Tony James Shevlin

Tony James Shevlin

Rockin’ in the USA 1

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After months of planning and talking about it,  it’s finally here – the Tony James Shevlin US Tour 2015.

My flight from Heathrow was due to leave at 8.30am so I was at the airport for 6am.  It’s a great time to drive through London;  the city was calm but I was very excited!

I had a couple of hours’ stopover in Newark.  In the airport bar,  you can see the big cranes that Tony Soprano drives by in the opening sequences to The Sopranos.  If I’d had more time,  I would have paid a visit to the Ba Da Bing Club but ‘what you gonna do’ (shrugs shoulders).

I chat with a local who is flying off to Florida.  When he hears my accent,  he shakes me by my hand:  “Da Bridish are the only ones of our so called ‘partners’ who have always stood by us.”  He slags off most of the European Union and a few other countries.  On behalf of the nation,  I gracefully accept his commendations as though I were personally responsible for British foreign policy for the last hundred years.  “Yes, we’ve always stood together,”  I say, piously.  He thinks about this for a second, and says:  “Well, there is the little matter of the Revolutionary War but we won’t go into that.”  No, let’s not.

I arrive in Nashville at 6.30pm but my body is telling me it’s half past midnight.

I’m greeted by two beautiful Southern belles who whisk me off to dinner in downtown Nashville.  I’d been to Puckett’s before so I was very wary of the portions that would be served up.  They didn’t disappoint – my plate of Southern fried chicken could have fed a family of four.

From there it was a short walk down to Broadway;  the girls had some friends playing a bar called Honky Tonk Central.  Downtown Nashville – especially Broadway – is a party town on a Friday night.  I was content to sit back and watch the amazing musicianship on display.  There are so many great musicians in Nashville – drawn from all over the US.

The music starts in Nashville at 10am and runs till 2am.  Bands work in 4 hour shifts;  the first band will play from 10am – 2pm;  the second from 2pm – 6pm;  the third from 6pm – 10pm;  the last band from 10pm – 2am.  On my first Saturday night in town,  I spoke to a bass player who told me he’d done eight gigs since Wednesday night – that’s two gigs a night!  Two of the gigs were consecutive,  so he had to hotfoot it from one venue to the next;  fortunately,  all the venues have a house bass rig so all he had to do was pack up his bass … and run!

I had elected not to travel with a guitar but to buy one in Nashville;  there are many music shops to choose from.  For no other reason than it was the only one open on a Sunday (and I missed not having a guitar to hand,  feeling I couldn’t wait till Monday!)  I went to The Guitar Center (their spelling, not mine!).  A sales assistant named Barrett treated me like I was the most important person in the world.  He sat me down in a soundproofed booth and brought me guitars in (and just above, I noticed!) my price range.  I tried Martins, Taylors and Gibsons.  I must have tried a dozen or more.  I narrowed it down to two Martins.  At one point,  a young lad came in and started jamming along with me;  no matter what I played (and I was playing my own songs) he played along.  Never said a word – just played guitar;  it was like something from Deliverance!

Having made my choice of a mahogany Martin (000.15M),  I needed a pickup fitting to it.  Barrett swore that a Fishman Matrix was the best to have.  While guitar tech Taylor fitted it,  I looked around the store (check out the video on my Facebook band page).  A grizzled old (and, quite frankly,  crazy) ex-roadie offered to tour with me – and also to send me a gun – piece by piece – back to England,  so I could “take out any ‘mofos’ who want to mess with you and yours.”  I declined both offers.

I am in love with my Martin guitar.

It was three days before I felt like I was on Tennessee time.  This was just in time to play at the famous Bluebird Cafe.  It’s a very intimate venue with a listening audience.  I was very pleased to debut a new song there called Nashville State of Mind that I had written after my trip to Music City last year (you can hear it on the Oh Mercy Records Soundcloud page).  I’m pleased to report that it was very well-received.

I had been invited by talented singer-songwriter,  Annemarie Picerno, to play at the Spring Fling Festival at Smitty’s Bar and Grill in the town of Lebanon about 30 miles east of Nashville.  It was something of a shock when I walked in;  I was the only male in the place who wasn’t sporting either a stetson, bandana, beard, tattoos, cowboy boots or a mixture of all five.  If you remember the scene in 48 Hours where Eddie Murphy walks in to a redneck bar, you’ll know how I felt.

Once on stage,  my English accent silenced the crowd.  I thought it best to flag up my Irish ancestry, saying that the early Irish settlers brought their folk music to the fledgling US and it eventually became country music.  Thankfully, there were some heads nodding in the crowd.  I played Restless Celtic Heart from my new acoustic EP which salutes the need of Celts (and in particular my Grandfather and my Dad) to travel the world.  It has a bit of a Johnny Cash feel to it,  which got feet tapping.

I reminded myself that the clientele in Smitty’s were no different to the people I used to play to in the working men’s clubs back home where I cut my musical teeth as a young man;  ordinary people looking to be entertained after a hard week’s work.  I chastised myself for my initial fears.  Some very good musicians came up and complimented me on my performance.

