This is a travel journal for family and friends interested in my stories that I've continued as a general blog now I'm back at home. I chat about design, music, pastries, the people I meet, and new thoughts and ideas – I hope you'll tune in.
The Isle of Wight has a bit of everything they have on the English mainland; a Roman villa, a medieval church, narrow lanes and tiny villages, and a rolling hillside like you’re in Sussex. What it hasn’t got is all the urban problems of the dense cities; there’s no crowds and no congestion. A ten minute fast-ferry or hovercraft ride from Portsmouth and you’re in a safe, quiet and very quaint slice of England. The whole of the island is just one electorate, Conservative, and apparently they voted for Brexit. I spend two nights there and was shown around by my father-in-law and his wife who live in a beautiful little cottage by an open field. We visited Yarmouth and dined in Ryde. I stayed in a cheap hotel called The Wight with an indoor pool and was allocated a breakfast table setting in advance. “Mr Richards, you’re here at setting number 29 – we are famous for our breakfasts.” Along with the Full English they offer the ‘Jurassic’ which is a double Full English or whatever you want, they also serve herring, haddock and kippers for breakfast – I guess you could order that as well as the Jurassic – they’re famous for their breakfasts.
There’s a new play currently on at the National Theatre called Common about the fight in early-industrial Britain for retaining common land and yesterday in Ruskin Park I walked with Leo and saw a portrait in a pub celebrating the individuals who made it happen in the early 1800’s. Ruskin Park is in Denmark Hill near Brixton, it’s 36 acres with views back to the City – you can clearly see Big Ben and The London Eye. There are more parks in South London because South London developed later than the north side of the river and there was still time, back in those days, to establish them – and I feel New Zealand is now at that point. Leo, who I’m staying with, says it’s the one thing he finds little a depressing about New Zealand, everyone seems to is so obsessed with property prices. This must, in my opinion, have some effect on the provision for public space. Most of the green areas around where I live are sports grounds – wouldn’t it be good if we turned them back to parks?
A brief history; Common land was held by the lord of the local manor back in the day and he would allow local people to some rights on it: grazing animals, gathering wood for fuel and sowing small plots to grow food. These rights were granted as an unwritten social contract. Between the 16th and 19th centuries, traditional land uses shifted as Britain moved from a feudal system to a capitalist one and it increasingly befitted landowners to turn every single square metre a profit, including the common land. Many of the locals (or commoners) had come to rely on the land, so when fences were put up and the woodlands cleared, they pulled them down. Direct action and legal interventions of the day led to the creation of Clapham Common, Tooting Bec Common, Peckham Rye Common, Wandsworth Common, Wimbledon Common and so many more common parks in south London, including Ruskin Park where these images were taken.
Standing on the South Bank in the morning sun I needed to choose at least one significant place to visit in London. I’m only here for a few days before and after my side trip to the Isle of Wight. I strolled along the embankment and considered the options. Living in London for about six years back in the early 90’s I stopped doing those ‘touristy’ things – but now I have no qualms about it. The National Theatre has two plays that interested me: Salome and a new one called Common set in early 1800’s – and they’d both be superb, of course. I have no interest in the big musicals but the wacky London Dungeon show looks like the kind of cheap gory slapstick I’d enjoy. I immediately ruled out the London Eye and the Tower of London, and Buckingham Palace is never going to be on the list. I settled on St Paul’s Cathedral because I’ve never been inside – I spent two amazing hours there, even climbing the stairs to the upper outdoor balcony.
Entrance is £16 and includes a headset and a very hi tech visual hand unit about the size of an iPhone 7 with videos and information that’s really easy to use. I normally hate these fiddley things with a commentary but some clever tech team has designed something quite amazing because you choose the bits you want to hear and there’s short videos.
