Cowboys, cowgirls & a bit of country music

If you ever find yourself going to Texas, get yourself to Austin for a good chunk of time. We had 48 hours there and I wish it had been longer. Not only does it possess the aforementioned awesome cinemas, but it’s as though some of the coolest parts of London had been lifted up and transplanted to a city with significantly better weather. One of my travel companions kept commenting that he felt just as out of place as he does in Shoreditch – everyone in Austin was significantly skinnier, more tanned and more tattooed than him.

Austin is the perfect destination for a taste of ‘real’ Texas – and probably a good place to test out the mantra ‘Everything’s Bigger in Texas’. (Austin’s own motto? ‘Keep Austin Weird’…) It was also a great city in which to meet two essential requirements of any trip to Texas – country music and cowboy apparel.

One of my rules for travelling is that I want to experience life as locals live it – sure, I’ll have my touristy moments, but generally, I want to know what real life’s like. So it was fantastic to be hosted by someone in Austin who prefaced most suggestions with “If I were you, what I’d do is…” – invariably followed by a recommendation that turned out to be fantastic, from food to shops to beverages. This is how we’d found ourselves at the Alamo, and how, the following night, we spent the evening at Shady Grove listening to acoustic country music from a local band.

You’ve got to love the Austin life. An outdoor gig guaranteed not to be rained upon; waitress service at your seat; amazing burgers; an introduction to frozen sangria (more please!!); and some quality music being enjoyed by a wide range of locals. I’ve searched in vain for a YouTube video, but I did find the band in question – The Band of Heathens – on Spotify and listening to this track brought back a lot of memories.

So that was the country music urge satisfied – what about some Texan apparel? For that, there’s just one place to go: Allen’s Boots on South Congress. In the run up to the trip I’d been teasing Andy about how he ought to purchase both Stetson and cowboy boots and here we were able to trial run the cowboy look to see if it worked. [I should at this point issue an apology to Andy for the photos that are about to appear, but as if I could resist using them!] Honestly, if you’re going to buy boots, this is the place to come – row upon row of increasingly expensive, beautifully lovely, gorgeously leather smelling boots.

The dressing up opportunities were endless. Sadly, trying on the boots was a struggle thanks to sweaty sandal wearing feet, in fact I ended up in a fight to remove a boot from Cathers’ leg; but there was plenty of opportunity to try on hats and it was here that my cowgirl purchase was made. (Well, on the second trip. I took a photo, tweeted/facebooked it, received 20+ positive comments, and made a return to buy it after lunch. Thanks goodness for social media!) Andy did a lot of trying on: 
I have apologised already, and really, he should be grateful that I haven’t posted the photo of him looking uber camp while sat in a pair of cowboy boots. Why is it that footwear designed for super manly men simply makes non-cowboys look rather camp? Mysterious. Personally, of the above outfits, I reckon the Terminator-esque leather jacket would’ve made the best purchase… 
The biggest disappointment of the trip was not getting to meet a genuine real cowboy, but I will carry with me for some time the joy of watching two men, non-ironically clad in Stetsons, having an enthusiastic conversation while waiting for our flight to Houston from Atlanta. There should be more non-ironic Stetson wearing in the world! 

A deserving, if dubious, honour

The British have an odd Christmas tradition. For some reason, massive importance is attached to the song that achieves number 1 status in the charts during the week before Christmas Day. I really don’t get it – especially when you look at the list of songs that have acquired this honour and realise just how much dross it includes (I offer you Exhibit A: Mr Blobby and Exhibit B: Bob the Builder.) 
When thinking about this post, I was fairly sure that I’d only ever contributed to one Christmas number 1 (and even then, when I say ‘I’, I mean my sister bought the tape from Woolworths) – that being the Christmas classic Stay Another Day by East 17. (It is Christmassy because the band wore fur edged parkas in the video and there’s some nice tubular bell work, and that is all.) However, looking at the list reminded me that I’d also bought the 20th anniversary recreation of Do They Know It’s Christmas (don’t judge – my Godson was born they day they recorded it and I was feeling sentimental). Anyway, the point to this post is that I think I’ve probably just bought this year’s too…
No, not Dominick The Donkey (though it has been a Christmas highlight for several years and I was tempted), but the Military Wives singing Wherever You Are. If you’d told me a month ago that I’d do this, I wouldn’t have believed you.
If you’re reading this on the blog itself, on the right-hand sidebar you’ll find a list of my most popular posts. Number 1, by a long way, is a four year old post about Gareth Malone, specifically, the amusing ways in which people had googled him, resulting in their landing upon my original blog about his second TV series. Every time he reappears on our screens my stats spike – in fact this has become almost my default way of discovering what he’s up to (well, that and his Twitter feed). For a little while this blog was almost the top entry if you googled his name – terrifying. Anyway, as much as I dislike what he does for my stats, I do love him and his work. Watching him bring people together in singing is utterly inspiring and I think his passion for community singing is infectious.

