As you all know, I've been doing this stuff for more years than I can remember (I care to, I just can't). But having played in bands most of my life, experimented with home recording and stumbled into the world of online digital publishing, one area of performance I've never really got to grips with is playing solo. But for most of 2016, I've been playing once a week, three songs at a time in my very own local Strange Brew bar.
It's been a revelation
it's been a revelat- Woah! is there some kind of echo in here? Reversed tape?
Every week, the usual suspects appear: the Dylan cover acts (yup - 50 years and counting); the Ed Sheerin-a-likes with tiny guitars; the poet; the comedian; the English teacher rapping with a Macbook backing track; the never-to-be-seen-again astonishing virtuoso on six-string acoustic; the three piece act who turn up too late, take too long to set up and only get five minutes to play, and always, me.
Meanwhile, the half-a-dozen punters that have actually come out to the pub on a Monday night are swithering between going back outside for another fag and staying in with their hands over their ears.
And next up, it's James Bissé
Hugo, who does the sound, is half french, so it's understandable. But that gave me my early introduction, "Hi, my name is James Bisset. You say 'Is it?' and I say, 'No - Bisset!'" Which was fine for a couple of months until the bar staff started shouting, "Is it?".
And that's kinda the whole point. Over the months, in the face of actual interaction with an actual audience my patter has actually changed. My guitar playing has changed. My voice has changed (well, that's what I'm telling myself - don't interrupt). Arrangements have changed. Songs have changed. Because, for the first time in a long time, I'm getting tiny little bits of intuitive, instant feedback on every note, every word and every chord I play.
I started off with an acoustic guitar and a couple of songs. I made mistakes, fluffed chords, forgot lyrics and laughed out loud at my own amateurism. And there was the first lesson right there: people liked that I laughed at my own mistakes, and I began to feel more comfortable about my inability not to make them.
I soon got frustrated at the lack of a beat when I was playing, so I took a leaf out of KT Tunstall’s book and started stamping on a tambourine. That sort of worked, so I got myself a BeatRoot (a little wooden box with a pickup to plug into the PA). Boom! I could stamp a four-to-the-floor kick drum. Next came the electric guitar instead of acoustic, closely followed by a pedal board and a looper. Never, ever mistake me for a Singer Songwriter. I mean what is that, even?
Practice makes perfect
Now, what you have to understand is that, surprisingly, I suffer from a painful lack of confidence, combined with the unassailable feeling that I'm finally at home only when I'm up on a stage.
So, any amount of kitchen rehearsal makes little difference when I finally stride into the spotlight* and strike the first chord. My mind is running super-fast; my muscles super-slow. I'm grinning with delight at the audience and panicking about simply flicking a guitar switch while strumming and singing (buggerit! let's just have the same guitar tone right through the set!).
And there’s the second lesson: I don't need to rehearse playing in the kitchen when everyone else has gone out, I need to rehearse playing in front of disinterested people when my mind is running at double-speed and my fingers decidedly aren't. I need to get used to performing when time is distorting, when muscles are locking... If I can do that, I'm getting somewhere.
Change the menu
Playing once a week to the same half-a-dozen victims though, it does put a little bit of stress on the repertoire. I'm well aware that the BBC seems to think it acceptable to play the same tunes six times a day for weeks, but as we now know, it’s primarily a state propaganda machine. I don’t have that justification. The pressure is on me to come up with new material every month or three. And so the discipline of playing every week is enforcing another discipline - churning out new tunes (yes I know, but I'm not going to type 'choons' am I, we're grown-ups here).
This in itself is quite significant (and I'll probably write about it in more detail later), because the internal critic - ‘heard it before’, ‘cheesy’, ‘clichéd’, ‘ACDC!’, ‘too clever’, etc. - has been silenced in order to guarantee any sort of production. As a result, I'm actually making songs! By my internal critic’s reckoning, these songs should have been strangled at birth, but instead most of them seem to have a life of their own and in some cases, they're looking over their shoulder and shouting at me to keep up.
A cornucopia of talent
But the most significant thing in this age of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Soundcloud is the cornucop- hang on a minute there, are you taking the piss!
Right, on a good night, there’s a lot of talent at Strange Brew. Online presence is essential, but I've been real-life metres away from Hugo Kensdale currently touring Germany, inspired by Bay Bryan making up songs on the spot, seen John Ainsworth on tiptoe trying to reach the high notes. Not to mention Bo, Alicia, Olivia, Anna, Belinda, Mark and so many more whose gifts shone out in a little pub in South Manchester on a rainy Monday night.
OK, I'm done. Can someone tell the people outside it's safe to come back in now? Thanks.
*I'd like to point out that this is a metaphor. There is no spotlight at Strange Brew. In fact, it's so dark that I stare fixedly at my guitar neck throughout because I can barely see the fret markers. I believe this may be a common Open Mic Night policy, because most performers are terrified someone else might recognise them.