A Beautiful Day for Music
It was one of those beautiful days that you sometimes get in England in June. The sky was blue with just a few small puffs of high-level white cloud. The temperature was warm but not hot, comfortable for short shirt sleeves, and there was a very slight breeze – sufficient to keep things pleasant but not enough to raise dust.
I had come to the Memorial Grounds in the market town near my home, attracted partly by the great weather and partly by the Food & Drink Festival that was taking place today. Having parked the car, I had walked around the corner to the sea of green grass that looked at its best in the sunshine.
A large stall with potted plants on display, mostly herbs, pot plants and hanging baskets, was close to the entrance. A little further on, a fenced-off compound separated the festival from the acres of close-cut grass on which children were playing and, a hundred yards or so away, some boys were hitting a cricket ball around.
Paying my fiver to gain entrance, I had wandered around looking at the stalls. There was the usual mixture of foods on show, pies of all sizes and meats (pork, chicken turkey and even pheasant), loaves of bread in a variety of colours and shapes, cheeses from around the country and Europe, and jars of jams, jellies and pickles. There were stalls selling insurance, vacuum cleaners ("the best in the world" – and probably the most expensive), ice cream, sweets and candies, rugs and mats – in short, a bit of everything.
After an hour or two of ambling, and having bought nothing more than a couple of jars of pickled onions – one with garlic and the other with honey – it was getting on for lunchtime. I didn't bother with the burgers, or fish and chips, or pizza, but the paella looked good so I had a bowl of that. Despite being served in a polystyrene bowl and eaten with a flimsy plastic fork, it was actually quite tasty.
All that walking, and the food, had given me a thirst. Fortunately the beer tent was close by. There were three local draught beers on offer – light, medium or dark – and some bottled lagers. However, they had some interesting-looking cider – just 4.5% so not too strong – so I had a pint of that. I had to ask the barman to double-up the thin plastic 'glass' so I didn't risk crushing it and spilling it all, but it was pleasantly cool with a good fresh flavour.
While sipping my drink I looked around the inside of the marquee. There were a few round tables with an assortment of chairs – all of them full – and several groups, mainly of men, chatting loudly and seemingly trying to compete with each other on volume, but I didn't recognise anyone apart from one local councillor who didn't know me, so I wandered back out into the sunshine.
The sound of music, just heard over the babble from the beer tent, attracted me to a strange cross between a tent, gazebo and trailer.
A flat trailer was forming a stage of sorts and the roof of a tent had been erected over it to keep the sun off (and I suppose the rain, but there wasn't any sign of that today). A young man, or an old teenager – I couldn't really tell the difference as his head was bowed – was sitting on a chair and strumming on an acoustic guitar. There must have been a pickup in the guitar as it was plugged into a combo amp behind him and he was mumbling into a microphone which was feeding a pair of PA speakers on poles set at the corners of the 'stage'.
It all seemed a bit half-hearted to me, and the lad had no stage presence, but at least it was live music, not canned. So I stood to watch, my carrier bag of pickled onions in one hand and my cider in the other.
A few other people were watching as well, and there was a circle of chairs, probably pinched from inside the beer tent, occupied by several large ladies with shopping bags around their feet who were probably resting as much as listening.
Moving a bit closer so I could hear better, I realise he was singing a folk song. It was an old standard, and simple to play, but he was doing an OK job.
The tune came to an end, there was a spattering of half-hearted applause (I couldn't join in – hands full of onions and cider) and he started on a rendition of another song popular a hundred years ago.
About this time I became aware of a man standing next to me so I glanced in his direction. Dressed in jeans and a maroon t-shirt, and a bit overweight, he was nodding in time to the music. He looked back at me.
"What do yer think?" he asked. "Good, eh?"
"It's OK. The song's simple and he's not playing or singing loud enough but I imagine that's inexperience. He's probably still learning." Well, he had asked!
He straightened up and looked affronted. Perhaps he knew the boy?
