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So far Chris Birchall has created 322 blog entries.

Something About Simon

Having been a fan of his music since the very early days, it has irked me somewhat that I never got to see Paul Simon perform live during any of his UK tours.

The one I would love to have caught, of course, would have been that very first one when, during the 60s, the then unknown singer songwriter toured the folk clubs of Britain, allegedly writing “Homeward Bound” on the platform of Widnes Train Station after appearing at Chester Folk Club just 30 minutes down the road from my home town.

Although I never met him, a friend of mine did. John Finnan was a regular at that club back then, and had let the visitor use his guitar. During that impromptu floor spot, Simon hit a chord a little too enthusiastically, causing the bridge to detach from the body. During the apologies that ensued, and the promises to send money to pay for the repair (which never actually materialised), Paul Simon ended up missing his connection at Chester Railway Station. Another club member, Geoff Speed, drove the singer to Widnes, arriving just in time for him to jump onto his train. So whatever station the song “Homeward Bound” refers to, it was never written sitting on the platform at Widnes.

When I taught myself to play guitar, my bible was the Paul Simon Songbook. All I ever did was strum. Back then, I considered finger-picking to be one of the dark arts.

During the years since, I have seen and heard hundreds of people covering those same songs. Most far better than my early strumming efforts, but none who could actually play them in exactly the same style as the songwriter himself. Until now…

During his many years as a singer/songwriter in his own right, Gary Edward Jones has oft been compared to Paul Simon, due to his stature, his appearance, and his singing voice. And over the years, this had the effect of causing him to avoid covering Paul Simon songs, like the plague.

With a successful debut album “The Cabinet Maker” under his belt, Gary decided it was time to see what all the fuss was about, and explore the music of Paul Simon. He immersed himself in it and very soon came to love those early songs.

Now, Gary is no strummer but is the first to admit he was a thumb-and-one-finger player,Travis Picking at its most basic, which is how Paul Simon himself started out.

For over a year, Gary lived and breathed Paul Simon. He carefully learned all the intricacies and subtleties of his new-found hero’s advanced finger style technique, to the extent you can close your eyes and convince yourself you are listening to those riffs trickling off the fingers of the man himself.

And because Gary’s voice has a similar dynamic range and tone, he made a conscious decision not to attempt to copy Paul Simon’s accent, phrasing and diction. He would just sing the songs naturally in his own voice. And the result is amazing.

With eighteen early Paul Simon songs in his repertoire, Gary felt the time was right to put them in front of an audience.

With a billing of “Gary Edward Jones sings Paul Simon“, the pressure was on. The bar was set high. After all, a huge proportion of the one hundred people packed into the Burton-on-Trent’s Brewhouse Cafe Bar, were there because they were Paul Simon fans.

He opened with “The Sound of Silence”. From the moment he began that unmistakable opening riff, you could have heard a pin drop. And as the last note was played it was met with rapturous applause. Any doubts had been dispelled. No one was going to leave that night saying “it wasn’t bad”.

The songs kept coming and the audience was transfixed. “I Am a Rock” was next, followed by “Kathy’s Song”, the first that Gary had attempted in earnest over twelve months earlier.

The performance was in the form of a concert with a narrative, with Gary imparting snippets of information that he had gleaned during his journey, about the background to each of the songs. After “April Come She May”, Gary introduced “Homeward Bound” with that very tale that I eluded to at the start of this review.

Just before finishing off this first ten-song set with “America” and “The Boxer”, Gary treated the audience to a taste of his own compositions, which sat with surprising ease alongside Paul Simon’s 60s and 70’s classics.  Entitled “Free Falling”, it is a song he wrote as a tribute to a friend who’d been a fan of the Tom Petty song of the same name, who’d tragically taken his own life during a bout of depression.

Mingling during the break, I heard nothing but praise as these Paul Simon enthusiasts compared notes and opinions.

“The Only Living Boy in New York” was the opener for the second half of the evening, and half way through the set of seven, Gary sang another of his own, the beautiful and poignant “Oceans”.

“Fifty Ways…”, Slip Sliding…” and “Hearts and Bones” took is to that point where everybody bays for more.

