Posts filed under 'Music and Theatre'

The Spirit of Music

Add comment October 1st, 2011

I’ve just been watching a documentary on BBC 4 called Troubadors, the name taken from the Los Angeles club of that name and largely centred around James Taylor and Carole King but also featuring other luminaries of the time like Jackson Browne, Graham Crosby, Bonnie Rait and the band of LA guys who played on many of their albums.

It was a touching and well-handled programme and if it’s available on iPlayer then I recommend it – especially if you’re of my vintage and remember Tapestry and Sweet Baby James from when they came out. It brought back many lovely memories of times with my old friends John Sampson, Gordon Dougal, and Colin Craig when we played many of the songs and wrote others that were often inspired by them.

It also reminded me of something I sometimes forget in the bustle of making a living – that music, and the connections with friends through music, has given me my very happiest times. Though I’m a poor player of various instruments I have the musician’s ear, the ability to hear the communications that pass between musicians as they play, the little jokes that make us smile and baffle those who can’t hear them.

I’m lucky that I work in a couple of subjects – web design and SEO – that are creative and challenging and which I enjoy very much. But my happiest years were as a sound engineer, working with some wonderful musicians and actors, and creating moments of magic, moments that reach people’s hearts and make them feel something that lifts them above the boredom of their working lives.

It’s always a shock to see someone whose youthful album cover pictures you grew up with looking kinda old. Reminds you that you own face in the mirror isn’t getting any younger. Carole King is now white haired and could be any American Jewish grandmother if you passed her in the street, while James Taylor is bald and angular and stooping. But when they talk to each other the light shines in their eyes, and when they sing, particularly together, the years roll away and the vitality of youth is still there in their faces and voices. And you see the love and musical connection that passes between them and you know that for all the special vibes and communication that they are sending out to the adoring fans, that they are also sharing a far deeper level of connection through the music that even those of us that speak a little of the language can only guess at. It was lovely to watch and to listen to. A big ‘well done’ to the director and cameraman of the documentary.

And from me a big thank you to the musicians and friends who shared those times with me over the years.

Videos of a Life in Music

Add comment May 13th, 2011

This last week, in between my SEO work, I’ve been converting and editing some wonderful videos from the career of my dear friend John Sampson. John has spent his whole life playing virtuoso early woodwind instruments and trumpets, and acting in mostly comic theatre. His performances at Cafe Graffiti and with the Natural Theatre Company are legendary.

John has a great collection of photos from his musical and theatrical work and we’ve added many of them since I first built a site for him about 8 years ago but only recently have I had the facility to edit some of his videos to a quality I thought acceptable.

Most of these videos also feature Pat O’Connell, either with the Naturals or as a duo. We’ve now got five of them in place on my Youtube channel and embedded in the Video page on John’s site. If you know John or like brilliantly played music then go take a look.

Voices of Angels – Judie Tzuke and her daughters

1 comment October 22nd, 2010

It’s been a trying few days, as you’ll see from the immediately preceding post, but on Sunday I had something to take my mind off  things – something I’d been looking forward to for ages. Not one, not two, but three lovely blonds with voices to die for. The Tzuke family was in town playing the Queens Hall.

Now I’ve had a few disappointments in the Queens Hall, as a former sound engineer I know the acoustics are a bit weird and not really suited for rock. So I was a bit worried when I saw the  tour schedule, and the first support did nothing to ease my fears – there was a nasty resonance in the low mid-range which obscured David Saw’s vocals a bit. A pity as he had a gentle humour to his songs that deserved a better platform. He certainly won over the audience when he described the experience of writing with Judie as having received a masterclass in songwriting.

I was sad to see that the hall wasn’t full – I remember when Judie could fill the 2000 seat Playhouse and she really deserves far wider support. Maybe all the intelligent fans have emigrated!

Happily the engineer had got a better handle on the acoustics by the time Bailey Tzuke came on with sister Tallulah and the band. Bailey has grown into a really confident performer and her voice is developing all the time. I can’t wait to hear her in a big concert hall with more open acoustics, as her dynamic range is just straining to be let loose. Her set was mainly rockier arrangements and, although I enjoyed it immensely, in some ways I’d have liked to hear some more of the gentler solo songs such as the lovely Mind of a Boy. However she did include Fish, which I was astonished to learn was the first song she ever wrote. An amazingly complex song for a first effort with a delightful background rhythm.

