Friday, 9 February 2018

The Cat's Out of the Bag

In which The Author cannot be trusted with small animals
Rhian has gone away this weekend, on a journey into unknown territory. She's spending a couple of days in Poole, Dorset – a place that neither of us have visited before. As the official transport planner, I'd already established the train as the only practical means of making the journey (see A Dip in the Poole in my blog about public transport). Rhian booked the tickets a couple of weeks ago. It fits around her work shifts, so she's not using any holiday. It's also a rugby weekend, so Rhian will be deep in enemy territory by the time the match kicks off tomorrow. A plan was coming together.
That left only one problem: Alvin.
Alvin is a cat which Rhian acquired about a year ago. He's small, black, lively, and a bloody nuisance. He managed to go walkabout when he was still quite young. He turned up on the Heads of the Valleys Road between Hirwaun and Merthyr Tydfil. Some people driving along spotted him, decided he was a stray, and took him to their house in Rhymney. Alvin and Rhian were eventually reunited through social media, but the mystery is still how he got to Baverstocks in the first place. Our theory is that he climbed into a box outside a house in Trecynon, was picked up in the morning along with the rest of the recycling, and escaped when the refuse lorry reached Bryn Pica, halfway to Merthyr.
I lost count of the number of times he claimed to want to go outside on Xmas night, while Rhian and I were trying to watch a film. He was even worse a few weeks back, when we were (again) trying to watch a film. I've never liked cats anyway, and Alvin has done little to change my opinion. Somehow Rhian has decided that I'd be the perfect person to feed him while she was away. I know I live literally around the corner, but I was sure there must be someone better suited to cat-sitting. Someone who likes cats, for instance.
I've mentioned this problem to a number of my friends, and they've all said much the same thing: 'A cat will last three days without food.' Rhian was horrified when I told her that. I think she thought I was actually serious. Half-serious, maybe.
Last week Rhian managed to convince Rebecca, the former Goth barmaid (who's also Rhian's cousin), to call in twice a day and feed the cat. It was all settled, except that yesterday Rhian couldn't get hold of Rebecca to give her the spare house key. She texted me instead, asking me if I could meet her after work and take the key to pass on to Rebecca. I took the key home last night, and that should have been the end of the story.
This morning, Rhian and I had the following exchange over Facebook Messenger. I knew she was catching the 1122 train from Aberdare, so I left it until then to get in touch.
Me: Remember you're catching the Portsmouth Harbour train (probably platform 1 or 2) and changing at Southampton Central. Beyond Salisbury you're on your own, so if you get stuck you'll have to talk to an English person. Have a great weekend!
Rhian: Lol ok thanks
Me: From Southampton, some trains terminate at Poole while the rest run semi-fast to Weymouth. Make sure the Weymouth train actually stops at Poole before you get on it.
Rhian: Ok I will that would be my luck getting on wrong train
Me: I know, that's why I'm looking at the live departure boards now.
Rhian: You are a great friend
Me: Not that great. I came out without your key, so I'll have to go back for it (or feed the beast myself later on).

Monday, 5 February 2018

Black Ops

In which The Author reads someone into the programme
It's my friend Lindsey's birthday on 15 February, which is an easy date to remember, of course. It's a milestone birthday, too, so we've decided to make it an occasion to remember.
I was in Jac's a fortnight or so when Lindsey rang Barrie, asking if he could put the karaoke gear up for the night. We've been trying to relaunch the karaoke there since Xmas anyway. The War Against the Machines escalated over the holidays. Since the gang has been busy redecorating the place as well, we haven't really tried to pick up where we left off.
Lindsey's birthday could be the incentive we all need to make Jac's the place to be on a Thursday night. Not only have we got a proper stage, professional gear, and a sound system to die for, but the beer is reasonable priced and Barrie and Amanda don't allow idiots to spoil everyone's fun.
The karaoke scene in Aberdare has been dwindling for ages. The Lighthouse still staggers on (somehow), but everyone agrees that it's been pretty feeble since Tara decided to call it a day. Some of the regulars have started going to the Bush, but the more mature among us won't be seen dead in there. Those of us who have been into Jac's have agreed that, if we start it up again, they'll make it their regular haunt.
Lindsey invited me to her birthday party about a fortnight ago, and mentioned that she'd spoken to Barrie. I told her I'd been in the bar when she rang, and suggested that we make it into a proper relaunch party. I've mentioned it to Philvis and Clare, Huntley, Martin, Adrian, Tina and Bethan, and Lindsey's invited some of her gang from her semi-regular karaoke nights as well.
You'll have noticed that there's one name missing from the list: Chazza.
The Incredible Vanishing Girl has reappeared during the last week. She was in town early on Thursday evening; I saw her as I heading towards Iceland. As usual, we blanked each other. But I did feel a bit guilty about not inviting her to Jac's. We had a nice little gang in the Lighthouse until just over a year ago – and there's no doubt that Chazza would make the most of Barrrie's gear.
She came into the Cambrian on Friday night for Jocelyn's karaoke, but the day before the first international, most people's minds were on rugby. She sang one song, but I caught the 9.30 bus home so I don't know if she stuck around afterwards.
She was there last night, too. Philvis and I were waiting for the singer to arrive, chatting at the end of the bar. Chazza was sitting on her own, just scrolling through her phone. I felt rather sorry for her, in fact. I asked Jenny for a piece of paper, and scribbled a quick note. I wrote down the date of Lindsey's birthday, the venue, the time, and added 'Getting the old gang back together'.
Then I asked Philvis if he'd go across and slip her the note. She was putting her coat on when he gave her the message. She looked a bit confused, then spotted me at the end of the bar. She raised her eyebrows, pointed to herself, and mouthed 'From you?'
I just nodded slowly. I didn't speak, or acknowledge her in any other way. Then I returned to the conversation and didn't look up when she left by the side door.
It occurred to me afterwards where I'd borrowed that particular slow nod from. If you're a fan of NCIS, you'd recognise it as well. It's the look that Leon Vance gives to Leroy Jethro Gibbs every so often. It sends a particular message: 'I know what you're up to behind my back, Gibbs. Just get on with it. If this black op you're planning all goes to shit, don't you bring your mess back to my office.'
Will it all go to shit a week on Thursday? Stay tuned for the next episode, boys and girls …

