Wednesday, October 29, 2008

I just can’t get you outta my head you b***ard

Just got back home from a rehearsal with the band in the Cellar of Joy and I'm a bit pissed, as I took along a bottle of finest South African Sabernet Cauvignon from Lidl (only £2.99 because of the typo on the label). I've just had a lovely evening playing through our set for tomorrow's gig at Volupte, and I must say I thought we sounded better and better as the evening went on and I got through more and more of the bottle. Even though our new bass player Warwick "the thumb" Johnson didn't make it. He rang up to explain he was trapped because he lives in Finsbury Park and there was an Arsenal match on which meant that he couldn't drive in or out of his street without sitting in a queue of traffic for an hour. He told me very apologetically he'd had no idea there was a match on tonight when we booked the rehearsal.

It was only when I got to the rehearsal and passed on this news that Sir Fitzroy informed me that The Thumb is a massive Spurs fan, and Spurs just happen to be playing Arsenal tonight. I was shocked - surely you don't mean he might be watching the match? Fitz, who is also an ardent Spurs fan, just raised his eyebrows quizzically. But I wouldn't think that of The Thumb for a moment, as Spurs fans, in my experience, are men of honour. I know absolutely nothing about football, but my dad is a Spurs fan, and of course he is the man my heart belongs to, and what's more I have been dumped by not one but two avid Arsenal fans, so I know which team I'll be offering my services to should they ever require a jazz singer at any point to do a spot of scatting for morale purposes.

Tonight we were determined to break the mould of Slinktet rehearsals and bash through the set list in an efficient and focused manner instead of pissing about and telling bizarre anecdotes. We were doing fairly well until Connie Vanderlay came up with the game of putting "you b***ard" after every one of our song titles:

Peel Me A Grape You B***ard
Should I Stay Or Should I Go You B***ard
Why Don't You Do Right You B***ard
Sweet Dreams You B***ard

and so on.

Then Fitz started an anecdote about a trombone quartet him and his mates once decided to form called "The B***ards" (pronounced to rhyme with cards or shards) because they were always calling each other b***ard. I was unable to ascertain whether this level of rudeness is exclusive to trombonists or applies to all brass players. (Maybe they should form a group called The Brasstards.) This prompted our arch anecdotalist Earl Mysterio to remember a story about an elderly waiting punter telling the man next to him how much better it was using a ticketing system rather than having to queue - because some "cheeky bitches" had pushed in front of him in a queue the day before, so he'd spat on them, so they'd called him a "b***ard", so he'd asked them if they had any evidence that they'd been born in wedlock themselves.

By this point the conversation had moved a very long way away from what we were supposed to be talking about, which was whether the stabs were on the beat or ahead of the beat in My Side of the Bed. Miraculously however we did manage to get through the whole set by quarter to ten and hit the road. I left the last glass of wine for Mysterio so I could cadge a lift home with Connie, who has just dropped me to my door because it was cold out and she is an angel.

Do you know, this band has been together for four and a half years now and I still love hanging out with them - in fact I love hanging out with them more than ever. Rehearsals are getting to be one of my favourite things, even when they're conducted in a subterranean cellar with no heating and walls that shed chalky white deposits on your clothes - because when I'm at a gig I'm running around looking after the guest acts, or chatting to the audience, and I don't actually get any time with the other slinkers. But when we're rehearsing I get to be entertained by Mysterio's frankly surreal stream-of-consciousness stories, and Fresh's bon mots from behind the drums, and I get to actually look at my fellow slinkers instead of having my back to them the whole time like I do at a gig. And I even get to sit down.

You lovely lot, you were sounding well groovy tonight. And that's not just the Sabernet Cauvignon talking


Monday, October 27, 2008

Nights at the Office

I love my job. Because the place everyone else goes to get away from the stresses and strains of their job is actually the place I go to work. Which means my office is basically a cabaret club. And the things that are glamorous and escapist for the punters become my routine – it’s like everything’s flipped upside down. Now I’m gigging more often I’m generally at Volupte once or twice a week, and, as always happens once something starts to become more regular, patterns and rhythms begin to establish themselves. Here are some of the ritual patterns of a typical ‘night at the office’.