On the way back to Nashville, Annemarie suggested we call in at Papa Turney’s Smokehouse Restaurant in nearby Hermatige.  The barbecued ribs were reputedly the best in the State.  There was also a blues jam going on. The house band led by Kevin William Ball was as good as the ribs.  Papa Turney himself turned out to be as good with a guitar as he was with a cooking pan.  Annemarie got up and belted out some old blues tunes.  She has a powerful voice and is a consummate professional.

When the band heard that there was an English musician in the house they were keen to get me up to perform.  Now, I am no blues player but I have a couple of blues songs in my musical arsenal that I keep tucked away for just such an occasion.  Kevin kindly lent me his lovely old Gibson semi-acoustic.  I joked with the audience that I had travelled 4,000 miles just to play at this jam.  I sang and played the Ray Charles / Joe Cocker classic Unchain My Heart, and the blues standard Before You Accuse Me.  The crowd loved it, and there were high-fives all-round from the band.

As great as the shows at Smitty’s and Papa Turney’s were, the gig I was most looking forward to was my slot at the Commodore back in Nashville.  The Commodore is a regular hang-out for Nashville songwriters so I knew there would be a few in the audience.  Plus, many of my Nashville friends had never seen me performing my own material,  so there was a lot riding on this particular show.  I kicked off with Nobody which had served me so well in the past.  I was also keen to perform Nashville State of Mind because the Commodore is mentioned in the lyrics, so that was a must.

After my set, I received lots of good comments from members of the audience.  It’s always good to get positive feedback from the crowd but knowing the talent in this town, it’s doubly important.  Comments such as “great songs,” “very professional,” and “good stage presence” were all gratefully accepted but my favourite was from songwriter Tucker Bouler who said of Nashville State of Mind: “You nailed that one brother!”

I finished off my stint in Music City with an impromptu performance with the house band down at Tootsie’s.  The bar is famous for being where Hank Williams Sr would sneak across the alley from the Ryman Auditorium whilst playing at the Grand Ole Opry, and where Willie Nelson sold the rights to his song Crazy to pay his bar bill. All the kings and queens of Country Music have frequented Tootsie’s.  In honour of Hank I sang a rocking version of Your Cheating Heart, and because I wanted to sing an English song, Honky Tonk Woman.

I have enjoyed my time in Nashville immensely; the kindness of strangers and the warmth of friends, but it is time to move on and see some new places.  Next week it’s Chicago and St. Louis, the week after that it’s Kansas City and Omaha.  Further down the line there’s Des Moines, Colorado Springs, Phoenix, Amarillo, Dallas and others.

So long Music City; till next time.

With a little help from my friends…

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It has been a year since the recording sessions for Songs From the Last Chance Saloon took place.  I have played those songs live many times since,  either as a solo performer,  in an acoustic trio or in a full-band line-up in intimate venues and at various music festivals.  Having such constant contact with the songs meant that I hadn’t listened to the album for quite a while.  When I played it to a friend the other day,  I was struck by how much I enjoyed the contributions from musician friends whom I had invited down to the studio.  Without exception,  they provided a freshness to the proceedings,  a distinctive feature to each of the songs,  and yet a subtle understanding of what I was trying to achieve….

My sister, Jules (A.K.A. Tiny Diva) provides harmonies on many tracks but it is her vocal solo on Faith in Myself which still gives me shivers when I hear it.  My instruction to her as she entered the vocal booth was  “loneliness,  despair,  desperation and finally,  madness.”  If she was fazed by this,  she hid it well. “Okay,”  she said,  as if I’d just given her a list of groceries to pick up.  She didn’t even roll her eyes.  We ran the track,  and from somewhere she conjured up the spirit of Clare Torry on Pink Floyd’s Great Gig in the Sky.  I got loneliness,  despair,  desperation and just a hint of madness.  Marvellous.

The genus for the flute on Heart and the High Moral Ground goes back to last year when I was rehearsing for an appearance at a Suffolk Songwriters Open Mic session alongside my current guitarist and sidekick,  Shane Kirk,  and Helen Mulley whom I had last shared a stage with back in France in 2003 (both are guiding lights in the wonderful Songs From the Blue House).  During a run-through of one of the planned songs,  La Mulley ran out of the studio,  crying:  “I know what this needs.  I’ll be back in a mo’”.  She returned with her flute in her hands,  and proceeded to play a solo that would make angels weep. Later,  when I decided that Heart was to be included on the album,  I knew that it was going to have a flute motif.  In the studio,  Helen was so efficient we even had time to coax some heavenly harmonies out of her.  Bliss.

Heart is also the first of three tracks which features the effervescent Cad Taylor on violin.  She also appears on Paradise South Ealing and Crying for 15 Years.  Not only did she have to learn the signature riff to all three songs but Paradise is in two keys,  and Crying is in three!  I love the thoughtful Celtic-infused flourishes she brought to each track.

I have always loved the sound of the trombone – probably since seeing the Glenn Miller biopic starring James Stewart.  I had never had occasion to use one on a recording,  but freed from the shackles of band politics I thought it was just what a song like Crazy needed.  I only had one trombone player’s phone number  – Don Lusher (Sinatra,  Fitzgerald,  Bennett,  Streisand) who had been very kind to me as a young musician starting out in the business but he had sadly gone to play with that great swing band in the sky.

