Sunday, 28 February 2016

Of Gigs And Overnighting Airports

It’s the end of a very long couple of days and I am sitting in Café Balzar at Stansted Airport.  I hadn't intended being here, at least not today and my system is in shock.  Having not eaten properly for a couple of days, (damn the Mini-Egg season) I thought that, since I’m here, I should find some real food.  Café Balzar had some tempting vegetarian offerings on the menu board outside - or what passes for an outside at an airport.  However, when the entire edifice is under a dome just like the ones you see in all those cities depicted in miserable science fiction futures it is hard to know what “outside" means.  Unfortunately at 11.30pm there is not such a tempting menu inside.  I thought the goat’s cheese, chick peas and vegetables on a flat bread base sounded respectable, so that’s what I ordered.  I wasn’t wearing my glasses and I really should know to wear my spectacles when perusing menus.  My plate is now empty except for the pile of sliced red chillies that were cunningly hidden at the end of the list of ingredients and under everything else on the flatbread pizza - and my mouth is on fire. 

 I am unenthusiastic about spending another night in an airport waiting for the following day when I can travel.  It was only a few weeks ago I did the same thing at Gatwick.  I’m off to see P tomorrow.  We have been apart for nearly two months and that is too long between visits and, quite frankly, too long between hugs, kisses, shared food, films, music and deep conversation.  I need my batteries recharged.  That doesn’t mean I had to come here tonight and sit up not sleeping because I am so excited.  I shall try to sleep at some point, but if I do grab a few winks they will undoubtedly be fitful ones.  I’d have preferred another night on the boat.  The soothing movement and sound of the water, the occasional call of the pheasant roosting in the willow across the river, late night discussions among moorhens and the solid fuel stove at the bow end throwing out the therms and keeping me warm and comfortable in my bunk adjacent to the engine room.  

My journeys to Switzerland, France and recently, Iceland and the USA are reliant on a network of friends who kindly allow me to park my van in their driveways.  Such is the price of living in The-Back-Of-Beyond.  I am fortunate to have friends who live in towns with railway stations.  They may not feel quite as fortunate in having a needy friend with a dirty van.  A couple of weeks ago at a gig I floated the question of parking on the keyboard player’s drive.  I do this when he doesn't have visitors and if I travel during the period from December to April when I can fly from Stansted to Geneva (my spellchecker keeps rewriting “Stansted" as “Stagnated” which, in my present state, is both irritating and mildly amusing).  He lives in a town on the Cross Country train line between Birmingham and Stansted Airport and it is by far the cheapest option.  

Unfortunately, the best laid plans are subject to railway timetables and replacement bus services.  I had planned to go tomorrow, but that’s a Sunday, and Sunday - as everyone knows - is the day the railway business inflicts special misery on the travelling public.  Over the past few years I have discovered that Cross Country Trains specialise in cancelling their one train an hour with little notice, so it is imperative to time the journey to account for this possibility by factoring in an extra hour.  It is no good arriving at the airport after the flight has flown.  One might have hoped that an infrequent train service to an airport, specially London’s “third” airport would be offered some form of protection by the services that connect it to its feeder constituency, but that is not the case.  Neither do they run trains in the evening when flights are still coming in or on Sunday mornings when flights (like mine) are flying out.  What is the point of an airport service that doesn’t serve?  Consequently, after an action-packed day I returned to the boat to pack and finally get round to working out my travel plans to meet my flight (I said it had been a busy couple of days).  I could not really come up with a workable combination of trains and friends’ driveways.  The only option was to take up the keyboard player’s offer , but go tonight instead and sit it out eating expensive, mouth-searing Tunisian pizza.  With an hour to go I set off into the night at speed, breaking all my own rules and the law by phoning the keyboard player’s wife to check that it was okay to turn up twelve hours early.  I suppose I am glad the airport stays open all night, unlike King’s Cross Station … but that’s another story.

