Raven Calamity

So some regular readers of StrungOut and faithful twitter followers will have noticed that my last two posts are no longer available for public consumption. There is a reason for this, but boringly, I’m not at liberty to tell you what that is right now. Bear with me, I’ll try and be interesting about other things. I’ve been bowled over by the sheer number of people that read them and commented on them. I have also received my first couple of negative comments on twitter….which stung. Luckily I have a close friend who is a controversial columnist and she was available for skin thickening tutorials.

This week I filmed a little online advert with my fellow Ravens. It was an idyllic two days, local gig, well paid, parking, TV catering (always brilliant. If I worked on a TV set I’d be the size of a house), and excitingly talented session players to work with. It was a remarkably nice gig to get and we were so appreciative of it that we started to reminisce about other gigs that were as lovely. The list was short. Then our trip down memory lane turned ugly, which led me to today’s post:


I should point out here that the vast majority of Raven performances go to plan without a hitch. I’m not lying….we are getting older and are less and less tolerant of stress these days, so we are uber efficient and well rehearsed. I could tell you about our best most seamlessly executed gigs, but let’s face it, no one wants to read that.


This is a innovative and brilliant night run by well respected and lovely composer Gabriel Prokofiev, grandson of Sergei and founder of contemporary music label, Nonclassical. I can genuinely recommend it to contemporary music lovers everywhere, as this night has featured some top top artists, which is why in retrospect, it was hilarious that it was on this esteemed platform that we performed our first gig, when we knew next to nothing.

We had been together about five months or so. Kirsty and I didn’t know Steph and Nats nearly as well we do now, and as it was our first gig, we had NO IDEA what we were doing. At the time we were playing modern interpretations of classical stuff, arranged by Natalie, viola player and composer extraordinaire. We didn’t have enough material to fill the 45 minute slot, so I played solo cello repertoire. Britten cello suite no. 1, to be exact, which is a BITCH, and I was doubly nervous. We didn’t really know what to wear, how to mic up our instruments or how we’d perform together. What with the venue being an east end pub, there was nowhere to change, so all four of us piled into Steph’s wee car before the gig and contorted ourselves trying to get on skinny jeans, kicking each other in the face as we went. It was far from elegant. Keen to fit in with the trendy Hoxton contemporary music scene, we’d drafted in an inexplicable projectionist, which meant odd green shapes and shadows were cast over our faces while we played. At one point we jammed Shostakovich over some pre recorded drum and bass loops, before belting out Bartok’s Romanian dances, newly memorised. It was touch and go whether we’d get through each piece without forgetting it. The real pisser of the night though was due to our remarkable lack of knowledge about DPA microphones (posh mics string players attach to their strings to amplify the sound). Unfortunately, the mic channels at the venue were a little bit unreliable, and we were unsure of how to deal with it. The first piece, which was a frenetic version of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, opened with feedback so bad that the audience LITERALLY PUT THEIR FINGERS IN THEIR EARS. Those first couple of bars were supposed to be the triumphant musical introduction of our new group; a proclamatory statement of our intention to change the way people listened to string quartets FOR EVER. I guess we sort of achieved that…..we looked into the audience and people were wincing, shrieking with pain as hideous microphone static and feedback screeched through the venue. Fortuitously some of our friends in the crowd happen to work as sound engineers and stepped in to help us. Eventually the extraneous noises died down and we played our little hearts out, scared shitless. Luckily a Nonclassical audience is an open minded one, so we ended up having a great time, but honestly, we hadn’t a clue.


This was a bad gig. Not because of Faryl (gracious, lovely, outrageously young talented singer) or LLandudno (we’ve played there a few times, the venue is in an idyllic spot on the beach. You can hear waves lapping, see lights twinkling prettily on the horizon, and eat exemplary fish and chips.)
Unfortunately this gig fell at the end of a week away with George Michael (clang) last year. We’d been away with his band in Dublin and we were knackered. I’d got back from Dublin and as I’d been off from the restaurant all week, I’d had to go in and work a freakishly busy Friday night shift. We were due to perform again with the GM crew on the Sunday at the Royal Opera House. It was the Saturday between GM dates, and the plan was to drive to Llandudno (five hours from London) accompany and support Faryl Smith, and drive home immediately after the gig.

Alas though, Natalie had indulged her taste for exotic food a couple of nights earlier in Dublin, with a seafood feast (chowder and oysters).
The next night she had dim sum, which she swears blind was the culprit (we have since debated this at length.) Whatever had caused it, she was up all night sick with food poisoning the night before we left for Wales. Steph picked her up on Saturday morning and she was green at the gills and clutching a basin. Alas, as were contracted to do a Raven show, we couldn’t dep it out (muso phrase for finding a substitute) as all our tracks are memorised and some of them aren’t even written down anywhere for another viola player to learn. Steph put Nats in the front seat of her car and prayed that she wouldn’t projectile vomit all over the windscreen. In the event, she slept all the way up and by the time the performance arrived, she’d perked up quite considerably. We ended up having a lovely time onstage and Nats was a trouper. I will never forget her in the dressing room backstage though, in her long black concert dress, hair done, asking us “Do I look like a corpse?” There was an awkward pause. Then Steph silently got her make up bag out and daubed bronzer onto Nat’s little pale face like she was plastering a wall.


