God only knows

It’s been a while since I posted music I like, but I saw this and thought I would share. It’s a promotional video for music on the BBC, featuring one of my favourite songs performed by lots of different artists.

How many do you recognise?

Saturday 19th October: The Black Feathers, Oliver Daldry, David Booth – Live at the Cottage

The Black feathers

The Black feathers

How do you review a friend? This thought was prominent in my mind before the opening Saturday’s Live at the Cottage. I’ve known David Booth a few years , have sung with him, and now he was  about to open the night’s entertainment. What if he tanked? I had no need to worry. David is one of those annoyingly talented people who can turn their hand to anything. Initially a drummer, he has added singer-songwriter, guitarist, sound engineer, record producer and promoter to his list of achievements and he is damn good at all of them.

David Booth

David Booth

There is no hiding the influence the Finn brothers have had on his songwriting, especially his older songs like the upbeat ‘Find our way back home’ and ‘The left behind’, where his bitterness at seeing childhood friends caught in the trap of pre-programmed expectation of what they can achieve in life is accentuated by the choppy guitar rhythms made popular by Crowded House at their angriest.

Yet he is not afraid to show his more introspective side. Love will win every time was a romantic, thoughtful number enhanced (as in all his songs) by excellent harmonies with Roisin O’Hagan. For me, though, my favourite song was his last , so far untitled, which intertwined impressionistic lyrics of a Suffolk coastal scene with the greater ebb and flow of life itself. It showed how far David has come as a songwriter as he created a sound truly of his own and was probably the closest we  got to see of the David I know in his music.

This guy is going to be huge! That was my first reaction to hearing Oliver Daldry and I haven’t changed my opinion. He is just fantastic. This young singer-songwriter – he’s only 19 – has the world at his feet. He is able to get the the complexity and rhythms of two guitarist from one acoustic guitar whilst at the same time knocking out catchy tune after catchy tune. His music is reminiscent of Vampire Weekend in that he uses similar rhythms to the American band, but he has a touch of Nick Drake to his playing which brings a freshness to the mix.

Daldry’s album, ‘The Boy Who Fell’, is out on iTunes for £2.49 and he is touring small venues around London and the East of England. All I can say is buy the album and go and see him in this type of venue while you still can. He won’t be playing them for long.

The Black Feathers are a duo made up of Ray Hughes on guitar / vocals and Sian Chandler vocals, who is also the main songwriter. Their music combines the British and Irish folk tradition with a transatlantic sound that in some cases wouldn’t be out of place in the Grand Ole Opry. Their songs are all based around their tight, sliding harmonies over a pared down guitar; a sound drifting between alt-country to being more evocative of some of the folk based vocal groups of the counter-culture revolution depending on the song.

They were technically fantastic, incredibly polished and all songs were well constructed and excellently performed. My problem was, it left me cold. No matter how impressed I was with their performance and ability, I just couldn’t get into their music. I think, for me, it was a little too polished. The songs ticked all the boxes in my head, but didn’t hit me in my heart (yes, despite what I’m writing, I do have one). There were times, like in ‘Blind’ and ‘Breaking’ where I felt a hint of the muddiness and rawness I prefer, but as much as I tried, for me it just didn’t click.

BUT (and it is a big but)…

I know I was very much alone in this opinion. Everybody else in Dove Cottage loved it, and for the majority it was the first time they had ever seen the Black Feathers perform. I spoke to a number of people after the gig and every single one was blown away by what they had heard. “Absolutely brilliant”, “those harmonies were stunning” and “fantastic songs and performance” were just a few of the comments I noted. And instead of feeling upset about being out of sync with the rest of the audience, I’m really pleased,  because having met Ray and Sian after the gig I found the two of them to be genuinely lovely people, and I wish them all the success in the world. So please, visit their website, take part in their Kickstarter campaign and help these two find the success they deserve. And when they do make it, I will be the first to offer them my congratulations.


