Unusually for a Sunday morning, I find myself hurtling backwards across the Wirral at around 100 miles an hour courtesy of Virgin Trains plc. Currently in transit between last night’s recital of Rhythm and Blues classics in Liverpool with Mr. Holland and his orchestra and this afternoon’s whistle stop tour of the works of Basie and Ellington with the National Youth Jazz Orchestra, this is the first time in the last fortnight in which I’ve not been knackered, ill, panicked, at the helm of The Volvo for hours on end or a mixture of all four.
It’s been busy at The Gables, you see. The current phase kicked off two Fridays ago with a spot of root-vegetable based fun on the gig at the Snotley Grange country club in Snotley-Upon-Thames, Snotshire, where the speciality of the house is to really make you feel like a servant, and one who is imminently up for the chop, to boot. After running the usual gamut of having nowhere to unpack the gear, the parsimonious attitude to parking and a small stuffy room which was the regulation 20% not big enough, we were steeled for the predictable lukewarm applause and inevitable faint praise. With minutes to go before it was all to grind to a start, Rico Tomasso realised that he’d forgotten to bring his trombone mouthpiece- quick as a flash, I went to the kitchen and asked for a carrot and a sharp knife, and much to my surprise managed to acquire both without precipitating a management meeting or CRB check. I’ve been trained, you see, and thanks to my years messing around in the band room on Jools’ gigs I am familiar with the dark arts of constructing musical instruments from items on the buffet table. My main speciality was always the Clarinet made from a French stick, but I did remember some of the chaps making brass mouthpieces out of stuff. The results you can see here-
On the next day, I’d organised an orchestra to go and play for Tony Hatch in the festival hall. Aside from being an unabashed sixties-up culminating with the now octogenarian Petula Clark, still in fine voice but having the appearance of being hewn from a solid block of Tipp-Ex, getting the audience to sing along with “Downtown”, the main highlight of the evening for me was when Mr. Hatch himself got on the podium and conducted us through the Sportsnight theme. Absolutely bloody marvellous- on the perfect acoustic of the Festival Hall stage it was as if I had been immersed in a televisual soundtrack of my own childhood. Not so smashing, though we’re the spoken interludes between the tunes. Michael Grade had been put on the bill to act as host and chat to Tony about his past, to lend colour to the show. The amount of colour this actually generated would have been enough to re-invent the rainbow. Nobody could have foreseen that our Tone was an absolute minefield of information. His answers went on and on and on, and as orchestra contractor I had a responsibility to not let the show bang into overtime. At the end of the first half, which had gone on for about an hour and a quarter, split 60/40 in favour of Amusing Hatch Family Anecdotes, I was getting really quite concerned that I was going to have to go Oliver Twist-like to the Money men and meekly ask for “More”. Luckily, Grade, the old pro that he is took much more of a commanding hand in the second half, and like a championship level shepherd, guided the Collie that was Mr. Hatch quickly and economically through the hoops of the second half. What a relief.
Relief was short-lived, though- at the inevitable drink-up afterwards, the sneezing and itchy eyes started. My body, with whom I have a touchy relationship at best had decided that it hadn’t been getting enough attention and declared a cold. A series of overnight coughing attacks through to the Sunday morning reduced the glottis to sandpapered ribbons. This was especially splendid, as my work that day was to do the educational outreach thing at Ronnie’s (loads of shouting necessary), then take the rehearsal for the soul jazz show that night (loads of shouting necessary), then present the outreach concert (loads of shouting necessary) and then do the main gig (loads of shouting necessary). Needless to say, by the end of all that lot I could hardly speak, and The Man-Flu had taken full hold. Drenched in my own sweat even more than normal, I just about got self and The Volvo home and collapsed into the winceyette paradise that is the master bedroom at The Gables.
The body kept me awake most of that night too, with the fun of coughing up what felt like bags of carpet tacks augmented beautifully with gallons of snot and a headache. Just as well, because I was up early the next morning to drive to Abbey Road to do a session on my Tubax for a Dutch pop band called Urgleflurgle, or something like that. Cunning use of industrial quantities of Strepsils held the demons at bay while I was working the low register under pressure for folding money, but there was the predictable complete meltdown upon my return to The Gables that afternoon. This was unfortunate, as that Monday marked the beginning of a week-long State Visit by Her Indoors’ mum. As you can easily understand, under such circumstances an atmosphere of effortless domestic bliss is the desirable objective, but, my bumping around and groaning upstairs in the fashion of Bela Lugosi in The Beast from the Snot Lagoon didn’t go too far in achieving this.
