Back at BRfm and feeling great!
It’s not far from Abergavenny to the lakeside studios of lovely Brynmawr FM but it seems Pangolin are doomed to make the journey into an Expedition. The first time we went up there in the spring, we were in convoy: me and Mike with the guitars and banjo in one car, with Marcus and ‘his mistress’ (the double bass) following. Oli, being a Young Person (and therefore in possession of a fully functioning brain), came on his own. I don’t know how many times we went round the same roundabouts but it was definitely enough to arrive with a nasty case of motion sickness on top of my already raging nerves. Boy, I was nervous that first gig. Instrument players, you may think nerves play havoc with your finger coordination but it is nothing to the ruin they wreak on a voice.
Anyway, yesterday it was just the two of us. Marcus is back with the blues and jazz and Oli’s doing full on final degree year (we miss you guys!) so no convoy and we didn’t get lost. But we didn’t get off to a good start either. I almost took the sump off my car going down the track to Mike’s house, realising too late that the pressure in one of my tires was almost negative. I pumped the tyre. We loaded up and before we pulled away, Mike ran through a checklist: six string, twelve string, banjo, uke, stands, music stands, capos, set list, finishing with
Bananas are an essential item. Mike read somewhere that their potassium content staves off nerves, so a banana a piece is the minimum preparation for any gig (Brecon jazz festival fringe was a two banana gig. I don’t think I’d cope with something that would be a three banana performance).
“Oh and I’ve got drugs too!” Mike, “Here, d’you want one?”
I thought we might suddenly have got a bit too rock and roll, but he held out a packet of the herbal remedy ‘Kalms’, which are made of essence of nettle root extracted by fairies in moonlight, or something.
“Mmm thanks.” I said. Try anything once, me.
As we drove away I was busy saying that I didn’t feel nervous (those fast acting Kalms perhaps?) but my driving seemed to be telling another story: I may have hit one or two kerbs, and Mike just may have been looking a bit pale by the time we rocked up outside the studios. I pulled into a bay just by the studio doors. There was a sort of crunching noise.
“I think you drove over the kerb.” Mike said
“No, no!” I said airily, “There was a stony thingy in this bay. I must have crushed it.”
Mike sensibly didn’t say a word.
I’d expected the studio to be freezing in this weather. I’d dressed in lots of layers because my experience of cold radio studios in my career with the BBC taught me that shivering from cold easily transmits into shivering from nerves. But as we carried in the instruments (and bananas) I noticed it was lovely and warm (if you watch the video you may notice I’m pink and shiny). There was another sort of warmth too: once again Dan James (the host of the show) and the BRfm Boys were SOOOO lovely, SOOOO welcoming and SOOOO completely professional I began to really not be nervous. It felt like we were all working together to make the best music we could, and that if Mike and I could just do our best they would make us sound great.
So, for an hour the team laboured with cables and connections. Mike and the Boys had conversations that might as well have been in ancient Greek as far as I was concerned. Not only can I not play any instruments but wiring a plug is my biggest technical achievement and even then I have to look up which wire is which. But they were all so capable and so meticulous that it gave me confidence. We had time to run though lots of numbers - especially the ones that had been giving me nightmares - and I felt more and more relaxed. Our mics and foldback were absolutely perfectly set up. I could hear my own voice at just the right level to adjust my tone and tuning (well within my own small limits anyway). In short it began to feel like FUN, so when Mike said, ten minutes before the start of the show,
“D’you want a banana?”
you know I almost felt I could have said no. But you can’t be too careful so I had two sugars in a cup of industrial strength tea and I felt good to go. Not nerve free but not in the usual ‘rabbit in headlights’ condition I’m prone to.
Our first number was a Kirsty MacColl ‘England Two Colombia NIl’. Mike played this perfectly almost the first time he tried (some people are just so talented it makes you sick) but it took me a year to learn it. I sang it all the time to fix it in my head. I think my neighbours in the terrace where I live probably really hate the song now But it still feels like going straight for the North Face of the Eiger as an opening number. It wasn’t perfect - hey, I’m not Kirsty - but it was a Good Job, and after that everything else felt really great.
We sometimes worry that the songs we do are too diverse; our set list yesterday included a Bruce Springsteen, Elbow, Athlete, Kirtsy, Cara Dillon, the Avett Brothers and Nick Lowe. So not what you’d really call ‘folk’, not what you’d really call anything specific. but I think that’s OK. We choose songs we love, and love playing and if we love playing them there’s a chance our audience will love listening to them.
So yesterday, thanks to the incredible care and craft of Dan James and the wonderful people at BRfm all our hours of practice paid off, we were able to shape each song, and make the emotions and stories ring out. We were almost as relaxed as if we were rehearsing in Mike’s spare room, with nobody but a waggy terrier to hear us.
There was a little confusion over the timing - the studio clock turns out to be a bit fast so we had to do a rushed version of a Nick Lowe song cos our Elbow finale ended two minutes before the end of the show. But even that didn’t phase us too much. We came off air and felt, not the awful relief of our first gig, a sense of having survived an ordeal, but real elation: we knew we’d done almost the best we could.
Back in the car, we grinned at each other in a very slightly idiotic way as I went round a roundabout for the second time.
“I think we did really well.” Mike said
“Must be the bananas and the drugs.” I said
“Looking forward to doing some new stuff now...”
“Yess!” I replied, “I love the songs we did today but we have been practicing them a LOT. We can do some new Kirsty ones and some Christmasssy ones and...”
Mikes phone rang, and after a brief conversation he told me to turn the car round,
“We’ve got to go back to the studio, “he said, “a bit of your car’s fallen off in the parking bay.”