Where’s Shaw Taylor when you need him?

Shaw Taylor in 1976.

If you’re a musician, especially a working one, it won’t have escaped your notice that there has been a rise in the theft of musical instruments over recent months and years. I’ve been very lucky in that I live in an area largely unaffected by crime, rural Norfolk, and what crime we have is often related to the nature of the area (which is about as rock n roll as Mary Poppins!). This is for example, what constitutes a ‘Police Chase’ round our way! This report reveals the breakneck pace and daring of the police response.

But it’s come to our attention again due to the misfortune of Pat McManus and his band, who have had a number of instruments stolen from their van in the Bradford Area. Here’s the list:

Squier Classic Vibe Precision bass guitar. Fiesta red
Vintage V4 P-bass guitar white. RW Fingerboard
Vintage Icon V74MR “Jaco” fretless bass guitar
Xvive tuner
Xvive chorus
Xvive overdrive
Boss OC2
Xvive pedal board
Alto mixer
Shure SM58 microphone
Fischer IEM pack
LD IEM pack uhf
Marshall headphone practice amplifier
Fender Deville combo amplifier. 4×10. Black speaker cab
PRS custom 22. Red flame top Electric Guitar
Black Gibson Les Paul Supreme. Sunburst. Electric guitar Very distinctive back
Vintage V6 HMRSB “Stratocaster style” sunburst electric Guitar
Martin 00015 acoustic guitar
Hughes & Kettner Redbox DI/Cab simulator
Pedal board 1 (Diego board)
Blackstar Dual Overdrive
Boss RC3 Looper
Boss DD3 digital delay
Boss pitch shifter
Boss harmoniser
Bad Horsie wah wah
Dwyane ’69 booster pedal
Pedal board 2 (silver flight case)
Analogue man overdrive
Biyang delay
Bad Horsie wah wah
White electric violin
Antonius Cremona violin
Pearl Throne Shaker, with modified connections

As you can see, they have been comprehensively ripped off. However, Pat being of the old school, and a determined character, not a gig has been missed. Also, the generosity of other musicians to him has been noted on his Facebook page, where he has been quick to thank those who have offered him help and gear. (We’re a pretty good bunch us musos, nothing like the image people have of us at times!)

Unfortunately Pat is not alone. Over the last year my Facebook feed has been littered with the unfortunate tales of musicians ripped off by a mixture of different criminal activities. I think we have to be pretty clear about this now:

This is Not Random or Opportunist Criminality – it is an organised criminal business.

These criminals know where there are going to be touring bands. They follow them to hotels, or case out the gigs to see what gear goes in and out of the venues. And with this being organised crime, very few stolen instruments are ever recovered. This is almost certainly because the market for this gear is not the UK – it is removed from the country very promptly and sold in markets where they will raise a premium price with the least potential chance of being identified as being stolen. Pawn shops and dealers have been known to be crooked in the past (and one was caught in 2012) but this is thankfully very rare, and the vast majority of dealers in the UK are as straight as you’re likely to find anywhere in the world. In fact, many will help musicians by keeping a lookout for opportunist thieves looking to shift gear.

So what can we say. There does seem to have been a spate of these thefts in London and the surrounding areas (some of these being thefts from musicians cars parked at home after the gig which have been left loaded). Another hot spot seems to have been in the North.

Unfortunately, insurance is expensive and in some cases unobtainable (or sets an unreasonable security standard, inapplicable to typical situations). One option is to try to remove all the irreplaceable items from vehicles – take guitars and small instruments into Hotel rooms with you, as I have always done with my guitars when travelling. But the truth is that’s easy for me to say, because I have always travelled light. Two guitars is my usual carry out. Amps get left in the van, so does PA and Lighting. But certainly removing high value instruments raises the risk/reward ratio for the thief.

The other option is simply to leave the best gear at home – take cheaper guitars on the road, and certainly nothing with any sentimental value. But that feels very defeatist, and as a luthier I certainly want to see the guitars I build being toured and used.

In short, I think this is a crime which is largely unstoppable. Determined and organised thieves will not be deterred by alarms and other devices. I hope the police are going to take this seriously, but I have a feeling that it’s being treated as a low priority offence. After all, there is a hierarchy of victims, and I don’t suppose long haired rock n roll musicians  feature very highly on that list. Bikers have had a similar rough deal over the years, and the rise in instrument theft has been mirrored in the rising theft of motorcycles. It’s rare we hear of one of these being returned to its owner, or the Police being able to offer anything more helpful than a crime number for the insurance company. Most musicians don’t even have that. We have become a ‘soft, high value target’. Organised crime is simply one step ahead of the law. So it’s largely up to the law abiding to try to protect themselves as best they can.

