HELEN GILDERSLEEVE speaks to the founders of Newcastle based charity WECare Worldwide about the fantastic work they do to save the lives, treat and care for Sri Lankan street dogs.
After a recent trip to Sri Lanka, I discovered the heart breaking plight of many stray dogs there. As beautiful a country this is, it is very far removed from the UK when it comes to animal welfare; dogs are often viewed as pests and there’s an unprecedented amount of homeless dogs due to a lack of neutering available.
I remember sitting on the beach one night realising I was surrounded by more stray dogs than people, all desperately seeking food, shelter and basic human affection. I ended up sharing most of my rice with a couple as they looked at me with desperately sad eyes. It led me to want to help and volunteer for the charities that work tirelessly to save these poor creatures. Little did I know that a wonderful group of vets from my home town were doing just this!
WECare Worldwide are a team of veterinary surgeons and nurses from Newcastle’s Westway Veterinary Group whose aim is to provide a high level of veterinary expertise to animals who don’t have access to any other form of healthcare.
The charity was set up by local veterinary surgeon, Janey Lowes, from the Westway Veterinary Group in October 2014. Janey, who is originally from Barnard Castle has a mission is to provide veterinary care for less fortunate animals around the world, starting in Sri Lanka. A huge amount of work goes into the charity from the UK who often host events, fundraisers and sell Sri Lankan made products in Westway branches across the North East. This year she became the first vet to receive a Points of Light award – an accolade given by the Prime Minister to volunteers who make positive changes in their community.
Former Prime Minister, David Cameron, said; “She has undoubtedly changed the fate of scores of vulnerable animals by protecting them from disease and providing much needed care. “I am recognising Janey as a Point of Light, not only for the positive impact she’s had through helping animals in need, but also for the countless people that will have been protected from rabies by her work.”
With no healthcare available, many of the street dogs in Sri Lanka live in a considerable degree of pain and discomfort. Some of the injuries that occur there are beyond belief and many have previously died slow and painful deaths. From skin disease, to multiple fractures to inflicted injuries, such as severe burns, bomb injuries and collar wounds- these dogs have been to hell and back and it is time for this to stop.
Sri Lanka’s roaming dog population is rumoured to be 1 to 3 million in a country the size of Ireland with a human population of 20 million. Unsurprisingly, there are not enough resources to support this number of dogs and as a result many starve to death or succumb to disease, with 60% of puppies dying before they reach their first year.
Education on animal welfare and responsible pet ownership is non-existent in Sri Lanka, leading to generations of families demonstrating neglect and often cruelty of an extreme kind to dogs, both stray and owned. They often do not know any better and feel as though they are doing a good thing by protecting their families from vermin. To make matters worse, the veterinary profession in Sri Lanka does little to promote compassionate care.
Charities like WECare Worldwide truly are a godsend and without these, many of these beautiful dogs would die.
To date, WECare has carried out the following treatments:
JONATHAN JONES meets former Northumberland County Archaeologist, Chris Burgess, and learns something about the passion and obsession that drives him and others in his speciality.
There can be few places as blessed as Northumberland when it comes to history and archaeology and it’s a place that has long attracted people with a passion in both these fields. Former Northumberland County archaeologist, Chris Burgess must feel special affection for the county with a privileged first hand – and often hands on – insight into the region’s history.
Interviewed by BBC Radio 4 in 2014 while working on a project to excavate the site of the Battle of Flodden (1513) Chris described how it is always the possibility of the next find that keeps him going.
“Sometimes you find nothing. sometimes you find everything” he explained back then, but found he was always driven on by the possibility of giving a voice to individuals and events from the distant past.
In 2013-14, in conjunction with his role as county archaeologist, Chris had been the manager of the Flodden 500 Project, working with a team of up to 80 people from both sides of the border attempting to uncover the secrets of the famous battle site near Branxton, a couple of miles to the south of the River Tweed.
More recently Chris had been working on a landscape partnership project focused on Holy Island when he experienced a life changing event, suffering a brain haemorrhage, early in 2016.
