It’s probably true that you can control about half of what you do in life but the other stuff just happens. You can plan until you are blue in the face, but in the end, what will be will be. My first real job was as a traffic survey supervisor for a computer and transportation science company based near Woking. Every month for several years our team would traipse up to the County Hotel in Walsall en masse to conduct the traffic surveys that eventually led to the first installation of traffic signals on a UK motorway slip road, and junction 10 on the M6. Not that I am too proud of that. The science shows that the trial improved the flow of traffic but the experience for most road users in that area ever since has largely been one of delay, serious delay, gridlock, and choking fumes.
My job was to recruit people from the surrounding job centres and students from the nearby universities of Birmingham and Aston for temporary but reasonably regular early morning survey work. This involved standing by a specific junction recording the last three digits of each number plate that passed by in the two hour morning rush. Simple? Well you know how you can plan until you are blue in the face?…
Our recording method was cassette tape decks and in the end the survey training sessions lasted longer than the surveys themselves. Operators would either put the tape in the wrong way round and record two hours of nothing, or walk away from the location of the tape deck and inadvertently disconnect the mic from its socket. Then some might not show up, and others I would have to physically wake up from their student dorms at an ungodly hour to drag them to site in my hired minibus. We got there in the end.
It is no different with music. I rehearse almost every day when there are no gigs and sometimes twice a day when they are imminent. For me, it is no easier to prepare for a solo gig than it is for a band gig because as the songwriter and band leader I am inevitably the focus of much of our performance. I know our gig songs intimately, but actually it’s only when you have the extra pressure of a live gig that I find out just how intimately, and sometimes that leads me to change sets or go back to the drawing board with some songs.
Some think playing solo is more difficult than playing with a band. Everyone will have a different take on that. I find playing solo a much freer experience because it enables me to play my songs exactly how I have been rehearsing them, but I have sometimes caught myself wishing mid-song “I wish the band was with me right now”. I’m new to playing live you see. What we have done in the last two years is the first live stuff I’ve done since I was about 22 years old. The other band members are seasoned performers from whom I will never stop learning, and they have all been hugely supportive of my music, so I feel an extra responsibility to get my act together when we are playing.
We don’t get enough time to rehearse, but then you probably never can. Yet we seem to be able to deliver when we are on stage. I do have plans to increase the time I spend playing with different musicians, both within and outside the band, because it will keep me sharp and hone my ideas. It’s hard to get everyone together because we all have different lives and other music projects to work on, but there is something very special about what we do as a group. I love it and it makes me smile.
And so to the weekend of Longton Live (13thand 14thJuly) where we were scheduled to do four gigs in two nights, with Emma and Kate taking on the same number of gigs of their own, back to back with the band (here outside a bar that hasn’t opened yet, competing with tractor loads of potatoes and a guy across the road shouting acoustic covers of punk songs). Although we only got in a few band rehearsals for Longton, my personal preparation had been very thorough, and I felt pretty confident. Just a few hours before I was due to pack the car I knocked out a really polished solo practise gig. I had extra gear packed just in case the local PA guys were short of a mic or two, guitar leads, stands etc. I was as well prepared as I could have been.
Our first set on Friday 13th(I should really have spotted that one) was under the veranda outside Blundell’s Hardware store in the village. Because it took a while to set up after the previous band, and because the sound guy was stuck in traffic somewhere, I sound checked with ‘Honest John’ which I have never played live before, but it is one of the songs I have been building for a while. Kate and Emma juggled with the desk until the sound was as good as we could make it, then we launched into a really accomplished 40 performance before being cut short before the final song.
Unbowed, we took Emma and Kate to the Ram’s Head with their backing track to belt out their set of ‘80s pop and disco hits (with the BBC Philarmonic Orchestra!) before we all reconvened for the final set of the first night at St. Andrews Church Hall where a proper stage awaited us. I felt very upbeat, and apart from the minor stress of trying to make sure we started more or less on time I felt on really good form. In intense heat we quickly ran through our first five out of nine scheduled numbers, including ‘Dim Blue Light’ with its seven verses and four choruses, and ‘Night’ which I felt we had performed as well as we ever have. Not a slipped word in that first twenty minutes, then it happened…..
We started off ‘The Melting’, a song I’ve performed well previously and rehearsed as much as it is possible to rehearse. I know the words intimately, yet I suddenly found that after the initial intro, the words just wouldn’t come. So I moved us awkwardly on to ‘The Wood’ which we had played so well at the hardware store just two hours before, and the same happened. I never have my lyrics in front of me, but that would not have helped in this case anyway. I felt disoriented and had to apologise to the (thankfully) thin audience for having to abandon the gig. Now that hadn’t featured in any of my plans or rehearsals.
Emma and Kate immediately took over and played a few songs to finish off our set with some of their own numbers and guitarist Kieran and Kev Plows (Kev helping me on percussion for the first time) took me outside for fresh air. I had been hit by a sudden migraine of the kind that I haven’t had for many years. It felt like I had been hit on the head with a hammer. I can’t remember too much after that, other than a discussion about whether or not I would be able to drive home, which I eventually did.
Sometimes you have no choice in a matter. It was quickly apparent I wasn’t fit to carry on with the gig. I hadn’t broken my leg. I was still seemingly intact, but I was not able to function for a while and as I write this I am in day two of recovery, complete with reflector shades on top of prescription glasses. I have been left wondering how I would have coped had that been a solo gig, not that I could have carried on. What is certain is that I will be back on the case as soon as I am rested, hungry for more. There is no better way of handling a disappointment than to bounce right back. So a big thanks to the band for helping me through. It is something that will probably never happen again, although something else probably will!