I had only known Richard “Gibbon” Hammond as a bass player but I was assured he knew his way round a ‘bone.  We met,  I hummed him the sort of thing I had in mind,  he wrote it down,  and we arranged a recording session.  He turned up at the studio and played it just as it had been rehearsed;  job done… or so I thought.  “Would you like some ad-libs on the final chorus?”  he asked.  Very much,  says I.  What he played was perfectly suited to the track.  Job done… or so I thought.  On the way out,  I mentioned that I planned to double-up the bass line in the solo with a tuba to beef up the part.  He looked at me and said: “I’ve got a euphonium in the car”.  I thought this something of a non-sequitur until he explained that a euphonium and a tuba share a series of low notes which meant that on Crazy,  a euphonium could do what a tuba would.  He became very excited at the prospect of adding euphonium;  for me,  the session had gone into uncharted territory but, what the hell, if I didn’t like it, it could be erased once Gibbon had left the building.  Thankfully,  it was exactly the enhancement that the solo needed,  and it is loud and proud in the mix.  I love it when spontaneity turns up for a party.

I had been aware of blues harp player Giles King for many years.  He is the ‘go to guy’ when a number of US blues players are visiting the UK and need a harp player.  I knew that he would be good when I invited him to play on Champagne Taste on a Lemonade Pay,  what I didn’t expect was a master class in professionalism.  We had agreed that the song needed acoustic harmonica and not the distorted Green Bullet mic through a Fender Champ amp sound,  so Giles turned up with just a couple of harps in suitable keys.  We ran the track and Giles tried several approaches until he came up with a riff that I liked enough to make it a signature hook.  The rest of the song was embellished with lyrical licks which complemented the vocal.  Then came the solo.  “What do you want?”  he asked me.  Whatever, I said.  This is you.  And he nailed it.  You can hear why he is in such demand.  And with that,  he left.  I doubt if the engine on his car had had time to cool down.  Absolute genius.

Adam Whyatt and I have done hundreds of gigs together.  From across the stage,  I have marvelled at both his Hammond organ and piano-playing abilities.  When my songs need keyboards,  there is no-one else I would trust in the studio.  There were two songs which needed ivory elaboration.  The first – Run Until we Drop was a routine affair.  I was after the kind of thing that US session keyboardist Paul Harris had played on Bob Seger’s Against the Wind.  Adam is a very instinctive player,  and the years we had notched up sharing stages brought a certain simpatico to the proceedings and the session was a walk in the park.  Until we started work on the second song – Cut me.

Cut me (I’ll bleed like any man) had once been chosen by Amnesty International as the charity’s International Anthem of Peace,  a fact of which I am very proud.  I had recorded it several times over the years but had never ever been completely happy with it.  Adam and I had performed it – ad hoc – at a few gigs but it had never had the feel I wanted (there’s a film of Sinatra performing the sublime Harold Arlen / Johnny Mercer song One for my Baby and One More for the Road on his television show in the 1950s – that’s how I’d always heard it!).

To give Adam the feel I was after,  I had recorded an acoustic guitar track for him to play along with.  The only problem was that,  with Adam being such an intuitive player,  he reacted to the guitar track and “accompanied” it.  When we took the guitar track away,  it sounded odd and slightly dislocated.  What he needed was a rhythm track to play along to.  So I went into the vocal booth, and as I sang a guide vocal,  I tapped out the rhythm of the track with all its delicate accents.  Without the distraction of the guitar part, Adam was then free to elaborate on his playing while having a path that he shouldn’t stray too far from.  It was a weird way to put a track together,  and I really put him through the mill that night but the end certainly justifies the means.  That piano part inspired my vocal performance – I sang that song like I hadn’t done in years.  After 25 years,  I finally had the version I had always heard in my head.  Thank you,  Adam.

I enjoy being in the recording studio.  It’s always challenging but great fun.  But when you sing and play on your own songs,  it’s very easy to get lost in your own musical milieu.  I am so grateful to all the musicians who gave their time,  talent and expertise in agreeing to perform on Songs From the Last Chance Saloon.  They gave it a vitality and a viridity that was the icing on the cake.

I look forward to working with them all again on the next album.

What we did this summer

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Having put the clocks back and turned on the heating for the first time at TJS Central,  Tony reminisces about all the gigs he’s played this summer…

I enjoyed taking the songs on the album Songs From the Last Chance Saloon to Nashville,  the home of songwriting.  It was exciting presenting them to a new audience – one that is used to the best that Music City has to offer;  for that audience to accept me as one of their own and take me to their heart was an added bonus.  One of my proudest moments was having two Nashville songwriters come up to me after a gig and invite me to a writing session on the famous Music Row.  Fast-forward a few months and the Nashville Songwriters Association International has recognised me as  “one to watch.”

But as rewarding as playing those songs solo with just a voice and a guitar is,  I couldn’t wait to put a band together for many of the gigs this summer.  Performing has always been a communal event for me;  I love the camaraderie of a band. But experience has taught me that it’s not just musical ability that should be taken into consideration;  that your band mates are good musicians is a given – but you need to like them as people.  I can remember one weekend gigging away in Scotland with a band where we were together for 70 hours but only three hours of that was on a stage.  If we hadn’t got on well,  we would have killed one another.  You need to like being in the company of each other.

My sister, Jules,  was in from the get-go.  Her voice is all over the album;  sometimes her harmonies are so close I get claustrophobic.  And she shakes a mean tambourine!