Chris has learnt a thing or two about obsession, since then. His time on Ward Four, at Walkergate Park Hospital, in Newcastle, gave him many moments to reflect on the workings of the mind of the archaeologist, and the subjects or objects that they often obsess about. It seems that for Chris his particular passions and obsessions take him far beyond the borders of the North East.
“Every heritage professional has one site they obsess about” says Chris “and I am no different. For me it is the mythical ‘Amber Room’ in Tsar Nicholas’ Winter Palace, near St Petersburg, which sadly disappeared into the fog of war in early summer of 1945.
“Often held to be the eighth wonder of the world, the room was decorated with panels of mosaics, formed of Baltic Amber and backed with gold leaf. The entire room was lit only by candles.
“More than eight tonnes of Amber were used in the building of the room, which was constructed in the Charlottenborg Palace in Berlin, by Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, before being presented as a gift to his cousin Tsar Nicholas of Russia.”
Not only is the Amber room valued for its constituent amber and gold, but as an unparalleled piece of art. Sadly it was plundered by the Nazis during World War II, when it was stripped from its St Petersburg home by the retreating German army, ahead of rapidly advancing Russian forces.
Chris said: “Eyewitness reports have it packed onto a train, or trucks, and taken to the port of Konigsberg, where it was loaded onto the hospital ship SS Wilhelm Gustaf, which sailed from the port, only to be torpedoed and sank by Russian submarines in the Baltic Sea.”
But Chris’s obsession with this old decorated room, dismantled and lost more than 40 years before he was born, is not simply an “archaeological thing”.
He said: “It wasn’t just an archaeological thing that drove Howard Carter to search relentlessly for the Valley of the Kings, in order to gaze on the face of Tutankhamun in his burial chamber, ignoring warnings and curses, until he eventually found it.
“It’s a matter of personal obsession.
“My Dad, also an archaeologist, was fascinated by Stonehenge, how it was built, and why it was built, to such an extent that he wrote several books on the subject.
“For Howard Carter, it was an Egyptian boy prince, for my Dad it was Stonehenge, and for me, it is the missing eight tonnes of decorative amber from the Tsar’s Winter Palace.”
He added: “The wish to look upon and understand the unseen, unique and unusual, is what drives most archaeologists, which is why most have a particular artefact or site they become obsessed with.”
“I have looked into the face of Tutankhamun’s Death Mask, seen his other treasures, and think I understand Howard Carter’s obsession, and the passion that drove it.
“I live in hope of one day standing and looking on the rediscovered Amber room, but sadly do not really expect to do so.
“I have been to the Neues Museum in Berlin, and seen Schliemann’s mythical gold from Troy, and read his interesting justification of why he took ownership of it from the Ottoman Empire.
“In the same museum I have gazed in wonderment on the face of Nefertiti.
“The one thing all these artefacts have in common, is that now, following short interruptions for conflict, they are all freely available to people from all countries to enjoy, regardless of race or ideology.”
The same is true of our own region’s artefacts and archaeological finds which are here to be shared with the world at large with each and everyone giving its own insight into humanity’s past and adding ever more knowledge to our human story.
In a quest for a great curry and a spicy Indian banquet, KIRSTIN HANNAFORD heads out to Dabbawal, a recent contestant in Newcastle’s Argie Bhaji Curry Battle, and finds that although they didn’t win the battle they may just win the war!
It’s a common misconception when you live with a chef that you must get delicious meals cooked for you every evening. What people clearly forget is that he works long shifts most days, rarely has weekends off and any free time he does get is more than likely spent catching up on his sleep.
When he does cook at home, and to be fair it’s a lot more often than I do, it’s pretty much a forgone conclusion that it will be a curry. There’s nothing he loves more than creating a huge big steamy pot of generously spiced beef and spinach Madras and inviting a crowd of friends over to enjoy the results. I think it has something to do with his love of flavours and his slightly worrying obsession with the kind of obscure sounding ingredients that your everyday supermarket wouldn’t even know existed. Needless to say, he does curry well. With such high standards at home when we treat ourselves to an Indian takeaway or frequent one of the many local Indian restaurants, it has to be something special to impress.
