Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Raelha meets Ken

So, a few weeks ago I was trawling t'net for information on concerts in Gijón. I'd seen a Facebook friend mention an Asturian group which was playing in December and thought I'd check for details. As well as coming up with the goods on said concert, I also discovered, much to my very great delight, that one of my musical heroes, a certain Mr Ken Stringfellow was to be playing in a bar in the same city on the 6th December. Even better, given my current financial state, it was free.

First of all though, a little bit of history about Ken and I. I first came across his music one summer in Cardiff, whilst struggling to write my PhD. I bought his album Touched on a whim from Amazon, having a five pound voucher to spend, reading a few reviews and deciding that it might have potential. How little did I realise just what a jewel that case contained when clicking "buy". I always, perhaps somewhat snobbishly, maintain that you can never judge an album after just a few listens. You need to give the music time to develop, to fully appreciate the different levels therein, everything that's interwoven in there. However, one listen and I was entranced. Normally this is a bad thing, for me at least, I find music that catches your attention that quickly, will lose its attraction with a similar speed, but not this time. The album has become a staple of my collection (and for those who are aware of the size of the collection, that's no mean feat!). Touched lived in my CD player almost permanently that first summer. I'd lie on my bed, trying to summon up the courage to face the PhD draft once again, but instead would let myself be transported by the music and lyrics, away from what was pretty much a daily torment.

Anyway, over ten years and three more, splendid albums later, you can perhaps now imagine how I felt at, for the very first time, seeing an advert for a Ken Stringfellow concert, in a city close to where I lived on I date that I could attend. So, this last Thursday, off I trotted, in my shabby old Skoda, down the Autominera, to Gijón, trying very hard not to speed too much in my excitement to get there and see the man himself perform. 

Now, without wishing to be negative, I wasn't expecting many people to attend. The general response I got when I announced I was going to see Ken Stringfellow was "Who's he? Peter's brother!?" (Google Peter Stringfellow if you don't know about him either, actually, wait a moment, you might be better off in ignorant bliss.) In fact, of all the people I've introduced to the man's music, only one has ever responded with the "absolutely brilliant!" that he well deserves. (Although I do take comfort that this person was the then music editor of the Student Union newspaper and now writes music reviews and interviews the stars for The Guardian - so you could say he knows what he's talking about.) I got to the bar and had to squeeze though the door, it was that full. I couldn't get to the bar, so I decided on a trip to the loo, right at the back of the place, passing by the stage on the way, where I discovered an even more tightly packed crowd awaiting the performance, and, ooh, interesting, Ken himself setting everything up on the small stage. I fought my way through to the toilets, then back to the bar where I finally managed to get served, but was more interested in Mr S who by then was there sipping a glass of red wine, right next to me - lucky man, I was driving and had to make do with a fizzy water. I nervously smiled in his direction, trying to find the courage to say something, preferably witty, but chickened out. (Actually, the same music editor was with me the only time I'd ever found the nerve to speak to another personal hero, this time at Wimbledon: I was practically bullied into wishing Guillermo Coria good luck, in Spanish, of course. And a good job too, otherwise I would've just stood by the court looking foolish instead of blurting out "suerte Guille" as he walked past. To which I received a beaming smile and a "muchas gracias" that kept me on a high for the entire week.)

Anyway, I found myself a chink in the crowd, not so near the stage, but by then it was impossible to get any nearer, and waited. To be honest, I was a little worried: earlier that evening I'd checked his webpage and read, on his blog, about his trouble at catching a taxi when on his way back home in Paris. The driver had apparently been particularly obnoxious and threatened to chuck him out of the vehicle. As the story went, Ken reasoned with the man, told him to calm down and not be so rude and finally got taken home, and then promptly called up the driver's boss to complain - this seemed a little vindictive, and perhaps even prima donna-ish to me, and I wondered if I was going to be let down, not my the music, but by the person - always a possibility when you have a high opinion of someone you've never met. 

