Sunday, 17 November 2013

Urban Folk Quartet: what happens when a key member leaves? The classic problem.

How can Urban Folk Quartet handle Frank Moon's departure? Time for radical thinking.

       Joe, Paloma and Tom are staying....    Frank's going....    and Dan's coming  
Urban Folk Quartet are a cheerful bunch. They're fun to watch and very good at going about their business. In fact, they're a shining example of how to do things; other bands could learn from them. Musically, they deliver mainly storming high-octane instrumentals, with a bit of vocals and a lot of badinage, and bravura instrumental work from all four members. 

Up to now, this included fabulous oud and guitar playing from Frank Moon. But Frank's skills and career are taking him to all sorts of new places. So, regretfully, he is moving on, leaving UFQ with a huge hole to fill. The big question was: how do you replace someone like Frank Moon, who has been so integral to the band?  How do you transition?

Joe Broughton (fiddle, expansive personality) and Tom Chapman (cajon, percussion, clever stuff with triangles) spent time with me this month going though their options. 
Joe Broughton: The first thing is: you don’t try to replace Frank with someone like him, because I don’t think they exist. We did look…. When someone like Frank leaves, you realise all the things that are unique to the setup. I asked Frank to join because of the interactions we had… so we went back to that. How can we keep the communication, the onstage vibe? We tried to find that first, and worry about the music bit later. 
Tom Chapman: We spent a long time thinking about it. What kept coming back was a gig at Priddy Festival, summer of 2012. There was a duo who played just before us – Walsh and Pound. Dan Walsh was on banjo. 
Joe… and we had to follow them. Normally, we don’t worry about that sort of thing, because we’re pretty full-on. We get up and hope that people will go with it. 
Tom… but they tore it up. 
Joe It was unbelievable. We normally stand at the back going ‘Oh, that’s great, but we’ll get a few jokes going, at it won’t be so serious, we’ll liven it up a bit’ Or if they’re doing something light and delicate, we’ll go ‘That’s great, we can go steaming with something serious or full-on’. We always think of something to do. But as Dan went from one hilarious gag to a serious tune to a full-on thing, we stood at the back going… ‘Ah….think we’re going to have our work cut out here!’ It was great. 
Dan Walsh doing a bit of jaw-dropping stuff on his own and with Will Pound 
Joe ...So when Frank said he was going to leave, we kept coming back to that day when Dan blew us away. And we’d heard that Walsh and Pound was coming to an end. Normally, people that you want for the band are generally too busy, because they’re too good! We invited ourselves over to meet Dan in a pub in Stafford. 
You didn’t know him until you saw him on stage? 
Tom  We knew of him. We’d heard what he did with Will Pound, of course. But then we got to hang out with him, We had a lot of surreptitious jams… 
Joe  But it was the first time I’d asked somebody to join the band who I hadn’t actually worked with before. That’s quite unusual, But to be honest, UFQ has been more successful, quicker, that any of us had imagined, so that gave us a bit of clout. But then with all our work abroad on major stage… suddenly we had something to lose. So we had to do something. And I think it will go down in history as the most amicable line-up change ever 
Frank’s had to go because of all his other work… and of course he’s down in London. 
Tom: Well, no, he’s actually in Hastings.
 Hastings? That’s an easy commute…
Tom  Precisely. And he’s got his young family. Life on the road isn’t easy. 
Joe: His partner Bev had just had a baby, and we were on the road in Canada, Italy and Spain, a whole list of places… He’s just been to New York with a play he’s involved in. So something had to give. He’s upset about it, and we’re really sad to see him go. 
Tom: But he’s been amazing. He’s made a whole series of DVDs for Dan to help him out with the parts he’s taking on – they’ve been in regular contact with each other… 
This is real musicianly stuff, isn’t it? Talk about handing on the baton… But tell me how much is this going to change your repertoire? I know that Dan will take on guitar work, but the banjo’s a totally different instrument - culturally, it’s somewhere different from the oud… 
Joe: We do change our repertoire quite a lot now. We’ve released four albums in four years. Paloma (Trigas) is always pushing to freshen the set. There has to be new material every time.  
Tom: Dan will take on a lot of Frank’s stuff, and we’re really happy about that. But he’s also got the right attitude. To him, picking up on Frank’s really demanding guitar parts is all part of it. 
But a lot of this is really about musical and interpersonal relationships. If he’d turned out to be a miserable son of a bitch when you went back stage to have a drink with him it wouldn’t have happened, would it? 
Joe We have friends of friends. Everyone has said he’s absolutely lovely, great to work with. 
Tom: And he was well aware of UFQ, and has been following Joe for quite a long time.
 Joe… and there’s another thing. He sings. I think Tom, Paloma and Frank are great singers, but none of them would describe themselves as singers first. Dan is a great singer, and he’s brought a couple of really good songs into the group. 

