A Sense of History - By Steve

When I'm not being involved with music in some form or another, whether playing with the 'bones or just listening and enjoying, one of my interests is history. Not that I'm in any way an expert, but the way people used to live has long fascinated me. I've always been more interested in ordinary folks rather than Kings and Queens, though learning about the hard lives endured in the past can sometimes make me feel a bit guilty about complaining about the modern world!

Whalebone have been fortunate to have the chance to perform at some historic places in the past few years. We've gigged at three castles, Ludlow, Powis and Clun, two ancient Welsh churches and two Victorian railway waiting rooms. Many of the village halls we have played used to be village schools, and one, at Minsterworth, is a beautiful building erected after the First World War as a memorial to those who didn't return. Recently we played at Bewdley Museum in the sawyard, with a mediaeval camp a few yards from us.

Two events in particular stand out for me. One was English Heritage's Festival of History at Kelmarsh earlier this year. Organised on an enormous scale, and with hundreds of re-enactors (including musicians) taking part, there was almost too much to take in, with the climax being a stunning aerial dogfight between a Messerschmitt ME109 and a Spitfire (the Spit won - see below!)


My favourite though, and right at the other end of the scale in terms of size, was the opportunity we had to play at the first public opening of the restored Miners' cottages at Blakemoorgate, on the Stiperstones above Snailbeach. We were invited by Genevieve Tudor to be part of the event, so we and a few other musicians piled into a Land Rover to be taken on the best journey I've ever had to a gig, bumping slowly up the rutted track to the cottages. Once there, settled into a room where songs may have been sung over 100 years ago we took turns to play, Gen sang beautifully and a few beers were seen off as the sun slowly set over the distant Welsh hills. Maybe a hundred people made the journey up from Snailbeach to see the cottages where the lead miners lived, and to try to imagine the hardships they faced, especially in winter. A magical setting for playing music, and a gig that will long live in the memory.

The Next Stage of the Journey, by Steve

There's been a bit of extra excitement around Whalebone Towers in the last few weeks, as we've been starting to gather together some new material and try out fresh ideas as we enter the first stages of planning our next album. There's been a lot of experimentation going on, with some new instruments appearing during rehearsals, and new techniques and tunings being tried out.

Whalebone's music has always been a mix of original music, traditional tunes and our own interpretations of classic rock songs, and each category needs its own approach. With the original tunes, I've been going through a year's worth of scribbled ideas, written on everything from manuscript paper to bits torn off teabag boxes, and sorting out the ones I think are worth working on from the ones that are destined for the bin - there's usually more in the bin than on the 'worth working on' pile by the end of the day.

With the traditional tunes it's a slightly different process in that there's no shortage of material to choose from, (quite the opposite in fact) but the problem is in hunting down the tunes that we can put a 'Whalebone' stamp on. Sarah does the initial sorting, finding tunes from a number of sources, which she then plays to Char and myself. It's rare that we're not unanimous in our choosing of one tune over another - we all seem to hear the same indefinable something that makes a tune stand out as 'one for the 'bones'.

The classic rock selection is usually down to Char and myself, though it's often Char who has the better ideas - I'm Not Awake Yet, Sweet Child, The Boxer and Sultans were all her choices. Once again there's no shortage of great songs, it's finding the ones that work with our line-up that's the interesting bit. (You should hear our version of 'Whole Lotta Love'... well, maybe not..!)

As the list of 'possibles' grows, we can get on to the next stage. Many hours will be spent arranging, rehearsing and polishing the raw material to create something that we think is worth recording, with much angst and hair-tearing involved, but maybe that's a subject for another blog!

Whalebone and The Peacock’s Cry, by Sarah

Earlier this year, I was introduced to Richard Snell, the fiddler, storyteller and prolific composer of folk tunes, through Genevieve Tudor of BBC Shropshire’s Sunday Folk programme. A one-time member of The Critics’ Group with Ewan McColl and Peggy Seeger amongst others, Richard had just put together a volume called Madman’s Jig featuring seventy-odd of his own fiddle tunes together with the stories behind them, and since he currently isn’t performing was keen for the tunes to get out into the world and be spread about by other musicians. I subsequently played several on Sunday Folk and heard from Richard just this week that he has run out of the current print run of the book. Great news!

