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Friday, 28 October 2011

Hello Rodney Branigan, guitar geek

Just a short one. I went to the BBC Club on Tuesday to watch a showcase by Manilla PR and was lucky enough to catch Circus Envy doing their thing.

Before their second set of three songs, Mick (playing - and sitting on - the box) thanked the PR company insincerely for putting Circus Envy on after Rodney Branigan, a young American now living in south London, who had made us all blink by starting his set with a number that involved playing two guitars simultaneously.

As the afternoon progressed it became clear that although the two guitars thing is impressive in a man-with-two-heads kind of a way, Branigan would be a bit of a star even without the geekery.

He's undeniably very talented - doing the best version of Come Together I've ever heard, including by The Beatles - but it was his humour I especially liked. And the fact that he, um, has no trouble clenching a guitar firmly between his knees for many minutes at a time (see slightly underexposed picture below). He mentioned at one point that he'd been in prison in Mexico and then, when there was a bit of tooth-sucking and muttering about how you shouldn't say that from the front row, he introduced his next song as being about spanking children.

Since it was a tune - albeit one played by using the guitar as a percussion instrument as much as a guitar -  the chances of it originally having been about any such thing were pretty remote.

It turned out that the spell in prison was for alleged drug smuggling, but since it was only for three days he clearly wasn't guilty. I hope I haven't buggered up his immigration status by mentioning this as it would be great to see him play a whole set.

I see Show of Hands feels the same way.

Also check out the tunes on this website, including The Plagiarism Song, for which it helps if you have a passing familiarity with American children's entertainment.

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Thursday, 27 October 2011

Manufactured Moonshee rising

I went to a rather odd event at Cecil Sharp House the other night. It was an album launch for a band called Moonshee and it came with some enticing bells and whistles.

The first half of the gig had Ashley Hutchings and his son, Blair Dunlop, steadfastly refusing to admit that they were related to each other, while Dunlop demonstrated convincingly that he's got the musical wherewithall to make it in the industry no matter who his dad is. A couple of years more stagecraft under his belt and he'll be flying, I reckon. It's a bit weird that he's already played Cropredy, though, as I only heard his voice this year (didn't see him) and assumed he was an established singer-songwriter. But it turns out he's 19.

Then there was Ruth Angell, who appeared to be a friend of Dunlop's, and has a beautiful voice and a way with magical realism. She introduced one of her own songs by describing how she'd been sitting in a cafe in Paris when she'd noticed that there was a tea chest with metal edges on the pavement nearby. Instead of calling the bomb squad, she watched as a little man - "very small indeed" - climbed out of a panel in the side, chopped up some bread for the birds on a bread board, fed them and then crawled back into his tea chest. She said all this with a completely straight face, which suggests talent.

The messing with reality was good practice for what happened next, though.

The second half was all Moonshee, who'd been hanging around in the foyer looking simultaneously slightly overdressed and underdressed. There are four beautiful girls - two blonde, two brunette - and two cheeky looking, older, Asian guys, who play traditional Asian instruments.  

The British/Asian folk fusion was well-judged if a bit samey, in terms of tone and tempo. It was folky enough for my taste and I'd quite happily listen to it in the car: it created an ambience.  But there was also something odd about it, that I couldn't put my finger on at first.

The band wasn't really looking at each other and appeared to be concentrating very hard: the girls at least. The guy on percussion was enjoying himself and kept looking around for some eye contact with his fellow band members, but eye-contact was there none.

Plus there was no banter and what talking there was, was weirdly stilted. Then the singer, who had a northern Irish lilt, introduced their eponymous song by saying: "Apparently a Moonshee is a storyteller, someone who removes barriers between cultures. So quite a fitting name for this band." And the penny dropped.

No sense of ownership of their own band name, the appearance of being worried about forgetting something they'd rehearsed over and over, very little on-stage chemistry.

Manufactured band!

"This band is the brain-child of John Dagnell," the singer admitted at the end, inviting a round of applause from the slightly disconcerted audience. Dagnell works at Park Records, which mainly does Steeleye Span. And sure enough, it turned out that the musicians had auditioned to be in the band, except the guys, who were session musicians. And the songs - largely traditional - were arranged by Paul Gibbon, who's been around the block a few times. I've got Jethro Tull written next to his name in my notebook.

Speaking to the two blonde, female band members afterwards they were charmingly enthusiastic but they described Cecil Sharp House as a "folk club", which isn't exactly untrue but it's untrue enough to suggest an unfamiliarity with what it does.