I didn’t have to think long about a guitar player.  I have known Shane Kirk for 17 years.  We have been in many bands together,  shared many stages and have the same battle scars.  He is a fine wing man;  Harrison to my Lennon,  Miami Steve to my Bruce,  Fancy to my Top Cat.  I knew I could trust him to listen to the album and work out which guitar parts he knows I would want to hear coming from alongside me,  and what would work best in both acoustic and full band set-ups.  He is also possessed of a razor-sharp wit.

So then there were three.  Such was the calibre of the recruited two that after one rehearsal we headed to our debut at the Ipswich May Day Festival.

At the last moment,  I invited along a young lass named Carly Ryder who plays in my new favourite band – Busking for Breakfast – to add some cahon to the proceedings.  When one of the sound crew heard me introducing Carly to Jules and Shane seconds before going on stage,  he remarked:  “They’re meeting for the first time and now you’re doing a gig? That’s taking a chance, isn’t it?”  Standing nearby,  was stage compere and storyteller extraordinaire, John Row.  Moments later,  he introduced us with,  “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Tony James Shevlin…  and the Chancers.   Now we had a band name!

After our slot,  I bumped into Richard “Gibbon” Hammond,  who had played tuba and trombone on a track from the album called Crazy.  He had been in the audience and enthused about the songs.  “Thanks,”  I said, “do you want to come out and play some bass”.  He thought for a second and said,  “Yeah, why not?”  So now I had a bass player  (with the added bonus that he could switch to trombone when required).

Jules,  Shane and I cemented the trio’s sound with a couple of gigs.  One was at Grandma’s Porch,  a Sunday lunchtime market in the local seaside town of Felixstowe.  Years ago,  as I drove through Asbury Park,  New Jersey,  I remember thinking it looked just like Felixstowe.  Reinforcing the Springsteen theme,  the gig was situated in a closed down funfair. Aided by a sympathetic sound engineer,  the sound of the Chancers really came together.  The years of having been in various outfits with Jules and Shane  (sometimes both at the same time) meant that there was immediate simpatico,  a familiarity that enhanced the ensemble.  Already,  it felt comfortable;  sometimes it can take a band years to reach the kind of rapport that was evident that day.  And I think the audience felt it,  too.

By the time we played Costa Coffee as part of the Ip-Art Festival,  it felt like we had been playing these songs together for years.  For this gig, we were joined by the lovely Helen Mulley on flute for Heart and the High Moral Ground.  Her performance was as flawless as the one you can hear on the album.

It was time to finalise the line-up for the full band.  We needed a kick-ass drummer who could replicate the subtleties of the album.  Step forward Dirk Forsdyke – another veteran of the local music scene whom Jules and I had worked with before.  At the first rehearsal, Dirk and Gibbon immediately hit it off as a rhythm section (an absolute must if a band is to click).  Shane dusted down his old Fender Telecaster and after the first run-through of Nobody – I knew I had my band.

A week later we performed two full-band gigs.  One back at Grandma’s Porch as part of the celebrations for Felixstowe Carnival and one in the Grapevine Tent at Ipswich Music Day – the largest, free, one-day music festival in the UK.  It was a great feeling hearing songs from the album belting out of large PA systems, and the icing on the cake was that harmonica virtuoso Giles King turned up at Ipswich Music Day to help us blast out Champagne Taste on a Lemonade Pay.

It was back to playing as a trio as part of the line-up of the Living Room Stage of the prestigious Secret Garden Party hidden in the agrarian wastelands of Cambridgeshire.  It’s a wild,  hedonistic affair – like Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory mixed with Mad Max’s Thunderdome.   We nearly lost Jules at the entrance to the festival as her pass was deemed invalid.  There were frantic negotiations,  phone calls to promoters,  and the eventual emailing of a new pin number to Jules  (whatever happened to laminated backstage passes?).

In amongst all of the madness of SGP is the relative calm of the Living Room Stage,  a stage made out to look like,  well,  a living room.  The audience had copious comfy sofas to chill out on and despite looking like they hadn’t slept for several nights were a very attentive and appreciative bunch.

We scrawled our names on the back wall alongside Living Room alumni Newton Faulkner,  Ed Sheeran and Jake Bugg.

After our performance,  I was keen to catch the set from Martha Reeves and the Vandellas but Shane was desperate to see the ladies’ mud wrestling,  so I went along,  just to accompany him,  of course.

I took in the delights of Paris,  France to perform in the city’s Highlander pub.  I had misgivings that, due to the language barrier,  the locals wouldn’t be able to understand my songs.  Far from it,  the audience were a lively,  welcoming bunch who understood every word,  and were very quick to pick up on the choruses and sing along.  Viva la difference!

Next up,  was the delightful Folk East Festival,  to date, one of the friendliest festival I think I’ve ever played at.   The crew were as warm as the Suffolk sunshine,  and the audience were friendly and very enthusiastic for a Sunday afternoon.  On the team sheet that day were Dirk on cahon and other bits of percussion,  Gibbon on bass,  and Jules on backing vocals.  And because Shane was AWOL at another festival,  Jules made her bass debut on Crazy when Gibbon switched to trombone.

I was invited to take part in the annual pigeon-plucking contest.  I declined.