Gary obliged with an encore of “Walk you Home”, a song he’d written for his friends Alan and Dawn Rutherford (who were actually instrumental in setting up this first “Gary Edward Jones sings Paul Simon” gig).

And to round off the evening, he made what I considered to be a risky choice by singing “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” – not one of the best known Paul Simon songs, yet one that required a fair degree of audience participation. My fears were unfounded. The ladies obliged with the repetitive chant and the gents kept the hand-clap going right up to the end, when it exploded into a full blown enthusiastic applause.

Something About Simon Facebook Page
Gary Edward Jones Website

 

By |August 6th, 2017|0 Comments

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Lonesome West Review

I must have seen Paul Duckworth a good half dozen or so times at The Royal Court in recent years. Yet I’ve just realised that I’d only ever seen a fraction of his zany and expressive humour.

To use the phraseology of Martin McDonagh’s dark Irish comedy, he was fecking brilliant!

He brought the character Valene Connor to life in a way lesser thespians might have been accused of over-acting. Yet here he was, a cross between the pythonesque Eric Idle and Marty Feldman without the squint, delivering his lines with impeccable timing, convincingly portraying the spoilt brat in a volatile and troubled brotherly relationship.

Coleman was the other half of this simmering sibling quagmire. Played by Keiran Cunningham, he was the quieter and less demonstrative of the two, whilst being equally as funny, and just as scary, as they squared up to each other in an intense fraternal power struggle.

Then there was the tragic Father Welsh. I kept seeing Stephen Tompkinson but I’ve been assured it was actor Alan Devally. His lugubrious lakeside monologue at the start of part two was extremely moving and quite magnificent.

The sweet young actress Anne O’Riordan played the even younger and no less sweet Girleen Kelleher, who bounced around imparting little shafts of light into the dark story-line.

As dark as this play was, the dialogue was fast and funny, and all four actors played a blinder. The Irish humour was brilliant and the accents very convincing, which wouldn’t have been a problem for  O’Riordan and Devally, hailing as they do from Waterford and Galway respectively.

4.5 ✰ 
Lonesome West gets four and a half of my five stars. It is a different type of comedy compared to the Royal Court’s usual offerings, but no less enjoyable, and one not to be missed.

In fact the only thing I didn’t like about it was that damn silly title that gives the impression you’re off to see a wild west cowboy play.

By |April 30th, 2017|0 Comments

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Lost Soul at The Royal Court Liverpool

Hark back a while  to when Terry and Smigger copped off with sisters Pat and Donna, under the flashing disco lights in a city club, as they gyrated to the soul music of the seventies.

It was a time when the lads had curly perms and a droopy moustache, and the girls put their heart and soul into enjoying life.

Now fast forward to the present day. It’s the girls who are sporting the perms and fighting a losing battle against a furry top lip, whilst the lads are wandering around like lost souls. How have these relationships survived the test of time? Have they flourished or failed?

One thing is for sure… When Bob Eaton takes a Dave Kirby script and directs a cast of talented thespians which happens to include Royal Court regulars Lindzi Germain, Andrew Schofield, Lenny Wood and Jake Abraham, the story’s gonna be a good one for sure, and with a lorra laughs along the way.

The play cleverly flips back and forth between the two eras, keeping the stage hands extra busy with the complex scenery changes.

It is a play that makes the most of Schofield’s mastery of comedic timing and Lindzi Germain’s wonderful expressions as they deliver line after line of sardonic humour.

Nobody pays the dim-wit better than Lenny Wood whose vacant inane grin cracks me up every time.

And with his excellent portrayal of the down-trodden, cheated-upon Terry, Jake Abraham brought out the mothering instincts of every woman in the audience.

Liverpudlian actress Catherine Rice acquitted herself admirably in her first ever role at The Royal Court, playing Terry’s cheating wife Pat.

The bad guy was played by James Spofforth, and the young dolly-bird clubber by Paislie Reid, both making a return after some time away. It has to be said that along with Abraham and Wood, these two performed one of the cleverest ‘slow-motion’ fight scenes I’ve ever seen on stage.