I used my binoculars and learned the story of each panel in the main dome. Paul’s journey to Christianity and his spreading of the word. I have looked closely at a few ancient religious story panels recently and realise the faith was primarily based on a few clever conjuring tricks; getting bitten by a snake and not dying, making someone instantly blind, and curing a cripple (‘look he’s walking!’) is all the proof you need. One of the panels in the great dome shows Paul burning the books of other pagan belief structures of the time – way to go. Religious mythology aside you can’t help but be completely blown away by the architecture, art and music it produced – and I speak as a person who studied and still enjoys listening to Palestrina plainsong, that’s the spooky male-choir music they use all the way through movies like The DaVinci Code.
It was a big day; I bought advance tickets for my journey to the Isle of Wight at Waterloo Station in person so I could talk about the options. It’s one of the wonderful things about Britain, and I’ve been reading Bill Bryson’s latest book while travelling and he says the same things but much better – Britain is charming. London is full of people and yet it feels safe, sensible and civilised. It’s a good change from the grim and menacing hordes of homeless on the street corners in Portland. I only saw a few individual beggars in London, apparently, Boris Johnson ‘got rid of them’.
I enjoyed wandering through Soho, had a bite at a restaurant called Kricket where Luca used to work, chanced on a Kath Kidson shop and bought something for Julia. After St Paul’s I travelled to Brixton to meet Allan Evans, a New Zealander who stayed on in London and whom I used to play in a duo with, 20 years later we picked up like it was yesterday.
We sat in a place called Brixton Box, a cluster of containers around a court yard that’s definitely the hang out for the new young Brixton arrivées – arty and edgy, and a bit rough and ready. Brixton is still the same, lots of West Indian people playing reggae, it’s still grubby, but lovely.
People ask me if I think London has changed, well, yes and no, there are all new shops, people have phones in their hands rather than A to Z map books, there’s more people I guess, but to me, it feels and looks more or less the the same. It was the smell inside the Underground that brought it all back – I really, really like London . . to visit. I’m so lucky to be able to stay with Leo, an expat in Brixton just a short walk from the Underground. He is renovating a flat and being an artist it’s going to have some very tasteful features. It’s so good to have a friendly kitchen table to sit at – because onwards from here it’s going to be crowded hostels and cheap hotels.
As I prepare to leave Portland it’s time to keep or delete the images on my phone and I have chosen six that I like as a sort of summary. I mainly used public transport, which is very good in Portland, and with the iPhone maps and apps everything is so easy and I got a good feel for the city. The troubled and dispossessed are everywhere, there are groups sitting on street corners and encampments in underpasses. The streets in the area of the NorthEast where I stayed are leafy and tree-lined, the houses all big and comfortable. The shopping is great – there’s so much stuff to buy. Everyone I met was friendly and keen to engage. There is definitely an easy-going, counter-culture community spirit in Portland, and there’s a T-shirt slogan you often see – Keep Portland Weird, but it’s not that weird – it’s nice.
The guy behind the counter said, ‘You might like to try this’, went out to the back room and came back with a 1943 Gibson priced at US$11,000. I have never played an acoustic worth that much but today I played quite a few of expensive guitars, and yes, they all do sound different and they feel different too. My absolute favourite was a 1971 Gibson Dove with an ebony neck at US$2,700. It rang out beautifully, had plenty of bass depth and the neck felt so natural in my hand – it was perfect. Next he gave me a new Gibson L65, the neck was flatter, made for a smaller hand or a learner, but so easy to play and it sounded big and full, a real modern acoustic guitar, and only US$1,000. I visited Old Town Music on Burnside Rd where I tried a few Martins, Guilds and Taylors from $1,500 to $3,000 but none really impressed. They had a 1976 Gibson L200 (pictured), the famous acoustic Pete Townsend of The Who plays, a big jumbo body with a great thumping sound that’s ideal for stage playing when there’s a band – but at US$2,700 there was something wrong with the neck – it was a bit twisted so the action was too high at the 12th fret. One of the best guitars in the shop, to my taste, was a vintage Yamaha F30 for just US$750. I didn’t buy a guitar but I did buy a mic I’ve always needed, too pricey in New Zealand, a SM58 with a switch for US$100, and they gave me a free T’shirt.
