The end of the hippie dream

Altamont – just the name carries so much resonance. The place where the dreams of flower power and the 60s summer of love, woodstock and hippies all went to shit because The Rolling Stones didn’t realise that – unlike in England where ‘Hell’s Angel’ just meant ‘biker with a beard and a personal hygiene problem’ – American Hell’s Angels were largely racist outlaws, who took great delight in stabbing a black dude to death at the gig.

Anyway, that was a completely different Altamont, given that it was in California, and we’re in Illinois. However, there must be some sort of spiritual link between the two, as the shitty motel we’re in definitely feels like the kind of place where a nasty murder could take place…

Still, cheer yourself up by watching this YouTube vid of me playing at the house concert we did in Dallas – Brian who organised the gig owns a Rick Turner Model 1 bass, which I HAD to play… the improv in question is a variation on the ii-V funk guitar thing that I used for the loop demo vid on YouTube, with a bit of the melody from Chameleon by Herbie Hancock in the middle of it, and lots of gratuitous shredding, but it’s a great sounding bass!

David Ford gig at Bush Hall

One of the guests at Duke Special’s gig last week was David Ford – fantastic singer/songwriter, and from the two minutes I spent talking to him, a seemingly v. nice bloke. He mentioned at that gig that he had a show coming up at Bush Hall, but it was sold out, and apologised for not being able to invite me to even buy a ticket and go… Fear not, for where bands can’t get tickets for their own shows, the mighty Catster can employ the dark forces of the evil empire to procure tickets to just about anything (if I was planning on having Christmas dinner at Bono’s house with his family, and I’m sure Catster could sort out a guestlist place… :o)

So, Catster, The Cheat and I all went to the gig, after a lovely curry at the Ajanta (scene of many many a curry with Jez when he was living in Shepherd’s Bush – come home, you fool – Canada is clearly not the place for you, I haven’t done a wedding gig since you left!)

The gig was an annual charity show that David does, with special guests, to raise money for different projects – this year’s was a YMCA project that took kids from problem situations and put them on a scheme for a few months that apparently helps them look at self-esteem and lifestyle issues before sending them off to Durban in South Africa to work on an HIB/AIDS project out there. Amazing stuff, gotta love the YMCA.

And the gig was amazing. David’s own songs are big emotional singer/songwriter affairs, like a more angry Damian Rice, and the choice of crazy covers for the night was briliant. Fran Healy from Travis did a fab version of Dancing Queen, then a completely acoustic version of Driftwood, stood on top of a grand piano played by David – that’s almost certainly on YouTube by now; if not I’ll upload my video of it, cos it was great.

David then picked songs at random out of a ‘number one hits of the last 30 years’ book, and played a blinding version of ‘My Heart Will Go On’ – how clever is Celine that she managed to make me hate what is now clearly a very very beautiful song? That takes quite a skill, a sort of reverse alchemy… Anyway, David played it fairly straight to start with, then went all uptempo and spoilt it, but still, it proved that with just a guitar and a voice, it’s an incredible song. He also did Like A Prayer with big audience sing-along, which worked brilliantly too, and Ashes to Ashes, but couldn’t remember the melody on the middle. Same for ‘If You’re Not The One’ by Daniel Beddingfield, another song I’ve loved since I first heard it (see Catster, I’m not ashamed to admit it!), which David again hinted at doing a beautiful version of before giving up… He could SO do an incredible covers album of tunes like that. maybe he will one day.

Anyway, all in a great night – extra kudos to his drummer, who was tops. The rest of the band were fun but a bit shambolic – great for a night like this, but not what you’d want on a proper gig. The drummer though was v. funky. Great player.

So now I need to catch a normal David Ford gig some time, to see what he does then. I’ll be the one down the front asking for ‘My Heart Will Go On’.

Stefan Redtenbacher's Funkestra at the 606

Went to another great gig last night (that’s Friday night, just in case the timing on the blog is weird) – Stefan Redtenbacher’s Funkestra at the 606 in Chelsea. Went with Jude Simpson, cos she had much to celebrate, and what better way than with extreme funkiness from Stef and his merry band of funkateers.

I’ve seen the band play a couple of times now, and they never cease to impress – Stef’s an outstanding bassist, really really funky, and a great writer too – I guess it helps when you have musicians of the quality of Mike Sturgis, Hannah Vasanth, Jim Hunt and Eran Kendler.

So a great night out – top company, and magic music. who could ask for more?