Dagnell said he'd been working on the project for ten years - which means that some of the band would barely have been out of junior school when he started - and that the difference between Moonshee and The Imagined Village was that Moonshee "are more commercial".

I wouldn't argue with that. I suppose the most surprising thing about this project is that no one's tried it sooner (*braces self for slew of emails explaining that someone has*) What I'm wondering, though, is whether Park Records has the money and the social media marketing skills to launch a commercial, manufactured band? One of the things Peter Knight said when I interviewed him the other week was that Park Records may not have a proper website but there's always a human being on the end of the phone when you call. And frankly, if they'd got a handle on the social media side of things I would have expected a much bigger turn out for the album launch.

Dagnell also seemed uncertain whether it was OK to admit that Moonshee was put together by him, insisting at one point that the Australian lady guitarist, who was using a music stand, was one of the moving musical forces behind the band, before appearing to change his mind about that. He also denied that he had any ambition to be the Simon Cowell of the folk world. Had to ask.

Having said all this, it's a very commercial sounding album and kind of lovely with it: a million miles better than anything you'd get on The X Factor. And I expect the live experience will gel as they get more practice with audiences and, you know, enjoying themselves. So I wish them all the best and would like to see them play at a festival next summer, after they've had a chance to get used to being together (it was only their second gig). I'll be very curious to see what happens next.

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Thursday, 20 October 2011

Weird morris dancing picture from Limehouse

I went down to the London Metropolitan Archive the other day, looking for some information about the unusual alcohol licensing hours in Smithfield, around Barts and the meat market. This is because, as well as writing a blog about folk music, I recently started one for 24hourlondon, an iPhone app that finds late-opening bars, pubs and restaurants in London.

It's early days. But I'm thinking that the 24hourlondon blog will be about London's late-night economy, the running of the app itself including some of its business dilemmas - which is code for Help! - and the occasional political thought. Smithfield struck me as a good place to start because I knew that its licensing laws have always been a bit of an anomaly.

Anyhow, the trip to the archive resulted in a voyage around Smithfield. But while I was down there I also took this picture, which was being flashed up for about 30 seconds at a time on an electronic noticeboard inside the library reading room, rotated with several others.

The longer I stare at it the weirder it seems.

First, I think this is because I'm not used to seeing morris dancing in an urban context, let alone done by women dressed in pinnies.

Second, all three of the girls are staring directly at the camera, as if they've got something urgent to say.

And third, if you look at the top left hand corner of the picture it appears to be in colour - as if reality is trying to break through. I realise this could be an artefact of the printing process, but it still strikes me as odd.

I got in touch with the library at Cecil Sharp House - home of the English Folk Dance and Song Society - to see if they could tell me anything about morris dancing in Limehouse in 1908. They sent me an article about the history of the relationship between Mary Neal and Cecil Sharp (which seems to take forever to load), which includes something about the Esperance Club, which was active at around the time this picture was taken, so that could be a clue.

I've got a couple of leads, though so far the only definite thing is that no one appears to have seen this picture before. If anyone knows who these women might be, I'd love to hear from you.

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Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Why Robert Peston loves folk music

Why does anyone love anything?

On the day it became known that Bert Jansch had died, Robert Peston, the BBC's business editor, mentioned on Radio Four's PM programme that he'd seen Jansch play, that he'd been to the gig with his wife and that he was a bit of a folkie on the quiet.

He said later, by email: "I love folk, especially 70s' folk - Pentangle, Fairport, Jansch - but my tastes are eclectic and also I love lots of other music, especially guitar rock, Purcell, heavy reggae dub. And I certainly wouldn't claim to be an expert on the current folk scene. I have warm feelings towards morris dancing but there's a time and a place for it."

He also explained that his folky leanings could be traced to his relationship with his wife, the social historian and writer Sian Busby.

As I say, why does anyone love anything?

Busby explained: "It was part of the music that was around when I was growing up. My dad was really keen on trad folk and one of my early memories is that he taught me to sing in harmony with him from the Pete Seeger folk book.

"I liked Bob Dylan and Joan Baez and I went to see Bert Jansch and John Martyn with dad. Then in my teens - I'm 51 now - I liked electric folk: Pentangle, Steeleye Span and Fairport Convention.