Let me tell you about my busy couple of days.  I still have not resolved the battery and inverter issues on the boat, but they have had to take a bit of a supporting worry to getting some songs sorted for Saturday’s half-hour slot at Norwich Arts Centre.  NAC is probably one of my favourite places to be entertained, even though I really do not like the main auditorium in the converted church.  What makes it special for me is the staff and (unusually for me) the bar.  The bar is one of those rooms where I have frequently gone to meet friends and even the room itself feels friendly.  Every time I have gone to see something happen at the centre the staff have without fail been helpful, courteous and, on occasion, downright considerate.  Today was no exception and although I have been to events many times where friends have played, today was my first time there as a solo performer.  I was booked to be one of four acts for a monthly session known as Play The Music - or possibly Play The Acoustic Stage, I get confused - in the bar I was pleased to note.  My fellow performers for today were to be Chris Pidgeon (a solo singer/songwriter with a row of pedals including a looper), Andy Kirkham (singer/songwriter and guitarist very extraordinary) and Hot Raisin (a female guitar duo singer/songwriter act).  I was on third.  The moment I walked through the door with guitar and My-Special-Stool in one hand whilst hauling my footdrums with the other I was approached by someone who wanted to show me where I could stow my kit safely and securely until I was required to set it up.  I was asked if I needed to be shown where to go and if I knew where “the facilities” were.  If only some schools could rehearse similar courtesies.  I lost count long ago of the number of times I have driven for two or three hours to arrive and set up for whatever workshop has been booked to be greeted on arrival by a harassed, but otherwise armour-plated, receptionist/secretary and not even asked if I had had a good journey, let alone offered a glass of water.  On one occasion I took five rather unanticipated hours to get through what appeared to be roadworks extending for the majority of the ninety-mile journey to a school in Derby and all they could manage was to demand that I set up as quickly as possible because the children were waiting.  Of course no one was available to help unload about forty drums so the setting up took even longer because of the number of trips I had to make and being unable to get my vehicle anywhere near where I was working.  I was embarrassed enough to be late without needing to be treated like a naughty Year One pupil.  No, in this regard Norwich Arts Centre is exemplary.  It was no trouble to get someone with the key to open up the room two or three times when I needed access.  It was always carefully locked afterwards too.  Small things maybe, but to me they seem important enough to make a difference.  I was delighted to be sitting in the bar waiting for the organisers to show up when I heard something familiar on the sound system.  “Is this Camille?” I asked the woman behind the bar.  She smiled that someone knew and appreciated her choice and we talked about this wonderful French artist for a while.  I had the great privilege of seeing Camille perform with her band when she was touring the (at the time) newish album, “Ilo veyou”, a couple of years ago.  This was in one of my other favourite arts centres, Château Rouge, a walk into town from P’s apartment.  Bar Woman did not know this later album.  She was playing “Le Fil” which, to my mind, is a testament to Camille’s incredible creativity in that she created an album full of innovation with all the songs linked by The Thread - a drone that sounds throughout the album.  If you don’t know it, you must seek it out immediately.

Sean took some photographs with my phone
The organiser of the Play The Acoustic Stage gig had promised an attentive audience, my favourite kind.  I was rather dismayed that the audience was not as attentive as I had hoped during the first two sets.  There were little outbreaks of conversation around the room and sometimes the performers were trying to outloud them.  I don’t find that works well for me.  I am far too thin-skinned.  When my turn came I had to speak over some chat as I made some fatuous opening remarks, but I chose to sing “Cruiser” as my first song.  I love to watch an audience during songs like this.  I am not aware of another song that tackles this subject in the same way.  Soon after starting there was hush.  I think people started off being curious about the drums, but as they could hear the words they really listened to the song and stuck with me for the rest of the set.  I have often wondered why I think I do this to myself.  I don’t feel I am a natural performer.  Attacks of nerves can sap my memory, my fingers and my feet and strike at any point during a set.  Today, I got to the end of my short set and realised I had actually enjoyed myself.  I might do it again somewhere, then.  After “Cruiser” I sang “Circumcision”, “Fighting For Me” and “Dear Mr Carter”.  

One of Sean's somewhat more arty shots!

Many thanks to Jason who extended the invitation to play, to Ryan who looked after the sound very efficiently, to my fellow performers and to my new friend, Sean, who treks over to Grange Farm Studios for our monthly Hangout sessions, but who came along today.  It is nice to see some friendly faces in the audience.