So we were in Morocco, playing at a club for hipsters who enjoy expensive cocktails. On the news, the night we arrived, was the tragic and untimely death of Michael Jackson. (Steph is a huge MJ fan, and she doesn’t care who knows it. She shed a tear watching Sky News in our little Riad in Marrakech.) We had a 3 day residency out there, which meant playing a show every night for a promoter who was a friendly, extremely laid back guy. Everything happened at a leisurely pace. (This is code for “we were fed very late”, which is a gig pet hate of mine.) It was hot, what with it being Morrocco and all, and Steph, despite being of Italian heritage, is BAD WITH HEAT. Her digits start to swell, she huffs and puffs, and her weird symptoms (see Introducing Raven) intensify until she has a full blown freak out. Being trapped in a room waiting to go on for five hours in sweltering heat and no air con, is Steph’s idea of hell (reputedly also hot.) To be fair we all struggled in that kind of heat, not least because the slicks of sweat under our hands made it difficult to play and our ancient instruments couldn’t cope with the extremities, strings twanged out of tune, seams opened….it was a string player’s nightmare. At one point promoter man popped his handsome trilby’d head round the door for the 19th time to tell us we would be going on “later than planned”, and casually dropped in, “Oh before I forget, I told the guys in the club you would play a Michael Jackson song tonight, what with….you know. As a tribute. They’re so excited. They like Billie Jean. Ok bye!” and off he popped, promising he’d be back with food. (A lie.) [below is a picture of us with a nice man who sorted out our hotel. He was great.]
Billie Jean is not in our set list. We have not arranged it, we had no sheet music, and there was no computer or internet access so we couldn’t even listen to it. We were so hot and hungry we could barely see straight. Tensions ran high as I tried to sweat my way through the Billie Jean bassline. After half an hour of trying to come up with an off the cuff harmonised version, the heat and the tension all became too much and perhaps inevitably, a row ensued. Eventually we limped our way through “Heal the World”, which is, all due respect, a bit gawk-worthy, but at least it’s slow. If you play a ballad with a soulful look on your face, Christ knows what could be going in the harmony parts, wop a bit of vibrato on it and someone’s bound to start crying. So that’s what we did. We did quite a good job in the end……there were tears (admittedly mainly Steph’s) and promoter bloke was pleased. We’d almost killed each other in the process, but we knocked out a decent arrangement of Heal the World without writing anything down or listening to the track in under an hour, whilst fainting with heat and starvation. They don’t teach that shit at music college.


Hayley gave us a huge break by hiring us to back her and allowing us to play two Raven sets during her stage show when we first started. We’ve been all over the place with her, we’ve many a Hayley Show anecdote. Her audiences are huge, so we’ve played at some brilliant venues together, including The Barbican and The London Palladium. Her shows are big proper ones.
This gig is on the list because of just how many technical things went wrong for Raven in the course of a single show.
We were in a big top type venue, on a pissing wet Sunday evening. We’d had a difficult soundcheck as for some reason the mics hadn’t arrived, but other than that, the mood of Team Westenra [pictured above: HW is hugging Jonathan Ansell, tenor extraordinaire] was chipper, despite the rain. The show began smoothly. We played a couple of Hayley’s numbers, as usual she had the audience totally captivated with her voice, and her loyal fans were in the front rows, enchanted. Before we knew it, it was time to get up from our seats, take our places at the front of the stage, and perform some Raven tracks. We opened our set with Vivaldi, which is raucous and really fast. Halfway through, Steph said later that she was aware of an odd energy coming from Natalie, who was moving rather jerkily. On further investigation, Steph noticed that Natalie appeared to have grown an extra set of breasts, only pair number two were inching slowly south towards her waist, under her concert gear. She and Nats made eye contact and Steph semaphored “What the hell???” with blinks. Turns out Natalie had attached her microphone pack to her bra but the weight of the pack had had broken the clasp. She had to play the rest of the set with what looked like four breasts, straps stuck annoyingly round her shoulders, which must have made for an awkward rendition of “Gabriel’s Oboe”. Kirsty and I, further away, knew something was up, but couldn’t work out what. On the way back to our seats Natalie said through gritted teeth, “My bra’s fallen off…..my mic pack is somewhere down my back….” which of course meant we thought of nothing else until the end of the first half.

As we laughed with Hayley about it in the interval, we were grateful nothing more shambolic had happened….the night before in Exeter, my C string had snapped mid track and I’d had to take off my heels and run barefoot through a freezing cathedral to change it, saying to the audience, “Talk amongst yourselves! Shan’t be a jiff!” like Enid Blyton, as I ran.

