The Untold Story of The Orvilles

The Gretsch Honey Dipper: a thing of beauty

The Gretsch Honey Dipper: a thing of beauty

THE SECOND-HAND Yamaha keyboard I have just bought is part of a musical instrument collection that now includes two electric guitars, four acoustic guitars (including two electro-acoustics), two ukuleles, half a dozen harmonicas or ‘blues harps’ and a Gretsch Honey Dipper resonator.

The resonator is a metal-bodied guitar designed to combat the strident sound of the banjo in American hillbilly bands in the years before amplification. It is a thing of beauty and is often played with a metal or glass ‘slide’, to produce a mournful, bluesy and quite industrial kind of noise. In the cottage-industry world of acoustic guitars, it is a factory - and quite possibly a steelworks.

In a spirit of honesty, I should say that while I enjoy playing all of these instruments, I play not a single one of them well. I am a workmanlike, rather than inspired, rhythm guitarist. I get by on blues harp, and I can play slide guitar just well enough to impress those who know nothing about slide guitar playing - but not nearly well enough to impress a slide guitar player.

No matter. It’s the playing that’s the thing, and that can be fun even when you’re not entirely sure what you are doing.

Take the keyboard. I bought it because in the old blokes’ band slung together by me and two mates, I play rhythm guitar.

Since we don’t have a drummer (yet), my job is to sit at the back making a kerchunk, kerchunk percussive sound, usually by strumming an acoustic with a plectrum. At a recent rehearsal, we spent five hours playing three blues numbers in the key of G, which meant that I played the same three chords over and over for five hours with little variation. To say that it was tedious, is to do a disservice to good, old-fashioned, responsible tedium - it was stultifying, not to mention physically painful.

I considered buying a tuba just to shake things up at the following rehearsal. Instead, I bought the keyboard and its stand from an old friend and neighbour and learned a few piano chords, which meant that - at the next rehearsal - we could chop out Bob Dylan’s Ballad of a Thin Man and Blind Willie McTell (basically an ancient blues called St James’s Infirmary with new lyrics bolted on by Bob; good trick, Bob).

At this stage - and possibly for the forseeable future - I play keyboard like a muppet, or at least a puppet, banging out chords in a left hand, right hand sequence as if my arms were being yanked about on strings. Even so, it has made a difference to what we somewhat self-consciously call our ‘sound’.

Our band is called The Orvilles. In the fictional world we have created, we are brothers - I am Clarence, the lead guitarist is Johnny and our bass player is Nathan. We think we might be from Tennessee, or the Ozarks, but we’re still working on that.

The name emerged out of our first rehearsal after a break of 16 years, which was dismal in the way failing British seaside resorts in winter are dismal. Somebody said: “We should call ourselves The Simply Awfuls.” As we improved, that morphed into The Simply Orvilles - which seemed quite a good joke, but probably wasn’t - and then The Orvilles. A motion has been tabled to have the name changed yet again to The Orville Brothers: it remains on the table.

(A curiosity is that if you Google “Clarence Orville”, an entirely made-up name, you find that there are quite a lot of them in the US. You can get what Americans call ‘rap sheets’ for some of them: a term that refers to their prison records rather than their hip-hop careers.)

In the past 20 years, we have played just two ‘gigs’ - both of them at birthday parties (mine and Johnny’s, since you ask). The rest of the time we ‘rehearse’ (which is actually a misnomer if we’re never going to inflict ourselves on an unsuspecting public) in the living rooms of each others’ houses.

Each rehearsal is quite an event since it usually involves: a PA system driving a beast of a Yamaha speaker; three microphones, their cables and their stands; three music stands (since we are too old to remember chords or lyrics); up to six guitars and guitar stands; a few score feet of blues harp microphone cable, and attached bullet mic; and now additionally a Yamaha keyboard and stand. Oh, and did I mention that it’s a 120 mile round trip for me to get to Nathan or Johnny’s gaff? In theory they each make the 120 mile trek to my place every third rehearsal, although I’ve noticed it doesn’t always work out that way.

In this incarnation, we have been playing irregularly since May 2013. We have improved, of course, but quite slowly because - in the summer for instance - we can go for four months without getting together. I imagine this is normal for non-gigging groups of friends who simply like bashing out a few tunes. I like to think we’re like an Irish family that only plays at family gatherings, with more gusto than skill.

So far, we have played mostly blues and country, although we did have one unforgettable crack at Abba’s The Winner Takes it All. In our hands, and with some inappropriate, mournful slide, it became an entirely new country song that we eventually dubbed The Wino Takes a Fall.

The group dynamic in The Orvilles is worthy of study. We are very different personalities and, five years in, I think we’re probably still trying to work out whether we are compatible. Splitting over ‘musical’ differences remains a potential future option.

Johnny is an intuitive and flexible sort of chap: he avoids conflict and strives to make sure everybody is getting on okay. His most often used word is ‘sorry’ (so much so, it is now known as ‘The Orville sorry’). Usually the ‘sorry’ follows a wilful and out of context rendition of a Hank Marvin or Ry Cooder riff just as we’re about to record a completely different song. He is a gifted, if at times undisciplined, guitarist.

Me, I’m a butterfly, happily bouncing around from one thing to the next. I like variety. Being a journalist was perfect for me - it’s a job in which you get paid to leap from one subject to the next. The end result is that I know a little bit about an awful lot of stuff (and, it has cruelly been said, not very much about anything) and I can play quite a few instruments - but not one of them well. Oh, and I sing too - mostly in tune.

Nathan, the bass player, is a resolute organisational type. He studies hard, and has admirable focus - and an accompanying interest in getting the job done, whatever the job is. He occasionally finds my lack of concentration, and Johnny’s random riffs irritating. He’s the one most likely to say: “Stop it!”

After five years of ‘rehearsal’, we have - naturally enough - turned our attention recently to the vexed question of what we should wear in the unlikely event we were ever to appear in public. Cowboy shirts - those with red roses curling around the shoulders of a black shirt, or white fringes on a royal blue shirt - and white ten gallon hats, have been rejected outright by Nathan. But we’re thinking of a plain black shirt, black fedora, grey or black jacket and bootlace tie ‘look’, which seems to have proven a little more acceptable.

Our next plan is not to gig but to establish an Orville website, with audio clips, photographs of we old boys, suitably attired, along with an entirely fictitious back story.

So, why do we go to all of this effort - hauling metric tonnes of kit back and forth along motorways to no great effect? Well, surprisingly, it is huge fun and it’s always good to spend time with your best old mates - and, actually, playing music together is very rewarding.

You can be an awful golfer, but you’d have to be really unlucky not to have at least one shot you can talk enthusiastically about in the bar afterwards. It’s the same with music. Something always goes right and every so often you get into the groove and it becomes quite meditative. Surprisingly, since I don’t really play keyboard, that happened on the keyboard’s first outing when we played Louie Louie (originally by The Kingsmen, later by The Kinks), and then slipped seamlessly into Twist & Shout (Top Notes, Isley Brothers, Chubby Checker and The Beatles).

It really is amazing what you can do with just three chords on an electronic keyboard. I hope to learn another soon.

I’ll post some audio of The Orvilles playing when we get back in the studio. You have been warned.