Rolo Tomassi and Blood Command at The Scala, King’s Cross

It’s good for musicians to listen outside their genre. With this maxim in mind, I went to see Rolo Tomassi at The Scala, King’s Cross, London.

The Scala is a building I’ve passed so many times but until recently had never entered. It used to be a cinema and at one point was a primatarium. Cinema goers used to complain about the smell which was sure to detract from their experience unless the film happened to be Planet of the Apes.

The theatre works well as a rock venue. My friends and I parked ourselves in the balcony away from the mosh pit. We were tempted to enter the fray but I suppose it’s an age thing. Up on the balcony we were mistaken for parents of the band members.

Rock music was what originally made me take up guitar so it has always had a special power over me. I know people who work in festivals and they tell me the heavier the rock, the friendlier the people.

Nowadays, I feel short changed if a band is all blokes with their arrays of guitar pedals. It worked well in the past but now it just seems wrong. And boring. But tonight was going to be adorned by two exceptional women.

There were three acts on the bill. I missed the first (sorry Cassus) but arrived in time for Blood Command. Four guitars (including bass) and drums (of course) created a raucous wall of sound. I liked the way the musicians moved around on stage. They put thought into choreography and movement. That’s good. Every now and again they’d lift their left legs up in the air in unison. Not high like a ballerina – that’s hard to do while playing guitar but enough to make an effect. It’s an idea Chico Chica could steal. I might raise it at the next band meeting (the topic that is, not the leg).

Blood Command are fronted by Karina Ljon (pictured). Ljon is a fabulous presence and she naturally stole the show. Afterwards she was meekly sitting behind the merch counter selling CDs and t-shirts and chatting to fans.

The main act always has the advantage of being last. Miles Davis used to prefer to go first when the audience’s ears were still fresh but also so he could finish while the night was still young. But rock is different. The sense of anticipation gives the headline act an unfair advantage. Even so, Rolo Tomassi are brilliant. They can be thrashy and screamy which the crowd loved, but they can suddenly switch to melodious sections with jazzy chords and rhythms.

However, Rolo Tomassi are nothing without the singer Eva Spence. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. She also happened to be the main reason I bought a ticket. Screaming works well in rock but less so in other genres. I’m unsure if Ms Spence screams words or just sounds. Not that it really matters.

Occasionally the keyboard player would move centre stage, join in the screaming and try to steal her limelight. Why? How dare he. It came across as macho posturing and a forlorn attempt to bask in the glory of Ms Spence’s luminous aura. Sorry matey. Get back behind that keyboard where you belong.

Rock musicians are able to feel the music from the inside because they commit it all to memory. If they were reading from music stands people would ask for their money back. This is what musicians from other genres should learn. Memorisation of the music is in itself a wow factor and it enables a different type of body language. The more technology we use the less we remember so it is even more important for musicians to buck this trend.

The gig finished at 9:45pm. Now that’s a modern development. It is no doubt to do with legal restrictions. Purists complain that rock should be a late night thing and music is more exciting when it’s played at that time. I don’t see the logic in this view which seems to be a hangover from childhood. Late finishes discourage mature people who, like me, enjoy their mornings. From a promoter’s point of view, excluding a more affluent demographic doesn’t make sense. There is also a greater choice of places to eat as so many close at 11:00pm. I’d better move on to the next paragraph as I’m starting to sound like a grandad.

By the end of the evening I had come to the conclusion that Ms Spence is quite possibly the most wonderful human being alive today. Eva Peron cried for Argentina, Eva Spence screams for England.

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Devon and Cornwall Tour – August/September 2018

It was mid afternoon on August Bank Holiday. Sun visors down, the two cars set out for Chico Chica’s Devon and Cornwall Tour. Double bassist Alison Rayner is driving her leather-seated Volvo, instruments in the back, me in the shotgun seat.

As the mobile world of leather rolls along the M4 I discover Alison, as a bandleader herself, is a useful source of advice and sympathy. After coffee at Newbury I enter a reflective mood.

Tours take a lot of time to organise. Fees are no higher then those that can be earned within our usual gigging radius. The added expenses of travel and accommodation make a serious dent in the earnings.

And yet…there’s something that compels a band to strike out into the unknown. It might be that no-man-is-a-prophet-in-his-own-land thing. Or wanderlust. Could it be, what in the corporate world they call, a team building experience? Perhaps we’re subconsciously inspired by the wandering troubadours of long ago. There seems to be a feeling that a band is not really a band unless it tours.

Our first stay was in a forest in deepest Devon. Using a star to guide us (it was actually a satellite which is a kind of star) we find our AirBnb destination. We drive along a rough forest path, passing piles of logs. Twilight adds to the general Hansel and Gretal/Blair Witch mood. We were greeted by Fred who is in the process of converting an abandoned mill compound into something habitable, one building at a time. Fred keeps birds that don’t fly much. Swans and ducks in the pond, a peacock which wanders around the yard who’s frankly a bit arrogant and a cock who does a proper crow at around 7 am and then again twenty minutes later as a kind of snooze alarm.

