Live review: Songwriting Live, Bristol (25 March ’14)
Our series of regular songwriter showcases and Q&A sessions continues in the intimate surroundings of The Fringe Bar in Bristol
ather like many cities across the British Isles, Bristol is a veritable patchwork quilt of different areas, all with their own communities and distinctive music venues. If Clifton Village is its proverbial snug of our home, then The Fringe is the favourite armchair next to the fire. The venue’s modest back-room filled with songwriters, and acoustic music fans in the intimate surroundings, the lights dimmed and a hush descended. It all seemed very familiar to its hosts, as it was the third in the regular night, but where previous shindigs skipped along in a rather comedic and off-the-cuff fashion, this evening touched on more emotive and sensitive subject matters.
Picking up his acoustic guitar and kicking us off was regular performer, co-host and surrealist Pete Brandt typified the night’s more lugubrious tone, with some very touching compositions. Starting with Hunger – unsurprisingly about hunger, but also about loss – Pete revealed he’d written the song with Andy Davis a long time ago and finished with what he described as a “Nashville fade”. Then, continuing along a melancholic line, he movingly dedicated second song I Like The Box to a friend with terminal cancer, before finishing with His Last Breath – a frank account of forgiving his father when he passed away. Anywhere else, this opening set might’ve killed the gig, but here, with an audience of sympathetic and reverent listeners, it simply made for an emotionally charged atmosphere, and Pete’s courage and honesty was rewarded with attention and enthusiastic applause.
Next it was the turn of our host Sarah Ménage, who started with a song called Let’s Call It A Day and like Pete she could enjoy the attention of a respectful audience – you could’ve heard a pin drop. Only having time for two songs herself, Sarah then performed My Boy’s Dad – a emotional tune that lyrically was actually an upbeat celebration of her relationship with her son. With lyrics like “I love my boy and I’m so glad” and “The only success in my life was an act of grace”, it was a moving ode that again had the audience captivated.
Then came the introduction of a brand new voice for Songwriting Live, but a very familiar voice to many locals, as long-standing BBC Bristol radio DJ, Keith Warmington, took to the stage. In contrast to Pete and Sarah’s emotive sets, Keith’s delivery was more upbeat, starting with Celebration that he’d written when he was 29-30 years old. His voice had clearly benefitted from years of talking on the radio, as the vocal projection and strength was impressive. Then, introducing his second song A View From Here, Keith regaled the crowd with an anecdote about riding his motorcycle back from the radio studio in the small hours, before admitting it “took me ages to write and then finally emerged.” Reinforcing his creative struggle, that many songwriters would sympathise with, he said “I bleed songs, I don’t write them.” Keith finished with a more recent composition called La Brayet, named after the hamlet in France that inspired it. In fact, one of the friends he’d stayed with there was in the audience! Unlike other songs that Keith had to ‘bleed’ out, this one came “fully furnished” whilst mucking around with some chords, but it was just as enjoyable and well-crafted with a warm lyric – ‘Raise a glass to you my dear old southern friends’.
As Keith stepped off the stage to enthusiastic applause, it was time for another new songwriter by name of Emily Teague to make herself known, and she did so with aplomb. With a style reminiscent of the likes of Tracy Chapman and KT Tunstall, Emily’s voice and acoustic guitar playing soared confidently through three brilliantly written Anglo-Americana-inspired songs, informed by a year spent touring across the US. She’d taken the bold step of quitting her day job in the UK, before jetting across the Atlantic, and the experience had clearly paid off. Driving opener Molly Was A Wild Horse was a hook-laden acoustic pop-rock song with a chorus that stuck in the head for days afterwards, which was followed briskly by another US road-trip-inspired song called Steinback Country. For her third and final track, You Are A Pattern, Emily switched the guitar to an open tuning and fitted a capo, which gave the song a beautiful arpeggio backdrop along the lines of ambient-acoustic singer-songwriters like Jose Gonzales or Fink. Emily revealed the song had been changed recently, and although the audience wouldn’t have known any different, whatever had been tweaked, worked! With several changes in timbre and pace through the arrangement and a catchy closing refrain of “We are wonderful”, Emily demonstrated some adept songwriting techniques in just three very good compositions.
