Tuesday, 29 December 2009

You Learn

So, that's Christmas over-and-done with, the traditional feast of televisual WWII nostalgia has finished (at least the "Heroes of Telemark" has plenty of snow in it, so it feels a bit more 'seasonal'), and we've almost reached the end of the year, eh? Hell, end of the decade (assuming we're counting from zero, naturally - some folk get very pedantic about that sort of thing) - not that it matters, it's just a date, as arbitrary as any other. Of course, what media columnists/ bloggers/ random drunks hanging-around bus shelters typically feel the urge to do at this point is offer us some sort of round-up of the year gone by - or decade, if they're feeling ambitious, and want to properly bore everyone with their oh-so-intriguing and salient personal insights into the major world events we all lived through already, thanks very much.

As an antidote to those 8-page-special-features-with-pointless-quiz-attached reminders of our general lack of progress as a species, here's the Mid-Life Bassist "one very deep breath (don't forget your inhaler)", no chronological order, and possibly a little jaded-and-cynical summary of the last 12 months...

Greedy politicians, greedy bankers, greedy celebrities, greedy libel tourists, "isn't it cold? wow, it's hot! where did summer go? gosh, what a shock, it's cold again!", "bang! bang! we're all dead!" (because I'm a zealot with a head full of hatred & religious fantasies), a rich guy with dubious attitudes towards children "Beat It", come visit England's Lake-in-the-middle-of-your-high-street District, You've been kettled!, real pirates don't say "arrr", Tiger tiger strayed at night, MacAskill does the right thing for the wrong reasons, dense cloud of hot air suffocates Copenhagen, English voter apathy gave the bigots their tickets to ride the Euro-gravy-train, Homecoming Scotland didn't, mass RAGE boosts the Cowell/Sony Benevolent Fund, the remarkable aerodynamics of Italian souvenirs, and Molly still may yet trip up Trump...

(apologies if I left out many events of great personal or international significance for anyone out there, and also for switching between present and past tenses with wilful disregard for grammatical regulations. I'm just lazy)

For me, 2009 saw the exciting launch of my very own music website - which, in the space of a couple of months has seen over 2,000 visits (most of them probably by mistake - just like this blog - "Braw Neeps" is the oddest recent search term that's landed someone here. Ah, the great mystery of life that is Google) ...and a grand total of 8 downloads, even though they're "pay as little as 'absolutely free' if that's what you want". This may well reveal something about the quality and/or desirability of my 'tinged with a sense of longing' instrumental offerings. I couldn't possibly comment.

Still, I have learned a few things this year, at least...

I now can pretend to be a bouzouki player (of sorts), which may actually turn out to be more useful and artistically rewarding than memorising PI to 100 decimal places. You never can tell...

In spite of being 40, I (hopefully) still have half of a lifetime in which to 'achieve'...something (or anything, really). Although this is the half where I can only get slower, more decrepit, and my mental powers (such as they may be) will dwindle away inexorably. Mind you, I am a bass player, so this last difficulty shouldn't affect my music to any great extent.

Next, Virgil was talking twaddle when he stated "Love conquers all things". No, as I've discovered to my cost, choices/decisions we made years previously can continue to control our lives for far longer than we ever would have thought possible. Dammit.
The same "load of old tosh" concept applies to any offerings of the "Where there's a will, there's a way" and "If you want something bad enough..." schools of trite non-thought. People who respond to your woes in life with mindless regurgitations of anything approaching these adages should be [this section redacted to protect the impressionable].

And finally, thanks to a christmas present I opened yesterday, I've realised my writing style is far-too-often uncannily similar to Armando Iannucci's, except that he's a deity of modern satirical comedy rather than a single-parent 'hus-been' & musical obscurity.

He's also hilariously clever. And since his written work has been published worldwide, it'll look like I'm simply copying him - which is very annoying, because if I were, this site would be much, much funnier. Ah, well.

As for the decade as a whole, well, to rip-off Oscar Wilde both clumsily and shamelessly:

"To lose one long-term relationship may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness."

Ho hum.

It's all a bit "2 steps forward, 3 steps back" at the moment.

Best wishes to everyone for the year (and decade, if you're not right up yourself mathematically) to come. Hope you have a great one.

All the best,

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Let It Snow

"Oh the weather outside is frightful...."

According to our glorious news media, you'd certainly think it was. In their narrative, we're locked in the icy grip of vast blizzards which have caught us completely unaware (in December, of all months!), sweeping across the countryside, turning every living thing in their path into highly-decorative-but-fatal ice-sculptures in an instant - while thousands of well-insulated illegal immigrants sneak in under the cover of the endless white-outs, and the enormous drifts of snow which threaten the very fabric of our British way of life (and ability to drive to Tesco) will undoubtedly also further weaken house prices. Although some of that might have been mildly exaggerated, one thing is clear - it's a disaster. And one that's almost certainly not been seen for...oooh...ages.

Or is it?

Well, there's certainly some snow blowing about the place, and we've seen some impressive disruptions on various forms of transport, but frankly, I don't see what the current media fuss over the 'not-half-as-abnormal-as-you'd-be-led-to-believe' winter weather is all about. Yes, Basingstoke, for example, was a bit of a mess, and the Eurostar train failures - the 'wrong kind of snow' (ie. stuff that was a little colder and more plentiful than they'd bothered to engineer their trains for to save money, or, if you prefer the company's view "unprecedented") proved yet again that electrical systems and water don't mix very well, would you believe? - screwed-up quite a lot of people's travel plans, but these are, in the grander scheme of things, pretty minor, short-term difficulties.

Of course, more people die in very cold weather, which means every spell like this brings its litany of personal tragedies - and my own enjoyment of some of the wintry delights on offer - and let's be honest, the kids are currently having a bloody great time (as my older monkey ably demonstrates in the local park) - comes with the unhappy knowledge that our next heating bill is going to be budget-worryingly high - a delight that's shared by over 5 million households living in fuel poverty.

But the overall apocalyptic tone of the coverage is ridiculous. For instance, here are a few pictures of what the BBC website headlines "More snow chaos". Errrr...nope. Not unless they've managed to convince the OED to publish a brand-new definition of 'chaos', that is. Which is possible - I've been pretty busy, so might not have been paying sufficient attention to the latest lexicographical trends. If that's the case, mea culpa, ok?

Anyway, quite apart from the hyperbole floating about, the news media seem to have very short collective memories of winters past - especially if you have a glance at this chart of "British Winter Snowfall Events" (Dave O'Hara, Ferryhill Weather Station)

According to Mr. O'Hara's list, we've had 7 "snowy" or "very snowy" winters since I was born - and that's excluding areas that have had localised heavy falls in otherwise "average" years.

And perhaps we should cast our minds as far back as...oh, February this year, when it was reported that:
"South-east England has been hit by the heaviest snow in 18 years, causing trains and buses to be cancelled, and airports and schools to be closed.

Snow is now moving north, with the Pennines, north-east England and the Scottish Borders at risk of seeing up to 12 inches (30cm) of snowfall."

You see, what I fail to understand is...well, people's failure to understand that this sort of weather can and does happen in Britain. Why are so many of the drivers on our roads apparently ignorant of how basic things they should do to cope with/prepare for these conditions?

Perhaps part of the problem is the way we see ourselves, how a bizarre image of these islands somehow being an as-yet-internationally-unrecognised adjunct of the Mediterranean (the tabloids' typical summer frothings over fruity young urban women in bikinis with the old "phwoar! what a scorcher!" headlines help twist our minds to building this delusion of Southern European geographical kinship) has taken hold.

Ultimately, whatever we may wish for in terms of culture and diet, we cannot escape the fact that physically we live in what is very much a northern country. And to help out the more cartographically-challenged folk, here's something you might (!) find interesting...

Scotland's capital, Edinburgh, sits at a latitude of N 55deg 58'. So if you start heading east from that point, you find it's further north than Copenhagen (Denmark), Malmo (Sweden), all of Poland, Vilnius (Lithuania), Minsk (Belarus), Moscow & Omsk (Russia), Grand Prairie & Edmonton (Canada).

