Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Loopy, multi-layered guitar wizardry

Gordon Giltrap

Huntingdon Hall, Worcester
Saturday 13th January

People had been telling me for years that I should go and see Gordon Giltrap live. The publicity describes his show as one that "guarantees to enthral guitar aficionados, acoustic enthusiasts and music lovers in general" and there was no shortage of middle-aged men in the bar during the interval who could be overheard saying, "Yeah, well, I used to play a bit of guitar but, when I see Gordon, I think I may as well give up!"

We took our pews in Worcester's magnificent Huntingdon Hall – an 18th Century former Methodist church and surely the city's most atmospheric music venue. Sitting centre-stage surrounded by an array of guitars Giltrap worked his way through an impressive selection of tunes including the loopy, multi-layered 'The Dodo's Dream' and his homage to childhood seaside holidays 'On Camber Sands' with its rippling, dappled arpeggios. Complaining of temporary deafness in one ear due to a virus, he asked the audience to confirm that his favoured 'ping-pong' delay effect was working properly.

Some may think of Giltrap's music as slightly irrelevant, a remnant of the late 60s folk scene that wandered off the singer-songwriter route into the side-roads of 1970s instrumental prog-pop guitar wizardry. But he is a survivor and a reminder of that talented group of artists – and of that particular sound associated with the Transatlantic label, that included the likes of Bert Jansch, John Renbourn and Pentangle.

Not surprisingly, Giltrap saved 'Heartsong' (which made the top thirty in 1977) for the finale and encored with the dark, complex 'Lucifer's Cage', hopefully inspiring all those middle-aged lapsed guitarists to go home and dust off their instruments.

Friday, 29 December 2017

Ancient end-of-year traditions - Bonfires and Bongaloos

As the days grew shorter, darker and colder, we decided we would make one last trip away from home before settling down to Christmas and the New Year. Regular readers of this blog will know Rye in Sussex is a special destination for us and so, in November, we revisited the magical medieval town perched on a hill in time to witness its famous bonfire night.  Dating back several hundred years, ‘Rye Fawkes’ night predates the gunpowder plot and features not only the bonfire and fireworks associated with bonfire nights all over the UK but also burning boats, fire-breathing dragons and a spectacular procession of flaming torches through the town's streets. Its history is obscure but it seems to be less about Guy Fawkes & Co. and more about a curious mixture of disguise, revelry, smugglers, warding off the threat of invasion and ancient end-of-year traditions of banishing evil with flaming torches.

The 2014 edition of Rye Royal
The pageant of Rye bonfire provided the backdrop to Malcolm Saville's 1969 book Rye Royal. When the book was republished in 2014 (by Girls Gone By Publishers) I was privileged and delighted to be asked to write an introduction for the new edition. Of course, it is to the children's adventures of Saville that I owe my fascination with Rye and the surrounding area so it seemed appropriate that we should make the short journey from Rye to neighbouring Winchelsea, where Saville lived throughout the 1970s. He died in 1982 and his ashes are buried in the Garden of Remembrance at Winchelsea church (the Church of St Thomas.) We chatted with a local resident at the gates of the churchyard who said he knew Saville had lived in the town but didn't realise his ashes were buried there. He did, however, point out the grave of another famous former resident of Rye – Spike Milligan.  The already rather worn tombstone of Milligan (who died in 2002) famously bears the Irish epitaph "Dúirt mé leat go raibh mé breoite" ("I told you I was ill") – a last joke by the comedian.

I can remember a day, when I was at primary school, when the teacher read us some poetry by Spike Milligan.  I was completely captivated by lines such as:
"On the Ning Nang Nong
Where the Cows go Bong!
and the monkeys all say BOO!
There's a Nong Nang Ning
Where the trees go Ping!
And the teapots jibber jabber joo."

I raved about these poems to my sister Jan (who happened to work at Wildings bookshop in Shrewsbury) and she came home with a gift for me:  a yellow paperback copy of Milligan's Silly Verse for Kids. I read and memorised some of the poems, like Bongaloo:
"How strange is a Bongaloo, Daddy?"
"As strange as strange," I replied.
"When the sun's in the West
It appears in a vest
Sailing out with the noonday tide."

It may have been nonsense but it was poetry. Just as Saville's novels would later make me yearn for adventure, travel and loyal friendships (not to mention fostering a love of books and a desire to be an author) so Milligan's verse (with its wit, perfect rhythm, alliteration and assonance) was surely an excellent foundation for an aspiring songwriter with an appreciation of the surreal and the absurd.  Strange, then, that these two writers, so influential to me, should both be laid to rest in the grounds of the same church in Winchelsea.

