it all go wrong?) and regularly walked over Kingsdown with my grandparents and their dog.  Apparently, the area has changed somewhat and is now trendy and possessed of a vibrant music scene (in my day, I think the music scene was limited to the Royal Marines Band).  I now have a hankering to return to the places of my youth, walk the cliffs and prom and take in some live music: might wait for the weather to warm up a little first…  Nostalgia can be a cruel mistress!

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Will Varley with an almost JJ Abrams vibe, viewed from beneath.

Despite the uncertainty about location and musical fare, the gig was fully booked – and I believe this is not unusual.  Clearly there is an audience in the Southampton area with a sense of adventure, but where – I found myself asking (as I didn’t recognise most of them) – are they the other 29(ish) days of the month?  I’ve been to many gigs with three or four acts unknown (to me – and I suspect many others), often at lower cost than a Sofar gig, but been part of a sadly tiny throng: most of whom later turn out to be in (or related to) one of the bands on the bill.  What is Sofar‘s secret and how can we spread it more widely around the local music scene?

Every time I go to update (Not) Your Trusted Music Guide (as I did this morning) I find yet more music and other cultural treats in and around Southampton.  I think I might have to establish a new page to capture details of the potential audience so that we can (together) do suitable justice to our cultural riches!  It’s either that or some experiments of very dubious ethical standing to clone myself – and nobody wants that!

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Finding the spirit

There was an exciting festive moment this morning as I drew the first curtains at a little after 10:30.  Would there be snow, as Twitter suggested there might?  No, a far more typical British festive scene greeted my eyes: rain and strong wind attempting to steal the last few leaves that the trees had managed to retain.

Given this opening paragraph, readers might wonder if the author is an avatar of the pre-haunting E Scrooge (I am haunted, as already established, only by sliced white bread).  I like to think not, but that perhaps I do Christmas slightly differently (or perhaps, as so often, I am just deluding myself that I am some counter-cultural maverick).  This post will likely provide some evidence for both the prosecution and the defence – but will serve as a note of my “preparations” to date.

In most respects, any preparation has been purely pyschological in nature – though yesterday I did technically buy a Christmas present.  However, in the interests of full disclosure I must admit this was only because I had no cash and needed to reach the card-minimum spend.  I have also, as I believe is a widely observed tradition, acquired an Advent cold.  I am taking some time to shake this off – I don’t think my sinuses like the combination of viral load and extreme temperature changes – but I have high hopes that one morning I shall open the Advent calendar window of my duvet to find a different treat lurking beneath (so far, just phlegm-filled lungs)!

I have visited not one but two Christmas markets!  Both in November – breaking a general, though weakly enforced rule of not troubling the concept of Christmas until December pits in an apperance.  On both occasions the draw was the prospect of a warming polystyrene beaker of glühwein.  Winchester was perfectly adequate, though I did object to having to queue to enter, but it did give me something to do both before and after seeing Temples of Youth play to a packed (and not easy to find) Elephant Independent Record Shop (and again, while waiting for a train home – you can’t be too careful when trying to avoid contracting a chill).  Belfast though is much better – which I can (and do) visit on my walk from the office back to my hotel.  It is such a joy to buy and then consume patisserie in my very rusty French (I do have order something I can remember the vocab for) and then do the same for glühwein in German.

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A festive City Hall and the Xmas Market, Belfast.

As December began, I started an ill-fated arithmetic series of mince pie consumption.  I did manage one on Dec 1 and two on Dec 2, but then I was struck down with man-flu and my subsequent performance has been much poorer.  Some days, I have failed to consume even a single mince pie – it has been too chilly to take my germs out to hunt and/or gather examples of this festive treat.  I prefer to avoid the industrial, plastic-wrapped, cardboard-boxed variety and go for those made in-house.  Both the Art House and Mettricks in Southampton offer excellent examples – and I hope to try some more venus and examples before the season comes to an end (though today’s weather is reducing the temptation a little).