In the morning we head to The Bude Jazz Festival. Every band needs friends and champions. Chico Chica are lucky to have Rosie and Matt who come to the gig and treat us to pasties and whitebait at The Brendon Arms. We stroll to the beach and watch the waves, imagining what it would be like to surf them.

The set list for the tour is:

This is My Heart

Mon Oiseau C’est Enfui

Cuando Sali de Cuba

Casa Flamenco

Vanity

Cue the Cucumber

On Va au Bois

Private Hands

Final Safari

Cinderella

Falling, Falling

The Lizard

Quand Tu Me Touches

Son Tresor

Fingers in The Dark

C’est Ta Chanson

L’Abeille Dansante

Goodnight

The mainstay of the set is Chico Chica’s French collection which the band plans to record in the near future. There are a few old favourites from previous albums, others from a future flamenco project and one cover. Variety is key to the Chico Chica show: in singers, instrumentation, keys, feels, moods, tempos, languages and subject matter.

But would a Cornwall jazz festival audience accept such a radical departure from the usual mainstream jazz? Happily, the reaction is positive. The pattern here is set for the rest of the tour: surprisingly large audiences and CD sales.

After Bude the band drive to The George, South Molton. and then back to our forest den chez Fred. On the next day we motor west once more. Destination: Penzance. It is Chico Chica’s most westerly gig to date. Now there’s a fact you won’t find on Wikipedia.

On the following morning, on our way to Falmouth, I’m on BBC Radio Cornwall but the presenter has his interviewees muddled up and I am introduced as the man who has survived seven lightning strikes. While waiting for my time to speak I learn that Cornwall is England’s longest county.

A tour feels a little bit like a holiday but of course it isn’t. The schedule is tightly packed with little space for downtime. But it’s Devon and Cornwall in August so it’s hard not to feel like a holidaymaker and resist the urge to visit beaches. The picture shows Hilary and Barbara in front of the St Michael’s Mount which is Cornwall’s rather lacklustre answer to Brittany’s Mont St Michel.  

The 31st August is often regarded as the last day of summer. This year it coincides with caravan turnaround day and we celebrate it by travelling most of Cornwall’s fabled length, through Devon and into Somerset. The tedium of the traffic jams is mitigated by the spectacular scenery.

The last gig was St James Wine Vaults in Bath and from there we returned home to do a cluster of dates in London including the Bull’s Head which is a kind of homecoming gig for me.

Birds – Chico Chica’s Third Album

Birds is Chico Chica’s third album and we have to say, we are inordinately proud of it.

Here is a sample:

 

You can buy downloads here: https://store.cdbaby.com/cd/chicochica5 and CDs here or else purchase a copy at one of our upcoming shows:

 

22nd-27th May 2017:  Brasserie Zedel, Sherwood Street, London W1
1st June 2017: Bull’s Head, Barnes.

 

You should be able to listen on Spotify as well. And while you’re listening you may like to read these album notes:

 

Since the band’s inception in 2010, Barbara Snow and Tom Hannah have been diligently combining original song and spoken word with textures, sounds and rhythms from around the Western Hemisphere. Snow has a very direct approach to her composition, eschewing obscurity and aiming to please the public while maintaining a high degree of artistic integrity.

 

For this album, Chico Chica enlisted the help of an all-Brazilian rhythm section to help bring about a truly exceptional work. It marks a growing maturity in this song-writing partnership. Tom Hannah’s perceptive and well-crafted lyrics are the perfect companion to Barbara Snow’s beguiling melodies and arrangements.

 

Falling, Falling is a lament for the demise of what was once a soaring love affair. The creamy vocalising here is reminiscent of Sergio Mendes.

 

The idea for title song Birds came about after Barbara Snow had a period of convalescence. She was lying on a bed next to a garden window. It was May and she listened to birdsong all day. The song is about what birds already know and that is, the limitation of words. The song culminates in a ‘la la’ section alternating with instrumental solos including one on marimba by Rob Millett.

 

Ever Since You Found Me starts with bold percussive brushstrokes and leads on to catchy instrumental sections and a spirited flute solo from Hiilary Cameron. She and Barbara Snow share the lead vocal and this gives the song a soulful emphasis. The song is an expression of  anticipation and desire.

 

The Happy Pain of Love is a tightly arranged pop song is an expression of new love from the viewpoint of a world-weary realist. Barbara Snow sings the lead and plays a flugelhorn solo which is a model of pace, poise and energy.

 

Flauta Charona is a rare Chico Chica instrumental. The interplay between Carlos Straatman’s bass guitar and Hilary Cameron’s flute is the essence of this jaunty melody which sounds as if it could be a theme tune for a light-hearted children’s cartoon.