Part of the charm of the sister towns of Rye and Winchelsea is that they are both a little lost in time. Some things have changed, though, since our last visit. The windmill where we stayed has new owners and, in Lion Street, buildings that were once a Victorian schoolhouse (and later a library) now house a wonderful state-of-the-art cinema – the Kino Rye. It's surely a hopeful sign that places can celebrate their long history and ancient traditions and still develop beautiful new venues for arts and entertainment.  I'd like to think both Saville and Milligan would approve.

Saville, in his Portrait of Rye, wrote:
"It is difficult to assess the magnetism of this historic little town. I have come to believe that in this unhappy age of standardization and mediocrity, Rye stands alone, sufficient to itself. It is not indifferent to the outside world but history has left its mark."

Milligan, in his book Puckoon, wrote:
“Life wasn't too bad. The trouble with Man was, even while he was having a good time, he didn't appreciate it. Why, thought Milligan, this very moment might be the happiest in me life. The very thought of it made him miserable.”
Happy New Year!

Friday, 27 October 2017

The Thief of DADGAD - Pierre Bensusan

Live at St Mary's Church, Alveley 

Saturday 14 October, 2017

It could have been a scene from days gone by ... more than a hundred people making their way to the village church on a dark, autumnal Saturday evening. But, this well-attended gathering was not for a religious service but for a concert. That's not to say it wasn't a spiritually-uplifting evening as the mellifluous music of the virtuoso French-Algerian guitarist Pierre Bensusan filled the beautiful 12th century building. That the internationally-renowned musician should make the former coal-mining village of Alveley in Shropshire the venue for one of only five dates on his 2017 UK tour is something of a surprise. I'm told one of the villagers is a Bensusan fan and persuaded the organisers of Music at St Mary's to contact the guitarist's management.

Bensusan's playing and ethereal vocalising benefited from the church's wonderful acoustics plus some judicious effects, controlled by a laptop (which he operated himself from the stage area.)  In between numbers, he would adjust the effects, joking at one point, "I'm sorry about this – I'm expecting an important email."

Highlights of the performance included the delicate Four A.M. (from the 1987 Spices album), L'Alchimiste and Intuite. From the 2010 studio album Vividly, Bensusan played Pas Sage and Dadgad Café, explaining that he always plays in the DADGAD guitar tuning because he is self-taught and no one told him the standard way to tune a guitar!  Le Voyage pour L'Irlande was introduced with a quip that it's not so difficult to translate the French titles into English. He also had a funny anecdote about an occasion when he took part in a pub session in Ireland.

For one man to keep an audience entertained with just an acoustic guitar (in one tuning) for a couple of hours on a Saturday night takes remarkable skill and talent. Thankfully the transcendent, adventurous thief of DADGAD has what it takes.

Friday, 1 September 2017

Mounting the air at Shrewsbury Folk Festival

Shrewsbury Folk Festival 2017 -Sunday 27 August 2017

It's two years since we were last at the Shrewsbury Folk Festival, back in September 2015, when Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita performed on a typical rain-drenched English Bank Holiday weekend. This year we were blessed with a warm and dry day, though the atmosphere was perhaps a little subdued, the festival mourning the loss of founder and co-director Alan Surtees, who established the event twenty years ago and sadly died in June.

We came for the Sunday only, mainly to see our old favourites The Unthanks and Seth Lakeman. Before this, though, we witnessed an unexpected highlight in the Pengwern Marquee in the form of the fantastic - but alas ephemeral - National Youth Folk Ensemble. This group of teenagers had spent just four weeks learning a dazzling set of tunes which they played with great confidence, skill and obvious enjoyment.

After an early evening lull in the music we gathered in the Bellstone Marquee where The Unthanks performed, as the end-of-summer sunset seeped through the entrances and exits. With songs like 'Magpie', 'Mount the Air' and 'What Can a Song Do to You?' – and augmented by trumpet, string quartet, drums and bass – they delighted and thrilled as always. 

Loudon Wainwright III is an acquired taste (and one I'm afraid I still haven't acquired), but he offered up his trademark mixture of irreverent, cynical songs and anecdotes on guitar, piano and ukulele, ending his set with 'The Swimming Song'.  

Finally, for us, Seth Lakeman gave a breathless and blistering show, the lights perfectly synchronised with his mesmerising fiddle playing, while his amazingly talented band managed to keep pace, looking like a bunch of delighted kids on a musical roller-coaster ride. Folk music can sometimes be surprisingly loud, surprisingly fast and very exciting indeed. 

