Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Malt and Barley Revue - on the road!

The revamped, sleeker and (mostly) beardless Malt and Barley Revue hits the road soon with gigs
in Hillswick (preview show, launch of the Glusstonberry Festival) Rutherglen, Ayr, Belladrum, Bo'ness and more to be confirmed. All details here.

The Malt and Barley Revue is an hour-long performance of songs, stories and poems by Tom Morton, all about Scotland and whisky. With detours to Ireland and Japan.

Funny, informative, laced with tragedy and tall tales, you may find yourself singing about steamboats or along with murderous highwayman, munching a very scratchy sweetmeat or wondering how on earth the Mother of Japanese Whisky came from Kirkintilloch.

You will certainly be sipping three of finest whiskies in the world, and wondering if it could possibly be true that one of them is English...

Hear some of the songs and dialogue here:

and also here

Special guests at some shows will include eminent and indeed bearded whisky connoisseurs such as Mr Jon Beach of Fiddlers in Drumnadrochit

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Guitar collecting: the indulgence stops here. Warning - for acoustic purists only

I find myself doing something I swore I'd never do again. And it has stopped. It stops now, right here, with the customs duty paid on that absolutely beautiful 1960s Airline H929 (AKA Stella H929, as played by everyone from Blind Willie Johnson to Elvis) when it finally arrived this morning from the USA, where it was made.

I already have an Airline. In fact, I already have two, one of them also an H929 (small bodied, all-birch, floating bridge, no truss rod, 'metal reinforced neck'). The other one was supposed to be a 'working' guitar. It's a lovely 1960s Airline-badged Harmony Sovereign H1260, with original machine heads and thus just a wee bit unreliable tuning-wise to rely on live.

I don't really know how this happened. I just became kind of interested in the Harmony company, initially because these are the last(only) vintage American acoustic guitars you can find at affordable prices, though they've started climbing steeply. You're into four figures for even the clattiest old Martin or Gibson. My guitars were all made in Chicago, Illinois, by the Harmony or Valco company who also made National resonators and that red plastic JB Hutto model you used to see jack White playing in The White Stripes. They were never expensive, in fact downright cheap, and Valco/Harmony turned out these instruments for a variety of third-party retailers, notably the mail-order company Montgomery Ward, who used the Airline moniker.

But if you're careful and/or lucky, you can still find ones that play well and sound good. The opening acoustic bars of Stairway to Heaven were played on a Sovereign and Ralph McTell, Rab Noakes and Dick Gaughan all used Sovereigns in their early years. Mine has a big, expansive Gibson J40/50 sound and a very similar, D-profile neck. It's had a neck reset but little else. Apart from what look like household clatters, it's been virtually unplayed for half a century.

If you want that proper bright, frosty blues sound for slide and open tuning, though, you need the smaller guitars. The H929s were cheap and absolutely everywhere in the States from the late 1930s onwards, which is why they became synonymous with early acoustic blues. I have a glorious H929 (the one without the pickguard) set up for slide in open G tuning, and it really has that quality Clive James called 'broken bracken in a frost'. It's been carefully restored but has the original machine heads (though not he ferrules, which always fall out). I used to have a 1939 Harmony archtop (round soundhole) which I sold on, and an incredibly low-action Stella H929 sunburst I passed on to my son Dave.

The third and final Airline, the end of collecting, is the one that arrived this morning. It has a white pickguard and came from the USA, where at one point more than half of all guitars sold were made in the Valco factory. They went out of business in 1968. This one is in fantastic playing condition, but has replacement machine heads (again, no ferrules!). Good action.

Blind Lemon Jefferson with Stella

Blind Willie Johnson

You can buy brand new Airline-badged electrics and semi acoustics made in China and South Korea by the Eastwood company. But the original guitars are the ones to look for, badged Harmony, Stella, Airline, Supro, occasionally Fender (they did sub-contracting work for both Gretsch and Fender) Regal, Silvertone, National Oahu and a few Kays. You have to watch for the post-1968 Kays and Harmonys. The Kays are all terrible, but the Korean-made Sovereigns (all with pin bridges) can have their moments.

Prices? Importing from the USA using eBay, including postage and customs, you could get a really good restored H929 for less than £300 from a dealer, though these prices are going up all the time. It'll be £300-350 for the same thing in the UK, but they're rare in this country. Unrestored and potentially dodgy H929s can be picked up more cheaply - and they're usually repairable, as the necks can be reset straightforwardly and these are simple ladder-braced guitars. Sovereigns are another story. Bad around £300, really good maybe £500 these days. Jimmy Page casts a long shadow.

But these are all increasing in value, can be playable investments, and pieces of genuine history. Watch Jailhouse Rock and you'll see Elvis with an H929. They look seriously cool. They're American. And, to quote Clive James (via Pete Atkin) again: 'There are dead men still alive in these guitars."

