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Imagine a pun-filled, clever title about ukuleles for this blog post

June 24, 2013 5 comments
An unwarranted reputation for smallness.

An unwarranted reputation for smallness.

I should get out more.

The sun was shining when The Lovely Emma and I reached Cheltenham, the first time I had been to the town. Staying in a Travelodge over the road from GCHQ might not have screamed glamour, but it was cheap and convenient thanks to excellent (indeed, rather plush) buses. Dumping everything bar our ukuleles we made our way to The Exmouth Arms, which was hosting a large part of the Ukulele Festival of Great Britain on Friday evening and Sunday, with the main event taking place at the town hall throughout Saturday. If you’re going to start a new experience in a strange place then you might as well do it with a decent pint in your hand.

There’s a wonderful effect you can experience at festivals and conventions of this sort, something I’ve also noticed at the UK Games Expo, where complete strangers are immediately friendly due to a shared interest and lack of any reason to be competitive or unpleasant. It was even more noticeable at the ukulele festival, since it was so easy to spot people who were attending by their ukulele cases, leading to friendly waves and hellos from people we’d never met before even when strolling around town, away from the actual events. On Friday this quickly translated into groups strumming away and singing together, with a few frighteningly organised individuals even coming prepared with additional song sheets. I’d taken a couple of Levy Uke Up songbooks, as well as several sheets I’d put together myself such as Daft Punk’s Get Lucky, which works considerably better than you might expect. Since I’d originally misheard the song badly, briefly believing in the finest tradition of mondegreens that one of the lines went “Are all bald Mexicans lucky?”, it actually went rather better than I expected, too. By the time the sun had set and we were improvising with iPhone torches under the marquees I’d pretty much lost all feeling in my strumming hand.

I was too busy playing to take names.

I was too busy playing to take names.

Saturday brought a rainy start, but the main event was set to be in the town hall anyway and so was unlikely to be disrupted. We wandered around town, enjoying the Regency buildings and general airiness of it, and happened to stumble across Kit Williams’ Wishing Fish Clock, which I knew of but hadn’t realised was in Cheltenham.

2013-06-22 10.33.52

Might get one of these for the upstairs landing.

Even more exciting than that, if only for me, was finding a sweet shop selling these:

I'm the only person in the world excited about this.

I’m the only person in the world excited about this.

It’s been years since I had eaten a Zagnut bar, so long in fact that they were made by a different company back then. Almost unknown in England, they were hard enough to find in some parts of America. This was the only one in the shop; I almost cried. Happily, especially given the eye-watering price tag, it was every bit as delicious as I remembered. Anyway, ukuleles…

The festival had a room set aside with various commercial stands, mostly selling instruments although there was a small amount of peripheral material. To be honest this seemed like a missed opportunity. They sold quite a lot of ukuleles over the weekend which, although they may be relatively cheap by musical instrument standards, are expensive items, but there was surprisingly little in the way of impulse purchases. I rather expected to see lots of T-shirts, cards, badges, novelty items and so on, but there was hardly anything of that sort. Somebody could really make a few quid there. The stalls were great, a wonderful opportunity for us both to play a wide selection of ukuleles, particularly handy as Emma is shopping for a new soprano at the moment. Hands on is really the only way to buy an instrument. There were several beautiful, eye-catching ukuleles we tried which sounded quite flat, dead or uninspiring when actually played, along with a few real surprises; you simply cannot judge a musical instrument on looks. The Ohana table was intriguing, although also rather confusing as around half of the ukuleles were not for sale, being prototypes or samples, and it was a little unclear as to what the stand was for. Since I already have an Ohana I just took the opportunity to try out some of their other models and a few sadly not destined for production.

There was a full lineup of acts from about one o’clock until almost eleven, so inevitably we missed a couple. By all accounts Sarah Maisel was fantastic, so it’s a pity that we were off doing other things and didn’t get to hear her. Sam Brown’s International Ukulele Club of Sonning Common started things off in hard-to-follow fashion, more than three dozen musicians, talented and well rehearsed, showing that ukulele clubs can be more than slavishly strumming “I’m a Believer” in unison.

