christopher james

Poems and prattle

Tag: acoustic

With These Hands – A Tribute to Eric Roche, Haverhill Arts Centre, 13 November 2015

A spotlight on a solitary acoustic guitar set the tone for a moving tribute to the life and music of fingerstyle guitar legend, Eric Roche. Ten years on from his untimely death, the great and the good of the acoustic guitar world assembled to pay their respects. With his family among the crowd in a packed Haverhill Arts Centre, it was set to be an emotionally charged evening.

Eric

Any suggestion that this would be a sedate affair however, was banished immediately as the show began with an explosion rendition of Roundabout from the man himself up on the big screen. With his acrobatic percussion techniques and distinctive sway, it was a reminder of the extraordinary physicality of Eric’s talent and stage presence.

Nick Keeble, resplendent in a t-shirt showing six guitars, introduced the proceedings in fine style, before Stuart Ryan opened the batting. His flowing melodic lines evoked a quiet pastoral beauty, and brought an elegiac tone to the hushed Victorian building, while also showcasing the venue’s fantastic sound. The gritty attack of his rendition of All Along the Watchtower showed that he wasn’t all about lyrical ballads.

Ravi was next up, barefoot and in beanie hat, wielding both a guitar and a kora (an African harp that resembles a sitar, played upright). His rendition of We Are, a deeply spiritual song about the links between generations was spell-biding, his rich voice occupying a space somewhere between Stephen Stills and James Taylor.

Guitar maker Nick Benjamin made an excellent unscripted speech about Eric, strolling about the stage, quite unable to resist the temptation to pick up Eric’s guitar. You got the sense that he remembered not only the hours making it, but the extraordinary transformation it underwent once in Eric’s hands. He replaced it with great care back in the spot light.

Another video of Eric’s great friend and fellow acoustic guitar innovator, Thomas Leeb was greeted with warm applause, which Thomas may well have been able to hear all the way from America, where he was unavoidably engaged.

Clive Carroll delivered a master-class with his strident, precise playing, the notes ringing high up into the rafters. He is a tremendously nice chat to boot and the audience loved his smiles and mugging while also enjoying his fiendishly difficult waltzes. Clive told us that he had spent every morning that week learning one of Eric’s pieces, especially for the show, only to discover that Higher Ground was in fact written by Stevie Wonder. The funky turbulence he generated from the six strings belied the short practice time.

David Mead gave a funny, charming and self deprecating performance, making a brilliant connection with the audience, who appreciated his own accomplished playing as much as his stories about Eric. David shared how Eric was often ‘relaxed’ about delivering his copy for the guitar magazine David edits. We learned how, on one deadline day, in a world before email, it was handed over ‘like a wad of used bank notes in a jiffy bag in a pub car park.’

Martyn Taylor was simply sublime, his effortless jazz lines lulling the crowd into a reverie. His reading of another majestic Stevie Wonder composition, If It’s Magic, prompted Nick Keeble to wonder whether in fact he had inadvertently organised a Stevie Wonder tribute night instead.

Taylor was also responsible for the anecdote of the night, remembering a famous mishap when he and Eric were recording up in the islands of Scotland. He recalled the intense pressure Eric put himself under while making the album. Suggesting they take a break for a drink, they caught a ferry to the pub. On the return journey however, they were so engrossed in discussing the music, they ended up back where they started, sheepishly having to ask the captain if he wouldn’t mind making one last crossing.

The young, bearded and ridiculously talented Declan Zapala provided a late highlight with his version of Angel, dedicated to Eric’s sister before essaying his own astonishing Philomena, dedicated to his own mum. He spoke movingly of the influence Eric had on his style and it was inspiring to see Eric’s legacy passed so impressively onto the next generation. The stretches Declan made with his hands to reach the notes made them look like spiders doing Pilates.

An all star version of With These Hands, one of Eric most beautiful compositions, led by Stuart Ryan, providing a fitting coda to the evening. The other guitarists crowded endearingly around their sheet music in an effort to keep up. A final song from Ravi, Time Capsule, finally ended the night on an optimistic note, with the image of Eric watching over us.

And if he was watching, Eric could not have failed to be impressed by the virtuosity, affection and joy so evident in the room. Cheers guys for an incredibly performance and thank you Eric, too!

The Uke of Wellington – My second ukulele LP

In October last year, I released my first ukulele LP, In the Plink. (Q****) Since then, U2 and I have been in secret talks to ensure that the release dates of our new albums do not clash. I’m pleased to say that these talks have ended happily and I will be releasing The Uke of Wellington today.

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To access the tricks, simply click on the links below. All songs by Chris James.

Side 1 

Lighter Than Air

Old Fashioned Things Called Love

The Hot Club of Bohemia  

Rainy Days 

The Scarecrow in the Rain 

Side 2 

The Golden Age 

Allotted Time 

Neither Here Nor There 

Heaven Farm 

If you like what you hear, tell your friends and perhaps even buy a copy of my latest book, The Fool. Be good, be kind, have fun, eat plums.

It’s a little known fact that the Duke liked to unwind by playing the greatest hits of J.S.Bach on his humble uke to sing his dear horse Copenhagen to sleep each night. The ukulele is now kept in the Tower of London. His famous pastime is remembered each year by the players at the Uke at the Duke on the second Tuesday of every month in Shoreham on Sea.

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In The Plink – My Ukulele LP

Somebody once said, ‘if everyone played the ukulele the world would be a better place.’ It would also, I suppose, be rather too chirpy and perhaps a little annoying, but there’s no denying the special magic contained in those four strings.

