The Black Feathers – a gig review

A feather, in case you didn’t know, is a marvel of natural engineering. Incredibly light but, pound for pound, as strong as carbon fibre, allowing our avian friends to carve shapes in the air with apparently effortless grace and power.

So The Black Feathers are aptly named. This evening’s performance at the Lansdown in Bristol began with “Goodbye Tomorrow”, showcasing the immaculate harmonies of Sian and Ray, two voices perfectly paired and expertly controlled, with Ray’s sometimes feather-light, sometimes assertively resonant touch on the guitar providing backing. Like the playing, the voices, whether whisper-soft or soaring powerfully, are polished to perfection, every phrase engineered and refined.

Next came a sly, fun take on “Spirit in the Sky”, with mischief in the guitar line acknowledging the camp of the original but the beautifully constructed vocal still showing reverence to a famous old song. Yes, there’s not just musical talent on display (although the songs are so good, so well delivered that the duo could sit stock still, never speaking to the audience and it would still be a spellbinding evening) – there’s self-deprecating humour, wit and true warmth too.

Thus the tone for the evening is set, the haunting “Homesick” a combination of heart-stopping beauty and incredible precision , the ‘foot-tapping misery’ of “Down by the River” and the pared-down, truly acoustic “You will be Mine” all faultlessly delivered and interspersed with jokes, asides and a genuine gratitude to the audience.

The singing is impeccable, one runs out of superlatives for the quality of the harmonies and for the composition of the melodies around which they are woven. The lyrics are elegantly constructed, meaningful and every song is polished, every dynamic thought through and rehearsed. The performance transports the audience; a glance around the room shows eyes closed and emotion writ large on faces. Tonight’s performance could truly have graced any stage in the world. I hope one day soon that everyone sat in the upstairs room at the Lansdown will be pointing at their televisions, telling relatives: “I saw them before they were famous, it was amazing, I was this close.”

If there’s any justice, that’s exactly what will happen. Catch The Black Feathers while you can, and pick up “Soaked to the Bone” and amaze your next dinner guests.

An open letter to the people who keep posting open letters to Sinéad O’Connor, Miley Cyrus and their ilk*.

Dear fans of Miley, Sinéad and other oft-telephotoed purveyors of fleeting distraction: I’m sure that the ladies in question appreciate your concern and support for their respective plights.

Far be it from me to detract from the global significance of a young woman in the music business doing something mildly provocative and another, slightly older and less famous woman publicly offering an opinion. It’s not as if anything more important has been happening. I mean, there’s war and poverty and injustice and the like but they’re so boooring… but there’s not been anything more noteworthy happening in the knockabout, laugh a minute world of celebrity. Unless you’re in North Korea, of course, where pop sensation Hyon Song-wol has been executed by firing squad. Oh, and she’s the ex-girlfriend of the country’s leader, Kim Jong-un. But, you know, keep watching a video of a naked former child star on a demolition ball.

Edward Murrow misquoted Marx in describing television as “the opiate of the masses”. He’s be hard to come up with a metaphor for popular culture tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow –  “It is the chloroform soaked rag, smart blow to the back of the head, three years of brainwashing and overdose of Ketamine of the masses.”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that a cabal of evil, middle-aged white guys are secretly conspiring against you to hide the truth of the world while they rob you blind. If only they were – we’d have something to fight against. The truth is infinitely more depressing –  any opportunistic ne’er –do-well with something shiny to wave at you can distract you long enough to steal your wallet, watch and one of your kidneys before you even notice.

Yeah, yeah, it’s another self-important rant about what’s important. Where’s the harm in a little twerking controversy anyway? Well – nowhere. Depending on your precise taste in entertainment it’s either: fine, not sufficiently arousing, an offence against decency or a slightly rebellious young woman celebrating her sexuality. Nothing wrong with any of those and no reason not to devote a few minutes of your day to it.

But is it really more important than the massacre of entertainers in North Korea? More worthy of comment? Couldn’t we try to do just a little to influence our media not to pander to the lowest common denominator? Could we maybe choose to buy one serious newspaper and one less glossy magazine full of half-naked women who’ve been hand-picked, polished and electronically modified to make people feel sufficiently inadequate to buy a mask to hide behind?