Spot the luchadores.

Spot the luchadores.

At this stage we’re into low light pictures taken with my mobile ‘phone, so I’m afraid that the quality will be a little grainy.

The excellent crew cleared away the chairs and gear in short order, which did leave an unfortunately empty stage for Nicholas Abersold, making him appear rather lost and lonely and not making for the easiest setting for his performance. He might have done better if there’d been a smaller band on before him. Neither myself nor Emma had a clue what to make of Elof & Wamberg from the programme description, some sort of Nordic folk jazz duo apparently, but they were absolutely stunning. You know you’re watching real talent when someone like James Hill (with whom they have toured, it says here) joins them on stage for a number. Emma was particularly impressed with Ukulele Uff and Lonesome Dave, a duo I’d come across on YouTube last year but paid little attention to since. Their set could probably use a little work on pacing, as even when they slow things down they still rattle along at quite a rate, but you’re unlikely to see a more jaw-dropping demonstration of high speed right hand work on any stringed instrument. And Ukulele Uff is a Cliff Edwards fan, so there’s really nothing to be said against them.

Elof & Wamberg with James Hill. Full marks to Nicolaj Wamberg for the best trousers of the festival.

Elof & Wamberg with James Hill. Full marks to Nicolaj Wamberg for the best trousers of the festival.

Phil Doleman and Ian Emmerson, no longer performing as ukulele duo The Re-entrants but instead as a ukulele duo not called The Re-entrants, combined virtuosity with humour and relaxed patter that really made the fairly large hall seem more like an intimate front room gig. Many of the acts made us wish that they had more than half an hour available, certainly true of these two.

Lacking a zoom lens or the Hubble Space Telescope I couldn't even see the tiny uke played by Ian Emmerson here.

Lacking a zoom lens or the Hubble Space Telescope I couldn’t even see the tiny uke played by Ian Emmerson here.

Something very different for the show arrived in the shape of Mr B. the Gentleman Rhymer, whose act has been thoroughly tempered in the fires of clubs, cabarets and Glastonbury. The result was polished, energetic and not all about his banjolele, which might have caught some of the audience by surprise – I’m not entirely certain that jolly songs about crack cocaine and acid trips were quite the standard festival fare – but by the end of it he’d won the hall over, whether they previously knew hip-hop or not. The only pity was that, in a rare misstep by the sound crew, his vocals were a bit muffled at times.

2013-06-22 20.04.49

A little chap-hop history

I’ve skipped over many other acts, some very impressive and others hugely likeable (I wasn’t sure that I’d think much of The Winin’ Boys until frontman Fred took the stage and showed what a difference some personality makes to an act); only one that I saw was not at all to my taste, to the point that I left the hall to escape it, which is pretty good going for a full day of music. The evening ended with the biggest name at the festival, James Hill.

James Hill and Anne Janelle.

James Hill and Anne Janelle.

Accompanied by Anne Janelle, who could very easily have been high on the bill in her own right, James Hill presented such a seemingly effortless display of virtuosity and complete musical understanding that I was torn between being powerfully inspired or deciding to just jack it all in right there and throw my uke in the toilet. A genuine superstar of the ukulele world he not only performed his famous version of “Billie Jean” but also played the ukulele with chopsticks and a comb at one point. His voice sounded even better than on his last album, the songs were beautiful and his playing was quite breathtaking. Annoyingly, he is by all accounts a thoroughly nice chap and a real gent. A Faustian pact is the only possible explanation.

To finish off the night most of the acts returned to the stage for a terrific last song, in which James Hill showed that he can play the bloody violin as well.

Rock? Of course ukuleles can rock.

Rock? Of course ukuleles can rock.