Our summer swansong was a trio line-up at a bijou festival in the wilds of Northamptonshire.  Well,  festival was how Shane sold the Acorn Fayre to me.  It was in a barn.  And not the biggest barn you’ve ever seen,  either.  Still,  a gig’s a gig and there were music lovers in attendance who just might like what we do and want to buy a CD or two.

On this occasion,  we were again joined by Helen Mulley,  who was looking forward to flying solo on flute once again and adding in the odd harmony.   Unfortunately,  Jules was taken ill at the last minute and had to cancel,  so Helen went from being third spear carrier to principal boy;  she was the harmony.  Being the consummate professional that she is,  she didn’t bat an eyelid at this promotion,  other than request we play the album CD en route.  This we did,  and from the back of the car came all manner of lovely ooh-ing and ah-ing,  which was calming,  reassuring and a little bit exciting.   As expected,  La Mulley was marvellous,  so much so that one punter commented that it must’ve taken years for us to perfect our harmonies to that standard.  Yes, we said.   We then partook of some excellent home-brewed beer and some much needed barbecued food,  courtesy of our host.  And then we sold some CDs.

It was a lovely way to end the summer.

The Acoustic Guitar

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Tony James Shevlin continues his story of the recording of Songs From the Last Chance Saloon.

The acoustic guitar is a wonderful instrument.  Like the piano,  it is all-encompassing;  in the right hands it provides bass,  rhythm and melody.  However,  the acoustic guitar is much more easily transported than the piano,  and can be taken and used anywhere  (check out Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield playing one on the International Space Station – can you imagine NASA’s response if he’d asked to take a Steinway Grand?).

For me,  the acoustic guitar has always been a tool to present songs,  a backing for my voice,  really,  so while I admire and am in awe of the likes of Eric Roach and Tommy Emmanuel,  I am drawn to singer-songwriters who use the instrument to great effect to showcase their songs,  in particular,  the likes of Paul Simon and James Taylor,  and of course,  early Bob Dylan.  John Lennon playing his Gibson J-160E acoustic also had a profound effect on me.  I remember going to the cinema as a small boy and seeing the movie of A Hard Day’s Night and wished I could own one. Unfortunately,  that was way out of my price range.

I have to come clean and say that my reasons for taking up the guitar were not entirely musical.  On the bus on my way home from school,  aged 14,  I was trying to look both cool and nonchalant to some girls who were fellow passengers.  The bus stopped at a zebra crossing to let a quite nerdy-looking kid cross the road.  He was carrying a guitar.  “Look,”  one of them said,  “he’s got a guitar.”  The girls all looked at him,  admiringly.  “Cool!” said one.  That was enough for me,  and I nagged my parents until they agreed to buy me my first guitar as a combined 14th birthday and Christmas present.

My first guitar was a Barnes and Mullins Clasico Spanish guitar from a music shop in Ipswich called Harpers (next to the Wimpy Bar and opposite Woolworth’s – all three shops are gone);  it cost £7.  That was a lot of money back then!

However,  it wasn’t long before the likes of Marc Bolan and Mick Ronson lured me over to the electric guitar;  even my accruing fascination with David Bowie and his 12-string acoustic couldn’t stop me purchasing a Japanese copy of a Gibson SG.

And it stayed that way for over 15 years.  Electric Fenders and Gibson came and went.  It wasn’t until 1990 that I had occasion to take up the acoustic again as my primary instrument.  My recording deal with CBS in the US had gone sour,  the band I was in had split,  and I was now a solo artist doing support slots in many of London’s venues.  One was at the famous Marquee Club supporting Australian platinum award-winning artist Jenny Morris.  Added to which,  it was Anzac Day – when Aussies and Kiwis commemorate their involvement in WWII.  The venue manager told me:  “this place is going to be crammed with Antipodeans.”  I looked at the battered Kimbara acoustic I had been using;  clearly it wasn’t going to cut it.  I wandered down to Denmark St, home to the myriad of musical instrument shops.  In one I played a Takemine electric-acoustic – and fell in love.  I knew that they cost about a £1,000.  I asked the guy behind the counter how much it was.  “£550”  he said,  clearly making a mistake.  Keeping my best poker-face on,  I asked if he could write that down for me on a piece of headed notepaper.  This he did.  I ran out of the shop and went across the street to another shop with a big sign in the window, saying – we’ll beat any price in Denmark St.  I threw the headed notepaper down and said  “beat that!”  After a few moments of disbelief,  they agreed that they would;  they would knock £25 off and throw in a gig bag.  “Could you write that down for me, please – on headed note paper?”  They did.  Eventually,  after several crossings of Denmark St,  I walked back to the Marquee with a brand new Takemine electric-acoustic in a hard case for £525.  Its first outing was a fantastic gig in front of what seemed like every Aussie and Kiwi in London – and they know how to enjoy themselves.  Jenny Morris was very encouraging and her management allowed me to take two encores.  I still have the Tak’ and it’s been all over the world with me (including to Australia).  It has given birth to many of my songs,  and has been my main instrument in providing for my family.  And it still sounds great.  Technology may have moved on but venue sound engineers still remark on the quality of the guitar’s sound through a PA.

I have a second acoustic guitar;  a Yamaha Folk guitar bought second-hand for £50 as a cheap – throw it in the back of the car,  take it to the beach,  don’t worry if it gets damaged,  little run-around.  Only now,  I’ve had that so long,  too,  that I’d be mortified if anything happened to it.

