Friday, October 15, 2010

The Last Night of the Tour!

The last night of the tour is upon us!!

This Cloudstreet tour has had a bit of everything, long drives, sightseeing, friends, festivals, teaching, sessions, art galleries, three countries so far, shopping, and of course, long drives bear another mention. But two things have been missing so far: narrow boats, and respiratory illness. We normally encounter both on a tour. And while we still haven't been on any narrow boats, Nic has managed to develop a cold in the last few days. Her vocals are still ok, but not perfect, so we've taken her solo pieces out of the set for the last two nights, as her harmonies are still fine, and she can still play the flute, whistle, fiddle and percussion. It happened as the weather turned colder, and autumn really took hold, about four days ago.

Its been a whirlwind end to the tour, with lots of gigs end to end and lots of people to catch up with. In the last news we were about to do Maidenhead Folk Club, which is held in the beautifully resonant skittle alley at the Seven Stars. One of the highlights of the floorspots that night was Terry, a regular, playing The Entertainer on the tin whistle, a creditable interpretation on a single melody line instrument of a piece written for ten fingers.

We were in Southampton next night for the Fo'c'sle Folk Club, a wonderful night in a very, very warm room. For Nic this is bliss and her flute loves the warmth too. For John this is a chance to visibly melt. Before the show we visited the pleasant village of Hamble-le-Rice for a glass of wine, and on the way to the show we could see the new Cunard liner, Queen Elizabeth, which was named that day by the Queen. She (the ship, not the monarch) was lit up like a city.

Our day off was spent driving to Essex and getting the washing done, very rock n roll. We stayed once again with good friends Vicki Swan and Jonny Dyer, and Vicki and Nic spent the evening having a nyckelharpa session. Vicki tuned one of her nyckelharpas to viola tuning, and taught Nic two Swedish tunes. Google nyckelharpa to see pictures of this beautiful keyed Swedish fiddle with sympathetic strings, its a wonder of cabinet-making.

Next night we played at the Hoy at Anchor Folk Club at Leigh on Sea. From previous visits we knew there wasn't much dinner available right near the pub, so we employed the Magic iPhone, solver of problems and oracle, and discovered a website called Sarfend which told us Hamlet Court Road in Westcliff, about a mile away, was the source of many restaurants. We parked the car, and practically the first restaurant we found was a soup noodle house, which was like a dream come true. Westcliff Noodle House. Try it, you'll like it.

The Hoy has just celebrated its 40th anniversary as a folk club and have a bright new backdrop declaring this milestone. Its a fascinating club with posters of amazing gigs from over the years framed and hung all up the stairs and in the anteroom.

That night Nic's cold really hit, and we spent the next day resting and taking every cold remedy - vitamin c, salt gargles, hot bath, sleep, panadol. And Dad, you'll be pleased to know, Throaties!

That afternoon we packed up and drove to Ely, where Ruth and Robert looked after us with an onion-free vegetarian dinner involving yummy lentils. Its so rare to have lentils that haven't been paired with onion, Nic almost never gets to eat them.

We drove across the fens to the club, under the shadow of Ely Cathedral, for a lovely show, supported by Winter Wilson, a Lincolnshire duo (, who sounded great. John took on some extra lead singing at this gig, and we put in a little more instrumental stuff to rest Nic's voice.

It was exciting to have Hemlock Morris attending the gig from Bedford, and some of Nic's relatives too.

The next drive took us to Dungeness. This remote shingle spit at the bottom southeast corner of England overlooks the cliffs of Dover, and on a relatively clear day reveals the coast of France on the horizon too. At the end of the spit is the eerie sight of a nuclear power station, and the stark shingle environment is home to rare lichens, a steam railway, a couple of pubs, a lighthouse and the former home of filmmaker Derek Jarman.

A.S.Byatt's novel, The Children's Book, is set in this area of Romney Marsh and Dungeness, and it's fascinating to place the action in the wild landscape.

The Drum club at Folkestone was a delight, with many friends coming out and everyone having a sing!

And now its the last night, in Guildford. See you after the show!