However, his latest series had me conflicted – in fact, I didn’t begin watching it until it had finished. (I know that doesn’t make sense, but that’s the bonus of iPlayer.) This time he was working with military wives and it was the ‘military’ bit I had an issue with. Being a pacifist, I find the media’s obsession with the military difficult. I don’t believe that we ought to have troops in Afghanistan and I think that the waste of human life is atrocious. But, I read brilliant reviews of the show, so thought I’d give it a go. 
What I discovered was three hours of the most moving TV I’ve seen in a long time. Military life is by no means glamorous and those left behind by soldiers serving overseas have a miserable time – often left on bases miles away from their families, with little support. Moving bases regularly also makes it difficult to build any kind of community with the other families, even when you’re all going through the same hideous experience of having loved ones fighting in a war zone. The show captured this perfectly and I was moved to tears on more than one occasion. Think I’m a sap? [You’d probably be right.] What about this clip of the women and children welcoming the soldiers home:

Plus, the project also demonstrated just how transformative singing can be. Several of the women featured didn’t believe that they could sing, or that they had anything to offer to the choir – but through Gareth’s determination not to let them give up, and ensure they felt valued, they realised that they did have worth. Take Sam, for example (she’s the lady with the tattoos in the above video) – she was amongst a minority of wives who had previous choral experience, yet genuinely didn’t seem to believe that she had a voice worth hearing. Any time she sang on her own there was a flurry of apologies as she felt she was messing up, it was heartbreaking to watch. In an amazing triumph over adversity (nerves, low self-esteem and family illness) she came to sing the solo in the choir’s Royal Albert Hall performance – a performance that I defy anyone to sit through dry-eyed.

The song they sang had been written by Paul Mealor (he’s the John Rutter of the 21st century), based upon letters written between them and their husbands. It’s simply beautiful and in the best tradition of choral singing. Within minutes of the final programme finishing I was humming the melody to myself. Thus, when I discovered it was being released in time for Christmas Number 1 I was actually pleased – this song, more than almost any other (except the original Band Aid single) deserves the strange honour, and so does the lovely Gareth Malone. Yesterday’s mid-week chart had it at Number 1 and I suspect it will stay there, an excellent antidote to the dross of previous years.

The gift of new music

It’s great to be able to have fun for free and, fortunately, London provides more opportunities than you might think for such things. I’m a particular fan of free musical experiences, which often come courtesy of friends (or friends of friends) who happen to be in bands, or write music, or are just rather talented.

It’s especially good when free music turns up on your doorstep without you being required to make any effort in experiencing it. A couple of weeks ago my Tuesday afternoon at the church office was accompanied by the sound of a talented young man making a music video. [For one occasion only, I was able to use “I’m sorry, I can’t answer your phone call, there’s a music video being filmed in the church” as an excuse.] Such a scenario could have been awful, had the music been rubbish, but luckily it wasn’t – probably owing to the fact that he writes his music with our worship leader and my wise friend’s husband. Genii, the lot of them. One of the videos he filmed is below (both were covers), but there’s lots more of his material on his YouTube channel. I think the church looks rather good in them too…

I also rather like it when good music is in cahoots with a good cause. The Lorelles are fab and lovely generally, but the fact that they’re giving all the proceeds from their single Riot in Your Heart to the Ignito Project [for whom I walked the Thames Path earlier this year] is brilliant. I urge you to buy it…

Then there’s the joy of discovering brand new music while at the same time having a cracking night out and catching up with friends unseen for far too long. Monday was such a night, courtesy of MoRo’s launch of their debut album Slow River. They’re an interesting combination of Motown and rock (I’m beginning to see where their name might come from…) and also the performers of the best cow bell interlude I’ve ever witnessed.

Consider these recommendations an early Christmas present from me. You’re welcome.

Friday Fun in a flash

The flash mob is a wonderful thing, as long as it’s done well. Fortunately, this week I have a couple that were done extremely well and are probably almost as fun to watch as they were to perform…

First up is one that was emailed to me by a friend’s mother who actually participated in it. Annoyingly, I could have experienced it in the flesh as it took place at St Pancras’ Eurostar terminal, but ironically, I had departed to vicar week from the very same terminal just a few days previously. I defy you not to do some air conducting as you watch it – it is quite literally a classic flash mob… (Though I imagine the orchestra was something of a give away.)

Because I like to show off my connections, I also know someone in the next flash mob – one that I believe went viral while I was in France. One of the singers is my sister’s best friend from uni (her partner in crime for many an inappropriate comedy routine – never go out in public with the two of them) and it’s quite honestly one of the most beautiful things ever to have happened on a train to Watford. [Plus, I am consistently amused that the acronym for the Adam Street Singers is ASS – did they think that through?]