Next it was Centaur Guitars on NE Sandy Rd and some of the finest acoustics I’ve seen and played. There is no hard-sell in these shops, they don’t hover around you, they just let you play and play – but, there is one rule, whatever you do, and there are signs up – DO NOT SING.
There must be a big problem with prejudice in America. Whether it’s race, gender or disability, people are making their position known. Everywhere there are notices in shop windows, on front lawns and on the doors of bars and restaurants with lists, all saying the same kind of things. The people in Oregon seem to be confronting prejudice head-on and are trying to build awareness at a community level. I suppose some of this comes as a reaction to the white supremacist killings recently in Portland on a commuter train that surprised many people because Portland sees itself as a ‘liberal’ State. I started to wonder how it would go down if people put up signs in shop windows in New Zealand talking about a rejection of any form of prejudice, what would the average Kiwi think? Some may say it’s unnecessary, others would say it’s ‘about time’.
But it indicates to me the problem is very real in the US possibly increasing as a result of the current political climate and recent election result, or perhaps it’s always been there – but this is definitely a backlash. People at a community and grassroots level are making their politics know – and it’s very encouraging.
Oregon followed Colorado and Washington State in making the recreational use of cannabis legal and since then the cultivation of it has become big business. The ranch where I was staying is currently experimenting with the propagation of the plant and I was shown around their set up. There are many varieties with the most popular being Sativa and Indica, and it is this one that commands a higher price and the one they are focusing on. In the town of Bend in central Oregon with a population of about 80,000 there is already 14 stores exclusively selling pot. The price for the premium organic product is high, especially outside the September and October glut period when the outdoor crops are harvested. Outdoor product is known as ‘dirt-weed’: the set-up I was shown is growing indoors, a premium organic Indica sensimilla under special LEDs. The farmer I spoke to doesn’t smoke pot himself because he’s not really interested and hasn’t the time while running a busy farm with 31 horses along with his core business combining various silica and calcium powder ingredients to make the compound used to make plaster casts used in medical and dental applications – but that’s another story.
I was interested in the medicinal use of cannabis oil but apparently the recreational product is currently much bigger business. The science of the horticulture and propagation of the plants has captured the scientific mind of my host, and of course, the realistic possibility of making around US$2,500 a pound is very motivating. Just a final note, a few have asked, no pot was offered to me or was it requested. The cultivation is in the early stages and the tour was centred around the horticultural and the commercial aspects.
Staying a few nights at place called Bend in the middle of Oregon about three hours south east of Portland. It’s flat wide-open country with endless pine trees and a vast horizon in every direction with a row of mountain peaks rising in the North.
The Bent Wire Ranch has 31 horses, 3 goats, 6 dogs including a Great Dane and some chickens. They are involved in ethology; the study of animal behaviour, specifically, horses and hold regular training sessions and clinics on the property. People bring their horses and they work with them – it’s holistic and it all centres around the animal. Zeno, a trainer from France went into great detail of their methods. She says horses have riders forced on them when the horses are too young and not ready, like 3 years old and their backs can be damaged. She explained how the vertebrae in the back need to strengthen in muscle from 5 years and only ridden from the age of 7. She doesn’t accept the old myth of ‘breaking-in’ a horse saying its cruel and unproductive because the riding life of the horse is shortened. Instead, a horse needs to slowly build muscle between the vertebrae in the back. We walked around the ranch and she showed me some damaged horses. The Ranch is a rest home for a few older horses, the oldest is 27 years, while other horses have come because they have been too difficult for their owners. I learned more about horses from Zeno in half an hour than ever knew before – and no, I didn’t go for a ride.
I’ve been shown around the local town, Tumalo, where we ate at a food truck park and heard a local blues band play. And today into Bend to visit the massive Fred Meyer store that my niece, Hanna, assured me had ‘everything’, – it’s true, the quantity and selection is staggering.
