Wednesday, November 29, 2006

November Treats

Once again, time has been at a premium this month, and I haven't been able to log any activities since the 1st!

Tim van Eyken

We went to hear Van Eyken at the Ent Shed in Bedford on the 3rd. Wow! The CD is good, but the live show is even better! Tim's voice just improves every time I hear him, and the band (Oliver Knight, Nancy Kerr, Pete Flood and Colin Fletcher) were just magnificent. Great arrangements, well-chosen songs, good sound. Stagecraft needs improvement, in my opinion (too many gaps/silences/tuning sessions). It is just me, or do other people think that a lot of modern artists on the Folk Scene have lost the plot when it comes to presentation? Personally, I hate a gap when I'm performing, and I always want to keep the pace up.

Many of the younger group of performers seem quite happy to let the audience wait in embarrassed silence (or - worse - start chatting to each other) while they tune, remember what the next tune or song was to be, have a drink, exchange pleasantries with the rest of the band. Not good enough, say I!! Take a look at seasoned professionals like John Tams, Vin Gartbutt, Nancy Kerr & James Fagan, John Kirkpatrick and see how to really engage an audience.

Blueharts fireworks were spectacular this year in Hitchin - there were certainly some colours and shapes I haven't seen before! Always a very enjoyable evening around November 5th.

Tried some French dancing at the new DanseHerts session in Ickleford. Quite a few musicians turned up, and lots of dancers (many from Kent, where the style has plenty of devotees). A good session, with a workshop to start the dancing off, and a musicians' session as well.

Cosi fan Tutti - Glyndebourne Opera

Glyndebourne on Tour were at Milton Keynes Theatre this month. We went to Cosi fan Tutte and The Turn of the Screw. Cosi was a lovely production, beautifully sung and staged, and quite edgy in its treatment of the opera's central theme of fickleness/betrayal. The Turn of the Screw was new to both of us, and we absolutely lapped it up! A superb set, combined with fine singing and acting, made Britten's score jump off thepage. The audience were riveted to the action and story right from the beginning. Definitely one to watch!

The band had a wonderful gig for a group called the Lairds of Caledonia at Cuffley Outdoor Centre. The room was cold and damp, condensation dripped from the ceiling, the floor was muddy, the dancers were dressed mostly as Scottish warriors (with the occasional animal, zombie, ghoul) - and we had a great time!! The occasion was a role-playing weekend, and the dancers were probably the most intelligent, attentive group I've called for in a long while (despite the amount of alcohol that had obviously been consumed prior to the event!!). The Lairds belong to an organisation called The Lorien Trust. Looks like a lot of fun, if you've got the time to devote to it as a hobby.

Life & Times did a floor-spot at St. Neots Folk Club. It's a long while since we were last there, and good to see a real traditional-style club still running, with plenty of room for floor-singers, and an attentive audience for the guest. Well done, Roger and Patti, for continuing to keep live music happening!

We were invited to join a coach-party to see Evita at the Adelphi Theatre in London last week. What a great show! Formidable singing and acting brought this production to life, and we left feeling we had been properly entertained (as well as learning something about Peron and Argentina).

John Tams & Barry Coope

Finally, a really excellent evening at Hitchin Folk Club with John Tams and Barry Coope. Some fine new material, lots of great songs from the repertoire, unusually good singing from the Hitchin audience (such that Tammy actually had an emotional moment at the end of All Clouds the Sky). Great stuff!

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Winter Days

Graeme and I performed the new Life and Times school show, Winter Days, at Sandye Place Middle School last week, to a very receptive and appreciative audience. Although this was a "dry run", the show was a pretty slick presentation, and the interactive bits with the children worked very well. The audience of 180 Year 5 and 6 pupils (and one Year 8 group) sang and participated well, and we were very pleased with the result, especially as we had put the show together in only four weeks, during one of which I was in New York!

As with our other show, Hats Off to History, the "dry run" showed that we had prepared too much material, so we're now dropping a complete song from the presentation - still, better to have too much than too little! We had some very encouraging comments from staff, including one teacher who said, "The children were really excited before they went in as they remembered how much fun they had last time. And they were not disappointed. They loved it."

So we're all ready to perform Winter Days at any school that wants us! We already have six bookings at the end of term, but could really do with some more - here's hoping!

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

New York, New York

New York skyline from the
Empire State Building

Just back from a great week in New York - it was our first time there and certainly not the last! We ticked off a lot of icons on this trip - Central Park, The Empire State Building, Tiffany's, Bloomingdales, The Rockefeller Centre, the Harbour Lights cruise (where we saw the Statue of Liberty up close).