There’s a line in the bible when Jesus defends his disciples for eating with dirty hands and says that “it’s not what goes into a man’s mouth that defiles him, it’s what comes out of it.” (I’ve gone a bit thought for the day here…) Not without relevance here. There’s nothing wrong with having a look, a laugh or a gasp at anything going on in the world. What you choose to focus on as your topic for discussion and what you choose to ignore – those are the things that point to what’s in your heart.

Sinéad, Miley and the rest of you: you have a rare position – public attention is yours and you could make a greater difference to so many people by taking an interest in something other than your own fame and encouraging people to look at a wider world.  Until you do, your cavorting, your spats and your open letters are “a tale/Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury/Signifying nothing.”

___

*It’s a little known fact that Miley and Sinéad adopted a baby ilk together before they fell out over twerking. It’s the accent. A similar thing happened to Bono, I hear…

I know how much you’ve been waiting…

I’ve been trying for some time to write something more coherent about the Gigswapping tour. This is more of a personal reflection than the ones that I put on the band site but if you’ve not been following our European adventures, do check out the blog on the Layers page.

Anyway, here are my reflections on the European tour. Enjoy.
Some things are too big to take in at a single attempt; try as you might to summarise, contextualise it just defeats you. It’s been the same with the Gigswapping tour. If I try to write it all down there’s too much. It just becomes a description of a sequence of events and fails to carry the feeling of the whole experience. Maybe that’s the key: experience. What I’m left with is this swirling, disparate bunch of images, impressions, feelings and memories and perhaps that’s the best thing to try and convey.For me personally the whole thing was bookended by the journeys to Cambridge: long journeys on my own and time to reflect. The first driven in nervous anticipation, excitement… the second in a state of exhaustion.  Other road users looking at this dishevelled zombie slumped behind the wheel of a ponderous camper, a great, dopey grin of fond recollection on his face.

Roo’s reaction upon setting foot on the bus and his mounting excitement was great to see. One of the countless reasons to love him is his uninhibited wearing of emotion. I’m so understated, my emotions barely showing. It’s not an affectation – I’ve always been that way, I have emotions but they don’t affect me that way, it’s all internal. Roo is fantastic; he holds a mirror up to what the rest of us feel. He bounced around the bus like an excitable six year old. He’d been planning surprises; kept Paul’s availability from me. He was a little put out at my understated reaction (in my defence, I was concentrating quite hard on not driving our Brobdingnagian transport over orphans and into trees…) but it was a perfect illustration of the difference between us – my reaction to the news was a quiet satisfaction at not having to play unplugged in Utrecht and a confidence that this was an auspicious start. I guess I’m just not one of life’s ‘whoopers’. I’d be rubbish in a talk show audience.

The families were all out to see us off and, like the gig in the Vaults a few days earlier, it made me feel curiously lonely. I didn’t care about anybody seeing me off but it made me feel acutely aware that there would be nobody missing me and no one waiting for me when I returned. I felt the same thing every time I heard the guys talking to their loved ones on the phone, sharing their excitement.

These were such brief pangs, though, and they slipped by without souring the experience.

Pulling off the motorway at a random garage a few dozen miles from Folkestone and Roo went wandering off with a plastic ‘Guitar Heroes’ instrument slung around his neck – earning a predictable ‘what the…’ glance from the attendants. By the time we’re got a few litres of diesel – or possibly Chateauneuf du Pape, judging from the prices – into the van, Roo’s managed to convince the guys in the garage that we’re in some way a band of note and has sold them a CD for a tenner – earning us sufficient fuel to get the bus to the end of the forecourt.

My first time driving through the Channel Tunnel terminal – I find it oddly disorienting. There are frequent stops – we get asked who we are and where we’re going. We tell them we’re a band and the official in the booth responds: “Clearly not a famous one, then.”

Sarky bastard.

We drive over a camera that looks at our undercarriage to make sure that we’re not carrying bombs or refugees clinging to the undercarriage. I’m abruptly reminded of the ceremony where the Pope’s wedding vegetables (perhaps not the most appropriate term) are scrutinised. Odd, if there’s one fella who has no need…

They usher us onto the back of the train and the doors close on the hundred or so empty carriages in front of us in perfect unison. It’s like a science-fiction movie and adds to the occasion. Caleb is a little twitchy about being in the tunnel so we regale him with scenarios of death and disaster to take his mind off it. It doesn’t bother him as much as we hope, so we tire of this and eventually get out some instruments and sit in the dim camper, singing acoustic Layers songs. For the first time, we really feel like a band on tour.

