One Man's Quest for Steel Guitarvana

19. The Joy Of Living


Back at Wood Festival in May, when I first played with Band of Hope, I met Jackie Oates. She was performing after us, a long time after us, in the evening, with her friend Megan Henwood. Jackie plays the violin and sings, Megan plays guitar and also sings. When they do so together it’s like the wings of birds touching mid-flight, gentle and powerful at the same time. If you think that sounds a bit lah-di-dah, have a listen yourself and tell me I’m wrong. 

Quality. That’s why, despite regret being a wasted emotion, I now still deeply regret persuading Jackie Oates, much later on that very same evening, to wear a silver spandex ‘Sleeve of Power’ on the understanding that it had magical powers to improve her playing even more, if such a thing were possible. She obliged, which just goes to show the tolerance and forbearance of which the human spirit is capable when faced with a bit of an irritating, drunken knob.

It makes it even more surprising, therefore, that the morning after Wallingford’s Bunkfest, as the end of the summer draws near, while Band of Hope Tom and I are reliving the events through tired and happy eyes over tea and a chocolate caterpillar cake at her house, Birthday Girl Jackie asks me if I would consider contributing some pedal steel to her new album. If you’re not amazed and surprised at this, then perhaps I need to put it in context:

I have at this stage been playing Pedal Steel Guitar for around six months.

Jackie has heard me play lap steel, but never pedal.

Jackie is an internationally respected and hugely talented recording artist who could hire any musician she wants.

She intends to pay me for my contribution.

Very few adults have a Colin the Caterpillar cake for their birthday.

All of which takes some time to digest. Of course I say yes to her offer, but I make it clear that it’s on the understanding that if Jackie doesn’t like what she hears, she must reject it, and either ask me to do it again or simply abandon it and find someone else. I can’t bear the thought of her putting up with rubbish if it’s not what she wants, just for the sake of protecting my feelings. She agrees to these stipulations and I get in the car, with that feeling you get when something unexpectedly amazing happens. Maybe it’s different for you, but for me, it’s a sensation that my ears are being gently pulled upwards on invisible strings. I can’t explain it.

Jackie sends me over a demo of the track, and my ear-raising delight quickly turns to anxiety and apprehension. It’s beautiful, a cover of The Joy Of Living by Ewan McColl, which she has recorded with her guitarist Jack Rutter. His playing is sublimely delicate and precise, but that’s not what concerns me the most. Tom explains to me that the album is being recorded to mark two crucial events in Jackie’s life, the passing of her father and the birth of her beautiful daughter, Rosie. These events took place in the same week. The track on which I will play is the title track of the album, and its centrepiece. It’s the farewell of McColl to his lover, his family and the mountains he loves, and given what Jackie’s been through, it’s unbearably poignant.

I start to think that Jackie has made a terrible mistake, but there is no turning back and I’ve made a promise. I practise like crazy, hoping that she will stick to her side of the bargain by being honest, and even if I don’t make the cut, I’ll get valuable experience by recording with someone of her experience and talent.

The recording takes place a few weeks later, in her kitchen. Part of the idea of the album is that it’s clear that it has been recorded there, with the sounds of the home, Rosie’s toddling, ticking clocks, buzzing fridges, the road outside, forming part of the atmosphere. It tells the story of a musician in the middle of her life, not in the sterile studio environment which protects her from it. From my selfish point of view, as a way to lower yourself in gently, it’s comfily great. Producer Simon sits in front of me, his desk and laptop perched on the kitchen table. He is kind but firm and no-nonsense. Perfect.

View from here.
I assemble the Sho-bud and, in tuning up and almost immediately break a tuning peg, for which I have no spares. Fl*psakes. That’s why you hire a seasoned professional. Working with its tiny hexagonal stub I manage to get Nashville’s Finest in tune and start with a first run through, which Simon calls ‘Take One’. I give it everything, working knee levers and pedals like I’m on a rare visit to the gym in an effort to squeeze as much emotion as I can from my machine. It’s OK, inevitably not as good as my rehearsals at home, but not an altogether terrible start. What is amazing though, is the fact that, unlike the gym, I am dripping wet with sweat after a full four minutes. I think I might have overcooked it. I have a few more takes, with less sweat, but also less joy in an ever-diminishing circle where more effort and attention seems to result in a worse performance. I’m not happy, and perhaps sensing this, Simon calls a halt for tea and what Jackie calls ‘Disappointing Biscuits’. I can only assume this is in comparison with her magnificent birthday caterpillar, as they taste fine to me.

We sit and talk about her tumultuous days back in January 2016, losing her Dad on the very day she brought her daughter home and how one way of dealing with that was to create this piece of work. She talks openly and emotionally and I realise how hard it’s been. Without it ever being meant to work this way, when I sit down again to play, the connection between the performance and Jackie’s experience is what’s at the front of my thoughts. The focus is completely different now; it’s more about my reaction to what she’s told me and less about mechanics of what I’ve learnt and the practice I’ve been putting in. The result is simpler and better for being less conscious and less in the room. It’s not so much about me any more. I’m not fooling myself; it’s not a complete performance by any means, but I know from his reaction that Simon will be able to use big bits of it, and that it’s the best we’ve got so far. We stick down another 5 or six takes and then call it a day, as Jackie’s ability to amuse 20-month old Rosie while simultaneously making beautiful music reaches a natural conclusion.

View from there.
Despite Jackie’s kindness, I’m not a professional musician. I am a television presenter who has had fantasies about making music professionally since he was 12 or 13 years old. I’m at the beginning of my voyages with the pedal steel guitar and I don’t have to listen very widely to know that I have a lot of ground to cover to hold a candle to even technically average players. I am where I am, and only playing more will change that. What my day with Jackie and Simon reminded me is that the emotional connection to your song is not an add-on to technique and skill, it’s the root of the whole thing. Music is just like any conversation; listening and feeling have to come before showing off how clever you are at expressing yourself. However much I practice and however good I get or fail to get, I mustn’t lose sight of that.


The Joy Of Living will be out in April.

18. Four Big Dollops of Catchup

The Walnut Dash to Scandinavia is all very well but let’s face it, it hasn’t had much to do with steel guitar, has it? OK, I did get the Bennett lap steel out for the gigs in Norway, to the usual shouts of “ooh, what’s that?”, “I’ve never seen one of those before!” and “Please make that sound stop.” From this you might be thinking to yourself that my PedalPassion ™ was all a smokescreen, and that I just like driving a motorhome and eating sausages in countries which may provide a viable economic model for our exit from the European Union.

Well, my friend, how very wrong you may indeed turn out to be. Because I have been so busy on my Sho-Bud pedal steel guitar that I am about to make a mockery of you and all that you stand for. How DARE you (in my imagination) question my commitment?

I’ve been so busy, in fact that I will have to bullet point my Pedaller’s Progress just to get through it in an efficient fashion. Each one of these bullet points is probably worth a chapter in itself, especially if I took the appropriate time to detail my breakfast, lunch and dinner choices on the days in question. (Peanut Butter Sandwich x 15)

  1. Band of Tape

You may remember how I promised, by writing on a big red bus, that I would not get my pedal steel out publicly for a whole year, to give myself time to achieve an acceptable standard of play? Well, that promise, like so many vehicular oaths, bit the dust in a matter of about six weeks. Band of Hope’s leader Tom had scheduled a session at a studio in Oxfordshire, and I turned up far too early in my van, ready to record either on the Bennet lap steel, my comfort blankey, or on the Sho-Bud which I’d had for about three weeks by this stage, even if I hadn’t done much else during that time apart from practise. One of the marvellous things about Pedal Steel is that it has almost no acoustic sound at all, so it’s possible to practice way into the night without disturbing other members of the household. Until they come down and find you practising in the dark at 2am, hunched over and nodding off, that is. Then they tend to become very disturbed indeed.