I was looking for some tea and some snacks for my hike. My host has three drawers of teas in their kitchen in every combination of fruit flavours but no black Ceylon tea. With a quick mental conversion I figure the costs of everything in Fred Meyer is about a third less than NZ, but there’s nothing I really need apart from nuts, fruit and tea.
On my hike in Shelving Park reserve I followed a trail through the trees alongside a river. The air smells of pines and there’s a fine dust in the breeze, it’s spring and about 24° C but apparently it’s going to be 29° later in the week. They tell me summers are blazing hot and there’s huge dumps of snow in winter here – seems I’ve come at a good time.
Soon as I saw Townshend’s Tea Company I was in.
The owner seems to never tire of talking about tea. I settled on Darjeeling 2nd flush, (the second batch of leaves that has more depth of flavour than the first flush). He offered me two tins so I could compare, I sniffed each tin and nodded sagely – yes, definitely the 2nd flush, please. One of the assistants, a woman with purple hair, delivered my order and said, having overheard my conversation, I might also like Golden Needles: a black tea from China, grown and directly imported in small batches.
In the local Beaumont Store I met Stefan Hansen from Dunedin, he’d been here 14 years working in wine wholesaling and was loading the produce section. He was wearing a Music Month target t-shirt. He said Portland is just the right size: big enough to have a healthy arts culture and small enough to have a sense of community. We talked about how everything seems to be organic in the food stores and Stefan said it’s now going ‘beyond organic’ people are demanding food that is also local organic. He suggested the Portland Art Museum because there is a collection of works by Rothko, who originally came from Portland, and to check out the Alberta Street Arts District – just a half hour walk away.
Today I walked the length of Hawthorne Street where’s there’s coffee shops, vintage clothes shops, bookshops, coffee shops, restaurants in every flavour, a cluster of food trucks, coffee shops, meditation centres, bars and cafes, vinyl record stores, a music school, a hat shop, guitar repairers, and did I mention coffee shops?
I came across Crossroads Music with an adaption of that picture of Robert Johnson. Inside I heard
about the songwriters night on later in the evening.
There’s something of an old-fashioned alternative culture in this part of Portland as if the 60’s
and 70’s are still very much alive. It’s a bit earthy and very organic, there are racks of rental bikes with tiny solar panels, Crosby, Stills and Nash was playing on one sound system and the cafes are full of people sitting on their MacBooks drinking Kombuca.
I slept for about 8 hours on an 11 hour flight and I’ll never fly without those Bose QC20 noise-cancelling headphones again. I realise now the constant drone in the cabin is the reason so many people are so exhausted after a long-haul flight – it’s so loud.
Amazing co-incidence to have Jo Baylis from Micheal Park School, her husband and their two youngest girls in the seat behind me. They were flying on to New York to pick up a 1987 Chevrolet Sedan they bought on eBay: driving it across the States to LA and shipping it home – cool.
I asked at San Francisco Airport Information if there was free wifi and realised, as I was saying it, that Silicon Valley is just down the road – well, of course there’s free wifi at the airport.
I’m was in SF airport for four hours waiting for my connecting flight to Portland because someone suggested I leave plenty of time for immigration and security, I even changed my ticket fearing 2 hours would not be enough, but it was unnecessary, I whisked through, got my passport stamped and picked up my bag in 20 minutes. I had enough time to take a ride on the free BART train around the airport, and was even thinking of going into city. You can see the BART trains on their raised monorail tracks slipping in and out of the terminal. It’s was a beautiful clear day with just a touch of chill in the air. Later I flew to old Stumptown – Portland, Oregon.
I have just released 3 new songs and a remix of a song from a previous album. Theo has created a Bandcamp site for me and loaded the recordings there. Centre Of The Groove, Hold Down Love and She Loves To Dance. All are acoustic guitar and voice recordings done in Studio Shed in one day. Joshua Lynn has thoroughly re-worked 1969 Is All You Need in his own studio. There are new vocals and it’s been slowed down from 169bpm to 126bpm while the pitch has remained the same. Clever man that Joshua Lynn who also added a kick drum which was never on the original and he’s done all sorts of other audio magic to it, so I’ve included it on this new release to make four songs. Thank you Will Saunders for the totally brilliant psychedelic album cover art.
