Monday, 26 November 2007

Trust me, I'm a Morris Dancer

Well, I was once.

Even in the Folk world, Morris Dancers are viewed as the ones at the shallow end of the gene pool. What male in his right mind would dance around with flowers in his hat, hitting others with a pig's bladder or waving hankies about? Female dancers have a certain grace about them and are, in the main, photogenic. Morris men? Well, they have as much grace as a hippo in a tutu.

This was my opinion for a long time. I used to be having a whale of a time dancing at Ceildhs with my 'dos si dos' and my 'boxing of the gnat' when suddenly the dancing would stop and a Crash of Morris Dancers would emerge, do their stuff and shuffle off again. A Good Time to fill up or empty was the general opinion from the dancers.

Anyhow, for a number of reasons, this happened to me at one particular Festival and I got chatting to the boss man (the 'Squire') whom I knew from a previous life and suddenly found myself a week later in a village hall in Hurst in Berkshire 'just to see what it was like'. A series of winter evenings later, a bit of help with the costume (the 'kit') from a sympathetic female (sewing not being one of my strong points) and I was let loose on the public the following spring. Believe it or not, it was good fun. The healthy aspect of 45 minutes cardiac exercise was somewhat mitigated by the obligatory tankard or two of something cloudy, but we toured the pubs, we got invited to festivals around the country, to an Army Barracks to entertain Officers in their mess (with the fine dining and drink that that brings) to Killeshandra for the Folk and Powerboat festival (interesting combination, but Guinness helped blur the confusion) and, after I left, the side even went to America following an invite.

One of our invites and, very memorable for me for not quite the right reasons, was Broadmoor. Broadmoor is a High Security Hospital in Crowthorne, Berkshire. Peter Sutcliffe, the so called 'Yorkshire Ripper' is arguably the most famous detainee. One of our team worked there and she arranged the visit for us where we would perform some dances for the residents.

We were given very specific instructions about behaviour, looking after the equipment, staying together so on and so forth and were looking forward to it.

Unfortunately, I had to be on business in Manchester that day, so kit packed in readiness for later and an early start had me up there working to get the job done. These things, however, take longer that expected and by departure time I was already late. A blat down the M6 from Manchester got me to Birmingham. No M6 Toll road then, so I crawled round Birmingham at rush hour. I finally clear and put my foot down along the M40, drop down to the M4, across to and through Bracknell and into Crowthorne, checking my scrap of a map and finally finding the signs to Broadmoor and hareing into the car park.

Out of the car, strip off (your need for preservation of dignity disappears as a Morris dancer, changing in all sorts of places) and a brisk walk across to the massive security room. Through the toughened glass window you can see enough keys to keep the most enthusiastic guard happy.

"Yes, sir. Can I help?" "I hope so, I'm with the Morris Dancers.." "So I see, Sir" "...and I'm supposed to be dancing with them". "Sorry Sir, I can't help, you need to be escorted across to where they are performing and there's no-one available, they are all watching the display and keeping an eye on the inmates". Whatever I said, he couldn't help and wouldn't budge.

So, there I am, banging on the door of Broadmoor Hospital, saying "Let me in, I'm a Morris Dancer". Now, if there was any justice...

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

Keeping music Live

In this day and age with bands 'creating' music by sampling previously recorded tracks and lip synching to their tracks on stage, it is good to know that there is a revival in performers that can actually sing and play.

Once upon a time...

There were no computers, there was no way to record music and it was passed on to subsequent generations by word of mouth. Musical annotation came along together with the ability to read and write and thus music was able to be preserved. Two Centuries ago, Thomas Edison came along and, starting with his efforts, we are now able to record music to be played back at our convenience.

The dark ages

From the 1960s to the 1980s, rock and pop music started to take off and a multitiude of bands were formed, from the behemoths such as Queen, the Who and the Beatles to, latterly, Artists and Bands churned out by Promotors such as Stock, Aitken and Waterman.

A lot of these bands were successful, feeding on the enthusiasm of teenagers and pre-teens to leap on the latest craze. However, the traditional Artists - Folk, Country, R&B and so on were sidelined somewhat.

These new singers did not necessarily need to be able to sing, nor play an instrument. Electronic wizardry to tweak the voice and lay down the backing tracks coupled with fancy videos meant that all they had to do was bounce around on the Top of the Pops stage, lip synching to the music. If anyone's seen the Simpsons episode where Bart gets a Recording Contract will know exactly what I mean.

The revolutions

One pop group (you know who you are) provided the catalyst for change when they admitted that none of them could sing and that their records were recorded by other musicians. Up until then, Top of the Pops had allowed artists to mime on stage. Now it was decreed that they should sing live.

The second revolution came with classical music becoming more accessible. Singers such as Lesley Garrett started the ball rolling, then Charlotte Church and more recently Katherine Jenkins were amongst those showing that you could make it popular for all ages. Nigel Kennedy and Vanessa Mae have brought instruments to the fore with their youth and exuberance as well as visual impact.

Thirdly, Fok music, once seen as only suitable for blokes with beer guts, a pipe, a pint of something cloudy and his finger stuck in his ear singing a dirge about some early century tragedy has had a facelift. Fresh young blood has taken and shaken the Folk world. Kate Rusby, Tickled Pink, Kathryn Roberts and the Poozies have all gone down a storm. In addition, events such as WOMAD have youth appeal whilst festivals such as Towersey, Sidmouth, Wallingford and Broadstairs all have great family appeal. Kate Rusby, Katie Melua and Norah Jones are bridging the gap between Folk and Popular music, whilst the likes of Robbie Williams are also showing how it can be done.

In their own way, the Internet, IPods and downloadable music are bringing the world of music to our PCs and our ears. Cheap flights are bringing world musicians to our doorstep and our events.

The future.. looking good for Live music, certainly from the listener's point of view as there is so much choice. It is harder for new musicians to make it big - they are up against well-polished PR machines as well as the growing mass of talent out there. Musicians need to get their music accessible and played as widely as possible - creating your own sampler website, or using a portal such as Higher Notes is a good start. Hopefully, however, talent will shine through and those that can sing or play will win over those that cannot.

Get out there this summer and take in a bit of Live music. There is a huge choice of events. Check out our calendar for an event near you. If you 've not been to a gig for a few years, you're in for a pleasant surprise!