Strangeness on a train…

It’s a universal process – you get onto your chosen mode of public transport (plane, train, and I guess coach…), and until take-off or departure, you sit in your designated seat, waiting and hoping against hope that a better seat is available and that you get there before someone else does. It requires a certain amount of focus and determination to secure the four-in-a-row empty seats on a 747, and in all my years of flying I’ve only managed it once – on the way back from San Francisco, jan 2006.

But that’s not the point of this ‘ere blog post – the point of this, my dear bloglings, is to tell of a bizarre happening. On, in fact, that is still unfolding around me as L and I sit here on the TGV from Lyon to Paris (Lyon because we managed to miss our direct train from Geneva to Paris, and had to re-route – it’s times like this that you thank God for month-long rail passes, fo shiz…)

No, the strangeness unfolding around us began with us following the universal process listed above. We boarded the DOUBLE DECKER TGV (DOUBLE DECKER???? How bad-ass is that! I’m like a 10 year old kid, all excited to be travelling on such fantastic futuristic transport. It couldn’t be better unless the Jetsons were serving drinks!) and took our allocated seats (on the top deck, no less – YAY!!) and the carriage seemed pretty empty. all good. The train pulled away, and no-one else showed up, so L and I moved to the table seats in front of us, to get a lil’ more leg roomage. All good for about 4 or 5 minutes, when four oriental women arrived (I’m trying to work out if they are Chinese, Japanese, Korean, or from somewhere else – I’m not having much luck working it out, and it’s not that important, but I do like the be able to furnish you with these details). So these four show up, and start looking curiously at the numbers on both the tables (that’s 8 seats for four people), and point out that these are their seats. No problem, we move back to our seats. And, it seems, just in time, as their arrival then proved to be akin to the appearance of a couple of scout-orcs over the hill in a LOTR battle scene, and over the next 5 minutes EVERY seat in the carriage was filled with oriental peoples from the same party! All of them, hundreds of them, appearing from nowhere. Where the hell were they when the train pulled away from the station? Who gets on a train and doesn’t go and find their seats?? Where does one hide that many tourists on a train? So many questions, with very few plausible answers… Definitely the strangest thing I’ve experienced on a train.

Quick post from Geneva…

Sorry for lack of blog-action over the last few days – been traveling a lot, sketchy web access, and on Saturday had a FANTASTIC gig in Brescia, Italy – I’ve played there before but this was my biggest gig there so far. In the Chiesa di San Cristo, a beautiful fresco covered building from (I think) the 13th century… Half my set was solo, half with Lobelia, who was, frankly, amazing – we did one of her songs (Happy – which we also did in Croydon the week before, and in NYC), an improv thing, and she added amazing vocal loopage to a version of Highway 1, which was definitely the best version of that I’ve done since the very first time I ever played with Theo Travis, back in 2002…

Anyway, great gig, lovely time in Brescia, as always, and more stuff to tell, but I’ve just arrived in Geneva, am knackered, and need a shower and some sleeps. g’night…

House concerts – how it works…

Thursday night’s gig in Petersfield was fun, though to a tiny audience. Playing to little groups of people is always fun, though in a setting where more are expected, it’s not usually all that financially viable. So there’s the trade-off – fun gig, but no way to make a living. Which is where house concerts (like the one pictured) come in.

House concerts are a way for musicians to play to little groups of lovely listeners, in comfortable surroundings with lovely food and drink and make it pay. it’s a chance for people with moderately large houses to present their favourite music to their friends (unless your favourite music happens to be Beyonce, Elvis, The Polyphonic Spree or Cannibal Corpse – too expensive, too dead, too large and too loud, respectively).

How does it work? Well, I come to your house and play to your friends – either you can pay me to do it as a gift to them, or you can get them all to make a donation to make it happen… if you’re going the donation route, I’d need some kind of guarantee (which is going to vary depending on how far I have to travel to get there, and how many people are going to be there – the more people, the better the opportunities for selling CDs…)

I can bring my little PA with me, if you don’t have anything for me to plug into, so all i need is a little bit of space and a plug socket. It’s great fun, and it doesn’t take a massive amount of space – it’s doable even with 15-20 people in a moderate sized lounge.

So, if you’re interested, email me, and check out these links to a couple of american sites on how to put on a house concert – link 1 and link 2.
And this UK one from Acoustic Routes magazine – which looks pretty comprehensive.