"Robert and I have known each other since we were teenagers - he was in the year above me at school. Apparently I gave him a folky compilation tape, but at school he was really cool and liked David Bowie and guitar rock. We had an on/off relationship for many years before getting together about 20 years ago now and I think I gave him the tape when we finally got together."

There's more about their life together here.

"He's not a big fan of Bob Dylan or Joan Baez, but he does listen to The Dubliners because I've heard him when I'm not in the room. He likes the stories - we both do - if there's a good tune and a good story, that's all you can ask.

"We used to have family gatherings with musician friends when I was growing up and I still love singing folk music. But it can make you hear a bit flat, I think, because a lot of it's pentatonic so it messes up your tuning. I sing around the house all the time: Rosemary Lane by Bert Jansch, The Lambs on the Green Hill and a version of Ca' the Yowes, which is based on a poem by Robbie Burns."

Didn't her husband say something about once having been to a folk festival? "Hmmm," she pondered. "I don't think Robert would go to a folk festival, though he's taken our younger son to Reading." And what about morris dancing? "It's good fun for a while but I find it gets boring: there's only so many times you can watch men banging sticks on the ground before it pales.

"I remember going around with my stepfather one afternoon - he loved The Corries - and every pub we went into these bloody morris dancers turned up. He kept bundling us up and taking us to the next place, so we basically spent the whole afternoon running away from morris dancers. Then at my younger son's primary school in Muswell Hill some of the fathers used to morris dance and at the summer fairs there used to be a tug of war and some morris dancing. But I don't think I could watch it for a whole afternoon."

Well, that's OK: I can't really think of a circumstance under which you'd have to. There's usually too much beer to be sunk behind the scenes...

What do you listen to in the car? "We don't have a car, we haven't had one for twelve years and rarely travel in them. But we live near Ally Pally and Wood Green tube station, so public transport's easy to come by. Sometimes we hire a car for a break and, yes, when it's there we use the stereo. That's when the old electric folk mix tape comes out."

She says that she's not very up on today's folk scene, although she's seen The Unthanks and liked them very much, prompting me to send her an email with some links on it to things I thought she might like. They were towards the festival headlining end of the folky spectrum, though, and now I'm wondering whether I should have included more female voices.

Busby said she thinks her musical influences and her choice of work are connected. "I'm a trained historian and I'm very interested in these lovely bits of social history that you get in many of the songs. I especially like the ballads that were sung at executions. They're very sentimental and for me that's a rich seam. I like the stories about ordinary people's lives, about the sad and happy things that happen to them. The unrequited loves and the snapshots you might get of the life of an ordinary serving girl, for instance."

At the moment she's working on her second novel. "It's supposed to be delivered at Christmas but I don't think it's going to be. It's set in 1946 and is a sort of detective story, about a murder that's all tied up with the black market and the background is the depleted, bombed-out landscape of London. It's a very modern setting for me because I'm much more at home in the 19th century and I'm thinking that it's going to be called The Commonplace Killing. But the publisher doesn't know that yet so it might turn out not to be..."

* Here's Sian Busby's Amazon page.

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Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Jane Taylor's shaggy mouse story, triumphantly revisited

I think it would be fair to call this one a slow burner.

Back in May I reproduced a tall tale told by Jane Taylor, the award-winning singer songwriter, at the Bristol folk festival about the loss of her her mobile telephone and its apparent abduction by some genetically modified mice, which - she was led to believe - had escaped from the labs of the local university.

It might serve you well to have a look at the original story before moving on to its denouement...

For I rashly promised at the end of that post that I'd do my best to get hold of the mocked-up BBC web page that, more than anything else, convinced Taylor that her phone was being held by kleptomaniac rodents.

Yes. I know.

Weeks ticked passed. My original optimism that Lee, Taylor's partner, would come up with the goods began to wane. And I wondered a little bit whether the entire story had, itself, been a shaggy mouse tale.

Until last night.

Imagine my delight when, on the point of logging off for the evening, I found this email from Lee, the Geek god.

"Good evening Emma,

Firstly I must apologise for the delay in getting back to you on this. I am Lee (The Geek)! I have finally tracked down the image I knocked up regarding the mice. I didn't even put it on line, it was just sent as an image. I was actually shocked that anyone had fallen for it for more than a minute. You can imagine my inner chuckles going into overdrive when I realised I'd tricked the whole band for the best part of twelve hours to the point of Jane actually believing she was negotiating the return of the phone with the farmer!

Thanks for your interest and I apologise again for taking five month in getting this to you.