So, as Shaw Taylor used to say – Keep em Peeled.

Goodbye Wijk aan Zee

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This was my view out into the Café de Zon at about 11:30pm on Saturday night. I don’t think I have ever taken a camera onto a stage before, but I wanted to capture this. For pretty much every musician, it’s these moments that remind us why we play music at a professional or semi professional level at all rather than just at Jam sessions or for fun in a few local bars. It’s about people, and the feeling of entertaining an audience. It’s a special connection I’m not sure you can get in any other way.

The Dutch tribute festivals have been very special to all of us. But what we see of them is only a very small part of the whole. Behind the scenes there are a number of people who you rarely see on a stage, but it is they who do the real work. And I’d like to thank them here. Paul Handgraaf, Theo van Baar & Jan van Bodegraven are the principle organisers and our direct contacts. Richard techs the backline, Albert Schierbeek runs the front of house, Anja, Linda and José you might have seen running the ticketing and merchandise. The Café de Zon hosts us wonderfully every year. And of course there are many more who support the efforts of those I have named here.

On behalf Secret Agent I’d just like to say a huge thank-you to everyone for looking after us so well, putting on some great gigs – and of course some fantastic after parties! You have all been brilliant hosts, and steadfast friends.

Also I must thank the audiences who have supported all of the gigs. You have been fantastic. Many of you have come from all over Europe, many from even further afield. Every year the tickets are sold out, and the after gigs are full to bursting.

At this point, special mention must also go to some real explorers! Harmonica player Patrick Fairchild made it all the way from Australia, about 12,000 miles. Now that’s dedication! But the prize for sheer guts over travelling adversity must go to the ‘Great Memorial Band’ from Hungary. When we first met them in 2008, they were exiting a small hatchback in the hotel car park – 5 musicians, one electric piano, two guitars and various assorted bits of drum gear if I recall correctly. They had driven all the way from near Budapest crammed into the car in this fashion just to be at that one gig. And they were brilliant! (We had to follow them, which I assure you was no easy task).

We have also made many friends in the ‘Rory Family’ and in the Dutch blues/rock community, not least the other musicians with whom we have played. The standard of players we have encountered has never ceased to amaze me, and the warmth between the players is genuine -there is no rivalry, just an immense sense of collective fun. This was one of the reasons why we decided to try to turn our final gig into a jam session, with Secret Agent as the ‘House Band’ backing as many guest players as we could. For me, it was one of the highlights of our time in the Netherlands. So many musicians, many I hadn’t met before that afternoon, everybody creating something bigger than the sum of the parts. And Tim and Mark coped admirably  with everything that was thrown at them! The set list didn’t survive long before deviation…..

To all the musicians we have played with over the last 8 years, it has been a real pleasure to share a stage with you all.

Lastly I must mention two old friends. Frank van Pardo has been pretty much the “4th member” of Secret Agent since the Rose in 2008 – cheers mate, from all of us. Last but not least, I must note the absence of Barry Barnes and Sinnerboy, who would have closed Friday night but for some appalling luck with the weather. In the end he was forced to abandon travel after a full day sat at a snowy airport. Even then, it took him several hours to get his guitars back. I’m sure we’ll meet again somewhere on the road.

And so it’s over for another year, and we all return to where we came from, encouraged by a fantastic weekend of Blues and Rock music in Tribute to Rory Gallagher. So now what?

For me, the thing that I have taken away from those original gigs in 2008/9 is the same thing that I have taken away from this one. I actually want to carry on being a musician until I physically cannot play any more (or nobody wants hear me – whichever comes first!) For me to do that, I know I have to achieve something in my own right. Playing Rory’s music has been a blast, but the one lesson that stays with me from observing his career is that he was a man who ploughed his own furrow. However good we are as a band, (and I couldn’t have asked for better musicians than I have had in this endeavour in Tim & Mark), it’s Rory’s songs that brought us all to this point. I did not achieve that, it was done for me.

It was this understanding that drove me back to original music and the production of the ‘Notebook’ album in 2009. For me, nothing has changed. Notebook was a minor critical success, but a terrible commercial failure. I simply couldn’t have gone about it more badly as a band leader – every decision I took turned out to be wrong! The guys that played with me were great, and their dedication to the cause limitless. Tim, Fred and Jasper on drums and ‘Glam’ Dave on the bass, all gave it everything they had. Yet I still haven’t achieved what I set out to do, as a musician, a writer, or as a band leader. But if the 2008/9 gigs with Secret Agent fired me up to carry on and finish Notebook, then this reunion has only done the same again, to go back and finish my second solo album and then bring it out to an audience as we did in 2011.