Sunday, 14 February 2016

Of Testing Times, Freeze-Shrunken Testicles And A Bottle Of Wine

After last night's very satisfactory ceilidh gig (for a doctor who was moving to Scotland from just outside Cambridge and whose friends, families and colleagues had mocked up a Burns' Night celebration a few weeks late, but complete with haggis arriving in grand style to us playing "Scotland The Brave" [prior to a brave attempt by said organiser to address the haggis with the traditional Burns Ode] - a last second request by the organiser who realised she had no one to pipe in the offering  [and for which our fiddle player, much as I love him, didn't know the B music, so played the A tune from memory on repeat]) I was roused from my early morning reading - an attempt to get my eyes to stay open after slumping into bed at 3am - by a cheery call, "Hello" and a knock on the boat.  I rarely have visitors, so assumed it was for someone else, until the realisation kicked in that there was no one else.  Being entirely inappropriately garbed to receive visitors, specially unknown ones, I rummaged through the tangle of clothes to locate unflattering elasticated trousers and a long-sleeved t-shirt, the nearest things to a covering that could preserve a measure of modesty and be thrown on quickly.  By the time I had stumbled to the front of the boat and unzipped the cratch cover, my visitor was striding along the river bank away from the boat.  I spilled on to the jetty and he must have heard the noise, because he turned round and came back.  At the same time I registered a bottle of something alcoholic standing on the iron table that once graced my father's patio.  I'm not a drinker, although I have attempted a few times in the past couple of years to discover the attraction, so it was obviously someone who didn't know me particularly well - unless he had planned on organising a party.  I assumed he wasn't one of the Jehovah's Witnesses who seem to find their way to the farm periodically through some supernatural homing instinct.

It turned out to be Sunken Boat Man.  He has always struck me as a perfectly affable person, but I have generally kept an unfair distance in his company before.  He seems to smile a lot, which makes the best of most people's features, but I have never filed him in the "handsome" drawer.  He has, though, grown one of those currently fashionable backwoodsman beards and this has changed  his appearance dramatically.  I know he's not reading this but, my friend ... this really suits you.  He is an interesting person.  As I mentioned before, he has been dismantling and rebuilding engines since before he could walk (allegedly) and he now works for a very large multi-national engineering conglomerate that takes him all over the country.  He was on the Welsh borders when I spoke to him on the telephone on Tuesday about his poor boat.  It seems that no one else had been in touch about this mishap.  I find it strange that, when there were people on hand who knew, it took someone who had travelled many thousands of miles during the previous twenty hours to let him know his boat had probably been under water for several days.  He also has an interesting personal background.  I would love to know more about his family.  Maybe It will happen one day.  He seems to be estranged from his family of Romany travellers.  There is a tale to be told there, I think.

Sunken Boat Man had left the wine - a cheeky little South-East Australian Cabernet Sauvignon . Shiraz . Merlot 2015 (I don't know what any of that means, or is likely to taste like, but I like the adjective, "cheeky") - in recognition of being "a star " and as a thank you for helping him raise the Titanic yesterday morning.  I really did not feel I warranted any such reward and definitely did not anticipate such generosity when I wrapped up in several layers of warm clothing against yesterday morning's bitter cold and stood around offering weak words of support whilst passing straps, ropes, various tools and bits of equipment as he was neck deep in a river that was so cold it was probably freezing his nads to the painful density of twin dwarf stars and experiencing early onset hyperthermia and frostbite.  As is usual with Sunken Boat Man, it was necessary to filter out the padding of four-letter words to be able to string the rest of the exuberant flow of language into coherent sentences.  It becomes surprisingly easy, surprisingly quickly.  One of the things I love about the English language is the richness that means that without any effort whatsoever, the words, "fuck" and "fucking" can, without adding suffixes or even prefixes, be used to mean so many things and cover all eventualities in terms of at least eight of the nine parts of speech.  If I'm honest though, I think my inability to use either word as a preposition is more down to my lack of imagination than any deficiency in the Anglo-Saxon.  Using these words as prefixes and suffixes in themselves they can be employed to communicate moods and actions across an almost limitless range of situations.  My mother used to say, when I was growing up, that people who swore did so from the frustration of possessing only a limited vocabulary.  As a fully paid-up Cockney growing up on Bankside, with a career army father who rose to the lofty rank of corporal, she must have known a thing or two about swearing.  Yet I don't remember a single occasion when I heard her succumb to the temptation.  My brothers and I undoubtedly gave her sufficient cause on many occasions, but it never happened.  I carried that legacy forward and it is only recently that I have felt able to try out, somewhat tentatively, a few words of unreceived Anglo-Saxon. I don't feel convincing and I always want to look over my shoulder to see if anyone is likely to have overheard what I just said.  There is a case to be made for not worrying about a paucity of language when so much richness is found in a single word.