Go on, you know you want to… i’m booking them now for the UK in april/may, and for the US in May/June…

Flying used to be so much fun…

As I’ve said before, I love travel. Love it.

However, airports are now stretching that resolve. Dubya and his made-up War on Tourism (brown people who do bad things in planes) have completely screwed up the process, holding people up for trying to take a tickle-me-elmo onto a plane that’s not in its box, and confiscating toothpaste… I guess you could overpower a pilot with a tube of toothpaste… if the pilot was less than 4 years old and had a severe toothpaste allergy…

The only upside is it might make more people realise what a great way to travel the train is (screwed up Irish Sea ferry things notwithstanding) – as the 80s advert said – this is the age of the train…

But anyway, if you are flying, please give a smile to the poor people who work in airports these days – it’s got to be a seriously thankless task, and one where they need to be obsessive to the point of it being clinical, about things they almost certainly don’t really give a shit about. So smile.

See you on ‘tother side of the atlantic!

Place names…

There’s a really strange element to traveling across Northern Ireland, in that almost every place name is familiar as the site of a bombing, or a murder or some kind of act of sectarian violence or political significance from the last 30 years. It’s like visiting southern california and driving past signs for Mulholland Drive and Sunset Blvd, only instead of feeling like you’re on a film set, you feel like you’re a bystander on a news broadcast. It’s a strange thing with place names – like Columbine or Waco, Darfur or Wounded Knee – they cease to be the name of a town, and become shorthand for disaster, for tragedy, for crazy behaviour.

It’s one of the interesting things about watching foreign news – or spending a lot of time in another country – you find a whole new set of significant place names. In the UK we’ve got Dunblane – site of a school shooting, Aberfan – site of a coal-slag-heap that collapsed on a school in the late 60s and wiped out an entire generation of kids there, Toxteth – area of Bristol where riots took place in the 70s. Brixton – more riots; Broadwater Farm – yet more riots; Lockerbie – the place where the plane blown up by Libyan terrorists crashed in Scotland… the list goes on. You drive past the road signs and they stick moreso than the rest of the small towns and council estates that fly past on long journeys…

Northern Ireland is littered with them. The sad thing is that it gets to the point where the feeling is a non-specific one – any place name you recognise must be the site of a tragedy, when in reality it could be that you heard it mentioned in a song, or had a pen-friend that lived there in your teens…

it’s been really lovely to spend a few days with lovely people in Belfast – the delightful Dr Higgins is a fantastic tour-guide to the psyche of the place (he hosted the amazing panel discussion at Greenbelt with the representatives from both sides that was so controversial they couldn’t release the tape of it). He’s a wise wise man, and I realise after just a couple of days how little I know about the history of what has gone on over there in the last half a century. I mean, I know the stuff that gets reported. I’ve read articles and interviews, watched the documentaries. But I’ve not even scratched the surface…

Belfast is one of those places that is now forever going to be a benevolent place in my mind – you know, those towns where the only people you know from there are lovely, so you subconsciously think that everyone there is delightful and friendly and wonderful? Nashville’s like that too. And Edinburgh is all about creative people being wacky on the royal mile… except it isn’t really, it’s just how you file things according to your experience. So Belfast is a place of community and parties and good food and great conversation and lovely lovely people and Neil Diamond, Bond Themes, hopes for the New Year, lots of hugs, a place to realise just how pathetic my knowledge of film is and how much catching up I’ve got to do, a place to walk along the beach in the freezing cold talking about child development and irving Goffman, Kierkagaard and the essence of self.

So at least one place has changed ‘Belfast’ is no longer just the site of orange marches and bomb scares. I’ll smile every time it’s mentioned on the news now.

Oh, and Gareth, if you haven’t written 2000 words today, you’ve no business reading blogs – get back to work. :o) x

Tough times for the ecomonkey traveller…

So surely after the ferry troubles on the way here, I deserved an easy ride home? oops.

I’m sat in the departure lounge at Dun… dun… Dun something – no idea how to spell the name of the ferry port just outside Dublin. it’s pronounced ‘Leary’. Anyway, I’m here, the ferry’s about three hours late, the weather’s to blame, which means there’s an odds-on chance I’ll puke again on the boat… It’s certainly testing my resolve to do this any time I come to Ireland… Nah, it’s not that bad, I just end up sitting around a lot. it’s not an efficient use of time, that’s for sure, but it’s still better than taking yet more short-haul flights.

