Monday, 16 March 2009

Gig 11 Barber and Taylor. 7th March 2009
The Open House
Springfield Road
Brighton BN1 6BZ

Attendance: 50
Price: £5
My Location: Back row

Record Recommendation: Sugar Mice: Marillion.

Picture the scene: it’s 4 o’clock on Friday in a bar. The lounge feels big because it’s empty except for the barman polishing glasses, a fellow who’s been drinking all day because that’s what he does, two other guys- not together but both smartly dressed- straight out of the office, one of whom drinks his beer a bit too quickly, and a 3 piece band setting up in the corner. The attention of one of the office workers is on his paper. The other two strangers at the bar are immersed in their thoughts, gazing out the window, occasionally casting an inquisitive glance at the band. The musicians quietly and methodically go about the business of assembling the kit, and are soon ready to sound check.

At the first harmonica notes, the thought-full suit is captured. Guitar and the click of cross-sticks on the snare have the barman and drunk listening. Vocals singing lyrics about better days and fading dreams have the reader pushing the news aside and turn his attention to the group. The song was The River, not Sugar Mice, and the band was The Woodcut Process, not Marillion, but the picture could have been painted from the words of the magnificent Sugar Mice.

The song is a wonderful harmony of flawless vocals and lyrics that tell a tale of regret, relationship breakdown, and something people these days seem to spend a lot of their time avoiding- taking responsibility! The build up of the song mirrors the anger and frustration felt by the protagonist at his weakness and inability to hold his family together. Although not shirking responsibility, the singer says “we’re just sugar mice in the rain”. It is a line that invokes a realisation that we are all potential victims of human frailty.

When he retired from Marillion, Fish left a tough act to follow- it’s an understatement to say that was an understatement (I think that makes sense). In my humble opinion, they’ve never quite hit the same vein since Steve Hogarth took over as front man, talented though he is. More likely is that they’ve become a different band that I don’t like as much as the original- it happens in rock ‘n’ roll. However, it’s up to him to input his ideas, and forge the best way forward for the band. As he was doing so, Hogarth must have spotted the genius that lifts Sugar Mice above a back catalogue of material that would have most signers salivating over. On the live Piston Broke album, it is the only Fish era song that he sings. And boy does he sing it; he doesn’t hold back. I’m sure that when Fish heard this version he rested easy, knowing his tune was in safe hands.

Sugar Mice is a song I’d love to play, but I don’t know if it’s of the style the Woodcuts could ever emulate- that’s not to say that behind closed doors we wouldn’t give it a blast. It’s not a song that can be reeled out. Unless we were confident that we were giving it the respect it deserves, as Hogarth does, we would leave it in the rehearsal room. The thing is, some tunes should just be left alone.

Returning to our opening scene, and the parade of lonely drinkers: it could have been any of the patrons of the bar Sugar Mice was sung about. Indeed, the band setting up were not immune to the condition that make us all potential “sugar mice in the rain” either.

Well, how was Brighton? It was my first visit to that seaside town, and like most other visitors, found it a thoroughly pleasant experience. My dinner was a delicious homemade affair bought from the Kemp Town Deli, that made the sausage roll I bought pre packed tasteless, even though it was a premium brand!

On my way to the Open House, I stopped for a beer at a hostelry that was for ‘ladies only’. I realised this too late as I made myself comfortable at the bar, and as I’m British, I didn’t want to make a scene by leaving. However, I must say I didn’t get the cold shoulder or get ignored; more than I can say for a lot of other pubs I’ve frequented. The bar also sold St Peter’s Ale- enough said.

After making light work of the ale- St Peter’s always seems to evaporate before my eyes- and receiving a call from Biggs to say he is now resident again in the UK, I made my way to the Open House. The pub impressed me- it’s not small, and its high ceiling and low lighting made it feel very spacious. The house music in the main bar was a bit too loud for my elderly ears. I found refuge in the rear alcove where I admired the contemporary artwork, which included a collection of radiators arranged in a collage, before going upstairs for the entertainment.

A very friendly money collector, and Kevin Barber, laying out tea light candles, putting out the chairs, and sorting the air conditioning greeted me! That’s what life is like in the music industry. Barber and Taylor had support that evening in the shape of Richard and Ron, playing tea chest bass, and guitar and mandolin respectively. This was the first time I’d heard the tea chest bass live, and thought it was a super instrument. What really surprised me were the range of notes that can be produced, and the deep bass tones. When I had a practise with Wilson, the Woodcut Process bass player a couple of days later, I was encouraging him to purchase such an instrument; he hasn’t bowed to my pressure yet, but it’s only been 1 week!

Ron and Richard opened with a competent version of Tom Paxton’s The Last Thing on My Mind, followed by Willie Nelson’s Funny How Time Slips Away, which they made look simple. Richard showed off his fine vocal range, as well as a bit of verve on The Blues ain’t nothing but a Good Man Feeling Bad. For the second time in a month, Lol George’s Willin’ was played. It’s a great song so it is no surprise when I hear it being covered- I’ve seen Dave Sharpe, as well as Phil Beer perform it. Ron and Richard’s version was very different from both, but it was a great interpretation, and that tea chest added a fine touch of character to an already personality-filled tune.

