Sitting here staring into space, reflecting on the experiences of six home concerts over Thanksgiving week, that have been a long time coming.
Thanksgiving is my favourite holiday. I like it because of the story behind it – the Puritans had made it through their first long severe winter in New England, many had died, but those that survived sat down for a shared meal with the native American Indians to celebrate a bountiful harvest. As a child I always liked it that the Indians and Puritans set aside their differences for this brief moment. I like the theme that human connection in the face of shared adversity can overcome social, cultural or ethnic difference. For me, Thanksgiving is a story of connections.
And so it was a happy coincidence for me, a fortuitous connection, that this week of home concerts in rural areas happened to fall over Thanksgiving week.
Where did it all start? Well, for me, I would say it started just over a year ago when we went to see Oysterband play at the Stables and I was struck by the energy and feeling of connection between the band and their audience. I became more interested in them through a blog that John Jones writes and when I saw their electric show in Norwich last December, once again that feeling of energy and connection was striking.
Ray Cooper, another band member, wrote a blog in May this year which reflected on the 1960s cafe culture in Greenwich Village where musicians like Bob Dylan had the opportunity to play on an almost nightly basis, getting closer to their audiences without any of the props to which both performers and audiences have become so accustomed: PA systems, lights, mikes etc. Ray mentioned an idea that has taken off in Canada, where folk and acoustic musicians go on home concert tours organised for them by a non-profit-making organisation. In a country with a vast geography such as Canada, the rationale is simple. People may live two or three hours away from towns and concert venues so the idea of bringing good music to rural communities immediately strikes a chord. Would the same idea work in England? I contacted Ray to say I thought the idea was very interesting (I could immediately visualise a concert in our front room), so did Miranda and Tom. We decided to give it a go.
We met up for the planning stage in July and agreed some dates for Ray to do a pilot in November. It all seemed to fall into place quite magically at first with little effort. Miranda and I both wanted to be hosts, Ray had a friend, and I found three other friends who were prepared to get involved. The list of other keen hosts has been steadily growing since.
Why did the idea appeal so much in the first place? Back to connections. There is such a wonderful feeling of connection and energy that arises from these concerts – connection between all the host’s friends sharing the experience, connection with the music at a much deeper and more immediate level than can happen in a large venue, connection between audience and performer, and visibly developing connection between the musician and his music.
It was interesting seeing Ray develop as the week went on. In the first two concerts he played ‘Black is the colour of my true love’s hair’, a beautiful traditional folk ballad, at or towards the end of the concert, and I was struck by how he seemed to relax and just let go with the music. We talked about this, he described the challenges of improvising with a more technically demanding piece of music, and I wondered how he might integrate this easier more relaxed connection with the music into the rest of his performance. And that is what happened as the week wore on. He stopped playing ‘Black is the colour…’ (which I was a little sad about because he did it so well), but he took the more relaxed and integrated style gradually and steadily into his songs. At the same time, his voice also became deeper and more resonant. From the first it had blended beautifully with the timbre of the cello – a feature Steve also noted at Rebecca’s concert – and in the last couple concerts his voice acquired a kind of multi-layered resonance which provided a greater context and setting for the songs.
I will remember the week with each evening framed by a dark drive along usually long and winding roads to homes I had never been to or those that just looked different in the dark. Making my way there each night I had a feeling of anticipation but also, for different reasons on different nights, some element of nervousness. Every night was a surprise, and I felt so energised on the drives back that it was hard to sleep.
It was a week of little sleep, mounting exhaustion, and cakes cakes cakes. I have never baked so many cakes in a week, or discovered so many variations on cooking with quinces.
Each host brought their own character to their concert.
Miranda’s concert started the week. It had a lovely, warm, friendly welcoming feel to it, reflecting her personality. Guests were all greeted with a bowl of soup in the cosy kitchen amazingly fitted out with hooks just about everywhere on the ceiling with characterful pottery on show. It felt like a very unified connected group, many of whom were already familiar with Ray’s music, and there was a healthy balance of respect and enjoyment in the room. It was a seamless event, starting on time and running like clockwork.
