Tag Archives: Carterhaugh

Lady Margaret – Trees

The observant will note that we’ve slipped into our annual series of posts on folk-rock. Every autumn, folk gets me. It’s the most autumn-appropriate music I know.

“This station is King’s Cross-St Pancras. Change here for Circle & Hammersmith, Metropolitan, Piccadilly and Victoria lines, and mainline, intercity, suburban and international rail services. This train terminates at High Barnet.”

Aficionados of the London Underground will be able to tell you that the voice of the Northern line – the woman whose voice has been used to create station announcements like the above – is Celia Drummond. Aficonados of British folk-rock, meanwhile, will be able to tell you that the lead singer of Trees, a band that welded post-Grateful Dead psychedelic guitar to post-Fairport Convention electric folk over two albums made in 1970, was Celia Humphris.

Both Celias are the same Celia. Acid-folk singer Celia Humphris of the obviously stoned-out-of-their-minds Trees can be heard giving station announcements all over the country. She also, her online advert says, provides a convincing Marge or Lisa Simpson.

All this was several decades in the future when Trees main man Bias Boshell hit upon an idea. It was a strong one. Fairport Convention’s A Sailor’s Life (from Unhalfbricking, released in 1969) had set a template for how long, strophic folk ballads could be played by rock bands: begin gently, then slowly raise the tension until at some point the thing explodes – this being the moment the drummer stops playing patterns on the tom-toms and gives the snare drum what for instead.

With that formula established, the next step was simply to turn up the volume of the guitars. After all, rock was getting louder by the minute (Led Zeppelin’s first two albums were released in 1969, Black Sabbath’s debut in early 1970), so why not crank the guitars up? Why not use them to dramatise and comment upon the tale being told? Why not let them be as violent as songs being sung?

On Lady Margaret, from The Garden of Jane Delawney, Trees adhered to the Sailor’s Life formula, up to a point. There’s a stoned looseness to the opening few minutes, drummer Unwin Brown seeming a bit unsure whether to take the song in Levon Helm-esque half time or match the busy tempo of the guitars (mixed hard left and right). Celia Humprhis is no Sandy Denny, but she does her job well enough as the calm eye of the gathering storm, her voice cut-glass and her diction precise.

The way Trees approach the song’s heavy section is the chief difference between their style and the Sailor’s Life model.

Even as personnel changed, Fairport in their early years consistently had one of the finest rhythm sections in the land. Rock music is ultimately about drums (which is why Zeppelin rocked harder than Sabbath – sorry, they just did), and Martin Lamble was a very fine drummer indeed, managing a rare combination of power, authority and swing. Fairport in their Unhalfbricking era, before Lamble died in a terrible accident on the M1, are vastly underrated as a rock band. (Go listen to Lamble on A Sailor’s Life and Genesis Hall, then come back here. I’ll wait.)

Unwin Brown doesn’t come to Lady Margaret with the intention of playing two and four hard, throwing in some fills and letting the lead players do their thing, as Lamble does on A Sailor’s Life. Brown’s feel is looser, Moon-like; the cymbals are prominent, the snare is a more quicksilver presence, and Barry Clarke’s thickly distorted guitar gets the spotlight. Listen to A Sailor’s Life when walking, running, driving, or doing anything at all, and your pace will increase. Listen to Trees doing Lady Margaret and you’ll slow down, stop even, and nod your head. It’s head music.

Trees only made the two records, The Garden of Jane Delawney (the title track – written by Bias Boshell – is stunning) and On the Shore (check out Murdoch for a representative track), but became a cool reference point during the mid-noughties among freak-folk acts. Betwen 2008 and 2011, I played guitar in folk-rock band called Carterhaugh that was consciously looking to blend folk song with heavy and psychedelic rock, and we adopted Lady Margaret to that end. It never stopped being fun or challenging; what do you play when a song is seven minutes long with no chord changes, just a droney modal melody? Fortunately I had Trees’ example to follow – step on the wah pedal and wail.

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Camera Obscura @ Visions Festival, part 2 – the gig

So all that said, how were the band?

This is the second time I’ve seen Camera Obscura, and curiously, both were times they were the final band on the bill at a one-day festival. The first was in Southend in a park (at Village Green, a festival that I’ve played at with an old band, Carterhaugh, and worked at as a sound engineer). That day they were playing to a very mixed audience, another drunk audience, and struggled a bit to get the attention of the crowd, most of whom were picnickers who had long since stopped paying any attention to the tiny people on a stage 100 metres away.

A few years down the line from that show, faced with similar problems, they weren’t thrown and turned in a good performance, although as I said Tracyanne Campbell was unsmiling for most of the set, if not actively angry at facing the same old problems of playing near the end of a day-long event to an audience that’s not really your own. As the room started to empty halfway through the set, leaving behind just those who really wanted to be there (a decent proportion of whom knew the words and cheered intros and danced in a genuine, into-the-music kind of way), she did loosen up, smiling and cracking the occasional joke.