There’s the meet-and-greet/soundcheck when everyone arrives dragging their gig bags on wheels, and we somehow manage to squeeze in a brief discussion about what numbers we’re going to do in between the conversations about who’s got a new coat and where it’s from (Amber Topaz wouldn’t tell me, to my frustration, even though hers is a one off anyway, so there is no danger of me turning up in a copycat green wool trench) and who’s in what state after last night and why (this conversation also includes the club staff as a rule, who are much more dedicated partygoers than us lightweight performers). Some people take the sound check more seriously than others. Amber’s is like a whole extra floorshow on top of the one she gives for the punters. Yesterday the band were running through “hot stuff”, which Beverley had just rehearsed with them, unbeknownst to Amber, and Amber jumped on the mic and started singing “I want some hot stuff baby tonight” in a broad Yorkshire accent. Beverley’s little face fell: “I’m not going to be able to sing that seriously now.” But she pulled it out of the hat for the show.

Next come the dressing room rituals, involving claiming your bit of mirror and starting work on the make up, with accompanying ‘make up chitchat’ which can cover everything from the current economic climate to who would and who wouldn’t shag Beth Ditto. There’s generally some issue or other with nipple tassels, or pasties (not pronounced the Cornish way, incidentally – I remember being sternly corrected on that point by Gwendoline Lamour). Yesterday the issue was two burlesquers with the same set of black tassels. It’s bad form for two girls to go out wearing the same pasties, apparently – so one party nobly agreed to wear her Swarovski crystal ones instead, even though they were heavier and harder to twirl. Incidentally, I also learned that Anne Summers’ black nipple tassels are very hardwearing and an excellent buy, but the pastel coloured ones are rubbish as they shed diamante – so don’t buy those (in case you were planning to).

Then there’s the arrival of the wine, which is always a high point. It’s generally delivered to the dressing room with a great flourish by the manager and met with squeals of appreciation. There’s always somebody who insists they won’t have any, then changes their mind as soon as it’s in front of them. Everybody has their foibles about what they need to drink before they go on. I have this neurotic need to down loads and loads of water which annoys the staff while they’re trying to set up because I’m always nicking water out of the jugs they’ve got ready for the customers, or helping myself from the tap behind the bar which is meant to be out of bounds to performers. Dusty Limits will only drink white wine before he performs, because red wine is too heavy and clogs him up. I’d been on the red wine before I went on the other day and I noticed it had given me purple teeth – but Dusty told me if I drank enough white wine it would cancel it out. So I did. It’s always a pleasure to discover new excuses for drinking more alcohol.

Another favourite part of the routine is the bit where you get your dinner. It’s always a lottery, what the staff food is going to be, but on a good day it’ll be something fabulous like stuffed chicken breast and dauphinois potatoes. Sometimes it can look a bit weird, like the pumpkin lasagne, but it’s important to keep an open mind until you’ve tasted it. The girls all flirt outrageously with the chefs (and so do some of the boys) so they’ll feed us extra treats. I got a secret rum cheesecake all to myself the other day. I do think that giving people free food is one of the nicest things you can do for anyone – but especially for hand-to-mouth types like musicians and performers, who will generally spend their hard earned gig money on drink rather than waste it on a proper dinner. At least somebody’s looking out for us to make sure we get a square meal.

Then comes the show itself, when you’ll step onstage and do exactly the same material you did at the last show and it will somehow weirdly come out completely different - because it’s the audience who give every show its own vibe. Another big part of the routine is a backstage discussion about the nature of the audience. Small but lively? Packed out but really flat? Into it but drunk and noisy? Polite but a bit on the quiet side? Or totally loving it? The quieter the audience, the harder work it is to win over the room – I’ve seen performers come off stage dripping with sweat and shaking from the effort of exuding energy. Sometimes you can really feel like it’s been a damp squib, only to have people from the audience coming up afterwards saying what a fantastic show it was and how they were completely blown away. They were just being blown away quietly. One of the great things about doing Pete Saunders’ Burlesque’n’Blues shows is that we do everything with a live band – singers and burlesquers alike – and there’s always something ad libbed and impromptu, or some collaboration, rather than everybody just doing their own thing one after the other. I had to get singer Buck Svizz on stage to be my stooge for my song “Sneaky” once because there wasn’t a single man in the audience (it was Saturday afternoon tea – which is hen city), and he walked onstage still eating a scone. There happened to be a line in the song that went “and what is the occasion that has merited you giving me these flowers – and cake?” and on that line Buck started pelting me with bits of scone. Brilliant. It was like the whole thing with the cake was a set up ready for that line, when he didn’t even know it was coming. This week the impromptu moment was an on-the-spot ensemble rendition of Hit The Road Jack as the finale. We had three girls around the mic belting it out, and even made up a dance routine. I’m not sure what the audience made of it - but we enjoyed ourselves.