But perhaps that's too easy - so let's use London (N 51deg 30') instead...that's still north of Brussels & Antwerp (Belgium), Eindhoven (The Netherlands), Leipzig (Germany), Warsaw (Poland), Kiev (Ukraine), Orsk (Russian Fed.), Astana (Kazakhstan), Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia), Vancouver, Calgary and most other places of any size in Canada.

Now, a particular number of degrees north or south is hardly the sole determinant of any country's weather patterns, I know - we're small islands, stuck slap-bang next to the Atlantic, with variable topography in close proximity, Gulf Stream, blah blah blah. Sure. It's complicated, but it is a significant factor.

And by way of a final illustration of exactly where we sit, I'll leave you with this - here in Dunfermline, according to Google Earth I live almost exactly 724 miles due south from the Arctic Circle.

Britain (using the same system, and measuring as the crow flies from the Shetlands to the tip of Cornwall - France can have the Channel Islands if they want) is 769 miles in length.

Maybe if more folk took a good look at a map, and worked out where they were standing on the planet, they'd be a bit less surprised the next time some snow drops on their heads.

Snow and ice - in winter! Shocking, eh?

Thursday, 17 December 2009

State Of Independence

So, who really, honestly, dredging the innermost recesses of their psyche gives a monkey's which song happens to be top of the increasingly-irrelevant "hit parade" here in the UK this Christmas?

Not, I'm sure you've already guessed by now, me.

Yes, let's all run out and buy an 'oh so rebellious and transgressive' Rage Against The Machine song, because giving Sony (through it's wholly-owned subsidiary, Epic) somewhere in the region of 85% of the fee will properly wipe the smug, narcissistic grin off Simon Cowell's face. Or not. Definitely not, in fact.

Of course, it's just a 'bit of fun', but what better marketing strategy could he have hoped for? Whoever it was (I pride myself on my ignorance of this) won the X-factor will sell even more copies of whatever execrable super-karaoke ditty Cowell has alloted them, as the (manufactured by Sony..? I know, 'conspiracy theory ahoy', but why shouldn't social-network-marketing be so cunning as to feed into an honestly-created original group, hmm? perhaps...) 'race for no.1' theme is regularly repeated on television, in print, and online...um, a bit like I'm doing here, unfortunately. Oops.

It also serves merely to cosset Simon Cowell's overweening ego, his desperate desire for fame, and that's one thing we can deny him if we choose to ignore the charts, and simply let him wallow in his mediocre pop-ordure along with the likes of Westlife, Pixie Lott, Robbie Williams, Lady GaGa and that famous mime artist Cheryl Cole.

Anyway, I've got nothing against RATM (while perfectly genuine in their social-inequality,etc campaigning concerns, they're surely more accurately titled "Quite Miffed At Some Aspects Of The Market System Which Has Successfully Made The Band Very Wealthy" these days?), or the people involved in this anti-X-factor effort, but if you want to make a more effective, Sony-free, direct contribution to charity, why not simply head over to Tracy Morter's "rage against the x-factor" JustGiving.com page?

And when you've done that, why not do something positive to promote some of the thousands of wonderful, immensely-talented, genuinely 'independent' musicians out there, who aren't tied to record company deals, haven't got the fickle support of conscience-free marketing departments, definitely aren't chasing a "celebrity lifestyle", and whose music can offer a more rewarding, more 'personal' listening experience?

(or there are mediocre obscurities like myself, who probably should never be encouraged to inflict their so-called 'music' on an unsuspecting and fragile world, but the less said about that, the better....all donations extremely welcome, naturally)

So, I thought I'd try to start a list of folk that might deserve your attention and their very own financial stimulus package. (This is a very brief selection from my facebook and myspace 'friends' lists - apologies to the many great people I've left out, you're all fantastic, I honestly don't have the time...sorry). Please feel free to add indignant comments suggesting anyone you can't believe I didn't mention/copy this list and post it elsewhere/go and listen to what these artists can do to make your life a little bit more interesting.

I was going to start with the tremendous folk-blues-acoustic-whatsit of my very good friend Martin Lennon, incredible Norwegian folk/jazz vocal trio Eplemøya Songlag and the most impressive solo bass of Danny Fox, but none of them have got actual stuff for sale online yet. Still, I'm sure if you got in touch with them, something could be arranged via PayPal. Certainly well worth a listen, at the very least.

Now, in no particular order...

The ridiculously young-but-talented latin-jazz guitar of Daniel Volovets.

Do you like King Crimson? Clever time-signatures? O5Ric on drums and bass is your man.

Jazz-fusion keyboard awesomeness, courtesy of Alex Argento.

For a female singer/songwriter who isn't a no-life-experience warbly teenager, here's Ms. Hannah O'Reilly.

Persons of a punk persuasion will probably enjoy South Queensferry's "The Static".

Finally (for the moment), solo-bassist (and internet-ideas-guru) supreme Steve Lawson...

...and the list he compiled of fellow users of excellent music-distribution site Bandcamp (can't vouch for the quality of all the folk on it, but there'll be some good stuff on it for sure)

There. Now it's up to you - the 'Cowell/RATM Sony Benevolent Fund', or something far more interesting instead?


Thursday, 3 December 2009

What Is And What Should Never Be

Hey, good evening folks, and welcome, welcome to the show, big old down-home Dunfermline welcome to each and every one of you, oh yes - and we've got a really special edition of the show for you tonight, folks - in fact, we're going to be mixing things up a little around here. Yes, indeed, that we are. Keeping it real, keeping it fresh, throwing out the stale bits of breakfast cereal that somehow escaped from the inner plastic bag and got stuck down at the bottom of the packet for the last 3 weeks, yet you still just couldn't resist having an exploratory nibble on 'em, could ya?

(cue pathetic audience laughter at the host's terrible scripted 'spontaneous wit')

Yes, tonight we've got a really special guest for all you "pro-gear-at-bargain-prices" fans out there... All the way from China, its got almost NO tonal depth, absolutely NO sustain, but hey, who cares when it looks this funky, am I right, or is that just a feeble sales pitch? Good people of internetville, let me hear you give it up for Mid-Life Bassist's new king of "whatever you do, don't buy this!" - the Danelectro '58 "Dead On" Longhorn Bass!

This is a truly terrible attempt at a musical instrument. It really is. It's so bad I hardly know where to start...and yet, from a distance, its got fantastic out-there funk/crazed improvisational prog-a-thon styling. Hanging on the music shop wall, the retro-futuristic looks provide welcome relief from the tedious crowd of unimaginative-yet-often-hugely-expensive Fender-clones (did someone mention "Lakland"...? Couldn't have been me, I'd never be so rude).

But that's exactly where it should stay, stuck firmly to the wall, resembling nothing so much as a reproduction prop from 'A Clockwork Orange', 'Barbarella' or any one of oh-so-many 50's 'B' movies, depending on your age/pop culture frame of reference.

As soon as you touch it, there's an immediate 'red flag' - it's incredibly light, mostly because it's made from the mysterious-sounding substance 'masonite', although sadly this isn't some fantastical "super-molecular-polymer-based-compound" found only in the core of meteorites, it's a type of hardboard. And it shows. (At least it doesn't require you to play the bass with one trouser-leg rolled-up, and using very peculiar hand-positions - apologies to any foreign readers who aren't familiar with the Scottish 'masonic' traditions being mocked in this aside). This is the main reason for the previously-mentioned absence of sustain and tone (or, to be more specific, the predominance of thin, treble-and-high-mid frequencies only). The rest can be ascribed to the fact that the (non-adjustable, wooden) bridge doesn't even sit directly on the body, but 'balances' instead on three screws. I'd speculate that this design was originally chosen because otherwise the body would shake to pieces whenever a low 'E' was hit, but that would be mocking the afflicted, and needlessly cruel.

What else?

The control knobs are flimsily made from the cheapest plastic known to mass-production, and the 'exciting' arrow-pointers have finger-laceratingly sharp edges...although since there's no depth of tone anyway, you wouldn't be bothering with one of them at all, so that's 50% less chance of losing a fingertip on stage straight away. The aluminium nut is equally sharp, so woe betide anyone fancying a dramatic slide down the neck on the higher strings - that'll be a couple of stitches, and about 4 & 1/2 hours in A&E. Oh, and the whole body is bound/trimmed in tolex (I think...?) that looks just like the kind of embossed vinyl wallpaper even my parents wouldn't have had in the house. Which apparently regularly suffers from adhesion 'issues'. So it's a bad design, poorly manufactured.

