Thursday, June 26, 2008

another midsummer around Avebury (nothing recorded tho')

Last Thursday I put my bike on a train to Reading, then cycled the Kennet and Avon canal towpath all the way to The Barge Inn (just over a ridge of hills from Avebury). I had a quick pint of ale as the sun disappeared behind Milk Hill, then cycled up to camp under a huge old hawthorn tree behind Knapp Hill. Too tired to get my saz out and play, I was about to get into my sleeping bag - but I turned around to see a big yellow just-past-full moon just over the horizon, so I couldn't not get up and stomp over Knapp Hill to Adam's Grave, to sit up there on the long barrow in the moon- and starlight for a while.

The next morning, I awoke expecting rain (three days of severe weather having been forecast) but was pleasantly surprised by its absence. I made tea, and packed my bike, then wandered down the Ridgeway to Alton Priors to check out the "laughing spring", play a bit of saz inside the ancient yew in the churchyard as well as in the church itself (all unrecorded - it felt better that way).

Back up to my bike, I cycled the Ridgeway in the other direction, up over the Wansdyke and down to Avebury, stopping to play a few tunes in the incredible beech grove on Furze Hill and in the centre of the Sanctuary (a jovial tattoed lady from Wooton Bassett sat to listen, joined in on my little pair of cymbals).

Further along the Ridgeway, someone stopped me to ask about my saz ("Is that a bouzouki?" - the usual). He turned out to know most of the people I met in Motueka in 2006. Realising I'd left my capo and cymbals in the Sanctuary, I hurried back there, meeting Niall the busker/psychic warrior (an Avebury regular from the 90's). We ended up being made tea out of the back of a truck by a woman with exactly the same (distinctive) voice as Gina Birch of The Raincoats, while Niall outlined the Leary/Wilson "8-Circuit model of consciousness".

I carried on down to the henge, 'round the stones, and up to Windmill Hill for an intense, wild, hilarious and very rainy night around the fire with Andy Bard and his former PhD supervisor (currently an Open University religious studies lecturer) and druidic colleague Graham. "University of the Hedge", Andy calls it.

Graham's not musical, but Andy had brought his mandolin and we went off on a magic carpet ride with mostly Andy songs, some riff-based jamming...Dave Prentice (aka NuSphere) turned up in the middle of the night, told us about his new guided meditation soundtrack project and discussed possible remixes of songs recorded by Andy's current band "Telling the Bees". Andy pulled out a long, drifting jewel-box of a song called "Follow You, Follow Me" about an unforgettable, dreamlike morning wandering among the devastation of the Newbury road protest site with Pok and Stella (both Spacegoats at that point). He's just got so much material - songs for every occasion, but a particular subcategory of songs for mad solstice nights around a fire in the Avebury landscape.

Stef put in a semi-surprise appearance just before "sunrise" - straight down from West Wales. He only had a harmonica and shaky egg on his immediate person. I'm sure we could have got something musical going with just those up on the barrows as the sun was rising (invisibly, behind a think layer of raincloud), but the driving rain was a bit dispiriting. We got as waterproofed as possible and then went out to watch the dawn light filter through the grey, the only music being Andy singing a line from the Spacegoats' "Avebury Ring" (he'd listened to the whole of Inamorata - their concept album involving Avebury - before setting off from Oxford that morning)...and the skylarks, of course - the rain wasn't stopping them, and they always sound particularly celestial up on that hilltop. Soon back 'round the fire, there was more tea and philosophy until I had to give up and go to sleep.

The solstice day was spent partly up there talking and jamming with Stef - some lovely free saz/mandolin stuff, where, despite there being no obvious link between what the two of us were playing, it all hung together near-perfectly. Something quite new going on there (usually with those two instruments, we get quite trancey and rhythmic).

We got a message from Rosie down in the village, so went down to meet her, with Nathan and Emma under the beech trees by the eastern entrance. After a bit of a tour of the stones together, we ended up outside the Red Lion, the pub in the middle of the henge - somewhere I generally avoid. But there was a lively crowd out there in front of the pub - bikers, druids, travellers and a general "peasant rabble" contingent enjoying too much ale and cyder on a grey solstice afternoon. Rosie played a plastic pint glass half-full of Guinness with a bodhrán stick while I jammed with Stef, Emma shaking a shaky egg and our own interpretative dancer (a kind of laid back Bez) grooved around the tables, with a huge, permanent grin. Rosie switched to pennywhistle, a tall black guy with really intense eyes and wrapped in a blue blanket took up the shaky egg (did some really far-out stuff with it, too) and we played some crude but lively versions of Irish tunes - "Cooleys", "The Kid on the Mountain", etc.