 Sunken Boat Man had arrived in his van sometime after nine in the morning.  I was listening out for signs of activity, because I thought it would be neighbourly to offer some sort of moral support.  I had no intention of jumping in the river.  His van was a thing of wonder.  Much like my lock-up it was filled front to back and floor to roof with equipment and tools of his trade.  He had compressors, generators, pumps, many empty barrels of different sizes, a huge uninflated inner tube from a tractor and racks of tools, straps and winches.  He had paid attention to the smaller details too such as a camping gas stove for heating a kettle of water for a brew.  He had squeezed himself into an industrial strength onesie, over which he had zipped up a dry suit.  Over his socks he wore rubber bootees and wellingtons, which filled with water when he went into the river.

The farmer was on hand to offer the use of his teleporter along with theoretical alternatives to the main plan, which Sunken Boat Man was outlining enthusiastically.  He was going to strap empty barrels to his boat and raise it out of the river sufficiently to set a submersible pump to work, which he was certain would empty the boat faster than the river could refill it.  His manager at work had allowed him to borrow some of this gear and had told him his plan would never work.  

L-R Incredibly inventive technology, Sunken Boat Man, The Farmer, The Fireman, while Marshlander takes photographs from a distance.
The Farmer wore the secret bemused smile of a man who knew that SB Man would have to give up and ask for the teleporter eventually.  Once they got a strap under the boat the Farmer knew he could just hook up one of his bigger tractors and pull the boat out.  This Plan B was being held in reserve for when Plan A failed.  Sunken boat man spent hours in and out of the river.  He had brought matrioska box girders to make a lifting arm to which to attach barrel floats and winches.  How could he fail?  In truth he didn't dare fail.  His enthusiasm was necessary in the face of some pretty staunch scepticism.   Plan A prevailed eventually.  Plan B wasn't required.  

After a few hours hard work, the boat is above the point where water still wants to pour in and the amazing submersible pump is doing its thing.
I was rather glad.  Such enthusiasm deserves to be rewarded, specially since this enthusiasm did not involve any harm to others or the invasion of a country to which we have been selling arms and/or training its dissidents for decades.  The casualties of the operation were the huge tractor tyre that floated off down the river after it had outlived its usefulness and the back corner of the boat that ripped apart under the stress of the weight being hauled out of the water.  I'd seen it before, but it always seems amazing to me that pumping the water out of a boat allows it to rise to the surface through its built in buoyancy.  

The Titanic has been raised.
I am embarrassed that Sunken Boat Man felt it necessary to acknowledge my small part in this adventure with a bottle of wine ... with anything, really.  I only did what I hoped any neighbour would do were the situation different.  I have been on the receiving end of a lot of kindness and consideration and it is only right to pay it forward.  I don't know about the "karma" that people talk about, but I do know that if the opportunity occurs to offer someone a helping hand it is a pleasure and something of a privilege to be able to do just that.  He didn't ask for help and to be honest he could have managed without it, but somehow it just feels right to keep an eye open for people around us and try to make things a little better if we can.

The latest on this tale is that after clearing out the carburettor the outboard fired up after about ten pulls on the starting rope.  We hauled all the sodden soft furnishings out of the boat and I guess it is time for that refurbishment.  No doubt Sunken Boat Man is pleased that, if this had to happen, it took place before he had repainted and fitted the new leisure batteries and solar gizmos.

Oh, and as for testing times, my own boat has passed its safety inspection, so that won't need doing for another four years.

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Of Picking Up Again

As promised, I said I would see you in Iceland.  That was my route home from the USA.  I have wanted to see Iceland for real for many years and I am delighted I can now claim to have been, even if that only amounted to spending a total of just three hours in Reykjavik Airport.  It did mean, though, that I could explore their gift shop, one of the more interesting of the species, as well as buy a pot of Skyr (an Icelandic set yogurt) from the café, which tastes deliciously creamy but does not really enhance an iPhone when tipped over on to said appliance.  I would have liked to have bought some of their winter clothes with beautiful designs, but I think that will have to wait until I can make a proper visit specifically to the island when I can sample non-airport prices.    And who knew there was such a thing as Icelandic chocolate?  Although I was there during the hours of darkness I did not get to see an aurora borealis, although I did see one on a news report that apparently happened that night.  Having not encountered any postcards in Colorado's shops to send to P I sent him one from Reykjavik.  They consisted of views that were far more interesting than our little town in the Rockies, although I know that not too far away there were views that were equally, albeit differently, spectacular.  I hope P enjoys his postcard of Northern Lights.

Mannequins, Icelandic style. 