MamaYo gig

MamaYo live in London

Originally uploaded by solobasssteve.

Went to a fab gig this evening – MamaYo at Jerusalem, on Rathbone Place in London. Cool venue. Had arranged to meet Yo and Miles before the gig, but thanks to their phone being on vibrate and in the wrong pocket it took 20 minutes to find them… Anyway, once I did, dinner was had, and then back to the venue. I very much doubt there are two nicer people on the planet – both utterly lovely, and as tonight’s gig more than ably proved, awesome musicians. Yolanda is without doubt one of the best funk bassists in the country. That she’s now getting to grips with playing like that AND singing at the same time is too much. Tonight’s gig was a trio gig – they were a quartet last time I saw them play in Manchester at Bass Day, but I think I prefer the more open trio sound – all three are such great players that it just gives everyone more room to shine.

Anyway, a fab night. In fact, my second fab night out in a row, cos last night was Seth Horan at which a very, er, ‘select’ audience were treated to some amazing playing and singing from the man himself. Seth’s definitely one of my favourite bassist/singers, and deserved a bigger crowd (don’t we all), but put on a great show, as did his guitar monkey for the evening, Peter Fisher – a really talent germany guitarist. Very nice to see Seth as always, and looking forward to seeing him again at NAMM in January.

Those of you that missed it, shame on you! Make sure you go see him next time he’s in London…

Spearhead, Sessions and tonight's gig

Tuesday night was Spearhead night – my 5th time seeing them play, this time at Shepherd’s Bush Empire. They are, without doubt, my favourite live band in the world. It’s funky, celebratory, the tunes are great, the playing’s amazing and the lyrics make you feel like the world isn’t quite as lost as it seems to be if you just turn on the TV and watch… Michael Franti has a Shamen-like presence, encouraging the whole room to celebrate together, to encourage the celebration of differences, exhorting religions to focus on their similarities in order to work for a common aim, firing us up to get politically and socially active. All this under the distince haze and odour of many a spliff – bring on the smoking ban… ah well.

Anyway, I got there half an hour after they started due to teaching schedule and a remarkably early start time (headline band on at 8.30??) But the other hour and 45 was incredible as always. The new album, Yell Fire, has a strong reggae influence, and it gives another spin to the protest angle – Reggae, like Hip-hop has it’s origins in defiance, protest and inspiration for the poor and dispossessed (just have a listen to any Bob Marley, Steel Pulse or Linton Kwesi Johnson track for evidence), and like Hip-hop it’s been mostly hijacked by ‘bling’ culture, with so many reggae stars toasting about guns and booty… So it’s great to see it reclaimed as a medium for changing the world.

At the aftershow party, Franti was clearly enamoured with my coat, wondering which muppet I slaughtered to make it, but stroking my arm the whole time we talked. :o)

Yesterday was a heavy teaching day – yay! And today started with teaching and has moved on to recording. I’m in the middle of two remote sessions – one for Lobelia, a fantastic singer/songwriter from Montreal, and the other for Andrea Nones AKA DubNervous – a great electronica artist from Italy. Very different projects, equally enjoyable and challenging. Hurrah!

And tonight I’ve got the gig at the Enterprise in Chalk Farm, opening for BJ Cole and Emily Burridge – doors 8pm, tickets £8/£6 – see you there!!

Bass Day UK

Well, yesterday was a landmark for me. The first time I’ve ever been to a bass day-style event that I haven’t been playing at! Needed to find out what kind of low-end hell we musos were inflicting on the great unwashed, after all.

So, long drive up to Manchester for Bass Day UK. LOOOONG drive. but Sunday morning’s an easy time for traffic. It was at the Life Cafe in the city, same place as last year (when I did play at it). Potentially a nice venue, but last year they ran out of food half way through the day, and this year they just didn’t even bother having any to start with! Ah well, Subway did a roaring trade.

These bass day things are all about people for me – occasionally there’s some great music, but a lot of what happens is people who don’t normally play solo doing their thing over a backing track, or some fairly rudimentary looping. Which is fine, and works well for bass-day-type crowds. It’s just not something that I’d choose to go out of the house to listen to.