In a departure from the usual format, there was no live music. In recent years, having the actors sing and play instruments, and even sometimes having the band on the stage instead of the orchestra pit, has  become something of a hallmark of Royal Court comedies. That’s not to say it was a disappointment. This play, after all, wasn’t written as a musical.

If you fancy watching a comedy with great gags, a decent story-line and loads of nostalgia, Lost Soul will fit the bill very nicely.

4/5 ★
It gets four stars from me, along with a recommendation to get along and see it between now and April 8th. And don’t forget – if you book in the stalls you can add a fine meal, served at your table prior to the show, for an extra tenner.

 

 

By |March 18th, 2017|1 Comment

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The Lighting was Hell, the band were Merry

Listen while you read

It’s no secret that one of my favourite folk rock bands in the Wigan based Merry Hell.

They are lively, uplifting, and highly entertaining. They write songs in the modern folk ethos, with keen, wry, often humorous, observations of life and love. And when touched by discrimination, injustice and political malfeasance, they protesteth well through the medium of song.

We’ve had them perform at our own folk and acoustic club on a number of occasions, and indeed they will be back again in November [Link].

They are a great band to photograph too. The three Kettle bothers; gravelly voiced Andrew in his dapper suits, the plectrum chewing John with his animated guitar style, and the hirsute and behatted Bob with a face full of character that randomly breaks into the widest of smiles. And of course there’s the lovely Virginia, who is great to photograph because of her nimble and gesticulous performances, and just because she’s the lovely Virginia.

As this particular gig was at a club in a neighbouring town, I’d awarded myself a night off and left my camera at home, only to find on arrival, an SLR being pressed into my hand. I agreed to the request, quietly self-imposing a “three songs and out” rule so I could relax and enjoy the show.

You will have guessed by now that this is not so much a music review, being filed primarily under “Photography Talk”. Please go here for past Merry Hell reviews, and Here for Ron Lester’s review of the Rhyl gig.

The camera was a Fuji S5. My first digital SLR had been the Fuji S1 which I still have but rarely use. It was low on megapixels and lacked the ability to shoot raw, but I always loved the smooth skin tones produced by the unique pixel structure of  its ‘Super CCD’.

Being a Nikon user, the S5 felt comfortable, based as it was on the 2006 iteration of the Nikon D200. Because it was dark and there was a gig to enjoy, I didn’t have the time nor inclination to fully familiarise myself, so I went with the camera’s settings as they were. Luckily, I spotted the fact the auto-focus was set to dynamically focus using the centre spot, so not wanting to trawl through an unfamiliar menu, I utilised the focus lock button the ensure it didn’t keep drifting to focus on the background.

For this type of shoot, in the inevitable low level lighting, I tend to shoot on Shutter Prioriy at a 30th with auto ISO.

As well as the four main band members, there were the back line bass and fiddle players, Nick Davies  and Neil McCartney to consider. Getting all six in one shot was always going to be a challenge, so I altered my vantage point for each of the three songs. Whilst I was precariously perched  atop a rickety bar stool, Virginia announced she wanted everyone to sway along to “Bury Me Naked”. As infectious as the music was, I declined, not wanting to be buried just yet, naked or otherwise.

“I’ll send you the files”, he said, as I handed back the camera . What he meant was “will you process them for me too”. Anyway I didn’t really mind. Ron’s a mate, and he never objects when the tables are turned and I thrust a camera into his hands at our own club.

The following day, three dozen Jpegs appeared in my Dropbox, under-exposed (I knew they would be) and with the colour balance from hell (I knew this too).  What I hadn’t known was that the camera was set to shoot only Jpegs. Ah well. The Fuji’s firmware had done it’s best to cope with the mixture of low power tungsten, halogen and led spot/floods that illuminate the business end of Rhyl Folk & Acoustic’s clubroom, and in doing so had stripped out a hell of a lot of the digital ‘meat’ I am used to dealing with in my own NEF RAW files.

The sliders in Lightroom’s Develop Module looked like  something created by Salvador Dali, but we got there in the end and the images turned out quite reasonable considering the conditions.

I was satisfied with the images and had got to enjoy my first Merry Hell fix of the year.