When we found out about Wylam Brewery’s Argie Bhaji Curry Battle last weekend I got a craving for spicy cuisine. It seemed the perfect chance to catch up with some old friends for a good beer and a spot of curry all together in one place. Plus, the opportunity to try offerings from the likes of Sachins, Dabbawal and Curry Rolls was one not to be missed. Hot off the heels of their Battle of the Burgers event back in September and billed as a sensory overload of all things Indian spice, I have to admit I was quite excited.
Unfortunately, it was not to be as the unexpected hordes of hungry curry lovers led to a jam packed venue and queues for food that even my stomach couldn’t wait for. My hankering for a good quality Indian feast was sadly left unfulfilled. Not one to give up easily, I had a word in the other half’s ear and managed to persuade him that we ought to try out one of the contenders in situ. And so, the following Tuesday evening we ventured to Dabawal’s Newcastle restaurant in the hope of an Indian banquet to top all others.
The modern looking eatery is tucked away on High Bridge Street, but when we arrived around 9pm we found most tables occupied, which for a week night can only be a good sign. Simply furnished with unclothed wooden tables, industrial light fittings and brightly coloured graphics adorning the walls, it provided a well needed haven from the bitter Geordie weather.
The restaurant is named after the dabbawallas – lunchbox delivery men, who bring the comfort of home-cooked food to offices in cities across India – or so I was helpfully informed by my curry connoisseur husband as we were guided to our table by a friendly waiter. While appreciative of the lesson in Indian culture my eyes turned quickly to the menu which offers an array of Indian street food served tapas-style as well as a range of traditional and more imaginative sounding curries. Accompanied by a friend, we chose not to be our usual selfish selves and opted to eat socially, sharing everything, making our selections from the street food tapas menu.
The Vegetable Samosa Chaat – a dome of sliced crispy samosa parcels on top of a spicy chickpea sauce, drizzled with tamarind and yogurt – was crunchy, fragrant and very moreish. On the recommendation of the waitress we also went for Haryali Chicken Tikka, succulent chicken breast pieces marinated in coriander, mint yoghurt and green chili. Perhaps the best chicken tikka I’ve ever tried and I was pleased we’d asked for the expert advice.
The Seekh Kebab Kybria – spiced minced lamb kebabs with red onion and sweet peppers – were tasty but a bit dry and in my opinion would have benefited from a bit less time in the oven and a tad more yoghurt sauce, but they were devoured all the same. With the addition of some juicy Citrus King Prawns, and sides of Lentil Battered Okra and creamy Paneer and Spinach we were set for the night.
We chose to mop up the sauces with some steamed rice, a perfectly baked roti and a somewhat disappointing Peshwari naan. It was overly sweet, with congealed sugar crystals clearly visible on the surface of the dough and the only real let down of the night.
It might be stating the obvious but none of us had room for dessert and with work calling in the morning it was time to head for home. Carrying on the sharing spirit we split the bill three ways. In my view £22 each for an over generous helping of spicy delights, a bottle of cobra beer and two large glasses of house red wine wasn’t bad value.
With the majority of dishes hitting the mark and impeccable service throughout from attentive, knowledgeable and friendly staff, Dabawal may not have been crowned the winners of Wylam Brewery’s Curry Battle (that prize went to Curry Rolls), but they definitely won us over. I certainly won’t be giving up the home cooked curry from my mister, but we’ll absolutely go back to Dabawal for seconds.
In this first blog exploring the curious and fascinating origins of North East place-names DAVID SIMPSON examines our rivers, streams and waterfalls and plots the great beck/burn divide
Alright please don’t ‘Pity Me’, but ever since I was a kid, I’ve been fascinated by place-names and especially those of the North East. I don’t know why precisely, but it’s certainly linked to my interest in history.
Across the region our place-names offer unique insights into our distant past and I find it fun to discover that a familiar place we take for granted is often not quite what it seems. Then of course we have all those strange and peculiar names: Pity Me, Witherwack, Wallish Walls, Snods Edge and Foggy Furze. How about Shiney Row, Seldom Seen, Success, Once Brewed or even No Place? These are the places that arouse much curiosity in our region but even seemingly mundane place-names also hold unexpected secrets.
