Sofa Sound  Newsletter 16/March 99

Now Then....


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Another year rolls in.
It finds me still out here in the unknown territory of Terra Incognita, looking to find the continuing Something New.
As I write this my mind is more than a little occupied with the other sort of writing: I'm in the advanced stages of preparation for the next studio recording, whatever and whenever it may finally be.
In the meantime, the latest release on Fie! is now out. It fills what has been something of a gap in the recorded output over the years, as the following screed will indicate. So it's into that and then on into the next....
Until later, as always...thanks for listening.

Typical: Live, Solo, '92

Finally, an official live album of solo shows: "Typical" is a double CD compiled from performances in 1992, including many of my "standard" songs.

I don't really think "singer-songwriter" is what I do, but it's certainly true that the solo show has been the staple of public performance for me back through all the years. It's where I started (oh, the embarrassment!) in odd folk clubs in the sixties - and, since I started, I mean to finish. In the gap between VdGG Mk. I (the Keith Ellis line-up...) and the "real" start of the band I even did a solo residency at the Lyceum's all night shows. Since then, of course, I've regularly upped acoustic guitar and keyboard and set off for many a foreign stage.

The attraction of performing alone is not simply economic, although this undoubtedly has a bearing on matters in general and my continuing survival as a functioning being in particular. More important is the sense of immediacy and drama which is involved in the solo set. While it remains a "performance" - and while the songs themselves are more or less "known" - the fact that I have to give myself in 100% concentration for the entire duration of a show means that I am at my most focussed and least externally observational. In other words, for the thing to work I have to become completely immersed in each song I'm singing.

Additionally, as I've often pointed out, the absence of a more structured musical accompaniment than my own (sometimes ham-fisted) efforts means that reliance is placed almost entirely on the voice...which therefore has an abundance of free space in which to roam and to explore. The stripped bare nature of things also means, of course, that the songs themselves can be seen in their simplest form. Paradoxically, of course, this means that their inner complexities (and paradoxes) are more readily viewed than when they are the templates for a more structured, ordered and possibly more complex musical presentation, as in pH quartet shows, for instance., or even duo ones such as on the most recent tours with Stuart, where interaction and musical colour is more the order of the day....

In sum, then, returning to the solo show is always something of a touchstone for me and although in some ways this kind of performance is the most arduous and draining it's one to which I'm convinced I will keep returning as long as I'm capable of getting out there on the boards.

I've often stated - in both word and deed - specifics of my attitude to live playing in whatever form. I don't play live in order to promote current "product" and I don't present what could be called a regular show in the course of any tour. (Of course, new songs will be introduced to the set with each new release and older ones drop out....) To the extent that live playing is promotional it's only in terms of maintaining what passes for my profile of visibility. In sum, for me a concert is always about this night, this hall, this audience, these songs. Each show, then, is - or should be, in my view - unique.

I continue to stand by this attitude, but it does present certain problems when one considers any sort of recorded documentation of live performance. For the most part I've resolved this in the past, for myself at least, by a certain "warts and all" approach, extending right down to the sonic quality level. Thus "Vital", "...Daylight" and "The Union Chapel" were all CDs which referred to one specific night, outside the context of a tour. "Room Temperature" was a rather different case and the one closest to the current collection, having been recorded over the duration of the US tour in 1990; "The Margin" was something of a similar effort. None of the live recordings, of course, have been doctored or sweetened by overdubbing in post-production - so that all remain genuine records of the events in question. Additionally, in all cases the recording process itself was never allowed to take precedence over the performance itself. It has always been a case of capturing the night rather than playing for the benefit of the machines first and the present audience second.

Each of these recordings has also served a specific purpose in documenting a particular phase or style of live playing. In no way do they cover all the bases - I've played with far too many different line-ups to make that a feasible proposition. Additionally, I simply do not record that many of the shows, even with a view to (later) private examination of what's gone down.

That said, it's become apparent to me of late that there has been something of a gap in the official CD collection: no kind of live solo work. There have, of course, always been the bootlegs. I won't bore you once more with my attitude to these beyond saying that the quality of performance, recording and simple lack of care taken in the production of these often leaves a great deal to be desired. I appreciate the fact that these deficiencies are de rigeur - almost desirable - in the genre, but they don't leave ME in a great frame of mind.

