Search

Steelgrimage

One Man's Quest for Steel Guitarvana

17. Walnutiae Pt.4

Here, it ends. Back to business very soon.
‘Some days are better than others’ as Marcel Proust would have written if he’d found the time. And yet even when days are epic and awesome like the day that I’m about to unfold, we still invariably have to rely on photographs to remember what it was like, which seems a bit patchy. I worry that pretty quickly the photos we see replace the memories, and you just end up with memories of looking at the photos. I do like the idea of remembering through another sense, and I think it should ideally be the sense of smell. Anyone that’s ever climbed into a car from the 70’s will know how powerful that can be at conjuring up a past of School runs and picnics. The practicality however of keeping a Waiting Sausage or a genuine bit of Fjord Kelp, or the Diesel engine of a Norwegian Ferry handy to sniff in order to bring back this day, escapes me. What we are left with is words, pictures, still and moving and, what has been conspicuously and inexcusably missing from this blog so far, your actual MUSIC. Real recorded music. Four different media for you to gorge yourselves on. Using these tools I would like to share with you as fully as I can the joy of songs and friendship, where they can take you, and what it can offer if you give them a chance, as packaged into a single, glorious day, or part thereof, in my case. Bit esoteric. Let’s move on.

It’s morning in Hvalstad! I’m in a car park.

Gunn and John Sterling’s vast cornerucopia of a fridge wasn’t defeated by a whole day of catering, it turns out.  It still had more to give when breakfast came around and I skulked out of the wagon to join them. I remember eggs, although I didn’t take a picture of them so I’d have to smell one to be absolutely sure. Gear was stuffed back into the nooks and crevices of the motorhome and we drove back to Karen’s flat to meet her and Håkon. I remember Davie explaining this bit of the trip to me back in the UK, in the early stages of planning, and when the morning came, I really wish I had paid more attention. Karen and Håkon own a small house on an island across the fjord from Oslo, called Nakholmen. It appears that at some point, once the oil money had come in, the Norwegian government gave everyone in the capital a holiday home to avoid them trekking off to Majorca and coming back with sombreros and liqueurs that sit at the back of the cupboard until you move house. As a result the islands are dotted with picture perfect wooden structures, painted with pride in primary shades, accessible only by kayak or on foot from the ferry terminal. There are no vehicles as there are no roads, just gravel paths connecting neighbours.

We drove the van down to the dock and unloaded our gear. 
then took her back and parked her out of the way in a free parking space, I don’t know, outside the Houses of Parliament or the main station or somewhere. Parking in Oslo really is madly liberating. IMG_9173You could stick an articulated lorry on their equivalent of Oxford Street for a fortnight and not pay a penny. Upon returning to he dock, we found a very excited Håkon gesturing to get on to the waiting boat asap or face a long wait until the next one. We grabbed our guitars, mic stands and amps and loaded ourselves on to the ferry alongside Oslonian dogs, pushchairs and old people. All going to the wrong island. 

Håkon is a tech genius, who has invented things we all use. He is used to seizing opportunities, and engineering answers to immediate problems. He demonstrated the first part of this skill set by hustling us on to a boat going to a perfectly lovely island on which he holds no real estate. The second part then kicked in, as he scoured the ferry timetable to ensure that we changed boats to arrive ahead of the boat we would have caught otherwise. I can only surmise he did this because otherwise there would have been no time or opportunity for Donald to entertain us in a rubbadub Celtic stylee.

On the island of Nakholmen we had to trek our gear across to the rocky outcrop where we would be playing. I was a bit grumpy at this stage, as my guitars, amp and mic stand were all perched atop my suitcase. fullsizeoutput_c61I had to go straight off to the airport after the gig, and I couldn’t risk going back to the wagon to collect them. The rolly bag was catching stones in its little Chinese wheels, and signalling clearly that it was not designed for All-Terrain use by periodically sticking the brakes on, and generally acting like a naughty doggy who didn’t want to go for a walk in the first place. We dragged and huffed and puffed over miniature mountain passes in the midsummer sun until we reached the cove where Karen and Håkon second home. We dropped our kit, sighed, and drank in the straight-up beauty of the place. IMG_9144

The house was scandi-perfect, too. A lounge/kitchen with a couple of little bedrooms off it, and a toilet with special island rules which shouted ‘hold it in’. Our hosts had leafletted the island meaning that by the time we’d IMG_9143run an extension lead to our plateau, a crowd of around fifty people were sitting expectantly but with the kind of limited expectation that comes with a free concert performed by middle aged men. We also picked up Halder, an expert Nordic fiddle player and friend of Håkon, who played along with us, and meshed beautifully with Donald. It was like watching the marriage of European Royalty. As musicians, they clearly came from the same gene pool, but with enough tiny regional differences to make the whole thing acceptable. Thanks to the magic of Soundcloud, you can hear for yourself how we did.

And as Håkon threw a drone up you can see for yourself that i’m not lying about the jaw-dropping nature of the place.

Once we’d finished playing there really was nothing left to do but make the most of the crystal chill of the water. Observe here Simon’s near-perfect dive technique.

IMG_9213

And that’s it. I changed out of my borrowed trunks, said goodbye to the boys and our wonderful hosts, went back to the mainland and got the train to Oslo airport. Their plan, was to drive back through Copenhagen and on to Amsterdam without me where they had another gig sorted before dropping off the van almost exactly a week after we’d picked her up.

I’m not sure there’s any great moral lesson to take from our funny trip. Others have, without doubt, pushed themselves harder, dealt with greater discomfort, travelled further and raised more money for charity. I think our idea came from the good time we tend to have when we are together, particularly when we are playing, the fact we could get a vehicle, a clear week, a destination, and an excuse. We did it in the hope we’d have some sights and smells to talk about when winter came around.  We could look back and say ‘we did that” rather than ‘we should have done that’, and that we could take away a few days that were close to perfect. Sitting here, looking at the first frost on the garden, it feels like job done. IMG_9148

16. Walnutiae Pt.3

Still not much to do with steel guitar, except that I occasionally play lap steel during these episodes. Move on, steel guitar obsessive. Nothing to see here. 

A cursory glance in my direction would suggest that I don’t have much in common with soul diva Randy Crawford. This however, we share; both Randy and I, in our different ways, enjoy the street life. In her case, Randy loves the ten-cent masquerade of 70s New York Disco. It’s the only life she knows. For my part, I love the equally intoxicating feeling of waking up alone in the drop-down bed of a well-appointed motorhome, parked daringly on the street outside the Egyptian embassy in Oslo. I’d like to think that if Randy Crawford and I ever met, we would silently nod at each other in unspoken appreciation of this shared bond. I would avoid mentioning Almaz, because I really don’t get that one at all, and have no frame of reference. 

But that’s where you find me, pure and simple this morning, surreptitiously making tea on a gentle incline towards the glistening fjord which provides Norway’s capital with gravitational orientation. I wouldn’t be surprised to get a knock on the door from the world’s most glamorous police couple, but sadly, that knock never comes, despite me sitting on the kerb with my toast and tea and humming Rainy Night In Georgia quite loudly. I dress, I walk, I talk to Donald, and we make our way across to Karen’s flat for a breakfast of eggs and laughter about the meta-criminal activity and hilarity of the night before. 

