Music can be a business, it can be a hobby, it can be a career, but it also always has to be a passion. This should be obvious and I only mention this to tell you something about my own reasons for doing what I do. For years now after a week of often physically hard work, I still find the drive to organise gigs (and on occasion help run full blown festivals) review CD’s, write gig guides and articles and generally turn out to support live music. Why? It’s not something I seem to have any choice over; I guess it’s who I am. Sometimes as I see the list of writing obligations stack up, as I’m informed that yet another band has cancelled a gig at a few days noticed and has to be replaced, as the sound of another deadline can be heard whooshing by, to paraphrase the late, lamented Douglas Adams, I wonder, why do I bother? It’s all, largely, unpaid, the locally writing often attracts as many slings and arrows as it does appreciation and the alternative option of a sofa, a bottle of Shiraz and few chapters of Kerouac are always very tempting. So, the answer? Nights like the last Songs of Praise show run at The Victoria. This scribbled art attack is by way of a review of the night, as seen from the inside of the set up as well as stream of thought as to why people like me do things like this rather than take the easy options. And as I say, I seem to have little control over these things, but rather than complaining that you are not satisfied with the live music options in your area, isn’t it better to make something happen that does tick all your boxes and hopefully other peoples as well.
The raison d’etre behind Songs of Praise, even before I was fortunate enough to take over the booking of it, was to show case the best of local talent as well as the best unsigned acts from around the country. It is often difficult to entice many bands from outside the area as Songs of Praise runs on a very low budget, being a Thursday, the gigs being free entry and the biggest factor is often punter apathy. Whilst acknowledging that people often have lots of other considerations on a school night, music and musicians don’t just exist on the weekends and need to be supported every day of the working calendar. However, the behind the scenes work with Green Man Music, favours such as free reviews and other unpaid promotional work coupled with the fact that the venue for Songs of Praise, The Victoria, always makes for a very supportive, enjoyable and above all professional working environment, bands are often willing to travel distance for a lesser wage packet than usual. Payment in kind, if you like.
So on to the gig. The story behind my connection with Bridie Jackson’s music is in itself a great analogy of how networking works within the music business. As I said, I write music reviews, mainly unpaid and usually for PR companies who are pushing pre-release campaigns or up coming tours. Out of the blue, and to this day I still am unaware of how they found me, an album by a band called Cuttooth arrived in my mail box. The album, Elements, was a swirling fusion of ambient electronica, fragile instrumentation, sampled street noise, atmosphere and hazy trance beats. Conventional singing was only apparent on a few songs and that singer was Bridie Jackson.
After submitting a review, I checked out the singer’s own musical creations, fell in love with the music and so contacted her regarding any review material. In short an album review took place (though I won’t give the game away and spoil the live review that follows) and some months later was asked if I could help fit any dates into a proposed tour that was being pencilled in. And here we are. Well, not quite. The power of getting your work out there and networking goes a stage further. Whilst I was trying to wok out what bands I could add to a night headlined by such a unique sound, I was listening to the local BBC Introducing show and the obvious support band wafted from the radio, and thus Salisbury’s The Gallant Tailors came on board.
It was a night that could have suffered from really low attendances, the two main bands were from out of town, it’s Thursday, it’s Swindon and in general it’s not an easy time to be hosting music, even free shows of this quality. When people can sit at home and watch Celebrity Shoe Size featuring Jeremy Spake, why would they need to put trousers on and go to a gig. Well, we know why. Due to the nature of the nights music, not to mention the fact that it would make the place look fuller, the venue was decked out with tables and chairs, but thankfully the turn out was good, though the seating still added to the overall vibe of the night.
Rumour Shed may be friends of mine but they were on the bill for all the right reasons and were the perfect opening act. Now operating as a three piece of guitar, upright bass and vocals, the loss of the drums seemed to be the right decision. Some music doesn’t need to be overly driven, sort of the theme of the night really, and with out the percussive beats the flavours of the music really stewed. Theirs is a sensuous, baroque acoustica, all breathy vocals and intricate guitar lines, warm, soft bass notes and luscious delivery. It is interesting to note that the two guys in the band have a background in riff drive indie and garage rock, thus proving that all roads lead to folk music. Forget the image of finger in the ear, Aran-sweatered, pipe smoking purists, probably called Brian singing about “lily white hands” “ pretty fair maids” or “ it was on a (fill in the blank) morning, just as the (fill in the blank) was dawning.” Tonight was the sound of folk music remaining timeless but doing so with abject modernity, and not the Mumford and The Whale sort of calculated Folk + Indie + Beard + Projected Earnestness = record sales, this was the real deal, the folk club meets the fashionable, a clash of an often derided genre and the cool, the real musical underground or what folk music did next.