So musically, the highlights for me were the delightful and wonderful Yolanda Charles and her MamaYo band, and Stefan Redtenbacher’s Funkestra. Stef I’ve known for years, and he’s a fantastic player, genuinely great person, friend and makes me laugh more than almost anyone. His band are amazing, so worth the drive to Manchester just for him. Yolanda’s band featured to wonderful and lovely Miles Bould on drums, who I’ve been listening to do for the best part of 15 years, and a couple of great guitar players. Both bands were funky, raw, danceable, fierce, fun and life-affirming. Just great.

I also enjoyed hearing Jonas Hellborg play – he was also looping in some interesting ways, changing the loop every few bars, and using a reverse delay that sounded lovely. Good stuff.

Always nice to catch up with friends too – Janek Gwizdala was playing, and did an exquisite solo version of a Mike Stern ballad. So nice to catch up with him. Same for Adam Nitti – an amazing bass player from Nashville, who sounded the best I’ve ever heard him. Great playing, great sound.

it’s all about the people – new friends like Yolanda and Miles and Lucy Shaw, and old friends like Stef and Steph, Mike Sturgis, Marco, Janek, the guys from, the organisers Stevie, Jono and Pris, and loads of other great people. All in all a v. fine day. The great music was a bonus, the not-so-great music wasn’t a distraction (when did you last see 8 or 10 acts on one day and love them all? :o) – all in, it’s great to have a UK Bass Day that seems sustainably big, is booking interesting music, and getting supported by companies and the industry. All good, nothing bad.

Got back home at gone 3.30, and had to be up at 9 to teach, so am suffering now. But was well worth it.

Paul Simon sings and all is well with the world.

So, at the 11th hour, my angelic mole in the evil empire comes good and two tickets are procured for Paul Simon at Wembley. Now given that Paul Simon is, I think the only artist that’s been around for more than 20 years with not one song that I don’t like, you can imagine this was a pretty big event for me. Until yesterday morning, if you’d asked me my top 3 artists I’ve still yet to see, you’d have had Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon and Tom Waits in that order. Tom’s just been promoted. :o)

The delectable Jude Simpson was round in the afternoon, to try out some poetry ‘n’ bass ideas for future gigs (that stuff’s going to be magic – Jude’s a stunning performer, and she guested on what is probably my best ever gig – the last night of the Fringe, in 2005). Anyway, the late showing for the tickets meant that TSP bowed out, and Jude got the treat of a lifetime… or at least a nighttime and came with me to the gig.

Which. Was. Perfect. Everything you’d want from a Paul Simon gig except more chat (didn’t really say much between songs, sadly) – the sound was great (especially for Wembley), the band were out of this world (Steve Gadd live? I can die happy), and Paul himself was on absolute tip top form. I’ve long held that his vocal phrasing is one of the most wonderful and perfect things in the history of music, and tonight he was the living embodiment of that. A great set list, with three tracks from the new album, the title track from You’re The One, and hits going back to The Boxer and Homeward Bound. I’ll see if I can dig up the set list online somewhere. As the subject here says, all seems well with the world when Paul Simon sings. The man that comes across in his songs is someone I’d like to grow up to be, and his lyrics could quite easily form a guide to live by.

One of the beautiful things about Paul Simon is that he’s always written for his age – I mean his own age, rather than ‘the age of man’ or whatever – so his now in his 60s and writes with the wisdom of a man that age, looking back on a life well lived, with faults and failures and a sanguine approach, having learnt the lessons and moved on. I wanted to hug him after the gig, but unusually for me, I didn’t bump into anyone who could procure me a backstage pass…

Anyway, if there’s one person to see live in your life, it’s Paul Simon. Go and buy ‘Surprise’, his latest album it’s lovely, and while you’re there, get the last one, ‘You’re The One’. It’s the wisdom of the elders, and we’ve lost that in so much of western culture. And he’s still funkier than most funk bands! Grooves a mile wide, tunes you’re humming for days.

A gig with everything right. Yay for Paul Simon! And thanks to Jude for being a tip-top gig-buddy! :o)

"can anyone join in?" – some thoughts on Improv and Jamming

I’ve had a few messages on Myspace from people asking if the Recycle Collective is an open jam that anyone can come and play at. The answer to that is an emphatic ‘NO!’, the reason being the fundamental difference between an improvised music gig and a jam. A jam is, for better or worse, primarily about the musicians. If an audience digs it, that’s fine, if it results in some OK music, that’s fine, but in general, jams tend to follow a few set formulae – jazz standards, rock/pop classics or myriad variations on ‘funk in E’ – all fine in an of themselves, but really not the kind of thing around which I’m going to book a series of shows featuring the finest improvising musicians the UK has to offer.