When it came to recording Songs From the Last Chance Saloon,  these two were my mainstays.   The Tak’ is very evenly balanced in frequency,  whereas the Yamaha has a deeper woody resonance.  The two really complement each other.

Both were recorded acoustically with two microphones – one over the sound-hole and one at the base of the neck.  The acoustic guitar is central to the whole recording so we took a while getting the sound,  trying out different mics and positions but it was worth the effort.

For Faith in Myself,  Heart and the High Moral Ground and Nobody I used both guitars playing in the same neck position.

Paradise South Ealing has both guitars on it;  the Yamaha playing open chords in  ‘A’;  the Takemine with a capo at the second fret playing in the key of  ‘G’.

Crying for 15 Years has the Takemine using open chords and the Yamaha with a capo on the 7th fret playing in ‘G’ (except for the last chorus in F# where the Takemine is capo’d at the 2nd fret playing in ‘E’ and the Yamaha capo’d at the 4th fret playing in ‘D’).

Crazy didn’t require any tracking;  the earthy tones of the Yamaha was all that was needed,  although I did add some Takemine,  playing little riffs up the neck on the choruses.

Run Until we Drop was a mixture of the Takemine and Ian the engineer’s Levin 12-string acoustic.  The Levin was in a dropped tuning and didn’t like being capo’d so I had to learn the song in a new key.  It was worth spending time on,  and the result has a very full West Coast sound in the vein of  The Eagles or Tom Petty.

I Wish you Well is a solo take of the Takemine.  I particularly wanted that song to be just one voice and one guitar.

Champagne Taste on a Lemonade Pay is also a single take of the Takemine but I knew I would be doubling up the part on an electric guitar.

Although I planned to have Cut Me as a solo voice and piano I recorded an acoustic guitar as a back-up just in case the piano version didn’t work out.

When it came to mixing the album,  any solo acoustic is right in the centre,  along with the lead vocal.  Where there is double-tracking,  they are panned left and right but only slightly – I wanted to retain that feeling of this being very much a singer-songwriter’s album.  If you strip away all the other instruments underneath you will find one man and his guitar.

While I love the energy and drive of the electric guitar,  it is the honesty and the integrity of the acoustic guitar that most calls to me,  and when coupled with a song that tells a truth of humanity,  it has the power to change a human heart.

I am forever grateful that the bus stopped to let that nerdy kid cross the street.

Oh Mr Bass Man

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Back from his sojourn in Nashville, Tennessee, Tony continues his story of recording the album Songs from the Last Chance Saloon.

Bass players are often seen as the poor relations of guitar players. There is this notion that bassists settled for four strings when six proved too much. It is quite wrong.

A good bass player is vital to the success of a band. He/she is the link between the rhythm and melodic content of a band; the glue between the drums and the guitars. The bass is part-rhythmic, part-melodic.

For the last 20 years I have made my living as a bass player. I kind of fell in to it, though, in that I worked with an excellent bass player who, unfortunately, was monumentally unreliable. So I not so much learned to play the bass but learned to play the bass parts to the songs in our set. After the first gig where I was called upon to demonstrate my new skill, our drummer, who was renowned for his brusque manner, commented: “I forgot that it was you playing bass.” I took that as a compliment and decided to investigate the art of bass playing further. I joined a Country band and when I felt competent in what is required from the bassist in that genre, I moved on to blues, and then to rock. Being able to play bass and sing lead vocal brought in a lot of gigs working in a guitar, bass and drums trio. It’s hard work – there’s no room for passengers, but as well as being musically rewarding it’s financially a plus, too.

Being a singer, I am naturally drawn towards bass players who double up as vocalists. Paul McCartney never seemed to feature in “Best Bassists” polls so beloved of the NME and Melody Maker. Being a Beatle seemed to overshadow his ability on four strings; he is a tremendous player, particularly when contributing to the other Beatle’s songs (Lennon’s Come Together, Harrison’s Taxman). I love Sting’s bass playing in the Police – the economy of notes used on tracks like Walking on the Moon and the verses in Roxanne. And Thin Lizzy’s Phil Lynott made bass playing sexy!

I was lucky enough to have Bruce Thomas, bass player with Elvis Costello and the Attractions play on an album of mine. It was a great learning experience, hearing him develop the basic lines of our demo recordings into the wonderful melodic versions on the final album. His use of harmonious passing notes was a master class which has stayed with me.

Whilst working as a music journalist, I was asked to interview one of my favourite bass players, the great Jack Bruce at his home in Suffolk. He was a genial host. As he told stories of his life, he would mention his friends: “So me and Jimi are in this pub…” I would interrupt: Sorry, Jimi? “Hendrix,” he said nonchalantly. Or, “I was hanging out at John’s house, and…” Sorry, John who? “Oh, sorry, – Lennon.” Oh, right, says I. I marvelled that his buddies – Eric, Mick, Pete and Paul were Clapton, Jagger, Townsend and McCartney.

As I was leaving Bruce Towers we walked past his music room; there on the wall was a Gibson EBO bass – the one he played on Cream Live at the Albert Hall. I stared at it. “Is that what I think it is? I asked. “Yes” he said, adding “would you like to play it?”