Ok, now I'm going to try (through gritted teeth) to be "fair and balanced" - in the Danelectro's defence (that should be a chess strategy), it is only a short-scale bass (29 + 3/4"), so it's always going to have difficulty reproducing a big bottom end. And, back in 1965 (for about 5 minutes), the incredibly brilliant John Entwistle of The Who used one of its ancestors (but he kept breaking the strings, and back then he had to buy a new bass every time it happened because he couldn't get replacement strings, so after 3 of them he gave up - info courtesy of www.thewho.net)

It also can't be denied that people who own them, and have taken the time to post reviews over at Harmony Central seem to love these beasts. Of course, that's quite a self-selecting little sample, and let's face it - there are guys out there who enjoy having women in stiletto heels goose-step around on their scrotums, and I'm sure that afterwards they'd rate that particular experience 9/10 too. (Suffice to say I'll be sticking to testing equipment of a strictly musical nature...)

But why, you might be asking, did I bother excoriating this guitar? Why am I so angry, genuinely angry with it, and its makers?

Because, depending on where you go, it'll cost you between £250 and £300, that's why.

Which is scandalous.

If it was a bargain-basement, no-brand model you'd bought off eBay for under £100, then I would care not a jot. Caveat would have been Emptor-ed, good luck to you, ach, well, nae mind, so it doesn't play so great, or sound so good, but bizarrely brilliant looks for the money, etc, etc...

For the same price as the gimmicky, 'toy' Longhorn, you could have a Yamaha RBX374, (which is a really good bass for the money), or a Cort GB34A, Peavey Millenium 4 AC BXP, a mad Traben Array Attack 4, lots of solid options from Aria, assorted Ibanez's, Schecter's, ESP's...the list of alternatives is a very long one indeed.

So, sorry for dwelling on the negative side of things. Sometimes banging-on about gear's a dirty job, but someone's got to do it...and since I've accumulated plenty of practice unblocking outside drains and changing nappies over the years, you could say I'm ideally qualified.

Saturday, 28 November 2009

Perfect Skin

As we age, there are certain uncomfortable physical realities that, however hard we may try, we cannot manage to avoid. That apparently superabundant energy of our youth sadly diminishes (so that staying-out on the town till 3am loses much of its previous gaudy allure, especially when the kids decide to wake up and be demanding an hour earlier than usual), mysterious aches and pains occur in unusual bodily locations with irritatingly increasing regularity, and it's time for this blog to address the important (but often neglected by we "bad-ass" bass players...not that I'm personally in any way "bad-ass", but I'm assured there are many of my fellow low-frequency muso's who fit that description) issue of dermatological care.

This is not, I must stress, to say that I've gone all "David Beckham", and am now an avid peruser of GQ magazine for essential styling and "product" (aka greasy chemical sludge to slap on your hair because you've nothing better to do with your time or money) advice. No, I'm still a proud alumnus of the "Billy-Bob Thornton International Academy of Grooming and Deportment". Additionally, an amusing little bout of impetigo, which decided to do the rare thing and mutate into full-on lymphadenitis left me looking like an extra from a no-budget zombie film for a couple of weeks. Which was nice. (The artist's impression - by a terrible artist, no prizes for guessing who - on the left gives a reasonable idea of the general effect). So I'm the last person who'd want to discuss the relative merits of assorted facial scrubs/balms/lotions/gels/loads of expensive cack for foolish people who believe glossy advertising pseudo-science.

No, this is all about the skin on your hands. Something it's extremely easy to neglect, but what with the seasonal weather bringing that delightful combination of cold, wind & rain, and the "musicians' lifestyle" often not being conducive to getting plenty of rest & recuperation, dry, cracked skin on the knuckles and around the fingernails can be painful - affecting practice and performance. (This is even more of a problem for those of us with small children, who find themselves washing their hands so often we start to wonder if we're developing OCD).

Ok, so the first step is obvious - wear gloves to keep your hands all snug 'n' warm, even when nobody else is so you might look a bit odd. Heck, you're a musician, buy black leather ones, they're always cool, so who cares what other people think? Or you could choose to wear only one glove, with lots of bright, shiny...errr...maybe not.

Anyway, in the past, I've hated using moisturising creams because they've always left my hands feeling far too greasy - hardly ideal just before a gig (then you're left trying to wipe the excess off on your jeans, and when that doesn't work you've got to nip off and wash your hands again, only now you have odd white stains down your jeans, which, depending precisely where you wiped your moisturiser-laden fingers could be deeply embarrassing...). But now I've found something that seems to do the trick, but doesn't affect my carefully-cultivated fingertip callouses, and manages not to smear itself all over the woodwork and strings...

So what is this wonder product that receives the "Mid-Life Bassist Seal of Approval"?
Step forward, Neutrogena "fast-absorbing hand cream (light texture)". (Yeah, ok, so most folk out there probably already knew about this stuff and use it on a regular basis - cut me some slack, huh? It's taken me a ridiculous number of years to finally come across something that works). It's great, and quite cheap, too, thankfully.

And I'm not just saying this because, by a bizarre and freakish coincidence, there happens to be a "senior scientist" at Neutrogena called "Andy Gilmour" (no relation whatsoever - plus I'm sure that, unlike myself, he's got a string of useful qualifications and, unless he's unfathomably profligate, a far greater degree of fiscal security). Nor do I receive any form of payment for anything recommended here...not that I wouldn't mind being a corporate whore, though. I have no objections to buying myself a more comfortable unhappiness, so in my current situation if they offered, I'd be stupid not to...any takers? no? Ah well.

Which just about wraps it up for this time. Except to say that in Edinburgh today I tried-out what is unquestionably the "Worst Bass Guitar Ever Made", but I'm not saying what it is yet...that's for next week.

And there'll be more regular posting now that I don't look as if half my neck had been replaced by Brian Blessed's.

You have been warned...

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap

At the end of last month Liberal Conspiracy put up an interesting post on file-sharing and the current economics of the music industry, which was all well and good, except some fellow called John Band then came along and made a few silly statements in the subsequent comments. He claimed that since the means of distribution were as near to free as made no odds these days, then it's entirely defensible to adopt a "utilitarian" position, and say that music should therefore also be free, since "writing a song, a poem, an article or a story simply *is* cost-free" and "Recording music on your computer and putting it on myspace is free. The only cost is people’s time".

I pointed-out to Mr. B that there might be certain costs he was conveniently omitting (instruments, perhaps? years of bloody training, maybe?), and someone else demonstrated how the investment in a home studio set-up could easily reach £5,000. His reply? "Aye, and gbp5k is hobby money".

Now that vexed me sorely, since £5,000 is almost 40% of my gross annual income. "Hobby money"?? My hairy backside! It's one of our inalienable rights to parade our ignorance in public, but the casual, patronising dismissiveness of those two words... As I said, ensuing vexation of a high degree of soreness.

But it is, of course, possible to achieve decent results for a great deal less than five grand. Which set me wondering as to exactly how much the gear I've been using actually cost. So I did some digging through my old PayPal accounts...

The actual recording equipment itself certainly isn't exactly expensive. I do everything on a 6-year-old Korg D1200, (including wave editing to get rid of creaky chair noises during gaps in bouzouki parts - which isn't fun on a tiny LCD screen. Note to self - tighten chair before session next time), which cost me £148 on eBay about 18 months ago, and I daresay could be had for a chunk less now. At the most basic level it'll do 6 tracks of 24-bit, CD-quality audio, has a few useful effects - in amongst the reams of instantly rejectable ones - and is a damn sight better than what most of the 'greats' were using back in the 1960's, so I'm certainly not complaining. If what I do sounds terrible, I've only got myself to blame.

Alongside that is another eBay bargain - a Behringer Composer Pro XL compressor, £34.50 of assorted dials and buttons, some of which I know how to use in a more-or-less effective manner. All in a shiny, metal rackmount-able case. Nice.