In the event, encouraged by Tom’s gentle get-on-with-it, I screw the legs on the Sho-Bud and set up in the control room, next to Pete the engineer. The rest of Band Of Hope set up in the performance rooms next door. I alone get to sit next to Pete and watch the tracks come together, and add my bits. IMG_8648Band of Hope is still pretty new to me. I’m coming in after another great pedal steel player who’s been a part of the band for years, and I’ve been playing for slightly longer than it takes to make a good stew. The day in question is quite a warm day, and the combination of nerves, concentration and sunshine mean that a fine bead of sweat appears when I’m playing. My shoulders ache and burn with nerdy exertion after a short while.  The nerviest bit by far is at the end of the session, when Tom suggests a pedal steel line might work over a track that I played six-string electric on. The band is sitting round in the control room to hear me lay it down. I respect and like them a lot and don’t want to let them down. I think they know this and give me a little round of applause when I finish. It feels good, even if they are just being polite.IMG_8666

2. TellyCasting.

When I started making telly I was a little shy of revealing my love of music on the medium that I laughingly call work. No longer. My dream is one day to have an entirely musical episode of Rogue Traders, where there are NO spoken elements at all except for the final confrontation, which is indeed  spoken, but accompanied by a full, mobile orchestra.  Imagine my childlike joy when one of our complainants, Andy said that he had written a poem about the aerial company which had ripped him off. I gave him a call and asked if what he had actually written might indeed not be a poem, but a country song waiting to happen. Andy agreed that in fact, yes, he now realised that he had indeed written a country song, and that yes, he would be happy to play it with me at his home in Bristol. Magically, during an otherwise normal interview, guitars appear, Andy sings, and I play. IMG_8602It’s the hottest day of the year, and the shimmer of the heat haze matches the sound I’m making with my hands, feet and knees. It’s fun to do, it looks good and, judging by the crew’s reaction, it’s funny. In addition to which, Andy is a lovely guy and totally up for it. But it doesn’t end there.

We know that AerialForce, the company we are targeting, will be tricky to get hold of. They operate from a secure compound in Surrey, patrolled by goons, and getting close to them will be next to impossible. We need to have another trick up our sleeve. One of the things we’ve used on Rogue Traders is a giant television screen on an extendable arm, which we use to get a message into an office block full of people working for a company doing bad things. IMG_9697They get the message that everyone knows what they’re up to, wthout anyone requiring access to the building. We now just need something to show on it. I sit down at Garageband and put together a track which is the beautiful progeny of one of Tom’s Band Of Hope songs and The Byrds’ version of Dylan’s You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere. The lyrics refer to AerialForce and their owners.

Now I’m perfectly aware that this sort of thing can be horrendous. Even in the hands of very experienced funny songsmiths there are inevitably wince-making moments. With the possible exception of Tom Lehrer, I find that funny words tend to detract from good music, and squeezing lyrics into a song tends to make them less funny. It’s a risk. I run it past my producers, you know, as a bit of fun, something we can all laugh about and forget. They love it. It gets played to the Exec. He doesn’t hate it. Before we know it, there’s talk of a video being made. I’m kidding myself that I didn’t want this to happen. Of course I did.

There is talk of a real horse, of finding a mutually convenient bandstand, of taking the band to be physically present for the doorstep in a open-sided truck. These ideas float through TV productions like feathers in a stream, and have the currency of monopoly money. In the end, we plump for pre-filming at a location that I’ve used before – a dude ranch built by cowboy enthusiasts squirrelled away at a secret location in Kent. It’s amazing, and the perfect, authentic backdrop to a country song. Band of Hope look like they emerged in a cloud of dust from the trail, ready to play. One of my very favourite things is bassist Drew’s insistence that he will only do the gig if he’s given a poncho to wear. A poncho is duly provided. Paul is on a piano which has more missing teeth than Shane MacGowan off the Pogues. He completes a run up the keyboard and finishes with a dazzling smile (Paul, not Shane). Tom and Ben perfect the art of the nonchalant mid-air stare for the backing vocals, in stark contrast to my manic engagement with the lyrics and the camera. It’s one of those beautiful coming togethers of disparate and unrelated elements that makes television fun to make, and leaves everyone involved with a smile on their face and looking forward to watching the finished article, so…

…here it is!!!

3. Bunkfest

Wallingford is a very cool town indeed. It’s home to Band of Hope, has a cinema, it’s on a major river, and every summer it hosts a free festival where you just stroll from one site to another until the music stops, which it doesn’t, until very late, at which point you are forced to go to the pub. We are booked to play two spots at Bunkfest, and I plan to make a weekend of it. I park my van on the outskirts of town and roll my pedal steel, amp, seat and handy baggy on a little collapsible trolley that I’ve bought for exactly this purpose. There we set up by the river for our first gig, which is spectacularly well attended and very fun indeed. We all know where we go in the band, there are quiet bits and loud bits and Tom is firmly in control, despite having left very little in the locker after a boozy Friday night to remember, and a gig which he claims he can’t remember at all, but for which he apologises profusely throughout the set. Sarah Drummer leaves us at this point to go to a family function. IMG_0143Tom, loyal Hopesters Nige ‘The’ Guffer, Nick and I help get her kit into her car, I bungee up my stuff onto the trolley and we troop down Wallingford’s narrow pavements to the Commodore’s club where we are booked to play after the fiddle people.

I love being in a band. Walking through the streets together after one good gig with the expectation of another up our sleeves is as good a feeling as you can get. Other people are walking on the pavements, sure, with their pushchairs and shopping bags, and that’s all very fine for them. But we have instruments.



We play those instruments together, and when we do, it often sounds good, occasionally brilliant. Sometimes I play things I didn’t know I could play. They just come like gifts out of nowhere. Then sometimes I make simple mistakes and I get a cold sweat and hope no-one notices. People come to listen out of choice, and they stay until the end. I’d say at least a quarter of those people must think to themselves ‘I wonder what that’s like, playing that thing, and being part of that band’. Well I’ll tell you for nothing: it’s fantastic. It’s nothing to do with your Top of The Pops or your Albert Hall. It’s about being in a gang and being in the moment and there is no substitute.

Later on, the crowd thins out, and all the gigs have been played. We stop into a church. We wander around the field looking for friends. We find them all in this bar, where I share a sausage roll with my good friend John Jones.IMG_0147

And that, my friends, is Bunkfest.


4. Borderline Personality Disorder

‘I feel like I’m going to lose my mind’. Said Madonna in 1984 or possibly late 1983, given which, possibly through a combination of medication and meditation, she’s actually held it together remarkably well. She’s been through a lot. 

The Borderline is also a London venue, one of my favourites because of its proximity to the tube, its latterly hokey-but-fun Western styling and the fact that they regularly put on music that is right up my boulevard. It could probably be called the home of British Americana, and some epic names from that genre and others appeared there early on in their careers – lifting straight from the venue’s website – R.E.M, Muse, Blur, Rage Against The Machine, Amy Winehouse, PJ Harvey, Oasis, The Libertines, Mumford & Sons and my favourite, Ryan Adams have all gone down those stairs and then up again into the Soho night. It’s intimate, 300 people makes it feel overloaded, and the stage is a modest 2 foot high affair. In every respect, it’s the perfect place to see bands up close and personal, and I always keep an eye out to see who’s on there.