And as for Secret Agent…was this the final mission?  I have a lot of work to do first before I can return to it, and other musicians to whom I have given commitments which I must now fulfil.

But I hope not. It’s just too much fun….

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Road to Wijk an Zee – the final chapter

Well, the waiting is nearly over, the Dutch International Rory Gallagher festival begins tomorrow.It’s going to be a great weekend with some great bands and lots of good friends. I would have liked to be there for the Friday night but unfortunately commitments at home make that impossible.

Rory Tribute

 

So today I’ve been making the last alterations to the Elm Strat, ready for proper action for the first time.

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The first thing that had to be done was to file the fret ends again. This time though I finished the job properly as I would a refret on an older guitar. Instead of shaving the ends off uniformly as I normally would a modern guitar and then just taking off the edges to the straight edge of the board, I have really rounded the ends of each fret with the hand file. The neck is like all ‘vintage style strats’, quite narrow, and the string can ‘fall off’ the edge of the fretboard if they are turned over at the full 45 degrees I use on modern wide fretboards.. I have had the guitar in the teaching room for a few days with the central heating up hard, this has dried the neck out properly, and the slight shrinkage that occurs in the ebony as it ‘dries out’ leaves the fret ends exposed ready to filed back. As the wood won’t get much drier than this, I can expect the guitar never to feel sharp again.

When I built the guitar, I set it up to play fairly light- especially in terms of string heights. My other recent build has a 20″ radius and you can hardly slip a cigarette paper between string and fret. Mainly this has been because I have developed a mild case of tendinitis in my left hand, so the hand gets tired and sore quite quickly. Having the ‘superstrat’ set up like this allowed me to play longer without problems.

But you can’t play this kind of music on an instrument set this way. The tension in the sound comes from the player having to fight the tension in the strings, wringing its neck, wrestling the note out of it. So for the first time in what must be now 6 years, I have set up the guitar back to how I would have done my old strat back in the Secret Agent days – strings high off the board, a little more relief in the neck. I set it up to fight back!

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Suddenly it’s a different beast altogether. It feels louder and the sustain even at workshop volumes, well it’s Nigel Tufnel territory. In fact I’ve just gone for a coffee and it’s still ringing. Suddenly I feel much more comfortable with it.

Now, when I put the heavy brass slide on the strings it doesn’t rattle onto the tops of the frets, it almost doesn’t sound any different to the fretted note tonally – it’s big and fat sounding with that clean edge to each note.

I also realise now why I used to go through a set of strings each night. If you’re not careful, the left hand pressure that is needed to grip and bend the strings translates itself into a vicious right hand motion that batters the strings with the pick. And really, I don’t need to hit it as hard as I probably will, but it now seems part of the technique that I have developed for playing the Rory Gallagher’s songs.

So it’s time to box it up ready for the rigours of KLM and Schipol baggage handling!

I can’t tell you what a strange, but very pleasant feeling it is to be contemplating being back in the Netherlands  with Tim & Mark (and of course our trusty sidekick Frank van Pardo – couldn’t do it without Frankie!). Last time we were there together was 2009. A lot has changed for all of us since then.  Between us, two weddings, two children, several grandchildren, a solo record and several other musical venture. It’s been a while.

When Paul Handgraaf originally approached me to be involved again this year, he did so not knowing whether putting the band back together would even be feasible. After all, we haven’t played together since 2010 (at Mark’s wedding I think), and we are spread geographically over about 120 miles. But I had a feeling that both Mark and Tim would jump at the opportunity to reform Secret Agent. I wasn’t wrong – they had no reservations at all!

If anyone was apprehensive about it, that was me. I knew that I would find it difficult to learn the songs again, remember all the lyrics, and even to return to playing the aggressive guitar style that I used to. And how true has that prediction turned out to be! Even yesterday I was sat here in the office learning lyrics for the acoustic set, and I’m still not quite done! I’m probably not going to be ‘quite ready’ – which is actually if I’m honest, just about how it always is with me. Never quite as prepared as I’d like to be, flying a little by the seat of the pants! And there’s also the added tension in that we haven’t done this for so long, it will be like doing it for the first time again.

So here we are. This might be Secret Agent’s last mission, our one and only comeback gig. I hope you’re ready for us, we’re coming in at full throttle and we don’t care if we land it on the wheels or the fuselage!

See you Saturday Night!