Have a quick look at the list of past RC gigs on the website. The players are a) top class (Mercury Prize nominees, platinum selling, session legends, Royal Opera singers… no dead weight at all…) and b)put together in very specific combinations.

See, with this kind of improv the choice of players is the composition. It’s at that point that I relinquish my control and instead trust that the players will play whatever they think is ‘good’ at that time. And as a result, the RC has featured some of the most exciting music I’ve ever been involved in. It’s not a jazz gig, it’s not a ‘free improv’ gig in the sense that ‘free improv’ works for the London Improvisors Orchestra. We’ve had some out squeaky stuff, but we’ve also had singer/songwriters, jazz, ambient, electronica, new acoustic, minimalism, maximalism, funk, fusion, gospel and the huge list of crazy influences that Cleveland weaves into his vocal improvs!!

While it is improvised, and it’s great fun, it has none of the lowest common denominator connotations of a jam. Jamming is fun, it’s cool to jam, it’s just that improvised music can be so much more, and this ends up being infinitely more rewarding for the musicians and the audience.

If I wasn’t playing at and booking the RC, I’d be its biggest fan, by miles. It’s a phenomenal indulgence to book my favourite musicians in the world, all of whom are people I respect, admire and love hanging out with, and to make such fantastic unpredictable music with them. You REALLY ought to come down and check it out if you can…

That's More Like It!

Right, that was a much better audience size. Back on track now.

After a day spent flyering, postering and eating interesting food in funky cafes, a fine gig. Not only that, but we got an encore. Much fun.

We changed tack today – decided to offer some 2 for 1 offers to entice in a bigger crowd. Lots of very eager sounding people on the royal mile, and out and about. Also lots of people recognising me from all over the place – MySpace, Bass Day UK, The Radio (they didn’t recognise me by seeing me from the radio – that would just be silly – but when they saw my name, then said ‘aha! I heard you on Late Junction last week’). All over the place.

Likewise, a straw poll of those at the gig showed they came from all different paths – flyers, posters, friends’ recommendations, me sneakily recommending the gig to people who’ve come into the venue for information about something completely different, people reading the Fringe programme…

Both of which show that you can’t do either/or with promotion of any kind. We’re all looking for the short cut, the one thing that will expand our audience, give us fame fortune and a full house every night. But it doesn’t exist. It’s all cumulative. People who’ve seen your name in the programme might only think to come to the show if they then get given a flyer. People who’ve heard you on the radio might only visit your website after they see you at the fringe. People who’ve checked out your myspace page might be more inclined to buy a CD once they’ve seen you in person.

Talking of seeing people in person, I bumped into my old boss today – Howard Jones. You may or may not know that I toured playing bass for Howard in 1999. It was a fantastic experience, playing really great songs with a really lovely band. He was a real treat to work with. I haven’t seen him in years, but he’s up here doing a show, that sadly clashes with mine so I won’t get to see it, but he’s great live, and I’d have loved to have got along. Still, ’twas a delight to catch up with him, and I’ll have to get to one of the gigs on his Autumn tour.

Tomorrow’s a busy day – we’re doing Mervyn Stutter’s Pick Of The Fringe at lunch time, then our gig at night, and then The Midnight Carousel again at 1am… In between, much flyering, postering cajoling and coercing of lovely people to come and check out the show.

Other peoples opinions on your music…

I’ve just been reading a thread over at One guy posted a link to a recording of a solo of his, and another guy posted the following response –

“I have to do a solo during “Into The Arena”, a rock instrumental we open the second set with, and I hate doing it, mainly because I’m not up to it, it’s really difficult to fire off some quick licks while keeping the momentum of the song going, and when there are musos in the audience, you just know they’re watching your every lame move, and thinking to themselves, “I could do better than that”. “

and here was my response –
I’m not sure how serious this feeling is, but if musos are in the audience are sat thinking ‘I could do better than that’, they really ought to F*** off. It’s such a non-response to music, such an irrelevance to what’s going on. For a start, ‘better’ is such a nebulous concept, given all the variables, it’s largely taste-driven so not really valid in terms of assessing whether the band are doing what they want to do, and the simple fact is that you are doing it, and they aren’t.

It’s like people who say ‘you really ought to do such and such’ – no, YOU really ought to do such and such! If you think it ought to happen do it, don’t go projecting your own musical wishes onto someone else who almost certainly doesn’t share them.