We spoke too soon. We were on the home straight, Natalie’s debracle had been rectified, and we were on our final solo Raven tune. It was our arrangement of the theme from The Godfather spliced with a manic hungarian gypsy fiddle piece that gets faster and faster towards the end…..the last three notes are fast and loud….I played the first of those 3 notes with a flourish, and my bow fell apart. Literally. [This is a neat version of what happened to it.]
The horse hairs dangled down from the stick and there was no way of hiding it. I dropped it to the floor and plucked the final note in time for the finish, but our big finale was ruined. I held my broken bow up in the air like a trophy and the audience cheered sympathetically (audiences love a technical cock up) but I still had to get through the rest of the gig…..another four tracks, one of which had a cello solo in it. This unreliable bow was my crap spare one, as my real one was in the shop being rehaired (exactly how it sounds: a man in a shop replaces all the horse hair as it loses tension and falls out over time) so I had no spare bow. Kirsty had a spare violin bow that she managed to grab from her case between songs….but it hadn’t been used for so long that it played like it was covered in soap. It was tiny as well compared to a cello bow, so it looked and felt ridiculous. The sound I produced was like nothing on Earth, so we all had to try really hard not to burst into gales of nervous laughter. There is something about being under a bright spotlight when accompanying a serious, beautiful song, using a bow two sizes too small, that makes you want to lie on the floor and laugh until your sides hurt, an urge we just about managed to hold in for twenty minutes. We didn’t make eye contact, we concentrated so hard our eyebrows ached….but we got through it, and Hayley made a timely joke on stage about my bad luck. At least Natalie had managed to keep her bra on during the second half.


It was a stressful time in the Raven camp. We were in the process of changing management, Kirsty was planning her wedding, which involved a conversion of barns and Christ knows what. I think we’d just finished a tour. Everyone was exhausted. We were cooped up in a tiny room for hours before the gig, and we’d had a horribly early flight up to Glasgow that morning. Unsurprisingly, we had a massive row. We’ve never had one as bad, before or since. It was one of those pressure cooker rows, where it starts with something tiny and before you know it, everyone’s screaming and throwing things. The funny thing was, we were all getting ready for a really posh corporate gig so we were swearing at each other like fishwives whilst applying make up and ball gowns. Anyway, we managed to calm down and we went on stage friends again. Unlike most corporate gigs, the audience actually sat and listened to our whole 45 minute set, which is highly unusual. So we got out the big guns, we really went for it and it was going great, until we got to a well known Spanish piece, which was relatively new in our set. There is a famous sexy tune in this track, which Kirsty and Steph pass to each other, taking turns to elaborate on it. Unfortunately, it’s so repetitive, that Kirsty lost her bearings and forgot her tune, which made Steph forget hers, which meant Natalie forgot hers too. I would have done the same, but luckily I just have about four notes on repeat, which I kept hammering out, hoping that someone would remember where they were. It kept coming back to a point where I thought, “and we’re back in the game,” only for it to fall apart again seconds later. Kirsty clamped her eyes shut for the duration of the piece, clearly trying to remember where she was in the harmonic cluster fuck that surrounded her…..but no dice. It sounded like a weird canon, everyone trying to come back in with their tune, only to discover seconds later that they had been wrong and trailing off, noodling in the key of D. We blundered through to the end, when the host of the evening came on and said, “Can we please thank Raven for their beautiful performance?” Luckily our on the spot improvising had paid off. “It’s so joyful watching you play, you girls clearly get on so well with one another, it really comes across.” The lovely attentive audience murmured in agreement. I had a flashback to our Jerry Springer-esque screaming match about an hour previously. It hadn’t been pretty.

After the gig, we got in the car, reeling from the histrionics and the freakishly long memory lapse. (which has never happened since, in case you were thinking “How do these girls get a gig? They sound like a shambles.”) Steph was dropping Kirsty and I at the airport, and we were travelling through the Scottish countryside. She put on her sat nav and was driving away, chatting happily, when the the TomTom did that thing where the screen repeatedly adjusts itself really fast and you know something’s wrong. We followed it, down an odd looking slip road….something felt weird, the road markings looked odd, but there were no other cars, it was pitch black, so we drove on cautiously. After a few minutes we got onto the M8. Then in the distance, we made out the headlights of a truck, coming towards us. Yes, you guessed it folks, we were on the wrong side of the motorway, with a 10 tonne lorry driving AT us. Steph realised first, and started saying “Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.” at a steady pace. We all had a Hollywood panic scream, before we realised that if we didn’t do something quickly, we might actually die in a head on collision. Steph had no choice but to drive up on the the grass covered central reservation, swearing all the way. Seconds later the lorry steamed past, blasting its horn. Steph had to manoeuvre the car onto the other side of the motorway over the central reservation, outraged vehicles beeping in disbelief as they roared past at 70 mph. Mid turn, swearing and weeping as we bumped over the grass, driving down the MIDDLE of a motorway, Kirsty encouraged, “You’re doing really well Steph,” like a midwife or a personal trainer, which is when we started laughing so much that at the time I thought I’d cracked a rib. We were clearly giddy with the joy of being alive. “You’re doing really well” was a Raven catch phrase for months afterwards….I might bring it back.