Willy Wonka, the Sheriff, a Mzunga and the self destructive rock star…

Time is a dangerous thing, especially when you have plenty of it to yourself. If you’re anything like me you tend to spend it thinking, and that’s a dangerous pastime, especially when you’re in the process of going through one of the biggest periods of upheaval in your life, as I am.

There’s a number of things going on just now; I’ve moved to a new continent, my family are following in a week or so, I’ve started a new job (which appears to be shaping up to be one of the most challenging of my life) and I’m coming to terms (slowly) with what was perhaps both the easiest and, increasingly as the days go, one of the hardest decisions to come to terms with that I have had to make.

The moving continent thing, though quite a huge undertaking, is something I’ve considered on more than one occasion and,having finally taken the plunge, I’m cracking on with it. In the early nineties I nearly emigrated to Kenya after spending some time there on holiday/safari. They wouldn’t take me at the time as there was a huge drive on employing the populace and that’s as it should be. Then, slightly later in the nineties I had the opportunity to move to Austin, Texas to continue working for Motorola when they summarily dispatched most of the business managers in the Scottish (or was it European?) offices of their empire. Sense prevailed at that time, or at least my partners did. She’s now my wife, and we’re happily married with 3 great children, so it was obviously the right choice. I’ve since considered Canada, New Zealand and Kenya again but they all fell by the wayside for some reason or other, until this year.

I was back in Nakuru, Kenya in Feb of this year and met some great people who I discussed emigration with and the lifestyle of ‘residents’ (as opposed to Nationals) and they advised caution, but I was still very, very interested… Fate took a casting vote on my decision a couple of months later when, quite by chance, I discovered a new post had opened up in my job as the IT Manager in Kenya for 2 years. To say I jumped at the chance would be a gross understatement.

Having had a few weeks here in Nairobi on my own while I wait for my family to arrive I’ve been able to ‘get my feet under the table‘ at work and begin to get to grips with the oddities of life in an African country… ‘Kenyan time’ for instance. It’s a fluid concept to say the least and any deadline, meeting or schedule must be taken with the equivalent of the Dead Sea rather than the usual pinch of salt.

The life of a ‘Mzungu‘ is one of huge contrasts. If, like me, you’re still in the employ of a ‘Western’ nation your salary affords you the opportunity to live in a manner well beyond that on the same salary in the UK or some other European country. A beer costs about £1.60 in a pub and, if you buy for the house, it works out about £0.50 for a half litre bottle. Beef is ridiculously cheap, a decent T-Bone, sirloin or fillet will cost £5 at most. And then there’s the matter of security. The carrying of clubs, happy sticks, batons, or machetes (pangas) in vehicles is common practice for ‘whites’, you live n a guarded compound with security on the perimeter gates and walls as well as patrolling your personal residence. There are no-go areas in town, the night clubs, bars, hotels and restaurants all have security with some even being fenced and gated… It takes some getting used to!

Strange as it may sound, it doesn’t even feel odd! During the day I’ve been out for meals, visited businesses etc and at night I’ve done the same. Despite the awareness that there’s a ‘bad element’ it doesn’t feel oppressive, yet. I’ll reserve judgement until the family arrive.

This is only in the city of course, and a very small minority of those who live there. I’ve travelled much of the length and breadth of Kenya over the years and the only trouble I’ve had so far was once, in Nairobi, when I was stupid and flaunted my ‘Western wealth’ which resulted in a mugging… the rest of the time I’ve felt comfortable enough as I would travelling anywhere in Europe.

I can’t wait until the family arrive next week. I want to show them the wonders of this country and help them understand my fascination with it.