It seems that they do things differently in Norway, and the Walnuts devote the morning to getting under the skin of this excellent Nation in as much as you can by going to museums while nursing what may be the northern hemisphere’s most expensively acquired hangovers. Booze is prohibitively expensive in Norway, and yet last night there was no shortage. We are blessed with terrifically generous hosts and and audience who gave willingly to Alzheimer’s research. We have a morning at our leisure before we play a gig on the deck in the garden of Davie’s schoolfriend John ‘Ciggy’ Sterling, a couple of miles away in Hvalstad. We are determined to use it educating ourselves about Norway in an attempt to crack the Norse code. Håkon packs us into his magical Tesla e-car with flying doors and drops us off at our first stop, the Viking longboat museum. 

It’s important not to underestimate just how long a longboat can be. Judging by these well preserved examples, it is both long and broad, but that’s not the main message to be taken away from this fine museum. It is this: life on board cannot have been any fun at all, open as it was to the elements. After rowing and blowing across the wild North Sea, it is a wonder the crew had any energy at all left for raiding churches and the like. It is clear from the outset that Davie is best suited to the role of Viking, and indeed there is evidence of strong Norse DNA. From there we move onto The Fram, the ship used by Amundsen and others to leave Norwegian flags in cold places just before British flags. The whole ship has been transported into its own museum, and you can walk around on deck, eating biscuits and pretending to shiver if you’re into the whole immersive experience. If the Fram produced one good thing it was Fridtjof Nansen, the champion skier/skater/explorer cum radical statesman/diplomat/humanitarian. After leading expeditions to cold places, he helped Norway achieve independence from Sweden and then invented the Nansen Passport for displaced persons, giving refugees a way to identify themselves. In short, what a dude. I don’t want to speak ill of our long dead tragic national popsicle Captain Scott, but he always came across as a bit of a sticky beak. Not so the Norwegians, who appear to be having a bit of a giggle as they conquer the globe, eating pancakes and mucking about in fancy dress. Winning isn’t everything. Having a laugh while you do it just might be. 

Steer, Mcgirr
 

Final stop before music was to see Thor Heyerdahl’s Kontiki boats. I’m not going to say much about these except that they make the Viking longboats look like The Queen Mary. Thor’s idea of a giggle, it seems, was to cross the Pacific on either a lightly stuffed warehouse pallet or a giant espadrille. I can imagine life was never dull  with Heyerdahl. Conclusions about Norwegians? However much they may say they love their country, they seem to go to extraordinary lengths to get away from it. 

It’s a hot day, and by the time we get ourselves to John Sterling’s house, I am feeling a bit wobbly, and have to have a little lie down. I am mocked mercilessly by everyone, both Scottish and Norwegian for this lack of stamina. Safe to say that I don’t have a great deal of Viking DNA and if I’d been on a longboat voyage,  would have travelled unwittingly with a runic sign reading ‘EMERGENCY FOOD’ pinned to my back.

On which subject, John and his wife Gunn are introducing the hardier Walnuts to the idea of a ‘waiting sausage’. This element of Norse Code is a common sense approach to that moment in the barbecue process when your guests are politely starving while you burn their food. Norwegians fill this gap with a sausage in a wrap to make the time more easy passing – the Waiting Sausage.

Waiting for a Waiting Sausage

It turns out this is just one marvellous idea out of many that Norwegians have embraced. Gunn also showed me her corner fridge, a tardis-like appliance with an angled door to fit in the corner of your kitchen and open out, providing acres of space in which to lose the mango chutney. Well done, Norway, well done. 
Refreshed from my nippy nap, I join the throng and get ready to sing and play in the intense heat of a Scandinavian mid-summer. We have a support act in the shape of Andy, who does a neat solo turn supplying unsettling lyrics on board jarring chord changes: imagine Morrissey jumping on an autoharp. This is intended as high praise.

 We climb on to the decking, as the sun finally gives up the sky and temperatures finally dip beneath Bridge On The River Kwai. We play well enough. Simon Walnut gives his usual, uncompromising performance of ‘Lulu’. I feel he also perhaps would have benefitted from a lie down. John Sterling, meanwhile, our generous host, becomes a freeform fifth Walnut as he peppers Davie and my carefully worked on-stage chat with his own contributions. Many of these focus on Davie’s height, which is, as you can see from pictures, that of the perfect travelling companion, in that he keeps his hat and shoes very close together to avoid losing them. 

After playing we retire to the upstairs salon (the Stirling household is delightfully upside down. Norwegians!) where Ciggy talks us through his and Davie’s staggering basketball careers during the late seventies and early eighties. It appears that Cumnock Academy in Ayrshire was a copper-bottomed hothouse for legendary ballers during this period, producing seven members of the Scottish National team which beat England convincingly, and continuing its dominance until the mid eighties, when things started to crumble, possibly explained by inconsistent squad selection, if this picture is anything to go by.


I’ve tried to establish which, if any of the above could either be either David Mcgirr or John Sterling. I can only say that the achievement of the coaching staff during that period must have been immense, to combine such a breathtaking range of skill sets and abilities. 

By the time Ciggy and Gunn got out the whiskey, in my head I had concocted a full 90 minute documentary called 

‘When Cumnock Beat England: The Glory Of ‘76.’


This is more like it. In this Daily Mail criminal archive shot, Mcgirr is wearing 12, Sterling on the right in old school Adidas and an uncomfortable 12 degree incline from the perpendicular. John can say what he likes about Davie’s height but back in 1958 when this picture was taken, he was pulling a bit of a Gregory’s Girl fringey mullet while Davie rocked the full Joanie Loves Chachi feather cut. 

I retire to the Walnut Wagon, tucked away in a car park nearby, to dream strange whiskey dreams of men in tartan scarves ripping down English basketball hoops at Wembley (Arena).

15. Walnutiae Pt.2

Still not really about steel guitars….


We woke up in Aarhus pretty much exactly where we went to sleep, parked up alongside a couple of other motor homes under a desolate, graffitied overpass. Efforts had been made by city fathers to create a non-judgemental youth space into which I feel we fitted perfectly. Walnuts music is nothing if not gritty, grimy and street-based. Youngsters constantly tell how they ‘feel’ us. We come from the Home Counties, and it’s a little known fact that’s where the phrases ‘HomeBoy’ and ‘Homeslice’ actually come from. It’s a ‘fact’. Now check out our exemplary attitude immediately post-breakfast. 
I did ask Donald in vain to put down the cup of tea. I feel it spoils the whole stance, which I like to call ThreateningLite. No time for a second shot though, because the race was on (exciting, jeopardy) to get to the ferry out of Denmark and into Norway. Waiting for us in Norway are genuine, sober, established friends and actual, organised gigs with people who are giving up their homes and time to hear us. Of course, to make the race really entertaining we should split into three contrasting modes of transport, bicycle, shopping trolley, hang glider, and create a montage effect to keep the viewer guessing for a bit who is winning  until one of us arrives at the destination, thinking he is first, ONLY TO FIND THAT THE OTHERS HAVE ACTUALLY ARRIVED BEFORE HIM and he has to do a dance in a skirt. In fact, there is no Top Geary simulated excitement to report and we boringly make the ferry terminal with plenty of time. I get my guitar out and play. I forget what, but it apparently involves a F major chord.

In an uncommon bit of good preparation, I have arranged for all Walnuts to have a ticket to the excellent buffet on the ferry. What a good decision that is.  We bring our instruments with us, and after our prepaid feast, we wait for someone to ask us to play something. 

We wait. 

And

We wait. 

‘Why don’t you play something for us all?’ comes the request, finally,  from one of the attendants at the buffet, whose path has somehow been blocked by our instruments. We play for not very long, until the very same attendant, now flanked by two colleagues, suggests that perhaps the next one should be the last one.  