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Tourists, tatties and King Creosote

I'm sorting out the tattie patch in the back garden, when the gate opens and in strolls an unidentified male, person, tallish, youngish, dark hair.

"Hallo. I'm Michael and I'm in your area...and me and my girlfriend are looking for something to do."

Good grief, he's looking for work. I ponder offering him a spade, but then:

"My girlfriend wants to go horse riding. But I think the nearest place is quite a long way."

Indeed (relieved, just a wandering Easter tourist. But would a tourist walk into a Glasgow back yard and make such an enquiry?). Forty miles, over on the west side if you want to hire a hoss.

"Yes, we phoned, but got no reply. Do you know anyone with a horse?"

Aha, this is someone drawn to Shetland by the infamous 3 advert (Socks the Moonwalking Pony). I do know people who either own or are on nodding terms with horses. But none of them let complete strangers sit on their equine pals. I explain this. Speak to Bruce the blacksmith, though, next door. If anyone knows, he will.

"Oh, Brucie? We've already spoken to Brucie." (Brucie? I try to imagine the look on Distilled-Essence-of-Yorkshire Mr Wilcock's face if anyone called him Brucie). Pause. "You don't have a horse yourself, do you?"
Even longer pause.

"It's just I was told that you had a horse."

We've never had horses. Or a horse. At this moment, Rug the St Bernard ambles over and sits down next to me. I can see Michael regarding this extremely large dog and thinking to himself: But, but...he's sitting next to a horse! There's a dog-shaped Shetland pony right...there!

"What are you doing?"


"What are you doing?"
I'm, err...just preparing a potato patch for planting.
"Potatoes! I'd like to plant potatoes! Are you hoping to be self sufficient?"
No, just hoping to have some tatties we've grown ourselves. Very nice to meet you, I say, advising him to try Bruce the Blacksmith as I'm sure he hasn't actually spoken to him at all.

And lo, he departs.
I continue digging, somewhat puzzled.

***   ***   ***

Later, Marf and myself head Lerwickwards to see the King Creosote gig the Lerwick Deathstar, the Squinty Box, or, as most Shetland dwellers apart from the Rampant Lerwigian And West Side Bourgeoisie call it, That Bloody Mareel.

What to say about Mareel? It's a twin-cinema, music venue, cafe and music education complex which is a good idea in the wrong place at the wrong time. Owned and operated by Shetland Arts Development Agency, it is  a state-of-the-art arts centre. It is, at (around) £14 million of over-budget expenditure, unable to pay its staff without a fiscally opaque deal with the local council, engaged in unseemly wrangles with the main building contractor for the project, and involved in so-far secret deals with the council for £600,000 of funding to stop it closing. Prematurely, as it's only been open seven months. As essential council services are cut - such as the crucial playscehemes for disabled children, Mareel's unrestrained cappuccinistas suck up the publiccash for mair kultur and training in wine appreciation.

It has a brilliant auditorium, excellent educational facilities and a recording studio. But it's not working. The cinemas are being filled, but the vast cost of bringing in current movies is scything any useful profit from that. And to general consternation, the music venue isn't working either. It's suddenly become painfully evident that the demand, in a scattered rural community of 22,000 people, for expensive live music is very limited.

Last night, 165 paying customers  (and the great benefit of the 350-capacity venue's movable seating is that it looked like more) saw Kenny Anderson, King Creosote, play an affable, frequently hilarious and sometimes very moving set, accompanied by his trusty percussionist Captain Geeko the Dead Aviator. AKA Andy Robinson from the late lamented Skuobhie Dhu Orchestra.

Kenny had broken his ankle, which made for much banter, including an odd and very uncomfortable monologue which included a story about his brother fathering a child during an SDO gig in Brae. It may have been nonsense, but it had the ring of truth. Ill-advised if so and painful as that snapped ankle must have been. 'Doubles Underneath' was spoilt slightly by a truly crap capo - get a new one, for goodness' sake - but all told it was a hugely entertaining night. Kenny's twisted, strangely opaque and yet detailed lyrics, coupled with his extraordinarily sweet and flexible voice, make him a unique national treasure.

Would have been just as good in the Town Hall, though.  Or possibly a large tent in Brae...

Sunday, April 07, 2013

Secrets of late-night broadcasting, and where I live part three

I'm broadcasting Morton Through Midnight (BBC Radio Scotland, 22.00-01.00) from the BBC Radio Shetland studios in Lerwick, 37 miles from my home in Hillswick. So far, despite some snow and ice, I've enjoyed the necessary driving, though I can see it becoming a drag. I've been home and in bed by 02.15 the past two nights.  Best not to wake the dogs when I came in, I've found.

I'd been worried about staying awake for the three hours of the programme, but so far that hasn't been a problem, despite consuming a vast amount of excellent game pie from the Drumquin Guest House coffee shop last night just before going on air. What has been strange is getting up (around 09.00) and having a free day with work at the end of it, feeling discombobulated, slightly confused and, yes, tired. Snoozes in the late afternoon both days so far.