My 'currently-borrowed from the generous & charming Martin Lennon' microphone is a 'SE Electronics se2000', available for under £80 online. Sounds ok to me, although it's easy to get expensive very quickly with mics, especially if you're trying to be clever and have several different types placed in a variety of positions, so that you can really 'sculpt' the sound of the instrument. Well, you can if you're not me, but someone who knows about proper sound engineering. And has plenty of money to spend on gear. Otherwise just the one is fine for now...

And that's about it for the "high-tech" side. Oh, the only music software I use is the excellent freeware version of  WavePad, and even that's almost entirely as a file format converter to meet the needs of various internet sites (even though it does offer lots of other features which I'm sure are of the highest quality. I just can't say, because...er...I don't use them.Sorry. Please go and buy the full WavePad Master's Edition, it's great. Probably).

So now we can turn to the instrument side of things...and this is where the costs are perhaps most open to question, since the differences between what a player might actually have, desperately want, and truthfully need can be vast.

I could, for example, quite easily play bouzouki parts with something a little cheaper than a Fylde Longscale Archtop (retailing at just over the £1000 mark...ouch. At this point I feel I should make it clear it was a gift - there's no way I could have afforded this myself). Although it has to be said, its low, comfortable action and solid intonation do make playing some things physically possible - compared with my old, £99 Ozark bouzouki, anyway. That's not to say that the same couldn't be achieved for a touch less, mind you.

My Hohner Pro Jack Bass Custom V (snappy name), however, is a fantastic example of value-for-money. Bought in 1993 for £300 (equivalent to £458 today, according to this handy comparison calculator), it has served long and loyally, taking in a great deal of abuse and a de-fretting along the way.

I've also got an old prototype Bassix Electric Upright Bass, which would cost the best part of a thousand pounds to replace from their current models, but there's a wider range of cheaper E.U.B.'s on the market now, so it might well be the case that a fair whack of money could be saved for a relatively insignificant drop in quality.

There's also a nice Seagull S6 cedar-topped 'folk' acoustic guitar that I'm rapidly forgetting how to play (bouzouki and bass chords and tunings are warping my fragile little mind). That was £190 second-hand back in the mid-1990's (about £280-ish now), but with the Chinese now dominating the cheaper end of the market, similarly-priced 'decent' acoustic guitars aren't hard to find.

Finally, I can't leave out the Legacy SP40 digital piano that's hiding in the corner behind the sofa. It's got a fairly dire sound chip, (aggressive use of eq takes away a little of the worst elements, but only a little - and straying away from "piano 1" is *not* a good idea), but makes up for this with wooden, fully-weighted, hammer-action keys. All for £140 from a classified ad. The kids love it...

Anyway, all told, the equipment I used on, say, "The Mourning Tree", cost me £1,562 to assemble. Over the course of 16 years or so. Which could be worse.

"Hobby money", you might even say.

I'd still be vexed.

p.s. I know, I left out all sorts of sundries like strings, cables, etc...well, I'm a tight git oops, 'hard-up single parent', who changes strings only when I really have to, and I don't use flash cables, just HotLine ones, which are pretty robust and seem to do the job. You can, if you so desire, spend ridiculous sums on cables with all sorts of fancy claims attached to them. A simple wee article suggesting why you shouldn't bother can be found here.

Monday, 19 October 2009


Hello, and welcome to an entirely redesigned Mid-Life Bassist blog (well, not if you're reading this over at MySpace - I'll get round to tidying some of that up in another month or so. Sorry). Still not entirely sure of the seemingly-'egotistical' header - I had the sort of Scottish Presbyterian upbringing where you were taught not just to hide your light under a bushel, ideally you would seek out 2 or 3 more bushels to keep the first one company, and assist in its illumination-suppressing duties. My internalising of the notion of anything that hinted of self-promotion being only marginally less wicked than battering old ladies, has proved something of an obstacle from time to time, (especially when trying to carve out anything that could almost be mistaken for a career in music/comedy/what have you).

So the idea of having a close-up of a slice of my fizzog adorning the top of the page, along with the name of the guilty party in stark black letters, is one I'm having difficulty getting used to. Daft, I know, but...

And the reason for this sharper, 'cleaner' layout?

Well, I've finally taken the big plunge online. That's right, for the extravagant sum of £6.86 (less than the cost of a cheap day return ticket from here to Edinburgh, plus a decent cup of coffee), for the next 12 months I now hold the exclusive rights to www.andygilmour.com.

Not so exciting of and by itself, I grant you, but when that's combined with signing-up to the wonderful (and entirely *free*) music distribution site that is www.Bandcamp.com, (yet another excellent suggestion from the far-too-plugged in and talented Steve Lawson)....now we're talking cool, groovy, and possibly even a little funkadelic, no?

Ok, you're not quite with me yet on this one. This may help - today (Sunday, for those who are reading this in the future, and may have become slightly temporally dislocated by the reference. Oh, the 18th of October, if it's already next week before you see it. 2009, for those who are really late, or have solved the problems surrounding time travel), for the first time (ever...in the history of me, ever), someone actually paid money (that real digital money via Paypal, oh yes), to download some musical meanderings of my very own creation. No, seriously, they did.

I was pathetically thrilled by that - not that I'm under any delusions of garnering accountant-delighting riches, or funding a ridiculous 'celebrity (snort, snort, dab nose, oops, where's my nasal septum gone?) lifestyle' [small hint to the Lily Allens of the entertainment world - less par-tays and 'bling', more actual work - and perhaps some talent? - you wouldn't need to make yourself look stupid when you talk about copyright], but being able to offset some of the basic costs of being an obscure musician would be fantastic.

HUGE thanks to the far-too-generous KJB for that. Anyone else who'd like to have a go, there's only 3 tracks online so far, and the pricing scheme isn't going to render anyone destitute, so please, feel free to follow their fine example...somewhere in the region of 50 downloads or so and I'll be able to afford a new microwave oven - again, for the 'more than a couple of months in the future' people, I expect that's already had to be purchased. But please, still go and buy my music, I'm sure I'll have other domestic appliances that require replacement by whatever decade it is you're in - and as you can see, I'm not too shy to almost resort to begging.

What with all this online activity, a new solo bass piece (for the lovely, wonderful, and still far, far away Anne), a video of me recording it, and having sorted-out a vast hoard of personal paperwork stretching back to the mid-1990's, it's a good thing the kids have been over at their mother's for the last 4 days. I'd never have got a quarter of any of it done otherwise.

The unruly piles of potential recycled toilet roll included a bunch of over 50 old payslips from the BBC for the freelance comedy stuff I did over a decade ago ('future people', that's...oh, forget it. Close to the year 1263. Thereabouts.). Glad I found them, because I can show them to my children and prove that daddy wasn't lying about being paid to inflict my verbal nonsense on the poor listeners of Radio Scotland (mostly on Friday mornings). But it was also an odd discovery, because I can't recall having done anything like that number of appearances. Perhaps 20 or so, sure, but they were actually foolish enough to have me back on almost fortnightly? I simply can't recall...but then I'm getting older, so my mind isn't quite what it once was. Assuming it ever was...er..what it was. Or could have been. Maybe.

Ok, now I've officially confused myself, I'm clearly far too tired to continue this nonsense, and it's time for bed (alright, probably not where you are, but I'm beyond caring at this point).

Goodnight, folks - and again, please indulge your cravings for meandering instrumental music by downloading from www.andygilmour.com. Or make a donation via PayPal. Or you could just send me cash, I'm really not that fussy...

Friday, 9 October 2009

Sweets For My Sweet

A question - why do otherwise outwardly sane, sensible, and almost-rational people willingly and consciously choose to be musicians? Perhaps they are overflowing with creativity, hearing soaring melodies that they feel an overwhelming compulsion to bring forth into the world? Maybe they are following in long-standing family traditions, carrying on the disciplines and culture of previous ages, that otherwise might be lost? Is it the desperate need to ease their adolescent emotional sufferings through cathartic screaming-angst and digitally-simulated-distortion driven ballads? Or are they simply rejecting the numbing strictures of conventional employment, seeking instead the bohemian existence of a modern-day wandering minstrel (albeit one who belts out dire cover versions to placate the scurrying high-street shopperati) ?

What, though, if the soiled and clammy truth is that for many who tread the noisy path, underlying their efforts is that great popular misconception - that all musicians regularly get to have a great deal of amazing sex with a large number of spectacularly beautiful people of their choosing? (All at the same time, if they should feel the urge).