The ferry boat dislocates its giant steel jaw and coughs us out onto the dock at Larvik. An hour it takes to drive to the leafy embassy district of Oslo, where our hosts, Karen and Håkon are waiting in their flat, along with Davie’s wife Nikki and drumming Walnut Simon. I am particularly proud of this shot of Donald in their stare/staircase. Feel free to applaud.


You SEE? Karen’s flat is fabulous, art and floorboards, backstairs and courtyard, a room just for books and a performance space just for Walnuts. If there was a blueprint for a perfect party host it would be she, and as a result her guests are as interesting as you’d imagine; diverse, funny, jolly and generous. After the slammed doors of Aarhus, we nestle in the warm embrace of Oslo at last, and repay our hosts by playing, I would say, moderately well. 

One of the things which by this point has definitely been improved by the enforced proximity of the trip is the chemistry of the on-stage Walnut chat. Stage banter is not easy to do, but vitally important; it says a great deal about a band. In most cases, a band’s set list doesn’t vary tremendously from night to night. Chat, however, is mercurial and improvised – as fluid and slippery as the soap in a downstairs loo. It should never be scripted. It should spontaneously reflect the emotion and vibe of the moment, and is often the chance for the audience to voice their feelings, too. However unpredictable the music may be, the chat is the bit which genuinely has no rules and can set or destroy the tone for the evening. Due to the mission statement of sevensongs.org Davie has some pretty weighty messages to impart during the gig. It is therefore imperative that I operate a no-fly zone during these messages, as my contribution largely consists of sexual innuendo and fart gags. I’ll admit it has taken me a little too long to take onboard this lesson, during which learning curve he has been very patient. For his part, Donald adds the grace notes of interstitial pithy comments, which, deprived of a vocal microphone, are purely for the entertainment of on-stage personnel, and therefore twice as valuable. Whatever happens, it’s Davie’s show. 


The gig at Karen’s didn’t end with our contribution. The Scandiwegian contingent kept the party live by playing very loud music, windows open, waving flags and dancing thru from the end of our set until the very early hours. I would say until sunrise, but of course we are in Norway, midsummer and 

The sun never really goes down. I’ll tell you what does go down, though, in downtown Oslo. The police get called. Yes. 5-0 from the Oslo. We got shut down by the world’s most attractive action-figure police couple. I tried to get a picture of them on my phone but they had guns, and seemed really serious and a bit tetchy about the whole thing. I instantly regretted adding Anarchy In The UK to the playlist. This excluded the Norwegians from the list of suspects and narrowed the possible perps to just the three Walnuts. Even the lightest of interrogations would reveal that Donald don’t do punk. It would then be a 50/50 between me and Davie, who played basketball at a very high level at school, and would therefore be able to resist a physical grilling far longer than I ever could.

Håkon is delighted at the unexpected renegade status the police visit brings him and his only genuine regret is that a frameable penalty fine, although discussed, never materialises. The drop-dead gorgeous police presence may indicate to you that Oslo is an uptight city of slim humours and stringent rules. Far, far from it. We hit the sack well past three, parked for free directly outside the Egyptian embassy in a motorhome smelling of curry and real ale. You try that in South Ken, and you’ll wake up with Special Branch cooking you a special brunch. 

14. Walnutiae Pt.1

We’re going to take a little departure from strict pedal steel business for a moment. If you’re here to find out what little I know about copedants and string gauges, I’d advise you take a break and stretch your legs. Whatever you do though, don’t get confused by taking a stretch and breaking your legs.

If you don’t make an effort, making music can be an insular business. It’s very easy to spend hours sitting in a darkened room chasing a particular chord or tone to the exclusion of all else, forgetting that music is for sharing. I make a habit of crouching over a guitar until the early hours running the same licks and scales over and over until, well, until recently, this happened:

IMG_0152.JPG

Yes, it appears that repetitively straining your wrists can injure them, due to a thing called Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and although the above picture suggests that the problem stems from playing the guitar, I am not so sure. I think the lion share of the problem is more likely to be the toxic smartphone which is rarely far from my right thumb, and which, in diametric opposition to the guitar, invariably brings me anxiety, insecurity, and paid work.

If you’ve never had Carpal Tunnel, let me give you a flavour of it’s delights. Suddenly, simple tasks like carrying a bowl of cereal become painful and risky. Not only can the bowl, without notice, transmute into a porcupine, stabbing its spines into the fleshy chicken-drumstick cheek of your palm, but then the whole thumb mechanism can suddenly give up entirely, sending your granola tumbling to the ground in slo-mo like Alan Rickman at the end of Die Hard. And there ain’t a goddamn thing you can do about it. The painful point (it can be painful to point) is this: Things like RSI can strike at any point, and deprive you of the ability to play or sing or walk or breathe. You have to gather ye rosebuds while ye may and make your music in the sun.

I once held a VERY large fish with country legend Kenny Rogers.

FullSizeRender 6

I should be more precise: Kenny Rogers and I each had a very large fish of our own. At no point did I share a large fish with Kenny Rogers. Happy to make that clear.

AS you can imagine, as a country music fan it was a big deal for me to meet Kenny Rogers. I made use of every available second to perform what my colleagues call ‘The Allwright Brain Bleed’, squeezing every drop of information I could from him on set and in his dressing room. He did not take on though, signed my mandolin and was utterly wonderful. All in all it was a truly joyous coming together, with the exception of one moment. Kenny (Mr. Rogers to you) told me how an operation on his right hand some years ago mean that he can’t now play the guitar, and although his magnificent voice remains a seam of a pure liquid gold, his shonky picking paw was clearly a source of great regret to him. You can imagine: a wonderful journey all starts with a man alone, with a guitar, on a stage. Take the guitar away, he is powerless, deprived of his magic wand of independence. It must feel like the journey is coming to a close. That’s tough. It’s also VERY country. The message I’m getting to, through a Hampton Court maze of protracted nonsense, is that the moment for practice is sometimes over, and, regardless of your level of preparation, it’s time to take it out on the road to see what’s out there, because you never know when your red right hand will flick you the mighty V, signalling that time is, in fact, up. 

With that in mind, Donald Davie and I, the Walnuts, devised The Epic Walnut Dash. We carved ourselves a few days at the beginning of the summer when we wouldn’t be missed, and worked out a route to get us to Oslo, which, travel fans, is the capital of Norway. Once we had worked out a final destination, a route, a means of transport (splendid borrowed Bailey’s motorhome),  set list, curry and cake sponsors, sleeping arrangements and list of next of kin in case of accidents, we realised that we had no reason whatsoever to go to Oslo. This, therefore,  had to be the very next item of business.
I have mentioned in previous Steelgrimages that Davey and I met when he came on my radio show to talk about Sevensongs.org, his unique method of battling the Alzheimers which took his in-laws from him in front of his and his wife Nikki’s very eyes. Having never performed in public, Davey dived in feet-first and publicly offered to play seven songs anywhere, for anyone, without asking for a penny for himself, but handing round a cake tin at the end for Alzheimer’s research. To date he’s done about 80 of these gigs, and I’ve joined him on a couple at the huge risk of unravelling all the goodwill he’s accumulated in front rooms across the country. He’s raised over £20000 all by himself, both with and without a beard, just to show that he is nothing if not versatile. We decided then that The Walnut Dash would be Sevensongs writ large – raising money for Alzheimers, and with the added stipulation (my idea) that we would sing and play wherever we stop, until someone paid us to stop playing. This seemed like a good idea. We had a couple of gigs set in stone, three in Oslo and one in Amsterdam. Otherwise, the schedule was as fluid as pancake mix on a warm windowsill. In fact, lukewarm sloppiness is a term that could be used to accurately describe the whole operation. Witness the back of the T-shirts, commissioned at the last possible moment from excellent Scott at Balcony Shirts.