Central Park

As is our custom, we made sure that we visited plenty of museums and galleries during our stay. The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) was situated just across the street from where we were staying (The Warwick) so we were able to have a long visit there and not have to worry about rushing to get back to the hotel. The collection is utterly mind-blowing - every modern artist you can name is represented there, it seems, and some of the paintings are absolute blockbusters - milestones in the history of art, no less, such as Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, Warhol's Campbell's Soup Cans and Van Gogh's The Starry Night. And you can take photos of the pictures for yourself!

The Guiggenheim Museum

We also went to the Guggenheim museum - a wonderful building by Frank Lloyd Wright, containing a super collection of late-19th and 20th century art (Cezanne, Gaugin, Picasso, Matisse, Braque) and a huge number of Kandinskys. The main exhibition was of the career and works of London-based architect Zaha Hadid - not someone we knew about before the visit, but we learned a lot about her while we were there! Works by Lucio Fontana were also featured. We saw some of his work at MOMA and I must say I enjoyed the sheer audacity of it! See more about him here.

The Guggenheim Museum

These two galleries were part of the City Pass, which saved us nearly $60 each on entrance fees, and also included admission to the Empire State Building observation platform, the Harbour Lights cruise and the American Museum of Natural History, where we saw a very good Planetarium show called Cosmic Collisions.

The highlight gallery, however, was the Frick Collection on Central Park East. Pictures like Holbien's Sir Thomas More, El Greco's Purification of the Temple, Turner's The Harbour of Dieppe and Cologne: The Arrival of a Packet Boat: Evening, and Vermeer's Mistress and Maid stand out in an amazingly impressive collection, which shows just what money can do (Frick was a millionaire by the age of 30 and spent his money on these wonderful works of art, and the building to house them in).

What else did we do? There was the New York City Opera at the Lincoln Center ( La Boheme) and Mama Mia at the Cadillac Winter Garden Theater on Broadway. Very different, but both very enjoyable experiences. The New York State Theater in the Lincoln Center is a lovely auditorium, with lots of foyer space, and a rather unpretentious atmosphere (unlike the Met. across the plaza!). A well-played, well-sung and interestingly conceived production of the opera - set in World War2 - which certainly didn't disappoint. Abba's music fits so well with the plot of Mama Mia that the tunes could have all been written for the show. Some were original, but most come from the immense canon of 70's - 80's pop produced by the Super Swedes, and really help the story along. A lovely, fun-filled, happy show that played to a packed house on Saturday night.

Walks in Central Park which took us round the Ramble, across to Strawberry Fields, to the Wollman Ice Rink, Bevedere Castle (where we saw Bill Oddie filming), Cleopatra's Needle (yes, they have one as well!), and the statues to Alice in Wonderland and Hans Christian Anderson (looking a lot like Danny Kaye!); explorations of 5th Avenue, Madison, Lexington and Park Avenues; wandering around Greenwich Village and SoHo; a street market on 4th as we were leaving on Sunday, and a tour of the United Nations Headquarters Building made for an unforgettable holiday.

The UN Headquarters ....... and ............The UN Security Council Chamber

We loved New York, its people and places, and can't wait to go back again and explore the city even further!

Wednesday, October 18, 2006


What a great week! Graeme and I recorded Graeme's song The Bedfordshire Clanger on Wednesday at Steve's (our guitarist in Time of Your Life). With mics in the front room, multicore down the stairs and Steve in the "control room" upstairs, we made a successful recording (eventually!) and the post-production results are very good. We recorded it because a company called Five Feet Films is making a film called The Bedfordshire Clanger and they want to use the song as part of the action. They're also supposed to be filming Redbornstoke Morris this coming weekend, so more of that next time!

The music session at The Fox in Pirton last Wednesday was not as well supported as in the past. I went with Taz, and there were a few of the usual suspects there, but the atmosphere was not as highly-charged as it has been, and there was talk of the session folding soon. Still, there are two more sessions before Christmas, and the Guizers will be there on December 13th to perform the play as always.

I called at Friday Folk last week - an interesting and, I have to say, enjoyable experience. Although I was apprehensive about the evening, because I was concerned that my dances would not be challenging enough for the experienced dancers there, it seemed to go well. Certainly, the personal comments I've received from people who were there seem to suggest that they enjoyed the evening, and even that I may get a return booking!