The end of a fantastic day, with the promise of a great Sunday to follow and the Big Busk of all the festival goers playing together in the middle of town. My first music festival, certainly not my last. As a matter of fact I’m about to book tickets for another right now. Hats off to the organisers, attendees and performers at Cheltenham, a thoroughly enjoyable, utterly inspiring weekend.

Pity I forgot to put my hat down at the busk, though… might have made enough to cover lunch…

Hey Ho, Let’s TGO

November 20, 2011 1 comment

… or, as in my case, not.

The early results for the draw are in and Twitter is full of delight and disappointment from those who either have or have not made it into the 2012 TGO Challenge hike. Congratulations to all who made the cut and fingers firmly crossed for those of you on the waiting list.

I didn’t submit an application for 2012 – sparing the time each year is difficult for me and not at all fair on The Lovely Emma, who doesn’t join me on longer hikes – but 2013 or 14 will be duly pencilled-in. In the meantime, 2012 might see a holiday with Em and, of course, the UK Games Expo in May. We had planned to attend the Expo together, a fine plan sadly scuppered by the convention clashing with the Eurovision Song Contest: The Lovely Emma has clear priorities.

Expo! Expo! Read all about it!

June 8, 2011 2 comments

A sign of the times. Or at least of the dates.

The 2011 UK Games Expo has gone, fading into memory and history, leaving nothing but recollections of good times and the aftermath of eating too many pub meals.

This was the fifth full Expo (there was a small trial run in 2006, I’m told, not something I attended) and I’ve been to it every year. Back at the start it was a bit of a frantic runaround as I was conducting interviews on behalf of RPGMP3.com to be used in their podcasts; and indeed the interviews are available from RPGMP3 as a free download. It was lovely to tote a Press Pass and chat with the likes of Matthew Sprange and Phil Masters, but of course the teensy drawback was that I missed much of the actual show, so none of that this year. In other years I’ve either gone for the full-on gaming option, with every available moment filled with scheduled games, or else circumstances have meant that I could only attend for part of the weekend. This year I decided to try for a better balance which, on the whole, worked rather nicely. One scheduled game each day, with plenty of time to browse the trade stands and chat to friends. And go to the pub, obviously.

You underestimate the power of the Dark Side...

Gaming conventions are odd beasts, usually dedicated to quite specific sorts of games. There are boardgame cons, role-playing game cons, wargaming cons, card game cons… all sorts. Where they often fail, in my opinion, is in catering to only the sorts of people who already play those particular game types, so you very often find that role-players don’t go to a wargaming con and, conversely, the military fans with their beautifully painted metal miniature armies avoid the role-playing conventions. The UK Games Expo takes a different, more inclusive approach, not only providing space for the games I’ve just mentioned but also making a strong effort to offer something for children and families as well as the more casual gamer and science-fiction fan. No doubt some of the role-players are annoyed that there are boardgamers taking up valuable RPG space and vice versa, but there is plenty of interest to everyone, on top of which it’s an all too rare opportunity for people to give different games a try. Lots of demo games make it easy to play a quick hand of Monty Python Fluxx or whatever takes your fancy, run by people who know the rules inside out, and there are packed trade stands in the halls to sell you a copy if you like the experience. And should you need a break from the games then you can always hobnob with interdimensional celebrities.

Absolutely indistinguishable from the real thing.

For the last couple of years the Expo has started a day early, with Friday devoted to games only, no trade stands and the like. After a fairly horrendous trip down to Birmingham, and a quick meeting with old friends including the Yog-Sothoth crew, the first game for me was something brand new: Leagues of Adventure from Triple Ace Games. TAG, as they’re known, are a British publisher of role-playing games with a strong presence at each Expo. In the past they have exclusively supported the Savage Worlds game but more recently the TAG product line has expanded to include their own complete games. Leagues of Adventure turned out to be a Victorian “pulp” adventure game based on the Ubiquity rules developed by Exile Game Studio, a solid and quite popular system. The Friday games are played in the Menzies Strathallan Hotel, with several games being run in a single room. That caused some difficulties for poor Robin Elliott of TAG who was running the game for a group of half a dozen players, since the noise level meant that he was forced to practically shout for the entire duration. He made the best of it, but some of the players had trouble hearing what was going on further up the table and the whole game was made somewhat frustrating because of it. TAG produced a special advanced copy of the game, generously handed out free of charge to anyone who signed up for a game during the weekend, as a teaser and promotion before the complete product is released. A lovely touch, although personally I didn’t see much to distinguish it from the crowd of similar games. Maybe the full game will have a few more unique touches.