The job? Well that’s a different story. At least for now. It’s like being an extra in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory! I can see all these opportunities to make the world a wonderful place (as far as my IT world goes anyway), but I’m not able to touch. It’s like a frontier town in the Wild West, things have run rampant since the first settlers set up camp and there’s a desperate need for a Sheriff to bring order to the place before it implodes. The problem is, I’m going to have to play the sheriff and lock a few of the troublemakers before I can enjoy life and make the place a happy one for all and sundry. It’s more than frustrating, it’s annoying, but prudence and not a little experience have made me aware that it’s ‘slowly, slowly, catchy monkey’ :o)

And then there’s the other thing…

Over the last 3 years I’ve had the privilege of being able to make more than one of my life’s ambitions come true. They were quite simple really, but they meant a lot to me and, nearing 40 I had resigned myself to the fact that the opportunity had passed me by… Then I met Pete Harwood and all that changed. In a short time we managed to write more than an album’s worth of what is, in my not so humble opinion, some damned fine rock songs, we played to appreciative audiences in England, Scotland and Wales, we had a #2 single, received an 8/10 review in Rock Hard (the biggest selling metal/rock magazine in Europe), released an EP and a live album. People recognised the name of the band across the country, we were played in pubs in London and elsewhere, on the radio in the UK, Europe and America, and appeared on (albeit local) prime time TV. And then, being the selfish git I have the habit of being, I threw it all away.

I don’t regret my decision, not at all, the opportunity to live and work in Kenya is one I could never have considered turning down, but now, this week in particular, I’m turning into the green eyed monster I had hoped I wouldn’t. You see, I mentioned above that we’d written enough material for an album. We certainly did! We even started recording it but, in a very sensible move, we (and I mean we) decided it would be redundant to release an album of music with a band’s ‘previous singer’ when the band was still very much alive and kicking with a new singer.

And then there’s this coming weekend… In order to get your name out there as a band/artist, there are a couple of avenues open to you; buy the publicity, which usually involves a label or some such binding contract, gig forever across the country, impractical with ‘real’ world jobs and other commitments or, and this is the one, play at decent festivals where you’ll be exposed to a horde of possible new fans. On Friday, at 14:35, Morpheus Rising will do the latter. Appearing on the Classic Rock Society stage at the Cambridge Rock Festival, the lads will fulfil the other of the two ambitions I have outstanding. They’ll play in front of a sizeable audience of rock fans who are there for one reason, to enjoy rock music. And later this year, or early next year, they’ll release the album…

I thought this would be easy. With the chaos of a new life, a new job, a new continent and all that goes with them I thought that what would be going on over last week and the coming weekend would pass me by. Alas, it hasn’t, and I’m torn between conflicting emotions that I find hard to resolve. I’m proud, really proud, that I was involved in everything that led up to this period with the band, the writing, the singing, the recording, the PR, the website and the gigging… and then I’m insanely jealous. In another life I would have been getting up on that stage on Friday and facing (what I hope for them will be) the largest crowd of my performing life.

If you make it to the Haggis Farm Polo Club this weekend I hope you’ll head over to Stage 2 for half past 2 and support what I still believe is one of the most promising rock bands currently playing the ‘circuit’ and if, like me, you won’t be able to for whatever reason then take a pause at that time and, if at all possible, raise a glass and wish them all the best on this, the beginning of something new.

Pete, Gibbo, Andy, Daymo and Si, I wish you all the best and I hope you knock their bloody socks off. I’ll be thinking of you and I hope, somewhere along the way, you’ll tip me a proverbial nod. I’m proud of you guys, of everything we achieved and I wish you all the best this weekend and for the future.

Panic, at the disco… And friends in high places.

It’s been a strange few weeks. As far as work is concerned, while I’ve made a decision regards my future. I’m still ramping up to the tour in August. With that in mind the hours are getting longer and the work is (meant to be) getting harder, more frequent, more frantic… The strange thing is, it isn’t!

Yes, last week was a long week, the hours were bearable, just, the working environment was bearable, just, and the training was bearable, just! (And I was the one running it!) But the company throughout was great, all involved remained positive, there was a tangible level of optimism in the air and, all in all, the opportunity to get to know those who will be following my lead over the next year or so was a very welcome one and I have come away with a more positive feeling than I had prior to the exercise.

I wasn’t aware quite how tired I was by the end of it all until I tried watching the Heavy Metal Britannia shows on the Friday night, waking up at 01:45 on the Saturday morning on the couch wondering where the last 4 hours had gone!

All that lethargy was dispelled on the Saturday night when I ventured out with Pete and Gibbo to The Duchess to catch a gig. This was no ordinary gig though, it was a date I’d been bigging up with everyone I could over the last 3 months trying to ensure a decent crowd for what is fast becoming one of my favourite bands.