The first thing to know when studying place-names is that for a period of a little over a thousand years – and that’s how old most of our place-names are – our language has changed an awful lot. This means spellings in old records can be notoriously inconsistent. So you can’t just look at a place-name today and guess what it means; you have to go back in time.
Place-name experts look for the earliest spellings, scouring ancient documents and interpreting the names according to the language of times past.
The experts are skilled linguists and historians, with an exceptional knowledge of how language evolved. They come with a good grasp of old languages like Latin, Old Welsh, Indo-European, Anglo-Saxon, Old Norse, Middle English and a knowledge of local dialect too. They also need a good understanding of local history and know about the local topography by familiarising themselves with the landscape. It might also help to know a few folk tales connected with the place-names they study. The experts are prepared to do much detective work to reach their final conclusions and even then they may not always be sure. In the end the fruits of their labour are often nothing more than a passing curiosity for most of us.
The fun part for me is exploring and interpreting this work and looking for patterns. I enjoy puzzling over baffling contradictions and being surprised that seemingly obvious explanations are not what I had expected. I also believe, well I’m certain of it in fact, that place-names and their local features have close links to local dialect. You see, place-names and dialect are living history and often a very old part of our heritage that we can easily overlook.
Since most place-names have evolved over long periods of time, it’s best to start at the beginning. If we glance at the map we find the most ancient names are those of the rivers and larger streams. Names like Tyne, Tees, Team, Wear, Aln, Allen, Don, Derwent and Deerness go back thousands of years to the pre-Roman Celtic times or sometimes to the era when the inter-related Indo-European languages across Europe and parts of Asia were beginning to evolve.
The Tyne, for example has one such ancient name. Tyne derives from a root word ‘ti’ meaning ‘to flow’ and could simply be interpreted to mean ‘water’. One of its tributaries, the River Team, now partly culverted through Gateshead’s Team Valley has a similar root, related to river-names like the Thames in London or the Taff in Cardiff. Further east, the Don that joins the Tyne downstream at Jarrow comes from an Indo-European word ‘danu’ simply meaning ‘river’. The Don of Jarrow shares its roots with the Don at Doncaster and the Don in Russia, as well as the Danube of Austrian river fame.
The River Tees is thought to have a Celtic river-name though its roots may be earlier. It’s related to an Old Welsh word for ‘heat’ and means ‘boiling, surging river’ perhaps alluding to the waterfalls of upper Teesdale like High Force.
The name of the River Wear is thought to derive from ‘uis’, another Indo-European word for ‘flow’ but Uisiria and Uedra were later forms of the name. This was interpreted by Welsh speaking Celts (the Britons) to ‘Gweir’ which means ‘bending’. Look at a map and compare the whole course of the Wear from source to sea with the course of the Tyne or the Tees and you will see that ‘bending river’ is an apt description.
Other river-names with ancient origins include the Derwent which forms part of the border between Northumberland and Durham. One of a number of rivers called Derwent in England, the name comes from Old Welsh and means the ‘oak tree river’. Further south, a smaller County Durham river, the Deerness combines the Welsh element ‘dwfr’ meaning river with an Indo-European element ‘nesta’ meaning , ‘roar, rush’ that is found in names such as Loch Ness and Inverness.
Some river-names came much later in Anglo-Saxon or Viking times, suggesting their earlier names were forgotten or replaced. In County Durham, for example, the little river called the Browney (occasionally called ‘the brune’) has a name dating to Anglo-Saxon times that comes from ‘brun-ea’ meaning ‘brown river’
In Northumberland the River Wansbeck at Morpeth and Ashington has a name from the same era and is thought to derive from ‘waegens-spic’, a bridge made from logs (a spic) that was crossed by wagons. The Wansbeck is not a ‘beck’ in the usual sense of the word though. The word ‘beck’ is usually from a Viking word meaning stream but that is not the case here.