Then it came to the first Q&A session of the evening, with Pete, Sarah, Keith and Emily fielding questions from the floor. As with previous Songwriting Live nights, the audience proved to be inquisitive and eager to learn from our performers. Various topics were discussed by each songwriter in turn, but Pete was particularly vocal, explaining that he is a prolific writer, producing the genesis of four or five songs each and every week, and he’d written one about Rita Hayworth. Continuing on the subject of creativity, Pete said that “There are as many ways to write songs as there are people” but he simply keeps writing notes of song ideas and that a lot of them happened to be amusing stories he’d heard or simply observations of news stories. Keith had already explained a little about his experience as a songwriter during his set, but in the Q&A revealed he was primarily a harmonica player, was “daunted by writing songs” initially and likes to “wait for the muse”.
Questions directed to Emily in particular focused on her experience playing in the USA, where she’d clearly learnt a lot from other songwriters and performers at open mic nights. The experience had forced her to dig deeper and discover her own voice. When asked about Nashville, Emily expressed a frustration with so many budding musicians moving there simply to further their career, and felt like saying, “Do you want to make it, or make music?”
After a short interval, the room filled again for Stackridge and Korgis troubadour Andy Davis to kick off the second half. Songwriting Live regulars would’ve already enjoyed some of Andy’s insightful and amusing introductions, and anyone expecting more of the same wouldn’t have been disappointed, as his preamble to Charlie’s Dead – citing the title’s origin as old teenage slang for seeing a girl’s petticoat and the misgivings of a young relationship. The song itself was driven along by a Dylan-esque guitar and vocal, giving the night’s proceedings another shot in the arm, before bringing it down a notch for Baby Good For You.
Coming from our neighbouring city of Bath, university student Peter Vaughn-Fowler was next up, bringing a welcome injection of youthful vigour with him. More importantly, he also brought a great pop voice and a set of very good self-penned songs in the vein of current acoustic music darlings Ben Howard and Ed Sheeran. Peter declared his forte was “writing about less important things, rather than life and death” which was epitomised by his first song Water Under The Bridge – about falling out with his friends but still having to live together. Then came Roots which he’d bravely decided to play, despite only being finished the night before. With lyrics centred around the nostalgia of his home town (‘The smell of breakfast on a lazy Saturday’), it was clear that listeners related to the words and Peter needn’t have worried about playing such a fresh idea – it went down very well with the crowd. Peter capped off the set with Infatuated – a co-write with his band. Amusingly he admitted that at the time of writing he didn’t think that ‘infatuated’ was even a word!
Bringing the live music to a close, came Ruth Hammond who gave us another contrasting set of three songs from behind the electric piano. In the style of Norah Jones, the slow soulful-jazz opener People I Know was what Ruth introduced as a “tune about family”. She also confessed that it “takes me ages to write songs” but that her second song Best And Worst (originally an untitled composition before deciding what to call it that evening) contradicted her and unusually one that came quickly. Then, brilliantly finishing the night on a high, Ruth delivered her third and final song Another Day Gone with a superb lyric about procrastination, and a funky rhodes riff that could’ve graced a Stevie Wonder track.
When it came to the second of the night’s Q&A sessions, with Peter Vaughn-Fowler, Ruth and Andy, it was Peter who was asked about his influences and revealed that The Beatles and Bob Dylan from parents – something which many other young songwriters could relate to. Answering questions about the creative process, he admitted that he still finds lyrics almost impossible to write, going on to rather aptly describe songwriting as “like a ticking bomb” – that he needs to get the ideas down quickly before they self-destruct.
As more questions were fired back and forth, it wasn’t long before the line between the stage and the floor blurred, as the audience became more enthusiastic. It soon became a ‘shared experience’, but was no less interesting for it. After all, this is what it’s all about – sharing and learning from each other. It was great to witness these passionate exchanges between the performers and the audience who were both eager to unpick the ‘black art’ of songwriting… even if the whole process raised even more questions!
With that, the enthused and inspired crowd stepped out of the cosy surroundings of The Fringe, leaving the evening’s hosts and performers to pack up and reflect on what was another fantastic Songwriting Live event. And it keeps getting better every month!
Words: Aaron Slater Photos: Russell Deeks
If you’d like to perform at a Songwriting Live event in Bristol – or if you’d be interested in hosting Songwriting Live in your own town – then send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org