Of course, there are plenty of autobiographies out there that would suggest that *if* you manage to become inordinately famous (fabulous wealth a handy extra), this can indeed be the case. If, on the other hand, you're chugging around the country in a clapped-out Mercedes van for years, prostituting your meagre talents to anyone that'll pay £40 a head as part of a ceilidh/function/pub/covers/"plastic paddy"/folk rock/whatever band....then not so much. Certainly not if you're me, anyway. But then, we were always above such base concerns, we were in it for the sake of...'artistry'. And, er, cultural heritage. The greater good. Peace, love and understanding. All that sort of thing, naturally...you understand.

Particular genres of music don't lend themselves so readily to these carnal pursuits, either. In prog rock, for example, many bands have found their audiences primarily to consist of "earnest young men, often with spectacles and facial hair" (Robert Fripp), which is great if that's your personal fetish, but if not, well... "Free jazz" (and its environs) is another sub-culture where post-gig 'relaxation' with fans is probably more likely to take the form of being quizzed by slightly agitated, logorrheic and unusually determined middle-aged men about obscure chord voicings and the significance of a twice-repeated dis-harmonic interval that first occurred seventeen-minutes-and-twenty-three-seconds into the first set. Again, if that's what you're after, cool. For the rest of us, though...

It also doesn't help if, like me, you're not exactly a looker. (I'm pretty much the guy in Jethro Tull's "Seal Driver"..except I don't have a boat. But apart from that minor quibble, it's me). Also, my strongly held - and highly detailed - opinions on socio-economic and political matters have never sufficiently compensated for a personal lack of anything approaching 'small talk', you'll be astonished to hear.

Anyway, help is at hand, since - by a popular request (and I do mean "a", as in "just the one") - I'm going to offer up another route to possible (but still very, very unlikely - and yes, this *is* a disclaimer) dating success.


But not just any coookies.

Just over a year ago, I posted my recipe for "Satan's Own Cookies", a double-chocolate combination that melted in the mouth and left a bitter-sweet after taste of Type 2 Diabetes. Now, after months of painstaking cookie research (in collaboration with my lovely & wonderful Norwegian partner), what follows is a cunningly-remastered version, "Spelt-and-Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies", which has so far proved irresistable to all who have been exposed to its sugary-yet-wholemeal power.

[Right about now I'd just like to point out that I'm not really trying to reduce all human behaviour to a long, drawn-out mating ritual. These cookies are also excellent for keeping the kids quiet while you desperately catch up with all those tedious-but-essential domestic tasks that are impossible while the delightful little munchkins are dashing about, engaging in entertaining new ways to inflict pain on each other.]


100g butter (trans-fats are *not* sexy, nor do they taste as good)
85g demerara sugar (as 'wholemeal' as possible, adds to the texture)
45ml (3 tbsp) maple syrup (the cheap "Clarks Original" maple & carob fruit stuff from Asda works well - higher viscosity than 'pure' maple syrup)
125g Wholemeal Spelt Flour (yeah, I know, expensive - it's the best, use it, ok?)
50g Oatmeal (porage oats are fine - again, texture)
100g Plain (dark) chocolate chips
45ml (3 tbsp) milk
15ml (1 tbsp) baking powder

Method: (copied from my old post, 'cos it's late & I'm knackered, with acknowledgements to the venerable 'Be-Ro Book')

1. Heat oven to 180C, 350F, 'Gas Mark 4' - in other words, keep the mini-primates out of the sodding way. Oh, and you're going to need an oven mitt, unless you're particularly partial to the smell of your own flesh charring. Grease 2 baking trays. Or just one, if that's all you have. (Don't worry, nobody round here's judging you. Well...maybe only a few of them. You know, the ones who host dinner parties for more than 6 people, and know how to make 3 different types of pastry...them.)

2. "Beat the butter until soft" (much easier if it's been sitting out a while beforehand - if you've only just hoiked it out of the fridge, then a brief low-power blast in the microwave (NB Kitchen numpties - not still in its wrapper) will work wonders. Add the sugar and "cream together until light and fluffy". I'm sorry, but I made these entirely by hand, and "light and fluffy" was never on the agenda. School Home Economics teachers must have had the power of cement mixers in their forearms, because there's no way me and a wooden spoon are going to achieve "fluffiness". I'd settle for what looks like "thoroughly mixed"...they still came out ok...

3. "Stir in the syrup, flour, chocolate chips and milk and mix well". Not forgetting the baking powder, of course. And as for the stirring and mixing, yeah, it's likely to induce hand pain & sweating (as per step 2). But don't give up now - you've almost made it to the eating stage, just a brief interlude of applied heat to go.

4. "Place spoonfuls of the mixture on the prepared trays and bake for 8-10 minutes". Hmmm. Originally I was using the wee fan-assisted top oven, and 8 minutes was absolutely all they needed. Any longer and they burn on t'bottom, which is never recommended. Erring on the side of caution, (and sensible usage of the appropriate protection), is always advisable...and also gives you a greater-than-98% chance of avoiding pregnancy - always a bonus. In the main oven, however, 10 minutes seems spot-on - golden-brown colour, with no burning. "Remove from the tray immediately and place on a wire rack to cool".

Oh, yeah, should have said - get one of those wire cooling rack things ready before you start, because if, (like me), you completely forget about it, you might end up scrabbling around in a cupboard for one, while trying to hold a (hot) tray of still-slightly-soft cookies perfectly flat in the other hand. Add to this state of unpreparedness and minor panic a very saggy, almost grip-free oven glove, and you just know there are going to be cookie casualties. Which is extremely vexatious after all the effort you went to in steps 1 to 3.

And that's it. Let them cool, solidify, and then you can impress people (even if it's only your children) with fantastic, home-made, so-wholemeal-they're-almost-healthy cookies. Oh, and you should get somewhere around twenty cookies out of that recipe. Depends how vast you want them to be.

If you want the 'double-chocolate' variation, just add 25g Green & Black's cocoa powder and only use 100g of the spelt flour. I must warn you, however, that extensive experimentation involving one of the toddler groups I'm part of suggests that a lot of people don't go for the 'double-chocolate' cookies, but will happily devour equally sugar-filled 'choc-chip' varieties. A sad indictment of our media-waif-obsessed, under-physical-exercised and over-fad-dieting times?

Perhaps. Further research is vital, so enjoy your cookies. You've earned them, especially if you're a musician who, like me, is down near the bottom end...

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Living in the Past

If you should ever find yourself in the centre of dear old Edinburgh on a wet Saturday (or Wednesday afternoon), maybe at a bit of a loose end - you've read half a book without paying for it in Blackwell's, and it's not been long enough since your last coffee-and-cake (what's the one without the other?) stop to justify downing some more quite so soon, then here's a wee suggestion.

Head over to the Cowgate, and just by the end of Niddry Street (perhaps the ugliest street in the Old Town?), you'll come across the cavern of historical wonder and delight that is St. Cecilia's Hall. Quite apart from being the oldest concert hall in Scotland (the fascinating oval auditorium dates from 1763, making it the second oldest in Britain - well, that's what the brochure says, and who am I to doubt Edinburgh University's veracity? I mean, I worked for them for 9 years, and they only lied to me a few times, so there's a strong probability they've got their facts straight. Hey, at least it isn't Wikimpedimentia [sic] I'm relying on here - credit me with some 'journalistic integrity', please), the building houses an incredible collection of "harpsichords, virginals, spinets, organs and fortepianos from 1586 to 1840". Including one that Mozart messed-about on for a bit - although it isn't recorded whether he also hollered "Hoo-eee baby!" while playing the upper register with his (elegantly be-slippered) right foot. Of course, nowhere does it state he didn't do either (or both) of those things, so it is within the bounds of possibility for us to speculate...such is the occasionally elusive nature of historical fact.

And that's not all. Oh no. Far from it...

For any twanger, strummer or plucker (all at once, if you think you can get away with it), there is a small, but mightily impressive collection of lutes, citterns, "English Guitars" (intended for the ladies, apparently, including one with keys - so that C18th gentlewomen should not damage their fingernails. The mechanics of it are breathtaking, frankly), and so forth. Living in an industrial age, where the construction and basic form of the guitar has become widely standardised, the array of instruments here provide a fascinating insight into the diversity of styles and shapes that were once more commonplace. Intricate bone-inlaid fingerboards, capos that fitted into peg holes that were pre-drilled between the strings, frets directly mounted on the body beyond the end of the neck. All that sort of thing.