For the Germanic Anglo-Saxons of Northumbria who arrived in Britain between 500 and 600 AD from southern Scandinavia and neighbouring areas of what is now the German coast ‘burn’ was one of the terms they used for a stream. As their territory extended north beyond Edinburgh into what is now Scotland the word was introduced there and has had a lasting legacy. Its roots however are Northumbrian rather than Scottish.
North East England or more particularly County Durham is the battleground between the ‘burns’ and their later Viking counterparts the ‘becks’. The Vikings arrived from across Scandinavia from around 866AD and in areas more intensely settled or shared out by the Norsemen the Viking word ‘beck’ replaced the older Anglo-Saxon word ‘burn’ in the names of streams although ‘burn’ often survives in the names of local places associated with those streams.
So we find places like Saltburn (salty stream) on the Cleveland coast and Sherburn (shiny stream) near Durham but the local streams from which they are named are now called becks on the map as well as by the locals too. The Bowburn Beck at Bowburn near Durham, for example, flows in the shape of a bow (as in bow and arrow) and was originally simply called ‘the Bow Burn’.
Many other places in the region include the word ‘Burn’ and the names of the streams from which they derive can often be self-explanatory. Take Fishburn and Seaburn for example, one would have been noted for its plentiful supply of fish, the other simply flowed into the sea.
It’s easy to be fooled though, as we find at Whitburn near Sunderland. Not a burn at all, this was originally the ‘white barn’, a white-painted barn or one built with white stone. Then we have Sockburn near Darlington which was actually Socca’s burgh rather than a burn. It was the ‘burgh’ (a fortified place) belonging to someone called Socca. Even here further doubt is thrown on the explanation because the River Tees hereabouts quite clearly flows in a massive meander that forms the very obvious shape of a sock offering a more popular ‘folk explanation’. The fact that Sockburn was for centuries the southernmost point of County Durham and thus at the limit of the ‘soke’ of the BIshops of Durham adds further to the confusion. Both Whitburn and Sockburn by the way have fascinating links to Lewis Carroll and his Jabberwocky poem and you can read about those links here.
So enough of the burns, what about the becks? Well, the word ‘beck’ comes from the Old Norse ‘bekkr’ – ‘a stream’. It is the usual term for a stream in Viking settled Cumbria and Yorkshire but is missing from Northumberland where burn is used. In County Durham we get both becks and burns with burns in the north and becks in the south and the boundary between the two lies somewhere around Durham City and mid Weardale.
Streams north of Durham City are called burns all the way up to John O’ Groats in the far north of Scotland while south of the city they’re called becks all the way down to the Viking settled areas of the Norfolk coast. Meanwhile in much of southern England and even in Lancashire they prefer the later Dutch word ‘brook’ though burn in the form ‘bourne’ often occurs in place-names across the whole of England.
In Hamsterley Forest in Weardale we find a stream named from an Anglo-Saxon man called Bede (though probably not the famous Venerable Bede of Jarrow). It is called the Bedburn Beck. It seems superfluous when surely the name Bed Burn would suffice? It’s as if they couldn’t quite make up their mind whether to call it a beck or a burn.
To the south it’s remarkable to discover that every single stream that joins the River Tees directly is called a ‘beck’ while to the north every stream that joins the Tyne directly is a ‘burn’. Along the Wear it varies between beck and burn. In upper Weardale as far east as Wolsingham the word ‘burn’ is the choice but in the mid Wear valley around Bishop Auckland and Spennymoor where the river briefly sways towards the south, the preferred word is ‘beck’.
In Durham City it changes again with the Mill Burn beneath the city’s shopping centre on the north side of the town marking the beginning of those burns again and it is the burns that continue to feed the river from Chester-le-Street all the way to the river’s end at Sunderland, or at least they do on the map. Over in East Durham locals use the term ‘beck’ and this may be the choice of word for some people in Sunderland too. It would be interesting to know.
River-names of Viking origin in the North East are not so common but include the River Skerne (it flows from Trimdon to the Tees at Darlington) but its earlier Anglo-Saxon name was something like ‘Sherne’ (the shining river). It became Skerne under Norse influence.