The other ritual element to every gig is the storytelling. An old flame once told me that artists are longer lived than everyone else, not because they live more years, but because they pack more experience into their lives (he was speaking with authority as an accountant). But it’s not only the actual lived experiences us arty types pack in, it’s all the imagined ones as well – and all the ones we collect from each other in the form of pre and post gig anecdotes. These anecdotes are an integral part of the gig routine, mainly because, as a famous musician once said, performing is about 10% stage time and 90% waiting around. (This quote was offered up by the Slinktet’s guitar supremo Earl Mysterio as an anecdote to fill our own waiting around time before a gig. I now can’t remember who the famous musician was, which is a bit rubbish. Probably someone from a cool boy’s band, like The Rolling Stones or something.) The function of gig storytelling is thus to fill the waiting around percentage of the evening. The stories can be about anything, but ideally, they will reveal some behind-the-scenes secrets or describe a shocking and extreme experience that happened to either the storyteller or their ‘friend’.

My ‘day job’ is meant to be writing stories, but I have to admit that time after time my feeble attempts at anecdotage pale in comparison to those offered up by my colleagues. Pete Saunders, being slightly longer lived than the rest of us (strictly in the ‘artist’ sense outlined above, of course), has some of the best. I talked about the time I wrote off my car skidding on an oil spill, and he topped it with the time he rolled his car over three times, miraculously got out, then had to decide whether or not to risk going back to free his girlfriend from the wreckage before the car blew up (he did – because he decided the social embarrassment of leaving her in the lurch outweighed the risk of being burnt to a crisp). I had a story about going to a carol service in Armley Jail when I was a kid which Vicious Delicious topped with a story about how she used to rent a flat in the Brixton prison complex with windows overlooked by all the prison cells, and got treated to a running commentary on everything she did in her flat from the prisoners. I also enjoyed the stories about what bored musicians get up to on the big musicals, after they’ve been performing exactly the same score, note for note, for a year. The entire orchestra playing a whole show naked on the last night of the run was my favourite.

I’m back at Volupte twice next week – on Tuesday for the Lost Supper, and on Thursday for Club d’Amour – which means more treats. If I’m lucky, another chocolate cheese cake. And if I’m really lucky, some even more outrageous gig anecdotes to add to my collection. Plus, I’ll get to wear my gorgeous new black and white gown as well, which is a bit like getting to wear your wedding dress twice in one week. As jobs go, it’s not bad, is it?


Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Field Report

Okay so it’s well over a month since I got back from my last festival, but since the photos from the Bestival antics have only just been posted online I feel both comforted that I am not the only one taking ages to record my summer and also spurred into finally getting around to jotting down a sort of addled postmortem diary of my own various festival misadventures.

I actually blagged like mad to get to go to Camp Bestival, because my brother and sister-in-law were coming over with the kids from France for it and I thought it would be a bit special to meet up with them in a field. The very splendid Zoe of Time for Tease let me come and play her tent, after I nagged both Paul Martin and Kitty Bang Bang to put a word in with her for me. I gave Kitty a lift in my little Nissan micra and we shared my fish tent – we had great plans for a ‘Thelma and Louise’ adventure, which was a bit slow in getting started after I failed to get out of bed in time for that early start I’d been planning, although Kitty seemed strangely relieved to hear I’d be at least an hour late. When I rang her she picked up the phone and went “I’m awake! I’m awake!” which was somewhat suspicious… Then we had to stop en route so Kitty could buy a crate of cider (I’d bought my vodka and Pringles the day before so I was all stocked up with the essentials already). Then we had to turn back when Kitty realised she’d left her mobile phone at home. “If you realise you had it with you all along,” I warned her, as we crawled back through the north London traffic, “don’t tell me.” “I won’t,” she promised. When she bounced back in the car and I asked her where it was, she promised she’d found it by the side of her bed, and looked suitably sincere. Once we got to the actual festival she ran out of credit after the first day, so a fat lot of good it did having her phone with her anyway. She was bouncing off the ceiling with boredom four hours into the car journey, while we were stuck in the queue to get onto the festival site. Two hours to get to Dorset and another two hours to get two miles down a country lane. But we did succeed in erecting our fish tent and inflating our double air mattress with fearsome efficiency, which may have had something to do with the fact it was raining.

The next day Paul L Martin turned up, somewhat anxious because he hadn’t braved a festival since he was seventeen, asking Zoe if her tent was ‘open’ so he could put his bag inside? I explained to him that tents didn’t actually have locks. But he was almost totally converted to the festival experience after learning to knit in the knitting tent, and spending Saturday night dancing on a chair to cheesy disco in the Lauderetta’s travel agency. Meanwhile Kitty and I lost each other on Saturday night and she found herself being ushered onto the mainstage along with Agent Lynch to do backing dancing for the Flaming Lips after she and Agent Lynch wandered backstage looking for a loo. While she was jumping up and down on the mainstage, I was singing ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ about six times in a row to my two year old nephew in an attempt to encourage him to go to sleep. Instead of which he kept jumping up and shouting “sing it again!” Luckily by then I’d drunk so much vodka I didn’t care how many times I sung it. Unlike everybody in the adjacent tents I suspect. Then again, they were all probably out watching the Flaming Lips – and Kitty’s impromptu backing dancing – on the mainstage.