They've also got one that's signed by Fernando Sor, for any classical guitar groupies out there...?

This, though, has to be my personal favourite - a sensational, 300-year old, 14-string Archlute. Alas, this particular beast can't take full string tension any more, but - after a 10-string bouzouki, naturally, oh, and some talent. A lot more talent, to be honest. More time with which to explore that talent could come in handy, too. Oh, then there's that old "world peace" concept, isn't there? well, alright, that too - I really, really want one of these! The crackly, low-quality, musically-dubious videos I could unleash on YouTube with my very own Archlute...! (Apologies for my poor photography - I dragged Martin Lennon - and his delightful partner, Susie - along, and he'd happened to bring his very nice camera, so there might be some better pictures soon. *update 27th Sept. Some of Mr.Lennon's snaps are now at the foot of the post. Very pretty, especially for hand-held in low light with nae flash*).

If you've still got any energy left after all that historically-induced excitement, there's a whole other museum-full of (mostly wind & brass) instruments a short, yet decently cake-excusing, walk away at the Reid Concert Hall ,in the corner of Bristo Square. Ah, hang on though - pausing to think for a moment, if it's a Saturday, go to the Reid Hall first, since it's open 10am - 1pm, while St. C's is 2pm - 5pm. If visiting on a Wednesday afternoon, do the opposite. Yes, they're quite limited opening hours, but did I mention that these museums are free? I didn't? Oops. Well, just in case you'd been wondering, they are.

Yes, the "world's oldest purpose-built museum of musical instruments" (brochure again) doesn't cost a single penny to access. It's a beautifully-preserved, world-class resource, subsidised heavily by the taxpayer, and a damned good thing, too. If offering people the chance to see a 'Contrabass serpent ("The Anaconda")' without charging an admission fee offends anyone's libertarian or fiscally-conservative sensibilities, then all I can do is extend my pity to such mentally-stunted individuals. Either that, or refer them to Stephen Fry's famously pithy response to the question of 'offence' at the 2005 Hay-on-Wye literary festival...which I'm not going to reproduce here. Depends what kind of a mood I'm in, I suppose.

On which mildly-confrontational note it's time to end this instalment - oh, except for this one thing...

Back in late August, it seems that some (deeply frustrated) internet-searcher from Halden, in the Oestfold area of Norway, was washed-up on these shores by accident. What they were actually after, apparently, was "strømpebukse porno". Mmmm-hmm. Riiiight. Well.

I hate to think that 'Mid-Life Bassist' could ever be a complete disappointment to its readers (annoying, tedious, unfunny - certainly, but disappointing? oh dear).

So, only this once, mind - you poor, lost Nordic soul - this is just for you:

Oh yes. Not just strømpebukse, but strømpebukse and kitchen implements. Enjoy...!

Saturday, 12 September 2009

I Ain't Ever Satisfied

I'm a bouzouki fetishist. Ever since I got my hands on a cheap Roumanian model earlier this year, I've been utterly hooked. There's just something different about the feel, the sound - the 660mm scale length (longer than most electric and acoustic guitars) seems to fit my bass-stretched fingers, I love the 'not-quite-the-same-as-a-12-string' effect of the lower two pairs of strings, where the plectrum typically strikes the 'octave up' string first - don't know exactly what's going on, but I can't help myself. I'm addicted, and "Bouzoukiholics Anonymous" aren't going to be getting a call any time soon. You get the picture...

Anyhow, I'm already looking to replace my current instrument with something...well, better, frankly. And that's where the difficulties start, because the supply of bouzoukis around here isn't exactly bounteous. There aren't several different, widely-available models to choose from at each price point - let's not forget, this is primarily an acoustic instrument, with arguably greater variation between individual examples than when you're after a slab of mahogany, maple, and rosewood with some lumps of metal and plastic screwed onto it. So buying on-line is, arguably, even less of a good idea - although that having been said, there's a guy been trying to sell a 10-string Freshwater example on Ebay that if I had the cash, I'd buy in an instant. Hey, my 'reason' is a slave of my passions - and if it was good enough for the great philosopher and historian David Hume, then that's my excuse, and I'm sticking to it.

All this does, as usual, omit the key problem with my purchasing budget - I don't have one. But still, it was a perfect day to trek round the music shops in Edinburgh, to see what the top end of the market was like - just for comparative purposes, you understand. Careful research when considering such matters is always very, very important - not to mention a lot of fun.

Now, I know, bouzoukis don't generate a significant proportion of any of the local retailers' profits. They probably barely pay for their slice of the de-humidifying and heating bills, frankly, but of the three properly expensive ones I got my hands on, precisely none were fit for immediate sale. Which, at the prices they were asking, simply isn't acceptable.

The cheapest of the trio, a £950 Fylde, should, if it had arrived from the maker in such poor condition, (rather than it resulting from poor storage, handling, and neglect while languishing in the shop), have been sent back without delay. There were some serious intonation issues (nae adjustable bridge saddles here - count yourselves truly fortunate, electric guitar and bass owners), and the overall 'dead' sound and feel of the instrument were beyond the quick "slap on a new set of strings" fix. It was honestly worse than my £99 Ozark beast at home (although admittedly I tried several cheapies, and was very lucky to find a satisfactory one). When you consider you could buy a decent 3/4-sized double-bass for that kind of money, well...

It's bigger, £1050 brother was ok (nothing inspiring though), if in need of some general care and attention, but just like the £1500 (hey, we're in fantasy unaffordable land, why not?) Steve Agnew model in another shop, urgently required a new set of strings. That said, if the Agnew one had been re-strung properly, it would have been absolutely lovely, and far and away the best of the three for tone and playability. As it was, I didn't want to give it back...which is saying quite a lot, given the listless, lifeless nature of what it was equipped with.

Trouble is, bouzoukis aren't, as I said before, what you might call 'volume sellers', and inevitably they come way down the list of priorities for busy music shops - just below banjos, I reckon, but possibly ahead of beginner accordians - so are likely not to be checked and maintained very often. Except these weren't the low-end, 'budget' range examples - these were instruments that represented a major financial outlay for most folk, so you'd have to feel very confident about them before committing to buying. So failing to maintain them properly is unimpressive, to say the least.

But then I would say that - I'm a bouzouki fetishist, after all.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Breaking The Law

 I've got a confession to make - I've been a very naughty boy. Nothing on the scale of robbing a bank using electric guitars and early 80's British metal as weapons, I grant you, but still, 'the law' has most definitely been 'broken' (although very carefully, so that the pieces can be re-assembled without too much fuss - possibly with a small dab of superglue).

Illegal downloading of copyright musical material is the issue at hand. Normally something I'm not in favour of, no matter how great a bunch of low-tax pursuing, corporate-whore multi-millionaires the likes of U2 (just one example out of so many possible candidates) might be. Flouting creative copyright is not, no matter how restricted some people's thinking may be, simply a matter of "sticking it to The Man". But that's beside the point right now.

This is about personal weakness in the face of temptation.

As some poor folk who've endured this blog of mine for a while will already know, I used to be a member of a minor prog rock band - Edinburgh's very own "Citizen Cain". It was all a (very) long time ago, and I only played on one album ("Somewhere But Yesterday", 1994, bought by a few people in Poland and Quebec, as far as I can recall), but thanks to this connection I come into the "obscure" category of musician, rather than merely "non-existent, except in their own imaginations" - although the gap between those definitions can often seem exceptionally slender.

My only copy of the CD, however, is out on loan to a friend - currently languishing in a big box somewhere near Kelso, as far as I'm aware. So when challenged about my musical past by my oh-so-delightful mini-primates, I had nothing to show them, no proof that their father used to be almost-quite-good at something, way back in the Pleistocene epoch.

And that's what broke me, in the end. The pathetic spasms of my tiny-but-still-defiant ego.

In my defence, the album itself had long been deleted, re-released, and deleted again, and was supposed to have been re-issued by Festival Music, but the scheduled date had been and gone with no sign of its re-emergence, soooo...