IMG_8655

 

You see? We really didn’t know what we were doing. 

Due to ‘work’ I couldn’t be there at the start. The duo became a trio in Hamburg, as, fresh from the set of Watchdog I joined Donald and Davey at the airport. I was as excited as a young puppy to see them. They were less enthusiastic, stressily pointing to the strict German rules on stopping outside the terminal.  In fact they barely got out of second gear to scoop me up for fear of incurring a fine. They were even less impressed when I instantly got out my selfie stick for this picture:

 IMG_8774

 

Have you ever seen two human beings less impressed by another human being? It was like riding with not one, but two whole Shania Twains.

 We drove all the way to Aarhus, eating hotdogs

IMG_8779and, once the Shania Twins had thawed out,  joking all the way about how we would, no doubt, find Aarhus positioned squarely in the middle of Aarstreet. You’ll notice how the T shirt above states that the venue for that night was to be Waxy’s Irish pub, in the event that they ever answered the email. Well, they didn’t, and it was my job to arrange that night’s venue.  For weeks I rang at different times of the day, I emailed ways in advance, then rang again. Then I gave up, figuring that to be an Irish pub anywhere in the world, you only really have to do two things:
 

  1. Serve one of two types of Stout.
  2. Welcome and encourage impromptu live performances of acoustic Celtic music.

Well, Waxy’s had clearly not signed up to that manifesto. They decided that being Irish involved having a completely desolate, empty pub and turning away desperate middle-aged men in new t-shirts with guitars and a charity bucket. I am not a bit bitter about this. I would however suggest that if you ever go to Aarhus EUROPEAN CITY OF CULTURE 2017, BY THE WAY, you should do what everyone else there seems to do, and give Waxy’s the widest of possible berths. Waxy’s is like that foreign student wearing a big hat in the St. Patrick’s day parade, opportunistically looking about for drunk girls and riding the wave while it lasts, while not having a Eammon De Valera what it’s all about.

Well, Waxy’s of Aarhus, let me tell you something.

What you don’t know is that while you thought we were having an extended pee, we all got our instruments out and played a song in your empty corridor!  WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THAT, WAXY’S??? CALL THE COPS WHY DON’T YOU??? CITY OF CULTURE, MY AARHUS!!!! WE STUCK IT TO THE MAN!!!

In fact, the man stuck it to us pretty comprehensively. For a couple of rainy hours we struggled in Aarhus to find anywhere to play, turned away like biblically prospective parents, until Donald hit upon an immaculate concept: The entrance of the department store at the major crossroad in Aarhus was covered and brightly lit. It was frequented by tipsy students of the City’s university who had just graduated. It was, in short, the venue we’d been waiting for.IMG_8800.JPG

Out of shot in this photo there are at least another three people either dancing or seriously thinking about what dancing is. Behind them are another three people who are there by accident. This constitutes a crowd. Left of picture, closest to us, justifiably transfixed by Donald’s blazing fiddle playing, in the white shirt and curiously cropped jeans, is Benjamin. Benjamin is a student on an engineering placement in Aarhus. He instantly became Donald’s biggest fan and our manager for the night, promising us that he could get us playing in any venue in his home town.

Benjamin was very, very drunk indeed.

He quickly ascertained that Donald was the best musician in the troupe. He advised Donald to get rid of us and go it alone. He then started to call Davey ‘Donald’ and tell him how much he loved his fiddle. At this stage Donald noticed that Benjamin could not stop ordering drinks for us all, and suggested that we leave him to freshen up on what was, after all, a school night. Whatever Benjamin was engineering the next day, I sincerely hope it was not intended to bear a child’s weight.FullSizeRender 8.jpg

After Aarhus, things got better. They weren’t all that bad, but they still got better. Walnutiae 2 to follow…. 

 

 

13. Lucky For Some

I love almost all music. If you look hard enough you can usually find something redeeming about pretty much any song or tune, classical or pop, whether it comes from Leicester, Latvia or Lesotho; after all, it’s still music.

There are a few exceptions I’ll make, though, where the sacred space which music occupies in our lives seems to have been cruelly abused. Recently, a chap from hospital radio asked me to identify the single track I’d most like to place in Room 101. I could cite most of Phil Collins work, quite happily, but a sticking a whole artist in there seems petty and there’s always You Can’t Hurry Love which I still adore. He’s also a phenomenal drummer. Naturally, I then turned to The Lighthouse Family, but it’s hard to pick between Ocean Drive and Lifted, songs which both sound like they were recorded in their entirety in Kenneth William’s nasal passage.

FullSizeRender 3

But if it’s a single buttock clench of a song you’re looking for, one that I’ve hated since the first moment I heard the first bar, then I’m going to have to plump for 1987 hit Live It Up by Australian cruise ship rockers Mental As Anything.

youtube.com/watch

It turns out you can even buy a FIVE ALBUM set of Mental As Anything if you have recently had a lobotomy or are a C.I.A. agent who wants to extract information from suspects without leaving visible external scarring.

images

The song itself is the kind of sun-inned, jaunty late 80’s production which made sulky teenage me pray to Morrissey for acid rain, under a lyric which implies that the cure for heartbreak is simply to go home with a the first man in a bow tie that you meet in order to ‘live it up’. The fact that the object of the song is clearly already on a dance floor would suggest that whatever heartache she has endured, she’s constructing and boarding her own survival raft of palliative good times, possibly among friends, and certainly in a safe public arena. To suggest that her best course of action would then be to leave this healing space to join the protagonist in what will probably be a bedsit (‘come up to my place’) where she would ‘live it up’ (activities unspecified) to a greater degree than on the supervised dance floor where she currently finds herself, seems like a risky roll of the dice to say the least. It’s a creepy message in the extreme. And that’s before you meet the band.

I’m sure they were only doing what their management told them to by wearing those suits and bow ties, but the one message that it doesn’t convey is that these boys are ‘Mental’. I want to make it clear that I’m not talking about Mental Illness here. I’m talking about doing what it takes to achieve the unique mindset or perspective which some musicians adopt to give their work a truly distinctive and fresh edge. David Bowie, Brian Eno, Iggy Pop, Marilyn Manson, Nick Cave. All of these could probably have been said to flirt with and sometimes fully immerse themselves in mentally altered states to tell us something new and fresh about our shared journey through life. Seeing Australian men with bow ties jig about to squelchy synth pop while insisting that they are stretching perception itself by singing the most banal retread of a presumptuous song of dubious courtship you’ll ever hear….well, I think you get my drift. I’m not a fan.

Let’s turn 180 degrees and jump back another 20 years to take a look at what makes the music I really love. Place yourself in the shoes of The Byrds in 1967. If you’re not familiar with The Byrds, then check out their illustrious family tree:fullsizerender_3

As you can see, they form the spine of some the great country rock, folk and psychedelic pop acts of the sixties. They had massive hits with Bob Dylan covers alongside their own genre-moulding material, and changed their line-up like sensible people change their electricity suppliers. In 1967 they were ready for another shake up, and drafted in Country rock legend Gram Parsons from the International Submarine Band. Gram suggested their next move should be to go full country. The boys had tinkered with some country songs before on their albums, but they were a bit like Act Naturally on the Beatles’ Help album – a toe in the water rather than a proper statement of intent.