As I’ve mentioned in one of my earlier entries I saw Panic Room towards the end of last year and immediately made a note of their next night in York. This was it. Since the last gig I have purchased the limited edition version of their new CD Satellite which includes Little Satellite, a 4 track bonus EP if you will, and I’m so glad I did! At least 3 of these tracks featured in what was a very similar set to the last gig as well as the full band version of Blood Red Sky (again) and a mixture of tracks from Visionary Position and Satellite. There seemed to be a little tension at the start of the set with the sound not quite hitting the mark but as the night progressed everything settled down and the band seemed to ooze confidence. There were a couple of ‘interesting’ moments, not least the dead battery in Anne’s acoustic and the Marmite introduction to I Am A Cat (you either love it or hate it!).

The band were great and everyone enjoyed the performance. It was nice to catch up with some friends at the gig and the comments from all were positive. Once such person was John Merrick who had missed the gig before Christmas for some reason and saw the band for the first time tonight.. He commented on the fact that the band sounded so much ‘more’ live than on their CDs, something I hadn’t really thought of until he pointed it out, but when you consider the sheer power of tracks like Dark Star on the CDs then that’s definitely saying something.

Once the show was over we continued the night’s revelry at The Duchess for a while (including a fair amount of air guitar and rock god posing) before heading off with the members of Panic Room to another local establishment for a few drinks. It was nice to be able to catch up with Andy at this point as he’d been lighting the gig! Before this I managed to nip back stage and chat with both Anne-Marie and also Chris Johnson who had been the first support of the evening, it was odd to be sneaking in back stage, especially to see Anne-Marie as the last time we’d been there it had been a complete role reversal at our gig in December! (And Anne, I’m still waiting on the photos from that show!).

The last part of the night seemed a little surreal to me. You must understand that, before I became an acquaintance/friend of any of these people, I was a fan and that’s an attitude which is hard to shake off. So imagine how I felt when we ended up at the birthday celebrations of Heather Findlay with Anne-Marie, Chris Johnson, Bryan Josh, Liv Sparnnen etc along with the rest of the guys from Panic Room!

It was a great night, everyone had great things to say, both about the gig and the aftershow, the following day and I’m now waiting patiently for Anne to get on with recording some of her solo material… With all the other projects she’s involved in I may be waiting quite some time. Not to worry, I’m a patient man, and if it means more nights like Saturday I’m all for it!

Right, I’m off to start my homework!

All the best,

Grae

Regression – Part 1 – Held’ in Awe!

I promised a kind of retrospective of the last 19 months or so of my musical landscape, so here’s the first course… Be warned! Despite my love of all things ‘metal’ I have developed a predilection for progressive rock again over the last 12-18 months, and it shows!

I’ve decided to start with a couple of artist/band/performer specific blogs and not the usual Live/Recorded review of the year type and first up is the ‘Little Red Rock Chick’ herself, well, actually,  not much of it’s just her, but she’s definitely a uniting thread and major influence on it all.

I first came across Anne-Marie Helder in Karnataka some time ago but didn’t really pay much attention. It wasn’t until I saw her support Fish on the Return to Childhood tour, in Barnsley I do believe, that I began to sit up and take notice.

Fast forward to 2009 and, thanks to links with members of MR, I was now an acquaintance of Anne’s (she took MR’s first two promo shoots) and definitely keen to see her on stage again.

My first opportunity came at the Nick Harper gig at the Duchess in York shortly after I’d missed the Marillion convention where she’d performed to an exceptionally responsive crowd. I missed the first act that night and made it just in time to see Anne coming on stage. There was no guitar on the first track, unless you can call the rhythmic beating of its body playing a guitar? If I’d been in any doubt of her vocal abilities beforehand this one track cemented my opinion. To come on stage and open with an a cappella track like this was risky at best, to do it as well as this was pure talent. The set continued with one or two of the tracks from her The Contact EP from 2004 alongside some new material which has yet to see the inside of a recording studio. The set was a perfect mix of old and new material culminating in a track which I think may have been called ‘Wheels within Wheels’ that blew me away [think of a combination of Apocalypstick and Dark Star as a solo piece and you may be somewhere near it].

I bought The Contact that night. I’d heard it before but only once and had forgotten how much I liked the songs both in style and substance.  It now has a firmly regular place in my sound system, on my PC and my iPhone. I can’t fault any of the tracks and they are easily better live than on this accomplished solo début.

