New Orleans – with a touch of Mullen

We (my wife, Dorothy, our cat, Kruimeltje and I) arrived in New Orleans. It was hot and sticky that day, it looked and felt just like I imagined it would (on the way there we’d also visited New Iberia where Tabasco sauce is made and the movie Electric Mist was filmed… so we were well in Louisianna mode). Driving to our RV resort on Lake Pontchartrain we passed over long bridge-roads built over swamplands, then through old neighborhoods and past graveyards. All burials are above ground, so many large creepy vaults, drooping trees and statues provide the ideal location for a voodoo ghost story… or a voodoo doughnut come to think of that!… I haven’t had one of them since Dorothy snagged a couple from the shop along the road the last time I played in Kells Irish pub in Portland, Oregon.

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Michelle, my tour manager, had lined up four gigs for me that week. The Friday and Saturday playing at the Irish House, the Monday playing music for the Irish house Whisky tasting (it’s a hard job, but someone’s got to do it!) and the following Thursday at the Old Point Bar across the Mississippi in Algiers.

We went along to the Irish House on the Thursday to check it out – the temperature had plummeted and cozy jackets, scarves and hats had to be dug out of the RV wardrobes. The Irish House is on St Charles Avenue which is one of the main streets leading into the French Quarter. There’s also a handy tram which goes past it right to (and from) the French Quarter. It is more of a restaurant with a pub bit – the food was fantastic – the owner, Chef Matt Murphy has won several awards and has made this place an Irish “Gastropub”. The stage was all set in the middle of the side wall with a small Yamaha PA system… (hmmm… thanks, but no, I’ll bring my own). For the rest it looked like a grand place to play, so we finished our drinks (the guinness was excellent) and leaving our truck parked outside, we hopped on a tram to the French quarter to sample the delights of a cold New Orleans afternoon. When we returned hours later, the Irish house had a guy playing mandolin accompanied by a lady playing fiddle downstairs and a sea shanty choir assembling to go upstairs to sing – this was a busy, active place.

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The gig on the Friday was good, every table was full and there was a fine buzz. I played three sets, mixing it all up a bit and knew that the people there had had a good night – I had played well, sold CDs and met some very happy people. On Saturday, the stage had been moved to the bottom of the restaurant facing the tables (instead of in the middle as on Friday) to make a space for a big screen which was showing the local football team’s game which was on while I was playing… sigh, bummer. As it turned out most heads were turned towards me and not the screen (most people there were visiting and not locals) and I was getting a reasonable amount of participation. During one of my songs, I couldn’t believe my eyes as Feargal MacConuladh, my friend from years ago and musical partner in our duo, Keltic Fire, walked in. He now lives in Barcelona, Spain and was over on business. His product, the Minecraft Gameband, had just been released and launched onto shelves in Target all over the USA. Feargal was traveling around meeting with Target people and was heading for Houston, Texas when he saw my Facebook post that I would be in New Orleans, so he headed over to the Irish House. The fact that he had lost his passport in Charlotte airport was a wee bit of a worry – but didn’t stop him!

 

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We had also made friends in the pub with Sally and Brendan Kelley, just visiting from Ohio (we met them on the Thursday and immediately hit it off) and locals Shannon Woodward & her Helicopter pilot husband – Shannon had a great voice and was singing along and harmonizing, Sally and Brendan had been at a 60th birthday earlier that day… so were in “high spirits” 🙂 . Feargal eventually caved in to pressure and played a few songs with me – it wasn’t quite like old times – we were a bit rusty … but still ok. After I finished at around 10:30pm, we had a wee jam session until midnight. We packed up the gear, Dorothy headed off to our RV and Feargal and I headed into New Orleans to catch up, reminisce (over a wee drinkie or two) and have fun. I got home at 4am after Feargal had just plain run out of steam… he was exhausted… as a newt!

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The whisky tasting on the Monday was a fine event, the Glenfiddich rep was there with 5 bottles of different Gelnfiddichs. I played some Scottish songs to get us all in the mood then we started tasting – each whisky had a delicious wee dish of food served with it…. the beauty of a Gastropub ! They served a dainty scotch egg – which was a quail’s egg wrapped in breaded sausage meat – instead of the huge ones we’d get in Dundee (fae big chookie burdies 🙂 ). the Gastro version, I have to say, was a wee bit superior to those I used to eat!