I'll give Jane a nudge to have a look at your blog as well.

Kind regards and best wishes,

This followed eleven minutes later.

"Just remembered how grammatically illogical some of the sentences were in the article. Again, another reason to disbelieve the authenticity of the article!"

He also explained that among the reasons for the delay were that (1) they've got a two year old in the house (2) Jane is a musician (which appears to be shorthand for something or other) and (3) possibly most importantly, Lee's mum had had a terrible health scare in the intervening months, for which she'd received the all-clear the previous day, clearing lots of space in Lee's head to get around to admin that had been lying untouched.

So, excellent news about Lee's mum. And also excellent news for the rest of us. Because he included in the email a screen grab of his handiwork. So without further ado I give you *drum roll* shaggy mice playing chess.

It turns out that Taylor has a series of gigs coming up, including one in London, which you can read about here. And that there will also be a Christmas single. 

Guinea pigs roasting on an open fire?

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Sunday, 9 October 2011

Heidi Talbot casts spell of loveliness over Bethnal Green

If there were any East Londoners in the Shoreditch/Bethnal Green area last Thursday who were disconcerted that the traffic roared less loudly, the autumnal sunlight was a more shimmering gold and strangers were friendlier: relax, I can explain.

Heidi Talbot played in St Matthew's church, at the Shoreditch end of the Bethnal Green Road, and enveloped the whole area in a shimmering cloud of female loveliness.

Almost miraculously, someone recorded the event on camera, so here she is singing The Shepherd Lad, a song that culminates with the line "Kind sir, you are a fool without and I'm a maid within', which always makes me grin.

The venue, which is the church where both Kray twins' funerals took place, had recently completed a refurbishment that was itself little short of miraculous. This is because (1) it's extremely beautiful (inside and out), welcoming and thought-provoking with a staircase that looks as if it was built be decked in holly and ivy with a Christmassy choir ranged up it. And (2) the builders went bust, leaving at least one other local church - St John's at Bethnal Green tube - up the proverbial waterway without a paddle. The local church wardens have been summoning hitherto unsuspected levels of guile and low cunning to navigate their way through the situation, in at least one case threatening the scaffolders that if they didn't take the stuff away (they were refusing because they hadn't been paid) they would dismantle it themselves and sell it to the competition.

However, all this was forgotten when Talbot, accompanied by Boo Hewardine and Matheu Watson,  made the place her own. Delicious-looking sandwiches and beer were laid on at the back of the church, providing a carbohydrate-based serotonin boost, as if one were needed, and all was well with the world.

The gig was a part of the Orain series, organised by St Margaret's House, a local charity that, among other things, organises on behalf of the mentally handicapped: there are lovingly snapped pictures of many of their "clients" on the walls of the hall behind Bethnal Green's Gallery Cafe. James Yorkston will be playing St Matthew's next on October 27.

Quite apart from the music, which was magical - her voice like dancing water, the original songs beautiful and absorbing in equal measure - Ms Talbot also sported a very fine pair of shoes. So fine, in fact, that I overcame my notorious shyness to try and take a photograph of them, with her permission. But it was too dark and my friend Keith took the piss out of me for having done it, in any case. So you'll have to make do with this shot from the shop's website.

I feel it would be only decent to leave you in contemplation for a moment...

Leaving it for me only to say that it may very well be true that John McCusker abandoned this tour with his wife (for he and Talbot are married) because he had received some piffling offer from - who was it? - Bob Dylan and Mark Knopfler. But I saw Bob Dylan earlier this year at the Feis in Finsbury Park, he was rubbish and anyway, I ask you: is it possible to purchase, from a table at the back of his gigs, a self-branded tea towel?

I rest my case.

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Friday, 7 October 2011

What do Sir Paul McCartney, The Civil Wars and Damien Barber have in common?

Andy Cutting told a story during his gig at The Slaughtered Lamb in Clerkenwell on Monday, about his inability to read music. It was something along the lines of how he couldn't do musical notation so he can't write his tunes down and because he can't sing (he claims) it's no good trying to record them on a dictaphone either, as they all come out sounding the same: as a kind of droning noise.

It was a powerfully moving gig and it was hard to imagine anything he did musically coming out badly. So I asked him about it later and he explained that he'd learnt piano as a child but never got on with the notation side of it. "I remember doing grade two and having to choose a piece out of four on a page for sight-reading during the exam. I made a start but by the time the examiner asked me to stop I thought I'd probably finished the one I'd chosen and moved halfway through the next one. It just didn't make any sense to me." Here he is doing something lovely.