Gram, though, was all-or-nothing serious about country music. In 1967 country and pop were two different camps which didn’t mix. Squares versus Heads. Farm versus City. A whole album of country from one of the biggest pop bands of the past half decade wasn’t just a change of direction, it was a flipping manifesto. Sweetheart of the Rodeo truly was Mental As Anything, paving a new path, eschewing commercial success in search of a deeper truth, and using the tried and tested technique of genre cross-breeding to bring out a new way to make people’s hearts sing along to their tune.

Result? It worked! In its time, a massive commercial flop. The album alienated the pop fans The Byrds had built up over the last five years, and failed to win over a country audience who still had trouble with the idea of long hair on a man, despite that being a natural consequence of not cutting it, just like for ladies. The Byrds survived a whirlwind of a concert at country music’s temple, the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, from which they were lucky to emerge unscathed. However, time has changed everything. The album has now been reappraised to become a classic, and a cornerstone for country fans who like their rock to have dirt on its boots, and their country to be Transcendental As Anything. For alt-country artists like Uncle Tupelo, Ryan Adams and Wilco, Sweetheart is like scripture, and they all probably make my favourite kind of music, country which doesn’t always try to answer its own questions.

Gram was instrumental in this sea-change for the Byrds. But he wasn’t as Instrumental As Anything. I’d say as much of an influence on Sweetheart of The Rodeo were the two (here we go people! We’re coming to the point!) virtuosi pedal steel guitar players who grace the album. One of these is our old friend Lloyd Green (Steelgrimages passim). He takes the lion share of the duties. He’s on the opening track and only genuine single, You Ain’t Goin’ Nowehere and then pops up on around half the other cuts. He’s as brilliant as ever.

Then there’s Jaydee Maness, (surname to almost rhyme with ‘painless’).

03maness2

He’s one of the first Pedal Steel players whose name I ever knew. He plays on You’re Still on My Mind, You Don’t Miss Your Water and 100 Years From Now. At least I think it’s him on those tracks, and there may be more. Despite the internet being able to tell me every item of clothing Kim Kardashian has worn since her birth, I can’t seem to get reliable, detailed personnel track listings for one of the most influential albums of all time. The good news is that I won’t have to wait much longer to find out. Because Jay Dee Maness is the guest performer at the Irish Pedal Steel Guitar Festival which is taking place next month. When I found this out I sent a long, grovelly email to Jay Dee’s website begging for a meeting when he was over. He sent this short but nevertheless epic reply:

img_0357-e1506178729726.png

‘Thanks for asking.’

Thanking me for asking him to make time for me.

Interviews I’ve heard with Jay Dee make it clear, as does this email, that he is a gentleman. A softly-spoken Californian, who seems to have as many friends as he does colleagues, his discography ranges from Eric Clapton’s Tears in Heaven to legendary years of service in Chris Hillman’s Desert Rose Band and his own staggering solo work. He’s Lloyd Green’s best friend. And now he’s said he’d be happy to meet with me and chat about his own sixty year-long steelgrimage.

I should be so lucky.

Hold on….

I’ve just thought of a song I dislike even more!

download

 

12. Your Sweeteners Is My Weakness

Warning: I am writing about things I am still straining to understand. I am not a scientist or mathematician. The chance of inaccuracy is therefore high. If you are writing a thesis on this subject I urge you to look elsewhere. 

When it comes to tuning up, it turns out that we’ve all been doing it wrong forever. Unless, that is you’re a 14th century Persian, in which case you have my admiration.
I came to the pedal steel guitar through the guitar, a six-stringed instrument which requires the fretting hand to press on the space behind different frets with the four fingers, and occasionally, thumb of the left hand for right handers and vicey versa.

Since I could afford one, I’ve tuned my guitar using a variety of electronic tuners. Currently, like most guitarists, I use a clip-on guitar tuner on the headstock of my instrument which usually tunes the guitar to, from the lowest in pitch E-A-D-G-B-E. I often drop the bottom-pitched (geographically top) string from an E to a D. This gives the guitar a drone D-A-D chord on the bottom three strings which I love to hear.

I have never questioned all of this until I started to play the steel guitar, but I think I was always aware that some chords on my six-string guitar sounded better than others. This was so even when the guitar was demonstrably perfectly in tune according to the device I was using. I always imagined that this was as a result of the intonation of the guitar being off in some way, and needing the adjustable bridge to be professionally set up, something which, due to laziness, never ever happened.

This suck-on-a-lemon dissatisfaction with tuning manifested itself in a couple of ways: firstly, an awareness that some chords on the neck would result in a sound that was a little like a serrated knife being run slowly along the top of the ear. A tonal wobble would be hanging around between the notes and detracting from the joy of the whole thing. It’s a really subtle thing, but I’d say I was wincing and then checking tuning maybe 1 time in 20 to see what was going on.

I suspect now that what I was experiencing was the drawbacks of equal temperament. It’s a maths thing. The frequency intervals between notes should be mathematically pure, for instance, A = 440 Hz and the A an octave above it = 880 Hz. The one below is 220 Hz. Which is fine if you’re only playing As. the problem is that fretted stringed instruments are designed to play in any key that Gary Barlow fancies. So if you’re going to do that, and play more than one note at a time to make harmonies, there are new, complex intervals and mathematical frequency ratios involved which have to work together to cover every note in a chromatic scale. But they can’t. In short, the notes on a guitar neck cant be mathematically in tune with eachother in every key. They’re divided equally, which gives you roughly there or thereabouts the note you’re after, but it’s usually a multi-tasking near-as-dammit because the precise ratios you need for harmonies can’t work in every direction at the same time. 

A classic example of this is that if you add up 7 pure octaves and compare it to 12 pure fifths, you get a slightly different number. Although they should be the same, they are naturally out by a tiny fraction, referred to as a Pythagorean comma. If you’re playing a fretted instrument, somewhere, a compromise must be made. Your average scale is a size 9 foot squeezed into an 8-and-a-half shoe. 

Funnily enough, Vincenzo Galilei (father of) spotted this in 1581. He was a lutist, and worked out that despite having a genius son, he’d never play a perfect scale in equal temperament. Well, he should have got out more. The Arab world was perfecting the art of microscopically adjusted tuning (Maqamat) as early as the 14th Century. It’s an art because you can’t mathematically come to a perfectly adjusted tuning. But you can make some sound better than others for you, and for the style of music you play. Art.5475aa6d83cda_vincenzo_galilei

You see, perfection isn’t everything. The downside of guitars having straight frets is slightly wonky tuning, although the upside is that you can pick them up and play them almost straight away. It’s a small price to pay. It also gives the guitar its very own sound – although being in tune is a mathematical proposition, it’s also a matter of taste. Sinatra’s voice was all over the place when it came to tuning, but it never lost him girlfriends. The guitar, with its fatally flawed straight frets, has a sound that we all recognise and love as being a guitar, mathematically compromised warts and all. It’s got sonic baggage that we have all got used to and love. 

But of course, as even the casual observer would notice, there are no frets on a steel guitar. And that changes everything.

The relationship between the notes is, by and large, constant, thanks to the large chunk of steel in your left hand. Keep that straight and your left foot and knees still, and the intervals between the strings won’t change. They don’t need a one-size fits all approach like you do with a fretted or, for that matter, keyed instrument. Give me a key! I’ll play it! The straight bar maintains the same frequency ratio between all the strings. And even if you do use pedals and knee levers, the range of keys you’ll be playing makes it much more predictable which mathematical side of each note you’ll want to jump.