They played pretty much everything I could have hoped they would: Tears for Affairs, Lloyd I’m Ready to be Heartbroken, Honey in the Sun, French Navy (to start their encore – they’d finished with enough time to spare to come back on for a couple, but did seem genuinely pleased at the volume of the audience as we called for more), If Looks Could Kill, This is Love and surprisingly, given the volume of the crowd’s chatter during the first half of the show, James. James is one of the group’s most delicate, beautiful songs, and it would have been lovely to hear it without a load of distracting chatter, but alas. Maybe next time I see them. Lloyd, French Navy and Do it Again were probably my highlights (Do it Again live has more of that slightly buzzy, early-eighties New Wave thing that’s subtly present in the recorded version; if it’s a pointer towards where they’re going next, I’d be fine with it).

Campbell was in great voice and the band all played well. They don’t have any real standout musicians among them, but all of them show good judgement in working out what the song needs and playing just that and no more. The sound was better than it had been during the Antlers’ set (that band’s singer, Peter Silberman, had said on stage that he knew the sound was “boomy and muffled”, so the musicians on stage obviously faced some challenges from the acoustics), with the bass less overpowering, and better clarity and oomph from the drums (during the Antlers’ set, the snare drum in particular was very contained and very dark, with no crack and no power: a shame since their drummer was far and away the best thing about the band).

One of those shows, then, where the band does the absolute best they could have done from a very unpromising set of circumstances, and the gig ends up being enjoyable despite the shortcomings of venue and crowd. But I’d love to see them in a clearer sounding space. Perhaps Kings Place is a little too far the other way – a little too antiseptic, and a little too small – but it’d make an interesting comparison. Can someone make this happen for me, please?

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Camera Obscura l-r Carey Lander, Gavin Dunbar, Tracyanne Campbell, Kenny McKeeve, Lee Thompson (not pictured Nigel Baillie, who did sterling work on trumpet and percussion last night)

The Lay of the Land, 6th December 2014

Two years ago today I had a pacemaker fitted. The year before that I was in an advancing state of heart failure. At the point of my diagnosis, I was Class IV on the NYHA classification chart; the subsequent class is “end stage”, which is what it sounds like. I have idiopathic hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a disease where the myocardium is enlarged, without any obvious cause, weakening the left ventricle and impeding the heart’s ability to pump blood effectively.

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I used to play in a band called Carterhaugh. Kind of a strange band – sort of 1970s folk-inflected prog with some downtuned riffing and some traditional folk songs (Sabbath playing Fairport if you want a shorthand). The last line-up of the band, one that never got to play out for reasons I’ll get into in a second, contained three members who’ve all survived serious illness in the last few years. Between us we’ve come through bowel cancel, breast cancer and heart failure.

A bit of gallows humour is rarely a bad idea so we’ve made plenty of jokes among ourselves about our medical histories. The last of us to get sick was reminded more than once that her bandmates had faced similarly tough diagnoses and lived to tell of it, so she was expected to do likewise. The three of us have teased the bassist, the only one of us who hasn’t been ill, and asked him whether he’s feeling OK.

Two years today – on 6th December 2012 – in a hospital in Cambridgeshire I had my chest cut open beneath the shoulder blade and watched on a monitor while pacemaker leads were attached to my ventricles. You need to be awake during a pacemaker insertion so that the doctor can ask you to hold your breath at certain points to see whether the device is working as intended. You’re sedated a little bit, which makes the time go quicker, and your shoulder is numb so you don’t feel pain as the doctor makes the incision. But still, the sensation is strange. The area they’re cutting into is protected by a thick layer of muscle, so it’s not a delicate job. There’s a decent amount of pulling and sawing involved. I’ve likened the procedure (as that’s what they call it – it doesn’t count as an “operation” in NHS lingo) to sticking a knife into a shoulder of beef, carving out a little pocket and shoving an iPod Nano in it.

That day was the beginning of a new period in my life. Having a pacemaker fitted gave me a lot more confidence in my body. Before it was inserted, although I’d recovered far more completely than I’d been counselled to expect, I still carried myself like a sick person. Three words buzzed around my brain more than was welcome: sudden cardiac death. Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy is the leading cause of sudden cardiac death in young people. HCM is pitiless. When I became ill, I had been spared this fate and presented symptoms that were eventually diagnosed, but what if it I had a second “event”, this one instant and terminal? With a CRT pacemaker in my chest, I felt more confident that such a thing wouldn’t happen. I began to walk faster, push harder, go jogging (slowly – watching me in action is not going to keep David Rudisha up at night).

Of course, and here’s the irony, if such a thing were likely to happen, I wouldn’t have been given a pacemaker at all; I’d have been on the waiting list for a transplant instead. The reason I was given one was that I’d already made an extensive recovery, and the hope was that curing the lingering arrhythmia might give my heart a little extra help in repairing itself completely. Time will tell on that one. It’s still, relatively speaking, early days. The decision the consultants made to offer me the procedure was ultimately a financial one, as it has to be: is it better value for money to give the pacemaker to the guy who’s recovering pretty well and might live a full and basically normal life with it, or give it to the person who’s in a much worse state and is unlikely to make it to 40, pacemaker or no pacemaker?