I heard myself saying yes. Moments later I’m sitting there with Jack Bruce’s legendary bass, and with the legendary Jack Bruce watching me. The man who wrote the song which contains arguably the most famous riff in rock music – Sunshine of Your Love – is waiting for me to play the bass on which he wrote that riff. He is watching me. Waiting. There is silence as I try to think of something to play. And the only notes I can hear in my head are the ones that make up Sunshine of Your Love. I am panicking. I search around my brain but I’ve got nothing. So I play the riff to Sunshine of Your Love. The amiable Bruce smiles at me, sympathetically but with just a hint of pity showing through. “I think I might know that one,” he says.

Other favourites include Roy Estrada of Little Feat, Andy Fraser of Free, Bernard Edwards from Chic, and Ronnie Lane from the Faces. I’m also a huge fan of the faceless session bassists who played on so many hit records of the sixties and seventies – David Hood (of Muscle Shoals) James Jamerson (of Motown’s Funk Brothers) and Carol Kaye (of the LA-based Wrecking Crew).

Unfortunately, in my role as a bass teacher at a music college, I have noticed that the most influential bass player of recent times is Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers. He is a marvellous musician, and I say ‘unfortunately’ because the only aspect of his style that my students seem to have taken notice of is his slap technique. And that’s all they want to do. And they think it’s funky. It is not.

I sit them down and play them Papa was a Rolling Stone by the Temptations. I tell them that producer Norman Whitfield had the bass player on that track (there is some dispute over whether it was James Jamerson or Bob Babbitt) repeat the same bass figure – just the one – all the way through the track because that was what the song needed. And that is funky!

So when it came time to record the bass parts for the new album Songs from the Last Chance Saloon, despite having the phone numbers of many great players whom I could have called upon – players whom I admire and am in awe of – I decided to play on the tracks myself. I knew what the songs needed, I knew what I wanted. It was important to me that the bass shouldn’t stand out or detract from the central idea of a song, a voice and a guitar.

I dusted down my old Fender Jazz bass which I rarely use when playing live anymore (it’s just too damn heavy for long gigs). It has a lovely warm round tone to it. This was put through a 15 year-old Ashdown 150 Amplifier Head and a Hartke 1 x 15 Cab. Any top end needed we took from the Direct Injection (D.I.) into the desk.

The bass parts were recorded in two evening session; four one night and four the next.

I played them in the order the drums were recorded which meant I was faced with Faith in Myself, Paradise South Ealing, Crazy and Crying for 15 Years on the first night.

Although I hadn’t played in a band with Tim the drummer for 18 years, it didn’t take long for me to lock into the groove he had set up on Faith in Myself. I kept my lines simple with a few variations on a central riff. This was also the first of four songs where the low E string was tuned a whole tone lower to the note of D. The song’s verses are in the key of E minor so this meant that I could play the open string (D) and ‘hammer on’ (to E) for a very effective riff. The choruses are in the key of D and for these I played a more melodic, flowing line. I had rehearsed extensively so I would have been disappointed if I hadn’t nailed it on the first take. Thankfully, I did.

Paradise South Ealing took a little longer. I was after a Ronnie Lane feel, a seemingly chaotic but effortlessly flowing line, reminiscent of his work with the Faces. My first attempts seemed too polite and rigid; I needed to play more open notes and vary where I placed them, sometimes ahead of the beat, sometimes behind. Once I found the right riffs I was able to relax and I found the groove (I’m sure Ronnie always recorded in a fairly, er, relaxed state of mind).

The bass line to Crazy could not be any more simplistic. It’s what bassists refer to as “first and fifths” where you mainly play the root note of the key (in this case G) and the fifth chord note (D) alternately. I knew I would be adding a tuba to the bass part in the solo section so it was essential that this part was very easy to follow. Once again, my E string was dropped a tone so I was able to employ a low D on the fifth chord. It almost rumbles! It took me a couple of run-throughs to acclimatise myself to the lazy ‘swing’ feel Tim had so successfully attained. If it had taken me any longer, I would have had to hang up my bass in shame!

The final track of the night was Crying for 15 Years. This required another swing feel. The downbeat is accentuated, with passing harmony notes to add a bit of colour. The song changes key twice from its initial key of D to E and finally to F#; the last change meant a change of positioning which I kept forgetting. Fortunately, it followed an a cappella section which meant there was an easy place to drop into the recording with a good run-up.

The following evening’s session started with Champagne Taste on a Lemonade Pay. I had recorded this song many years ago as part of a band. The bass player in that band had come up with an amazing line, almost reggae-like that was played across the beat. It was quite stunning but even back then, I knew it wasn’t quite right (or, perhaps, with me being something of a traditionalist, it wasn’t what I really wanted). Often when writing, I hear in my head an artist whom I admire, performing the song. In this case, I heard the wonderful JJ Cale. The rhythm section to a track like this requires economy; what you leave out is just as important as what you put in. Tim had agreed with me and had set up a very simple brushes played on snare drum groove; all that was required to complement this was a basic County-Blues line which I was happy to supply. It was great fun to play and makes the track bounce along.