So for tne next couple of hours I’ll be here in the ferry terminal. Thankfully, this is a much quicker actual crossing than the car ferry, and hopefully there’ll be train to london not too long after we get into Holyhead.

in the meantime, I’m being treated to piped music in the form of some late 80s hits compilation – Dub Be Good To Me, anybody? How about some Technotronic? Oh yes, just what’s needed at a time like this, music from the motion picture soundtrack ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’. Cowa-fucking-bunga.

The travel-pain of the ecomonkey

So, as y’all know, I avoided a short-haul flight by taking the train/boat/train route to Belfast. Train, fine. Boat, hideous – the roughest crossing I’ve ever had, bar none. A veritable storm which had me retching into a sickbag, and falling asleep on the floor, unable to crawl back up onto my chair. The food was also appalling.

Still, I’m here now, with the lovely and wonderful Gareth, looking forward to a great New Year. Just don’t ask me to go on any boat-rides over the weekend…

On the bits of the journey where I wasn’t asleep or puking, I watched ‘I Know I’m Not Alone‘ again – the Michael Franti film, and read a big chunk of ‘As Used On The Famous Nelson Mandela‘ by Mark Thomas – an INCREDIBLE book. Vital viewing, vital reading. Just don’t try it on an Irish ferry in a storm.

When Climate Change starts to sting…

Ok, this is a tough one to write, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, to echo the words of Hugo Schwyzer in his post about this subject, I love flying. I love travel, I love the feeling of limitless possibility that one has in airports. It’s my one major concession to hyper-modernity – the sleek lines, shiny metal and monorails make me feel like I’m in the Jetsons. I’m a travel junky, and I’ve benefitted hugely from my experiences when traveling.

However, it’s quite clear that aviation is one of the biggest – if not THE biggest – factor in the climate change disaster in which we currently find ourselves. So what do we do? Hugo, in his post above says, basically ‘nothing’ – flying’s great, travel’s great, so fuck it, we’ll just have to go on feeling guilty and hope guilt soaks up some carbon (that’s a fairly unfair paraphrase, but that’s the gist…)

OK – firstly, full disclosure – I’ve got two transatlantic flights coming up – I’m flying to NYC in Jan, then to LA and then home from SF. That’s a lot of flying. It pretty much uses up my carbon allocation for the next year. So what have I done to change things? Well, I’ve pretty much sworn off short-haul flights (I say ‘pretty much’ – I haven’t been faced with a really good paying gig that I’d be required to fly to in order to accept it.. I’ve no idea what I’ll do if that comes up, to be honest) – but I’ve completely changed the way I do gigs on the continent – it’s now all about doing a month at a time, and doing it all on the train. And as my October trip proved, it works. Well, even as a solo artist. As a duo, it’d be a cinch.

So – I really need to think hard about how the transatlantic thing works. I’ve looked into boats, honestly, but it doesn’t seem possible for less than a couple of grand… So where do I draw the line? Allow myself a couple of transatlantic flights a year? I dunno, I’m struggling here, but I am going to get the train and boat to Belfast over new year, so that’s one short haul flight I’ve foresworn… it’s much cheaper on the train/boat anyway!

For now, though, go and read what George Monbiot is writing about this – Monbiot is without doubt one of the most important thinkers on climate change, and the things we need to do to combat it. A lot of people are desperately trying to discredit him, but it’s not working. And while you’re there, check out TurnUpTheHeat.org – and why not write to Gordon Brown about taxation of aviation, or Douglas Alexander about the airport expansion policy? And how about signing up to the year of living generously, in order to look at the myriad ways we can cut back our global footprint…

Last night's gig with BJ and Emily

Lovely little gig with BJ Cole and Emily Burridge last night – the Enterprise in Camden. It does have the steepest stairs in London, and after loading my stuff in, I wasn’t sure if my arms would be working in time for the gig, but they were. I also nearly brought the scaled down travel rig, but I’d have been in deep shit if I had because the PA there isn’t even close to being up to the task of reproducing StevieSounds. So Emily ran her cello through my rig as well, and BJ had his most beautiful fender amp with him, which always sounds like the music of heaven.