So here we stand two years on, and it hardly seems five minutes since I wrote a “lay of the land” piece on the first anniversary of the procedure. It’s been by any measure the best year of my life. I have a wonderful relationship with my partner, Mel, who’s a daily source of inspiration and strength. I have a job I like a great deal, where I’ve made some important new friends. I continue to play music every chance I get. This year I’ve made a record with Sumner, on which I played drums and helped with some of the engineering. I’ve continued making records with Yo Zushi and James McKean; Yo’s will come out in January. We’re just finishing mixing James’s now (once a stubbornly persistent ear thing heals). I’ve released my own EP, written a bunch of songs (some of which I really like) and I’ve proudly watched Mel take her first steps as a songwriter and performer. Records I’ve played on have got national BBC radio play. I’ve been to Paris and Umbria. Next week I go to Barcelona. Next year Venice. Maybe Dubrovnik. Perhaps even, fingers crossed, New York.

And yet. Today most of all, but often, something nags at me, which I’ve wanted to write about on more than one occasion.

It’s a curious thing, but because I’ve recovered to the extent I have, when I talk about it with people who didn’t know me then, I sense they feel that recovery must have been somehow inevitable, or at least probable. I don’t like to correct them, as I wouldn’t want people to think I’m trying to take credit for my own recovery. But that reaction actually makes me angry.

When I used to go to the Papworth Outpatient Transplant Clinic (the name of clinic should give a clue as to the prognosis I’d been given), I would routinely be the least sick-looking person in the room. Not always the youngest, but always the healthiest, even when a slow walk around the block – 600 metres – left me needing a nap to recover. I will never forget a man of around forty in a wheelchair attached to a bottle of oxygen, his young children with him. I don’t know whether those children still have their father. I’ll never forget the young man whose age I couldn’t determine, because he was nothing more than flesh and bones. He was in a wheelchair too, he also needed oxygen to allow him to breathe and every breath was evidently a struggle. I didn’t know whether the young woman with him was his partner, wife, sister, friend or carer. He was there to see the heart and lung consultant. When you’re in a transplant clinic to see the heart and lung guy, it’s not looking good for you.

I always used to leave Papworth bearing good news – continued progress in my recovery, causes for cautious, realistic optimism – and yet, I always used to leave Papworth heartbroken. Any one of those people could have been me. The father who couldn’t get out of his chair? Why did this happen to him, a man with responsibilities, a wife, children? I can’t make any sense out of any of it unless I attribute it all to a cosmic rolling of the dice. And so the language we resort to when talking about disease (we talk about people “bravely” “fighting” a “battle” with an illness, as if that made more of a difference than access to good doctors and, above all else, simple dumb luck) is specious. Of course, some people respond well to being told, “You’re brave and strong and you can beat this”. But there is a widely evident net social ill that’s the inevitable result of too much of this. If we think our “positive attitude” or our “courage” or – God help us – “strength” is what saved us if we do survive, we imply that those who died or were left more disabled deserved their fate for not being as courageous and strong as we.

A little more truth and honesty and care about all of brothers and sisters, not just the ones whose survival we have a personal stake in, would be very welcome. Because really, you can’t see what I’ve seen and cling to any vestige of that mindset. Yet it’s so pervasive, across every strata of society, on the right and the left. Ayn Rand-reading, will-to-power capitalists are as guilty of it as “the spirit of the world flows through me” hippies. The truth is harder: the lives of all of us hang by a thread from the moment we’re born to the moment we finally die. At all times. A serious, non-negotiable, disabling or fatal illness can strike any of us at any time with no forewarning.

But we hide from that. It’s not a comforting thought. We talk about the amazing strength of those whose recoveries appear complete, and assume that the disabled are simply weaker specimins. We deny them financial help, we shun them, treat them as second-class. In my first few months of recovery – realising that I’d be living on £70 a week ESA forever and trying to get around in a world full of heavy doors and stairways, filled with people who just want to overtake you on the street and don’t give a damn about your dignity – I realised how complacent I had been. I became furious with the world, with my own selfishness and blindness. It was at least better than being angry that I was ill.

That anger hasn’t fully subsided. I hope it never does. There are things one should be angry about.

But most days I put all of this stuff to the back of my mind. I hunker down, do my work, try to make the people around me happy where I can, and be grateful for my extraordinary good fortune. I’m a happy guy for pretty much all the other days of the year. But today is a strange day for me. I’ll not be out having a party. It’s a sombre day, when I reflect on what could have been, and spend time with the person in the world who understands most how conflicted all of this stuff leaves me. Illness and recovery is not a zero sum game; I know that. That I’m still here does not mean that some other, more deserving, soul had to die to free up a space for me. And yet, undoubtedly, there are people I’ve encountered in wards and waiting rooms who are now dead while I am not. I fear my contributions can never be enough to justify the enormous cosmic judgement that came down in my favour.

7th December is my new year’s day. Another year begins tomorrow and I’ll again look to the future with optimism and excitement. I have so much to be optimistic and excited about! But today I remember.