Saturday saw me in a game run by Dave Blewer, another TAGger and Expo perennial. I’ve probably played in more convention games run by Dave than by anyone else and once again he threw the action at our characters from the start. This time the game was All for One: Régime Diabolique, casting us in the role of King’s Musketeers up against demons and hideous undead creatures, played in the manner of an horrific Richard Lester Musketeers movie. Much silliness and derring-do, topped magnificently with classically bad ‘Allo ‘Allo accents from everyone (except Nick Marsh, whose French accent morphed hilariously into Dr. Strangelove German whenever he tried to issue an order). Moving away from Triple Ace for once I opted for a Call of Cthulhu game on Sunday, playing a member of the Resistance in wartime France. Traditionally Call of Cthulhu characters end the game either dead or, more often, wholly insane, but somehow my chap came through practically unscathed, which is more than you can say for the rest of the party… only one other character made it out alive. Clearly I wasn’t playing it correctly.

These days it’s very easy to buy role-playing and board games on-line. When I started gaming – shortly after the invention of paper, I think it was – finding out about a game meant scouring the ads and news sections of now long-dead magazines such as Space Gamer, Dragon and Sorcerer’s Apprentice, followed by a trip to a dedicated hobby shop (if you were lucky) or one of the model-making or toy shops that were starting to stock a few RPGs. The easy access to information and games now makes convention trade stands less vital than once they were. It’s often more expensive to buy a game from a convention than on-line, so there has to be something more than simply price with which they can compete. The more interesting stands were generally those offering very small press stuff, generally low-budget/no-budget operations where the person manning the stall probably designed the game as well. Despite the fact that I too am a low-budget/no-budget operation I do like to support these people when I can and when they’re presenting something worthwhile. Find of the convention for me was Backswords & Bucklers from Tied to a Kite, who also had the best business cards I’ve seen for a while. You can download a free PDF copy of the game from a link on their product page (just click here to go there) or the printed booklet is a very reasonable £5. The game itself is based on the original 1974 Dungeons & Dragons game, the first commercially available role-playing game, via a more recent game called Swords & Wizardry, but unlike those and many similar games Backswords & Bucklers is inspired by Elizabethan England. More specifically, it takes strong inspiration from Michael Moorcock’s wonderful Elizabethan fantasy novel Gloriana, or The Unfulfill’d Queen, although it’s obvious that Blackadder II is another unavoidable source. Being something of a Moorcock fan, and having recently read a few bits and pieces about Christopher Marlowe, Francis Walsingham and the dark, dirty world of Elizabethan espionage, there was no way I could resist it. I shall probably write up a review in the future; for now you could do worse than download the free PDF, gather a few friends and give it a try yourself.

And there it is, the merest hint of a wonderful weekend and in no way a full description of the UK Games Expo at all. I have considerable fondness for the event, not least because of the friends I have made there, many of whom I only get to see once a year. It isn’t true to say that the Expo has something for everyone, but it certainly does have lots to appeal to a wide range of people, far wider than many of the other gaming conventions held each year. If you haven’t tried a con and worry that they are noisome haunts of overweight nerds whose idea of sartorial excellence is a black slogan T-shirt then this show might change your opinion a little. There’s no denying that black slogan T-shirts, many of them XXL, were out in force, though…

Best not to try it...