The Final Act of 2019: Stepping Stones & The Hoot!
Who is that? Not the author himself? Well, knock me down with a feather because last week I was warned off from looking back over 2019.
Now, I don’t want to offend Crow’s delicate sensibilities regarding mediocre retrospection, but we’re gonna have to have a little talk about music and what happened on the eve of 2020 .
Rationale & Diminishing Returns
So, just over a year ago I posted my thoughts on playing my first open mic – “What I Learned From Playing Open Mic“. Granted, not the most imaginative title, and I never did get around to learning People Are Strange by The Doors, but more importantly I’ve not explored some of the details of why I wanted to play live – that is, even before the whole baked-bean-severed-tendon debacle.
A couple of years back I was feeling a sense of diminishing returns with music, a sense that it was becoming harder and harder to recapture the WOW! moments of discovery from my youth. Not to say that I haven’t found new stuff I love and that moves me, that possesses me and which whips me up.
But at the same time there was that loss of charm from the “golden days”, like my first experience of heavy metal when I first heard Vote With A Bullet by Corrosion of Conformity on the Radio 1 Rock Show (The Song That Started It (Author Bio/Sonographic Sketch #1)), or those times when I first heard The Doors and Jimi Hendrix and Bowie, or the first time I some one put on Portishead, Miles Davis, Godspeed You Black Emperor and Muddy Waters.
You get it – those times when I was blown away by just how awesome something sounded!
One of the reasons suggested by science is that the brain holds on to the earlier musical input because it is cemented in a more developmental stage. I think this argument might be a bit biologically reductionist – I mean, okay, so I still love stuff that I was listening to when I was eighteen, but how much of that was because I was sitting around with my friends and smoking weed together?
It was a shared social experience, and those get rarer as you get older and you succumb to the bullshit of adult life with its demands of responsibility and wage slavery.
But there is also the question of how much innovation can music make? How much of music is stalled in repeating old styles and successful formulas – and although I am talking especially about the sausage factory of mainstream music – it still applies to the more obscure artists. How many times have I heard something new and tried to tell someone that it sounds like “mid era Pink Floyd meets the Grateful Dead with a splash of 90’s hard rock”?
So maybe I had reached a point where the combination of two decades of listening and gradual social isolation had created a sense of limited experience. It was harder and harder to find new music that really sunk it’s teeth in as deep as it used to.
The times that it did bite were those moments when I was at a concert or festival with friends, or when I was going through a hard time or life changing event (like getting married) where certain songs acquired a deeper meaning, but outside of those moments I was just buying music in order to expand my collection. I wasn’t even going to many gigs because of money and how hard it was to travel.
It meant that I was consuming music in a vacuum, buying out of habit and without the kind of satisfaction that I might find around the camp-fire when we all sang along to Sympathy For The Devil and the guy playing it was dancing around the fire pit before he fell over a chair and disappeared into the darkness beyond our little circle.
So, as a self professed lover of music I wanted to recapture that richness of social enjoyment and that ultimately was only going to happen through finding a venue. Then I had the whole severed tendon thing and got my head all messed up. Just at the moment I needed a solution, I managed to climb out the hole I was in by visiting the fairly new local flea market/venue called The Yard.
The sociality of the place and it’s quirky atmosphere helped me get my head straight, and it was the perfect little venue for playing that awkward first open mic, something that I had been trying to build up to but previously just hadn’t had the guts to do.
It was the first stepping stone…..
And One Year On…..
I not only continued to play the open mic at The Yard, but as a regular and good friend with Collette, the venue’s owner, I was asked to take over the reins of organisation when the previous host departed.
So on December 14th I became the official host of the Saturday Squeeze, and if it hadn’t been for the events that lead to me going down there, without my pushing myself to get on stage and play in front of an audience, that I wouldn’t have found such an opportunity.
And so I took another one of those stepping stones, moving from one moment to the next in much the same way as I have been with the writing of this blog; that feeling that each time you push yourself and there’s the possibility of failure, the fear of making a mistake, you find the chance to rise to the challenge and overcome it.
So just as I’ve tried different approaches in writing, exploring a variety of material with no way to know what works or doesn’t, so too have I tried different songs and styles: one that really didn’t work was Flightless Bird by Iron & Wine, whereas a song that really suited me was Goodbye Ghost by Israel Nash. You keep trying and over time the whole thing moves forward with either positive feedback that helps you gain confidence, or criticism that pushes you back, but as you retract and think about what you did wrong, you refine your goals and explore new paths.
In this respect, you level up, like some kind of LARPer gaining experience and developing yourself, but it’s not just that you are the one in the driving seat, the one that makes the effort – it’s whether you embrace the opportunities as they present themselves. In this respect I have been truly blessed to have The Yard, because it’s just the kind of place that people need to put down creative roots and to find a friendly atmosphere.