So when Tom told me that Band of Hope had a support slot there, I FELT LIKE I WAS GOING TO LOSE MY MIND and, like most rock stars facing a big gig, immediately began devoting thought to the problem of parking. If you’ve ever seen the club scene in the film film From Dusk Til Dawn, then you’ll have a good idea of what, despite its name, The Borderline is not. dusk-600x400

It is not a desert-based entertainment venue, surrounded by nothing but a whole lot of mesa, within which you are free to park your RV or massive motorcycle willy-nilly. It’s a tight little Soho hideaway, with pedestrian – only access to its delights. The good news was that, brilliantly synchronised with the evening’s performance, that afternoon I was presenting the Caravan and Motorhome Club’s annual Tow Car of the Year (VW Passat Estate Alltrack! Of course!) Award just down the road at the RAC club. Their chauffeured car took me straight to the door of the Borderline, accompanied by some of their excellent team, who hooked up and tagged along just behind me, as you might expect. This underlines once again how thoroughly decent caravanners and motorhome drivers are, as if the matter were in any doubt. They gave me not only a transport solution out of a tricky corner, but also supplied my own portable, highly appreciative audience of friends.

I did my usual jittery set-up on stage, screwing in legs, attaching rods and cables, a process with which I’m getting more familiar but which isn’t yet second nature. My main problem is that jangling nerves always get in the way. I go through the same routine every time and haven’t discovered a way to change my habits: losing crucial things, cold sweating, wondering how I will replace them at short notice and then finding them again under other things which I had placed on top of them just seconds before. I have come to the conclusion that I do it purely to heighten the excitement of the event. As the first act on, we were soundchecking before the other bands, but I was still a full half hour ahead of anyone else so I could tune up and get comfortable. I had the hippy hippy shakes in my hands, and just wanted to make a beautiful sound. One by one the band arrived and we said hello to the other acts – headliners Summerhill, a band Tom had been a part of in one of their incarnations, and Michelle Stoddart of the Magic Numbers, flying almost solo with another guitarist/singer/songwriter. She sounds marvellous.

When the time comes, it’s beautiful. I nip to the loo for an emergency wee and nearly miss the beginning of the first song, but leap on to the stage not a second too late, stick my picks on my right hand, get comfortable with my tone bar in the other and try to make her sing. Through the lights I see my friends from the Caravan and Motorhome Club, I see Nige, Tom’s family and strangers who have no reason to be at The Borderline to listen to us, but do. I look across and see Sarah behind her kit. I see the backs of Band of Hope as they pump out vocal harmonies to one of my favourite venues, the lights from the beer pumps picking out faces in the crowd. I lose focus a bit in the second half and it’s not quite as good, but it’s still not bad. I feel myself smiling a lot and I feel like I’m in the right place, sitting behind my sewing machine of joy, listening and plucking and grinning.IMG_0340




17. Walnutiae Pt.4

Here, it ends. Back to business very soon.
‘Some days are better than others’ as Marcel Proust would have written if he’d found the time. And yet even when days are epic and awesome like the day that I’m about to unfold, we still invariably have to rely on photographs to remember what it was like, which seems a bit patchy. I worry that pretty quickly the photos we see replace the memories, and you just end up with memories of looking at the photos. I do like the idea of remembering through another sense, and I think it should ideally be the sense of smell. Anyone that’s ever climbed into a car from the 70’s will know how powerful that can be at conjuring up a past of School runs and picnics. The practicality however of keeping a Waiting Sausage or a genuine bit of Fjord Kelp, or the Diesel engine of a Norwegian Ferry handy to sniff in order to bring back this day, escapes me. What we are left with is words, pictures, still and moving and, what has been conspicuously and inexcusably missing from this blog so far, your actual MUSIC. Real recorded music. Four different media for you to gorge yourselves on. Using these tools I would like to share with you as fully as I can the joy of songs and friendship, where they can take you, and what it can offer if you give them a chance, as packaged into a single, glorious day, or part thereof, in my case. Bit esoteric. Let’s move on.

It’s morning in Hvalstad! I’m in a car park.

Gunn and John Sterling’s vast cornerucopia of a fridge wasn’t defeated by a whole day of catering, it turns out.  It still had more to give when breakfast came around and I skulked out of the wagon to join them. I remember eggs, although I didn’t take a picture of them so I’d have to smell one to be absolutely sure. Gear was stuffed back into the nooks and crevices of the motorhome and we drove back to Karen’s flat to meet her and Håkon. I remember Davie explaining this bit of the trip to me back in the UK, in the early stages of planning, and when the morning came, I really wish I had paid more attention. Karen and Håkon own a small house on an island across the fjord from Oslo, called Nakholmen. It appears that at some point, once the oil money had come in, the Norwegian government gave everyone in the capital a holiday home to avoid them trekking off to Majorca and coming back with sombreros and liqueurs that sit at the back of the cupboard until you move house. As a result the islands are dotted with picture perfect wooden structures, painted with pride in primary shades, accessible only by kayak or on foot from the ferry terminal. There are no vehicles as there are no roads, just gravel paths connecting neighbours.

We drove the van down to the dock and unloaded our gear. 
then took her back and parked her out of the way in a free parking space, I don’t know, outside the Houses of Parliament or the main station or somewhere. Parking in Oslo really is madly liberating. IMG_9173You could stick an articulated lorry on their equivalent of Oxford Street for a fortnight and not pay a penny. Upon returning to he dock, we found a very excited Håkon gesturing to get on to the waiting boat asap or face a long wait until the next one. We grabbed our guitars, mic stands and amps and loaded ourselves on to the ferry alongside Oslonian dogs, pushchairs and old people. All going to the wrong island. 

Håkon is a tech genius, who has invented things we all use. He is used to seizing opportunities, and engineering answers to immediate problems. He demonstrated the first part of this skill set by hustling us on to a boat going to a perfectly lovely island on which he holds no real estate. The second part then kicked in, as he scoured the ferry timetable to ensure that we changed boats to arrive ahead of the boat we would have caught otherwise. I can only surmise he did this because otherwise there would have been no time or opportunity for Donald to entertain us in a rubbadub Celtic stylee.

On the island of Nakholmen we had to trek our gear across to the rocky outcrop where we would be playing. I was a bit grumpy at this stage, as my guitars, amp and mic stand were all perched atop my suitcase. fullsizeoutput_c61I had to go straight off to the airport after the gig, and I couldn’t risk going back to the wagon to collect them. The rolly bag was catching stones in its little Chinese wheels, and signalling clearly that it was not designed for All-Terrain use by periodically sticking the brakes on, and generally acting like a naughty doggy who didn’t want to go for a walk in the first place. We dragged and huffed and puffed over miniature mountain passes in the midsummer sun until we reached the cove where Karen and Håkon second home. We dropped our kit, sighed, and drank in the straight-up beauty of the place. IMG_9144

The house was scandi-perfect, too. A lounge/kitchen with a couple of little bedrooms off it, and a toilet with special island rules which shouted ‘hold it in’. Our hosts had leafletted the island meaning that by the time we’d IMG_9143run an extension lead to our plateau, a crowd of around fifty people were sitting expectantly but with the kind of limited expectation that comes with a free concert performed by middle aged men. We also picked up Halder, an expert Nordic fiddle player and friend of Håkon, who played along with us, and meshed beautifully with Donald. It was like watching the marriage of European Royalty. As musicians, they clearly came from the same gene pool, but with enough tiny regional differences to make the whole thing acceptable. Thanks to the magic of Soundcloud, you can hear for yourself how we did.

And as Håkon threw a drone up you can see for yourself that i’m not lying about the jaw-dropping nature of the place.

Once we’d finished playing there really was nothing left to do but make the most of the crystal chill of the water. Observe here Simon’s near-perfect dive technique.


And that’s it. I changed out of my borrowed trunks, said goodbye to the boys and our wonderful hosts, went back to the mainland and got the train to Oslo airport. Their plan, was to drive back through Copenhagen and on to Amsterdam without me where they had another gig sorted before dropping off the van almost exactly a week after we’d picked her up.