Next up was the Breathing Space appearance at A Night for Heroes.  For those of you not from York this was a charity event at The Duchess in memory of Howard Sparnenn a well-known drummer, musician and character from York whose daughter is now not only the vocal talent of Breathing Space but also of Mostly Autumn (who headed up the night)!  On this occasion Anne was performing in a supporting role only. I believe there were backing vocals and flute involved, but my memory may be failing me on this occasion. Despite several opportunities I had never seen Breathing Space and, despite the pedigree of the cast, I must honestly admit that I do  not believe it lives up to the sum of its parts. Brave words indeed!  I’m not sure what it is?  The music is well crafted and expertly performed, there is some (although perhaps not enough?) on stage presence and on paper this should be somewhat of a ‘supergroup’.  Live, it just doesn’t live up to expectations. (Please read on before you reach an opinion of this… there’s more to come!)

Following on from the Breathing Space appearance, the next time I saw Anne was with Panic Room.  This is, for all intents, one of the Karnataka successors and it more than lives up to it’s name. In fact I may even be as bold as to say that it surpasses that band on all levels.  Most, if not all, of the writing in Panic Room is undertaken by Jon and Anne and if this is a sign of what’s to come I will definitely keep up the harrassment of her until a solo album appears! Again I was sufficiently tardy to miss the first, and part of the second support acts but I care not a jot.  The night was all about Panic Room for me and it was, quite simply, stunning! Tracks such as Apocalypstick, Dark Star and Yasuni were perfectly executed while Anne lost herself in the tales being told and acted out her visions of the imagery inspired by the lyrics. I love this aspect of her performances, you can see her getting lost in her own worlds and it’s something to behold. [On a personal note, it’s something I envy and have begun to aspire to in my performances; the ability to lose myself under a spotlight in a crowded room…]

Next up should have been an absolute marathon of a weekend… with Mostly Autumn, Breathing Space and Parade performing on separate nights of the same weekend. For reasons which escape me now I completely missed the Friday night show which included a performance by Parade a band including Fish’s erstwhile guitarist Chris Johnson and Anne-Marie on vocals, guitar and keys. I then refused to fork out the money needed to see Mostly Autumn in York’s Grand Opera House and so it was to The Duchess again on the sunday night to see Breathing Space. Or so I thought.

As we arrived we bumped into Andy (Smith of Mostly Autumn/Morpheus Rising) who advised us that Anne and Chris had hurriedly put together an acoustic support set for the night.  This was a boon for me as I was more than a little hacked off at having missed the Friday night’s Parade performance and this turned out to be an acoustic set of primarily the Parade material.  Considering it had been put together in an afternoon’s warm up/sound check the resulting performance was proof that both these two are consummate musicians, there was even enough space for a little humour.  I didn’t know the material sufficiently to recognise them at the time, but I was sufficiently impressed enough to head off and buy The Fabric from the band’s site.

And then for Breathing Space… Perhaps it’s the venue (I know from experience that it’s a bitch to get the sound right on stage), perhaps not. But I still can’t get to grips with this band. Strange as this may seem there is just something lacking.  Don’t get me wrong, the music is beautiful, the performance impeccable. But that’s about it. There’s very little presence, in fact (in fear of being taken the wrong way!) if it weren’t for Livvy there’d be nothing to watch on stage at all, and after a couple of tracks it all seems much of a muchness. I will of course persevere and revisit both the albums and the live shows as I am determined to at lease realise what I think is missing if not bring myself round to liking them!

All in all I think I’ve seen Anne-Marie Helder live about half a dozen times in 2009 alone and I’d quite happily have seen her half a dozen more, under any one of her guises.  I cannot recommend either here solo EP (The Contact), the Parade album (The Fabric) or the two Panic Room albums (Visionary Position & Satellite) enough. Those people I have managed to ‘come see her’ or ‘give it a listen’ will agree wholeheartedly that she is a talent worthy of far greater things than she has achieved to date. And I’ll be there listening and watching when it happens.

Having read this back I’ll admit I considered apologising now for the apparent worshipping at the altar of AMH. But I’ve decided against it, she really is that good!

All the best,

Grae