Thursday, July 18, 2013

Avebury, Bristol, Eire, Dursley

19th June—6th July, 2013

Time to catch up on some blogging after some time away...

I had an extended solstice trip this year. This began with a trainride to Swindon, a local bus from there to the village of Ogbourne St. George, and then a walk along the ancient Ridgeway track to Avebury. I spent a night on Fyfield Down after hiding my ridiculously overweight rucksack in a hawthorn grove there and going for a much less burdensome walk around the Avebury landscape, stopping to play some freeform saz at The Devil's Den and down by the stones. They next night (solstice eve) I was gathering with Stef, Penni, Dave, Paul and the usual suspects for a night around the fire playing music and awaiting a sunrise we knew we weren't going to see (but at least it wasn't raining!). Lots of Welsh pipe tunes this time (Penni on pipes, Stef on mandola, Dave playing some excellent percussion, and me sliding around the saz fretboard seemingly knowing which notes went where...)

As predicted, no sunrise was visible, but we did get up on the hilltop barrows at 4:50a.m. anyway (at which point — of course — it started raining). Huddled back around the fire we were visited by Rosie from Bristol and her ridiculously mangled (but surprisingly well-behaved) entourage. She has a new, massive, lightweight carbonfibre harp she can carry around in this kind of weather, and treated us to some celestial playing (while she drifted in and out of sleep, in a sodden green fake-fur coat, typically), Stef and I adding some extra notes here and there. Rosie mentioned (in that matter-of-fact way) that she'd ended up being invited to sleep in the garden of what used to be Haile Sellassie's house above Bath while walking cross-country with a handcart a couple of days earlier!

I didn't stick around the Avebury area as long as usual, as the weather was set to turn really nasty. Local busses took me to Bristol via Bath where I visited Vicky's son Thom in his shared house near the famous yellow "Banana Bridge", played a game of Go (he trashed me as usual) while listening to some new sounds he's been getting into: Forest Swords and Islaja. The next day I met up with Laurie from the Sondryfolk collective to check out her new exhibition in the in the Looking Glass (a gallery/bar near St. Nicolas Markets). They have an old stereo and stack of eclectic vinyl in there, so we spent a good part of the afternoon sipping Burrow Hill cider while I selected from the reggae, jazz, old-skool hiphop and Paraguayan harp EPs. I was then passed over to Sondryfolk's Elise and ended up at a lovely party in Easton, chatting with local artist types around a fire in the garden while people danced enthusiastically to cumbia in the kitchen.

The next morning I ended up playing some saz with Felicia of Eigg, Elise's housemate who plays guitar and sings: "House of the Rising Sun" and Gillian Welch's "Caleb Meyer". Deerhoof were playing in Bristol that night, and there was even a Canterbury contingent coming along for the gig, but I had to pass that one by, having a train booked to Killarney (via Birmingham, Holyhead and a ferry ride to Dún Laoghaire). I had a couple of hours in Holyhead, so checked my rucksack into the ferry terminal's left luggage and speedwalked up Holyhead Mountain (views out over Anglesey) and played saz for a little while before speedwalking back and being whisked across the Irish Sea.

Kris picked me up in Killarney, and we immediately headed up to Dingle to collect his daughter Aïcha from a Irish language summer camp. Having a bit of time to spare we wandered around the pubs to see if we could find a piper friend of his who plays sessions most nights — no luck there, but we did get to hear a few minutes of trad sounds in a tiny, packed-out pub (Dingle's very lively these days, and popular with the tourists as ever).

Then it was back to their home in Sneem for a few days of catching up and helping out around the place. Having three kids now, Kris and Birgit are extremely busy, so Kris and I didn't get a chance to play a lot of music. But he's been teaching himself jazz guitar theory whenever he has a few spare moments here and there, was very keen to demonstrate some of his newfound knowledge about complicated chords, scales, substitutions, etc. I've consciously avoided this kind of theoretical stuff in my own music making (there's enough of it in the other aspects of my life), but it was really interesting to learn some of the basics. I'm curious to re-engage and start experimenting with more interesting harmonic possibilities on the saz, when the time is right. There's a wealth of really helpful instructional videos on YouTube (as with everything these days). Kris has another band together at the moment ("The Whole Shebang") with a local bass player, old friend Adam on percussion, and a couple of female vocalists, playing jazz standards and jazzed-up arrangments of pop songs. Living out in West Kerry something like this really only makes sense as a source of enjoyment (there aren't enough gigs around to make it viable as anything else), and they seemed to be having a lot of fun with the material when I went along to the bass player's place to hear them rehearse.

