Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Cool Cats and Bad Wolves

Last Friday I returned to Cool Cat's Cafe in Camberwell, London. This was my second visit after playing there in December.

I caught the train from Birmingham International and spent the journey there reading Lenoard Rossiter, Character Driven by Guy Adams. Rossiter achieved the rare feat of becoming associated with two iconic but very different sitcom characters. He was also well know for a series of funny TV adverts for Cinzano which co-starred Joan Collins. I was aware of his acclaimed performance in Brecht's The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui because we studied the play for A Level Theatre Studies but I hadn't know the details of his many years in repertory theatre (including at Wolverhampton Grand) before slowly establishing a reputation as a gifted comic actor on stage and television. It was very interesting to read how he abandoned a career in insurance to go professional at the age of 27 (!) and approached his roles with the self assured but modest skill and diligence of someone who had developed his abilities over many years. He was a perfectionist and has been described as difficult but it would seem this was simply because he expected the same skill and professionalism from his colleagues. The book was very readable if a little fawning and there was next to no details of his private life which is either very tasteful and respectful of Rossiter and his family or a little boring, I'm not quite sure.

I arrived at Euston with a few hours to kill before needing to go to the venue so caught the tube to London Bridge. I strolled onto the bridge to have a look at the river and paused to take in Tower Bridge, HMS Belfast and from the other side St Paul's and that funny bridge that trains go over. I still love seeing all this "London stuff" when I visit, but this time cut my sightseeing a bit short because it was raining and I was cold. I had a stroll through Borough Market which made me very hungry but I saved myself for the meal I was promised at Cool Cats'. I had a look at The Golden Hinde and was surprised to see a sign advertising that folk gigs are held on it once a month. I made a mental note to check that out on the internet later. Which reminds me...

I walked past Shakespeare's Globe and thought about how little I could remember of the one and only time I've been in there. This was on a school trip, and from what I can recall my main conclusion was how uncomfortable it would probably be to actually sit and watch anything there. It feels as if we went on loads of school trips to London but it was probably only a couple. Whilst the details of the trip to The Globe are hazy visits to West End theatres to watch things like An Inspector Calls and The Woman in Black are much more vivid. One memory that is unlikely to fade is that of seeing a classmate mistake a member of the Household Cavalry (sans horse) for a guardsman who wouldn't be allowed to move. He threw his chewing gum at the soldier's beautifully polished breastplate as it shone in the summer sunshine, perhaps as a satirical statement at the absurdity of the traditions of pomp and circumstance of the British military and establishment, perhaps just because he was a bit of a teenage twat. How quickly his bravado was shattered when the soldier drew his beautifully polished sword and walked towards him...

Next was a brief look round the Tate Modern and an encounter with a well known comedy actor/writer/presenter in the gents. Not the best place to meet celebrities so I decided not to let on that I recognised him. He reciprocated although there is a slim chance he wasn't pretending. After a coffee and some more of the Rossiter book in not exactly friendly little cafe I jumped onto the tube to Elephant and Castle and was relieved to remember where to find the stop needed to catch the bus for the short journey to the venue.

Once at Cool Cat's I had a chat with the wonderful guys there, Toby and Roger, and was introduced to Mark Abis who was also playing. I had a very interesting conversation about music and gigging with Mark while tucking into my much anticipated burger (it was worth demurring from the food on offer at Borough Market.) Turns out Mark had one of his lovely songs covered by Emiliana Torrini. I enjoyed hearing about the background to that.

I had asked to play first to give me time to get back to Euston for the last train back to Birmingham and so after an introduction from Toby I started playing at about 9pm. On my last visit the place had been really busy and as there was just me on the bill I played two 45 minute sets. On that occasion the set started off like a restaurant gig with people chatting and listening in now and then. By the end of the night it was a bit more of a party atmosphere with requests and singing along, as well as a birthday cake for one of the patrons. This time around there was a few less people in attendance but a much more chilled and listening vibe. It felt as if everyone was really paying attention to what I was doing, there was some nice banter and after I had finished my set I was thrilled to make the first hard copy sales of the new album.

London based singer songwriter James Wing who I met last summer on the Ray Davies songwriting course made it along to the gig and it was cool to catch up with him and chat about his new album which is nearing completion. After hearing most of Mark's set I jumped on the bus and then back onto the tube which got me to Euston just in time for the train back.

The following night my friends Big Wolf Band were playing at The White Horse in Harborne. This was their last performance featuring Mick Jeynes, the excellent bass player who played on many of the tracks on my album and also at several gigs with the The Robert Lane Band. Mick is an incredibly committed and professional musician and plays with many highly regarded Birmingham bands. He also has a new role and extra responsibility in his day job and so he has taken the difficult decision to leave Big Wolf Band, as they are going from strength to strength and their gig schedule gets ever busier.  A friend and I went for dinner in Harborne then headed over to the gig. As we arrived outside the venue she noticed there was a fight going inside the pub (me being not so sensitive to such subtle clues as people standing around outside calling the police and shouting "leave him!") It all looked quite serious but I was pretty sure that the band would be alright because they would be playing in the back of the pub, so musicians and fighters would be mutually out of each others' sight. The pressing concern was how we would get into the gig as even if we fancied ambling past the violence there was now quite a crowd of people blocking the door. We spotted some people heading down the side of the pub and I remembered that the smoking area led to another entrance, so we went that way and found the band rocking away blissfully untroubled.

For some reason a lot of the pub/cafe/bar venues that are incredibly supportive of musicians tend to have fairly impractical spaces in which to host them, while venues that have an abundance of space couldn't care less about having live music. The White Horse is a pretty classic example of the first category as it has a very long narrow bar with a performance space tucked round the back. My companion and I perched on some stools crammed next to the toilets and took in the scene. The place was full which meant that whilst the whole room could hear the band only a relative handful could watch them properly with a few more sitting at the bar and craning their necks to catch a glimpse. The gig hadn't long started but already there was quite a buzz in the room, and Big Wolf were steadily building on it with originals written by guitarist Jon and some blues and rock covers. It is sometimes a strange thing to see people who are friends performing and being so bloody good.  I get the same feeling when watching a lot of musicians and actors who are friends that I've performed with in the past...have a really shared a stage with them?

Jon invited me up to jam with the band and I used his spare guitar and amp as he led us through a couple of blues covers. Everything seemed to be going well until another scuffle broke out. This time it was a bit closer to where we all were but still far enough away not to be too much of a worry. We were playing with one eye on the fight and eventually the audience sat in front of us caught on and were also watching the fracas.  As is often the case with this kind of thing it was pretty hard to tell what was actually going on and the two guys involved seemed to be doing a lot whilst simultaneously doing nothing. Sensibly and cool as anything Jon just kept on soloing until it all calmed down then sang the last verse and brought the song to an end.

Jon passed the mic to me and I kicked off a blues tune called Matchbox that I like to play as a jam song. About halfway through, with people now actually dancing in the small space in front of the band, the bar man was asking us to stop playing as the fight had carried on and got pretty serious. During this enforced break it transpired that the fight was probably something to do with the blues match that had been played earlier that day. The guys in the band said they had played there several times and never seen any trouble before and it didn't feel like the regular punters were very impressed with it all so I think it was an unfortunate one off. We started up again and I sang Leave My Kitten Alone then left the band to carry on with their set. It was drummer Andy's birthday and there was on stage presentations of gifts to him and Mick. The night just got better and better with another good mate Gaz Barham joining the band for some Cream and Rolling Stones songs. Whilst it was a little bittersweet due to Mick's sad but understandable departure from the band I'm very glad to have been a part of the night.

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