I’ve already written about the gig in Utrecht. I neglected to mention that Doug and Pete turned up. There’s something about old friends… Doug and Pete hadn’t seen each other in years and it was the first time all three of us had been back together since university. After a little catching up and a quick grey hair count the years just fell away. Doug had met the Layers and Pete knew Henk and all of a sudden I felt connected.

The Utrecht gig was hard work. We had real trouble with the PA. There were lights to sort out, furniture to move. I loved being able to help; to be able to make a contribution. Henk and his team in Utrecht had done so much; that I was actually valuable, needed made me feel like less of a leech.

I guess the difficulties were a worry to some of the others there but I felt good, like I was becoming a part of a community. It’s important to be able to rely on each other, I think, it makes us closer.

The drive to Vienna was so very long. There was a point, debating where and when we should stop, that we could have fallen out. We had different opinions. I wanted to push on, get as much driving out of the way as possible. Roo wanted to find a place to stop in time to make a night of it. We called campsites, got told that we couldn’t check in late. It was the end of a long day on the road and we were tired and couldn’t agree. In the end we had no choice; we were too far from anywhere where we could have stayed and made a night of it. We ended up in an intimidating truck stop next to a seedy-looking club. We ended up there on good terms, no sniping or moaning, just laughing about the place we were in. Sometimes the little realisations are the most important. We weathered a tough day and came out laughing, relying on each others’ good humour and patience. It was a test and we came through with flying colours.

As we pulled into Vienna the skies brightened and our spirits soared. After the cold, drizzly, grim start in a lorry park the tour was back on track. The campsite was clean and well-kept and we all relaxed. Food and cups of tea and a few little camping type jobs and all was well with the world as we drove our behemoth to the venue. We liked Bach immediately, perhaps reminding us of the Vaults. A proper stage, room to move around, a well set-up sound system and a friendly, engaging owner – all of these things helped to set us at ease. Then the other guys started turning up and we felt as if we were greeting old friends.

The two nights in Vienna were magical. There were people dancing to our music – this was a first. I chatted to some great people; ended up discussing poetry, religion, the physics of free will, the social importance of music. We all started to join in with each others’ acts: I got to sing with Duke, Roo played drums with Paul. We were growing together. The evenings developed into more of a free-for-all and there was poetry, dancing, open mic spots.

That’s been one of the most profound things about this whole experience for me. I feel like we’ve really built something, the foundation for a group of musicians that can do something wonderful. We were bringing music back to what it should be about: something created and celebrated together by friends, shared with strangers. Instead of being a product it was the collective act of a community. By the end of the evening we were sitting round as Henk played guitar, singing three or four or seven part harmonies. I could have done that all night.

The other revelation of that place was that we really could do it. We could rock out, express ourselves; get a crowd of strangers on their feet. We moved, we grooved, we strutted like rock stars. We came off the stage as excited as we’ve ever been, grinning like idiots. Sat here now, tapping at the keyboard, I’m grinning like one again.

The next day, the smiles were wiped right off our faces. Roo was hurt. It wasn’t going away.

I had to do a hard thing. I had to tell Roo that we didn’t want him if he couldn’t drum; that he was going to be a pain in the arse on the bus if he was hurting and frustrated. We didn’t want him to get worse and we didn’t want him sitting in a club in pain while someone else played his kit. To compound the bitter irony, this was Rupert’s birthday. He’s a big, brave man. Although his heart was breaking, he made the right decision and did what was best for everyone, although it hurt him the most. He went home. I guess that to anyone reading it seems a bit trivial; some guys went on a little tour for ten days, pretending to be rock stars, it was a bit of a holiday; one hurt himself and had to come home. Boo-hoo. It’s hard to explain just what it was like. Roo is so much at the centre of what we do. We rely on him so often to give us drive and energy when the rest of us are just too laid-back or reserved to make things take off. We were just in the middle of becoming something; the gig in Bach had been such a turning point. It really felt like a disaster.

If there was a silver lining, it was that we got to know Duke so well. Yes, he filled in and did a great job of it but that’s not the abiding thing that we’ve taken from it. The big thing was that in such a short time someone could go from stranger to friend and it’s been humbling and flattering to read what Duke’s written about us in his blog.