So, play the solo you want to hear, and remember that if there are musos in the audience, it’s because you’ve got a gig that night and they haven’t, so any complaints are moot.

It’s why I refrain from commenting on most of the stuff I hear online – there’s very little of it that really does it for me (all of us actively dislike most music – making great music is really hard, that’s why it’s such an addictive life-long passion. If it was easy, it wouldn’t feel special), but in the grand scheme of things, I don’t want to discourage people from making music by telling them that it doesn’t do it for me. That’d be a complete waste of my time and theirs, because no-one in their right mind should take what I or anyone else says about their music on an online forum as being worth the pixels it’s written on.

Play the music you want to hear, learn all that you can about the process of music making, never stop studying, try to stay focussed and ignore the opinions of people who haven’t actively earned the right to comment on what you do by demonstrating clearly that they understand fully what it is that you are TRYING to do. The relationship that matters is the one between intention and outcome, not audience expectation and outcome.

…that was my response on the forum.

This is something that really bugs me about the way things have gone with the net, and I’m caught in a paradox. Like any musician, I like encouragement. It’s lovely when someone says ‘I really like what you do’ – that doesn’t really require qualification, it just says that they are enjoying the music. It’s pretty much vital that a reasonable number of people feel like that, otherwise I’ll be looking for a new job rather quickly.

However, when people feel the need to qualify their comments with ‘but I don’t like this, and you should do this, and why don’t you do a whole album of funky stuff, or a whole ambient album or whatever’ there’s an assumption behind it that I’m in someway trying to meet their criteria for what a good album is. And I really couldn’t give a shit what their criteria is for a good album. In the midst of the creative process, I don’t make music for anyone but me. I write the music that I have to write, the music that feels like it can’t not be written. Once it’s recorded and out there, I do my best to market it, to get it to the ears of the people who are likely to like it. Of course I want people to hear it, and I really don’t mind if there are people who don’t like it – I’m a solo bassist, FFS, there are a heck of a lot of people who won’t have any frame of reference for instrumental music without drums or an orchestra. It’ll just sound alien and weird, and that’s fine.

The problem comes when I start thinking about those markets in the process of making music – ohh, maybe if I do something with a drummer, it’ll sell more. Or, conversely, I’d better not work with a drummer or solo bass purists will think I’ve sold out.

It’s all utter bollocks. As I said in the response to the email above, the relationship that matters is the one between intention and outcome, not audience expectation and outcome. – that’s a really really important notion for musicians to grasp. Your audience don’t understand what you do. Even if they like it, they as a mass of people don’t understand it. What they hear is different from what you hear, and their reasons for liking it are almost certainly not your reasons for recording it in the first place. That’s not a snobbish musician thing – I don’t understand a lot of the music I listen to, and I don’t need to. It’s become part of MY soundtrack, so has my own set of very specific and utterly subjective resonances and meanings and the thing I liked about it in the first place may well be something entirely un-musical – it reminds me of a place, or time, or person. None of that could or should have any influence on the person making the music. You can’t control it happening, and you certainly can’t recreate the effect.

Stil, loads of musicians try. Most of them disappear, some become very rich because of it. But in my limited experience with such people, they aren’t the happy ones. They aren’t the fulfilled ones. To sell millions of CDs for making entirely unfettered music is clearly ‘the dream’. Does anyone manage it? I dunno. I’ll tell you when I sell a million. :o)

The problem with worrying about sales is that small-artist-syndrome kicks in, and the music can become willfully obscure, as cynically influenced by public opinion as someone ripping off Britney. I can’t play that, it’s too pop. I can’t make that album, it’s too mainstream. it’s too happy, not dissonant enough, it’s got a singer, it’s fun, it might actually be an album that should by any commercial estimation sell thousands, and it doesn’t. Which makes me face up to the fact that great music doesn’t sell CDs. Great marketing sells CDs, and the music just has to be sufficiently inoffensive to stay out of the way of the marketeers.

OK, that’s a touch cynical, but still 95% true in the industry. That doesn’t mean that great music doesn’t sneak through – I thought Crazy by Gnarls Barkley was an outstanding pop record – but it’s not a prerequisite of selling records. Otherwise, Top Of The Pops would still be vital viewing, and it hasn’t been for well over a decade, and that’s why it’s been axed.

Anyway, musical bloglings, be true to yourselves, make the music you want to hear, need to hear, and be open to the advice and counsel of those who have earned the right to give it.

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