"You reckon you could do better then?"
"Any day," I replied. Did the half pint of cider I'd drunk make me say that?
"Right," he said, belligerently. "You can go on after Jim and let's see what you can do."
"I don't have a guitar with me," I pointed out.
"You can use my son's, you don't get out of it that way. I know your type – all mouth. Now put up or shut up." I was right, he did know the player. So I wasn't going to get out of it easily.
And, to tell the truth, I didn't really want to. He'd challenged me and I always respond to a challenge, though sometimes not very well.
Anyway, I moved to the side of the trailer and put my precious bag down behind it. The cider I would take on stage with me.
'Jim' limped through another song and then made to get up off his chair. His father stepped up and bent down to the microphone, looking a bit ridiculous with his backside sticking out behind him.
"Thanks Jim, nicely played," he announced to the still-small audience. "Now don't go way, folks, as we have a surprise guest for you. His name is..." He looked across at me as he'd never asked my name.
"Peter," I called to him.
"Peter," the man repeated. "He tells me he's hot stuff," (had I?) "and he'll be up here to entertain you in just a moment."
He stepped back off the 'stage' in my direction with a glint in his eye. "There you go – now show us what you're made of," he growled, obviously expecting me to either run away or panic.
Instead I stepped up and parked my cider carefully beside the amp. The guitar was leaning against the chair so I picked up the former and moved the latter to the side as I'd stand not sit.
The guitar had a strap, a thin thing with a brightly-coloured front face and a plastic back, so I passed that over my head and turned to father and son who were both watching from the sidelines. Father looked amused, waiting to see me fail. Son was more interested as he didn't know what was going on.
"Do you have a plectrum?" I asked the previous player. He shook his head. "Tuner?" Another shake. Father's smile widened.
I'd have to make the best of it. I crouched down beside the amp, turned it down to about 3, and strummed across the strings of the guitar. The tone wasn't bad but a couple of the strings were a bit flat. To be honest, they probably all were but, without a tuner to use as reference, I'd have to tune it by ear.
A few tweaks, some more strums, and it was as good as it was going to get.
I turned back to the front, adjusted the boom microphone stand so that the mic was in front of my mouth, and checked out where the cable led. There was a mixer-amp to the right hand side of the stage which was feeding the speakers. I had no idea what setting it should be on so I turned it up slowly until the mic started to ring – just before feedback set in – and then turned it down a bit. That was as loud as it would get.
I then moved the guitar amp forward so it was nearer the front of the stage, and off to one side away from the microphone, and turned it up to 9. "Let's start with that," I thought. I'd have to set the balance by ear too.
I played a couple of chords, fairly firmly. At least I could hear them and it seemed louder than the lad had achieved.
Leaning into the mic, I spoke quite loudly. "Afternoon everyone!"
It seemed louder than the guitar so I crossed to the mixer and turned the output down a bit.
Turning back to the 'audience', I looked out. There seemed to be about the same handful of people which had been there earlier, though the ladies on the chairs were now talking amongst themselves.
What was I doing? It was six years since I'd played in front of an audience of any sort, even one as small as this. Still, there was no getting out of it now.
Bending down I turned the PA off, I was starting with an instrumental. One quick chord to make sure the guitar was still in tune and then I was off.
This was something I'd worked on at home in the last few months. It wasn't very long, about three minutes at most, but it gave me a chance to check out the guitar I'd been landed with and to make some noise to attract a bit more of a crowd. And at least this was a loud piece with some hard strumming and some chords I'd play with my fingers as I had no plectrum.
So I worked up a bit of a tempo, nothing too scientific but, if I say so myself, much better than the lad had been doing and a lot louder as well.
The ladies stopped talking, a few people drifted out of the beer tent, and some passers-by paused to watch. By the end of the piece there were about 40 people gathered in front of the stage – a significant improvement. I even got some applause!