The bass part for Heart and the High Moral Ground is my favourite on the album, probably because it’s the most intricate part, with variations each time it occurs, taking into account the dynamics of each verse. I was after the kind of nuance and subtlety Davey Faragher brings to the table when working with the likes of Bonnie Raitt and John Hiatt, where you don’t really notice the bass line but if you took it away, some of the emotional heart of the song would disappear.

There was a very obvious line to play on Run Until we Drop; the challenge was to find something that was original without drawing attention to itself. I tried to imagine what Bruce Thomas would have played and, to that effect, there are lots of harmonious passing notes. I like to think the ex-Attraction would enjoy my homage to his wonderful style.

The bass line to Nobody is the one line I can’t take credit for and is the one that caused me the most worry. It was taken from an old recording on which bass wizard Spy Austin (Desmond Dekker, George Clinton, Style Council) worked his magic. It contains a beautiful flowing riff which, even when I play the song solo on acoustic guitar, I still hum in my head. Spy is such an exceptional musician that I was worried that I would not be able to do his line justice. After a couple of run-throughs, even though I played it exactly as he had, it didn’t sound comfortable; it didn’t sound right. It didn’t have the same feel. And that was the problem; instead of playing the line in my own way, I was coming out with this second-rate version of Spy. I took a break for a cup of tea and a Jaffa Cake or two (these became a session staple) and thought about how Tony James Shevlin should play it. I took the original line as a basis and adapted to suit my own style. This immediately felt more welcoming, and once I relaxed, I started adding notes until I had a line that, while indebted to the original, felt appropriate, was in keeping with the style of the album, and rocked along like a good ‘un.

I doubt if anyone will listen to Songs from the Last Chance Saloon and say: “Great bass playing!” but that was never my goal; the bass is there to enhance the drums, support the guitars, and help the whole ensemble hang together, and listening back to the album as a whole, I think it does just that.

In my career as a bassist, I have always tried to stay true to the Ten Bass Commandments (on occasions, I have struggled with the fourth)

1. Thou shalt not f**k up the groove. F**k up the notes if thou must, but
not the groove.

2. Thou shalt not lust after thy guitar player’s part. He keepeth the fun,
thou keepeth the groove.

3. Be thou not swayed by a drummer with crappy time, for thou art the
keeper of the beat.

4. Be thou not led into temptation before the gig. After is cool.

5. Thou pusheth thy luck with five strings, six is a mortal sin, for thou
hast no business in the upper register.

6. “Thou shalt not thump with thy thumb, nor honk with a pick when thy
fingers are the way of truth.

7. Thou shalt not fear whole notes, for they can be the way and the
light.

8. Thou shalt leave the fancy s**t to thy bandmates, so they might wrestle
with their own bad taste.

9. Thou shalt change thy strings at least once per decade, whether they
need it or not.

10. Thou shalt tune thy bass before each and every gig, even though it was
in tune when last thou put it away.

Amen to that!

Next time: Six strings down

Letter From America 3

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Letter From America #3 – Final thoughts from Nashville

Everything seems to happen slowly here.  It’s as if there is time,  and then there’s Tennessee time.  It might be something to do with the heat;  it slows you down.  Or at least, walking slowly conserves your energy.  I have yet to see someone here running for a bus.  Or it might be that you get used to having to wait a full fifteen minutes for a slow-moving train to cross your path,  and there’s nothing you can do about it.  This opportunity to fully consider things is evident in much of the songwriting that I’ve come across in the last two weeks.  No observation is rushed,  no word is wasted.  The songs are as matured as the local bourbon.

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Letter From America 2

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Letter from America #2 –

Every city has a rhythm.  New York and London are frenetic;  Paris and Rome,  less so.  Moscow’s is taut.  I was having trouble finding Nashville’s rhythm.  I think it could be that the city has been invaded this weekend by fans of women’s basketball from the states of Indiana,  Maryland,  Connecticut and New York,  whose teams were playing for the NCAA title and with them they bought a little of the feel of their own cities.  In all the bars there was good-natured banter between the fans that would put our football fans to shame.

I have opted to stay in a hostel and not a hotel.  The downtown hotels are very expensive.  The Nashville Downtown Hostel is a third of the price.  I must come clean here – I couldn’t bear the Read More

Letter From America 1

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The flight from London to Detroit was eight hours long.  Eight long hours.  I was sat next to Jim from Detroit.  I suppose it was something of a cliche that he worked in the automotive industry.  Well,  he was from the Motor City.  We found common ground talking about Southern Rock  –  he had seen Lynyrd Skynyrd when he was 16.

In Detroit,  I had to go through immigration and Homeland Security.  There was a scary moment when the official said my visa had the wrong number on it.  I held my breath while he tapped away at Read More

Recording Blog 2

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Tim Amblin

Tony continues his story of the recording of his new album, Songs From the Last Chance Saloon.

Let There be Drums!

There are many, many drummer jokes. I have told some of them myself; sometimes, when I should have kept them to myself. I was once interviewing the legendary guitar amplifier designer, Jim Marshall, and I asked him how as an electronics expert he connected with the likes of Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix when finding out what they wanted from his creations. “I’m a musician, too,” he said, proudly, “I’m a drummer.” I smiled and said: “A drummer? You mean someone who hangs out with musicians?” The boffin’s face did not crack a smile and I could feel my face getting warmer than the valves in one of his 400 watt heads turned up to 11. The interview went downhill from there. Read More