And I’m going to need it if I hold to my musical aspirations. I think the desire was always there, a kind of being in love with the notion of being a musician, but when I did imagine a musical project I had already envisioned it in its final form. Mentally I had already arrived at the destination without knowing the journey between the here and there.
What open mic did was give me the that stepping stone of experience to learning what kind of terrain that middle ground might contain.
It’s been humbling to say the least.
The Next Big Stone: The Hoot
A couple of months before I took up the reins of the Saturday Squeeze the owner of The Yard had an idea for a New Years Eve party. She quickly developed it, set out a limited number of tickets and began building a programme of musicians drawn from the regular performers who play Friday nights.
It would be called The Hoot! in reference to “hootenanny”, and an allusion to that bastion of (pre-recorded) British naffness the Jools Holland Annual Hootenanny which is often hate-watched by those sitting at home drinking prosecco and eating vol-au-vents.
So it was some surprise to me that Collette turned around to me one evening and asked if I’d like to play. I was kind of bashful about it, because I didn’t feel that I was up to the task of playing a proper gig. It was going to be a big deal, with paying customers and when I asked why she was giving me the opportunity, she said: “I think you have more to offer.”
Plus, I’d be getting a free ticket as a performer. So hey, I was going to get paid!
I umm’d and arrr’d about it, and thanks to my lovely wife’s encouragement I stepped up to the challenge once more.
Now, I can’t recall the last time I bothered to go out for New Years, and I’m often more focused on the Winter Solstice as the turning point of the year. But this time I had somewhere to actually be and people I liked being around, so I was both looking forward to it and also incredibly nervous at the same time.
Then the day before I felt my throat getting scratchy, and my nose begin to congest. I was going to get a cold the night before. I spent the next day wondering if I was going to be able to pull it off, and the resulting conflict was just more stress. It seemed to me that if I went and played, and I screwed up, it would probably depress me and demotivate me. On the other hand, The Yard was relying on me because I’d been scheduled to play the opening set – both a blessing and a curse because no one expects the opening act to be the best, and I’d have the rest of the night to enjoy myself.
After a day of indecision, I had a shower, boshed down some ibuprofen and packed up my guitar.
I’d just have to do my best under the circumstances.
And that’s just what I did – I gave it my best shot, did my four songs and took another step towards being – in my mind – a proper musician. I even managed not to make too many mistakes, although there was one moment where I forgot the next verse and just kept strumming the same chord, desperate to kick start my stalled brain.
But I got there, and both the audience and other players were really warm and encouraging. I couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity, and although I didn’t feel immediately elated with victory, the experience has slowly seeped into my brain, giving me the drive to keep developing and bolstering the notion that I can bring my own musical project to life.
Music Project: Crow’s Apocalypse Disco
So coming back to my musical aspirations, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I might do musically in the future. Right now I’ve got a growing repertoire of covers and some self penned songs, but I want to develop something that’s all my own.
So it’s a case of taking stock of what I’ve got in my box of tricks: I’ve an alter ego (a topic for a later post) and some skills at playing with less common techniques like slide guitar. The latter got me thinking about how much fun I often have just mucking about with slide.
Perhaps there was a way to incorporate it all in to something that was odd and unique by taking the polemic utterances of Crow, and mix it with some of the elements of blues, folk and gospel, throwing in some other stuff if I could get the time and money together. There are some great little analogue drum machines out there, so why not aim to enact a sort of apocalyptic sermon with some kind of mad slide techno? With bits of kit like modern day loopers and portable amps, I could at least let Crow take to the streets and harass the public. Do a little preaching, do a little busking, do something a little daring and disturbing because there’s nothing better than shaking shit out of a rut.
I know, it’s all well and good throwing the idea together, but can it work? Again, like I said, I see the destination but not the way to reach it. However, the key to these things is always to simply get on and take action. Action is what drives the journey and prompts the changes. So by taking the first step, as I did with open mic, there’s the opportunity to create new paths of exploration.
And as you go, you become; become the thing that you envision, become the change that you want. With each stage of the transformation, with each success there is more confidence. Sure, I know that it’ll be a push to do this thing, but as with each hurdle, it always appears bigger on the approach. Once you’ve made the leap it increasingly becomes second nature.
So here we are at the start of 2020, and I’ve got all these plans and ideas. It feels like the world is just getting crazier by the day, a shadow falling over us as politics and economics and environment just implode. But even as the shadow falls, there’s a chance for us as individuals to shine all the brighter, and I’m feeling all the more ready to do some more off the wall material, to foment a bit more weirdness and rebellion as we take the first steps into January.
Yeah, time to get busy and make a whole lot of noise this year!
Who’s with me?
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