Life & Times

And so to Saturday and the Leighton Buzzard Heritage Day. The theme this year was "The 50s" and we, as Life and Times were asked to perform in the street and in the church, singing our songs about Bedfordshire, but more specifically about the Brickworks of the county, as they employed a large number of Italian workers, and the diversity of the local workforce was one of the aspects of the 1950s the Heritage Day was focussing on. On the whole, it was quite a successful day out - we sold some CDs, met some old friends and made some new ones, and managed a pint of Young's Special in the Black Lion!

I rushed off to Ampthill to the Pie Festival, but missed the judging. Still, a pint of "Mrs. Miggins" with Dave made up for it wonderfully!

The evening was taken up with a ceilidh fo the ever-youthful Cardiac Friends in Hitchin. This is an annual event and, despite the history of heart-trouble amongst the organisation, they dance all evening and always seem to enjoy the event.

John Spiers and JonBoden

On Sunday, Life & Times played to a full Hitchin Folk Club, supporting the wonderful John Spiers and Jon Boden. It's always good to play to a full house, even when some of the material is being performed for the first time in public! The gig went well, and we had some really positive feedback from people there, especially about one of the new songs, Holes and Homes. The two Johns were very good - Graeme hadn't seen them before and was impressed! I bought the new Bellowhead CD, Masquerade. It's a fabulous production, even before you listen to it, as it's made to look like a book, with hard covers, lots of photos and excellent liner-notes. The set on the CD is mainly the one heard at live gigs this year - very left-field in places, but totally rooted in the Tradition. The range and blend of instruments in the band is exploited brilliantly, in places sounding like Brass Monkey, in others like the Dolly Collins arrangements on The Transports, but mostly just sounding like Bellowhead. A band with a future!!


Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Catching Up

It's been far too long since I lasted posted - I can't believe the last one was on 4th September! Since I stopped doing the day job, life has become very busy with all the things I never had time to do before, so here I am, trying to catch up on the last month's highlights.

The band has had loads of gigs since the beginning of September. A brilliant 18th birthday party, followed by a school family ceilidh (in the open air), a wedding where we got a bigger dancing crowd than the disco, a charity dance in the most wonderful barn (with stage and full lighting rig), and last Saturday back at Wing Village Hall, where we had a huge number of bookings in the early days of the band.

Rockhopper at Woodstock

I played for the Rockhopper Morris day of dance at Blenheim Palace and Woodstock on September 16th. Guests were New Esperance Morris from London and Elephant Up A Pole from Coventry. A very convivial day, with a contrast of styles and a good smattering of old friends! On the way home we dropped in to a ceilidh organised by some friends of mine who were starting a new band. The dance was at Brackley Town Hall, the band is called Amber Willow and the caller was a member of Brackley Morris Men whom I haven't seen for about 20 years! Good fun, and talked to some people I've seen around at ceilidhs & morris do's for ages but never really chatted with before.

I also played for Rockhopper at an excellent Unicorn Ceilidh with Tickled Pink and Gordon Potts presiding. A great first night of the new season... it's Laughing Gravy and Malcolm North on 27th October, then Florida with Gordon again on November 24th.

Grenoside Sword Dancers at Sheffield

We went to the Morris Federation AGM at the end of September. It was hosted by Triskele Sword in Sheffield, and turned out to be one of the best! Great sides to dance with, a good selection of pubs & beers over the weekend, substantial well-prepared food and a super ceilidh on the Saturday night with Hekety, who were almost the "House Band" as at least two-fifths of the band is involved with local Morris team Pecsaetan. The caller was the very accomplished Jenny Reid , who had some interesting dances and judged the mood and pace of the evening extremely well. Triskele performed a display that showed just how much they've been influenced by teams like Black Swan and Stone Monkey - real commitment to every figure, and no prisoners taken! Grenoside Sword Dancers came along to dance at the massed stand on Saturday afternoon - a rare treat as I haven't seen them for some years now. The ritual of their dance is full of mystery, and I find it quite a mesmerising show.

Life & Times Hats Off to History

Life& Times have now started presenting their school shows to enthusiastic audiences of children and teachers. Hats Off to History had two "dry runs" at Sandye Place Middle School and Watchlytes Primary School, and has had a few bookings for this term and the next, while the Winter/Christmas show, Winter Days has a full end-of-term diary, and is still taking bookings for the run-up to Christmas. We're really pleased with the way the show has gone, and just need more people to know about it and book us at their schools. For the last few weeks I've been delivering publicity to local schools on my bike! Life & Times have also been busy playing at the Woodworks Festival at Marsdon Vale Community Forest, and at the St. Albans Folk Music "Second Sunday" session at the Rose & Crown in St. Albans.