It’s a little room, and we had a little audience, but they were most appreciative. Nicest surprise for me was that during the afternoon I’d been thinking about older tunes I haven’t played for a while at gigs, and decided to do Danny And Mo from ‘Not Dancing For Chicken’ – a tune dedicated to Mo Foster and Danny Thompson. And who should walk in just as I started playing but Mo Foster. Always nice when the inspiration for a song is there to hear you explain why they’re so fantastic. Do you want to know the story behind the tune? OK – when I first started working on the tunes that would become Not Dancing For Chicken, I had just got a Gibson Echoplex, which offered loads more looping options – I was rather inspired by a guitarist in California called Andre LaFosse who was doing some amazing unique things with the echoplex, and was certainly a very long way from the long chord progressions, melodies and ambience that I was working on at the time.

So when I went into Jez’s studio to record the first version of the album, I was experimenting with a lot of really spikey angular electronica – using the replace and sus functions in the EDP all over the place, and getting some fairly cool effects.

however, when I got home after the sessions, I was listening to ‘Time To Think’ by Mo Foster, and had an epiphany, realising what was missing from the record – TUNES! I had nothing with any of the big romantic melodies that are what I do best, and all the ambient stuff was punctuated by bleeps and squeaks, some of which was great (and ended up on Lessons Learned Pt I) most of which wasn’t that good…

So I went back to the drawing board, and the first thing I wrote, straight after listening to that album of Mo’s was ‘Danny And Mo’. So there.

Anyway, back to the gig – I played Behind Every Word (with a huge cock-up on the B-section first time round – just had a brain freeze), then Danny And Mo, Despite My Worst Intentions, MMFSOG, What A Wonderful World and Deeper Still. I’d planned to do a whole load of improv, but went with sweet tunes instead. :o) And ’twas v. well received, which is most heartening.

Bj and Emily’s set was, as expected, beautiful. There’s an amazing empathy between them as players, and the classical arrangements work better than any rearranged classical works I’ve ever heard. It’s usually a recipe for disaster, but them playing Satie is a thing of great beauty. Emily’s a fab Cellist, with an amazing tone and touch. And BJ’s, well, BJ – a completely unique figure in the world of music.

in the second set they got me up for an improv, which started out as a gentle naive duet between BJ and I, swapped to a duet between Emily and I, then I looped a progression in D, and BJ and I started building up the ambience while Emily played beautiful melodic lines over it… and the fade got really dark with my big Sigur Ros guitar sound, and BJ’s twisted MoogerFooger distorted steel… amazing.

And so you have it, the story of gigs in london – small appreciative crowds listening to world-beating music. It’s the kind of thing that should be filling concert halls the world over. I guess it will… patience, dear boy.

Happy Birthday Joni

Joni Mitchell is 63 today. On the quite ludicrously tiny off-chance that she reads this blog, ‘happy birthday Joni – thanks for Hejira, and endless other amazing albums. You changed my music life!’

I first heard Hejira as ‘contraband’ – I was playing in a New Orleans jazz band in Berwick on Tweed in my teens, Sunday nights round the pubs, and the trumpeter and leader Pete Roughead was a proper old-school purist – any jazz after about 1930 was modern, Dixie was populist, only proper New Orleans stuff was allowed (I was only allowed to play bass because the double bassist was ill, and was still introduced as being on ‘double bass’, cos Pete couldn’t bring himself to say anything else…)

Anyway, one of the trombonists, Sandy, wasn’t quite so narrow in his listening tastes, and started my surreptitious musical education by slipping me a C90 cassette under the table at a gig with his own best of Weather Report’s Jaco years on one side, and Hejira on the other. And while I really enjoyed the Weather Report stuff. It was Hejira that changed the way I thought about music. Everything I ever wanted music to be was on that record. Honest, freewheeling, mellow, heartfelt, superbly played, funny… It is still to this day my desert island disc. If you twisted my arm up my back and told me I was only allowed to keep one album, that’s it, for sure.

Joni’s done other great albums – Hissing Of Summer Lawns is great, the early folky ones are gorgeous, and the 90s stuff, especially Night Ride Home is some of the greatest music of the last 15 years (and ‘Travelogue’ is vital listening for anyone with a heartbeat), but it’s still Hejira that gets me every time.

So happy birthday Joni – I completely understand your stated reasons for not doing music anymore, but part of me still wishes you’d change your mind. Happy painting… x