A track from UFQ LIVE II via Folk Radio UK. See below for UFQ's discounted sales deal

So Dan Walsh debuts in May 2014, and you’ve bookmarked this phase with a live album: UFQ Live 2, your fourth in four years, which is some going. . But can I address another issue? You play these huge places in Europe - there’s videos of you in 10,000 capacity auditoriums – but the last time I saw you, you chose to play at at the Yardbird in Birmingham in front of 200 people, tops. This does not compute. I don’t understand. 
Joe We specifically do the Yardbird because of our connections with the Folk Ensemble and the Conservatoire. Like you, we feel that there should be live gigs happening, in the city centre, that students can afford to get to, and that aren’t difficult to get to. And so we market it that way. 
From 2011, a world tour video diary. Huge arenas. Then...back to The Yardbird in Brum 
Tom Which is not to say that we haven’t considered other gig possibilities in Birmingham… but as you’ll be well aware, the medium-sized venues in town are really limited. Many of them are seated, and we like gigs where people can stand if they want to. In Europe, it helps that Paloma has played with Carlos Nunez for a number of years – he’s a megastar in Galicia and all across Spain – and she’s still known for that. So that’s a big thing. And there’s a different festival culture in Europe
Joe  But nobody in UK festivals books a band on the basis that they are really brilliant and can play fantastic music… 
Yup, it’s always bums on seats. 
Joe But that does happen in other places. And we can’t claim to be a big enough name. The UK folk scene is still a bit of a mystery to me, even though I’ve
been playing for 25 years. I’ve given up trying to understand it. So we want to look after our audience first of all. If they grow, that’s great. We do absolutely everything ourselves, from albums to marketing, and that means we can look after the way it’s done. So our audience, and us, is what we need to look after, more than worrying about how we crack the mystery of the UK folk scene. 
Tom: Our favourite festivals are places like Green Man and Shambala. Green Man was a summer highlight. Now we’re on tour, we’ve seen some of those people appear at folk clubs. In fact, every single gig so far on this tour has included at least one couple or family coming along having seen us at Green Man. At one particularly folky gig the promoter told us to expect an average age of 70 and the front row was made up of teenage musicians in UFQ T-shirts and their parents! And last night, a family travelled from Preston to Worcester to see us as the daughter's 18th birthday present, again having seen us at Green Man.
Joe And if you do your own albums, and your own gigs, then you can sell directly to the audience, which is a far better deal than using a record company. We can do a gig. People come along in their threes and fours. But we can sell an album at that gig to virtually all of the audience. That’s staggering. It means we can do clubs where they don’t necessarily guarantee huge fees, or huge ticket prices, and we can pay for albums really quickly through audience sales. That’s also part of the reason we do noisy, up, venues – people take that away with them on CD. 
The latest UFQ promo video - now with added Dan Walsh, from February 2014 
No matter what Joe might say about the eccentricities of British Folk and its barriers and occasional snobbery, I think UFQ are part of a folk tradition – that’s the tradition where the band walks on stage and knocks it out of the park. I’m thinking guvnor bands with powerhouse deliveries: Horslips, Pentangle, Alison Krauss and Union Station, classic Fairport (Thompson and/or Donahue, Mattacks and Swarbrick). To this, they add giving of themselves and communicating with the audience. This topic comes up on this blog a lot. And it’s interesting that the bands and acts who consciously deliver a show seem to do best in the long run.

Dan Walsh
Frank Moon
Urban Folk Quartet

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