My adventures in music: Part 1

The loudest drummer in the business

The loudest drummer in the business

I can remember the drive to the practice studios vividly. Mark, my housemate, had dragged me away from singing in my bedroom and convinced me to try out for his band. It is 1997 and I’m 26 years old, sitting next to Mark, cracking jokes and laughing a little too loudly as he drives me to Windsor. I was shitting myself.

I can’t remember a time when music hasn’t been part of my life. I started singing as soon as I could talk. My first memory of going on stage was at a Christmas Party when I was four years old. I’ve no idea what I sang, but I do remember the round of applause I received. I went on to perform at school concerts and like most children I would sing loudly along to the radio (it was the height of two-tone in the late 1970’s and my 8 year old self was hooked.)

Every Thursday I would watch Top of the Pops and stare in awe as these otherworldly acts performed in front of the awkwardly dancing audience. But at no point did I consider forming a band myself. You see, growing up in a village in the heart of Suffolk, it didn’t even occur to me that it was possible. Bands were what other people did. That was what I meant by otherworldly. I wasn’t talking about David Bowie in full Ziggy pomp, or the pansexual antics of Human League, Visage and the other New Romantics of my early teens; just that music was created and played by people different to those I knew and grew up with.

Half rhythm guitarist, half Duracell bunny

Half rhythm guitarist, half Duracell bunny

We arrived at Running Frog studios and I was hustled into the rehearsal studio. The rest of the band had arrived early and were setting up. Everyone seemed friendly enough but the thing that caught my eye was their equipment. They had Marshall stacks and Gibson Les Paul guitars. The snare was whip crack loud – Mark was the loudest drummer I ever had the pleasure to sing in front of, and responsible for the tinnitus I still have today – and the bass was, well, a bass. As they warmed up the sound was incredible; I couldn’t believe it, they sounded just like you heard on the record. I was blown away.

“What songs do you know?”

“Er, Oasis, Blur. Most things by Radiohead.”

“OK. Why don’t we start with High and Dry.”

The music started up and I sang. High and Dry is not the easiest of songs to sing, there’s a lot of falsetto, but difficulty never came into it as my nerves were so bad I was all over the place. When the song finished Mark gave me a grin and a thumbs up, but I knew I’d blown it. We played a couple more songs and then I went home, dejected.

A week or so later I was asked by the band to sing with them at an open mic night at a pub in West London. We went along and the place was packed. There were the odd punk band, a couple of acoustic singer-songwriters and us. We were one of the last ones on but seeing the other acts perform relaxed me. Nobody was brilliant, they were mostly trying out new material or using the event for a try out like us. When it was our turn, the band set up, adjusted the levels, and as I stood there looking out at the motley group of musicians who’d been on earlier, I thought to myself “Sod it,” and went for it.

I was told about a year later by Derek, part rhythm guitarist, part Duracell bunny, that the conversation the band had afterwards went along the lines of “Well, he’s no Dan (previous singer), but he’ll do.” I’d made it. Spudgun were about to take on the world.

The Good Companions is no longer with us, so here's a photo of the beautiful Elliman Avenue (source: geography.org.uk)

The Good Companions is no longer with us, so here’s a photo of the beautiful Elliman Avenue (source: geography.org.uk)

Our first gig took place at a pub called the Good Companions in Slough. Rarely has a pub so spectacularly failed to live up to its billing. It was a shithole, but it was a shithole that was two minutes walk from where we lived. Having met in the car park, we walked in on mass to be greeted by the landlord. He was over 6 foot, both tall and broad, covered in tattoos with a shaved head. And I thought I was nervous before the audition.

He showed us the playing area – a corner by the front window that had had it’s table and chairs removed – and we started setting up. At the other end of the pub were a group of very big, heavily tattooed men, knocking back pints with raucous abandon. I asked the landlord if it was someone’s birthday. “No,” he replied. “Someone’s just got out after a long stretch.”