I have also been to my first Christmas concert of the year, staged at Turner Sims by the students of the music department.  This contained all of the expected treats: an obligatory Oasis cover (nothing says Christmas like the feuding Gallagher brothers), seasonal music and audience participation carols.  I was reminded, once again, that glorious as Hark the Herald Angels Sing is, as a carol (who can fail to enjoy and/or snigger at the line ‘veiled in flesh the Godhead see’: always feels more like a reference to almighty Zeus rather than his Christian counterpart), it is very hard to reproduce with a bass voice.  Or at least I find it very hard, and this was not aided by my cold which moves my voice even deeper into Barry White territory than usual.  My attempts to access sufficient head voice rather oddly left me with a rather severely aching jaw.  Frankly, given the amount of exercise it gets both talking and chewing, I had not expected my jaw to prove the weak link in my performance…

There was a grade one orchestra – a group of people who can read music but playing instruments they have only just started learning – playing Jingle Bells and We Wish You a Merry Christmas (the most aggressive of all the carols).  I am learning three of the instruments being showcased and now feel much better about my own abilities: particularly, my feeble attempts to generate music using the clarinet.  I reckon I could produce a pretty functional rendition of either tune – albeit with some pauses to lie down and take oxygen – if transposed into a suitable key.  Still, it was great fun watching young people flounder – rather than just seeing, hearing and feeling myself do so!

The gig also included two members of the faculty applying their four hands to the piano to bring us jazz versions of a couple of seasonal classics.  Once you’ve heard, Jingle Bells played as a jazz standard or Away in a Manger as a minor key samba you will never want to go back to the original versions.  To be absolutely clear, I am not joking and if Ben Oliver and Andy Fisher are willing to write and record a Christmas jazz album or EP, I would be willing to stump up some cash to make that happen!

The gig was held in conjunction with Mencap, so I manage to leave the concert not only full of Christmas spirit but also with a bag of home-made deep-filled mince pies.  I regret to inform you, dear reader, that these did not survive the afternoon: my jaw recovered pretty swiftly given a suitable incentive!  Still, what a joy to support charity, local musicians and fill my face with festive treats from a single event.  I think this might be my closest approach to the true spirit of Christmas and one which can be enjoyed by those of almost any religion or none!

Despite the bravado of that last statement, in this coming week I shall have to knuckle-down and face the horrors of Christmas shopping, writing Christmas cards and the like.  Then again, I seem to recall that last year the extraordinary shop workers of Southampton – I remember particular snaps are due to those of John Lewis and Game – actually made the shopping experience a pleasure.  How they retain such good humour given what must be an appallingly trying job at this time of year, I do not know – but I doff my cap to them.  I feel that there ought to be a charity that does something special for shop workers once they have survived the horror of Christmas and the January sales: perhaps to send them all on holiday somewhere nice come February.  Lacking that, we should all make an effort to treat them well, however, stressed we may be feeling…

 

 

No sign of an organ-grinder

(Though there was an appearance by a pianist, plucked from the audience).

Yesterday was the third Friday of the month which, for lovers of the music scene in Southampton, means the Three Monkeys Showcase at the Art House.  Last night’s event took place under the umbrella of SO: To Speak (just as well given the rain!), Southampton’s annual festival of words.  Fear not, word-lovers, there are still plenty more festival events to catch before the festival ends on 28 October!

Regular readers may have wondered about the reduction in quantity (and possibly quality) of updates to this blog, particularly those of a more diary-like nature.  There are a couple of main factors involved: (i) I am going out a lot more often which (a) restricts my time for writing this sort of nonsense and would (b) try the patience of even the most loyal reader if I immortalised them all through GofaDM and (ii) I’ve started using Facebook to memorialise the more quotidian details of my existence.  I may be slightly(!) over-using Facebook but, despite the underlying sensation of abiding evil which seeps from the platform, it is very handy way to share my life and bad jokes in real (or near real) time with people who are more likely to be interested (or willing to feign such interest) and it seems to provide better audience interaction than WordPress.  This more Pepysian instalment of GofaDM (though despite intimations of imminent apocalypse, I have not yet started burying my cheese in the garden) reflects the author being commissioned to produce a few words about last night’s gig (well, I say commissioned – I don’t think the person who asked for a few words had this in mind!).

The Three Monkeys has a deceptively simple premise: there are three performers (sometimes a performer may be comprised of more than one person) who perform one song each in sequence.  They do this three times followed by an interval and then a further round of three songs each.  While simple, the concept is rather brilliant, which coupled with the friendly and inclusive nature of the Art House, creates an (almost) unique vibe for the gigs.  Having all the musicians on “stage” throughout the gig gives them more chance to interact with each other and the audience.  It also means the audience don’t just turn up for their favoured act but get to see the whole gig which must help with music discovery, even for those normally reluctant to sample the new.