Perhaps it was the appearance a little while ago of the neo-bootleg of the Lanzarote show, "Tides" which eventually focussed my mind on the matter. (I say neo-bootleg, incidentally, because while it was - temporarily, at my insistence - released on a bona fide label it had been presented to the label by somebody who had come across the tapes and thought that I would be delighted for it to be put out without receiving any royalties myself.) In my own view the performances on this artifact were convincing but the recording itself seemed to come from Mars.

In any event, I was eventually led to examine exactly what solo tapes of any quality remained in my possession. These were initially completely uncatalogued.

It goes with all I said earlier, I suppose, that I have a marked reluctance to listen to live tapes in the immediate aftermath of a show. Usually I don't like to hear anything in the course of the relevant tour, mainly because once one show is done then however it's gone it's time to look forward to the next one. The other way compromise and possible regret lie. Then, once a tour is finished, it's pretty unlikely that I'll occupy myself with revisiting past stages in audio terms because usually I've got better and newer things to do with my time.

In any event, when I came to go through the tapes I discovered that the most significant collection was a set from the European touring of 1992, just after the release of "Fireships". Many tapes, many hours, many versions.... Readers, I was a diligent man in working through them and evaluating each for sonic and performance potential.

Eventually I managed to sort out a fully representative body of work and it's from this that the new release is compiled. I believe that it's as representative as it's possible to get of the nature of solo shows. Since, as I've said, each of these is unique, that's not completely adjacent to The Truth...but there is a certain "true to type" element about affairs here which makes the "Typical" title only half a joke.

There are no overdubs, just, in two cases, edits between different versions. I can no longer locate where these edits come nor, indeed, the reasons why I made them: lost in the history of post-production. An element of applause remains (as opposed to the stage sound only of "The Margin"); audience-less solo versions would light the floodlight of intimacy a bit too much even for me.

I have cut out any of my chat or my thanks, thinking that these would just be too boring on repeated hearings. (I have to say, though, I did find some gems among the recordings; I particularly liked a moment when I stopped playing of a sudden and then - off-mike - could be heard insisting "get OFF the stage, get OFF the stage now!" to some interloper. Heigh-ho...I don't think it would have played at all well on this cd.)

That's about it, except to say that I write a great deal more in the liner notes about the nature of the performances and, indeed, of performance. Some of you may well find that these notes provide a useful insight into my ongoing state of mind...although I do have to put in the qualification that any observations by me on live performance are somewhat unreliable - I am, after all, quite otherly engaged on stage!

Finally, I should mention the songs, I suppose: "My Room", "Curtains", "Just Good Friends", "Too many of my yesterdays", "Vision", "Time to burn", "The Comet...", "I will find you", "Ophelia", "Given Time", "Modern", "Time for a change", "Patient", "Stranger Still", "Our Oyster", "Shell", "A Way Out", "Traintime" and "The Future Now".

...and the cover (by Ridart, of course) is another winner. Enough said?

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The Miscellany

Another new - and live - release on which I feature is also now out: "Mirror Man" (pt.I - and I don't know if there'll be a pt.II, before you ask!). This is the recording of the Festival Hall concert with David Thomas last year. It's not the entire concert, but is fully representative of the weird and wonderful stuff that was going on. I played harmonium, keyboards and, for the most part, guitar. In the wash of sonics my contributions aren't all that easy to spot, to be honest! This CD is out on Cooking Vinyl (Cook 175??) and it's an interesting and demanding listen.
1999 remains a year of continuing uncertainty as regards my own activities. I'll certainly be doing three shows in France in May (14 Nancy, 15 Strasbourg, 18 Tourcoing) and the likelihood is that there'll be more French dates after that and possibly Italian ones before. I may also put in one of my odd Bath Fringe festival appearances in June. Believe it or not we're also taking active steps to tour the US/Canada this year. I know, you don't believe it, but it's true. Britain and everywhere else remain to be sorted but there are plans....
Meanwhile, I am writing furiously. I have several pieces finished and am champing at the bit to record and realise them, but feel I should accumulate a body of work before starting The Next. Without getting too far ahead of myself I should also say that I've done some work on "Usher" over the last period.
It's safe to say, then, that there'll certainly be More Stuff later this year, of one kind or another. I hope to see you there, where and whatever it may be.