I’m not sure there’s any great moral lesson to take from our funny trip. Others have, without doubt, pushed themselves harder, dealt with greater discomfort, travelled further and raised more money for charity. I think our idea came from the good time we tend to have when we are together, particularly when we are playing, the fact we could get a vehicle, a clear week, a destination, and an excuse. We did it in the hope we’d have some sights and smells to talk about when winter came around.  We could look back and say ‘we did that” rather than ‘we should have done that’, and that we could take away a few days that were close to perfect. Sitting here, looking at the first frost on the garden, it feels like job done. IMG_9148

16. Walnutiae Pt.3

Still not much to do with steel guitar, except that I occasionally play lap steel during these episodes. Move on, steel guitar obsessive. Nothing to see here. 

A cursory glance in my direction would suggest that I don’t have much in common with soul diva Randy Crawford. This however, we share; both Randy and I, in our different ways, enjoy the street life. In her case, Randy loves the ten-cent masquerade of 70s New York Disco. It’s the only life she knows. For my part, I love the equally intoxicating feeling of waking up alone in the drop-down bed of a well-appointed motorhome, parked daringly on the street outside the Egyptian embassy in Oslo. I’d like to think that if Randy Crawford and I ever met, we would silently nod at each other in unspoken appreciation of this shared bond. I would avoid mentioning Almaz, because I really don’t get that one at all, and have no frame of reference. 

But that’s where you find me, pure and simple this morning, surreptitiously making tea on a gentle incline towards the glistening fjord which provides Norway’s capital with gravitational orientation. I wouldn’t be surprised to get a knock on the door from the world’s most glamorous police couple, but sadly, that knock never comes, despite me sitting on the kerb with my toast and tea and humming Rainy Night In Georgia quite loudly. I dress, I walk, I talk to Donald, and we make our way across to Karen’s flat for a breakfast of eggs and laughter about the meta-criminal activity and hilarity of the night before. 

It seems that they do things differently in Norway, and the Walnuts devote the morning to getting under the skin of this excellent Nation in as much as you can by going to museums while nursing what may be the northern hemisphere’s most expensively acquired hangovers. Booze is prohibitively expensive in Norway, and yet last night there was no shortage. We are blessed with terrifically generous hosts and and audience who gave willingly to Alzheimer’s research. We have a morning at our leisure before we play a gig on the deck in the garden of Davie’s schoolfriend John ‘Ciggy’ Sterling, a couple of miles away in Hvalstad. We are determined to use it educating ourselves about Norway in an attempt to crack the Norse code. Håkon packs us into his magical Tesla e-car with flying doors and drops us off at our first stop, the Viking longboat museum. 

It’s important not to underestimate just how long a longboat can be. Judging by these well preserved examples, it is both long and broad, but that’s not the main message to be taken away from this fine museum. It is this: life on board cannot have been any fun at all, open as it was to the elements. After rowing and blowing across the wild North Sea, it is a wonder the crew had any energy at all left for raiding churches and the like. It is clear from the outset that Davie is best suited to the role of Viking, and indeed there is evidence of strong Norse DNA. From there we move onto The Fram, the ship used by Amundsen and others to leave Norwegian flags in cold places just before British flags. The whole ship has been transported into its own museum, and you can walk around on deck, eating biscuits and pretending to shiver if you’re into the whole immersive experience. If the Fram produced one good thing it was Fridtjof Nansen, the champion skier/skater/explorer cum radical statesman/diplomat/humanitarian. After leading expeditions to cold places, he helped Norway achieve independence from Sweden and then invented the Nansen Passport for displaced persons, giving refugees a way to identify themselves. In short, what a dude. I don’t want to speak ill of our long dead tragic national popsicle Captain Scott, but he always came across as a bit of a sticky beak. Not so the Norwegians, who appear to be having a bit of a giggle as they conquer the globe, eating pancakes and mucking about in fancy dress. Winning isn’t everything. Having a laugh while you do it just might be. 

Steer, Mcgirr

Final stop before music was to see Thor Heyerdahl’s Kontiki boats. I’m not going to say much about these except that they make the Viking longboats look like The Queen Mary. Thor’s idea of a giggle, it seems, was to cross the Pacific on either a lightly stuffed warehouse pallet or a giant espadrille. I can imagine life was never dull  with Heyerdahl. Conclusions about Norwegians? However much they may say they love their country, they seem to go to extraordinary lengths to get away from it. 

It’s a hot day, and by the time we get ourselves to John Sterling’s house, I am feeling a bit wobbly, and have to have a little lie down. I am mocked mercilessly by everyone, both Scottish and Norwegian for this lack of stamina. Safe to say that I don’t have a great deal of Viking DNA and if I’d been on a longboat voyage,  would have travelled unwittingly with a runic sign reading ‘EMERGENCY FOOD’ pinned to my back.

On which subject, John and his wife Gunn are introducing the hardier Walnuts to the idea of a ‘waiting sausage’. This element of Norse Code is a common sense approach to that moment in the barbecue process when your guests are politely starving while you burn their food. Norwegians fill this gap with a sausage in a wrap to make the time more easy passing – the Waiting Sausage.

Waiting for a Waiting Sausage

It turns out this is just one marvellous idea out of many that Norwegians have embraced. Gunn also showed me her corner fridge, a tardis-like appliance with an angled door to fit in the corner of your kitchen and open out, providing acres of space in which to lose the mango chutney. Well done, Norway, well done. 
Refreshed from my nippy nap, I join the throng and get ready to sing and play in the intense heat of a Scandinavian mid-summer. We have a support act in the shape of Andy, who does a neat solo turn supplying unsettling lyrics on board jarring chord changes: imagine Morrissey jumping on an autoharp. This is intended as high praise.

 We climb on to the decking, as the sun finally gives up the sky and temperatures finally dip beneath Bridge On The River Kwai. We play well enough. Simon Walnut gives his usual, uncompromising performance of ‘Lulu’. I feel he also perhaps would have benefitted from a lie down. John Sterling, meanwhile, our generous host, becomes a freeform fifth Walnut as he peppers Davie and my carefully worked on-stage chat with his own contributions. Many of these focus on Davie’s height, which is, as you can see from pictures, that of the perfect travelling companion, in that he keeps his hat and shoes very close together to avoid losing them. 

After playing we retire to the upstairs salon (the Stirling household is delightfully upside down. Norwegians!) where Ciggy talks us through his and Davie’s staggering basketball careers during the late seventies and early eighties. It appears that Cumnock Academy in Ayrshire was a copper-bottomed hothouse for legendary ballers during this period, producing seven members of the Scottish National team which beat England convincingly, and continuing its dominance until the mid eighties, when things started to crumble, possibly explained by inconsistent squad selection, if this picture is anything to go by.

I’ve tried to establish which, if any of the above could either be either David Mcgirr or John Sterling. I can only say that the achievement of the coaching staff during that period must have been immense, to combine such a breathtaking range of skill sets and abilities. 

By the time Ciggy and Gunn got out the whiskey, in my head I had concocted a full 90 minute documentary called 

‘When Cumnock Beat England: The Glory Of ‘76.’

This is more like it. In this Daily Mail criminal archive shot, Mcgirr is wearing 12, Sterling on the right in old school Adidas and an uncomfortable 12 degree incline from the perpendicular. John can say what he likes about Davie’s height but back in 1958 when this picture was taken, he was pulling a bit of a Gregory’s Girl fringey mullet while Davie rocked the full Joanie Loves Chachi feather cut. 

I retire to the Walnut Wagon, tucked away in a car park nearby, to dream strange whiskey dreams of men in tartan scarves ripping down English basketball hoops at Wembley (Arena).

15. Walnutiae Pt.2

Still not really about steel guitars….