The Three Monkeys Showcases are always good and some have been really special, but even given this very high historic bar (limbo was much easier in the past) last night was particularly great.  Our Monkeys last night were Jack Dale, Charlie Hole (and if no-one has already done so, I shall be writing a series of children’s books with him as the principal character – what a name!) and the Real Raj (or Rat as he was introduced thanks to some dodgy typing).

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A Simian Trilogy!

I won’t attempt to assign a musical genre to each monkey – partly because I don’t really approve of pigeon-holing (even for pigeons) but mostly because I don’t really understand genres except at the Phylum level.  In each case, we had a chap with a guitar producing glorious music with mouth and strings – and, in the case of Jack joined for one number by a random audience member (aka his ex-stablemate Patrick Ytting) on the piano.  Perhaps in honour of the SO:To Speak Festival, the verbal interplay and trade in quips between the songs: both intra-monkey and with the audience were a much larger feature of the gig than is traditional – and the gig was all the better for it.  I fear it will be impossible to explain here the importance to the evening’s merriment of such topics as heavy breathing, wedding singing, radio racism, rule breaking and the importance – and competitive nature – of capo position, nor indeed the major role played by the absent Tom Dale!  Suffice it to say, I doubt any members of Genus homo will have had more fun last night than the near capacity crowd at the Art House did.  St Crispian’s day may still be four days away, but I feel more than 7 billion people will be counting their manhoods (or alternative gender appropriate head coverings) cheap this morning.

Music in the city

Strap in people, this is going to be a long one!

I have found Southampton to be a surprisingly musical city, since I made my fateful move here a little more than 4 years ago.  I knew there would be some music as the presence of the Turner Sims concert hall was one of the factors which led me to choose Southampton as my domicile.  I had imagined it as the local equivalent of West Road in Cambridge – but now know that it is a fish of an altogether different feather: with a broader range of music of higher quality, but fewer student orchestras and classical ensembles that its East Anglian counterpart.

I suppose the omens were good.  On my first evening in the city, staying in the most budget of the city’s Ibis hotels, I came across live music sheltering against the side of The Cellar (as it then was) and sat a while and forgot about the stresses of moving.  In that same first week, my neighbours and friends staged some live music in the little courtyard garden behind my flat.

However, initially the city’s musical offerings seemed rather weak compared to Cambridge.  As I now know my focus was far too narrow in terms of both venues and genres.  Before coming to the city, almost all my experience of live music had been classical – with just very rare forays off-piste in a somewhat desultory attempt to broaden my musical palate.  With classical music, I knew what I was doing: you get a named seat and a start time which will be pretty rigidly adhered to.  During the concert itself, you sit down and shut up and applaud only when a piece has come to a complete stop and any batons or bows have clearly moved out of use.  I am led to believe that this somewhat rigid regime puts off many folk – and is considered elitist – whereas, the lapsed mathematician in me appreciates the order provided.  Other genres with their less structured approach to attendance and applause, their patchy provision of chairs and somewhat medieval approach to time-keeping (I presume most favour sundial, candle or clepsydra rather the piezoelectric qualities of quartz) always seemed rather daunting.  I think we can safely say that I have mostly overcome any diffidence I may once have felt about turning up at a venue for some live music and now just brazen it out: the broad principle of finding someone who seems to know what they are doing and generalising from their behaviour seems to work fine.  It also helps to bring a good book and some way to read it in poor light (or a friend) to cope with the rather optimistic approach to timing employed by many music venues.

Southampton seems to has been fortunate to retain, for now at least, a decent number of dedicated mid–scale music venues along with a number of spaces, pubs and cafes, which stage regular smaller scale gigs. My experience has been with live music, but I get the impression that the student population also supports a range of venues offering dead (or recorded) music with DJs and the like – though cannot speak to the range of musical tastes these cater to.

The city itself seems to have a rather ambivalent approach to its musical riches.  I feel that at some level it does appreciate them, but does rather tend to the “all help short of actual assistance approach”.  It does hold intermittent, relatively major events which have music at their core or as a major component – but these always seem slightly divorced from the city’s music scene and I’m not convinced do much to strengthen that scene away from these flagship events.  There doesn’t seem any coherent attempt to sell the city both to its residents or the wider world as a truly great place for live (and/or other) music.

Over the summer, the city organised a major series of cultural events – including a range of gigs – in Guildhall Square under the tagline Summer in the Square.  I enjoyed a significant number of these, but I go to a lot of events anyway and am reasonably good at hunting out the cities cultural riches (however vast the bushel that may be concealing their light).  Most events I was at were rather thinly attended by the general public: a group I will define here as people I don’t recognise (which suggests they probably aren’t regular gig-goers – or are mistresses of disguise).  So, while it provided some musicians with a paid gig and a chance of a very modest new audience, I fear it may have left only a de minimis legacy for music in the city.

