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Ian Anderson
Photo: Judith Burrows

The Editor's Box

Ian Anderson's comment column

It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that by the Editor’s Box in issue 379, after more than 35 years of seeking monthly inspiration, I don’t have total recall of what I’ve chosen to blather on about here. But I do know that on one past occasion I ventured that I was a great fan of music in small venues. I remember this clearly because it resulted in me getting yet another bashing from the Folkistanis on that bonkers internet message board called Mudcat. Indeed, the preposterous suggestion that I was being hypocritical since I was “obviously” an enemy of all but grossly commercial music may have been the final straw that ensured I would never go there again. Been clean for some years now.

Anyway, make what your prejudices will of this, but I think I may have accidentally discovered a near-perfect kind of small venue gig, though sadly one that hardly exists.

It was held in an old club in Bristol, one big room, all distressed brick walls with a low stage on one side and a bar on the opposite – nothing unusual there then, except it was neither a pub nor an arts centre. It was a debut gig by a brand new Anglo-French instrumental band called Topette including Blowzabella members Barn Stradling and that man Andy Cutting: again not a particularly revolutionary concept for a night out. What made it different was the way a fabulous, relaxed ambience was created.

It wasn’t a ‘session’: the band were definitely doing a gig, though they weren’t the slightest bit precious about the presentation, apparently just enjoying making good music for the pleasure of it and occasionally crediting a tune title and source. The room was laid out informally: there were random (ie not in rows) chairs and small tables for those who wanted to listen. There was plenty of space in the middle for those who wanted to do a bit of French traditional dancing, though nobody was ‘calling’. There was a remarkable age range, from 20-somethings to 70-somethings, and they seemed to enjoy dancing – or sitting – with each other. And there was a big turn-out of local musicians who – being musicians – congregated at the bar and indulged in a genial mixture of watching and quiet conversation, which clearly didn’t annoy anybody at all. Everybody there (and it was packed) was enjoying relaxed listening, dancing, playing or social interaction because of the music.

I found myself wondering why this is so unusual, in this country anyway, and wishing that there were lots more of these. Not a ‘session’ where the players play for themselves and ignore civilians. Not a folk club where you have to sit in rows and people ‘Shhhh’ if you dare talk. Not a ceilidh where you’re often made to feel like an outcast if you don’t want to dance but just enjoy the music. Not a gig where as a performer you feel duty bound to entertain. But it ended up being one of the most enjoyable nights out in living memory, with the best bits of all those things.

Oh, and re last month’s Box, it once again proved that whole sets of instrumental-only music aren’t an audience turn-off at all. Now that may be a thing…

Ian Anderson

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