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Over the past three months I have done little but write songs and play the ukulele. On the face of it, this makes me sound rather idle. But I now have these songs to show for my adventure into musical hall eccentricity and here they are for you to enjoy. And if you don’t like the plink, there’s always the plonk.

The Radio 4 Song

The Jogging Song

The House of Our Dreams 

Simply Mad About Trad

The Age of Hats  

It Always Rains In Mundesley 

Pining for a Pudding 

Wait for the Thing to Go Ting 

What’s So Super About Superstores?

Superhero

The Brand New Old Fashioned

I’ve been playing lots of ukulele recently and writing lots of songs – a ridiculous number of songs in fact, all rather silly and consequential, but very good fun. Despite the fact that the instrument only cost eight pounds, I’ve found that I’ve barely picked up my guitar in the last three months. Ukuleles should come with a health warning – they are incredibly addictive.

This song is about a little known resort in North Norfolk called Mundesley, a quiet little spot at the unfashionable end of Poppyland, where in my experience, it nearly always rains . . .

CJ Mundesley

My new LP

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I’ve now recorded ten original acoustic pieces, which sounds to me like an album. So without the need to speak to a record company, trouble your wallet or visit iTunes, here’s the full album. Just press to play.

If you would like to buy my latest poetry collection England Underwater in exchange for this outrageous free gift, then please go right ahead!

The Hunter

I’ve been listening to lots of Andy McKee, the American acoustic guitar genius and particularly his new song, The Reason. Check him out, as well as Thomas Leeb’s inspiring acoustic version of Comfortably Numb. And once you’ve done that, you can listen to my new acoustic composition: The Hunter, inspired by Artemis, the Hellenic goddess of the hunt and the wild. The legend goes that she shot her lover Orion with an arrow by accident. No health and safety officers in those days you see, folks.

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Billy’s Jig

Like buses, first no music at all, and now I’m posting tunes all the time on the blog (okay this is the second time). Billy’s Jig is something I wrote over the last four days while experimenting with an open C tuning (CGCGCE for all you guitarists out there). It’s for my grandfather who would have been 93 on 8th June.

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Not all of it is a jig – just the bit in the middle – but ‘Billy’s Jig with Intro and Coda’ isn’t half so catchy. I would also like to dedicate it to my father, who is considerably younger and more sprightly and celebrating his birthday today. Happy birthday dad!

You Can Discover – Remembering John Martyn

Years ago I got hold of the Island Records’ John Martyn best of, Serendipidy. I was easily seduced by the slurry vocals and intricate fingerstyle playing. Like thousands of others, I quickly learnt ‘May you Never’ on the guitar, although never quite mastering that famous ‘slappy thumb’ technique he made his own).  I was less keen however on the echoplex jazz experimentation –  wishing he had continued down his folksy path. Ralph McTell, who was a contemporary of the Les Cousins folk scene in the late sixties (they all thought that was the name of the bloke who owned the club) thought much the same thing.

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Having read John Neil Munro’s excellent 2007 biog, Some People Are Crazy, and using the browsing power of iTunes, I decided to give John Martyn another go, and was rewarded in spades. Essentially, everything up to 1980 is fantastic. The early acoustic things are ridiculously likable – from the sweet-as-sherbert version of ‘Singin’ in the Rain,’ the hippy-trippy idealism of ‘Woodstock’ and melt in your mouth cover of ‘Don’t Think Twice it’s Alright’ where he manages to improve on Dylan’s melody. Even whimsical tunes on The Tumbler like ‘Sing a Song of Summer’ and ‘Fishin’ Blues’ are charming. His energy and look-at-me guitar playing sell even the slightest material. 

The real revelation however, is the album Inside Out, which combines richly melodic fare such as ‘Fine Lines’ – (lovely to hear John totally into the music in his spoken ‘it felt natural’ intro) with more sophisticated electric playing. World music, jazz inflections and hypnotic riffs make it plain why Martyn found this direction more intriguing. Once you get into the One World album with its trippy grooves (especially on Dancing and Big Muff), the satisfactions are deeper still. The acoustic years seem lightweight in comparison.

The decline then, after 1980’s Grace and Danger, with its more mannered production (the stinging version of Johnny Too Bad’ an exception) is all the more disappointing. There are a couple of later gems on Sapphire (a haunting version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow – apparently recorded as a joke and fittingly, a minor hit in Germany) and the poppy Fisherman’s Dream. After that, unfortunately there is really nothing but synthesizers and false comebacks.  He just seemed to lose his mojo – much like Stephen Stills in 1974; the tunes just stopped coming.

Munro’s biography probably hasn’t won Martyn any new sympathisers – his prickliness, unreliability and unfailing ability to say exactly what was on his mind in any given situation won him few friends, especially when the booze got the better of him. Some of the images are at once fascinating and pitiful – when he is taken in by a friendly pub landlady in the mid eighties, she finds him slumped on the floor by the kitchen fridge eating their supply of lobsters.

Lobsters aside, you could do much worse than spend an hour discovering the soulful, original body of work John created in the sixties, seventies and early eighties. There’s nothing around now that comes close to it.      

OVER THE HILL

 He was the man who was always singing

    the gifted tramp, who wore his overcoat

on the hottest days; whose melodies

    smoked from his mouth. He followed

his bright, unlucky self around the village.

    The Charlie Mingos of Lanarkshire; his pockets

spilled over with apples and plectrums.

     He stumbled the streets, made faces

at the kids, who knew nothing of the way

     he could bend the air around him, or

conjure light from a guitar with a bear’s claw. 

     They only knew of his pints of Barcardi

and how mid afternoon he would growl songs

     to his answerphone inside a red phone box.