After the tasting there was an Irish music session, I didn’t join in as Dorothy was needing fed 🙂 … so we had dinner there and I got to know Chef Matt Murphy a bit better when he joined us (he’d been playing the bodhran in the music session). Matt is a fascinating character – from Dublin. Feargal and he had spent time on Saturday talking about their home town .. a thickening of accents was noticeable on both of them. He is a champion chef, a well-known New Orleans personality and one of the few survivors of a deadly flesh-eating disease. “Sure, I’m  more famous for surviving the disease than I am for me cooking and me restaurant…. ” he grinned modestly. A fine lad is Matt, he also set me up with a great recommendation “Bill played here last weekend and took the roof off… ” and put me in contact with a friend of his who may book me in Florida next year and a musician friend who has a list of contacts I could use to get some gigs arranged next year. Great stuff!

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On the following Wednesday, Dorothy and I headed over to Algiers to check out the Old Point bar. It was on a road just behind the Levee on the west bank of the Mississippi. An old neighborhood pub which proved once again that you shouldn’t judge on first appearances as it was old and crumbling on the outside but friendly and full of character on the inside. The people were extremely friendly, as were the dogs, it was a wee bit smokey as the smoking ban hadn’t reached there yet and it had a great stage with a very serious sound system – which I would be happy to use the next day. There was music there each evening but Dorothy and I didn’t wait around – we walked along the Levee with beautiful views of New Orleans from across the water and caught the ferry across the Mississippi to the French Quarter – the weather had improved that day and it was a lovely warm late afternoon – perfect for a sunset ferry ride to eat some gumbo, redfish and other Cajun delights.

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The gig on the Thursday was not well publicized. The posters we had sent over two weeks earlier hadn’t arrived or had been lost, there was a local paper and web site which told you what was on and where… but it only had my name, they hadn’t used any publicity materials from my website. As a result it wasn’t busy – but I have to say, those who were there all got into my music quickly and were singing, clapping, harmonizing, joining in and whooping with each song. I met a country singer (great voice) who had played Nashville for two years before giving it up – he told me about his appearance in the Ryman Auditorium – the old Opry, the epicenter of Country music (Dorothy and I were there for a show a few years ago). I could tell that was a memory that would stick with him all his days. There was a steady flow of people either visiting or returning from shenannigans over the water a wee bit the worse for wear. One such person was a nice looking lady with what looked like a colleague as they both had conference ID badges on a string around their necks. As he stood, or rather swayed, at the bar, she danced around the bar and did a pretty good pole dance in front of me using one of the old wooden pillars. She sang, hooted, danced, got everyone going… then sadly, after a while, left, blowing kisses to everyone, hooking her leg around a few last pillars on the way out while guiding her male colleague, who was sinking fast, out of the pub and into the night. I suspect his downfall had been trying to keep up with her 🙂 . I ended at 11pm … then as usual when it’s not been busy, a couple of people rolled in at 11:15 – one had just arrived from the airport – desperate for live music. I played them an acoustic song, they bought me whisky, gave me a tip and everyone was happy. The Old Point bar – a rare, bit tarnished, gem of a pub, well worth a visit if you fancy a Ferry ride and a chat to some of the friendly locals (you won’t find these everywhere in New Orleans).

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Beginning of “The Beginning”

So, A wee while ago I mentioned that Steve and Cathi and Dorothy (and a few Spanish coffees) convinced me that I needed to make an album. Knowing how bad (read “Pernickety or even Persnickety”)  I am when I do my own recording, I knew I needed to get help. Steve Behrens (67 Music) had given me a list of potential studios, so I checked out their websites then called the one I liked best which was also closest to my house in Washington, Nettleingham Audio

I drove the 15 mins to Kevin Nettleingham’s studio – which was an add-on to his house, It was a “Doctor-Who” type of experience, from the outside it was a fairly normal looking house and garage. You enter the garage and it turns into this large expansive music-zen wood and acoustic tile lined area that somehow managed to fit behind that humble garage frontage. Entering along the woody-smelling corridor with guitar on stand, sofa, nice coffee machine, nice pictures leading to massive space shuttle-worthy soundproof doors leading to a large control room or the vocal room which in turn (through another wonderful  sealed door) leads to a large band recording room. Nice, Nice, Nice.