Last weekend was Music in the City, where multiple gigs take place in unusual places across the city on Saturday (and to a lesser extent, Sunday).  This is my third year going to MitC and it is a lot of fun and does seem to attract a significant audience.  It can be a joy going to a gig in a space which isn’t normally open to the public, and the city is lucky to have several vaults (from its days as a major wine importer, but I’m trying to cut down) and other historic spaces which make very atmospheric places to enjoy live music.  This year, I felt there was more focus on pubs and cafes as venues: often those which don’t host music for the rest of the year and which really didn’t make very successful venues due to layout or acoustics.  I worry that as much fun as MitC can be, it creates the impression that music in the city is something that only happens once (or perhaps half-a-dozen times) a year as part of some centrally-planned event.  It is also largely separate from the places where music actually occurs nearly 365 days of the year in the city – there may be some practical reasons for this given the dispersal of venues a little way from the central core of the city, but the event already runs free bus services between venues (one of which was at the docks) so this doesn’t feel like an insuperable obstacle.  I’m sure the commercial venues did decent business during MitC, but I suspect the musicians weren’t particularly well-paid (if paid at all) and I think that value of “exposure” is massively over-estimated by those offering it.  To paraphrase an old boss, “exposure and 50p will get you a cup of tea” (this was the 90s, so a chap could realistically expect a 50p cuppa): clearly, in those halcyon days, 50p would also get you a cup of builders without the exposure.

Over recent months it has become clear that many of the city’s music venues are struggling financially, needing to run crowd-funding appeals to carry out basic maintenance and just tide themselves over the quieter summer months, when the students are away.  I suppose this shouldn’t surprise me, when I was treasurer for an organisation putting on classical music concerts in Cambridge we thought ourselves lucky if ticket sales covered 50% of our costs: and to reach 50% you had to have bums significantly outnumbering bum-less seats.  For classical music (and a lot of theatre), the shortfall is made up from grants, for example for Arts Council England or the Lottery, by corporate sponsorship or by fund raising.  Most music venues don’t seem to receive grants; ACE, for example, seems to have a somewhat narrow definition of the Arts and declining resources.  I suspect that all but the largest venues struggle to obtain significant corporate sponsorship: companies seem willing to splash more cash on taking clients to the opera or ballet than to see some live music in a more ‘spit-and-sawdust’ venue (this may be because the former are considered more high-brow, but more likely that they have better access to the traditional trappings of corporate hospitality).  Finally, I suspect that the donors answering fund-raising pleas from small-to-medium venues are not as wealthy as those supporting, say the Royal Opera House or Chichester Festival Theatre.  So, many venues rely on bar sales to square the impossible circle.  I know it’s tough and none of us want to do it, but I think we all have a civic duty to drink – and drink reasonably heavily – whenever we go to see live music.  I am selflessly sacrificing my liver that live music may live on!  (I suppose I could consume soft drinks, but whilst I am a monster I’m not an animal!)

I love the theatre and have visited the ballet this week and will be going to the opera next week, but the city and our culture will be hugely impoverished if we lose our live music venues.  They seem very vulnerable at the moment as arts funding and people’s budgets are squeezed and business rates for many are rising.  Many are at risk of being redeveloped (these days, it seems, to be replaced by student flats) or find their activities curtailed by noise complaints from nearby new developments which appeared long after the music started.  I worry that on-demand TV is meaning more people stay at home, slouched like a bag of spuds in front of haunted goldfish bowl or laptop.  So, live music is a pubic health issue!  Going to seem some music and enjoying a bit of moshing – or even more gentle swaying or foot-tapping – would boost activity levels and the health of the nation.