When the gate opened for the flight back to Gatwick I assumed we would queue and get on the aeroplane as in almost every other flight I have taken.  I forgot that when we used this same gate to travel to Denver the passengers were herded on to a bus and driven to the plane.  The Gatwick-bound 757 was in a far corner of the airfield.  That just seemed weird.

Now after twenty hours of travelling I am home.  As usual, though, while I was away I could not help worrying about my unattended boat.  I'm good at worrying.  There are the usual things that everyone worries about, security and stuff like that, but for me, I was just hoping my home would be where I left it.  I had read some articles online about severe weather, gales fierce enough to carry women's names and so on.  I had tied an extra rope from the boat to the bank before I left, but had I left enough slack in the four mooring ropes, or had I left too much?  The water authority often lets water in and out of the system.  After heavy rain the water level here invariably falls, sometimes leaving a boat sitting in the mud of the river bed.  There is never any prior warning, it just happens and we get on with it.  If my ropes are too short the boat can be left hanging.  If too long the boat can crash about in fierce winds and may break loose.  The question then is what happens when the river level rises?  If it rises too much the boat may become trapped under the staging of the jetty and forced to keel over and maybe go under.  Fortunately none of these disasters befell me - this time.  Unfortunately, it did happen to one of the smaller boats moored nearby.  The river level dropped three feet and, as it rose again, the farmer noticed one of the boats (not a live aboard) jammed under the staging.  He and two other burley men tried to free it, but it was jammed solid. As the river level rose the boat took on water and is now lying half submerged and awaiting rescue.  The mooring ropes that were attached are the only things that have stopped it disappearing completely under water.  Although very relieved it wasn't my boat I am sorry for the owner.  I sent him a message as soon as I saw it.  He was working 200 miles away and cannot get back before the weekend.  The outboard will need looking at having been submerged for who knows how many days.  Fortunately he has the skills to deal with it.  He has been taking engines to pieces and rebuilding them since he was a teenager and he installed my refurbished engine before I bought the boat ... you know, the engine I've been having so much trouble with - did I just say that out loud?

A neighbour''s cruiser left hanging by a thread (or two).

During the recent storms the farmer did keep an eye on all the boats moored to his bank.  He had to slacken the ropes on the dustcart driver's floating shed.  Mine were apparently okay, but the poor old cruiser ...

So, after a fortnight's wandering and exploring some hitherto unexplored airports I am back in The Fens.  I've had a great time visiting family and experienced incredible generosity.  Now it is time to pick up where I left off.  I tried to time my sleeping as I approached my departure date to fit more closely with the destination time.  That strategy has served me well before and seems to have been okay this time too.  I had a music workshop to run in one of my regular schools just hours after arriving back in the UK.  I thought I had timed my return to give myself a day clear before I hit the boards again, but like an idiot, I didn't account for the seven-hour time difference.  I don't feel jet -lagged and have managed to sleep at night more or less as I was before my trip.  Today is a day for domestic stuff as well as getting back into a practice routine for the Marshlander gig I have coming up at Norwich Arts Centre in a couple of weeks.  I have a ceilidh on Saturday with one of the "other" bands.  That should be straightforward enough, hopefully.  I don't even have to provide the p.a.

Tomorrow, though, I have a BSS inspection.  Every four years boat owners have to have their vessels inspected by a qualified person to make sure the services on the boat are safe.  The Boat Safety Scheme certificate is a requirement of most, if not all insurance companies.  I think I'm ready for this inspection but who knows what the inspector's eyes and meters will reveal?    I have heard that they have to find something wrong, however small.  Wish me luck.

Monday, 8 February 2016

Of Going Home

I love seeing new places.  I enjoy meeting new people.  Mostly I enjoy trying out new experiences.  I can't say that I'm a big fan of adventure.  If I were I would have enjoyed the occasions when the boat broke down much more.  So, here I am at Denver International Airport awaiting my flight to Iceland.  I don't think life gets more exotic.  I have had a lovely time with my son and his family. My gums are still bearing witness to the nine hours I spent in his dentist chair last week.  Anyone reading this may ask to check out his work.  We can go somewhere private ...