Thursday, October 7, 2010

A Typical Night at a Folk Club.

And here's a picture drawn on our mailing list!

A typical gig night for us goes something like this: first we spend the day aware that we have a gig, and trying not to wear ourselves out too early. We drive to the gig, which has been anything from half an hour to five hours' drive. After a long drive, Nic likes to have a little nap to get body and soul back together. This can be as short as 20 minutes, and often happens in the car. At this point John likes to read the Guardian. He says he could read forever and why isn't the Guardian bigger?

Then we go in search of a sustaining dinner and eat about 6.30pm. We both really need to eat before gigs, as the concentration uses up a lot of fuel. The food choices are limited by Nic's inability to eat onion, and some places that we know are excellent in a hurry include Pizza Express (where they do a great salad with torn chicken, avocado, beans, egg, potatoes and some strips of cooked pizza dough), and Wetherspoons which is reliable and well priced. Sometimes we can eat at the venue, which is often a pub that does food.

If there is a p.a. for the gig, we go in to the venue early and set up our gear, say hello to the organisers, and do a sound check. When there is a p.a., Nic uses her stomp box and flute microphone. We do line checks on everything and get the sound as clear as possible, so we can hear the vocals in particular. Clear vocal sound means we can sing in tune, hearing each other's harmonics.

Everything else gets a check, and the list includes concertina, guitar, percussion kit (tambourine on a stand played with brushes, cymbal), stomp box, wooden and silver flutes, whistle, fiddle. Nic has to make sure the shaker egg and f-whistle are in reach, not in a bag..... If there is no p.a., we set our gear up and check how resonant the room is, which dictates how much we need to face towards each other to hear.

Sometimes there is a support act who also sound checks, more often there is a selection of resident musicians from the club or floorsingers who have asked for a spot, and this starts the night. Residents and floorsingers often do amazing songs.

Then Cloudstreet is introduced, and we do our first 45 minute set. For us, 45 minutes is seven songs, with some chatter in between. If we try to squeeze more in, the show is not as relaxed and flowing. We like to start with a couple of songs that are very strong, so that people can relax into a good night, knowing we are safe up on that stage. We took this idea on from Kristina Olsen's performance notes, and its true, you don't want to worry that the performer up there is a bit shaky, you want to immerse yourself in the music they make.

We have been finishing the first half with Bill and the Bear, because its a good spot in the set for Nic to put on extra costume - that corset and tutu from Thailand have been getting a real workout! And it's an uplifting and fun song to take us to the break.

In the break we replenish our drinks, make sure the mailing list is passing round the room, talk to people about music, ideas, songs, sell them cds if they would like them, and give away postcards.

Then we're into set two, and it can be shorter or longer than set one, depending on the club's timing, but is usually another 45 minutes. We move our songs around each night, because we have more songs than we can perform in one night. We design the set to have a dynamic flow, changing pace, making sure we don't put two slow, thoughtful songs together, making sure we change key a lot to keep the ear fresh. We put in requests from the audience as much as we can, which sometimes redesigns the set completely!

There is often time for an encore, and we usually do something acapella as a way of rounding out the night.

Then there is a period of socializing and a few more cd sales, during which Nic tries to pack up her collection of instruments and not lose anything. At last night's club, the mailing list on a clipboard which we lost at Fylde festival over a month ago, was returned to us!

And we load the car, say farewell, and drive to the accommodation, slowly losing the adrenalin from our systems and getting tired. We usually get to bed between 1 and 2am, sometimes earlier, and try to get enough sleep to do it all again tomorrow!

News in from the last week: after the Red Lion we had the pleasure of staying with Vin and Pat Garbutt up on Teesside for a couple of nights, and found out just how comforting an Aga stove in the kitchen can be. Vin's discovered a new bird called the Great Grey Tunkle, so he's very pleased with himself.

