A couple of weeks ago, I had a call from the events team at HMS Victory (National Museum of the Royal Navy, Portsmouth Historic Dockyard) enquiring as to the availability of Shantyhead for a short-notice gig on board the ship. What can you say when you’re presented with that kind of question, except for “Absolutely!”.
The deal was to provide sea shanties and folk songs on board Nelson’s flagship, to accompany an exclusive dinner for 102 guests. We were to play on deck when they arrived, then down below when they were sitting to eat, with a final set before they left the ship at the end of the evening. We weren’t to publicise the evening prior to the gig for security reasons.
We rehearsed like mad., brushing up on the shanty library and choosing suitable folk tunes and songs to intersperse things. Three sets were meticulously planned to streamline instrument changes and not have any one person singing lead for too many songs in a row. We had another gig at lunchtime the next day, so it was quite important we could still sing when we left the ship.
Arriving at the naval base, we signed in at the guardhouse and were issued with our passes, which contained the photos taken last time we sang on the ship. It took me a few seconds to twig that the beard on my photo was shorter than the beard is in reality, as I was wearing the same shirt and waistcoat as I was in the photo.
We were met at the gate by Alex from the events crew, and we followed her car through the winding roads of the naval base until we came upon the Victory, sitting in her dry dock, where she has been since 1922. Despite its age, Victory is still a commissioned warship and is the flagship of the First Sea Lord. I went for a job on Victory a couple of years back as an archaeologist, but it wasn’t to be. Oh well! I’m working on her now!
We were led up on deck and told where to set up, and with barely five minutes to spare before the guests arrived, we were tuned and ready. Breaking into song as the guests arrived, we provided an audio backdrop to the drinks reception, ticking all the nautical stereotype boxes.
An officer takes the fore and reminds all those present that cameras were not to be used at any time during the event. Who were these people? There were miles and miles of gold braid, more medals than you can shake a stick at, and dress uniforms from all of the services of the UK and abroad, mixed with a smattering of tuxedos. These weren’t your average corporate audience.
Soon, Alex arrived to usher us below deck to the second venue for the evening. Stood at the end of the top table, with ropes and guns to prop our instruments up on, we began to play as the tables filled with diners. The initial arrangement was to sing during starters and leave for the main course, dessert and speeches, before returning to engage them in some rowdy shanty singing at the end.
That was the plan, anyway. We got about ten minutes into our set and, through chatting with the client between songs, retired to the green room, to return to play in two hours’ time at the end. The green room in this instance was the Senior Rates’ Mess at the rear of the ship, immediately beneath Nelson’s cabin. Being an actively staffed ship, there are senior rates to use the senior rates’ mess, so it’s not an exhibit of how it was in Nelson’s time. It’s in a staff only section of the ship, and on walking into it for the first time, I was astounded! It’s a country pub stuck to the back of the ship! Tables, stools, bench seating, a bar with two hand pumps, exposed timbers (and a bed and TV for the duty officer), with windows giving a panoramic view across the dockyard.
No sooner had we poured ourselves a beer, when one of the event crew arrives and informed us they wanted us back on, and to play an instrumental set during the main courses. From our repertoire, we had only rehearsed two instrumental numbers, and with a lot of busking and improvisation, we pulled off 35 minutes of musical delights that we are rather proud of.
We filed back to the country pub for a drop of Nelson’s blood (wouldn’t do us any harm) in a bit of a daze. What just happened? Neither of us really knew, but it worked. We had a good chat with the officer in charge of the ship, and it turns out the gathered throng were top brass in the security services and MOD, hence the lack of publicity and lack of photos. We did get a photo of the band in the senior rates’ mess, as that was considered safe.
The final set began at around the time it was due to finish and consequently was somewhat shorter than planned. A rousing version of What Shall We Do With The Drunken Sailor was the final number, with all the guests joining in with buckets of enthusiasm. As I stood talking to Alex after the gig, I ended up in some kind of receiving (departing?) line consisting of the two of us, and shook the hands of a good proportion of the guests as they left, including at least one admiral. Very positive comments were received as was one request to come and sing in an officers’ mess in the dockyard.
From the stripped down acoustic gig of the previous evening, the next day was a little more involved. This was the full electric setup, opening the Encore Family Music and Arts Festival at Berrywood School in Hedge End. The van was loaded and we set up under a rather low marquee on the playing field of the school. All was going well until the mixer… you know… the one that went pop at the wedding gig the other month? Yeah. That one. It came back from repair the previous day. And it went pop again. Joy. In anticipation, we already had the spare mixer with us, so as setbacks go, it was rather minor.
We moved the speakers and mic stands to the edge of the marquee so we could look out, but the threat of rain meant we stayed under cover for the duration. The set went without any more hitches and kicked off the first festival of its kind at the school, which to all intents and purposes looked to be a rather fun day.
We packed away to the high-energy rhythms of the Big Noise Samba Band and were soon on the home straight. 16 hours. Two gigs. Done and dusted. Sleep followed soon after.
I’m typing this from a coffee table in a Victorian town house in my next musical destination, Douglas, on the Isle of Man. There’s various things that have been lined up this weekend by my good friend, festival, gig and workshop buddy (and owner of the coffee table) Rob. I’ll probably do an edit, add tags etc. when I get home next week, but until then, my thoughts drift to Manchester, and to those affected by the bomb attack at the Manchester Arena, targeting innocent gig-goers on what was until that point, a great night out, and many of the audience’s introduction to live music.
On behalf of all musicians and music fans, WE ARE NOT AFRAID. THE MUSIC WILL GO ON.
UPDATE: The next installment is coming soon… I haven’t forgotten!
UPDATE 2: Following the recent events on London Bridge, WE ARE STILL NOT AFRAID. THE MUSIC WILL STILL GO ON. Thoughts are with those affected.