I am not a big sports fan.  Every sporting event I have attended has been unpleasant for some reason. At school it was obligatory to support a football team.  I didn't know which team to support so I chose one that was pretty close to where I was born, or so I thought at the time and bought a royal blue and white Chelsea scarf.  I wore it to school where it was promptly stolen from my desk.  My friend, "Mouse" declared I couldn't be a Chelsea fan if I had never seen them play.  On the coldest day of the latter half of the twentieth century (at least that's what it felt like like) I was standing in the Shed at Stamford Bridge watching Chelsea play Wolves.  Apart from the cold, the only thing I can remember about the game is the brilliance of the colors - the blue and orange of the teams contracted against the green of the field. I survived the sub-zero temperatures just about, but I never felt the need to go to another game.  The Chelsea loyalty faded away, as had my scarf.  

The next football game I attended was not a choice.  I was attending an interesting music education conference in the NW when my boss and his deputy decided the entire Norfolk team - all three of us - were going into Manchester to support Norwich as they beat Manchester City.  I had no choice because they frog-marched me out of the conference centre and into the car.  I was rendered against my will.  Again I have no memory of the game, but I do remember that I was the only one of the party who was stopped and searched at the turnstile, while my boss and his right hand man stood and laughed.  

The next big game I attended was at Yankee Stadium in New York to watch what I assumed was supposed to be a night of baseball.  I'm sure it would have been more interesting had I understood what was going on, but I was still fuming from the indignity of being searched (again) and of having some of the young French people we were accompanying on the trip prevented from getting through security because they had ... cameras!  Dangerous things, cameras.  Paranoia is rarely attractive, specially in others.  As to the game itself it is not like rounders, which is actually a lot more fun.  It seemed to be random succession of long tedious and ridiculously overblown rants by someone with a microphone, huge gurning faces on a massive display screen, appallingly unhealthy and very aromatic food with the majority of the action on the field involving men in baseball outfits bimbling about walking on and off the field, with only the very occasional throw, catch or attempt to hit the ball with a baseball bat to try and justify the crucifying entry fee.  It was even more tedious than cricket.

It was, therefore, with some trepidation that I approached yesterday's Super Bowl. The local team, the Denver Broncos, were playing the Carolina Panthers ( I think I've got that right). The Panthers were the favorites to win, but the Broncos were the favorites in the house and in the neighborhood.  We were to be part of the several millions of people to to out spectating from the comforts of our own (warm) homes.  Outside the house, the snow that fell before Christmas was still piled high. My daughter-in-law had prepared lots of delicious food and informed me that more food was consumed on Super Bowl Sunday than on any other day in the United States, except for Thanksgiving.  My son provided explanations of the various rituals and moves.  I asked why it was called, "football" when the game clearly resembled more a game of British Bulldog among grown men.  There was indeed ritual, there was also pagentry.  There was even Coldplay, Beyoncé and Bruno Mars (which moved me on to safer territory).    I rather like this photograph I saw on Facebook even if it is a little unfair  ...

I surprised myself by watching the game all the way through, although it may be a once in a lifetime event.  Despite the rule that clearly states that any team I pretend to prefer has to lose, the Denver  Broncos won.  Apparently there were fireworks going off all over Denver last night that were the rival of any Fourth of July celebration.  Sitting in the airport today it seems that every other person is wearing Denver Broncos attire.  This kind, if slightly bemused man allowed me to take a photograph of him wearing his hat as we were boarding the plane.  Apparently season tickets can cost fans about $5,000 a year ...

I am going to try and sleep on this flight because, even though it leaves at 4:15pm it will arrive in Reykjavik at about 5.45 am.

See you in Iceland.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Of Being The Guy On The Desk

Have you ever encountered an aggressive and grumpy sound engineer?  I've met a few and have often thought their behaviour unnecessary.  I believe I have discovered why some sound engineers resort to grump and rudeness.

Recently some dear friends were booked to play for an event organised to raise some funds for an organic gardening project. There were several bands and soloists as well as some circus performer friends booked for a most-of-the-day event at a secret location. A week or so before the gig the organisers realised they were one p.a. short of a gig.  Whoops! My mate from my own band put out a Facebook S.O.S. so I thought "what the hell". It seemed like a worthy project so I volunteered to provide the rig and look after the sound at the gig in exchange for good, organic, free food.  The workload would amount to about thirteen hours' work for a project with which I had no particular connection or affiliation. I have a small, but rather nice system and I generally only use it for my own projects - although there are plenty of those. Flying the desk while performing is a juggling act and I always feel like I haven't done justice to the sound, so I was looking forward to an opportunity to use my rig without having to panic about all the stuff I usually fret about when I'm performing. I could just focus on getting the best sound for the audience and for the performers. The only downside I could see was that I was not so much looking forward to being in this particular venue. In the past, when I've played there, I have found it presents some acoustic challenges. 

