Grassroots Music: Highampton Optimists at St Ives Jazz Club 06/08/2013

During the course of a recent 39-day trip back to Britain from Canada I found myself in a variety of musical situations. Some were inspiring, some discouraging, most a mixture of the two. It seems tougher than ever doing your own music at a Grassroots level over there, at least if you want to get paid and appreciated for it. By occupying a stylistic niche, i.e. ‘jazz’, ‘folk’ or even ‘upbeat classic rock’, there’s some wriggle-room and more chance of making a living but your average independent singer-songwriter or non-cover band is stuck between a rock and a hard place, no matter how many decades they’ve been doing it.

I found myself at a few gigs. Perhaps the most satisfactory of these for all concerned was The Highampton Optimists at St Ives Jazz Club, Cornwall. I liked the room, the atmosphere and the music and was happy to pay £10 at the door. The entertainment consisted of two 50 minute sets from a quintet centred around bass player Marcus Vergette, featuring my brother Tom Unwin on piano. I liked how the other four members of the band stayed out of the way so Marcus’s own personality could come to the fore. His patter, as well as a varied set featuring jazz, folk, original and classical tunes made it easy to have a good night, even if you’re not a music aficionado.

A long time ago I used to do my own stuff at folk sessions in Suffolk pubs and it was brilliant to see someone from those days, Pug of the Onion Band. He was playing at the Swan in Worlingworth, a great old pub with a thatched roof and a meadow out the back full of horses, carts and the old boys that look after them. I got a live CD, ‘Straight Up Lovely’ by the band, partly recorded at the Swan. It captures the atmosphere of a rural Suffolk pub really well. The songs are just ‘onionised’ pub standards but they’re belted out with humour and spirit in a style described by the band as ‘folk, Jim, but not as we know it’.

In another part of the county, I sat in on a rehearsal of Hadleigh-based 5-piece Up the Fuzz. They used to be known as Skapamaster, playing a selection of tunes by The Specials, The Beat and so forth. Now they concentrate on crafting their own material based on strong basslines, funk/rock electric guitar, drums, alto sax and dual vocals. I asked where their next gig was and was met with mild derision. A member told me it just wasn’t worth humping all the gear to some pub where people wanted to get drunk to the sound of familiar tunes or be part of a completely unpaid 5-bands-a-night affair in the nearest big town (more of that later).

Up in Leeds I went to see a fine piano vocalist, Kevin James, play a 2-hour set of 60s and 70s hits excellently in a tasteful, attractive bar/restaurant with clientele to match. It seemed that the intention of the management was to provide musical wallpaper for the eaters and drinkers, with no chairs or suitable standing area facing the musician, who himself was facing the wall. Or maybe he was making them feel good without them knowing it. If anyone needed any evidence of British culture discouraging grassroots original music, it was there in black and white.

Not everyone plays covers because they have to, however. When I went to the birthday bash of my mate Loz Eccles, also in Leeds, I became aware of just what a versatile musician he is. Loz put together a mega-gig involving people he’s played with at different stages of his musical journey. I knew hardly anyone there and had a pint of Tetleys bitter which made me depressed but the high standard of music played and the joy with which the musicians carried out their tasks was inspiring. There was some self-penned fare to be heard (by me and Beautiful Stranger) but generally the night was about music for music’s sake, whether that was fusion, rock, jazz, funk or classical, with the birthday boy on stage throughout.

Back in East Anglia, at The Bull in Colchester, Essex, I actually found covers and originals being played simultaneously. In the pub a classic rock trio played note-perfect versions of standards. But out the back there was a more atmospheric space with a great stage, lights and PA. It was there I heard Al Lindsay and Oli Arditi play a set of Al’s material. As is usually the case on such occasions, Al and Oli were sandwiched between 2 other acts and the financial benefit to the artists was non-existent. But the object of the exercise seemed to be simply playing the best music you can. Indeed, one half of the duo remarked that he started to enjoy himself much more once he stopped trying to earn money from his art. After surveying the English grassroots music scene in summer 2013, I can see where he’s coming from.

6 comments on “A Worm’s Eye View of English Musical Activity

  • Things are about the same over here. Great review of the trip though. I’m sure Joe Canzano can tell you some very similar U.S. based music stories. I think it’s true that once you stop trying to make money with your art you feel a lot happier.

  • Cheers for the mention, Ben. I actually got a 2 quid tip this week, from a young couple who approached the piano with sincere and serious expressions. Perhaps they were moved by my rendition of Army Dreamers by Kate Bush. Then again, perhaps they just felt sorry for me cos no one seemed to be paying any attention! Later, at the end of my second set, I played a request (Dock of the Bay) for a trio of guys aged about 30. We were talking about political songs, the type that certain UK acts did so well in the 70s and early 80s. One of them said: “I guess there’s no call for that stuff now. I mean, look around you. There’s nothing to protest about is there? Everyone’s middle class these days.” I silently resolved to play even more protest songs in future!

  • Unfortunately I missed most of these gigs, but I did get to see my two favourite British jazz piano players, the great Tom down in the southwest and the great Kev up north, who was providing the undeserving chattering classes of the gastropub with a lovely rendition of Shipbuilding when we walked in.
    Though, I have to say, some were listening!

  • Really good to see you Ben thanks for the mention “up the fuzz” are nearly ready for a gig just polishing up the new stuff. Had a chance of a gig at the box ford fleece unfortunately we couldn’t make it hey ho when we get going I think we will gather good momentum and be busy. I especially enjoyed our acoustic session around the table and always feel honoured to play with you and that you treat me as a fellow musician you always make me feel good about my music. Stay in touch mate. Until the next time. Chris xx

  • Thanks for the mention Ben. Sadly we were down to a 2-piece when you saw us as Tony was unwell. He’s on the mend but it will be a few weeks more before we’re firing on all three cylinders.

    Lill – DO check out The Swan, especially on a Sunday afternoon when they’re having a session.

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