Sunday afternoon was spent largely showing off for the cameramen who were shooting backstage footage of the Time for Tease tent to pitch an idea for a documentary about burlesque to channel 4. That and eating vast amounts of cake. Oh that Lemon Drizzle cake was incredible. I also remember meeting up with my friend Chris and her two daughters in front of the mainstage, where Kitty and Chris’s eight year old daughter threw each other about and took bizarre photos of people’s feet while Suzanne Vega and Kate Nash represented pan-generational female talent onstage.

Kitty and I had to get up shockingly early on Monday to get Kitty back to London in time to work her shift in the pub, but just as I was getting up at 7.30 on Monday morning I bumped into Jonathan Mayor, an old friend from University now cutting a dash on the Manchester drag scene as a comedian and compere, just as he was returning to his tent to bed. He loudly declaimed his excitement at seeing me, then after about ten minutes of conversation actually realised where he knew me from, which elicited even louder declamations. Gratifyingly, he claimed I hadn’t aged a day and enquired if I had had surgery – I suspect a party-addled 7am perspective is far from the most searingly observant but nevertheless it was charming of him. I’m sure the rest of the campsite were equally delighted to hear our emotional reunion at seven in the morning as well.

All in all, an utterly charming festival. And to cap it all, the Sunday Times Style magazine had a photographer taking pics of everybody which they posted up on the website mocked up as magazine covers. I went to a family party last weekend and was actually congratulated on being on the cover of the Sunday Times magazine. Even though it was completely fake, I still got a kick out of showing it off, especially to my ex, who was the one person I didn’t admit it wasn’t real to.

I’d had so much fun at Camp Bestival that when I got not one but two calls asking if I wanted to come and perform at other festivals I was pretty into the idea, even if I was a bit worried about going on my own, especially to the one in Ireland. Karen the nice lady who invited me to Electric Picnic offered to not only pay my flight but also to send their hire car to pick me up and drive me to the festival site, and to feed me for the three days, so I was almost completely won over - and then ukelele troubadour Des O’Connor encouraged me to go by pointing out it would be an international gig, which meant I’d be able to describe myself as an international cabaret star afterwards – so I said yes. When Amanda from Stranger than Paradise asked me if I wanted to go to Bestival on the Isle of Wight with her I said yes much more quickly, which, in retrospect, was the more foolhardy decision of the two, but more of that later.

Electric Picnic was in a place called Port Laoise west of Dublin, where, my dad tells me, there is also a famous prison (not that I could see it over the ferris wheel). My great uncle, who grew up in Ireland, carefully instructed me how to pronounce the place name properly, which stood me in good stead when I was asking directions to the bus stop at the airport. I managed to my tent up on my own in the dark, and then, just as I was pumping up the air mattress inside, I heard a voice outside saying “We’re coming into your tent”. It turned out some of my fellow festivalgoers were quite taken with the pictures of fish all over it. I told the guy that since he wanted to come in, he could pump up my air mattress while he was there, and he obligingly set to the foot pump while him and his girlfriend chatted about what they’d seen so far, and I fed them Oreo cookies. I was booked to play in a tent called Teas and Tarts by day and Tarts and Tease by night – which transformed from a demure tea shop into a sleazy den of vice complete with an Amsterdam-style red-light-district window complete with pole dancers - but I must admit I was slightly overwhelmed when I realised I was sharing the bill with acrobats, dancers, and huge high-octane bands. My little pink ukelele and I were no match for all that energy. Luckily I persuaded Simon the stage manager to let me go on first on the Saturday night, so at least the show could start small and build up. Oh and it also meant I could go on early and then get pissed of course. At least that was the plan, until I discovered that none of the bars appeared to be serving after 10.30pm. I honestly thought that the notoriously fun-loving Irish festivalgoers had drunk the bars dry – but found out next day that they closed the bars at 10.30pm every night routinely. Weird, since everything went on til 4am. Luckily for me, when I went back to Tarts and Tease and moaned about this sorry state of affairs, Simon said “But you’ve got a rider!” and produced a bottle of champagne. Now that’s what I call a rider. I was over the moon, and even the dire warning that it had cost about 60p from France and was dangerously hallucinogenic stuff didn’t prevent me from pouring almost the entire bottle into a pint glass and toddling off to the mainstage with it to watch George Benson, which was a pretty trippy show anyway, but whether or not that was down to the dodgy French knock-off champagne I couldn’t tell you.