Arriving on stage, he caused a great first impression by announcing, as he lifted his beverage, "water is good for you," then raised a different glass and continued "wine is great for you". And off he went... I drifted with the songs and the voice and can't actually remember his opening number, though I do know that he then played one of my absolute favourites of his "Any Love" next. I could enthuse about the music, but anyone who wants to listen can go to Youtube and discover it for themselves. What really impressed me (I already knew the music was going to be fantastic) was the man himself. The concert was peppered with anecdotes, amusing one-liners, personal insights, and more. There was a touch of the surreal and a hint of the ridiculous about it all too. For a start, I've never heard any other musician either profess a dislike for microphones ("if there were any other way of getting the music into the computer, I'd use it") nor state that he hated being above the audience and then get down to play right among them. We were regaled in, what sounded like perfect, Klingon: "today is a good day to die," (interesting, is Ken a Trekkie?) asked to imagine what would happen if the world were to end in half an hour, and then to restart again, but with less bullshit (and off course, he'd come back and play Gijón in this better,second world) and happily followed the man on the journey that is a Ken Stringfellow concert. 

I was impressed already, and then we treated to a story about going to the BBC to record (as it turned out, with REM, though he didn't directly state this - seems Ken Stringfellow is quite a humble man) and on discovering that one of his own musical heroes, Dave Brubeck, was recording there too, he asked the sound engineer in his studio if he perchance knew where Mr Brubeck was recording and awaited while he made a phone call. Here Ken changes voices and puts on what sounds like an Aussie accent, but might be his attempt at cockney:  "Alright mate, you got Dave Brubeck here with you? There's a guy from REM who'd like to meet him" and turning to a now slightly panicked Ken Stringfelllow ("No, don't tell him I'm in REM ! It's just little me") told him he'd be there in a few minutes.   The tale continued with a conversation between the two musicians, the elder happily chatting to the younger admirer and inviting him to his concert the next day, and backstage afterwards, to which Ken went and continued the conversation there, after which he also got a lift back to The Dorchester (REM obviously tour in style) on Brubeck's tour bus ("we're going back to London, why don't we drop you off?"). Well, at hearing this rather heart-warming, and as it was told, often amusing, story, as well as Ken's reiteration that that's what being great is all about - not just being good at what you do, a little idea stirred in my mind.

Two hours after he started, and only because he was told to stop, the music ended and we were offered the chance to buy Stringfellow merchandise on stage, sold by yes, Ken Stringfellow (reading his blog, I've discovered that, not only does he never cease touring/recording/mixing/writing, he seems to catch public transport everywhere, on his own, sorts out transport for his own gear and basically does all the work himself). I'm sure you could see my heart as it attempted to leap out of my chest as I waited by the side of the stage for the swell of customers to diminish. Then, trying not to thinking too hard about what I was about to do, and not quite able to believe that I was actually doing it, hopped on stage with the opening line, and my hand held out "I'm not going to give you any money, I just wanted to say hi, I'm Rachel" and off I went, and it was fine. The hand was clasped, and eye contact was made! I told him I'd been wanting to see him live since that summer when I bought Touched, and also accused him of ruining my PhD  - he took it well, and on discovering that it was in Spanish history, exclaimed that he should've played History Buffs (a song off his latest album). I shot back that I'd expect it the next time he played Asturias. I wasn't anywhere near as eloquent as I would've liked to have been, but it was good. I wasn't quite comfortable, but neither did I make a horrendous fool of myself as I'm always worried about doing - especially in a situation like this - how not to sound too gushy/obsessed while still trying to convey how well you like the music and how much it means to you. I think I managed it. We chatted for about five minutes before I decided that I should let everyone else have their chance. I floated back to the car, and all the way back up the motorway, and then my mountain till I reached home in a state of bliss, unable to call even R at that late hour to gush to him about what an unexpected, marvellous treat I'd been given.

After class the next day, I rushed to R's clinic (he's a vet) and proceed to gush to him there about the previous evening. He smiled, and told me I sounded like a little girl. Perhaps he was right, but I fail to see anything negative in that. There's something wrong in life if it's missing those experiences that make you forget just how you're supposed to behave, but just appreciate them, enjoy them, and hell yes, act like an excited little girl, touched by Ken Stringfellow.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Enjoying the learning curve, part IV

Conversations recently with R have touched on the Xmas party theme. Neither of us is particularly enthusiastic about the festive season, but since I shall be going back to the UK for my first Xmas in 8 years I think I may be able to find a little seasonal spirit for the occasion.  

Anyway, we were talking about celebrations, and R mentioned that once I get back from my trip, we should have our own mini-knees-up at my house, with a matasuegras to tease the cats. Now, this was a completely new word for me and given its literal translation - "mother-in-law killer"  - I was a little hesitant to agree. Just what exactly was he planning to do to my six, little, mischievous, balls of fur? As it turns out, a matasuegras is one of these:

Bernard Manning would've loved it, I'm sure.