We woke up in Aarhus pretty much exactly where we went to sleep, parked up alongside a couple of other motor homes under a desolate, graffitied overpass. Efforts had been made by city fathers to create a non-judgemental youth space into which I feel we fitted perfectly. Walnuts music is nothing if not gritty, grimy and street-based. Youngsters constantly tell how they ‘feel’ us. We come from the Home Counties, and it’s a little known fact that’s where the phrases ‘HomeBoy’ and ‘Homeslice’ actually come from. It’s a ‘fact’. Now check out our exemplary attitude immediately post-breakfast. 
I did ask Donald in vain to put down the cup of tea. I feel it spoils the whole stance, which I like to call ThreateningLite. No time for a second shot though, because the race was on (exciting, jeopardy) to get to the ferry out of Denmark and into Norway. Waiting for us in Norway are genuine, sober, established friends and actual, organised gigs with people who are giving up their homes and time to hear us. Of course, to make the race really entertaining we should split into three contrasting modes of transport, bicycle, shopping trolley, hang glider, and create a montage effect to keep the viewer guessing for a bit who is winning  until one of us arrives at the destination, thinking he is first, ONLY TO FIND THAT THE OTHERS HAVE ACTUALLY ARRIVED BEFORE HIM and he has to do a dance in a skirt. In fact, there is no Top Geary simulated excitement to report and we boringly make the ferry terminal with plenty of time. I get my guitar out and play. I forget what, but it apparently involves a F major chord.

In an uncommon bit of good preparation, I have arranged for all Walnuts to have a ticket to the excellent buffet on the ferry. What a good decision that is.  We bring our instruments with us, and after our prepaid feast, we wait for someone to ask us to play something. 

We wait. 


We wait. 

‘Why don’t you play something for us all?’ comes the request, finally,  from one of the attendants at the buffet, whose path has somehow been blocked by our instruments. We play for not very long, until the very same attendant, now flanked by two colleagues, suggests that perhaps the next one should be the last one.  

The ferry boat dislocates its giant steel jaw and coughs us out onto the dock at Larvik. An hour it takes to drive to the leafy embassy district of Oslo, where our hosts, Karen and Håkon are waiting in their flat, along with Davie’s wife Nikki and drumming Walnut Simon. I am particularly proud of this shot of Donald in their stare/staircase. Feel free to applaud.

You SEE? Karen’s flat is fabulous, art and floorboards, backstairs and courtyard, a room just for books and a performance space just for Walnuts. If there was a blueprint for a perfect party host it would be she, and as a result her guests are as interesting as you’d imagine; diverse, funny, jolly and generous. After the slammed doors of Aarhus, we nestle in the warm embrace of Oslo at last, and repay our hosts by playing, I would say, moderately well. 

One of the things which by this point has definitely been improved by the enforced proximity of the trip is the chemistry of the on-stage Walnut chat. Stage banter is not easy to do, but vitally important; it says a great deal about a band. In most cases, a band’s set list doesn’t vary tremendously from night to night. Chat, however, is mercurial and improvised – as fluid and slippery as the soap in a downstairs loo. It should never be scripted. It should spontaneously reflect the emotion and vibe of the moment, and is often the chance for the audience to voice their feelings, too. However unpredictable the music may be, the chat is the bit which genuinely has no rules and can set or destroy the tone for the evening. Due to the mission statement of Davie has some pretty weighty messages to impart during the gig. It is therefore imperative that I operate a no-fly zone during these messages, as my contribution largely consists of sexual innuendo and fart gags. I’ll admit it has taken me a little too long to take onboard this lesson, during which learning curve he has been very patient. For his part, Donald adds the grace notes of interstitial pithy comments, which, deprived of a vocal microphone, are purely for the entertainment of on-stage personnel, and therefore twice as valuable. Whatever happens, it’s Davie’s show. 

The gig at Karen’s didn’t end with our contribution. The Scandiwegian contingent kept the party live by playing very loud music, windows open, waving flags and dancing thru from the end of our set until the very early hours. I would say until sunrise, but of course we are in Norway, midsummer and 

The sun never really goes down. I’ll tell you what does go down, though, in downtown Oslo. The police get called. Yes. 5-0 from the Oslo. We got shut down by the world’s most attractive action-figure police couple. I tried to get a picture of them on my phone but they had guns, and seemed really serious and a bit tetchy about the whole thing. I instantly regretted adding Anarchy In The UK to the playlist. This excluded the Norwegians from the list of suspects and narrowed the possible perps to just the three Walnuts. Even the lightest of interrogations would reveal that Donald don’t do punk. It would then be a 50/50 between me and Davie, who played basketball at a very high level at school, and would therefore be able to resist a physical grilling far longer than I ever could.

Håkon is delighted at the unexpected renegade status the police visit brings him and his only genuine regret is that a frameable penalty fine, although discussed, never materialises. The drop-dead gorgeous police presence may indicate to you that Oslo is an uptight city of slim humours and stringent rules. Far, far from it. We hit the sack well past three, parked for free directly outside the Egyptian embassy in a motorhome smelling of curry and real ale. You try that in South Ken, and you’ll wake up with Special Branch cooking you a special brunch. 

14. Walnutiae Pt.1

We’re going to take a little departure from strict pedal steel business for a moment. If you’re here to find out what little I know about copedants and string gauges, I’d advise you take a break and stretch your legs. Whatever you do though, don’t get confused by taking a stretch and breaking your legs.

If you don’t make an effort, making music can be an insular business. It’s very easy to spend hours sitting in a darkened room chasing a particular chord or tone to the exclusion of all else, forgetting that music is for sharing. I make a habit of crouching over a guitar until the early hours running the same licks and scales over and over until, well, until recently, this happened:


Yes, it appears that repetitively straining your wrists can injure them, due to a thing called Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and although the above picture suggests that the problem stems from playing the guitar, I am not so sure. I think the lion share of the problem is more likely to be the toxic smartphone which is rarely far from my right thumb, and which, in diametric opposition to the guitar, invariably brings me anxiety, insecurity, and paid work.

If you’ve never had Carpal Tunnel, let me give you a flavour of it’s delights. Suddenly, simple tasks like carrying a bowl of cereal become painful and risky. Not only can the bowl, without notice, transmute into a porcupine, stabbing its spines into the fleshy chicken-drumstick cheek of your palm, but then the whole thumb mechanism can suddenly give up entirely, sending your granola tumbling to the ground in slo-mo like Alan Rickman at the end of Die Hard. And there ain’t a goddamn thing you can do about it. The painful point (it can be painful to point) is this: Things like RSI can strike at any point, and deprive you of the ability to play or sing or walk or breathe. You have to gather ye rosebuds while ye may and make your music in the sun.

I once held a VERY large fish with country legend Kenny Rogers.

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I should be more precise: Kenny Rogers and I each had a very large fish of our own. At no point did I share a large fish with Kenny Rogers. Happy to make that clear.

AS you can imagine, as a country music fan it was a big deal for me to meet Kenny Rogers. I made use of every available second to perform what my colleagues call ‘The Allwright Brain Bleed’, squeezing every drop of information I could from him on set and in his dressing room. He did not take on though, signed my mandolin and was utterly wonderful. All in all it was a truly joyous coming together, with the exception of one moment. Kenny (Mr. Rogers to you) told me how an operation on his right hand some years ago mean that he can’t now play the guitar, and although his magnificent voice remains a seam of a pure liquid gold, his shonky picking paw was clearly a source of great regret to him. You can imagine: a wonderful journey all starts with a man alone, with a guitar, on a stage. Take the guitar away, he is powerless, deprived of his magic wand of independence. It must feel like the journey is coming to a close. That’s tough. It’s also VERY country. The message I’m getting to, through a Hampton Court maze of protracted nonsense, is that the moment for practice is sometimes over, and, regardless of your level of preparation, it’s time to take it out on the road to see what’s out there, because you never know when your red right hand will flick you the mighty V, signalling that time is, in fact, up. 

