Comfort Zones

I started 2012 on a low. I start every year like that. In the days between Christmas and New Year I get impatient, bothered by a sense of thwarted intention, eager to get on with things. Come January though, when the days are still short and the air is chill I lose my optimism and see the year stretching out like some miserable and gigantic sea-monster floundering on the shore, a great groaning problem that I must either haul back into the ocean or hack into manageable chunks.

It’s also my birthday in January, an event that brings with it an ever swelling set of existential baggage (the above image of a court jester reminds me of a line sung by Feste the Fool in Twelfth Night: “Youth’s a stuff will not endure”).

So I decided to shake myself up a bit. Not by doing anything dangerous, just something that would place me out of my comfort zone. I organized a special birthday show in which I would play alone, seated and without the safety net of my usual gimmicks.

So far, so unremarkable.

It is worth noting that when I play with the Bedlam Six I tend to pepper my performance with a theatrical brand of contained mayhem. I leap off the stage, lasso bandmates with my guitar lead, kick my legs in the air, roll around on the floor and sometimes injure myself in the process (I once popped my shoulder out when clambering down from the dress circle of a venue and had to pop it back in during the trombone solo). I must stress that these antics are not contrived or rehearsed (it always feels natural and never a chore) but such a performance style does serve two distinct purposes: The first is that it is entertaining (and now that bands can no longer reasonably expect a steady income from album sales it is important to make the live show as appealing as possible); the second is that it distracts the audience from noticing that my abilities as a guitarist and singer are woefully abject.

But for every rock song I write for public consumption I’ll write two folk songs for private use. I never play them live. The lucky ones get sung by people with beautiful voices but most of them just sit in a mental drawer and gather dust.

The thing is though, just as many popstars want to be film actors and many comedians want to be novelists there is a part of me that longs to be taken seriously as a composer. Although the worry is that once you start getting taken seriously, it’s difficult to return to being taken comically.

So I decided that on my birthday I would dip my toe into those serious waters for a moment and see what manner of creature might be stirred from the depths.

I was very nervous. Generally I don’t get nervous about performing. Being on a stage can be very relaxing, it’s not often one finds oneself in a situation where one is entirely in control of events – a good gig is like that. I’ve sung in front of thousands of people, plunged from high festival stages into crowds of strangers and even dragged the odd drunk heckler around with my teeth. But sitting on a stool and singing slow songs in a minor key to fifty quiet people in the room above the Black Lion pub in Salford? That’s hard.

Well it went really well anyway. An indulgent audience and exceptional co-performers helped of course. But oh so wonderful to be afforded a new perspective on one’s abilities, it being so easy to become stuck in the same tested routines and expectations. The experience has not made me want to become a “serious” performer though – I think the world currently needs comedy more than ever – but it did reinvigorate a confidence in myself that I can now admit had started to falter.

There is no moral to this story, I just wanted to kick this oft-neglected blog into 2012 with something confessional that wouldn’t take much in the way of considered writing. That night was one of the best shows (and best birthdays) I have ever had, all because it made me rethink my definition of artistic success and, indeed, the notion I have of my own place in the world of live music.

It was also good to feel nervous again. One should never get too sure of things – losing your nervousness can be as bad as losing your nerve.


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