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.