I turned back to the rest of the band and found Damian, our lead guitarist, being shouted at by Elaine, my singing partner. He’d managed to take up half the ‘performance area’ with his array of pedals and she was having none of it. I could leave, I thought. Nobody would notice and Elaine could take up the slack. At that moment one of the ‘birthday’ group walked up to me.

“Are you in the band?”

“Er.. yeah.”

“What do you do?”

“I’m the singer”

“You better be good.”

The fact I’m alive to write this shows that we weren’t too bad.

This blog is dedicated to the memory of Mark Given. Still thinking of you, big man. All facts correct at time of writing. Any errors probably due to failing memory than malicious intent.

Sat 8th June: The Floe, Al Lindsay, Lucy Sampson – Live at the Cottage, Debenham, UK

One of the best music venues in Suffolk

One of the best music venues in Suffolk

Walking through the door to the venue, my doubts intensified. This was Dove Cottage, a place imbued with the essence of parish council meetings and WI tea mornings; famous throughout the village for its dusty beams and faded chintz curtains. Why had anyone thought that this could be a music venue?

Rows of chairs filled both sides of the V-shaped room. A number of people had arrived early and there was a palpable sense of excitement. Many had brought cool bags, taking full advantage of the ability to bring your own to the gig. As the alcohol flowed, the scent of spiced savouries filled the room.

I sat with some friends and waited, hoping the gig would go OK. While we caught up, the remaining seats filled quickly until at last every one was taken. The fact that the gig was a sell out should have put me at ease, but my concern increased; this was a lot of people to disappoint.

Finally, the lights dimmed and Lucy Sampson walked to the mic. She played the intro of her opening song and as she started to sing, all my doubts evaporated. The dusty beams and chintz curtains provided perfect dampening, enabling David Booth to deliver a sound so intimate that it felt as if the artist was singing for you alone. The surroundings faded into the background so that only Lucy, her audience and her wonderful music remained.

Now, I have a confession to make. While Lucy sang, a little piece of my heart was hers. There was an honesty to her performance that can’t be faked, gently taking us by the hand and leading us through stories of heartbreak and loss. The highlight for me was her song “Trust,” which has been on constant rotation at home ever since. When the lights went up after Lucy’s far too brief set my friend turned to me. “Shit a brick,” he said, “I wasn’t expecting that. She was fantastic.” I couldn’t have agreed more.

A quick changeover was followed by a change in mood with the soulful funk tinged songs of Al Lindsay and Oliver Arditi, every song an intricate interplay between guitar and bass so skilful that if you closed your eyes you would have believed there were twice as many people on stage. Al has a singing voice many artists would die for, like Chris Rea’s but dipped in honey, and the audience was soon swallowed up inside their acoustic groove.

Expectations were at a high as The Floe took to the stage, yet from the opening chords of Sakura, the audience knew they were in for something special. Here were two people clearly in love with what they were doing, delivering perfectly crafted pop ballads in a style open enough to fill stadiums yet with an intimacy that suited the venue and audience perfectly. Never has melancholy been so uplifting. There were so many highlights from their set: Sakura, Don’t Look Down; Irreplaceable, and the giggle filled Pearshaped to name but a few. Between songs, Sarah was witty and entertaining, clearly enjoying herself as she toyed with the crowd. It is a testament to their talent that their cover of Skyfall was one of the weakest songs of the set. Eventually it had to happen, and during Sun, Moon and Stars I fell in love once more. The standing ovation they received at the end of the gig was fully deserved.

Then, sadly, it was over. The lights went on, the audience started to leave. Dove Cottage reverted to type. Yet, for a few hours, Dove Cottage had been a venue of real quality. I may have had my doubts but the people at Wet Feet Records didn’t. If future gigs are as accomplished as this one, Live at the Cottage has an assured future. I have never been so happy to be proven wrong.