By |February 14th, 2017|0 Comments

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Brick Up 2 – The Revenge of Ann Twacky

If you were wondering what gave Donald Trump the idea for his Mexican Wall, well I reckon he must have been amongst the 175,000 people who came to see the original “Brick Up The Mersey Tunnels” at The Royal Court.

So successful was Dave Kirby and Nick Allt’s comedy, that it enjoyed no fewer than six runs of up to six weeks each, becoming the theatre’s signature play, and introducing thousands to the very special brand of scouse humour for which the Royal Court is known and loved.

Quite apart from the fact it was brilliantly written, its success was based on the fact that – using a footballing analogy – it was something of a local derby, attracting fans from both sides of the Mersey. The posh Wirralites, with their CH post codes, loved the play just as much as the down-to-earth scousers on the L side, even though the ‘first round match’ was won by the scallies across the water.

It became the perfect scouse comedy, and you can’t improve on perfection …or can you? Move over Brick Up, make way for Brick Up 2 – The Wrath Of Ann Twacky. Maybe this time the tables have been turned.

The story picks up where the first “Brick Up” ended, with the mayhem that had been caused by the sealing-up of the tunnels and the explosive demise of the Runcorn Bridge.

It tells of the joy and the despair resulting from these acts of “terrorism”; of the joy and despair that followed the tunnels reopening; and of the joy and despair in the plot to do it all over again.

Sticking to the tested and successful formula, the producers chose not only the same writers, but pretty much the same cast. The only changes were to bring in Danny Burns to play entrepreneur Elliot Neston, and Emily Linden to make a brief appearance as a gun-totting anti-terrorist cop.

The excruciatingly posh Eithne Browne (she’s not in real life) returns as Ann Twacky, partnered by Roy Brandon as her formerly down-trodden husband Dennis, who has finally kicked over the traces and grown a pair.

Andrew Schofield is back as the archetype scally and cowboy builder Dicky Lewis. His facial expressions and the way he delivers his lines with perfect timing and comedic inflection, would have you in fits of laughter even if he was reciting from the phone book. And when he dons a frock to transition into the part of Wirral Ladies Group member, Dee Estuary, you can see what a master of comedy this man is.

The third Wirral Ladies character, Liz Card, was played to perfection by Francis Tucker whose wonderful facial, as well as vocalised, innuendo often result in his being cast as the Pantomime Dame, not withstanding his wide ranging appearances on stage, film and television.

The lovely Suzanne Collins showed us that her character Maggie, was something of a turn-coat by becoming an imperfectly posh Margaret who had difficulty keeping up both the pretence and the accent, hilariously slipping back into “The Queen’s Scouse”.

Along with Dicky Lewis, Gerard Gardner and Nick Walton are The Queensway Three, responsible for the tunnel campaign. Gerard is played by seasoned Royal Court comedy actor Paul Duckworth, with the face that launched a thousand laughs, and the part of Nick Walton is played by Carl Chase, who also steps up throughout the performance to narrate via the medium of song in his wonderful baritone voice.

All credit to Director Bob Eaton for his visualisation of a great script, and Musical Director Howard Gray for bringing the show musically to life via the talented musicians in the pit and on the stage.

It had crossed my mind that to ‘get’ this play, one would have had to have seen the original Brick Up, but thanks to the way “the story so far” has been cleverly woven into Carl’s mellifluous narration, Brick Up virgins can enjoy this fab comedy just as much as the Brick Up groupies who’ve spent the past decade coming back for more.

To sum up… a highly enjoyable and entertaining comedy, regardless of which side of the Mersey you come from. It even trumps the hilarious one-liners we are currently hearing on a daily basis from the farce that is being played out at The White House!

Undeniably Five Stars. Don’t think twice – go and see it!

By sheer coincidence, line improvements by MerseyRail have resulted in a suspension of the Wirral to Liverpool train service for a six week period exactly matching the duration of the play’s run. This prompted the producers to commission a brilliant piece of P.R. in the form of a huge billboard advert at the approach to the Kingsway tunnel, featuring actress Ethne Browne, as Ann Twacky, looking motorists straight in the eye, with the words: The tunnels are next! 

Click image to enlarge

By |February 3rd, 2017|1 Comment

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