I hadn’t really appreciated this until I bought a new tuner. Say hello to my new tuner, the Peterson Strobe Plus HD, supplied by Gerry Hogan.
IMG_0166

Isn’t she a thing? I don’t know how the strobe bit of the Strobo Plus Hd ™ works, but just to be safe, if you have experienced seizures at any point in your life then please look away from this page periodically and take regular rests. Importantly, this machine has a FANATICAL devotion to accuracy in a way that my little clip-on Jeremy just didn’t. As you can see, the signal runs straight through its body without acoustic adulteration, then out to pedals and amps. 100% instrument, all day long. But that’s not where the exciting bit happens. The Strobo Plus HD comes equipped with sweeteners, some based on Maqamat patterns, and some based on the work and impeccable ear of pedal steel didact Jeff Newman (see blog ep. 9). Thanks to him and his ancient Persian buddies my new tuner has more sweeteners than a tea room catering specifically for those with diabetes.

A Sweetener is a set of tunings  – some dating all the way back to the 14th Century – which takes account of the notes with which the note it’s tuning is likely to be paired, and adjusts it by a tiny amount to make the ratio between them mathematically correct, or at least less of a compromise than equal tuning. The effect on the of this is staggering. It’s like being in tune for the very first time.

It’s like you’re in love for the very first time.

Being able to swoop along the neck in a mathematical justified manner is one of the things that gives the pedal steel its intergalactic feel, its dramatic effect and what makes people ask with such regularity. 

‘What is making that sound? That’s amazing.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

11. Nerves of Steel and Stone

Again, another haitus. but that doesn’t mean nothing has been happening. Far from it. Band of Hope, of whom I think I might now be a member, are a functioning, going concern with gigs and recording lined up. I’m quickly drafted in for a number of dates playing lap steel. At first practice I publicly state for all to hear that I will not bring out the Sho-Bud until a year of hard, methodical practice has elapsed. Once again, this I vow. It will not be like the other times. This time will be better. And that’s unbreakable. I might print it on the side of a bus.FullSizeRender

There. That’s decided then.

First date is a Sunday get together at the beautiful Braziers Park in Oxfordshire, which is replete, dressed in the crushed velvet finery of a rock’n’roll heritage to rival most. It was and is an artistic commune, based in a crumbling mansion and outhouses which provides a base for potters, musicians, and no doubt, people who are still making their minds up about what to do next. Crucially, it was home to Marianne Faithfull and her parents for a bit, and Gave Shelter to Mick and Maz after they were busted for drugs and she walked into notoriety wearing, by all accounts a fur coat and not much else. I’ll be honest and say I haven’t researched these facts, and am not about to. I don’t want to find out it’s all nonsense which would detract from the rosy hue of a day wandering around sheds and stables off my kibbutz on two thirds of a pint of mild. Given my transcendental state it was a deeply satisfying moment when on to the barn (main) stage emerged a barefoot man with a sitar.

IMG_7930 4And he hated that thing, giving it what for while singing Seven Nation Army. The rain came down, and thank goodness for tea and cake.
IMG_7929 2

I’m not very good at setting up on stage. I tend to get very excited and nervous and start putting things in the wrong places. I then lose those things and get in a panic and wonder what I’m doing there and how I could ever have chosen music for a hobby when I’m such an idiot. I can’t imagine Van Morrison goes through the same process. It’s even worse with a new band, because the way you set up on stage can shape relationships after that point. In one of the wedding bands in which I used to play guitar, if there was a sense that a couple of centimetres of empire had been lost at the front of the stage, the other guitarist would declare war during the set, cutting up rough with the neck of his guitar, making a point of invading my personal space and machine-gunning through such aggressive material as Una Paloma Blanca and 500 Miles. Headstocks at dawn. It can easily get a bit territorial, like a musical game of Risk, and that is the last thing anyone needs.

That’s not going to happen in Band of Hope because, firstly, it’s Tom’s band. He’s the singer, and they’re his songs. Everyone in Band of Hope seems really nice and almost ego-free. Also, I don’t want to be anywhere near the front. I really don’t. Television presenters have a habit of floating to the surface like corks, buoyed up by their own collossal egos, unable to resist the temptation of feeling the sunshine on their faces, and the validation of an audience. But I don’t want this to be like that. I want to play my wonderfully anti-social instrument without anyone noticing it’s me making that sound, if at all possible, separate from the megalomaniac look-at-me of my professional life. So I find a spot at the back of the barn where the light doesn’t reach, next to Sarah, who is the new drummer. We are the new boy and girl, hidden in the darkness, and that’s just fine, thank you. Look. can you see me? No? Good.IMG_7934 3

The gig goes well, as a first gig, for which survival is the first priority. No-one looks daggers at me for being too out of sync with the rest of the band. I don’t know what sitar man made of it. I’m glad I didn’t choose sitar as my instrument though. Maximum effort carting it about, and frankly, zero chance of joining a band that doesn’t have sitar in it.

Next comes Wood Festival, back at Braziers Park a couple of weeks later. We’re now on the Main Main Stage, and here’s the beauty of a smaller festival – I’m camping in my van precisely 200 metres away from it. In fact, this is a truly beautiful small festival. Run by a pair of brothers who headline in the tent on Saturday night with their excellent band, like a Fender Telecaster guitar, Wood Festival  has everything you need and nothing you don’t. I like that. Headline your own festival. Ballsy move. But they are great.

FullSizeRender 2

We are not headlining. Unless by headline you mean going on first, which is, I suppose one way to interpret it. It’s lovely though because you know that however it goes, the nerves will all be gone by 2.30 in the afternoon and then you can just have a drink and enjoy the rest of the acts knowing that your work is done. We have a little sing song in the backstage Yurt and then go on with the rain tipping down, and then stopping as we get further into the set. There are fewer nerves than last time, but only a fraction, because I’m not quite as far into the shadows as I was before. I don’t play brilliantly. My fingers feel a bit fudgy and I can’t hear myself so well. I get a bit lost in parts and pull too hard on the strings, trying to hear myself. No-one notices, or if they do, they don’t mention it.

Part of the problem though, is that I’ve been playing more and more pedal steel at home, and I’m really starting to notice the limitations of the lap, even with its extra levers. I want more strings, more sustain and more options on the neck to make things happen. I can cart the lap steel easily. But it’s not my final destination. Despite the solemn vow not to do so for a year, I need to start getting the big fella out. And then sitar man can have a really good laugh at me. He’ll be home on the train while I’m still unhooking my pull rods and trying to work out what chords I missed.

Wood Festival punches above its weight. Main stage headline were the Magic Numbers.IMG_8151 3

And special treat in the tent was Jodie Stephens from Big Star. The Big Star that I love and that Joe the Volume Pedal and I by chance both wore t-shirts for. In a little tent in a little field in Oxfordshire. BOOM.

IMG_8150 2

 

 

10. It’s Been Far Too Long

Yes I know. 

But I’ve got an excuse. I’ve been busy with lots. I have, for one thing been playing the Pedal Steel Guitar A Lot. There have been evenings where I have pulled myself off of the piano stool i’m using in a cast-iron hunchback, right hand clawed and stiff and sweaty left hand glued to the steel. What an unattractive image. But it’s what I’ve vowed to do, regardless of damage to posture and health. 