I had a weekend excursion down to West Cork with Andy Man (who drove down from Ennis in County Clare with Daeng, his new girlfriend, and a vanload of instruments). This was a lot more musical. We headed to Andy Ra's place up the mountain near Kealkil, had a wondeful evening session with him:

Listen Here

Maughanasilly Stone row – image from

Andy Ra had to take off to a psy-trance festival near Macroom the next morning. Alongside his earthy existence growing vegetables and working with wood, he's got really into digital arts and VJ'ing in recent years, and he'd been booked to VJ for some of the DJ sets. I got a call from Christy urging me to get along to this festival, apparently an excellent atmosphere, lovely people, etc., but I couldn't quite face a night of relentless psy-trance, so opted out. Instead, Andy Man, Daeng and I stuck around West Cork, went for a walk up to Maughanasilly stone row, etc., visited old friends at Future Forests, and then headed down to Fiona's place near Ballydehob for a splendid meal and another sesion. This was more of an Irish trad kind-of-thing with Fiona's fiddler friends Catherine and Claire. I hadn't played any of these tunes for 15+ years (if ever) so my attempts at accompaniment were a bit hit-and-miss, but it was one of those evenings where that's fine. And I've recovered some reasonably listenable excerpts from Andy's Zoom H4n recording:

Listen Here

Mount Gabriel (with the astronomical observatory just visible on top) as seen from Fiona's garden

The next morning I got dropped at a cafe in Bantry where I had a hilarious time listening to local character Eamonn the Wizard telling tall tales (and some true stories, like walking around Crete with his old pal Ross Daly and a couple of donkeys in the early 70s), then got whisked up to Kealkil stone circle with Mike Collard and his new cosmic girlfriend Suzie, hearing Mike's optimistic mythogeographical interpretation of the psy-trance event where he'd just spent a night (this is someone who was at the first Glastonbury Fayre in '71 shortly before dropping out of Oxford!).

Back in Sneem, as well as some games of Scrabble with Birgit, and technology updates from the kids, I spent an evening jamming with Kris, who was breaking down familiar pop songs and showing me what was going on from a jazz theory point-of-view (Michael Jackson's "Billy Jean" has a lot in common with Miles Davis' "So What", I was astonished to find, and we had a lot of fun playing something based on that new Daft Punk single that everyone seems to love — once you strip away all of the gimmicks and effects, you're left with a chord progression which you can do whatever you want with). Kris also introduced me to the Blue Note Trip remix album series (wow!) which I imagine will be featuring heavily in my future podcasts.

Then it was back to Bristol, and up to Melski's place in Dursley to finish Volume 3 of the Secrets of Creation trilogy with Matt Spacegoat. He just had a couple of illustrations to adjust, and we had the layout to finalise. That was easy enough, quite pleasant in fact. Melski had just passed her PhD viva the day we arrived so we all headed up to Cam Long Down for a champagne picnic, then back to her's to listen to selections from her outrageously hip vinyl collection on a very wonky turntable (the result of an overstretched belt-drive), which sans the champagne probably would have been untenable. We got to work the next morning while Mel attempted to "relax" (not her strong point), then the next day had an excursion to St. Pauls Carnival in Bristol. It was a blisteringly hot day, and I have a vivid memory of hurtling down the M5 with Zappa's "Peaches en Regalia" and Dr. John's "Walk on Gilded Splinters" sounding particularly excellent (randomised selections from Ms. Melsk's iPod). The Carnival was magnificent — we caught the parade (featuring, for example, primary school kids in giraffe costumes dancing to a ragga soundsystem being pushed on a pram, as well as the excellent samba band Laurie and I stopped to watch in Bristol a couple of weeks earlier), then ended up in Portland Square listening to an MC called Tall Rich toasting on the One Love Stage ("dem talkin' 'bout di credit crunch/but still di rich man has 'im lunch"!). From there we wandered from soundsystem to soundsystem...bone-rattling bass, the smell of burning chicken mingling with ganja smoke, semi-clad people clutching cans of Red Stripe, burning sunshine, and as far as I could see, a totally aggression-free event. I realised how much I prefer these open, multi-cultural, intergenerational urban festivals to the more precious, white middle-class dominated hippie festivals. Just before we discovered an excellent roots'n'dub system (may have been Abashanti-I?) with a paricularly large speaker stack, we were distracted by a stall selling "dub sirens" with coloured buttons and toggle switches we were enthusiastically encouraged to try out (great fun!). Melski went off for a romantic picnic with her carpenter boyfriend Nigel while Matt and I drifted over to the Star and Garter to catch up with Elise and friends...

just some random freak outside the Star and Garter...

We finished the book the next day, listening to, among other excellent Sunday sounds, Cerys Matthews interviewing Karl Jenkins (ex-Soft Machine) on BBC6 Music. And we even had time for Matt to set up his gear and record me playing saz for a song called "A Few Shells" from Stella's second album which they've been working on together these last few months. I'm particularly excited to be featured on a track involving a Pixiphone! I know of these because one got used on the first Hatfield album — Stella, typically, found one at a boot fair!

I should point out that we were meant to finish the book the weekend before solstice, and the trip to Eire was meant to be my way of celebrating its completion. In the end that plan fell through and the Irish adventure was more of an anticipatory celebration. It's hard to believe that the trilogy is finally done. Now I have to start thinking about promoting it...


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