By the Wednesday, I’d decided that all normal life needed to be put on hold, and that the only way to try and get some Normal Service out of the week was to own up, go to bed and let the cold have its evil way with me until it was done. By now, the self-pity had reached near astronomical levels and I was a fully paid up, card carrying member of the Man-Flu society of Great Britain. This all evaporated in a second, however, when I found a message on my voice mail from a worried sounding woman who lives opposite my folks saying that Mum had been taken to hospital. This was a double emergency, because my Dad suffers from Motor Neurone disease and is paralysed from the neck down. Within nanoseconds I was being driven to the family home in the Volvo by Her Indoors, so that I could liaise with my sisters en route and do my best to fend off the man-flu. Ninety minutes later we arrived to find Dad sitting in the living room with a nice young bearded paramedic in a green jump suit called Andy. Andy informed me that dear old Ma had had a stroke and was undergoing treatment in the local hospital. By now one of the sisters had turned up, so she and her indoors went off to find Ma in the hospital, leaving me to mind Dad. Looking after my immobile and worried Pa took some degree of inner strength, and I consoled myself with the fact that he’d done it all for me when I was a tiny nipper, but elements of it took quite a degree of steel, I can tell you. I became aware of the vast army of folk in Britain who work for the charities who provide round-the-clock care in situations like this. On that night, a nurse called Carla turned up whose job it was to sit in an armchair all night in a room adjacent to Dad’s to make sure that he was OK when asleep. I was upstairs snoring my flu ridden head off at this point, but I would urge you, next time you have an idle moment, to raise a glass to the Carlas of this world. Bloody amazing.
I won’t dwell much longer on all this, as this is meant to be a jolly look at the ups and downs of a life in the enthralling business of music, but on the other hand I didn’t want to glibly dismiss or ignore it, so suffice it to say here that it now looks as if Mum’s on the mend in a magnificent stroke recovery facility. Pa had a long career as a bank manager, and therefore has set great store by saving up for a rainy day, can now afford round the clock care in a five-star residential home. It’s a rotten situation, but at least it’s as un-rotten as it can be for now.
Luckily, the back end of that week contained work which was easy enough to achieve on no sleep, a family crisis and a head full of snot. God bless the BBC concert orchestra! Two days of mainly sitting around and Strepsils, interspersed with very infrequent bursts of easy Saxophone operation- just on the saxes alone, 15 licence payer’s annual subs had gone up in smoke before you could say “Friday Night Is Mu”. This cannot last- but while it does, let’s all give thanks for the fact that there is one tiny island left in the great sea of the music business where the bean counters don’t seem to have any influence at all- enjoy it while it’s here, folks.
There is a gig every year which qualifies for the title of “Unbearably sweaty function in a marquee in someone’s back garden”, and last Saturday was that gig. In a Plog about a year ago, I wrote up about the one last year, so I shan’t dwell on that aspect of the evening further, except to say that Dave Jones on bass ended up looking, as last year, like a wax effigy of himself covered in aspic. As we’d got the job through an agent, who’d been subcontracted by another agent, I’d guess that the poor sod who was having the do was paying between two-and-a-half and three grand over the odds. The plus side of this for us was that because we were expensive, the expectation was that we were a tight cohesive unit with Years Of Experience, and this in turn made our audience very much more receptive. Never mind the truth, which was that the band actually consisted of a load of itinerant freelance functioneers who were doing it by the seat of their pants, and that the reason that there weren’t as many songs from Simon on Guitar as normal was because he’d come straight to work from having a vasectomy. Thanks to our rigorous survival training in the harsh world of the professional environment, the illusion of seamless showbiz magic remained, as far as I can tell, untrammeled. Maybe I shouldn’t have written any of that down and then put it on the web. Mt Potts, the client, may be reading. We shall see. If you are reading, sir, sorry about the two and a half grand, and the rather falsetto version of “Satisfaction”.
Monday and Tuesday were spent seeing the folks, and watching for signs of improvement in Ma, and Wednesday and Thursday were spent on a gig which comes up every year which could easily comprise a round in the popular Japanese game show “Endurance”. This is of course the graduation day celebrations at Brunel University, held mainly outdoors in the spacious grounds encased in some rather tasty concrete brutalist halls of residence. In order to lend a suitable atmosphere of cultured levity to the queuing for the presentation and subsequent cocktail levity afterwards, someone a long time ago hit on the splendid idea of having a small gang of chaps along dressed in stripey blazers and boaters to play some Dixieland jazz. It’s a lovely idea, and good honest work, but it starts at eight forty-five in the morning, and the first set is an hour and a half long, on your feet, sounding jolly. The Cold was still upon me, and coupled with the acoustic properties of playing outdoors, which demand a higher volume than usual, quite quickly a nice load of pressure had built up in the front of the head. During our magnificent rendition of “The Darktown Strutters’ Ball” I felt as if I was having an attack of the bends. It could have been worse- I could have driven there straight after a vasectomy, and at least this year it was sunny- we have in previous years have found ourselves playing “The Sun Has Got His Hat On” in horizontal rain whilst the punters wisely cower inside the marquee enjoying warm champagne in little plastic glasses.
Playing that loud for that long- we knock off at 5.30 after playing for a total of around five hours- makes a chap’s chops very strong- for a couple of days later, any form of gigging feels like running downhill. The game is to not duplicate any of the material, and as it all has to be done without sheet music, this can result in some extraordinary trad jazz fudged versions of things like “Theme from Nationwide” and on one magnificently rainy afternoon, “Summer Holiday” By the end of the second day, we were unable to speak, walk or think, but we did manage to bash out a version of “Tainted Love” just before home time.
Because of the ongoing situation at home, it will probably be a while before any new chapters to the Curry Underground will be added. However, I am rehearsing this week with the Concert Orchestra once again, playing very small amounts of tenor sax in a collaboration with the Pet Shop Boys for a do in the Albert Hall on Wednesday. Stay tuned for tales of Gay orchestral fusion, and hopefully some good news about Mum.