Turning the mic back up, I spoke to the 'crowd'. "Thanks very much. That was just a short piece to get me warmed up as I wasn't expecting to play for you today. But now here's something you may recognise..."
And I launched into Recrimination.
They did recognise it. I wasn't surprised, after all it had been number one in about 15 countries, but that had been ten years ago. However, it regularly gets played on the radio, and it had even been used in a TV advert for cat food, so I suppose that had kept it in people's minds.
By the time I got to the chorus for the second time:
When all you've got is
Then it's time to
Call it a day the crowd was even singing along.
Of course, the original had been played by a five-piece electric band, and here I was singing it to one acoustic guitar, but I was giving that guitar some stick, and using vocal chords I hadn't used for some time, and it was a recognisable rendition.
I didn't bother with the guitar solo, that was far too twiddly for today, but I stuck in an extra chorus instead and the crowd (and it was becoming a crowd) was getting into it.
While the applause at the end of the song was not exactly tumultuous, it was definitely applause.
"Thank you," and a quick swig of cider to dampen the throat, then I was off again.
"Jezebel" is a more reflective piece. It's still not normally played acoustically but it has a swing to it I could make an attempt at and it seemed to be going down well. Once again there was some singing, not so much as it wasn't as well known a song, but one girl in the front in particular seemed to be getting into it. What's more, she knew all the words. She had to Recrimination as well.
By the end of that song I'd been playing for about twelve minutes and I was grateful for the break. After another gulp of cider, I looked out at the gathering throng (is that too grand a term for about a hundred people?) and took a breath. What to play next? My repertoire wasn't limitless and some of it just wouldn't suit the occasion.
I looked around at Jim and his father and found they had vanished, so I suppose I had proved my point. I wasn't being told to get off anyway.
Looking back, I saw the girl in the front of the crowd. She'd looked to be about 20, in tight jeans and a white top, and was standing with a couple of other girls. All though that song she'd been happily singing along and, although I couldn't really hear her, at least she didn't seem to have been flat.
I caught her eye and nodded to the side of the stage. She moved there hesitantly, and I went to lean over towards her. "Want to come up here and sing the next one?" I asked. She looked surprised, and worried, and nervous – all at the same time. "I heard you sing just now," I lied. "Let's do the next one together."
She sort of nodded, and stepped up to join me, following me to the single microphone.
"We have to share. You stand on my right so I don't hit you with the guitar." She moved over.
"What's your name?" I asked.
"Georgina'" she told me quietly.
"Do you know 'Highway of Life'?"
She nodded. "Yes, I like that one," she answered softly. I just hoped she'd be louder when she sang. Oh well, too late to worry about that now.
"Right then," I sounded confident.
"I'd like you all to give a big welcome to Georgina!" I announced to the audience. There was some applause and a few shouts – some of them obviously knew her. Her two friends clapped wildly.
"Georgina's going to join me in a song for you. This is 'Highway of Life'."
The song had been written as a duet, but for two male voices and an electric band. We were going to do it with male and female voices and one acoustic guitar. Talk about different!
However, the good thing was that I started the singing, then we did a chorus together, before she was solo for the second verse. So she would have time to work herself into it.
I started the intro, tapping my left foot to keep time, and saw her nod her head. "I'll go first," I whispered to her and she nodded again.
The twelve bars of the intro were soon over and I sang the first verse. The song's about a guy who travels the road and the people he meets. I'm the hero (of course!) and Georgina was going to be the people I met along the way.
When it was time for Georgina to join in the chorus, I was a bit worried how she would do. The first line was a bit weak, but I was pleased to hear that she soon picked up the volume she needed. She had a great voice too and kept to time. This could work.
Straight after the chorus there is a quick guitar flourish and it was time for Georgina to solo. I stepped a little way away, giving her room at the microphone but not deserting her.
I needn't have worried. Her voice came through the PA loud and clear and she knew the words perfectly with no hesitation at all. Although we were only standing on a farm trailer in a field, she could have carried that song anywhere. I was impressed.