From their place we went to do our gig at Guisborough, and we had trouble finding the venue (driving up and down the street going, no, not that building, what about that one), so we worried that no-one else would find it, but they did, and it was a great night with a singing club. The only worry was when Nic wore that tutu into the general bar, full of squash players, to buy a drink. "One of the singers, are yeh?" said a man at the bar, in a very understated way, glancing sideways.

We had a look round Saltburn, and Vin pointed out the chimney of the steelworks that made the steel for the Sydney Harbour Bridge, north at Redcar. We walked down the pier past the funicular railway and watched the brave surfers.

The drive from there to Southport was long, about 4 hours, but spectacular, as we drove over the high moors into Cumbria, on a sun and showers day with sunlight picking out glorious pieces of the view.

Southport is a fun place to go shopping, and we hit the charity shops next day and got some flash winter gear for the next few weeks. Not sure if it will come back to Australian summer with us. The Bothy Folk Club there is a beauty, wonderful resident musicians and a lovely room.

Next night we were in Runcorn, not too far away, at a club with a lot of heart, in a tiny venue where we played in front of the door. Once again, impressive resident singers led the way.

And we followed that with two nights with Dave and Linda, who used to live in Townsville, North Queensland, but happily for us, now live near Northwich! Nic had a walk down the cut and found a late fruiting damson tree to raid. We went from there to our show in Blackpool, at the Clarence. W

e have played there three times before, and its always a good night. Eddie does lovely sound and is a luthier. Last night Richard, the support act, was playing a most delectable guitar that Eddie made for him. Nic has tried Eddie's mandolins in the past and continues to covet one. He hasn't made any this year yet.

And now we prepare to drive to Maidenhead.

Skeletor the sheep, in Skipton, Nth Yorks.

A sign in the toilets at the motorway services.

A Roast, A Birthday and A Red Lion.

Its Sunday. That means there is roast for lunch. Everywhere. I think its a UK rule that there must be roast on Sunday. This Sunday, we both had roast turkey, with mashed potato, peas, carrots, Yorkshire pudding, cauliflower and cranberry sauce. Its a kind of antidote to the thoroughly rainy weather today. We have a four hour drive ahead, and our show tonight is in Southport, right across the country.

A week ago, we celebrated Jacey's birthday in Yorkshire. The party was also enjoyed by lots of her family and friends, and her enormous German Shepherd, Diezel, who is tall enough to reach everything on the table without stretching. He's not sure why everyone keeps preventing him from exercising this talent!

We caught up with some amazing people, including Will Noble, who is a traditional Yorkshire singer, and a master stonemason and dry stone waller, whose talents have been employed by environmental sculptor Andy Goldsworthy. I also had a fascinating talk about touring and piano music with Bob, a jazz and boogie-woogie pianist.

We got Jacey some vampire teeth for a laugh, and managed to get a photo of her as a creature of the night before Diezel tried them out for size.

Our next stop was Sheffield, once the home of steel and cutlery, now the home of James and Nancy and their new son Hamish. Its also the home of a great deal of folk music and a very lively city. We had two days off, singing baby songs and playing Texas Holdem Poker for the prize (every hand) of choosing a favourite song from Spotify. A very wide range of songs were played, from punk to Aussie pub rock, with much singing.

I also had the best chicken shwarma (like a chicken doner kebab) I've ever had, at a tiny cafe called Shaz. The succulent chicken was sliced off the big rotisserie while the flat bread was cooking, daubed onto the inside of the tandoor oven. A bit of salad and garlic sauce, and it was the most delicious £2.50 ever!

The Red Lion Folk Club in Birmingham has moved to Wednesdays, and it was our next gig. We have had a long association with the Red Lion, first attending there to see James and Nancy play in 2003. Since then we've played there several times and stayed with organisers Chris and Della in their inspiring house which is like a jumping off point to Narnia. Lots of magical things like tapestries and intriguing dried flowers and books EVERYWHERE, with comfy places to curl up and read.

Cloudstreet shared the night at the club with our friends Isambarde. it was especially good fun when they invited us up with no warning to play the Kesh Jig in their final number and we leapt at the chance, and sang harmonies too. The song was "Hard Times of Old England", but the times had never seemed better.