Thursday, 6 September 2007

What Do You Want From Me?

One of the pleasant side-effects of playing original music is that you can generally avoid the barrage of (largely musical-taste free) audience requests that are an inevitable bane of the average function/pub covers band. I'm sure that many of the older and more successful artists do get heartily sick of people asking them to play music from that long-gone golden age when all of the band members:

a) had hair (on their heads, rather than sprouting vigorously from their ears and nostrils),
b) actually talked to each other, rather than communicating solely through their lawyers, and
c) the drink, drugs and arthritis hadn't yet drained their collective creative juices with all the eagerness of John Mills downing his lager at the end of "Ice Cold in Alex".

But I'm also fairly certain that the cumulative royalties and/or mega-stadium concert receipts serve to stave off the on-stage boredom sufficiently for the rest of us not to weep for them too profusely, the poor dears.

(Oh, while we're on 'requests', if anyone from a "pre-rock" generation comes up to you at a gig and tells you to "turn your bass guitar down, it's far too loud, and it's damaging folks' hearing", don't, whatever you do, try to engage them in a conversation about presbycusis, or explain that their hearing loss in the 4-5khz range results in the bass sounding more prominent. Just nod, adopt an expression of seriousness & concern, turn round and pretend exaggeratedly that you're lowering all the volume controls on your amp. Worked for me, anyway).

There again, in a function band you are at least guaranteed some audience members (even if they choose to ignore you all night), you don't have the horrors of "pay-to-play" venues, and you'll even end the night with some money (unless you get lumped with a bloody cheque - almost always when cash was previously agreed upon, too, would you believe?). You are, however, contractually obligated into some degree of musical whoredom, so must tread the worryingly fine line between denying the bride's recently-divorced-and-currently-drunk-cousin's desire to hear half of Westlife's back catalogue, and angering those in control of your payment. Sometimes you get unusual requests that turn out to be an interesting challenge, such as the time we were asked, at short notice, if we could play "half an hour of modern jazz" at the start of the evening. Unusually, for a ceilidh band, we could (I scribbled out some basic charts and we improvised/bluffed it outrageously). These bouts of spontaneous fun are, though, far from the norm.

There is one particular type of request that is especially fraught with danger- the 'first dance' at a wedding. All the video cameras are primed, the happy couple are gazing adoringly into each other's eyes as they stand, alone, in the centre of the room. Everything is still in anticipation - this is their moment. So absolutely a dead certainty that if you make a pig's ear of it, everyone there isn't going to forgive & forget in a hurry, there'll be some rude phone calls to your agent, and you'd better start scouring the newspaper for a proper job.

Now, most folk that we played for in Scotland were nice and sensible, and chose to start their night with a traditional waltz, or provided their own 'special song' on cd/mp3 (which often decides to be amusingly incompatible with the mixer, but that's a whole other realm of issues - we'll leave technologically-induced-disasters alone for now). The finest example I ever saw of the latter was at a gig with the mighty Jon Bews, where the bridal pair performed a wonderfully-choreographed dance of their own devising to the strains of Rammstein's "Ohne Dich". Unique, brilliant, and utterly charming. (Mind you, that's one song I would have had no objections at all to learning.)

The second largest group ask the band to play a familiar song that, in the words of that inaccurate expression, "we all know and love". Van Morrison's gratingly sanctimonious, but absurdly popular "Have I Told You Lately That I Love You", Robbie Williams' "Angels" (possibly one of the greatest missed-opportunity-for-a-guitar-solo pop songs of all time. I'm not asking for a pointless exercise in note-cramming, but it was crying out for something along the lines of Dave Gilmour's emotionally-charged-yet-simple playing in "Mother", or his solo in the middle of "Comfortably Numb", rather than the can't-be-arsed yawn-another-single-note-bend blandness we had to endure...not that I like the song anyway, but still), that sort of thing. I must admit, I did enjoy trying to learn to cover both the bass & piano parts of "Here Comes The Sun" in the van on the way to the gig once. (Now there's 'professionalism' for you...).

What I never understood, however, was when otherwise apparently sane (well, they'd booked us, so we liked them) folk chose a song that was clearly, blatantly, unsuitable for purpose. The number of times couples wanted us to cover U2's "With or Without You" as their opener was quite astonishing. Had they bothered to listen to the lyrics, at any point, ever? "I can't live", insists Cardinal Bono, "with or without you". Not just "without", about-to-get-hitched guys - he's saying he can't do the co-habiting, cosy, loving relationship bit, either. And what about one of the verses -

"My hands are tied
My body bruised, she's got me with
Nothing to win and
Nothing left to lose"

yes, well, some of the more cynical of you might say that sounds about right for marriage, but c'mon, seriously...that's how you want your wedding celebration to kick off? Oh dear. And yet so many, it would seem, did...

The worst song we ever had to prepare made that look like "Tiptoe Through The Tulips". In spite of the (frankly miserable) lyrics, disregarding the well-known video (always featuring in countdowns of "Fifty Greatest Rock Videos Featuring Skinny Whiny-Voiced Homophobic Guys In Leather Trousers Screeching And Playing Piano While The Guitarist's So Off His Tits He Hasn't Realised That When He's Doing His Big Solo Outside The Church, He Left His Amp Back Down The Hill In His Truck". I think you know what I mean.), they asked us to perform "November Rain". Well, what can you do? Dutifully, we transcribed it, then transposed it into a key more suitable for a singer whose trousers would not be as tight as Mr. Rose's.

Fortunately, on the night, cometh the hour...they returned to their senses, and decided it wasn't such a great idea after all. So it was good old waltz time, instead. And we could wheel out our favourite 'bridal waltz' tune - the one and only "Fanny Power".

What - musicians who are old enough to know far better indulging in juvenile private anatomical gags involving tune-names written about 300 years ago by Turlough O'Carolan?

You hum it, and I'll be sat at the back sniggering like a 10-year-old who's just found a very rude word in a dictionary.

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