The requirements of each act were unknown.  I only knew that half of my friend's band plus a depping drummer were playing and would require two vocal mics along with d.i. boxes for bass and keys.  I thought there would be several acoustic acts ranging from soloists to four or five piece bands.  I didn't really know what instruments would need mic'ing up.  I decided minimal would be best - vocal mics along with and d.i. boxes for guitars and keyboards - and for bazouki, mandolin, mandola, accordion and loop station as well as it happened.

I was rather pleased to be told by some of the performers that I was giving them some of the best sound they had ever had and one man in the audience came to ask for my details because his band often needs a dep sound man and he liked what I was doing.

As it happened I knew a quite a few of the people who turned up. There was more than a smattering of dreads and ethnic threads. Lots of home-schooled kids, lots of delicious food mostly created from beautiful locally-grown organic produce. In my innocence I thought that such an audience would be discerning enough to be interested in the creative efforts of the performers and that together we could make a joyful day.

The reality was that it was like one of many awful pub gigs I've been to where people seem to go to ignore the musicians, hold loud conversations and send deputations demanding the music be turned down. The audience also reminded me of the very worst of parent audiences I have experienced at children's performances here in the UK as well as in France.  To be honest I don't like overly-loud live music (and I have had to walk out of some painful gigs when my ears have had enough (Public Image in Norwich a few weeks ago, anyone?), but I firmly believe the music does need to be clear and audible to those who have paid to come to an advertised music gig. 

In any room there are acoustic variables that affect the perception of level and, especially with a basic system, there are often  compromises that have to be made. Getting the levels right for each band took time, especially given my relative inexperience in this work, but I did what I could to keep the performers happy.  I was rather shocked, though, to be on the receiving end of demands from members of this "right-on" group to turn the sound down.  The musicians were disturbing their conversations.  From where I was sitting i could hear the conversations perfectly well.  This audience had talked all the way through the first performer, a somewhat delicate performance by a female singer/songwriter.  She had a very good voice and wrote some interesting, slightly quirky, songs - at least I thought the substantially pastoral subject matter of the songs would have interested this audience, but no, the audience wouldn't know because they didn't hear it.  This woman, like the rest of us, was giving up her afternoon for free and I thought the audience was very discourteous not to give her some attention.  I gave her as much sound as I could, but it was difficult finding a satisfactory e.q. setting for her unusual guitar, so I gave her the best I could.  

One of the bands was an electric band with a full drum kit.  The drummer played acoustically.  To have full control over the drums I would have needed to close-mic his kit, but I had neither the microphones nor the time to oblige.  After the first number I told him not to hold back too much because the sound needed to carry to the back of the long, narrow room.  That meant that everything else in that set needed to be balanced against the drums, with the vocals being to the fore.  These songs had messages and it was important they were heard.  "I've been asked to ask you to turn it down," said a man from across the room.  To his credit he did look slightly uneasy about it.  I looked over and saw several ladies in earnest conversation near one of the front of house speakers.  I wondered why they needed to be in the same room as the music since there were other rooms and spaces in this village hall in which less musical types could be free to congregate.  And why sit under one of the main p.a. speakers?  Puzzling.  I brought the faders down to show willing and immediately started pushing them up a little at a time to avoid the sound being completely compromised.  

Hush!  Sound engineer at work.

I came to realise that many demands to turn the music down appeared when the bands played an uptempo number. Strangely, I do not have a tempo fader on my mixer. If, when at a gig, I find the music too loud I use ear plugs or, as I mentioned above, I leave the immediate area.   Had I turned down the level for a jolly song I would have had to turn it up again for a more contemplative one thus completely ruining the dynamic contrasts in the band's set.

I consider myself a reasonably patient and passive person. I can probably count the number of times during my life I have been moved to contemplate violence on the fingers of one foot. This afternoon and evening I learned that it was possible to contemplate violence many times in a short space of time and my tongue is raw from where I was biting it to try and stop myself saying something I knew I would later regret.  

So what I learned about myself is that am not cut out to be a sound engineer and it has nothing to do with my ability to use a mixing desk. What I learned about other sound engineers is why many of them seem to be unapproachable.  There isn't time to deal with the demands of individual members of the audience.  It may be quite a different matter when the client approaches and asks for the levels to be reduced.  In this case she only came over after a deputation from others.  Who knew there were so many experts in the world?  Why book an amplified electric band and a p.a. system if that is not what you want?