I searched for a file-sharing site that didn't want to ask too many questions, but also looked like it wasn't necessarily going to hijack my machine for nefarious botnet purposes. That's right, I had no idea, it was a complete guess, but my computer hasn't gone screwy, or slowed right down (yet), so fingers crossed, eh? Downloading was straightforward, and, even if whoever created the archive had cut one of the tracks in two for no particular reason (and no, it wasn't the 25-minute one, which could have made some sort of practical sense), listening to the music again brought back lots of good memories.

The kids even liked some of it, and seemed minutely impressed that their incompetent, decrepit father had been involved.

It does pose a small ethical question, though - the act was illegal, and the CD is currently licensed to a record company (although I've never made anything out of it), but since I've essentially ripped-off myself, exactly how naughty have I been?

I expect I'll be receiving my letter-of-stern-rebuke soon -  I'll consider myself suitably chastened.

p.s. hope folk don't mind all the extra widget-gadget stuff I've stuck on the blog page (YouTube, Facebook, Twit-ter). Trying to keep up even a basic level of shameless self-promotion, while simultaneously providing full domestic services to two small boys gets very tiring at my age, so I thought if I could centralise matters it might make life a little easier. Or not.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Reet Petite

I'm afraid it's time for this blog to undergo a major philosophical shift, to alter some of the preconceptions and assumptions about reality that have underpinned it from its first sprouting of vaguely-music-related nonsense, back in 2007. In short, the moment has come to confess "I was wrong" about so very, very much.

Today, in fact, this blog will experience what I can only describe as a "Top Gear" moment. Although without any of the enormous success, viewing figures, awards, salaries, etc,etc that Top Gear has garnered. Obviously. Or indeed Jeremy Clarkson's supreme displays of "wit" and "wisdom". Nae mind, eh?
(Still lashings of prejudice against 'hugely-overpriced and over-rated for what they offer' Fender basses, though. Got to maintain some scraps of continuity and good sense, after all - but even I have to admit the Japanese-built 'Marcus Miller' model is really nice, ok?)

Anyway, what I've tried to do, sporadically, in the past, is take a look at 'reasonably-priced' musical equipment that, however unfashionable or untroubled by a big-name 'badge', delivers great value for money - semi-pro (or more) quality on a restricted budget. That sort of idea.

But I've fallen in love.

And love can do strange things to a man. But more on that later. First, I'd set myself a challenge...

In the middle of last month, I said I was going to try out a bunch of small, lightweight 'practice' amps for the purposes of low-volume personal monitoring at acoustic gigs. Finding myself in that rare and joyous state of being child-free during daylight hours, I hastened across the Forth Bridge to annoy the lovely folk at Red Dog Music in Edinburgh (yet again), where a fair array of wee bass beasts could be put to the test.

But who cares?

Seriously, there's no point in going into any great detail. Almost anything 15w-20w will do the job perfectly, as long as you're not being ridiculous and expecting an astounding tone or the ability to reproduce a colon-shaking low 'B' with perfect sonic clarity. Sure, Line6 have finally made something that sounds quite good, has - as you might expect - lots of features, and might actually be worth buying, but it's a little bulky for the bassist who wants to amble gigwards. The Peavey 158 is smaller, lighter, and passable in "vintage" mode, but don't flip it into "modern" unless you truly detest the people you're gigging with. If you like bright colours, why not buy an Orange? It simply doesn't matter - cheap and cheerful, so long as the speaker doesn't start farting when you turn the volume past '3', is absolutely fine. But who really cares? There's so little to choose between them. These are the Kia Picantos, if you will, the Nissan Micras, the useful, economical, yet characterless urban anonymobiles of the amplifier world. They're low-powered, tidy, unspectacular - and start to rattle in an unpleasant and worrying manner if you drive them slightly too hard.

For those with the patience to seek out something a little different, I personally reckon the coolest thing you could possibly turn up with would be one of these - a good old Marshall Bass 12 from the 80's...assuming you can find one in decent working order. Looks brilliant, sounds...pretty good,actually, and so much better than most of the stuff Marshall have been knocking-out since. It's like a classic Mini Cooper S, only without the rust issues. Well, some of them.

To anyone feeling smug at this point about being wealthy enough to afford the impeccable pedigree, incredible lightness (4.2kg!), and immense price (over £400) of the tiny MarkBass Micromark, let me say three things: Small 'acoustic' gigs are often in the sort of venue where beer seems unfathomably spillable, and it's 6" speaker won't handle a bottom 'B' significantly better than something you could find for under £40 second-hand. I would also love to have one, dammit.

Forget all that, though. Imagine, having chugged around in a Toyota 'Yawnis' with a couple of over-tired children in the back for several hours, you could climb straight into an amazing blend of the best Ferrari, Aston Martin & Lamborghini supercars and head off down one of those impossibly perfect roads that only exist in car adverts - you know, the completely empty ones, where the weather's always perfect, and the perfectly-coiffed-and-attired driver is guaranteed perfect sex with their perfect choice of perfect partner as soon as they arrive - at their perfect shared home in a perfectly dramatic-yet-safe-yet-romantic perfect location, and the planet stays perfectly un-warmed. Oh yes.

In a far more prosaic, not to mention ugly and entirely-non-sexual bass-playing manner, that's precisely what I did next.

One of the staff beguiled me (ok, pointed at the thing) into trying a nearby Ampeg SVT3Pro. And lo! it was, unsurprisingly, absolutely incredible. So it bloody should be, too, at the price (anything from £620 - £1000+ online, £699 in Red Dog). All the features and "POW-ERRR" you could want, and more tone than...anything I'd ever plugged-into before, frankly. So much fun I can't adequately describe it, yet this is not the object of the passionate desire I declared earlier. Oh no.

You see, nestling snugly atop the next speaker cabinet was a much quieter, less flashy, entirely valveless cousin of the roaring, snorting, rack-mountable SVT3.

Allow me to introduce the small, but exquisitely-formed Ampeg Micro-VR: 200 watts, a (mere) 3-band EQ, limiter, FX loop, pre/post eq line out, and could easily snuggle down in my rucksack any time it wants to.

The tone was fantastic - hardly had to shift the controls from "12 o'clock" to make the mediocre Cort 5-string (decent neck, a few minor fret niggles, only £279 so fair enough, really) I was using sound wonderful - full chords, harmonics, fingers or plectrum, the works. Cue lots of bad Tony Levin impressions (mostly "US" period Peter Gabriel) from me...I even dared to apply my thumb in public (a mercifully rare event). The quality and range of sound was a delight - even after messing-around with the "Murcielampeg" SVT.

Then there's the look of this delightful little box - I'm usually a 'form-follows-function' kinda guy, relatively unmoved by aesthetic considerations, but this thing's so danged cute - I mean, take a look at this line-up:

Can hardly spot the Ampeg, can you? Hell, it's almost up there with one of these little fellas:

(ok, so nothing's ever going to be quite as cute as a Red Panda, but c'mon, the Micro-VR comes bloody close. No? Really? Ach, yer a hard-hearted lot, so ye are).

At this point, I handed it over to a (disgustingly) young pro who was up on tour from Druggy-Guardianista-London-by-the-Sea, (aka Brighton). I won't begin to pretend he was dressed from head-to-toe in all-white motor-racing kit, but for now we might as well call him 'Jaco Stigtorious'. He was, I'm afraid, playing a Fender Precision through it, but the Ampeg was sounding so exceptionally good I'll let him off with it - this time.

There is, admittedly, one major stumbling-block that's threatening to destroy our budding relationship - it costs £329, which is at least £300 more than I could justify spending on...anything right now. And yes, at that price, there are plenty of other powerful, high-quality compact amps available (e.g. Ashdown, Hartke, etc, etc). But all the ones I've tried simply can't begin to match the Ampeg for tone and clarity. It's supercar-intensity fun in an incredibly attractive, bit cheaper and more practical form - like a Jaguar XK, maybe?

Anyway, I suppose what I'm trying to say is this - sod the sensible low-end stuff, I adore brilliant Ampeg gear which I can't possibly afford, and I want it really, really badly. What can I do? I'm in love.