A quick word about Tallulah; if anything I do believe she may be growing to be the most attractive of the three – which for anyone who remembers Judie at her bonniest and has seen how stunning Bailey is now is quite a compliment. She has a lovely fine bone structure, the family hair, and though still a little shy she has a gorgeous smile. I don’t have children but she looks to be everything you’d like your daughter to be.

After the interval during which I had a brief chat with Jamie during which he said he’d never heard Judie singing better, we came to the main event. Judie came on looking more confident than I’ve seen her for ages. Maybe because she’s now so widely acclaimed as a songwriter, or maybe knowing that Bailey is growing into a star has taken the pressure off a little. Whatever the reason it was good to see and and, as we were to discover, it seemed to allow her to really let loose that wonderful voice. The band was a slight departure – the first time I can remember a line-up with two guitarists. And one of them plus the bassist sported the best quiffs I’ve seen since the 60’s!

The opening number fairly rocked – a good loosener – but things really ramped up in the second and third songs. Under the Angels and Secret Agent are amongst my favourite albums and the two titles tracks amongst my favourite ever studio songs. They both have a testing range and phrasing which makes them ambitious songs to schedule so early in a gig unless you’re on top form. Judie was. Angels was one of those hair-on-the-back-of-the-neck moments – it soared, it vibrated with energy and the top notes were as pure as I’ve heard them and delivered with complete control and assurance. Secret Agent if anything was even better – it had a power and an emotion behind it, and midway through I realised that I had tears running down my cheeks. Maybe it was partly the emotions of my last couple of weeks coming out but it was an awful lot to do with the fearless openness that seemed to characterise Judie’s singing.

The bar had been set high, and it would have been easy to have dropped from that level of quality. In fact as anyone who has played gigs knows you have to balance the showstoppers with the simpler or less dramatic songs or everything becomes the same and you lose the contrasts and dynamic range. Faith maintained the quality while allowing some of that essential contrast and then Submarine Boy brought another aspect. Part-way through it there was a remarkable interplay between Judie and Bailey using their voices as instruments in a sort of call and response mode that was quite beautiful. I’m not sure if the idea was deliberate but it immediately reminded me of whale song.

Joan of Arc was next and was clearly a popular choice. I recall it being a highlight of a show a couple of tours ago in Glasgow, but here I felt it suffered slightly from being a little too similar to the early  brilliance – not that it was in any way bad or less than well-sung – just that a little more contrast might have been better.

Edinburgh audiences can be notoriously slow to respond but by this time things were really warming up and we were treated to a variety of new and old to hoots and hollers of enthusiasm despite a predominantly older audience – hey we old folks can still rock! The band were turning on the heat too, a good old fashioned guitar solo being well appreciated.

I didn’t manage to write down all the songs played and am probably missing a couple but it was all just turning into a feast of pleasure by then. Bring the Rain has long been a favourite and was a delight to hear again while Vivien was one that fairly raced along. It seems that Bailey has many favourites amongst the albums from before she was even born and it was interesting to see that in some of them she and Judie were almost singing twin lead. The looks of sheer fun that passed between the three girls were great to see.

Sukarita is another old favourite with many fans, then the inevitable Stay With Me Till Dawn (“my one hit”) and, praise be, Sportscar – my fave driving accompaniment – brought the audience to their feet as the set closed. Of course they weren’t getting away that easy and they soon returned for two of the high points of the night.

For You was always a special song – with the three of them singing together layers that Judie used to multitrack it brought more tears to the eyes. It must be a very special feeling for Judie to have her daughters with her for that, a family in genuine harmony. But there’s now another song to bring a lump to the throat – If – inspired by the Rudyard Kipling poem and with Judie and Bailey weaving in and out together effortlessly hitting perfect notes it was impossible not to feel a range of overpowering emotions.

One last encore -a joyous Choices You’ve Made,  apparently Bailey knows the words better than Judie! – and they were gone. But unlike the last tour when many of us worried we’d never see another one, this time we were promised more to come in the future. They seemed to be having so much fun, and although by the next time Bailey will surely be headlining her own shows and Tallulah may be pursuing her own career (in I believe film making) it would be wonderful for them and us if they were together again.

Thank you Judie, for a lifetime of glorious songs and wonderful singing, and for giving us the next generation of Angels to carry on the creativity. Come back soon.