More guitar chords, and I stepped forward for my second verse. She leaned into me for the chorus, then sang her second verse faultlessly.
The applause after that song was louder than ever. Of course, the audience had also grown again but there was no denying that a lot of that applause was aimed at Georgina. She had given a great performance.
But how to follow it? What could we sing together that we both knew?
"Can you sing "Back in the Bedroom?" I queried.
"The Jamalya song?" she asked.
"Yes, that's the one," I confirmed.
"Um – probably just the chorus," she admitted.
"No problem. I'll sing the verses, you join in the first chorus and then we'll see how it goes."
"Er – OK," she was hesitant.
I didn't give her time to worry but launched into the hit song. It was recorded by a black American female singing about her college lover, and here I was going to sing it at an English food festival! Still, it had the advantage that it was a relatively recent song, and had been a huge hit, so the listeners could get behind it.
Once again the acoustic arrangement was unfamiliar, but the tune stood out and the audience soon realised which song it was. By the time Georgina joined me for the chorus they were singing along and we almost needn't have bothered singing the second chorus as the crowd was in full flow.
After the best applause so far, I told our audience that we had to go. I could feel my voice about to give up on me as I was so out of practice, and I frankly couldn't think what else to play that Georgina might know. I certainly wasn't going to sing without her.
So after some more kind applause, I propped the borrowed guitar against the amplifier. There was no sign of Jim and his Dad, so I turned both amps off and just left it.
"Thanks," I turned to Georgina. "That was great. You sang brilliantly."
She blushed a bit, or at least seemed to. "I never did anything like that before," she admitted a bit breathlessly. "But wasn't it great?"
"YOU were great," I assured her. "Shall we get a drink?"
"I need one I think," she admitted. We stepped off the stage and she was immediately joined by her friends. They all started talking at once but I said "come on, we're going for a drink" and herded them towards the beer tent.
Once inside, I ushered them to the bar and bought drinks all round. Cider for me, a glass of (warm) white wine for Georgina and a couple of halves of the light bitter. The girls were bubbling.
After we stepped away I reintroduced myself. Georgina hadn't heard my name earlier as she hadn't really been listening before I started playing.
Before we had time to talk more, we were interrupted by a young man in jeans and a dark blue polo shirt with a light brown jacket over it. He was a reporter for the local paper and wanted to find out who we were.
I explained about the challenge I'd had, how I'd started to play and heard Georgina sing. While he found my tale interesting, he was obviously much more fascinated by Georgina and how she'd been plucked from the audience.
"I was just out with my friends," she told him, "when I heard someone playing Recrimination. It's a song by Dark December and they have always been my favourite band so I knew it well, even if it was a different arrangement. So I was singing along, and to the next one, when he must have heard me."
"I did, and I was getting tired," I laughed "so I thought I'd call on some reinforcements."
"Getting tired?" the reporter asked.
"Yes, I'm not used to singing like that, I'm out of practice. And I was belting it a bit."
"You were great," Georgina broke in, smiling up at me. She was a bit shorter than my five foot ten – maybe five six?
"And I was lucky I knew the song he asked me to sing. How did you guess I was a Dark December fan?"
"Well, you knew all the words to Recrimination, and to Jezebel, so I took a chance."
"Were all three songs from the same band?" the reporter asked. "How did you know how to play them?"
"I've always liked those songs," I replied. "And I've sung them before."
"Then where did the other one come from?" he queried. "That's an American song isn't it? Completely different?"
"It's always meant a lot to me," I told him. "And it was written on an acoustic guitar – the band and the orchestra came later. So I just went back to the song's roots."
Georgina was looking at me. She'd heard me sing, listened to acoustic arrangements of three songs by her favourite band, and now I'd talked about how a hit song had been written.
Her jaw dropped and her hands went to her open mouth.
"Oh my God," she gasped. "Peter. You're Pete Riley!"