My favourite Richard and Ron song was Sam Cooke’s A Change is Gonna Come. Like Willin’ it is a wonderful song, but unlike Willin’ I had never heard it live before. Perhaps bands think other bands play it, and therefore avoid A Change is Gonna Come. But other bands don’t play a song that I think should be heard more. A Jimmy Roger’s Yodelling song was next, followed, also by a song I’d last heard performed by Phil Beer, JJ Cale’s Cocaine. They played it in a more orthodox method to Beer, to finish off what was a fine support act.

Kevin Barber acknowledged Richard and Ron’s performance at the start of the main act by saying, “we’ll really have to raise our game to follow that one”, before opening with Going Over Jordan. The powerful guitar gave extra dimension to the traditional Gospel song, which made it sound great. The driving guitar was followed by melodic notes for Taylor’s Sweet Marie, which has the ‘Acoustic Americana’ feel they describe the genre of their music as. The next couple of tunes, including Pennies from Heaven, demonstrated the guitar driven sound that defines their songs. The murder ballad Dearest Jane was announced; with the bad news that this would be the only murder song to be played that evening. A shame, I thought- there’s nothing like a good murder ballad to cheer you up. The lack of songs of this type was made up by the quality of Dearest Jane. It was a toe-tapping, mandolin bashing, vocal chord stretching, darkly cheerful song about revenge.

Barber and Taylor appeared to be of a very different nature. Where as Barber is gregarious, Taylor seemed more thoughtful and taciturn. However, their opposing characters lead to some pretty good in-between-songs banter that the audience appreciated. No more so than before Victim of Desire when Taylor announced we were going to be hit with the double whammy of harmonica and banjo! Of course the instruments were played to perfection.

I enjoyed Working on the Railway, a song about prejudice, before being treated by Broken Flower, an emotionally sung Spanish lyric-ed number. Before the break we were treated to a medley with excellent musicianship of Folsom Prison, and Mystery Train. On my most recent visit to Folsom- my brother lives there (in the town, not the prison)- I decided to visit the prison museum, which is within the perimeter, but not the walls of the prison estate, to get a feel for the establishment immortalised by Cash. Even though it’s no longer maximum security, and doesn’t hold death-row inmates- they are in the nearby California State Prison, it is still an imposing structure, surrounded by high walls built by earlier inmates. In the tranquillity of the
garden in which the museum stands there is still an oppressive atmosphere. The exhibitions of weapons made by prisoners to use on each other hold a ghoulish grip on the visitor. As the curator, who used to be a warden, said when I asked why weight training inside had been banned, she said in an unforgiving tone “the place is full of bad men, and they don’t change”. I cannot comment on whether it’s an opinion endorsed by the American penal system.

What was I on about? Oh yes, it was interval time, and I had a chat with the ‘money collector’ about the quality of the evening’s songs, the full house, and the lack of murder ballads- we didn’t dwell on that topic ‘cause we’d both thought the first set was great fun. As I was in ‘geek mode’ though I did recommend her listen to Country Death Song by the Violent Femmes. It’s a cheerful little number about someone who chucks his daughter down a well. If they don’t already, I think that the tune would be perfect for Barber and Taylor to cover, as it is acoustic Americano bluegrass.

The second set started with a new self written blues song, so new in fact that Barber forgot the words! This was followed by another new track of theirs A Dangerous Game, about two brothers in the English Civil War. It was a tense song that explored the relationships within a family where conflicting ideology drives them apart. Three cover versions were next, starting with Guthrie’s Vigilante Man. I respect the band for putting their own slant this classic; it was a little up beat for me though. A mellow, with harmony, ballad version, of Ring of Fire was next. The song was sung with tones of regret- I do approve of this sort of well-produced despondency. A blues interpretation of Heard it Through the Grapevine with fine mandolin and strong guitar throughout impressed. I would not have been surprised if Barber and Taylor had gone on to play the Creedence Clearwater Revival’s 13 minute version of the song; personally I wouldn’t have minded!

A change of theme followed. This time it was about medieval sex desires with the Love of Daisy. The song is an intriguing number set against the historical background of the politics of knights and nobles. Barber and Taylor then unleashed Old Walking Blues, and Walking The Dog, before playing Jackson Browne’s The Barricades of Heaven. The song featured some quite outstanding guitar as well as strong vocals. For the encore, a really distinctive version of Hank William’s I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry was performed. What a way to round off the evening!

The whole Brighton experience was a cracking one, with the band distinguishing themselves with their performance. Go and see Barber and Taylor, they are appearing, and rightly so, at numerous festivals around the area. Check their website for details.

As I left the Open House, I searched for a flyer to guide me to the next destination on this web of related folk clubs. All of my looking was, once again in vain, and I had to go home flyerless. It’s a good thing I’ve got my Around Kent Folk mag to direct me. On Thursday 19th March, I’ll be visiting the Orpington Folk Club to see Dean Taiuio.

I’m looking forward to seeing Dean, you, and some flyers there. Mark.