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The next question was Kevin… would I like him, would he like me, did I think we could “make sweet music together”. After he had shown me round his audio palace, he fired up his computer system and let me hear some of the things we was working on with other artists. I heard maybe four different snippets of songs – enough to tell me that Kevin is a craftsman who believes in high quality and no messing! I loved what I heard – knowing that if mine turned out half as good, it would still be 1000 times better than anything I could do on my own. We got on very well, he was easy to work with and we felt comfortable with each other. We agreed prices, agreed to spend 2 x 3days recording with an extra day for mixing and mastering –  we shook hands, set the dates in December and off I went to get ready.

 

Recording… from humble beginnings

Everyone records themselves – unless you are the truly gifted 1%, it starts with the enthusiastic “I’m going to really show people what I can do” start and ends with the “… is that really what I sound like ?…” anticlimax.

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Sessions in my bedroom at my mums house with my dad’s Grundig reel-to-reel tape recorder were great times (once I got used to what I did sound like). No multi-track then, we (me and my pals) would all cluster round the microphone and play and sing our hearts out! No-one liked the sound of their own voice… but remember, our voices were breaking and unintentional yodels were frequent!

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Several years later, I thought I had hit the big-time, I got a Tascam 4-track cassette recorder, the world of multi-tracking opened up before me! On my own I could record and record until I sounded like a full band with a choir, as long as you didn’t mind uncorrected mistakes and the decrease in sound quality when you bounced 3 tracks onto the 4th track to free the 3 tracks up for more recording delight 🙂

Time marches on again – living in the Netherlands now and working for Apple, Feargal and I (Keltic Fire) got serious about making a CD. Feargal had a pretty cool soundproofed room, mixer, digital sound board and a powerful Mac with recording software! By this time we both had money to spend – the equipment wasn’t the problem… our problem was time. We had started to record our CD, spending time we couldn’t afford to spend in his home studio mostly failing to produce anything we were happy with – the working title of the CD was “Stolen Minutes” We did have a lot of fun (mostly un-productive) and his wife Marjolijn made us a ton of ham and cheese toasties (with ketchup) – we we happy – but had no CD.

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While we were struggling with “Stolen Minutes” Feargal moved to Orleans (South of Paris) for a new job, set up another studio and we set a date for us to spend a week there at his old fashioned creaky French country house. I drove down and we worked round the clock for a whole week and I drove back to NL exhausted at the end of the week with a shiny self-mastered CD which had become “Almost Traditional”. When I knew I would be moving to the USA in 2007, we put in another mammoth effort and produced our 2nd CD, “The Bottom of the Road” just before I left.

Looking back at those recording days, we really worked hard and totally ineffectively, spending hours wrestling with software and hardware glitches and playing songs which we had never done before just learning as we went… it was exhausting – but rewarding.

It all started with a Party…

It all started with a party… and not just any party: Scottish Hogmanay (New Year’s Eve) parties were a real highpoint for us. Most workers had a day off on 31st December (they didn’t get that at Christmas) and families would visit each other after midnight. That was called first-footing; it was lucky if the first foot over your door threshold belonged to a tall dark and handsome person, and they also needed to bring you a present: a lump of coal was a lucky present… a drink of whisky was also very acceptable!

For our part, we would end up in the Gibson’s house two houses down from us; they held the best parties by far! Mr and Mrs Gibson welcomed people from all over and insisted they did a “party-piece” where each person in the room would perform: a song, a joke, a story, a dance… there was no escape; everybody had to do something. The Gibson children, Danny and Hazel, were older than my brother Doug and I, and were very musical. Together with Hazel’s 1st boyfriend, John—a “beatnik” going to Dundee Art College (super cool, opinionated, beard, long hair, pipe smoking, corduroy trousers, tweed jacket with elbow patches)—Danny and Hazel would sing, play guitar, harmonize—they were brilliant—weaving spells around us all. I would have done anything to just join in and be a part of it.  At the age of 11, I made a new year’s resolution, desperate to surprise everyone at the next Hogmanay party: I would learn the guitar and be able to really join in. I spent many hours the following year in secret up in the bedroom I shared with my older brother Doug, holed up with his guitar and song books (my folks could only afford lessons for one of us… and it wisnae me!) My goal was to prepare myself for the party so I could surprise everyone by playing the guitar and singing songs.