Sunday, 28 January 2018

The Inevitable Pinhole Burns

In which The Author is unwell
To kick January firmly into touch, Jac's Music Venue in Aberdare hosted possibly their best gig to date last night: three bands playing entirely original material. The headline act were an unknown quantity to me, in fairness. While we were chatting about the gig, ages ago, Barrie described them as ‘Folk Rock’. They certainly sounded intriguing enough – quirky songs about life in Wales and their experiences of travelling. (At the risk of public execution, dare I say it’s the sort of thing Kelly Jones used to write about before his creative juices dried up, around the third LP?)
Discount Columbo were on the poster, but when I got inside there was no sign of Connor and the others. Most bands won’t get far without a bass player. Mind you, it was his birthday on Friday. I’ll throw a nice word your way: crapulous. The Chambers Dictionary defines it as ‘sick through intemperance’. (Hung-over to buggery, in plain English.) There was still no sign of them when Heavy Flames took to the stage. I wondered if they were going to throw a collective sickie.
A six-piece band, Heavy Flames have been gigging steadily around South Wales for quite a few years. In spite of the fact that Dai Hill, their singer, and Lee Harvey, one of the guitarists, are old pals of mine, I hadn’t managed to catch them at all until last October. At the time I described them as having ‘a hard bluesy sound and great presence’. Last night they’d changed their approach entirely. With not one but two sit-down acoustic guitarists, a rock-solid rhythm section, a fine harp player (no, not the traditional Celtic instrument), and Dai doing his stuff in front of the stage, their sound was much easier on the ears than last time. It made a welcome change from the sledgehammer approach of too many bands these days. A couple of songs in, Dai assured the audience that they only play original material. That’s a good sign as well.
I spoke to Dai earlier on, and he was very pleased with their change of direction. I hope Heavy Flames decide to continue along those lines. It’s a classic sound without being derivative or cliched. (I know comparisons are lazy journalism, but early Nine Below Zero would be a decent benchmark.) I’ll definitely be popping into Red House Music in Aberdare Market this week to pick up their CD.
Heavy Flames had finished their set before Connor and the rest of Discount Columbo strolled in. He didn’t look especially crapulous, but he did decline my offer of a birthday pint so I think he was slightly unwell. The band are based in Bristol – they met at university – so we can probably ascribe their late arrival to the legendary Brynglas Tunnel Effect.
I’ve only seen Discount Columbo once before, too. That was a packed ‘end of the pub’ gig, and the nature of the venue didn’t do them any great favours. I was looking forward to seeing them on a proper stage and hearing them through a decent PA.
They describe themselves as a Britpop band, but (as with Folk Rock) that label covers a multitude of sins. I wasn’t a fan of the whole Britpop thing (apart from Pulp), but Discount Columbo bring something new to the table. They’ve got some great melodies and cool harmonies, and the acoustic guitars just accentuated this more laid-back aspect of their music. Matt, the drummer, had probably the most minimal set-up since Crass recorded their first demo tape. I had a bit of shock when Jake, their front man, introduced a song from their first EP which ‘came out two years ago’. It seems like only yesterday that Connor introduced himself to me on the train to Cardiff. He’ll be finishing university this summer. Doesn’t time fly?
Discount Columbo are constantly gigging around the country, and over Xmas they posted this summary of their 2017 activity on Facebook: 11 released songs, 2 EP launches, 14 cities, 42 gigs, 33 venues,1 new member, 6045 streams, 3 live videos, 25 new songs, 2 music degrees,1 new manager, 3 live sessions, 3 music videos,7 trips over severn bridge [sic], 10 radio stations,1 bow tie, 1 vehicle breakdown,1 new car, 3348 miles. And not a TV ‘talent’ show in sight. These lads (and lass) are certainly paying their dues, as we say in the biz.
A lot of student bands can be rather unimaginative and samey, in my opinion. Discount Columbo definitely manage to do something worthy of repeated listening. I bought the EP at the earlier gig, and it’s strong enough to merit closer examination.