The Kingslander is generally known as a sports bar and even though the management ‘tries music’ occasionally, priority will always be given to any significant sports event. But lately, they have taken a serious approach to the Thursday Open Mic night with the inclusion of a massive PA system, a row of monitors and a two-person team, one to co-ordinate performers and the other to tech the sound. They still keep all the screens around the room live with Sky Sport on various channels, on mute, so the patrons can keep an eye on the latest Thursday night sporting events which happened to be Woman’s Boxing, Motorsport and Australian League.
There’s a very nice full drum kit on stage but Al was told, when taking to the stage, not to play too loud, as a result he played too soft and I could barely hear him. I played two songs using the looper which I realise now is not a good match with a live drummer because loops never loop perfectly and the groove can get a bit jumbled – but we rocked on. After two songs, Ramp It Up and Glow, Lydia, the host, asked us to wrap it up. I said we’d only played two songs and the slot is for three, admittedly both extended versions, and I insisted on finishing with a slow one, Centre Of The Groove, which I shortened down to a two minutes. It felt good to end on a more harmonic note but I came off stage feeling a bit rattled. I think the tech had put a heavy compressor on my guitar because it ducked in and out of volume. Al said, ‘I wish the sound on stage was like the practise room’. It’s true, it always sounds weird on stage and over the years I have never got totally used to it – I just rock on.
Allan and I opened the evening at the Portland Public House last night and the place was humming.
I tried three different songs; a rocker called Ramp It Up . . ‘she looks so good playin’ guitarrr’, and then a funk groove, Glow . . ‘how da riddem makes u wana burn down slow’, and country style slow number, Waiting For The Stars To Align . . ‘no-one reads the manual, you figure it out yourself’. I looped a central section of each song and was glad Jono managed to get some bass out of the system working that sub at the Porty – oomph, oomph. It was so much better with Allan playing along on the bongos.
Last night I played at Grand Central on Ponsonby Road and had a good night probably because my guitar was up nice and loud.
There’s no stage monitor but one of the front of house speakers is behind you to one side so it sort of works as a monitor. I practised with my looping pedal, a Boss RC30, earlier in the day and worked on two
funk numbers: basically two chord grooves with a turnaround whenever I feel the groove is running out of steam. It was a good night with all the regulars turning up; Nick the knowledgable finger-style player with his beautiful collectors’ Martin, Warren, Jono, Graeme and his group, and Eddie Gaiger who runs it so well. Ed never introduces anyone or thanks anyone, he leaves the performer to create their own space on stage, that’s the way it should be, a performer needs to ‘own’ the stage and create their moment themselves – I like that. Stage craft is a real thing and I’m still hopeless at it but I try. I think a short greeting is enough and then maybe a bit of chat after the first song about the next song. The funk numbers I played were my own, Glow and Floating In the Air. Each one lasted about 8 minutes. I let the looper go on endless overdud and created a blurring mass of sound, punched it off and sang the last verse clean. I thought two numbers was enough but Ed suggested one more and I de-tuned the B string down to A and played Hold Down Love – finally singing it the way I had been meaning to for ages, hitting that first note up an octave to give it a stronger opening – it worked, I think.
This week I’m playing The Portland at 8pm, The Clare on Wednesday and the Kingsland and 121 Ponsonby Road on Thursday, and intend to play a different set for each venue.