With that in mind, Donald Davie and I, the Walnuts, devised The Epic Walnut Dash. We carved ourselves a few days at the beginning of the summer when we wouldn’t be missed, and worked out a route to get us to Oslo, which, travel fans, is the capital of Norway. Once we had worked out a final destination, a route, a means of transport (splendid borrowed Bailey’s motorhome),  set list, curry and cake sponsors, sleeping arrangements and list of next of kin in case of accidents, we realised that we had no reason whatsoever to go to Oslo. This, therefore,  had to be the very next item of business.
I have mentioned in previous Steelgrimages that Davey and I met when he came on my radio show to talk about, his unique method of battling the Alzheimers which took his in-laws from him in front of his and his wife Nikki’s very eyes. Having never performed in public, Davey dived in feet-first and publicly offered to play seven songs anywhere, for anyone, without asking for a penny for himself, but handing round a cake tin at the end for Alzheimer’s research. To date he’s done about 80 of these gigs, and I’ve joined him on a couple at the huge risk of unravelling all the goodwill he’s accumulated in front rooms across the country. He’s raised over £20000 all by himself, both with and without a beard, just to show that he is nothing if not versatile. We decided then that The Walnut Dash would be Sevensongs writ large – raising money for Alzheimers, and with the added stipulation (my idea) that we would sing and play wherever we stop, until someone paid us to stop playing. This seemed like a good idea. We had a couple of gigs set in stone, three in Oslo and one in Amsterdam. Otherwise, the schedule was as fluid as pancake mix on a warm windowsill. In fact, lukewarm sloppiness is a term that could be used to accurately describe the whole operation. Witness the back of the T-shirts, commissioned at the last possible moment from excellent Scott at Balcony Shirts.



You see? We really didn’t know what we were doing. 

Due to ‘work’ I couldn’t be there at the start. The duo became a trio in Hamburg, as, fresh from the set of Watchdog I joined Donald and Davey at the airport. I was as excited as a young puppy to see them. They were less enthusiastic, stressily pointing to the strict German rules on stopping outside the terminal.  In fact they barely got out of second gear to scoop me up for fear of incurring a fine. They were even less impressed when I instantly got out my selfie stick for this picture:



Have you ever seen two human beings less impressed by another human being? It was like riding with not one, but two whole Shania Twains.

 We drove all the way to Aarhus, eating hotdogs

IMG_8779and, once the Shania Twins had thawed out,  joking all the way about how we would, no doubt, find Aarhus positioned squarely in the middle of Aarstreet. You’ll notice how the T shirt above states that the venue for that night was to be Waxy’s Irish pub, in the event that they ever answered the email. Well, they didn’t, and it was my job to arrange that night’s venue.  For weeks I rang at different times of the day, I emailed ways in advance, then rang again. Then I gave up, figuring that to be an Irish pub anywhere in the world, you only really have to do two things:

  1. Serve one of two types of Stout.
  2. Welcome and encourage impromptu live performances of acoustic Celtic music.

Well, Waxy’s had clearly not signed up to that manifesto. They decided that being Irish involved having a completely desolate, empty pub and turning away desperate middle-aged men in new t-shirts with guitars and a charity bucket. I am not a bit bitter about this. I would however suggest that if you ever go to Aarhus EUROPEAN CITY OF CULTURE 2017, BY THE WAY, you should do what everyone else there seems to do, and give Waxy’s the widest of possible berths. Waxy’s is like that foreign student wearing a big hat in the St. Patrick’s day parade, opportunistically looking about for drunk girls and riding the wave while it lasts, while not having a Eammon De Valera what it’s all about.

Well, Waxy’s of Aarhus, let me tell you something.

What you don’t know is that while you thought we were having an extended pee, we all got our instruments out and played a song in your empty corridor!  WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THAT, WAXY’S??? CALL THE COPS WHY DON’T YOU??? CITY OF CULTURE, MY AARHUS!!!! WE STUCK IT TO THE MAN!!!

In fact, the man stuck it to us pretty comprehensively. For a couple of rainy hours we struggled in Aarhus to find anywhere to play, turned away like biblically prospective parents, until Donald hit upon an immaculate concept: The entrance of the department store at the major crossroad in Aarhus was covered and brightly lit. It was frequented by tipsy students of the City’s university who had just graduated. It was, in short, the venue we’d been waiting for.IMG_8800.JPG

Out of shot in this photo there are at least another three people either dancing or seriously thinking about what dancing is. Behind them are another three people who are there by accident. This constitutes a crowd. Left of picture, closest to us, justifiably transfixed by Donald’s blazing fiddle playing, in the white shirt and curiously cropped jeans, is Benjamin. Benjamin is a student on an engineering placement in Aarhus. He instantly became Donald’s biggest fan and our manager for the night, promising us that he could get us playing in any venue in his home town.

Benjamin was very, very drunk indeed.

He quickly ascertained that Donald was the best musician in the troupe. He advised Donald to get rid of us and go it alone. He then started to call Davey ‘Donald’ and tell him how much he loved his fiddle. At this stage Donald noticed that Benjamin could not stop ordering drinks for us all, and suggested that we leave him to freshen up on what was, after all, a school night. Whatever Benjamin was engineering the next day, I sincerely hope it was not intended to bear a child’s weight.FullSizeRender 8.jpg

After Aarhus, things got better. They weren’t all that bad, but they still got better. Walnutiae 2 to follow…. 



13. Lucky For Some

I love almost all music. If you look hard enough you can usually find something redeeming about pretty much any song or tune, classical or pop, whether it comes from Leicester, Latvia or Lesotho; after all, it’s still music.

There are a few exceptions I’ll make, though, where the sacred space which music occupies in our lives seems to have been cruelly abused. Recently, a chap from hospital radio asked me to identify the single track I’d most like to place in Room 101. I could cite most of Phil Collins work, quite happily, but a sticking a whole artist in there seems petty and there’s always You Can’t Hurry Love which I still adore. He’s also a phenomenal drummer. Naturally, I then turned to The Lighthouse Family, but it’s hard to pick between Ocean Drive and Lifted, songs which both sound like they were recorded in their entirety in Kenneth William’s nasal passage.

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But if it’s a single buttock clench of a song you’re looking for, one that I’ve hated since the first moment I heard the first bar, then I’m going to have to plump for 1987 hit Live It Up by Australian cruise ship rockers Mental As Anything.

It turns out you can even buy a FIVE ALBUM set of Mental As Anything if you have recently had a lobotomy or are a C.I.A. agent who wants to extract information from suspects without leaving visible external scarring.


The song itself is the kind of sun-inned, jaunty late 80’s production which made sulky teenage me pray to Morrissey for acid rain, under a lyric which implies that the cure for heartbreak is simply to go home with a the first man in a bow tie that you meet in order to ‘live it up’. The fact that the object of the song is clearly already on a dance floor would suggest that whatever heartache she has endured, she’s constructing and boarding her own survival raft of palliative good times, possibly among friends, and certainly in a safe public arena. To suggest that her best course of action would then be to leave this healing space to join the protagonist in what will probably be a bedsit (‘come up to my place’) where she would ‘live it up’ (activities unspecified) to a greater degree than on the supervised dance floor where she currently finds herself, seems like a risky roll of the dice to say the least. It’s a creepy message in the extreme. And that’s before you meet the band.