Off to a session tonight and then the Ampthill Pie Festival on Saturday. The next post should be a good 'un (when I get round to writing it)!

Monday, September 04, 2006

Festival Season

Since I last posted we've had a very hectic three weeks of festivals, starting with Whitby, where Redbornstoke were dancing as a booked team as well as giving workshops based on our own Morris Dancing tradition. I find Whitby to be quite an odd festival, in that it's very spread out, using small venues, and is very much a "hands on" event, with participation high on the agenda. It doesn't have the "big stage" feeling of festivals like Towersey, Chippenham and Cheltenham, but there is a charm about the Whitby style which we found grew on us, just as it did last time we were there (in 2002), by about the third day, and there's no doubt that it's a friendly, comfortable place to be.

The team did well, performing a very popular ceilidh spot on the Sunday, and being interviewed and photographed for the BBC North web pages. We met a lot of old dancing friends, and made plenty of new ones. Concerts were good, with plenty of new faces among the more familiar names, and the food and drink was all you would expect in that part of Yorkshire - plenty of fresh fish and some very decent beer!

Next to Towersey Festival, where I was MC for a number of concerts. We saw some great acts, notably Martin Simpson, Blue Murder, Genticorum, Lau, The Maerlock and the biggest hit of the festival, The Spooky Men's Chorale. These guys have to be seen to be believed, but their website gives a fair impression of what to expect! It was nice to see The Maerlock there, as they were perticipants in the New Roots competition this year, and the Towersey gig was one of their prizes.

The new Festival Dance House was a good venue, making room for a full three major events every evening, as well as being a good spot for performances, such as Lark Rise, or "specials", like the Whap Party on Bank Holiday Monday (some of the best dancing I've been part of for ages!).

Whapweasel at Towersey

The Morris Offspring/English Acoustic Collective show, On English Ground was, overall, a good spectacle, and should be given as much exposure to the general public of England as possible - it really does show what English traditional dance is about, and where it could go in the future. Despite a rather slow, over-serious beginning, the show gathered pace and warmth as it progressed, and ended to rapturous and well-deserved applause from the capacity audience in the arena.

Altogether a great weekend (and the weather was kind, too!). We were expecting very inclement weather the next weekend, when Rockhopper were dancing at the Wallingford Bunkfest, but as it turned out the rain stayed away, and, although windy, we enjoyed dry, warm weather for our display spots. The standard of our company was not inspiring, and we hardly rose to the occasion, but it was nice to get together again, and touch base before our Day of Dance in a couple of weeks' time.

Highlight of the Festival for us was The Big Caper, featuring The Outside Capering Crew and Berkshire Bedlam, repeating the show they produced for the Ka-Dans Festival at Torhout, Oost Vlanderen, Belgium. The show contained all the high-energy showmanship associated with the Capering Crew, and the very best of BB's highly imaginative, breathtaking dance creations. Seen in a performance setting such as this, the sheer spectacle of Morris and the way it can be developed into an engaging, joyous, even riveting spectacle is plain for anyone to see. Between them, On English Ground and The Big Caper could do more for the image of Morris in this country and abroad, than any number of "going-through-the- motions", flowery-hatted teams dancing outside your local pub on a Thursday night. The Morris is alive and kicking in the hands (and feet) of people like Simon Pipe (TOCC) and Jameson Wooders (BB), and the wonderful dancers they work with.

The Outside Capering Crew and Barkshire Bedlam - the Big Caper at Wallingford

The Woodpecker Band played for the evening Ceilidh on Saturday, with Pete Rees calling. Despite poor acoustics in the room, the band and caller did well, and we had a good evening, with more room on the dance floor than we had expected, considering the size of the room and the number of people. The dances were well-chosen, and the band was blisteringly rocky, inspiring the dance out of tired legs and bodies.

Good on you, Wallingford - this is a great community festival that deserves to grow and grow.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Canal Festival

Graeme and I, as Life and Times, performed at the Leighton Linslade Canal Festival on July 29th. The occasion gave us a chance to try out the new mixer and headset mics, which worked really well through the band's speakers.
We had a pretty good audience and went down well at each of our two main spots - sold a couple of CDs and created some interest, with people coming up to ask questions and generally chat with us after each performance. We also played some tunes, unamplified, elsewhere on the site (outside the Barefoot Cafe, in fact).
The event also allowed us the opportunity to debut a new song, The Ivel Navigation, and to revive The Life of a Boatie Man. Unusually, we finished with a song composed by someone other than ourselves - the ever-popular Finest of Them All by the late Dave Ritchie. We had a good day, and hope to be able to do similar events in the future.