I sometimes envy today’s youngsters, who get to study pop/rock/whatever music to degree level, learn about the mechanics of the business, and build a network of contacts that will set them in good stead for years to come. It’s a great way to develop your skills, and it’s little wonder that so many bands have come out of the university circuit in recent years. It used to be a sideline for arts students back in the day. Studying ‘Music’ was all about playing an instrument at Grade 8 and joining an orchestra. Not any more. If only I were thirty-five years younger … (And talented? – Ed.)
Which brings us to the headline band – the Blims. A quick note to readers outside the South Wales Valleys: you won’t find the word ‘blim’ in any of the dictionaries I use in my day job. I’m reliably informed that a blim is a small piece of burning cannabis resin which falls out of a joint and burns a little hole in your T-shirt, or whatever you’re wearing at the time. (My drug of choice has only ever come in a glass. It was about twenty years before I realised what Pink Floyd meant in the line ‘I’ve got the inevitable pinhole burns all down the front of my favourite satin shirt.’) But I digress …
The Blims are from Bridgend. There’s always been a lively scene over there, and it’s surprising that more people don’t make the journey between our respective towns. But I will admit to having misgivings from the outset. It was their name that put me off. It’s been many years since I last watched EastEnders (Phil Mitchell was still sober), but I can only remember two Welsh characters. One was a gobby, self-righteous and obnoxious Trotskyite. The other was a permanently stoned layabout, who could have been modelled on one of my friends. (In fact, my mate would have been ideal for the part.) As far as the good folk across Offa’s Dyke know, we’re all either plotting the overthrow of global capitalism, or zonked off our chops the whole time. Or playing rugby. Or dropping the F-bomb during a live broadcast of a music industry awards ceremony. Or doing unspeakable things with sheep.
I had an uneasy feeling that the Blims would basically reinforce this stereotype. But after my extended riff on the theme in ‘Cover Stories’, I had to put my money where my mouth is. And I am partial to a bit of Folk Rock, although I’m more Fairport Convention than the Saw Doctors, and IMHO the Levellers just ripped off the best bits from Blyth Power. (Who they? – Ed.) I was prepared to have my preconceptions challenged.
‘Demolished’ would be a better word. The Blims are older than I expected. You can reflect on your life experiences when you’ve lived a bit. Two songs in, I knew that Barrie’s enthusiastic plugging hadn’t been in vain. They have nice hooks, strong tunes and clever lyrics, with acoustic guitars at the forefront. They also have the sort of witty observations that characterised Billy Bragg’s early career. Naturally, there was a song about rugby, but ‘Sideburns and Sidesteps’ – written to celebrate the Welsh Grand Slam in 2012 – is a far cry from Max Boyce’s turgid stuff. And it’s a great title, too. Maybe EastEnders could portray the Queen Vic being plunged into misery after we beat the English. Just a thought.
The Blims demonstrated great songwriting abilities, and they were never in danger of being derivative or cliched. Even when they pastiched reggae and C&W styles, they did it with their tongues firmly in their cheeks. In fact, all three bands proved that you don’t need to turn everything up to 11 to get your point across. It’s nice to dial it back from time to time. The Blims very kindly endorsed the venue, too. We had a good chat afterwards, I bought their CDs, and I’m pretty sure they’ll be back in due course.
And finally …
If you didn’t come to our pre-rugby warm-up gig because ‘I haven’t heard of them’ – get with the bloody programme! Or even better, get with the program. That’s why Soundcloud and Bandcamp and Spotify and YouTube exist in the first place. They give you a chance to try before you buy, so to speak. If you weren’t here, you missed a real treat. Just over two decades ago you hadn’t heard of Stereophonics, Catatonia or the Manic Street Preachers. As Councillor Duxbury says in Billy Liar: ‘Think on, lad! Think on.’