This has been rather longer than planned and a tad preachy – but I always felt I’d make rather a good vicar (and I think belief in God is largely optional in the modern Church of England) – but live music is important and is one of the few things we don’t yet import from China and where the human element is unlikely to be replaced by robots.  To keep (and maintain) a vibrant music scene you first need musicians – but I feel any even modestly-sized city will throw these up.  To develop they need a good range of paid, local gigs and this means we need venues and an audience.  Yes, we the audience, need to recognise the vital role we play in developing new musicians and music, in supporting venues and keeping them open.  You probably don’t have to go quite as far as I have: mostly people won’t have the time (or inclination) to attempt to spend “no evening in” or to try and fit multiple gigs into a night – though by all means feel free to follow in my footsteps, it is a huge amount of fun!  I also suspect relatively few readers will want to support their local music scene by hiring local talent to teach them how to play their previously neglected cache of musical instruments – though again, I can thoroughly recommend it.  Still, I think most of us can go to a gig a bit more often and try something new occasionally!  Drag a friend or relative (or enemy – we all know how critical it is to keep such people close) to join you!  Have a drink! Have several!  If you like the band, buy a record!  Chuck a couple of quid at a venue or band fundraiser!  Let’s keep the UK a great place for live music, and especially Southampton as I love being able to walk home from a gig with a smile on my face and music ringing in my ears (and I really can’t face dealing with estate agents for a while yet!).

Embracing the young

Only with their consent, obviously.  If I’m entirely honest I lack the confidence to initiate a hug and so limit myself to reciprocating when young folk (or even those much older than me) start the process.  While I was alive during the 1970s (yes, all of them), I have no intention of joining many of its stars in jail (or the grave for that mater, but I fear this latter project may ultimately prove beyond me).

Hug

This is the size I need emojis to be, if my fading eyesight is to have any chance of identifying the emotion being expressed.  Otherwise, I am an emoji Vulcan.

Since I arrived in Southampton, nearly four years ago, my life has changed in ways that I never anticipated (despite a career in forecasting).  A surprising amount of this change has been caused by my tendency to talk to people, especially bar staff.  A couple of years back, I was acquiring liquid sustenance at Turner Sims talking to the young chap serving me when he invited me to a free gig his band were playing at the Talking Heads the following night.  In the spirit of adventure, which is such a mark of my life (well, as long as there is no risk of physical danger or getting my hands dirty), I found out where the Talking Heads was located and went to the gig.  How bad could it be?  (Very much my ‘goto’ phrase when offered an opportunity – yes, I know I should be using subroutines).

I am probably now averaging 4-5 gigs per week and spend very few evenings at home (as I have other, non-musical cultural activities to fit in as well).   So, be careful where your spirit of adventure takes you: some adventures can be addictive!  Some of this upswing in activity can be explained by my desire to support the arts in the current financial climate and some from the Talking Heads having moved rather closer to my tiny garret.  However, I suspect the primary drivers are the way I daisy-chain my life and the interaction between my tendency to chat to strangers and to prove oddly memorable to them (then again trauma can lead to particularly vivid memories being laid down).

I’m not entirely sure where my tendency to talk to strangers came from, as I’m fairly sure it was frowned upon when I was a child.  I think some of it may arise from my attempts to simulate empathy (and thus more readily pass as human) but mostly because other people often provide a very cheap form of entertainment if you talk to them (just watching them can also work, but such observation does need to be performed with care and it’s best not to focus for too long on a single target: however funny they may be).

I am even less clear why I should be memorable – though the name must help (but I’ve found it is in no way a necessary condition for others to remember me).  I do tend to sit in the front row in gigs – I claim this is for the legroom and it also obviates the need to wear my glasses (which we can probably put down to vanity) but I suspect a small part of me is always hoping to wangle a part in the show.  However, I’m not sure why this should cause musicians, comedians, actors or bar staff to remember me – they must see far more audience than I see performers and I don’t think I’m that unique looking (so anonymous am I that I frequently fail to recognise myself in reflective surfaces).

Which brings us to the daisy-chaining…  Whenever I see a band or musician I know, I will invariable see a couple of other acts that I don’t on the same bill – and I may well find I enjoy their music.  Added to this, I’ve discovered that most musicians are in more than one band or group in addition to any solo outings.  So my knowledge of the local music scene rose exponentially – well, it did until I ran out of spare evenings!  This may have reached its apogee last Friday when I went to two gigs, but there were at least four others within a few minutes of my home which I also wanted to be at.

I have now reached the point where it is almost impossible to go to any cultural activity in Southampton without meeting people I know: either on stage or in the audience (usually both).  One of the enjoyable oddities of my cultural excursions to London is the strange anonymity they usually offer.