My Yamaha APX7 was bought from Elgin Music in Notting Hill, London W11 about 25 years ago. The sound from the double piezo pick ups was always too bright and thin to my taste so I had a luthier remove the original double piezo’s and replaced them with an LR Baggs i-beam transducer. Unfortunately, it always sounded too ‘quacky’ or mid-range-y to me so I have very recently fitted a magnetic Seymour Duncan Tube pick up to the sound hole which is good but perhaps a little too thin sounding. I run both pick ups at the same time, although matching a passive and an active pick up is not ideal; both have separate volumes dials but the Seymour Duncan needs to be fully up and the active i-beam just up a notch – it’s workable but I’m not happy yet. To compensate I use a Boss EQ stomp box with a ‘smiley face’ setting, (-: that is, low frequencies up, mids down and highs slightly up. That gives me plenty of fullness and presence without the quack, and I use a reverb stomp box and slap back delay to give it some fatness. The guitar only really starts to come alive when there’s plenty of level in the floor monitors with spill into my vocal mic – the bigger the sound the better it feels. The top surface has a psychedelic image of Jimi Hendrix attached as a vinyl layer, it can be peeled off – the vinyl dulls the resonance of the guitar acoustically but when plugged up, it’s fine. The things I really like about this guitar is the firstly the calibration, the fret and neck are perfectly accurate, the action is great, it’s tunes up easily and holds well. Secondly, the neck is small, so switching to an electric guitar is an easy transition for the hand, and finally, the body is narrow so it feels like a comfortable small guitar. One day I’ll buy a Gibson J 100 jumbo but until then, Jimi is my BFF.
We loved seeing Bonnie Raitt last week, she puts on such a professional show and yet it feels so personal. There’s a real enthusiasm and freshness even though you know she has been playing these songs with this band for decades. She changes guitars nearly every song; various Stratocasters and a jumbo acoustic that looked like a Guild. She explains that some artists change their outfits but she changes her guitars, and goes on to explain each one has a slightly different tuning. What I admired was that the changeovers were done so smoothly. All the guitars are radio frequency with the transmitter pack on the back of the strap, so no unplugging and replugging – no thumps or bumps. Once she has a new guitar over her shoulder, with help from the guitar tech, there’s no fusing with stomp boxes or volume controls on the guitar – she just plays it. Many of her songs are slow, ballads I guess, and even the rocking ones are slow-burners. The guitar solo work from both Bonnie and her guitarist George Marinelli are restrained, they never try to take the roof off. Here’s a review of the concert by Marty Duda https://www.13thfloor.co.nz/?p=85399
There are seven songs of mine that generally go well in just about any situation but the hardest part is choosing which one to start with. Do I open with something raw and rocking or something slow and expressive with jazz chords? I have a personal theory that an audience who has never seen or heard you before will decide within about 10 seconds if they like you. I spend a great deal of my practise time working on my openings. Choosing the right song is even more important. My friend Caitlin Smith says you should never second guess the audience’s taste – she says they just want ‘amazing’ – no pressure. I have a country pickin’ one, a funk groove, a light reggae, a slow blues-infused rocker, a bright swing number, a songbook style ballad and a rootsy boogie stomp. Seven hats. Currently, I’m opening with the blues-infused slow rocker called Hold Down Love with re-tuning of the b string down a tone to A.
Over the years I have learned to play many cover songs and standards, some more successfully than others and I am always amazed how some performers can remember hours of material – all those lyrics and chords! I find it easier to remember a few carefully chosen covers and just put my own spin on them. It takes a bit of work to turn a full band song into a solo number but if the melody itself is strong and well known it generally has a life of it’s own anyway. Sometimes I think playing covers is cheating a bit – it’s like standing on the shoulders of giants and getting a free ride. For this journey I wanted to concentrate on seven cover songs that would have wide appeal – songs I hoped people everywhere would know. Seven songs is about 30 minutes of performing time. It came down to selecting from some of my favourite artists: Jimi, Led Zep, Lennon/McCartney, Prince and of course, the one artist that seems to communicate more than all the others, Bob Marley. The title of this blog, Songs Of Freedom, comes from Redemption Songs ‘. . and all I ever had, were these songs of freedom, redemption songs.’ Bob recorded it as a solo acoustic number on the Uprising album – not quite reggae, more a folk song really, but that opening riff is so recognisable – it had to be in.
There’s more to come on the cover songs I chose.