Monday, 29 October 2007

More Songs About Buildings And Food

"It's very nice to go trav'ling, but it's oh so nice to come home", as Frank Sinatra smoothly intoned, and he certainly wasn't wrong when it meant being cut-off from all things internet for a fortnight. Exactly how pathetic is that? My reliance on the web for staying in touch with widely-dispersed friends, news, music, etc has become depressingly complete. Maybe if I sit down and type out a 1500-word "why-oh-why-oh-why" Daily Torygraph-style moan about the lack of human contact in everyday life in the 21st century, that'll make it all better. Or not. So I'll chunter on about Inverness (since that's where we were) instead.

Now, I don't want to give the impression that Inversneckie is in any way a technologically backward hick town, stuck in a northern rural hinterland, blasted with driving rain, sleet and snow (on alternate days, September to May inclusive), and governed by inbred ultra-socially-conservative Free Kirk fanatics. No, really, I don't, because it isn't. Ok, maybe certain parts of it are still just a little bit from time to time, but it's getting much better, honest. It's changed out of all recognition since my first visit back in 1995-ish (as moderately-amusingly chronicled in August's "Who Are You" post), and has become a genuinely hip and groovy place to be. Well, at the very least, it's gone a long way towards achieving that status over the intervening years.

For a start, my absence-of-net-access issue was caused only partially by the apparent dearth of any "traditional" internet caf├ęs - you know, some sofas, a bunch of computers [with or without hidden key-loggers, who knows? ], transient-backpacker staff who spend all their time yakking with their mates rather than serve you what passes for coffee. Rather, it was my comparative poverty (for a tech-literate citizen of a what passes for a highly-prosperous western nation ), and therefore non-possession of a laptop or "dangleberry" media-gimp-style-victim-type device with which to exploit the numerous free wi-fi spots advertised around the town. (I refuse even to consider "internet phones" - my fingers can wrap themselves round a 6-string bass, thus are not exactly ideally shaped for poking away at keys the size of very small ants. Also, having my eyesight deteriorate even further through trying to work using a screen that's about a quarter of the resolution of my monitor doesn't appeal. Not that I could afford such a beast, anyway! ). So not the city's fault, more mine for not finding the time to get down to the central library and signing-up for some free computer access there. Ho hum.

I sense that one or two folk out there may be less than convinced by my protestations - and that a fair few others have no idea where Inverness even is, but no matter - I shall set your hearts ablaze with the desire to visit Scotland's most northerly city by the end of this piece. Maybe. It might be that some people's hearts are more flammable than others, depending perhaps on how much fatty tissue surrounds the organ, and the quantity of nail polish remover the person is in the habit of imbibing on a nightly basis. Now there's an experiment I'll bet you wish you'd got to do at school!

Consider, then, that apart from a host of places to eat, drink, and/or hear a wide variety of live bands, they possess the finest Thai-restaurant-come-traditional-and-more music venue I've ever visited. Ok, it also happens to be the only one I've set foot in, but Hootananny's has truly fantastic - and great value! - food, a relaxed, comfortable atmosphere, and a first-rate in-house p.a. set-up to ease a poor muso's osteopath bills. Bliss. Then there's Scotland's largest second-hand bookshop, Leakey's, which is the ideal place to while away a pleasant afternoon or several (assuming you have no small children to appease/amuse/desperately attempt to keep under some semblance of control). Lastly, (but by all means not least-ly), there are two decent musical instrument shops within 100 metres of each other - just down the road from Leakey's, conveniently enough. And round the corner from "Hoots", come to think about it. Food, drink, guitars and books, all within easy ambling distance - "most bonus", indeed!

For those of us with young families, I don't think I can stress sufficiently the importance of music shops as a place of temporary refuge from the constant demands (and incredibly wearing absence-of-internal-dialogue-stream-of-babble) of children that non-parents cannot fully comprehend. Even if you borrow some kids for a day. It's just not the same. I got the chance to hide in one for half-an-hour, and was extremely surprised to discover that the Vietnamese are making perfectly acceptable budget basses. The deeply unattractively-named Peavey 'Grind' turned out to be great fun for the money, and I completely failed to resist the urge to "rip it up" shamelessly. In my defence, there was a small gaggle of early-teenage metalheads in the corner, trying-out their latest identikit magazine-learned high-fuzz tapping patterns, a trio of the store staff being "cool" with some of their mates, and I'd caught a couple of ignorant disparaging comments about the instrument I was holding (and anyone who thought it worth a glance) float across the shop (I have surprisingly good hearing, despite all the gigs standing next to a drummer ), so what else was a scruffy-looking guy who was clearly waaaay too old to "rock n' roll" supposed to do?

20 minutes' worth of pointlessly technical speed-poncing, with occasional splodges of jazz chords thrown in just for laughs, later, and I was convinced that the 'Grind' (seriously, who was responsible for that name? and why?) was a genuinely decent bass for the money. It could have done with a bit more wood in the body, but the strings-through-body design did help the tone, and lightness can be a virtue in a 6-string! Throw in a couple of Status pick-ups (£125 including delivery), say, and you'd have something really nice. Much better, for instance, than the more expensive, Bartolini-equipped, yet seemingly too light and tone-free Ibanez SR506, which I also tried out while hiding (this time from the displeasure of my mother-in-law ) in a music shop in Kentucky earlier this year.

Interestingly, (to me), both places tried the same trick - inviting me to plug into a big, fat, high-quality stack, just to help me along on the purchasing front. Experience, however, teaches us to "Just say no!", and opt for a medium-size combo instead, which, with a cruelly flattened eq, will truly expose the nature of an instrument - unless, of course, you have both a) a great deal of cash, and b) roadies, in which case, be my guest and turn that huge Ampeg up loud, baby! Just don't blame me if you find you've bought a crap bass.

I learned this lesson the hard way, you see, when I was an impressionable youth of 19, and seeking a new guitar amp. Rather than spending my cash on something sensible, like a second-hand Sessionette 75, I was foolishly determined to purchase a shiny new amplifier to inflict on my neighbours. The guy in the shop must have smelled me coming, because when I asked to try out the *cough* Dean Markley K65 *cough* I liked the look of, he handed me an old Les Paul. Plainly (for I wasn't completely clueless) a very old, very good Les Paul. In fact, it was too good for a mediocre guitarist like me. The action was cigarette-paper low, and my clumsy touch could barely keep up with this beautiful guitar, which sounded amazing. As I was handing it back (very carefully, may I add), I asked him exactly how old it was. "A '56", he said, and watched in horror as I almost dropped it in sheer nervous terror and excitement (I clocked the serial number and checked it later - he wasn't lying). Understandably, I was blown away by the whole experience, and decided on the spot to buy the amp - which turned out to be under-powered and largely unsuited for what I wanted to do.

Still, at least I got to play an incredibly cool guitar. And see Inverness? That's not half bad, either. It's never going to be as cool as a 1956 Gibson Les Paul Gold Top, of course - but then, what is?

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