When I see a band or musician I like I tend to follow them on Facebook as this has proved the most efficient way of finding out when and where they are gigging.  However, as I now know a lot of these people to talk to and/or drink with I find myself as Facebook ‘Friends’ with them as well.  While I am still some way off Dunbar’s number, my list of Facebook friends has risen deep into double figures in recent months.  This has enriched my Facebook feed but also had a slightly odd effect on Facebook’s attempts to sell stuff to me.  There are now fewer offers of singles in my area and catheters (hooray!), but more offers of trombone related memorabilia (modified rapture!).  Much as I love the trombone, I fear I lack the room or embouchure to keep one myself.  I also worry about the impact on my poor neighbours were I to take it up.

Whilst I do go to some gigs with musicians around my age, the vast majority involve musicians who are yet to clock up even half of my own orbits around the sun.  A substantial proportion of the musicians I know are current or recent alumni of the University of Southampton’s music department – and what a fecund department it is!  I am now friends (in some form) with more freelance musicians, peripatetic music teachers and bar staff than I had even imagined.  The creative young have to manage matrix ‘careers’ in a way that I never had to – which I find rather impressive, though I fear it may not prove a workable option far into their thirties.  It has been a real privilege to spend time with such talented young people, though it does cast my own rather more modest achievements – suspended as they have been over a much longer timeframe – into rather deep shade.  Still, it is probably good for my soul (subject to its availability) and is almost certainly keeping my inner old codger at bay (or at least more frequently on the back foot).

 

Compressed music

I should make clear that I am not one of those people who bemoans the loss of vinyl, I’m more one of those astonished by its return.  To me, vinyl is like flared trousers, I am old enough to remember how dreadful it was the first time round and have no desire to relive that particular element of the past.  I willingly embraced the CD – though am less keen on the plastic cases they tend to come in.  Luckily, a fair proportion of my more recent CD acquisitions come in a much nicer cardboard alternative: it takes up less space, is much comfier in the hand and is probably better for the plant (or at least the main raw material for cardboard can be replenished more rapidly than it can for its plastic counterpart).  As a dweller in a small flat, I have also welcomed the digital download and its even more modest demands on my available physical storage space.  To the horror of musical purists, I then route my MP3 music via Bluetooth and a DAC to my hifi.  What an impoverished soundscape I must be supplying to my poor benighted ears.  I fear I can’t tell the difference: though I do revel in the absence of hiss and the immunity to scratches.  However, perhaps it is the losses occasioned by all this data compression that continues to drive my love for, and frequent attendance at, live music.

And so, as if by magical, we are delivered to the main topic of today’s thesis.  I have of late (well the last 6 months) attended a number of live performances in spaces that frankly struggled to contain the musical forces at play.  A number of these have taken place in the rather fine crop of craft ale bars that the Southampton area can boast in re-purposed commercial premises.  The Overdraft in Shirley – which as its name suggests is in an old bank – has wisely stuck to the single performer, usually wielding nothing larger than a guitar.  It is a lovely space and has an aesthetic that brings to mind how I imagine a similar venue would appear in the trendiest corner of Brooklyn.

The Butcher’s Hook, just over the Irwell in Bitterne, is somewhat smaller and sited in an old butchers – complete with much of its beautiful original tiling.  It was here that I went to the last Playlist gig.  This boasted Olivia Jaguers on a full-size concert harp, which I sat in very close proximity to.  Ambitious enough you might have thought, but the next act on was the local Gypsy jazz band the Manusa Project (very local, one third of the band lives directly above me and gave me lift home).  They include a full-sized double bass (and player) plus two guitarists – quite the squeeze with the harp and an audience.

I’m not sure what the Olaf’s Tun in Woolston used to be as its interior betrays fewer clues as to its past life.  It is a small space, but bravely invited the 6-piece folk and ceilidh band Monkey See, Monkey Do to perform (with smaller than usual toy monkey).  This was the tightest squeeze yet, with the bassist and one of the violinists having to move each time a member of the audience (or just bar patron) wished to micturate (or more).

I must admit I do love music in a tiny space: it does make the whole experience very personal and direct.  MSMD have also promised to bring some Welsh folk to their next gig as it was the only one of the home nations neglected at the Olaf’s Tun.

Gigs pushing the available space to the limit are not always in small craft ale bars.  As part of the fund-raising for Comic Relief, the Turner Sims concert hall staged an Orchestral Decathlon.  This was made up of ten well-known favourites from the orchestral canon – including five symphonies and two piano concerti – performed by the same orchestra in a single day.  As audience, we arrived a little before 2pm and escaped just before 10pm.  The day was divided into three “concerts” each with a normal 20 minute interval and a 45 minute gap between them.  The wise concert-goer bought a packed tea and other snacks: I am a wise concert-goer (in this respect, and probably very few others!).

