Colin H on Being a Bandleader
On 10 January, I invited three of my local music associates, all bandleaders and ‘music lifers’, round for a cup of tea and a three-way interview session. In order of seniority, Dave ‘The Hat’ McLarnon is a punk veteran, Adele Ingram is chief songwriter with quirky all-girl hillbillies Wookalily, and Scott Flanigan is a piano/organ jazz sensation with a splendid line in wit.
Northern Ireland is an isolated region in various senses, and all three have tried, and/or are still trying, to make an impact in their field beyond the locale, while trying to make a living within it. I’ve skirted around the music scene(s) in Belfast since the early 90s, never particularly at the core of anything but around the edges of several things – as, at various times, a local newspaper feature writer, events/recordings organiser, general cheerleader and occasional mentor/advisor – and I’m always intrigued when I find musicians I’ve known for years who have shared the same timeline and geographical space for decades and yet have never previously met.
Even within the ‘rock world’ I found this recently, when I had the great pleasure of pulling together a charity show in September past, featuring fabulous reunions of various bands associated with a legendary Belfast venue, The Warehouse, which ran from 1994-96. Former Peacefrog member Dave ‘The Hat’ McLarnon (known as Dave ‘The Beard’ McLarnon in those days, thanks to a quite sensational black paintbrush beard) was keen to perform and I asked my good pal Ali MacKenzie, burbling bass maestro with many Belfast blues and rock acts, exactly matching Dave’s musical timeline, to join a one-off ‘Hat Band’ for the occasion. Amazingly, the pair had never met. They’d played the same venues in the same city at the same time… (As an aside, the Hat Band performance was fantastic, and it will ride again at the next ‘Warehouse Remembered’ gig in March.)
Less surprisingly, perhaps, my three interview guests – each one of whom is, individually, a regular pavement café crony of myself (a benefit of self-employment) – had never met before. Keen discographers may suggest that both Adele Ingram and Scott Flanigan appeared together on my punk protest song/video ‘Smash the System’ – but that would be based on a common misunderstanding, for it was in fact *Flatts Conigan* who was on that session – albeit, Flatts being a man who bears an extraordinary resemblance to Scott Flanigan, who seems to have all his licks down, and who tends to get the Colin H-related bookings that are turned down by Scott on the basis of reputational danger.
Adele and Dave had almost met before, when Dave’s revived version of his punk vehicle Shock Treatment had been booked for a small-town festival gig at a pub directly after a Wookalily gig on the same premises.
I’d been at that show, leaving with the Wookas just as Dave and the boys arrived, but I hadn’t twigged then that Dave ‘The Hat’ was someone I’d met a couple of times in the 90s, when he was a member of stadium-rockers-in-search-of-a-stadium Peacefrog. In fact, he had to point this out when I attended, a year or so back, a Bangor pub gig by his dramatically reactivated early 70s school band Sunset. The reason I was there was to see punk legend Petesy Burns (who most definitely was on ‘Smash the System’) playing bass in this revived progressive-rock band – revived earlier that year for a tribute show to a deceased former member, John Crawford (a popular figure and serial band-joiner on the local music scene for many years). The chance to see Petesy, the kingpin of Ulster punk – and a brilliant musician on guitar, bass and drums – playing Wishbone Ash covers simply couldn’t be missed. Before the show, a man in a hat, with a now silvery and more deftly maintained beard, who turned out to be the leader of the band, introduced himself…
Since then, I’ve seen Dave McLarnon’s Sunset several times. It’s a remarkable outfit – a sort of elderly version of the revived prog-rockers in the comedy film ‘Still Crazy’ – featuring a load of fascinating characters, all of whom come with astoundingly appropriate stage-names: Waldo Comfy on lead vocals, Cosmo Serious on lead guitar, Barry Brickhouse on rhythm, guitar, Johnny Dental on drums. Okay, I may have been responsible for those names… Petesy is the new recruit on bass (replacing a 70s incumbent who sight-read parts but not necessarily at the right time) and Dave ‘The Hat’ is on vocals, guitar, repertoire, organising…
One day, at a pavement café session with Petesy and Dave, I was told that Petesy couldn’t make that evening’s rehearsal, first sub Ali MacKenzie couldn’t make it either, and so I was going to do it… Having never played a bass before, I gave it a go – Dave just needed some ‘bottom end’ – and it was a most enjoyable experience, and most instructive too. I got to see close-up the role that Dave plays – a kind of ringleader, cheerleader, and lightning rod of energy. He was the youngest Sunset back in the day, and now it’s like he’s the shot in the arm for the rest – a delightful gang of bourgeois bohemians with a litany of health issues kicking away the drips and rocking out once again. And they can really play!
Seeing mild-mannered Dave’s role as this bundle of energy in corralling a perhaps unlikely coterie of characters together, in the cavernous garage of a private dental practice up the Lisburn Road (yes, care of Johnny Dental on drums), was a real eye-opener. This is what music should be about – creating joy, funnelling passion, having fun. And for me – others, I know, who are into simple music and simple music only will disagree – it really helps if there is some level of sophistication and ‘musicianliness’ there. I could see, though, that it took a lot of unseen behind-the-curtains skill from Dave to make it happen.
Both Wookalily and Scott Flanigan are sophisticated in different ways. Wookalily perform very largely original music, a sort of ‘folk noir’ these days, certainly Americana-ish, with very tightly figured out arrangements. I love Adele’s songs. Well, most of them. There are a number of multi-instrumentalists in the band – one member playing fiddle, mandolin, flute, piano, concertina, lead guitar, etc. – and at least a couple are capable of improvisation, but they don’t generally improvise. Coming from bluegrass originally, where it’s all about everybody playing the tune (with short set-piece solos), that’s what the Wookas do. They’ll do the odd tightly-rehearsed bluegrass tune onstage sometimes. I’ve watched them over the past five years journeying from somewhat shambolic stage operators, where people fumbled around swapping instruments like a Laurel & Hardy routine every other song, and the banjo amplification never worked, to (now) a finely-oiled performing machine. They are still loveably shambolic in other ways, in the sense that a recent album launch event had all sorts of lovingly handmade craft items and confectionary on different tables, relating to the titles/subjects of songs on the album, and yet no one had thought to book anyone to take money at the door. That’s Wookaworld for you.
As for Scott, he’s an astonishing musician – a brilliant improviser and composer of fine music within the melodic vein of piano-trio jazz – who is always willing to help other people, whether sitting in on essentially one-chord modal blues at high volume with my pal Lonesome Chris Todd’s electric band at odd gigs or playing on some of my own projects, where I’ve tried to give him space and free rein to do what he does best. His fabulous playing on the recent ‘Don’t Go to Nashville’ by the Legends of Tomorrow – recorded in one take after sitting around for two or three hours while other people did their thing – is a brilliant example. Or was that Flatts Conigan…? He’s also a splendid jazz organist, and has performed on organ in the Larry Young role in ‘Tommy Halferty’s Lifetime’, an occasional Tony Williams/John McLaughlin tribute trio led by the Dublin guitarist. Anyway…
I thought it would be fun, and hopefully instructive, to bring Scott, Dave and Adele together for a discussion about bandleading, musical pasts and musical futures. So here, only lightly edited, is what they had to say.
(Interview in the Comments)