That evening we reconverged on the drove alongside Knapp Hill where Emma had parked her van ("Vanessa Lochnessa" - so named by a child en route to the peace camp at Faslane). After some wonderful fresh food and cider, Nathan and Emma tuned their guitars up and we had the most magical session (five of us in a little van, but all comfortably stationed on sheepskins and cushions, side doors open revealing a cosmic (but very grey and wet) landscape.

Knapp Hill seen from Adam's Grave
Knapp Hill seen from Adam's Grave

I wouldn't swap 1000 Pentangle albums for the memory of this one! No recording was made - getting a MiniDisc recorder and mic rigged up in there would have been ridiculous, and some things should just be left unrecorded, I feel. Nathan started playing Cliff Stapleton's "Dream Waltz" - it was familiar, but I had no ideas what it was...I was able to slip right into the flow of it, tho' - then Stef joined on his little Ozark mandolin, then Emma with some freeform vocals. A long, dreamy, floaty version that just lifted us all up.

Then Emma and Nathan started singing a duet - the old reggae/gospel "This Train" (Stef and I knew it via Bunny Wailer, Nathan via The Ethiopians). Beautiful harmonies. Then some old English songs - "The Trooper Lad" (really rockin' - Emma on guitar, loosened up from a bit of wine and WOW! she's got such a voice - one of those crystal clear English folkie voices in the realm of Anne Briggs. It turns out that her parents were folkes - it was all CND rallies and folk sessions during her childhood - so she's part of a proper lineage)...and "Newry Town", another ballad learned from the Dr. Faustus album. Stef and I jammed a bit.

Rosie, despite urging, was too happily inebriated and comfortably curled up on a sheepskin to get her harp out. She requested "The Irish Washer Woman", and we were all appropriately impressed by Stef's ability to work this one out (knowing it, but not having ever played it) within about 90 seconds. Nathan and I joined in on rhythm - request fulfilled. It was one of those "can't put a finger wrong" sessions, everything interweaving delicately...We got a pretty strong group mind thing going at the end of that longest day on the side of Knapp Hill - a shame it had to be inside a metal box, but it was the nicest metal box imaginable.

The next morning, after mulitple cups of tea made on Emma's stove, Nathan decided that a few songs were in order. We had "The Trooper Lad" (again, at my request), "The Farmer's Toast" (proper English pastoralism, gorgeous tune), "Lord Bateman" (in five - What a song! - they've picked all the best verses from the many versions and made their own thing from it). So excellent to play along with that one. Emma's voice and Nathan's guitar/bouzouki playing are both just sublime and it makes me so happy to know that they're making music together. They're running a weekly folk club at the Glastonbury Assembly Rooms - "The Fabulous Furry Folk Club" - a continuation of some occasional acoustic nights I caught a couple of. And Nathan's into ambient miking of the stage, which I think is a really welcome development. They've got Telling the Bees and the properly enchanting Pamela Wynn-Shannon together there on 23rd September (I shall be there...)

We all met up down at Swallowhead Spring near Silbury Hill the next day (I made my own way up the Wansdyke to Tan Hill, then down to West Kennet Long Barrow where I had a jam with Pete and Ant, a couple of cheerful, groovy young characters from Oldham with djembes (and some decent rhythm, mercifully). While having a little play inside the barrow on my own, four women from Swindon of multiple generations came in, listened for a bit, applauded (a bit weird, in there) and asked me all about the saz and what I was playing on it.

The Kennet at Swallowhead
The Kennet at Swallowhead

Down at the spring, the wind in the trees was too loud for playing delicate acoustic music, so we sat on the new stepping stones (big sarsens) across the Kennet and talked of many things (and giggled quite a bit).

I walked back to the Knapp Hill drove via Silbury Hill, Waden Hill, the West Kennet avenue, the Sanctuary (all with Stef) and then the Ridgeway (alone). I left it a bit too late to be able to dawdle and jam, so I kept moving. No music that night, either - Stef and I sat and talked ourselves to the edge of rational discourse, by a little fire up on Golden Ball Hill, at which point all the firewood had been burned - so we never had a chance to get the instruments out.

I cycled back along the canal to Reading the next day (sunny weather at last), a bit easier without the wind in my face. The Mikron Theatre Company (the world's only professional theatre company to tour by narrowboat) were moored up by a canalside pub a bit east of Newbury. I'd heard of them years ago, having read a little article about their three-person show about the Newbury road protest(!), so I was tempted to stay for their evening show (it's a play about debt and credit...rather topical - music apparently plays a bit part in what they do). But I felt I should push on.

Worst fish and chips ever in Reading! One of the best summer solstices, though.


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