But in addition I have been working the day (and overnight) job, chasing all over the country and spending time in railway stations listening to the greatest and the latest PSG players as I ride the rails in search of rogues. Rail travel and country music go together like baked beans and brown sauce. I’ve been staring out of windows at hillsides, feeling lonely and hearing the sound of lonely hillsides squirted right back at me through headphones. No reserved seat? Fine by me. I’m listening to country. This stuff sounds even better when your sciatic bum is wedged into a bag rack. The more lonesome you make me, the better I like it because I am a pedal steel player dontchaknow, journeyman musician, gun for hire, never in a single band, the ultimate wolf in soft shoes, and this is how I hang, high and lonesome. I’d like a bottle of Doom Bar and a packet of cheese and onion and what time do we get into Wolverhampton, please?

However lonely it gets, I am very much enjoying online and in person, the fellowship of other players, who are generous and friendly to a fault. Perhaps nicheness creates niceness. My last thought, as you can read, was that it seemed that the Band of Steel Brothers was of a fairly unique vintage, to whom I appear as fresh blood at a juvenile 47 years old. Not so, it seems. Lookee here…

After one acquires a PSG one next needs a volume pedal under the right foot to make it waft in on a breeze like the cry of an eagle and hang there in the reverb-stained air. They aren’t cheap, but after a quick squint at eBay I found a good value used Goodrich L120 down in Dorset not far from where we were visiting for the weekend. I don’t like paying postage and Joe, the seller, was happy to have me come around and talk guitars for a bit. 

A volume pedal yesterday. 

I approached a nice detached house in a cul de sac, thinking ‘here we go, man of a certain age indulges country leanings’ and sure enough, was greeted by a charming couple in their golfing years. But then ‘Joe’s upstairs’ they said, and their son emerged from the loft. 
Twenty flipping four. 


I think it’s important to note two things from this picture: 

1. I think we can agree that I could easily be mistaken for Joe’s younger brother.

2. What are the chances that two men, born 23 years apart, meeting one night for a random financial transaction, would BOTH BE WEARING T SHIRTS FOR CULT 70’S POWER POP COMBO BIG STAR??

Slim, I think you’ll agree. Or verging on XL in my case. 

I’ll be honest, if arms dealers went around wearing Big Star shirts I would probably have a couple of missiles in the garage by now, so it should come as no surprise that I bought Joe’s pedal. But not before he showed me what three years of intensive study can do for you….​

​​​

​​You’ll notice that Joe’s genuinely unassuming manner doesn’t permit him to finish a piece in full. He played three times, each time a stunning soup of swirling strings. And he possessed not one but two Mullen steel guitars, premier modern professional instruments – a d10 and an s10. Joe told me was already getting touring and recording gigs and that he was totally committed to it as a career. All I can say is 

BRAVO JOE. BRAVO. 

I don’t want to sound like a patronising old fart but how wonderful to see someone doing what i’m doing – following a sound they love to find out where it takes them, but working it out so  much earlier in life and diving in head first. Wow. Imagine what he will sound like in another three years time! Amazing!

How depressing. 

I have so much work to do. 

But! Opportunity knocks hard and loud for the pedal steel player. Seriously, nobody knows what this thing is and yet sometimes it seems like everyone wants it. 

When I was 17 I was briefly playing bass in a band called Sometimes Sartre, who were all a bit older than me. They were as close as Reading ever got to The Smiths, and the guitarist, Tom Crook, was as close as Reading ever got to Johnny Marr (pretty close). 

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=O3AiS3rodyM

After just a few months of my tenure, and in an unorthodox move Tom and the remaining two quarters of Sartre moved up to Newcastle to attempt to get signed by Kitchenware Records, the label/stable which nurtured late 80’s indie revelations Prefab Sprout. I had to stay behind to finish my A levels but would hear occasional stories drift back to Reading about life on the dole as a band, which seemed to involve a lot of funny adventures while living together in a flat and eating things out of tins. It sounded pretty much exactly like the Monkees TV show if The Monkees’ house was devoid of any form of domestic heating. The invite to move up there was also kindly extended to me. I think I even discussed it with my parents in one of the shortest and most explosive discussions it’s ever been my misfortune to take part in, and in that tally I’m including over 100 Rogue Traders confrontations, some with hardened, violent criminals. 


After they returned South, Tom and I would meet regularly every decade, quite by chance, outside an exhaust centre or post office, to find out what we had missed from eachothers lives in the intervening years. He is a talented, genuine and warm fellow, for whom I would make time to stop and talk if I were holding on to a narrow lead in an Olympic marathon. 

So anyway, due to the magic of social media, I’m back in touch with Tom. Over the last year or so I’ve become aware that he now has a band, Band Of Hope. They play Tom’s excellent country-leaning songs, and one day he drops me a line to let me know that a vacancy has just opened up….

…for a drummer!  

So they get Sarah. You know Sarah? Great drummer. Lovely feel.

AND A STEEL PLAYER!! 

PTCHAAAA!!!!

9. Pedals and Pedagogues

Right so now I’ve got this thing. I thought you might like to see me get it out of the box. This provides a major opportunity for me to ‘monetise’ this journey.

You see, I know that there are now people making millions by opening boxes on Youtube. Whole media careers are forged by people buying things, or, more often, receiving them for nothing, and then opening the boxes containing these things on camera. They attract huge audiences and end up with book deals, film scripts and with their pictures on the sides of buses, all for opening boxes and talking. So here comes my unboxing, and the next, highly successful stage of my media life. So long, Aldi!

 

Sponsors please form an orderly queue. It is, I’ll admit, a bit shorter than I’d hoped, but I’m not just editing this film brutally because your average youtubers tend to be younger and better lit than me. It’s also because, reviewing the footage today, I realised that I have included some glaring inaccuracies which cannot be allowed to tarnish my spotless reputation as a journalist. Firstly, I state clearly during the unboxing just after this clip, that this is a 1975 Sho-Bud LDG, which, while possible (the LDG entered production in 1973), is not the case. Cross-referencing the serial number, I’ve discovered that my Sho-Bud was in fact made in 1981 in Nashville, Tennessee. The list price at the time was $1720, which means that, like the house by the airport, old-dollars-for-new, it’s worth almost as much today as it was when it was sold. An investment!

Secondly, in my film, I do this:

 

And while I do so, I indicate that I am depressing the A and B pedals. A and B are the most used pedals in the pedal steel player’s arsenal, raising the major chord 5 semitone steps from, for instance, a G major to a C major. If you’re not into musical theory, and that makes no sense to you, the sound perhaps should. It’s clearly recognisable as the sound of a country song coming to an end. On the majority of pedal steels, that’s exactly what I would be doing. I had forgotten however, that there are two ways to lay out the pedals on a PSG, named after the players who favoured them, Buddy Emmons and Jimmy Day. Buddy Emmons’ set-up orders the pedals A-B-C, left to right. My Sho-Bud is, however, the slightly rarer Day set-up, and therefore switches them to C-B-A. I am here depressing the C and B pedals, giving me a minor triad, not a major. What a spanner! I wonder if leading Youtuber Zoella makes such childish errors when she’s unboxing, I don’t know, a balalaika, Celtic Harp or a set of aeolian pipes.

My failed unboxing demonstrates that I am obviously talking out of my Harris – a signal to me that before I proceed any further, I need to get myself some tuition. It’s been made quite clear that to gain any kind of proficiency in the PSG will take years or decades, like the study of a Japanese traditional art, for instance, swordsmanship or flower arranging. This ain’t no ukulele. Simply buying the thing and sticking your hands on it will inevitably result in horrible sounds and frustration, and I have learnt from my (failure to) study other instruments that it is much easier to apply sound technical method early on than unpick horribly ingrained bad habits further on down the line, habits formed in a juvenile rush to perform and record.