As the picture shows, I am equipped for fighting on-air fatigue: Apples, I have ascertained, do not contain caffeine, but the sharpness, indeed the general nastiness of Granny Smiths certainly adds to wakefulness. Diet Red Bull (other caffeinated drinks are available) is good because coffee, of which I also partake, being hot, tends to make you dozy before the caffeine kicks in. Chocolate, if you haven;t been gorging on game, is good too.

A walk during the day is crucial. They have grown shorter over the weekend, and today I felt it necessary to take the dogs again, as it saves any late-night demands from Lulu so she can pursue her constant search for al fresco sheep shit to add to her diet.

It was very cold again, and we wandered up the middle of the Ness on the farm track. Nice view of Ronas Hill, the highest point in Shetland at about 1200 feet. Some time next week, I hope to climb to the summit.

Meanwhile, tonight's show will be interesting. The weekend's over and the slide into working Monday begins. I'm expecting a different crowd.

Saturday, April 06, 2013

Morton Through Midnight...and Where I Live Part Two

Lulu looking pensive. As ever

Well, the first Morton Through Midnight was broadcast on BBC Radio Scotland (live, and from Shetland, oh you disbelievers, with the music played in from Glasgow) last night, and so my new nocturnal weekend life begins. In fact, I was home by 1.45 am (despite snow on the roads, again) and in bed by 2.00 am, so up and about  by 9.00 am.

Feeling a bit discombobulated, I have to admit, spending most of the morning dazedly surfing the net looking at guitars (don't tell) in the wake of one I had sold on eBay being returned as 'damaged'. I suspect  that perennial eBay problem, the time-wasting customer who 'just wants a wee look'. It's going to get worse, as eBay are bringing in a compulsory returns policy for business sellers. Ah well.

Anyway. The first show went well, I think. Lots of great feedback, mostly via Facebook, which seems to suit MTM listeners much more than Twitter. Here are the contact details. The show is back on tonight and Sunday, 10.05 pm to 1.00 am, and you can catch it on iPlayer through the website, or listen online. All the playlists will be on the website on Monday.

Facebook is Morton Through Midnight
Twitter is @mortonmidnight

So, having shaken off the morning's torpor, I headed out with the dogs for a wee dauner, this time to the other side of the Hilswick Ness from yesterday. It was ferociously cold, so I didn't get far. Just to the magnificent West Ayre and a wee bit further. This is where the now-legendary Socks-the-Pony ad for 3 Mobile was shot.
West Ayre, Hillswick. No Socks

The dogs, Lulu and Rug, seemed to enjoy it, though Rug (fat and unfit, like me) tired quickly. So it was back to the manse for some warming up next to the Rayburn. And perhaps another look at those guitars.

Friday, April 05, 2013

Where I live: to the lighthouse!

We live in a very old house, first built 250-odd years ago on the overgrown shingle strand that connects the Ness of Hillswick to the Shetland Mainland. That makes us vulnerable. The front door is only about 30 feet from the normal high tide mark, and at the same level. In the 1970s, given a combination of tide, wind direction and wave action, the kitchen ended up a Rayburn stove's height in water. The sea for breakfast, as Lillian Beckwith once said.
'Bridge of Two-Headbanging-Buffalo'
Since then, heavy duty rock armouring has been installed along the entire length of Hillswick's Aest Ayre (East Beach) and we have built two-stage flood diversion walls as well, not to mention raising the ground floor power points five feet up the interior walls...

The nearest we've come to disaster in the decade we've lived here was a month or so ago, when the same combination of tide, swell and wind as on that infamous 1970s occasion demolished our peat stack and swept water and debris to within 10 feet of the main door. But we stayed dry.
Looks warm...but it wasn't!
Anyway. Today I decided to take a stroll onto the Ness of Hillswick (Hill-dis-vik: Bay of a man called Hilda, allegedly, not hill of a man called Vic) itself, which basically means hopping over the aforementioned armouring and heading south-east. There's public access and a marked footpath with gates and stiles that will take you right round the Ness coastline in about three hours. It's a slightly hazardous walk on occasions, but in my humble opinion, one of the most stunning coastal rambles in the UK. Living right on its doorstep is worth the risk of submergence. I think.
Only the frost-scoured grass indicates that this isn't the Costa Brava...

So this morning I decided to see how far I could get in half an hour (answer: the old lighthouse jetty, built in the 1890s and now demolished by the sea apart from some slivers of concrete and a set of steps). It being a lovely, if chilly day, I then wandered on to the 'Ikea kit' solar-powered lighthouse itself, which replaces the 1895 mini-Stevenson one I recall climbing 20 years ago. That took an hour. Then 45 minutes swift walking back home.
The ugliest lighthouse in the world. Possibly.

The conditions weren't quite as mediterranean as they appear in these pictures. However, it was a glorious walk, and one I intend to do at least a part of each day from now on.