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Meteors, eclipses and a sense of perspective from the night skies

Things astronomical have dominated the news recently. Earlier this month there was the spectacle of the Perseid meteor shower, sometimes referred to poetically as the 'tears of Saint Lawrence'. And then the US witnessed the 'Great American Eclipse' – a total solar eclipse visible across the entire United States, from the Pacific to the Atlantic. So it seemed appropriate that I should be reading a thought-provoking book by Adam Ford called 'Galileo and the art of ageing mindfully'. Subtitled 'Wisdom from the night skies', this little volume is one of a series of slim hardbacks produced by Leaping Hare Press which deal, in a very entertaining and often rather tangential way, with mindfulness. (Other titles available include 'Einstein and the Art of Mindful Cycling' and 'The Art of Mindful Baking'.)

Adam Ford (who has written a number of the books in the Leaping Hare series, is an ordained Anglican priest, but there are more references to Buddhism than to Christianity in this philosophical reflection on what we can learn from astronomy. In a chapter called 'Time Tunnels and Eternity', Ford explains the speed of light and what it means to us. He points out how, if we look up at Orion in December we see Sirius (the brightest star in our sky):
"Like the sound of the woodcutter's axe delayed when seen from the far side of a field, the light of Sirius is somehow delayed by its speed, so we do not see it as it is now but as it was eight and a half years ago. What we see in our present moment is something happening eight and half years ago in our past. What were we doing then?"

Ford goes on to consider that, because of the time taken for light to travel, using light years as a measure of distance, when we look at Betelgeuse for example (450 light years away) "we see it now as it was in the past, in the first Elizabethan era." While the three stars of Orion's belt "are seen even further back in history, for they shine to us from hundreds of years ago before the days of William the Conqueror."

I, with little knowledge of astronomy and still less of Galileo, had never contemplated how, because of the speed of light, when we look at the stars we are looking into the past – a kind of everyday, interstellar time-travel that might help us maintain a healthy sense of perspective when we reflect on our place and time in the world.

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Tewkesbury Medieval Festival, July 2017

A musical reception committee
While parts of Europe are suffering a heatwave this August, in England the summer has, for now, been chased away by thick cloud, rain and the occasional rumble of thunder. It's hard to believe that, just a few weeks ago, we were enjoying perfect weather for what was, for me, the highlight of the summer (if not the highlight of 2017) – the Tewkesbury Medieval Festival.  

Now, you might be thinking these guys at the Passengers in Time blog surely aren't into dressing up in costumes and reenacting battles. Maybe not, but of course this blog has always been about books, music and time travel and the Tewkesbury Medieval Festival brings together two of those interests very nicely indeed. You may recall that, back in the spring, we reported on Celtic Medieval Speed Folk trio PerKelt. We were so taken with them we looked them up to see where we could catch them playing live again. Turned out they were booked to play at the Tewkesbury Medieval Festival – reason enough to go along to this free, family-friendly event even if battle reenactments, archery displays and sampling mead aren't really your thing. 

PerKelt at Tewkesbury Medieval Festival
(c) Tony Gillam, 2017
PerKelt were, as expected, amazing, and I found myself beaming with joy and contentment as they performed their sweet, exuberant music in the brightly-coloured dome tent. But it wasn't just the enchanting music or the obvious enjoyment of PerKelt; the whole atmosphere of the festival was delightful – relaxed and relaxing – with the opportunity to see all sorts of interesting stalls and displays within a stone's throw of one of our favourite quaint English market towns. The Tewkesbury Medieval Festival is our new choice event of the year; and, if it's not a contradiction to say so, we're really looking forward to going back in time again next July. 

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Clementines in Dulcimerland

Dulcimers at Halsway, Halsway Manor, Somerset

22 May - 26 May, 2017

Many an episode of The Saint or The Avengers involved Simon Templar, Steed or Emma Peel snooping around an isolated English country house and uncovering sinister goings-on. Mad scientists would be plotting nuclear destruction or charismatically leading some strange cult. I felt a bit like one of these 1960s TV adventurers as I turned into the drive leading to Halsway Manor. Halsway – pronounced, I discovered, 'Hall-sy' with a silent 'w' – is set in the Somerset countryside and is home to the National Centre for Folk Arts. All sorts of unexpected activities happen here but nothing, I'm pleased to report, involving criminal masterminds.

At Halsway you can learn square basketry, green woodworking or 18th century style dance (taught by the choreographer of the BBC's Poldark series.)  Musicians can hone their skills on banjo or ukulele and the Manor also hosts a festival for the nyckelharpa (a Swedish keyed fiddle, similar to a hurdy-gurdy.) 