He added that he doesn't have any trouble reading or writing words and that he's not alone. Damien Barber, of The Demon Barber Roadshow, is in the same boat, as - he said - is Ralph McTell.

Barber confirmed this. "I never needed to know how to read music really, I pick it up quickly by ear.  They tried me on recorder at school but I never liked it. I once entered a recorder competition and had to play a piece of music from a book. I put a book on the music stand and played it from memory - and came second.

"Now I play with other people I see the benefit. I think the band stuff would be quicker for me if I could read music but I doubt I'll ever find time to learn now. I don't know many people these days who can't do it - I think most younger musicians understand the academic side. But I'd think that most of the people I grew up with couldn't read music.

"It would certainly make arranging quicker and it would be easier to compose - I always forget the tunes I come up with because I never get around to recording them and I can't write them down. But I was impressed with the band at The Transports in Sidmouth this year - they came in and played really complicated music together just from paper. I'd like to be able to do that, but not enough to learn. I quite like being natural, though, and I think there's a nice, earthy honesty to playing by ear."

I asked how he was with other forms of language: words and numbers. "I'm good with words and I love numbers. I can be quite physically clumsy though."

We're very notation-orientated, humans in the 21st century. Writing things down to pass useful knowledge from one generation to the next is central to the story of civilisation and it's why burning books is a taboo. The internet puts a whole new complexion on things again.

Inaccurately, we say that musicians "write" music, when we mostly mean that they've come up with a tune, and a professional musician who can't write music is considered to be in some ways analogous to a famous writer - Hans Christian Anderson, Agatha Christie or WB Yeats, for instance - with dyslexia. I suspect that this is true largely because the western orchestral tradition relies on the ability to read music. So perhaps it's unsurprising that when Cutting was talking about it at the gig, his banter had a self-effacing quality.

But not everyone feels that way.

And there's this, which links through to a transcript of an interview that Eric Clapton did on the Larry King show in February 1998, in which he describes how he learnt to read music and then it "went away".

While I was putting this post together I tweeted this

and got this from John Paul White, of The Civil Wars, who I interviewed a couple of weeks ago

So I was really starting to wonder how common it is for musicians not to be able to read music?

Uncomfortably, I remember traipsing around carrying a violin case and sheet music as a youngster, feeling slightly trapped by my own inability to make the music sound perfect (the way it does on records). Perhaps when you lose the sheet music you get in touch with something more important? Joy? I did enjoy playing but found a lot of the trappings - music stands you could catch your fingers in, orchestra rehearsals at the same time every week, the drone of the tuning up - slightly oppressive.

Professor Pam Heaton is a psychologist at Goldsmith's college who went to music school. I'd been intending to ask her about neural pathways and whether the same part of the brain that is used for reading words is also used for reading music. This was mainly because I'd been sent this very interesting document about the links between dyslexia and "amusia" (which is less amusing than it sounds). I was particularly interested in the part about how there are at least three different kinds of output involved in reading and playing music: playing an instrument, which is reading music and transforming it into motor skills; singing, which is transforming visual symbols into vocal code; and naming notes, which is transforming a visual symbol into a verbal code.

But when I mentioned the number of musicians I'd heard about over the last few days who don't read music, Professor Heaton got very excited. "It's not unusual at all! We've only been writing music down since the 13th or 14th century and 150 years ago it wasn't at all uncommon for people not to be able to read words, even in our society. Music reading is a real add-on: you have to remember that a lot of musical traditions around the world are still entirely oral.

"When children learn music, sight-reading is the thing they find the hardest. But if you think about it, when you're learning to read words you go to school and you read every single day. You do it during the day and then you go home and you probably do it a bit with your mum too. You spend hundreds of hours on it.

"But no one does that with music. You have your music lesson and you do maybe an hour of sight reading in a week. And then if you are a person who hears a piece of music and remembers it when you are learning it, you wouldn't be reading it off the page. It's only if you need to read it that you will end up reading music a lot before it goes into your memory. So in a strange way becoming good at reading music is something you only really do if your memory skills aren't good: your reading skills improve because you need them.

"Perhaps also for a dyslexic musician who plays extremely well it is very burdensome to then have to go back and look at the music: it creates anxiety. The quality of your performance is not affected by your ability to sight-read. The only thing it affects is the kind of work you can do - because session musicians need it."

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