On Wednesday I had an awesome evening with the Swingle Singers, a group who have become so famed for their involvement in flash mobs that they actually worked their set around them. (I am inordinately jealous of the woman who became the centre of attention during a flash mob rendition of Hello by the loveliest Swingle…) Although I know I’ve mentioned it a few times, I don’t think I’ve ever properly featured their original flash mob, so here it is:

And, while we’re on the subject of award winning a cappella vocal groups which involve people that I know, this is an appropriate moment to mention The Songmen, who won not one but two awards at the Tolosa International Choral Contest last week. [No, I hadn’t heard of it either, but this is apparently a big deal.] I highly recommend becoming their fan on Facebook and acquiring their forthcoming album – it has one of the most beautiful renditions of Bright Eyes on it and is generally rather lush*. There’s no video of that track yet, but here’s their interpretation of Mr Bojangles:

*In no way has my brother-in-law paid me to say this. It is purely my own opinion.

As far as I’m aware, The Songmen haven’t been in a flash mob, but it’s probably only a matter of time…

Finally, as we’re on the subject of interesting musical performances, how about a Lady Gaga fugue played on a 250 year old organ? I’m laying that one down as a challenge to church organists everywhere.

Bravery in music & blogging

In life, there are many things about which I am insecure. One area in which I’m trying to be a lot more confident is my taste in music…
I love musicals. Fact.
I’m not averse to quite a lot of classical music. (Except opera – I feel that this is as unlikely to change as my attitude to seafood is.)
Christian soft rock gets played at church, I like singing it, thus I own quite a lot of it.
90’s Indie music will always have a special place in my heart and so will the music of my parents (well, my Dad mostly) – especially Simon & Garfunkel, Ella Fitzgerald, Joni Mitchell and the Beatles.
Sometimes, all you want from life is a Celine Dion singalong.

Despite my attempts at confidence, it makes me a little nervous when I let people into my world of music. Attempts to keep my Spotify account ‘respectable’ failed quickly – though I do keep a lot of my playlists hidden from general view, publicly listing only those into which considerable effort has gone. With my CD cases now in boxes, it’s difficult for people to see my ‘real’ music collection as it mostly only exists in my iTunes library – something that generally, isn’t accessible to anyone but me.

So, it was with a sense of trepidation that I recently handed over my iPod, containing my entire iTunes library, to a friend who had been iPod-less for quite some time. It was just a short term loan, prior to them acquiring an iPhone, but I was very conscious that my music taste was about to become very exposed. Thanks to my own iPhone and Spotify account, little by way of music has been added to it in the last year, but I’d kept it purely for the fact that, unlike my phone, it holds my whole collection. I needn’t have worried though – the next time I saw this friend it emerged that they’d been quite impressed with my taste. To quote: “Well, you did have four Blur albums.” (No similar comment was made about the four S Club 7 albums, for example.) [Btw, I used ‘quite’ as a qualifier in the sense that they weren’t that impressed, but somewhat surprised at the number of pleasant discoveries they made.]

Phew. However, there were other issues that I hadn’t fully considered…

Firstly, exposing your library of albums is one thing, but playlists are another. I know for a fact that I am not the only person in the world to create playlists for specific situations – I’m not talking car journeys or parties, I’m talking emotional turmoil moments. [How do I know I’m not alone? Because I was once given a copy of a mix-tape a friend had made as a tribute to some random guy she was mad about – I can but assume that other people do likewise.] It was only after handing over my iPod that I ran through the list of playlists in my head and, sure enough, there was one such item. If I share that it included Breaking Free (of High School Musical fame), Will Young’s Leave Right Now and the Destiny’s Child classic Survivor, you’ll appreciate just how high calibre it was. [Incidentally, I’m not sure what it is about me, Beyoncé and emotional moments – my current motivational song is Best Thing I Never Had.] *Cringe*

Within minutes of relinquishing the iPod, I had a terrifying realisation. (Yes, more terrifying than possible judgement on musical tastes.) There was a strong possibility that the pod contained tracks with me singing on it. In fact, I already knew that it definitely did – the three albums I’ve recorded were on there. [Just dropping that in there – did you know I’d recorded three albums? Obviously they’re not just me, and you can’t actually hear me on any of it – bar one track on the third album – but I’m on them all the same.] There was also the live concert recording that includes one of my most embarrassing moments. But none of these things were what had terrified me, it was the fear that some of my iPhone ‘voice memos’ were on there.

I’m not sure what most iPhone users use this function for, but in my world it comes in particularly useful at gospel choir rehearsals when you need to record parts for between rehearsals practising. Occasionally, one might want to use it to record an exciting moment at a gig, or an amusing bit of conversation. But the other primary use in my little world is for recording karaoke.

Shameful confession: Sometimes, when I’m all alone in the flat, I play karaoke tracks/YouTube videos and sing along – ok, that in itself is not shameful. What is shameful is that I record myself (on my phone) in order to monitor my progress and analyse my performance. How sad is that?! So, you can imagine my concern that an entire playlist of that dross might have ended up in the wrong hands! Fortunately, those particular tracks hadn’t made it onto the iPod – when I checked there was a recording from the Matthew Morrison gig and assorted bits from summer gospel choir rehearsals – all fairly uncringeworthy.

So that’s got an awful lot out into the open:
I’m not so ashamed of my taste in music, and I’ve divulged two potentially shameful habits that I won’t be ending any time soon. Who needs therapy when you have a blog?