The Gallant Tailors have more of the conventional band look to them; they have a drummer and everything. What is so good about their approach is that for all their arsenal of musical building blocks, drums, upright bass, two guitars and two vocals, they know how to use them sparingly to gain the desired effect. Theirs is a music that is as modern as it is ancient, as contemporary as it is retrospective and seems to follow a line that links the modern acoustic scene with the acid folk of the seventies, folk revivalists of the 60’s and a thread of traditions drifting back in time. Dual harmonies effortlessly mix with dual guitars and bass lines that Danny Thompson would happily lay claim to lock in with sparing drums to deliver a final product that is undercut with a air of wistful reflection and dark emotion but stopping short of the easy trap of wallowing in their own misery.
Follow that! Well thankfully I knew I had booked a band that were capable of topping the very high standards set from the start of the night. Bridie Jackson and The Arbour, for touring purposes at least, four ladies from the North East managed to really prove the less is more cliché to be true. Over the years that I have been promoting bands from all genres, it just goes to show that the most memorable performance was not some bombastic rock band, fashion drenched indie chancers, showy math rock guitarists or primordial grunge power house, but a performance, and indeed a night, built on atmosphere and anticipation, music that seemed to exist just enough to form shells to wrap emotion in, translucent bubbles of feeling. To underline this their first number “And We Talked” was made up of vocals, cello and bell-plates, the modern successor to the hand bell, part percussive instrument, part wallpaper scrapper and the result was spellbinding.
It was halfway through this opening salvo that worlds seem to collide in a very small way. At the back of a now full room a group of guys who can only be described as shaven-head, football yobs, to my eyes anyway, had wandered in and baffled by the unique music they were experiencing had become confused. Instead of deciding it was not for them took the only cause of action that seemed appropriate and were ridiculing the music in ever increasing volume. But as twenty pairs of eyes from the crowd fixed them with the most disapproving of looks in a way that only an British folk crowd can and realizing that they weren’t going to get any covers of Madness songs they beat a hasty retreat. Folk music 1, lager boys 0.
And the music just built from there, violin, cello, guitar, cahon, bells and a wonderful raft of vocals drove the night on with one mesmerizing offering after another. Ethereal is a word that I use too often, but this was the right show to apply it to, otherworldly is another but largely without reaching for the Thesaurus it is hard to find the right words to sum up this night and particularly, this band. The melancholic air to some of the songs seemed to be at odds with the band between songs. Chatty, charismatic, fun and more obviously in love with what they were doing. Four musicians that were totally at home with their chosen career, each other and the environment that they found themselves in, why else would a band from Newcastle spend a week touring the south of England. In this age of internet, downloads and instant access music, still knowing that there is still no substitute for the intimate live show. The music may be easily found in digital form but the feeling left by a performance such as this can only happen when the band are there in front of you.
Theirs is a brave approach to crafting her songs, taking more out of them than most writers ever put in and leaving a fractured, delicate beauty and a vocal that has room to command without ever dominating the songs. Sensuous whispers that sound like screams, soaring singing that seems to be carried through on the breeze all tumble over music built on half heard melodies, sweeping strings and half imagined tunes. What seems to take place in the band seems to be only half the story, a suggestion if you like, with the listeners own mind filling in the rest, the result a total connection, a synergy between band and audience.
It was a glorious night marred only by a loud and presumably drunken heckler in an otherwise respectful audience. I assume he was a friend or relation of the band who doesn’t get to many gigs of this type and who felt he needed some sort of validation by trying to be part of the performance, still that’s live music for you.
So back to the opening discussion. Why do I put the unpaid hours in? Part of the answer lies in the fact that in a town like Swindon I don’t think anyone else would put a show like this, I certainly haven’t seen anything like it and it makes you wonder why an, essentially, enthusiastic amateur can make this happen whilst the people who do this sort of thing for a living seem to settle along such tried and tested lines.
So why do I do this, maybe you will find the answers in the videos below.
Bridie Jackson and The Arbour – The full show