I was very pleased to have an opportunity to test my sound engineering chops and I feel I pretty much passed the test.  I don't think I shall be volunteering for another event any time soon though.  At least with a paid gig there is a more obvious line of command.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Of Huskies And Scary Car Trips

I'm currently in Colorado visiting family. As an outing they had made plans for us to have have afternoon with some dogs up in the Rockies - Alaskan Huskies - we were going dog-sledding. Of course it was something I have never before experienced so I was curious. I also approached the activity with some trepidation because wasn't that a form of exploitation?

The journey up into The Rockies took a couple of hours. Most of the journey was straightforward, but we knew there were weather warnings in place for later. The weather started rather sooner than later. As we approached the ranch where the activity was to happen we found roads like this. 

The ski run some considered a road.
We had already been up and down steep mountain roads. They weren't the hairpin bend type I was used to in the Alps, but they were steep nonetheless.  Adding snow and ice made them more hazardous. We went on. 

We found the ranch, Rancho Escondido on the outskirts of Leadville.  It looked like a jumble of dilapidated wooden barns and shacks, but I was later assured it looked this way because it was one of the oldest ranches in the area and the buildings were being restored in keeping with their 1930s origins.  We found the office and signed in. Signing meant signing away any potential claims for compensation. I did not realise that what we were about to do was likely to be quite so dangerous. 

In the end, the experience was much more interesting and fun than I had anticipated. The three adults in the party were able to take turns driving the team of eight dogs while the four children took turns at riding in the sleigh.  The dogs were amazing. They were all very affectionate and we were encouraged to spend a little time making a fuss of them and getting to know them. It is only since being moored up at the farm that I have found dogs interesting. I wouldn't go as far as calling myself as dog lover, but I am willing to pet and talk to dogs these days, something I would not previously enjoyed. These dogs were delightful. They were also very keen to get on with the job. It appears these dogs love to run. Apparently given the chance they would run fifty to seventy miles a day. These dogs routinely run twenty miles every day - not the sort of undertaking the casual dog owner would want. Eight of the 140 or so dogs on the ranch were hitched to the sleigh (or sled?) and after some brief instruction we were off. 

The snow started falling again as we set off. The job of the driver was to stand on the back of the sled and hang on while the team hauled the cargo round a six mile track. These dogs rely on scent to find their way, which is one of the reasons they don't take visitors out on fresh, deep snow. With two children tucked up inside the sled and the rest of the party waiting their turns on a snow scooter-drawn sleigh that set off in front my only job as the driver was to keep the harness line taut and lean the sled round the bends. Braking is achieved through adding resistance to the sled - signalling the dogs to slow down is done by stepping with one foot on to a pad attached directly to the harness that adds the required  resistance.   To stop, the driver steps onto a different bar with both feet. This action drives spikes into the snow.  The parking brake is applied once stopped by driving four anchors into the snow. Older, more experienced, dogs lead the team while the remaining six dogs provide the rest of the engine power. The dogs are carefully paired up to suit their individual behaviours and personalities. 

A driver's eye view of the engine.

When working the dogs need eight thousand calories per day.  The meat bill was staggering.

But then ...

The journey home was all we needed to take the enjoyment out of the day.  By now the snow was falling steadily and settling.  We had mountain roads to negotiate (both the up and the down versions) and the one we needed was showing up on flashing road signs as closed.  We had no choice, but to pull off the highway and try and find somewhere to stay overnight.  Finding accommodation for seven was not going to be easy.  With phone batteries fading we found lists of places to stay and started to call them as we crept along in nose to tail traffic.  There was no room at the inn, or any other inn unless we could afford between $1,200 and $5,000 for a night!  We stopped and spoke to several hoteliers to ask for advice and, of course, none was forthcoming.  My daughter-in-law put out a call on Facebook and someone suggested she phone the police to ask about emergency shelters.  Surely, in this part of the world this was not the first time heavy snow had interfered with traffic!

The police said that the I-70 had been reopened, so we crept our way back towards the road, stopping first at a garage to refuel, fill up on garage food and set off.  Six hours after leaving Rancho Escondido we arrived back home, fortunately still in the same number of pieces in which we set out.  I have to come clean and say the journey was one of the scariest I have ever undertaken and that I do not wish ever to have to do that again.  Still, the dogs were great.