Turner Sims seats around 400 people, I’d estimate, but doesn’t normal host anything larger than a chamber orchestra.  For the Decathlon they must have had an orchestra of around ninety which left the stage area pretty full.  For the piano concerti the stage was very full!  For Shostakovich’s second, I was sat in the middle of row B (row A being under the Steinway) and effectively listened to the piece from inside the piano which was quite an experience.  For Rachmaninov’s second, I was still in row B but a little further across – so could readily have helped out playing any high notes.  I could also see, though not entirely focus, on the music.  There were an awful lot of notes, but I did discover that I could have accurately page-turned the piece a good 75% of the time – probably more with my glasses.

My most recent musical experience in a small space was at Hundred Records in Romsey: a very fine and friendly record shop.  I was there for the launch of the latest EP by A Formal Horse, a local band I “discovered” at a recent Maple Leaf Session.  This was once again a tight squeeze, so much so that the drummer could only watch from the side-lines.  It was a real enjoyable experience, boosted I feel from the critical input from the guitarist’s very young daughter who I fear may not entirely approve of daddy’s musical direction.

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Two-thirds of A Formal Horse, in concert!

Others may prefer their music surrounded by mud and twenty thousand of their closest (and not recently washed) friends or professionally produced in a stadium with impressive (and expensive) staging and light show.  Given me the real up-close and personal performance, preferably slightly shambolic and in not quite enough space, every time.  If you can throw in a home-made raffle, forgotten until slightly too late (as was offered by A Formal Horse) then you will have a fan for life!

Dad 321

It had to happen eventually (it didn’t), I have finally experienced the joys of fatherhood (true, but misleading).  And now I shall just leave matters there, in an attempt to build some dramatic tension…

I spent last week in Edinburgh, at the famous Fringe and its much smaller cousin, the International Festival.  As usual, I attempted to fit way too much culture into a week, but as last year I attempted to manage my addiction by refusing to attend any show starting after 22:00.  I may have been massively over-stimulated, but at least I was tucked up in bed before midnight!  Effectively my ego was acting as a rather laissez-faire parent to my id, but did at least impose some boundaries (okay, one boundary – but you have to start somewhere).

As I headed north for my annual cultural overload, the weather was set fair – or so the Met Office claimed, erroneously as it transpired.  So damp and totally unlike the forecast was the actual weather that a lesser man might suspect the Met Office to be in the pay of an unscrupulous cabal of Scots mackintosh and umbrella vendors, attempting to lure gullible Sassenachs north with insufficient wet-weather gear.  Fortunately, years of childhood holidays in Wales mean that I am not so easily fooled.

As is traditional, my Fringe had an underlying bedrock of comedy, but this made up the smallest proportion of my gigs yet. Before going I had left myself a note to see a chap called Tom Ballard, though I no longer had any idea why.  Trusting in the judgment of past-me I dutifully went to see the youth – and was surprised to find he was Australian.  Despite this handicap, I had a great time at his gig and current-me can thoroughly recommend the lad: however, I still have absolutely no idea why past-me had made a note of his name.  Does this suggest that my work in temporal mechanics will shortly bear fruit and that I use the breakthrough to provide gig recommendations to my past selves?

In a further nod to tradition, several mornings were spend at the Queens Hall soaking up some classical music.  Mark Padmore made a vastly better fist of An die ferne Geliebte than I ever have – and I was watching him (and listening) very closely for tips.   Despite this hawk-like observation, I still cannot say how he filled the whole venue while also singing piano and even pianissimo.  Other musical highlights were the Dunedin Consort playing Handel, accompanied by the stunning voice of Louise Alder (where required, she sat out the concerti grossi) and a concert of piano, viola and clarinet centred around György Kurtág.  This is a very fine grouping of instruments and the works by Mark Simpson, Marco Stroppa and Robert Schumann have opened a whole new area of music to me, though I may need a little more time to fully embrace Mr Kurtág himself.

Circus also played a big part in my week, once again demonstrating that I have a long way to go before running away to the big top is a viable career plan.  Most of the circus seemed to originate from Australia, perhaps indicating greater legal protection for French-Canadians (who, like elephants, can no longer be exploited to thrill an audience), and was very good.  My two avourites were A Simple Space and Elixir which both combined amazing skills with a lot of fun – and, in the case of the latter, the first time I have seen a man actually steam.   In fact, every circus I saw was good and introduced some new physical feat or new way of approaching an old idea which suggests that there is life in the form for some time to come: which is good new for my long term career planning.

