Sunday 5 July 2015

The Sloe

From June 2015. Written at 2am, in a mood of intense excitement after having just jammed through a bunch of folk tunes with a musical hero.

Some years ago I had a dream that I was asked to play drums for Yes. Now, Yes were the first band I was ever properly obsessed with, the first gig I ever saw, and there's still a sizeable chunk of my head which reckons that they're the pinnacle of human musical achievement. But in life, as in this dream, I've never touched a drumkit, and my subconscious brain had generated a vast baying crowd, waiting for me to replicate Bruford's hyper-complex, hyper-subtle rhythms.

I also once had a dream where Jay-Z and Beyonce asked me to be present to rap at the birth of their first child.

Both of these dreams were unpleasant.

Tonight, in actual real life, John Spiers (Bellowhead's melodeon player and one of its founder-members) was present at the Bastard English Session at the Isis Tavern. Now I'm not at all exaggerating when I say that Bellowhead changed my life. I'd probably have got into folk without them, but not with the same intensity, and my attitude towards folk music and therefore culture and therefore probably maybe life is pretty heavily based on what they've done to English tradition.

And John Spiers started playing a collection of three tunes, recorded by Bellowhead, known as the Sloe Gin Set, and I was trying to play along.

Now, the Sloe Gin Set is important because it's the first place I heard a tune called The Sloe. It's a very popular tune - it'll be played all across the country every night in pubs and at festivals and in quiet houses with locked doors. And The Sloe is pretty simple as folk tunes go, but it's probably one of the finest things that English culture has produced. It's a coiled spring of joy: you put it in a room and that room  gets happier. It's a concentrated, unfussy blast of major key positivity. The dullest player could reproduce it at the slowest possible tempo, and the rhythm would provide an indefatigable bounce. It is a very easy thing to produce. And yet it is perfect. It is a perfect abstraction.

And Bellowhead's* Sloe Gin Set leads up to The Sloe with two fiddlier, much more complicated tunes. They're both excellent tunes, they link together perfectly. But I've always seen them (probably unfairly) as the grand staircase that leads up to the monument of The Sloe itself, the fancy frame that holds the masterwork. And maybe we're more interested in the masterwork than the frame, the monument than the staircase. I've certainly never tried to learn how to play the first two tunes in the set. But the frame is important. It's how we know to take the painting seriously.

The Sloe Gin Set is a sacred thing.

And I can't rap and I can't play the drums, but I'm a pretty decent, competent fiddle player, and this was real, not some weird wisp of brain chemicals, so, you know, the stakes were higher.

I don't think I managed to play the first two tunes. I don't think I could even get my fiddle to put down a competent rhythm part. And for a while it felt just like the dreams where I had been called upon and found wanting. But then The Sloe arrived. The tune took care of its players. And the room exploded with light.

*I know it was first recorded by Spiers and Boden, but that fact is not useful to this narrative.

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