And on that bombshell, it's time to end this blog post - goodnight!

p.s. A wee update - just over a week later, I've been back to visit my little object of passionate desire again, only this time I was very rude to it. I asked the guys in the shop (how many plugs can I give them in one post?) for the cheapest bass they had - a no-frills Yamaha RBX, as it turned out. Nothing wrong with that, Yamaha's are always solid enough, although this one was one of the worse examples I've encountered (quite a few minor fret niggles, thin and harshly-trebly neck pick-up, that sort of thing) - and powered up the Micro-VR. Could the super-amp make this built-late-on-a-Friday-afternoon Toyota Yaris of an instrument sound like an AC Cobra at full throttle?

Oh yes.

In fact, it did it so successfully that a couple of customers came over and started asking about the Ampeg...which I tried to demo to the best of my almost-no-retail-experience abilities. They seemed to like it - I certainly hope they bought one, after the amount of aural punishment I meted-out to the rest of the shop in the process. Sorry about that. Got a bit carried away...can't think why.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Video Killed The Radio Star...

...except it clearly didn't, if the latest figures from RAJAR (Radio Joint Audience Research, apparently), and articles like this one are anything to go by (I know, it's the Daily Mirror, but occasionally they do come across a fact by accident). Then there's the strength and diversity of internet radio stations, improvements in D.A.B. (digital audio broadcasting), radio-via-digital-television...

But that's beside the point.

Tonight, I'm delighted to announce the Official Global Launch of my very own, personal, YouTube Video Channel!

[cue confetti cannons, wild cheering, awe-inspiring laser display, and vast-waste-of-money fireworks. Or not. More likely the latter]

I'll understand if this may all seem a little underwhelming at first. There are, after all, currently only two videos on the channel that are actually of/by me - one of them a bit of improvised fun plinking away on a cheap bouzouki, the other a montage of my own photographs of the Lake District Hills around Derwent Water, (over-adorned with 'Ken Burns'-style 'pan-and-zoom' effects, naturally), accompanied by 'Wood, Water, Stone', a meandering piece of music I wrote and recorded over a year ago. 'WWS' is, though, available in three - yes folks, that's three! - different viewing resolutions, to cater for lower-quality internet connections. Here at WWW.YOUTUBE.COM/ANDYHGILMOUR (that's just not a snappy name, is it?), we care about our viewers, we really do!

Then there's the small, but unavoidable fact that I am an utterly insignificant speck in the glittering firmament of creative endeavour, thus quite possibly indulging in hubris on a ridiculous scale. I'm fully aware of my relative unimportance in the musical universe, but why the hell not? Embrace the opportunities presented by the new technologies, say I, especially if they're available at no extra cost - and when the necessities of parenthood impose severe restrictions on your 'real-world' lifestyle, too.

I was tempted to take the silliness a lot further, by sending-out press releases trumpeting the birth of my video channel to the world's media (easy and cheap these days), but...well. Maybe next time.

Still, I'd like to think that I've got something, however small, to offer - and if you don't like my stuff, maybe you'll find music you do enjoy tucked-away in the 'playlists'. There's quite a range of material, from the glorious, overblown, symphonic metal-covers-of-80's-songs of Northern Kings, to live performances by master saxophonist Jan Garbarek, bass legend Tony Levin, and the jovial brilliance of Jethro Tull. There's even a spot or two of Hardingfele (Hardanger Fiddle), for all the traditional Norwegian folk music aficionados amongst you. Ok, so that might be only me...ah, well, nae mind, eh? It's available if you feel the urge.

And that's about it, I suppose. No great expectations, which seems pretty sensible to me.

I hope that people at least take the time to come on over and have a look. If they decide they like what they see and hear, well, that'd be fantastic.

You never know, I might even add some more of my own creations (please, try to contain your excitement). Judging by the speed I work, that'll be some time next year...

Saturday, 13 June 2009

Exposure (live at the Leith Isobar)

Monday night was fun. A most enjoyable gig with Mr. Lennon (I plug this guy so often I should be charging a percentage), albeit it felt quite strange to haul my bass (and accoutrements) down to the station, and catch a train over to Edinburgh just to do a 45-minute set, in an "intimate" (pretty full, but that's only about 30 or so folk) wee venue. Years of psychological conditioning to expect 4-hour ceilidh-insanity marathons have clearly taken their toll.

It went very well, too, and provided the unexpected personal bonus of catching-up with old friends - although our 4-star (out of 5, he hastens to add, even though he knows full well you should never pay much attention to crits, good or bad) review in the Edinburgh Evening News was more than a touch over-fulsome in its praise of our efforts. Yet more evidence that you can't believe anything you read in the press these days. I mean to say, all those reports of our hard-working, decent, upstanding, honourable Members of Parliament playing fast and loose with their expense allowances? Poppycock! Next thing journalists'll be putting it about that Lady GaGa (oh, the appropriateness of that stage name) isn't just a Christina Aguilera clone peddling sub-Britney Spears p-p-p-pop retreads. Or that Michael Mcintyre is more than a self-regarding, bobble-head-doll of vacuously mediocre 'observational' comedy. Absolutely ridiculous, so it is. And don't get me started on how they're saying that charming President Ahmaholocaustdenier might have rigged the Iranian elections. Shameless, our modern media, so they are...

Alas, I haven't got any photographic record of the event, so this archive shot of the pair of us from a decade or so ago will have to do instead. The hair's changed a bit (a lot shorter and greyer), and I don't jump around quite so much (or at all, depending on the relative level of pre-existing, children-induced fatigue) any more, but I was using the same, trusty Hohner Jack V headless bass (originally bought to play on Citizen Cain's "Somewhere But Yesterday" album back in 1993 - how pathetic was that plug for my dim-and-distant past?), albeit de-fretted now - so the picture has a hint of authenticity to it.

Also, I learnt an important lesson that night.

Never, ever, if it's in any way within your power to determine it, do a gig without some kind of amplifier.

I've been pondering the question of ideal gigging set-ups for a while, and I never thought it made much sense to own more than one bass amplifier. Have a small pre-amp, sure, for carting-along to gigs such as this one - I always carry a Hartke Bass Attack (micro-review of this handy item buried in an earlier blog posting here) and a Behringer D.I. box (in case the Hartke inexplicably fails) anyway, but what the hell's the point of owning a "practice" amp, too? Don't people know how to use a volume knob/headphone socket, huh?

Well, I was wrong.

Except I'd argue there's still no real point to having one for, well, practicing. Rather, they're an essential for small (drummer-free) gigs where everyone else has instruments that make a fair bit of acoustic noise - especially if you're going fretless, as I was that night. There were several points in the gig where I was stuck playing-by-numbers, hoping that my too-easily-wandering intonation didn't intrude. The sound guy wasn't keen on putting much bass through the monitor, which was fair enough - it was primarily a vocal rig, the singers/guitarists were the key focus of the night, I hadn't brought a compressor (naughty bass player!), and it wasn't 'my' gig. Although having said that, the monitor in question was a very solid powered unit with a nice big speaker which could have handled it no bother, but that's both whingeing and a digression... Allegedly I got away with it, no audibly cacophonous finger-mispositioning occurred as a result, but it would have been nice to feel a little more definite about it at the time.

All entirely preventable, for the sake of a bit of hunting around on Ebay, and spending about £40 (according to what was available on there today, anyway). That should be enough to purchase a solid wee Marshall B25, say? Or something similarly around the 20w mark (because that's all that's required) by Trace, Laney, Kustom, Carlsbro - whoever. Who cares? Brand name doesn't matter - the key factors for me are size and weight, i.e. it must be under 10kg, otherwise what's the bloody point? Sound doesn't really matter (it's only there to give definition and clarity after all), as long as you can either run a parallel output of some sort from your pre-amp into it, or it has its own D.I. out for connecting to the main desk, then that's fine. This does, of course, give me a perfectly good excuse to go around testing all sorts of tiny bass combos just to see which ones do sound better, examine relative build quality, and generally have a right old laugh in music shops. Again.

Back in the real world, having any money to spare at all is a moot point in my (and many other people's) houses, but come what may, for the next gig I'm going to be better equipped. I doubt I'll be turning up with one of these little beauties (warning - this link is micro bass porn: viewing may lead to excessive drooling, which could damage your keyboard and/or stain your trousers), but a bassist can dream, eh?