I was here for an event called Dulcimers At Halsway, hosted by the Nonsuch Dulcimer Club – an organisation for anyone interested in hammered or mountain dulcimers. Now, for the uninitiated, dulcimers are part of the zither family of instruments. Hammered dulcimers and mountain dulcimers might sound as if they ought to be related, but really they are as different from each other as balafons and balalaikas. The trapezoid-shaped hammered dulcimer is played by striking the strings with small, spoon-shaped, wooden  'hammers'. Even if you've never seen one, you've probably heard its haunting sound on film soundtracks – John Barry’s score for The Ipcress File, for example. A mountain dulcimer, on the other hand, is a completely different kettle of fish or, if you prefer, box of strings. Sometimes called an Appalachian dulcimer as it was developed in the Appalachian mountains in the late 18th century, it is a descendant of various fretted zithers brought to America by European settlers. The mountain dulcimer is played on the lap and strummed or plucked. If you've ever heard Joni Mitchell's classic Blue album, you will have heard her playing the dulcimer.

I bought my first mountain dulcimer in Brittany in the 1980s and have been trying to play the instrument, on and off, ever since. To begin with, I thought I'd mastered a few tunes and got on quite nicely for several years until I discovered it was strung incorrectly, so I'd been playing all my chord shapes back to front. (It turned out, unlike a guitar, the bass string of a dulcimer is a drone that should be furthest away from the player, with the melody being played on the string nearest.)

Having never had any tuition – and having never even met a fellow dulcimer player until recently – the idea of a few days in Somerset involving practical workshops for beginners to advanced players sounded ideal. I made my mind up to give it a go and so, with some trepidation, I found myself in the entrance hall of Halsway Manor. As I signed in, I was given a name badge bearing the words "Tony Gillam", followed by a question mark. I wasn't sure what was so questionable about my identity until I noticed others who had the letters 'HD' or 'MD' on their badges. For a moment the number of people with 'MD' after their name made me wonder if I'd accidentally stumbled into a convention for medical doctors until I realised it was meant to distinguish the pluckers from the hammerers.

The bedroom had no TV, reinforcing the idea that I was on a retreat. My wife had jokingly told people her husband was spending a week away in Dulcimerland and it's true that I and my fellow students were totally immersed in the instrument, with workshops throughout the day and sessions or concerts in the evenings. I was taught plenty of interesting new techniques and even finally learnt exactly what chords they were that I'd been playing all these years. I was introduced to playing in different keys using that handy gadget the capo (a device that attaches to the neck of a stringed instrument to shorten the playable length of the strings and hence raises the pitch.) To a guitar player, the capo used on dulcimers looks like a very crude-looking wooden clamp, a kind of Flintstones' version of a capo – but it opened up a whole new world, taking us away from the tyranny of D-A-D tunings and effortlessly into the key of G. Our affable and gifted tutor Dave Haas, from West Virginia, would teasingly ask us: "Now, can you play this in G?" To which we were encouraged, pantomime-style, to reply in unison: "Sure! No problem," before carefully positioning our capos on the third fret.

Dave asked us to imagine we were picking up a clementine in our left hand to get our fingers in the right position for fretting the strings. "Remember, it's a clementine, " he would say, "not a melon." Whereas beginner guitarists are taught to play down-strokes and up-strokes, dulcimer players are taught out-strokes and in-strokes – the ins and outs of dulcimer-playing.

Our other tutor was Pete Coe – multi-instrumentalist stalwart of the English folk scene since the 1970s, whose latest album features a dulcimer version of the American folk song Shenandoah called World Of Misery. Pete, with his North of England matter-of-factness and mischievous humour seems like a folk music equivalent of Jarvis Cocker. "Only put your instrument in its case if you're taking it outside," he urged. "You need to leave it lying around so you can just pick it up and play when you're watching TV and the adverts come on." He encouraged us to "muck about and make up stupid little tunes." This, he insisted, was how we would improve as players. And to those who bemoan the low profile of the instrument Pete had one simple, inspirational answer. We must get out there and let the world see and hear it. So come on, you dulcimer players! Pluck up your courage. Let's go and play.

About me

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Tony Gillam is Senior Lecturer in Mental Health Nursing at the University of Wolverhampton, a freelance writer, trainer and musician. He is the author of 'Reflections on Community Psychiatric Nursing' (2002) and 'Creativity, Wellbeing and Mental Health Practice' (2018).