Some of the most beautiful of Richard’s tunes are his airs, of which he has written a significant number, and I had a very hard time choosing between them for the radio session. Afterwards, Richard and I sat in the BBC Shropshire kitchen (lovely acoustics for fiddles!) and he asked me to play some of the other airs in the book for him. One of these, The Peacock’s Cry, rather got lodged in my brain so I subsequently played it for Steve and Char and one rather lovely arrangement by Steve and an emergency dash to procure windchimes later we’ve recorded it. We hope Richard likes it! It will be interesting to see how our arrangement compares with the version he’s had in his head all this time. As you’d expect, Char has painted the most gorgeous peacock for the cover (you do know she did ALL the artwork on Three Fires? Not to mention every other bit of graphic design to do with Whalebone – she’s AMAZING) and we’re really excited about the whole thing! It’s a rather different kind of Whalebone sound, and we really enjoyed putting it together.

The Peacock's Cry Whalebone - Sleeve Cover

Richard is currently making some revisions to Madman’s Jig and will hopefully have more available soon. Copies can be obtained by contacting him through his Facebook Page. In the meantime, we hope you like our version of The Peacock’s Cry.

Listen to The Peacock's Cry - Whalebone

Village Halls and Heroes, By Steve

Around a dozen years ago, while touring with Charlie Landsborough, I was introduced to the music of Davy Spillane, the amazing uilleann pipe and low whistle player. His beautiful playing and sound made a huge impression on me, and became one of the influences that lead to the formation of Whalebone, as well as inspiring several tunes that we still play - Devil’s Chair in particular was an attempt to emulate the haunting sound of his pipes. A little while later I discovered a CD he’d recorded with a Bouzouki player called Andy Irvine called East Wind which mixed Celtic and Balkan music. Another ingredient was added to the Whalebone mix as I tried with varying success to add some of these sounds to the repertoire - Annie’s Reel and Mouse were my Balkans-via-Shropshire compositions!

A few years later on holiday in Doolin, Co. Clare we spotted a poster for a concert at the local hall, and halfway down the bill there was ‘Davy Spillane’. We asked at the local cafe that was selling the tickets, and yes, it was the Davy Spillane, Sony Music Corp. recording artiste, performing in the local village hall. Two tickets please...!

The concert was brilliant, with a huge array of outstanding performers, but one of the highlights for me was seeing one of my heroes in such an intimate setting. No huge concert hall, security, or tiny figures on a distant stage, this was music making at a human level, with the stage 20 feet away. It was pure magic.

Last night in Lydbury North Village Hall I was able to ‘complete the set’ and see a brilliant performance by Andy Irvine. Once again I’m a few rows from the stage, watching an absolute bona-fide legend of Irish music as he wove his magic, with the bonus of meeting the great man and having a chat after the gig. You don’t get that at the O2 Arena...

Andy Irvine Ticket

So I’d like to give a heartfelt ‘Thanks’ and raise a glass to Village Halls everywhere, and those who run them, organise concerts, book artists, and give us all the chance to see and hear fantastic, world-class music and musicians in such a great setting - Cheers!


Andy Irvine Concert

Evolving Hares and a Letter, by Char

As promised / threatened by Sarah in the previous blog entry, the new dance to 'Wenlock Hare' has stepped up and evolved into a 'stand up and make bunny ears whilst hoping' dance. Personally, I wasn't convinced that it would happen, but the people attending the concert on Saturday night at Cheslyn Hay Village Hall proved me wrong - spectacularly. I glanced up during the chorus to survey a room full of 'pretending to be drunken hares' humans which was a wonderful and highly amusing spectacle. On a personal note this cheered up my evening after having a testing first half of the concert where I had two strings break in the first three tunes. We rarely play over the West Midlands / Wolverhampton area, but whenever we do, we always encounter really lovely, friendly people and judging by the high quality 'hare dancing' game for a laugh and a good time. Special thanks to the wonderful Margaret from Cheslyn Hay Village Hall, who from the moment we arrived plied us with tea, chocolate and caramel covered digestives (excellent invention) and two huge platters of sandwiches. All this whilst cleaning the place to within an inch of it's life!

Changing the subject, there was a nice letter published in the latest edition of R2 Magazine mentioning  amongst others our track 'Hooty Mullock', which was included on a covermount CD in the previous issue:

Star Letter R2 Whalebone

It's even nicer when I think back to recording 'Hooty' last summer because it gave us a load of problems trying to get the right sound for the track, so much so, it nearly didn't make the album. Ironically it's now the tune we use to open the sets on this year's Three Fires Tour, so we're really pleased we persevered with it! Turning our attention to this coming Sunday we are playing at The Kinver Country Fayre, we are hoping for some nicer weather than last Sunday! Come and say 'hello' if you're going, I think we may be playing near the beer tent...

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