I’m sure they were only doing what their management told them to by wearing those suits and bow ties, but the one message that it doesn’t convey is that these boys are ‘Mental’. I want to make it clear that I’m not talking about Mental Illness here. I’m talking about doing what it takes to achieve the unique mindset or perspective which some musicians adopt to give their work a truly distinctive and fresh edge. David Bowie, Brian Eno, Iggy Pop, Marilyn Manson, Nick Cave. All of these could probably have been said to flirt with and sometimes fully immerse themselves in mentally altered states to tell us something new and fresh about our shared journey through life. Seeing Australian men with bow ties jig about to squelchy synth pop while insisting that they are stretching perception itself by singing the most banal retread of a presumptuous song of dubious courtship you’ll ever hear….well, I think you get my drift. I’m not a fan.

Let’s turn 180 degrees and jump back another 20 years to take a look at what makes the music I really love. Place yourself in the shoes of The Byrds in 1967. If you’re not familiar with The Byrds, then check out their illustrious family tree:fullsizerender_3

As you can see, they form the spine of some the great country rock, folk and psychedelic pop acts of the sixties. They had massive hits with Bob Dylan covers alongside their own genre-moulding material, and changed their line-up like sensible people change their electricity suppliers. In 1967 they were ready for another shake up, and drafted in Country rock legend Gram Parsons from the International Submarine Band. Gram suggested their next move should be to go full country. The boys had tinkered with some country songs before on their albums, but they were a bit like Act Naturally on the Beatles’ Help album – a toe in the water rather than a proper statement of intent.

Gram, though, was all-or-nothing serious about country music. In 1967 country and pop were two different camps which didn’t mix. Squares versus Heads. Farm versus City. A whole album of country from one of the biggest pop bands of the past half decade wasn’t just a change of direction, it was a flipping manifesto. Sweetheart of the Rodeo truly was Mental As Anything, paving a new path, eschewing commercial success in search of a deeper truth, and using the tried and tested technique of genre cross-breeding to bring out a new way to make people’s hearts sing along to their tune.

Result? It worked! In its time, a massive commercial flop. The album alienated the pop fans The Byrds had built up over the last five years, and failed to win over a country audience who still had trouble with the idea of long hair on a man, despite that being a natural consequence of not cutting it, just like for ladies. The Byrds survived a whirlwind of a concert at country music’s temple, the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, from which they were lucky to emerge unscathed. However, time has changed everything. The album has now been reappraised to become a classic, and a cornerstone for country fans who like their rock to have dirt on its boots, and their country to be Transcendental As Anything. For alt-country artists like Uncle Tupelo, Ryan Adams and Wilco, Sweetheart is like scripture, and they all probably make my favourite kind of music, country which doesn’t always try to answer its own questions.

Gram was instrumental in this sea-change for the Byrds. But he wasn’t as Instrumental As Anything. I’d say as much of an influence on Sweetheart of The Rodeo were the two (here we go people! We’re coming to the point!) virtuosi pedal steel guitar players who grace the album. One of these is our old friend Lloyd Green (Steelgrimages passim). He takes the lion share of the duties. He’s on the opening track and only genuine single, You Ain’t Goin’ Nowehere and then pops up on around half the other cuts. He’s as brilliant as ever.

Then there’s Jaydee Maness, (surname to almost rhyme with ‘painless’).


He’s one of the first Pedal Steel players whose name I ever knew. He plays on You’re Still on My Mind, You Don’t Miss Your Water and 100 Years From Now. At least I think it’s him on those tracks, and there may be more. Despite the internet being able to tell me every item of clothing Kim Kardashian has worn since her birth, I can’t seem to get reliable, detailed personnel track listings for one of the most influential albums of all time. The good news is that I won’t have to wait much longer to find out. Because Jay Dee Maness is the guest performer at the Irish Pedal Steel Guitar Festival which is taking place next month. When I found this out I sent a long, grovelly email to Jay Dee’s website begging for a meeting when he was over. He sent this short but nevertheless epic reply:


‘Thanks for asking.’

Thanking me for asking him to make time for me.

Interviews I’ve heard with Jay Dee make it clear, as does this email, that he is a gentleman. A softly-spoken Californian, who seems to have as many friends as he does colleagues, his discography ranges from Eric Clapton’s Tears in Heaven to legendary years of service in Chris Hillman’s Desert Rose Band and his own staggering solo work. He’s Lloyd Green’s best friend. And now he’s said he’d be happy to meet with me and chat about his own sixty year-long steelgrimage.

I should be so lucky.

Hold on….

I’ve just thought of a song I dislike even more!



12. Your Sweeteners Is My Weakness

Warning: I am writing about things I am still straining to understand. I am not a scientist or mathematician. The chance of inaccuracy is therefore high. If you are writing a thesis on this subject I urge you to look elsewhere. 

When it comes to tuning up, it turns out that we’ve all been doing it wrong forever. Unless, that is you’re a 14th century Persian, in which case you have my admiration.
I came to the pedal steel guitar through the guitar, a six-stringed instrument which requires the fretting hand to press on the space behind different frets with the four fingers, and occasionally, thumb of the left hand for right handers and vicey versa.

Since I could afford one, I’ve tuned my guitar using a variety of electronic tuners. Currently, like most guitarists, I use a clip-on guitar tuner on the headstock of my instrument which usually tunes the guitar to, from the lowest in pitch E-A-D-G-B-E. I often drop the bottom-pitched (geographically top) string from an E to a D. This gives the guitar a drone D-A-D chord on the bottom three strings which I love to hear.

I have never questioned all of this until I started to play the steel guitar, but I think I was always aware that some chords on my six-string guitar sounded better than others. This was so even when the guitar was demonstrably perfectly in tune according to the device I was using. I always imagined that this was as a result of the intonation of the guitar being off in some way, and needing the adjustable bridge to be professionally set up, something which, due to laziness, never ever happened.

This suck-on-a-lemon dissatisfaction with tuning manifested itself in a couple of ways: firstly, an awareness that some chords on the neck would result in a sound that was a little like a serrated knife being run slowly along the top of the ear. A tonal wobble would be hanging around between the notes and detracting from the joy of the whole thing. It’s a really subtle thing, but I’d say I was wincing and then checking tuning maybe 1 time in 20 to see what was going on.

I suspect now that what I was experiencing was the drawbacks of equal temperament. It’s a maths thing. The frequency intervals between notes should be mathematically pure, for instance, A = 440 Hz and the A an octave above it = 880 Hz. The one below is 220 Hz. Which is fine if you’re only playing As. the problem is that fretted stringed instruments are designed to play in any key that Gary Barlow fancies. So if you’re going to do that, and play more than one note at a time to make harmonies, there are new, complex intervals and mathematical frequency ratios involved which have to work together to cover every note in a chromatic scale. But they can’t. In short, the notes on a guitar neck cant be mathematically in tune with eachother in every key. They’re divided equally, which gives you roughly there or thereabouts the note you’re after, but it’s usually a multi-tasking near-as-dammit because the precise ratios you need for harmonies can’t work in every direction at the same time. 

A classic example of this is that if you add up 7 pure octaves and compare it to 12 pure fifths, you get a slightly different number. Although they should be the same, they are naturally out by a tiny fraction, referred to as a Pythagorean comma. If you’re playing a fretted instrument, somewhere, a compromise must be made. Your average scale is a size 9 foot squeezed into an 8-and-a-half shoe. 

Funnily enough, Vincenzo Galilei (father of) spotted this in 1581. He was a lutist, and worked out that despite having a genius son, he’d never play a perfect scale in equal temperament. Well, he should have got out more. The Arab world was perfecting the art of microscopically adjusted tuning (Maqamat) as early as the 14th Century. It’s an art because you can’t mathematically come to a perfectly adjusted tuning. But you can make some sound better than others for you, and for the style of music you play. Art.5475aa6d83cda_vincenzo_galilei

You see, perfection isn’t everything. The downside of guitars having straight frets is slightly wonky tuning, although the upside is that you can pick them up and play them almost straight away. It’s a small price to pay. It also gives the guitar its very own sound – although being in tune is a mathematical proposition, it’s also a matter of taste. Sinatra’s voice was all over the place when it came to tuning, but it never lost him girlfriends. The guitar, with its fatally flawed straight frets, has a sound that we all recognise and love as being a guitar, mathematically compromised warts and all. It’s got sonic baggage that we have all got used to and love. 