And so to Pardubice. The drive through the Czech Republic had a strange air: a mixture of excitement and regret. There was an edge to the humour, there were times that it almost felt like we were trying too hard, compensating for the loss of Roo. Then we were diverted off the highway and into an increasingly remote set of villages joined by ever more dilapidated roads. The bus shook and juddered and our jokes about being butchered and eaten by Czech hillbillies (someone had seen a movie dealing with the idea) got slightly ragged.

And then Pardubice.

Again, I’ve written about a lot of this already. It was a wonderful night. We learned some Czech humour, we met some great, friendly people and we put on another good show. We were on TV. We gave out CDs and all of a sudden the stage had arms reaching onto it. We felt like stars again. I got to sign autographs and kiss pretty girls. It was ending on a perfect high note.

We all got up on stage, the three-gig stalwarts, and took a bow. The Layers (including Duke), Henk, Tommy, Reuben and Viktor.

There was a tour bus to be loaded. We didn’t want to go, didn’t want to say goodbye, we didn’t want this to end. As I drove through Prague and on towards Germany, Duke and Paul trying to catch some well-deserved sleep, I chatted to Caleb about what we’d done. It was clear that it had affected all of us deeply. Caleb, too, kept finding himself smiling spontaneously. We joked about the fact that we’d be bringing the tour up in conversation every five minutes and boring everybody senseless back home.

Just as important as the way that we felt was how much we’d really bonded. We’d really had to rely on each other. To me, Caleb, Paul and Roo have come to feel like brothers.

We’ve truly shared highs and lows; comedy and tragedy. We’ve come back as a better band than when we left. Our horizons have been broadened. We’ve had more fun than we could believe, met some wonderful people that we hope we will never lose touch with and we feel as if we’ve started something that could become a very big part of our lives. Today Europe, tomorrow…

To anyone reading; I commend CouchSurfing (www.couchsurfing.com) to you without reservation. Do check out the MySpace sites of our new friends. And if you ever get the chance to tour with a band, grab it with both hands.

The minstrel in the gallery.

Scattered, apathetic applause fades to a background engine-note of exchanged banalities, punctuated with chokes of harsh laughter. The minstrel straightens up from the bar, rolls weary shoulders, drains his beer and signals the barman for another before picking his way through to the stage.
Kneeling to flick the clasps on a guitar case, the minstrel smells lemon oil, wood, an almost imperceptible spectre of old cigarette smoke and beer, the hours of care spent on the instrument almost enough to drown out the olfactory memory of a hundred stages, basement bars, dim pubs, church-hall parties.
The weight of the guitar around the neck is a burden familiar enough to bring comfort, like a calloused thumb rubbing across an old scar and as the minstrel looks up, out from the stage, his toughened fingertips return to the strings as if reunited parts of a whole.
Dimly lit in the reflection from the stage, the glow of mobile telephone screens and the dull luminescence of the exit signs, the audience are a shifting gallery of grotesques, masks rough-hewn from decaying wood, clumsily-fashioned golem-people; hollow things of dirt and clay, animated only by the words writ into their heads by faceless masters. An uneasy balance exists: the minstrel knows that without them he would leave empty-handed, his job is to entertain, stimulate, arouse and then placate them. He must achieve rapport with them, reach into their hearts and move them. On the other side of the coin, he knows that not one of them will give him their full attention for longer than a few seconds unless he panders to them, plays their requests and gives them cause to sing along; raucous and atonal. Should he chance his own songs, cut raw from the stuff of his soul and painstakingly finished over hours of solitary breaking and recasting, he will be met with vacant disinterest, even hostility. He must tread a careful path between their half-formed wishes for the trite, the universally popular or half-recognised melodies that will show them a glimpse of the wider beauty of the songs that they habitually ignore.
Muscle memory triggers the fingers into an automatic pattern across the frets, warming up, alerting the audience that things are about to start. He steps up to the microphone and utters a single syllable to check that he will be heard.
The chatter drops in volume a little, the sound and movement a momentary distraction. Fingers form a chord and he picks a soft, plaintive sequence of notes.
A hoarse voice cries out from a dark corner: ‘Play some Oasis!’
The minstrel continues to pick, and with a weary smile,  begins to sing.