For the first time in Edinburgh, I branched out into dance and saw an amazing piece called Smother.  This claimed to be hip-hop dance, though given my limited (okay, non-existent) knowledge of the genre I wouldn’t have guessed, and the 55 minutes flew past.  It would seem that hip-hop embraces rather more than a rap-based musical style: you live and learn!  I am now more keen then ever to extend my limited gymnastic skills into  b-boying – though was distressed to discover that even in this apparently free form of dance, one is still expected to keep in time with the beat (or at least the young performers clearly acted as though this were required).  Do evening classes still exist, or are we supposed to leaen everything from YouTube videos now? Music-wise I also went to see the Melbourne Ska Orchestra which was a great experience, though unlike much of the audience I did resist the urge to dance (too early in the day for my blood-alcohol levels to have reached the threshold required for dancing), but I’ll admit it was a close-run thing and had the seating been a little less cramped I might have “cut a rug” (as I believe the young people say).  My other favourite musical piece is harder to describe, it was a combination of fairly thin spoken autobiography, a music lesson and some virtuoso piano playing by Will Pickvance (a chap I had heard on The Verb, purveyor of many good things).  This, in a place where animals were once dissected, was a thing of total joy and a complete contrast to everything else I saw.  It somehow seemed to recharge my cultural batteries.

I also looked at some art and discovered that 10am is rather to early to face the full onslaught of surrealism.  It also became clear that Bridget Riley’s work is not ideal for the sufferer of astigmatism: though staring at some of her works does function as a suprisingly effective legal high!  I can fully recommend Inspiring Impressionism at the Scottish National Gallery which opened my eyes to the the role of Daubigny in so much of the impressionist art – and indeed beyond – I have seen over the years.  The exhibition ends with a wonderful, if heart-breaking and very late, painting by Vincent Van Gogh: it would seem I now cry at paintings too.

The final category of fun was theatrical.  My favourite piece came from Belgium and had the unpromising start time of 10am and subject matter of the terrorist massacre at the high school in Beslan.  Despite this unholy trinity of issues, Us/Them was an amazing piece of work and made the whole week in Edinbugh worthwhile on its own.  In fact, Summerhall was awash with interesting Belgian theatre (mostly Flemish) – of which I had time to see far too little – so I think I may have to spend some quality time in Brussels.

Right, I suppose I’ve kept you waiting long enough, I should explain my recent fatherhood and introduce my new son (who has a bushy beard and probably out-weighs his father).  My second favourite piece of theatre was Every Brilliant Thing, which I wanted to see last year but was sold-out and so this year I got myself organised (just a little bit, to quote that sage of life planning, Gina G).  It was worth the wait, though I did blub a little (well, I was more involved than usual in the plot) having made it through Us/Them with (almost) dry eyes.  The play stars one half of Jonny and the Baptists (I don’t think it would be too much of a spoiler to reveal it is not “the Baptists” and that one should never trust a swan) and, as it turns out, quite a lot of the audience.  Many people are handed a slip of paper to declaim at the appropriate moment: mine was numbered 321 (not, so far as I know, in tribute to the late Ted Rogers).  However, a few of us had larger roles and I had to play Jonny’s father (and to an extent Jonny).  This seemed a fairly modest obligation at first, safely discharged from my seat with only a minimum of speaking (just the one word, albeit delivered several times) or acting required (so very much pitched at my level of skill).  This contrasted with one member of the audience who had a lot more work to do while wearing only one shoe: and in my performance she was so good at her part I still wonder if she had been practising.  However, just when I thought it was safe to rest on my laurels (or cushion, no laurels were provided) I was dragged centre-stage and required to give an impromptu wedding speech as the father of the groom.  I’m sure my readers would not have been caught napping, but I had come woefully unprepared with not so much as a best man’s speech on me.  Luckily the discovery that Jonny (my son) was very much shorter than me provided an “in”(by way of reference to his tiny mother) and I managed to extremporise a small speech which went down suprisingly well.   It is rather nice being applauded by an entire theatre, if also a tad embarrassing, and I rather fear a monster has been created.  In future, I shall expect a round of applause for any impromptu declaration exceeding a couple of sentences.

Gosh, that was a long one – and such a range of references, if I were a better chap I’d provide footnotes.  Suffice to say, I had a splendid holiday but very little (if any) of a rest.