 

Words and music by Chico Chica

 

Chico Chica are:

 

Hilary Cameron – voice, piano, keyboard, flute
Tom Hannah – voice cavaquinho
Barbara Snow – voice, flugelhorn

 

Additional musicians:

 

Carlos Straatman – electric bass
Jansen Santana – percussion
Xande -Oliveira – drums
Rob Millett – marimba

 

Recorded at Porcupine Studios, London
Engineered, mixed and mastered by Nick Taylor with the help of Barbara Snow and Carlos Straatman.

 

Picture by Phil Bartle


Continue reading “Birds – Chico Chica’s Third Album”

Transformers

For last week’s Chico Chica gig at the Long Room Bar and Mitre Hotel, Tooting,  I arrived early and ordered the Cumberland sausages. The plate arrived and I was delighted to see how the three of them were arranged in a Mercedes Benz logo pattern. The sculptural qualities alone would make the dish worthy of the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square. Instead they had to sate my more immediate appetite. Butchers in Cumbria are applying to have their bangers given Protected Geographical Status as is afforded to Champagne and Camembert, and I wholeheartedly support this. I’m not so keen on Richmond sausages and I am unaware of any pending PGS application from west London butchers. For drinks I decided to go for something locally sourced so chose the Wimbledon Lager, also very good.
I was giving my dinner more than usual attention in order to stop myself being distracted by the possibility of something going wrong. The little black box needed to power Hilary’s electric piano was missing so a replacement needed buying. Urgently.
Now this may sound conceited, but I do try to live the life of the artist which some people call ‘being lazy’. I am a long-term devotee to beditation which is basically having a lie-in without feeling guilty. This surfeit of free time means I get called on in emergencies. So I was despatched to Maplins to buy something which I wasn’t even sure what to call. Is it a power supply, an adaptor or a transformer? Hilary texted the specifications but, like a lot of artists who affect a lack of interest in the prosaic wiring behind a star-bursting performance, she and I were confused about the difference between an amp, a volt and a watt.  I chose something with multiple settings and sockets but left the shop wondering whether it would work.
Hilary is a Very Busy Woman which means she is sometimes late. This adds drama and tension to life as well as to her performances and I greatly appreciate that. But contractual obligations need to be honoured so we started the show while she was still trying to get her keyboard working.  I opened the singing with The Perfect Moment. This is a guitar-driven, slightly rocky arrangement so the piano wasn’t essential.
 The song starts with a metaphysical mood where the tense is ambiguous:.
‘The future and the past won’t exist’
I looked to Hilary to my left and her face was a picture of despairing concern mixed in with a hint of concerning despair.
‘Not if this moment we kissed’.
The negativity in the two opening lines was reflected in Hilary’s demeanour. In the final chorus I decided to channel my anxiety by making it more rousing than usual.  With an emotional quivering in my voice I sang:
‘The perfect moment is now’
I looked again and a magical, radiant, red light shone forth from the Technics SX-P30, evincing a properly functioning AC DC current, an input of  100-200VAC 50-60Hz
and the transformative power of transformers.

Stile Moderno, Carol Concert at St Cuthbert’s Church, Earl’s Court, London

The Musicians’ Union are at it again – complaining about the loss of venues due mainly to local residents objecting to noise levels. The problem is not the objectors but those who cling on to the old male-dominated guitar band format which insists on loud volumes.

 

But history has taught us that musicians and artists generally have a way of adapting. It just takes courage and imagination. These qualities were on display at last night’s carol concert by Stile Moderno performing at a venue where the locals are in no rush to close down –  St Cuthbert’s Church, Earls Court, London. If you regard Earl’s Court as a drive through district you will probably be unfamiliar to this gem of a church tucked away in a residential area.

 

st_cuthberts_east_and_rood_listed_building_no-_266119Every December, I like to go to at least one Christmas carol concert and, having heard Stilo Moderno at the same venue earlier this year, chose them for 2016. I knew this group was after my heart when I saw my favourite carol in the programme: In The Bleak Midwinter. Despite the writers names being Rossetti and Holz this song always seems to me quintessentially English. The first verse pulls everyone in with its description of a winter scene and then the nativity story comes in the second unsettling the non-believer. All carols should be like that. Stilo Moderne sung four verses: 1) soprano solo 2) ensemble) 3 tenor solo over a humming backdrop 4) Ensemble again. Perfect.

 

It’s natural for the ear to focus on whichever voice holds the melody but the sopranos still deserve special commendation. The programme was perfectly balanced, arrangements ravishing and the execution was delivered with confidence and professionalism.

 

The effect of a concert is often best felt after the event and when I walked out into the cool December night I felt my spirit lifted by the memory of an hour’s choral music by eight young singer’s led by conductor Sam Keeler, and the sense that the world is not as bad as it often seems.  And it is with this feeling I wish everyone a very happy Christmas.