But of course, as even the casual observer would notice, there are no frets on a steel guitar. And that changes everything.

The relationship between the notes is, by and large, constant, thanks to the large chunk of steel in your left hand. Keep that straight and your left foot and knees still, and the intervals between the strings won’t change. They don’t need a one-size fits all approach like you do with a fretted or, for that matter, keyed instrument. Give me a key! I’ll play it! The straight bar maintains the same frequency ratio between all the strings. And even if you do use pedals and knee levers, the range of keys you’ll be playing makes it much more predictable which mathematical side of each note you’ll want to jump.

I hadn’t really appreciated this until I bought a new tuner. Say hello to my new tuner, the Peterson Strobe Plus HD, supplied by Gerry Hogan.

Isn’t she a thing? I don’t know how the strobe bit of the Strobo Plus Hd ™ works, but just to be safe, if you have experienced seizures at any point in your life then please look away from this page periodically and take regular rests. Importantly, this machine has a FANATICAL devotion to accuracy in a way that my little clip-on Jeremy just didn’t. As you can see, the signal runs straight through its body without acoustic adulteration, then out to pedals and amps. 100% instrument, all day long. But that’s not where the exciting bit happens. The Strobo Plus HD comes equipped with sweeteners, some based on Maqamat patterns, and some based on the work and impeccable ear of pedal steel didact Jeff Newman (see blog ep. 9). Thanks to him and his ancient Persian buddies my new tuner has more sweeteners than a tea room catering specifically for those with diabetes.

A Sweetener is a set of tunings  – some dating all the way back to the 14th Century – which takes account of the notes with which the note it’s tuning is likely to be paired, and adjusts it by a tiny amount to make the ratio between them mathematically correct, or at least less of a compromise than equal tuning. The effect on the of this is staggering. It’s like being in tune for the very first time.

It’s like you’re in love for the very first time.

Being able to swoop along the neck in a mathematical justified manner is one of the things that gives the pedal steel its intergalactic feel, its dramatic effect and what makes people ask with such regularity. 

‘What is making that sound? That’s amazing.’














11. Nerves of Steel and Stone

Again, another haitus. but that doesn’t mean nothing has been happening. Far from it. Band of Hope, of whom I think I might now be a member, are a functioning, going concern with gigs and recording lined up. I’m quickly drafted in for a number of dates playing lap steel. At first practice I publicly state for all to hear that I will not bring out the Sho-Bud until a year of hard, methodical practice has elapsed. Once again, this I vow. It will not be like the other times. This time will be better. And that’s unbreakable. I might print it on the side of a bus.FullSizeRender

There. That’s decided then.

First date is a Sunday get together at the beautiful Braziers Park in Oxfordshire, which is replete, dressed in the crushed velvet finery of a rock’n’roll heritage to rival most. It was and is an artistic commune, based in a crumbling mansion and outhouses which provides a base for potters, musicians, and no doubt, people who are still making their minds up about what to do next. Crucially, it was home to Marianne Faithfull and her parents for a bit, and Gave Shelter to Mick and Maz after they were busted for drugs and she walked into notoriety wearing, by all accounts a fur coat and not much else. I’ll be honest and say I haven’t researched these facts, and am not about to. I don’t want to find out it’s all nonsense which would detract from the rosy hue of a day wandering around sheds and stables off my kibbutz on two thirds of a pint of mild. Given my transcendental state it was a deeply satisfying moment when on to the barn (main) stage emerged a barefoot man with a sitar.

IMG_7930 4And he hated that thing, giving it what for while singing Seven Nation Army. The rain came down, and thank goodness for tea and cake.
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I’m not very good at setting up on stage. I tend to get very excited and nervous and start putting things in the wrong places. I then lose those things and get in a panic and wonder what I’m doing there and how I could ever have chosen music for a hobby when I’m such an idiot. I can’t imagine Van Morrison goes through the same process. It’s even worse with a new band, because the way you set up on stage can shape relationships after that point. In one of the wedding bands in which I used to play guitar, if there was a sense that a couple of centimetres of empire had been lost at the front of the stage, the other guitarist would declare war during the set, cutting up rough with the neck of his guitar, making a point of invading my personal space and machine-gunning through such aggressive material as Una Paloma Blanca and 500 Miles. Headstocks at dawn. It can easily get a bit territorial, like a musical game of Risk, and that is the last thing anyone needs.

That’s not going to happen in Band of Hope because, firstly, it’s Tom’s band. He’s the singer, and they’re his songs. Everyone in Band of Hope seems really nice and almost ego-free. Also, I don’t want to be anywhere near the front. I really don’t. Television presenters have a habit of floating to the surface like corks, buoyed up by their own collossal egos, unable to resist the temptation of feeling the sunshine on their faces, and the validation of an audience. But I don’t want this to be like that. I want to play my wonderfully anti-social instrument without anyone noticing it’s me making that sound, if at all possible, separate from the megalomaniac look-at-me of my professional life. So I find a spot at the back of the barn where the light doesn’t reach, next to Sarah, who is the new drummer. We are the new boy and girl, hidden in the darkness, and that’s just fine, thank you. Look. can you see me? No? Good.IMG_7934 3

The gig goes well, as a first gig, for which survival is the first priority. No-one looks daggers at me for being too out of sync with the rest of the band. I don’t know what sitar man made of it. I’m glad I didn’t choose sitar as my instrument though. Maximum effort carting it about, and frankly, zero chance of joining a band that doesn’t have sitar in it.

Next comes Wood Festival, back at Braziers Park a couple of weeks later. We’re now on the Main Main Stage, and here’s the beauty of a smaller festival – I’m camping in my van precisely 200 metres away from it. In fact, this is a truly beautiful small festival. Run by a pair of brothers who headline in the tent on Saturday night with their excellent band, like a Fender Telecaster guitar, Wood Festival  has everything you need and nothing you don’t. I like that. Headline your own festival. Ballsy move. But they are great.

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We are not headlining. Unless by headline you mean going on first, which is, I suppose one way to interpret it. It’s lovely though because you know that however it goes, the nerves will all be gone by 2.30 in the afternoon and then you can just have a drink and enjoy the rest of the acts knowing that your work is done. We have a little sing song in the backstage Yurt and then go on with the rain tipping down, and then stopping as we get further into the set. There are fewer nerves than last time, but only a fraction, because I’m not quite as far into the shadows as I was before. I don’t play brilliantly. My fingers feel a bit fudgy and I can’t hear myself so well. I get a bit lost in parts and pull too hard on the strings, trying to hear myself. No-one notices, or if they do, they don’t mention it.

Part of the problem though, is that I’ve been playing more and more pedal steel at home, and I’m really starting to notice the limitations of the lap, even with its extra levers. I want more strings, more sustain and more options on the neck to make things happen. I can cart the lap steel easily. But it’s not my final destination. Despite the solemn vow not to do so for a year, I need to start getting the big fella out. And then sitar man can have a really good laugh at me. He’ll be home on the train while I’m still unhooking my pull rods and trying to work out what chords I missed.

Wood Festival punches above its weight. Main stage headline were the Magic Numbers.IMG_8151 3

And special treat in the tent was Jodie Stephens from Big Star. The Big Star that I love and that Joe the Volume Pedal and I by chance both wore t-shirts for. In a little tent in a little field in Oxfordshire. BOOM.

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