Farewell Humph, and thanks

Add comment April 26th, 2008

Not much of a birthday present. Not only have I still not recovered from a virus that’s sent me to bed for the last four days, but I woke up to the news of the death of Humphrey Lyttelton.

“Humph” was one of the best-loved personalities on Britain;  in some ways he was part of what made Britain the curious country that it is. Irreverent and hilarious but never ever offensive, despite some very close-to-the-bone material, his radio and live audiences on I’m Sorry I haven’t a Clue adored him. As did his fellow performers on the show. Most comics would have given their right arms for his sense of timing and ability to hold an crowd in rapt attention. I listened often, and always cursed the times I’d missed it.

Yet that was his sideline. As a jazz trumpeter and bandleader he was one of the very best, at 86 still gigging up till a few days before he died. He was doing what he enjoyed most – may we all go out in such a way. It must have been great fun working with him.
As a jazz broadcaster he must have drawn many thousands of people to appreciate his favourite music just because he was the one telling them about it, such was the respect in which he was held. Many were inspired to follow his example into the music profession and he seems to have been generous in his support of them.

Britain is a bit less British today. But we still have his recordings, both jazz and comedy, and our memories of a unique man. I hope the BBC have kept copies of every minute he ever broadcast because it’s more precious than gold.

I’ll raise a birthday glass to your memory Humph, we’ll miss you.

Festival memories from days to savour

4 comments August 6th, 2007

It very easy to fall into wondering where the years went when you’re 52, and if you’re not careful you begin to think you must have wasted them. However the realisation that the Edinburgh Festival was about to start brought back some fond memories the other day and quickly dispelled any gloom caused by the dismal summer.

Cafe Graffiti nights

As anyone who has trudged through my life story will know, I used to be a sound engineer many years ago, and for two years I was resident engineer at Cafe Graffiti; a long-time favourite cabaret venue in the capital. I spent many happy hours behind the mixing-desk there, enjoying the talented madcap actors and musicians on display. But the periods during the festival were very special; a blaze of frantic set and equipment changes, intense and inspired work fuelled by adrenaline and the odd pint, wonderful teamwork and friendship, and some truly amazing performances – sometimes snatched from the jaws of disaster.

I remember standing on top of a high ladder in the old Caley cinema, soldering connectors to a speaker system to cure a hum-loop with two minutes before the audience were let in. Other memories creep back of switch-overs to fantasy stage sets that shouldn’t have been possible let-alone successful – transformations that left audiences open-mouthed in wonder even before they’d had a drink! We had the Natural Theatre Company weaving magical characters. We had Neil Innes for two weeks of brilliant musical comedy and Hank Wankford, doing his own inimitable form of Country Music, who insisted on Chilli for dinner every night and then decided that the recipe that Phil the Lighting Engineer and I had was better. We had a brilliant core team of John Sampson, Pat O’Connell, Julia Gordon-Smith, and Pete Bains, and we turned the Caley into a cruise ship sailing to distant shores every night.

Then there were the special appearances from performers who were playing at other venues – we had the fabulous Brass Band, and the impossible Flying Karamasov Brothers. I particularly remember us having a surprise visit from the ANC choir who were touring Europe to publicise the struggle against apartheid; fifty voices and five brass players. Phil and I had less than 10 minutes to prepare for them going on and then the curtain opened. They were magnificent and we looked at each other and simultaneously said ‘if we can do that we can do anything’ before clapping each other on the shoulder in triumphant celebration. Memories like that I wouldn’t swap for the world.

The odd thing is that when I wasn’t working in the Festival I never felt part of it and often used to take holidays to get away from the crowds. I suspect a lot of Edinburgh people are like that. Yet when I was working, despite having barely enough time to sleep, I felt energised by the whole scene.

Cafe Graffiti closed in 1985, and while I still worked on the shop floor at at Thins I’d often get people recognising me and asking why it had gone. A few years later Pete Simpson tried running it again just during the festival and I went down a couple of times – meeting some of the old crowd also paying homage to happy times. Sadly I’ve lost touch with most of them apart from my dear friend John Sampson. One day we’ll probably run into each other in a pub somewhere and I’ve no doubt the old camaraderie will still be there. When you rely on each other completely to put on a performance that balances on a knife edge you develop a deep respect and affection. Like much of my time in the industry we didn’t make much money but by god we had some wonderful creative nights. Wherever you are guys, I wish you well. Those years certainly weren’t wasted.