The next Hogmanay, when it was my turn to perform, I (casually) asked to borrow Danny’s guitar and—much to everyone’s surprise (including my mum & dad’s)—I played two songs and sang. Way-hay!!! All of a sudden I was in, an accepted part of the musical inner circle. From that time, at every opportunity there was, I would be there, soaking up songs and playing and singing along.

By the time I was 16, I could, and did, entertain at all sorts of parties on my own, no problem—I had developed a fine Celtic song repertoire by then. Meanwhile, the music scene in Dundee was moving fast in many directions: Bob Dylan, Buddy Holly, Leonard Cohen, Elvis, The Beatles, Creedence, the Rolling Stones. I was playing guitar and learning songs of every kind; I just loved how I could skip from one world to the next as a song, tempo, genre or mood would change. I kept my Celtic music going for my own consumption and for something different at my friends’ parties (who mainly played rock and pop music, but still liked a good sing-song thrown in). I also answered the call of rock and roll and formed a 5-piece band, “Badge”. We played rock and pop and were booked at dances, weddings, events, and discos, mostly in Dundee or Perth, but we would travel all over Scotland in the weekend for gigs when needed; the money was poor, the nights were long, but boy—we were on top of the world! We would slog through the week at college or work, but when the weekend came—Yahoo!—we were gigging again and loving it! When I was 31, I moved from Dundee to Aberdeen for work and left the band. After 15 years of solid playing, this was hard to do, but I felt it was time to see what else life had to offer.

My wife Dorothy and I lived in Aberdeen for a few years before we went to live in the Netherlands, where we had our family. I didn’t play for several years: not until I started playing with a musically gifted Irish colleague of mine, Feargal Maconuladh. I have never heard Feargal sing a duff note; he has an incredible voice. We started playing for fun at work and quickly realized we not only had the same taste in Celtic music—we were also pretty good! We started playing gigs in the Netherlands as the Duo “Keltic Fire”, and we had a great time establishing ourselves musically. We were a bit of a novelty as our audiences loved the idea of Celtic music, but had very little experience of it for the most part. Again, the emotional connections these old songs would make with our audience were wonderful to see: with no real folk singing tradition comparable with our Scottish and Irish ones, the Dutch audiences loved this new vibrant cultural exposure. Feargal and I played together for 6 years (including recording two albums), and after that, I moved (with the family) to the USA for work, and Feargal moved to Barcelona.

Late in 2008, David Maher heard me play with Feargal during one of Feargal’s visits from Barcelona, and he asked me to play in his new Irish pub, Maher’s, in Lake Oswego, Oregon. At first I was reluctant to play solo and I didn’t really want to play with anyone else—Feargal was a hard act to follow—but I gave it a try one evening and played around 8 songs just to see how it would go. The crowd loved it and so did I. Since then I have built up a large collection of Scottish, Irish, English, American, and other songs which allows me to tailor what I play to the audience I have in front of me. I was always aware when playing in pubs that the customers didn’t necessarily come to see me; they came to be entertained, which I could do pretty well. When I play in pubs now, I (mostly) have the best of both worlds in that the crowd wants to be entertained… AND the majority of them are there to see me…

In September 2013, at the age of 57, I took a big step and left a good job to follow my passion for music. I now have time, focus and the energy to take my musical career to wherever it is going. You only get one life: you’d better live it to the fullest—and I am certainly doing that. I love playing and seeing the impact I have on people in my audience. In the USA, I watch people as they are transported to places I create by singing them songs from their forefathers, places and experiences they have heard of from their parents or grandparents. They still have an emotional bond to the “old country” where they have never lived, and a piece of their spirit still wants to connect them there.

So… that sets the scene for what about to come, my next blog will talk about the joys and ins-and-outs (and ups and downs) of making my first album, “the Beginning” which I completed early 2014 with Nettleingham Audio of Vancouver Washington.