I felt like a proper grown-up festival-goer after managing an international festival all by myself, but I may have patted myself on the back a little to soon. Anyone who was at Bestival this year will know what’s coming. If I hadn’t been booked to perform I would probably have wimped out of going at all when the storm warnings started coming through, but you gotta be a trooper, right? I knew this was going to be a more extreme festival experience from the start, when a black van with black tinted windows pulled up to pick me up. It was like a grown-up version of the Scooby van, with a fur rug and a bead curtain inside, not to mention a vanful of sprawling pissed bodies dressed in fishnet tights, frilly knickers, huge hats, scull-print scarves and all the paraphernalia of hardcore festivalgoers. There was also an animatronic toy cat in there that purred and moved. A bourbon bottle was thrust into my hand the minute I clambered inside. It was about 11 in the morning.

So much fun was had en route to the ferry port that we barely made the ferry by the skin of our teeth for the crossing, which was accompanied by loud tone-deaf singing on deck. By the time we made it to the festival site everyone except the driver was crashed out. Then we discovered that we couldn’t park in the artist’s carpark because it was flooded, and we couldn’t pitch tents in the artists’ camping because that was flooded too. There was some flouncing and stropping about how we were meant to be onstage in an hour so they better let us in, and this miraculously produced artist wristbands and opened the gates onto the main site for us, so we drove right onto the site and parked up behind the show tents. Then all we had to do was lug our stuff – which included 3 giant dogs’ heads - across a vast field of mud to the polka tent, which, as it turned out, was also awash with mud.
I had lugged my full length tasselled evening gown all the way across the field inside my gig bag but as soon as I saw that tiny tent, churned up with mud, and the stage covered with mud, and the back stage tent churned up with mud which was reached only from across a sea of mud my bottom lip started to quiver and I begged Amanda to please not make me dress up because I couldn’t wash or dry clean my gown without the tassels wrinkling up so if I got it muddy it would be lost to me forever. Amanda said she didn’t care what I wore onstage and told me to relax. Then we found a tiny unlit backstage tent behind the polka tent, and I started to put my make up on by torchlight. As soon as I’d finished, the stage manager came to tell us that there was another much bigger backstage tent with electric lighting in it on the other side of the Polka tent – but by that time I had switched into proper ‘trooper’ mode. I went onstage and led a drunken ukelele singalong starting with ‘Mud mud glorious mud’, encompassing most of the Jungle Book and concluding with Downtown, before conceding the stage to the real bands, and availing myself of the free rider, which was beer not champagne this time. Our strategy was to get drunk enough to stop caring about the sea of mud everywhere, which seemed to work, except that I still had to put my fish tent up. I managed it at 3 in the morning, but forgot about the air mattress, so I had to come back and pump that up at 4 in the morning. By 5 in the morning there were 3 of us crashed out in it, although fortunately the giant dog heads were left outside.

The next day while I was exploring the site (slowly, as the mud was by then getting to that ‘hold on to your welly and pull it off your foot’ stage) I noticed a security guard taking photos of the festivalgoers walking past on his mobile phone. I asked him what he was taking pictures of, and he explained it was of the sight of all these people walking around in the mud apparently having a good time, because he’d never seen anything like it. In his country (Nigeria) this would be viewed as a natural disaster. Nothing would grow on this land for a year. Had these people really paid to do this? Could I explain why this was fun?

By the time I got my fish tent home it was caked in mud, so I took it to the launderette and paid £6.50 for the giant washer. Then when I pulled it out, it flooded the floor of the launderette with water (which made me popular) so I bunged it in the dryer and shoved a pound in, because I couldn’t think of another way to get it dry with no washing line to hang it up from. When I pulled it out of the dryer the groundsheet had shrivelled up to half its former size and formed strange solid clumps of plastic, which were never going to resemble anything tent-shaped ever again. Yes, I had melted my tent.

I could see this as a sign that I should quit festival-going now, before it gets any worse. Or as an opportunity to buy an even more fabulous-looking tent for next year’s adventures.

I might not be able to explain to a baffled Nigerian security guard why it was fun, but something tells me that if anybody invites me to a festival again next year I’ll say yes like a shot. I haven’t been to Latitude yet. And then, there’s the really big one… Glastonbury. I mean, after Bestival, how disastrous can it be…?