As an established professional in the music business, Pete had kitted out the barn at the back of his house. When I arrived at his smartly refurbished pub converted to home, I immediately felt the sophistication of a London environment, Islington perhaps. There was an eclectic mix of guests from the music world and neighbours who liked folk music. ‘Informal sophistication’ is the phrase I am left with to describe his night.
I was a little discomforted when one of his guests quipped to me at the end of the night – ‘how will it be for you if all the other concerts go well and yours doesn’t?’ Not funny! I must say, I thought that was a little unkind to make that kind of a joke the night before my concert.
Being a host is not without its stresses. There’s all the preparation, thinking through the food, drink arrangements and all the usual party stuff. Then there’s the added challenge of inviting people and making sure they’re coming. You can’t have a concert without an audience. With more than 40 people coming, I felt really excited and moderately confident about my night.
It’s very hard to write about your own concert when you’re in the middle of it. Having been to the first two and realised how revealing they were of the host’s character, this gave me a slight feeling of curiosity, and also mild unease, about what my concert might say about me. Rather than try to answer that question myself, a number of you readers were there – mostly you don’t like to comment, I know – so if you have any reflections I’d love to hear them. And if you weren’t there, I’d love to hear your guesses and imaginations too.
Rebecca’s concert was quite amazing. I knew it was going to be special because she lives in a rambling 17th century Norfolk farmhouse which is essentially in two halves. On my first visit there it felt a little like a National Trust property, say Caulke Abbey, in the process of renovation and restoration with features like some of the old wallpaper peeking through layers of paint and the ceiling in one room with all the hooks intact for hanging meat. The room Ray was to play in had the air of a Regency drawing room and an unusual shape to it with a lovely hearth. On the night he played snow was threatening, a fire was blazing, with candle flames reflecting in a mirror, and it was truly magical. Amazingly, we had thought earlier in the day how it would be good to video one of the performances and this one seemed in my mind’s eye to lend itself best to being captured. I e-mailed Rebecca at 2pm and by 4pm, all had been sorted with a professional videoer who was already a neighbour and a guest. He recorded the entire concert to the highest quality and everything fell into place. The buzz and energy was great, and once again it reflected Rebecca and Daren’s personalities and great mix of friends.
Anne lives close by so I didn’t face a long drive hurtling towards an uncertain destination. By this stage in the tour I was relieved as my physical energy levels were becoming depleted. This was the most intimate night of all, and Ray visibly relaxed with even more anecdotes, this time more focused on folk music and some of the technicalities to suit the interests of his audience. Clive has extensive musical knowledge and it was really pleasing when he said at the end that he felt it was a privilege to have had Ray play, and not only would he invite him back again but didn’t want him to leave the next day! My personal view is that Ray sang best of all on this evening in Anne’s front room.
The grand finale took place at Sophie’s yoga studio which has marble floors and vaulted ceilings, and the most amazing acoustics. The cello, the guitar, the harmonica and Ray’s voice all discovered new nuances, depths and tones echoing in this space. Followed by a lavish multi-course Indian meal (too many courses to count), this was a fitting end to a week of twists and turns and surprises.
I’ve long since got over that feeling of dullness and sadness when a piece of work ends, I can remember many times at the end of a week-long workshop or course that I’ve run looking around the empty room after everyone else has gone and feeling quite sad that it’s all over. I rediscovered that feeling at the end of this tour. I felt a sadness that the next night wouldn’t involve me hurtling along dark roads to yet another destination even as I also felt a relief that I could get back to normal meals at normal times, and sleep.
I am still trying to work out what it is about this week that has been so incredibly uplifting. It would be easy to say it was the music. I come back to the theme of connections. I feel a lot of connections were made, confirmed, explored, discovered; somehow I feel I connected with myself. And I feel intuitively that whatever the obstacles ahead, there is more to come.