If you’re looking for a Pedal Guru to shine a light for you, there are a few places you can turn. Some are recognised legends and some are the young pretenders. I’ll give you a quick run-down of the ones I’ve sampled so far and you can make your mind up which one suits you best.

1. Jeff Newman

My Newbury-based spirit guide Gerry Hogan tells me that there’s no point bothering with anyone but Jeff when I’m starting out. His video guides are meticulous, comprehensive and contain everything I will need for the next few years of practice. Gerry tells me that the short video courses that Jeff has made represent years of work if I’m going to follow them properly. You don’t argue with your spirit guide, so I acquire two Jeffran College courses – Right Hand Alpha, which is devoted to the insanely tricky but essential art of picking and damping the strings with the right hand, and Pedal Steel Guitar Techniques, which broadly covers hands, feet, tonebar control, volume control and pedal squeezing (more later). When I get the courses home a couple of things are clear: firstly, these are grainy VHS transfers to DVD. Jeff sadly died in 2004 while trying to land a light aircraft, so didn’t have the chance to upgrade the format of his course to DVD. It doesn’t make a great difference.

ring

In fact, the clunky 80’s graphics and frosty-edged picture quality lend the whole course a timeless quality to what he’s saying, the main message of which is unmistakable:

I got this right. Just do it like I do it.

I don’t get the feeling that Jeff would have been one of those teachers who would gently put a hand round your shoulder and shepherd you in the right direction if you weren’t quite getting it right.  He was more likely to look at you in an incredulous fashion and ask you what on earth you’d been doing with YOUR time, and why you were wasting HIS.

image1

I like Jeff, even though he scares me a bit. He’s the kind of no-nonsense teacher I would have run a mile from as a kid, but to whom I respond at this time of my life. His authority is unquestionable, and it’s obvious why he is held in such high regard in the Pedal Steel community as a player and teacher. He is also immaculately dressed and groomed, and wears a horseshoe diamond-encrusted ring on the pinky of his picking hand. That is also something to which I now aspire. He warns strongly against a few things, including ‘pumping’ the volume foot pedal from zero to full on each phrase, and the avoidable chink of the metal finger picks against the strings, which he describes as ‘Chinese Music’.

2. Dewitt Scott.

I get a totally different vibe from Dewitt Scott, also recently, sadly, departed. His course is a mixture of book learnin’ and accompanying audio files to play along with. I’ve downloaded the lot onto my tablet device, which is a lot easier to manipulate than Jeff’s DVDs, but lack the visual cue that you get from seeing Jeff’s sparkling patent leather cowboy boot rock between the pedals, squeezing the country soul out of each note. Dewitt offers endless pedal steel tablature of traditional tunes that we might know, starting with Goodnight Ladies – easy to play, difficult to master. His preamble is good too, framing just how much practice will be required (years) but not demanding too much of us at each sitting. He comes across as a cuddlier, kindlier soul than Jeff, which is initially comforting, but is the kind of teacher who wouldn’t mind too much if your homework isn’t in on time, and would therefore be easy to get round. His voice is sweet and encouraging, and in pictures I find, he seems gentle, smiley and kind. In short, he is a soft touch, and the sort of teacher I would be tempted to run rings round, distracting other students, and possibly even letting off the fire extinguisher in class.

DewittScott

Together with Jeff however, he would make a terrific police interrogation duo, Dewitt promising to protect me from Jeff if I just give him the information that is required, then Jeff storming in, turning over chairs, slamming his horseshoe ringed hand down on the table and demanding ANSWERS.

3. Troy Brenningmeyer

We’re on Youtube at last! As my 16-year old son said to me when I started this blog, ‘Welcome to 2001’.

Troy is a Youtuber, offering free classes online with a view to hooking you into paying for his stuff a bit further down the line. His use of masking tape with fret numbers on is a big step forward for the beginner, and the coverage of the instrument is clear and uncomplicated. He’s an affable, laid-back chap, in a casual t-shirt and baseball cap, with what looks like a pilot’s headset on top of the whole thing. I like this – I imagine receiving a choice of light meals him as he pilots us through the clouds of musical ignorance soaring towards the clear skies of beautiful playing, but I’ll be honest, I’m not sure that he and Jeff would get on. For a start, in one of his introductory lessons he admits to just starting the instrument himself. Then he says that he doesn’t want to get bogged down with how to hold the bar and how to use the pedals, he just wants to get on and make some music. Hmmm. Whereas Jeff is all about the technique, Troy is all about the good times. Don’t get me wrong, I feel like Troy and I could have some fun, go and see a few gigs, hang out, maybe end up on the beach with a couple of beers at the end of the evening putting the world to rights, before it turns cold and we go our seperate ways. But the last thing I need when I’m learning something as difficult as the pedal steel, is someone else learning it alongside me. Why would I pay for that? He has a little to offer, but I’m not going to hand over any money. Beware Troys bearing gifts.

4. Jim Lill

WHOA!!!!!

There’s this young guy on my screen now. What the flip? He’s 25 AT THE ABSOLUTE MOST. Like Troy, he’s wearing a baseball cap BUT BACKWARDS, and his mountains of curly hair are piling out of the thing. He’s operating the pedals using full-on cloud-soled cyberpasty trainers in an electric blue, and talking in an energetic fashion, jump-cutting when my tiny attention span demands that I must on no account hear his sentence all the way to the end. Every time he says something, the words appear on the screen in capitals to drive the point home. PEDAL STEEL! He says the instrument can get me a ‘silly, slippery sound’ or a ‘nice, ethereal sound’, and ‘a bunch of other cool stuff.’ OK! It is labelled as for beginners and guitar players, and is also suitable for those brought up on a televisual diet of Ben 10.

He plays well, but he’s crossing some pretty big lines as far as my other teachers are concerned. I can hear Jeff’s Newman’s voice tutting over the top, as Jim is audibly clearly chinking his picks against the strings, and dropping the volume pedal down to zero before swelling to full – ‘pumping’. WE GOT US A PUMPER, BOYS! These are cardinal sins for Jeff. But Jim’s audience is clearly different: he’s after the guitarist who wants a bit of occasional fun with the pedal steel, before he goes back to the skatepark, or for an ice cream with his Mum and Dad. Jeff and Dewitt are the product of a lifetime of study and endeavour, achieving the highest honours on the world’s toughest instrument. Jim is clearly a nice kid who loves his music, wants to have some fun with a cool new instrument, and share that with others. There’s definitely a place for that. He also does us the huge favour of showing how to assemble and disassemble a pedal steel guitar, the first of our teachers to uncover that particular mystery. His approach is simple and practical, nifty and thrifty. He is without a doubt, the pedal guru from my collection of four so far who is least likely to have voted Republican, if indeed, he is old enough to vote.

It does raise a question in my head. Is Pedal Steel just for older people? There is no doubt that there is a repository of wisdom in the older generation, from the players who developed the thing like Buddy Emmons and Jimmy Day, through to great teachers like Dewitt, Jeff Newman and our own Gerry Hogan. I’m no spring chicken and it’s taken up until now to get the wherewithal and the time to attempt this thing. But is it like learning Esperanto? Have I got involved in a dying art whose time has come and gone? Is there a future for this thing? It makes no difference to me, personally, because I’m in it purely to make a sound that I love, but is there a future for the instrument at all? Let’s face it, you won’t find many kids outside Macdonalds comparing string gauges or bar sizes and arguing the advantages of Emmons vs Day set ups, will you?

Or WILL you?

 

 

 

 

 

 

WordPress.com.

Up ↑