Other river names that are pure Viking include the River Greta (griota – its name means stony) that joins the Tees at Greta Bridge downstream from Barnard Castle. Upstream from ‘Barney’ the Tees is joined by the River Balder – Balder is the name of a Norse God.
At Bishop Auckland the Wear is joined by the River Gaunless, yet another Viking name. Gaunless (like gormless) means useless, but why is uncertain. Perhaps it was too short of fish to feed the hungry Vikings or too sluggish to power the workings of a mill.
Waterfalls are a bit like burns and becks in that they change their names according to where in the region you look for them. High Force and Low Force in Teesdale derive from a Viking word ‘foss’ that literally means waterfall. Forces also occur in Cumbria and Yorkshire too.
In Weardale though waterfalls are called ‘Linns’ and they go by this name in Northumberland too where there are many impressive waterfalls to see. Linn was seemingly a word used by the Anglo-Saxons of Northumbria but has Celtic roots deriving from ‘Hlynn’ a word for a pool – probably from the plunge pools found at the foot of a fall.
So we can see that ancient people of long ago and sometimes the slightly more recent settlers, the Anglo-Saxons and Vikings from Northern Europe have played an important part in the naming of our rivers and water features. It is those later peoples that also played a big part in the naming of our towns, villages, cities and topographical features as we will discover in the next What’s in a (North East Place-)Name?
PAUL WHITE reviews North East musician Mike Ross on a return gig to the region.
Back in the late 90s, I had the pleasure of writing about live music for The Northern Echo. While the opportunities to interview the likes of Bon Jovi drummer Tico Torres, Gerry Marsden, Terrorvision, Deacon Blue and many more was fantastic, what I really loved was seeing local bands play live and be well-received by decent-sized audiences around the Darlington and Durham music scenes.
One band that I maintain to this day to be one of the best and most exciting bands to see live was Taller Than, a three-piece outfit from the Sacriston and Lanchester area.
Playing their own music as Taller Than, often coupled with covers sets as the Popular Beat Combo, they were regulars at the likes of O’Neills in both Durham and Darlington, and the Filibuster & Firkin in Darlington, along with many more venues around the region.
In 2000, they played their last gig in Darlington before moving to the Brighton area, where all three members are still active in the music industry.
Sixteen years on, singer and guitarist Mike Ross returned to Darlington on Sunday night for his first return gig in the town, playing a two-set late afternoon session at The Quakerhouse.
Normally fronting the Mike Ross Band, Mike stripped back a range of his own numbers and covers, without losing anything in his simple guitar and vocals arrangements.
Opening with a Credence Clearwater cover, he quickly got the audience onside before heading into the latest version of an old Taller Than number, Questions, and mixing his own tracks like Ran Thru Here and Statesboro Blues with his own cover of Aretha Franklin’s Baby I Love You, which appears on his latest album, Jenny’s Place.
The hugely appreciative audience in a venue I had forgotten how much I like, complete with a great selection of real ales – right up my street – were ready and waiting for a second set to follow the break.
Set two opened with a version of Stephen Stills’ Love The One You’re With and took a blues journey through Robert Johnson and Willie Dixon, before dipping into Mike’s Spindrift debut album for Don’t Worry Baby Just Call, then returning to the familiar for the audience, with Johnny cash’s Get Rhythm, Marvin Gaye’s Heard It Through The Grapevine and more.
Closing the show with his own Bamboozled, Mike left the audience happy at the close of his mini North East tour and promising a return to the region in the Spring.
It was a great way to remind myself just how good Mike Ross is and what a great venue The Quakerhouse is, as well as what a hotbed of great musical talent the North East is, whether or not you’ve heard of many of the acts.
Beer blogger PAUL White tries out a local beer inspired by a poet.
It’s nice to learn something new, especially if it’s about your own part of the world.
I hadn’t been to the Toronto Lodge, just outside of Bishop Auckland, since a revamp a couple of years back, but decided to drop in for a bite to eat. I’d also heard it was home to some real ales, as well.
It turns out that it offers a range of ales from Sonnet 43, a brewery from nearby Coxhoe, which is where the learning begins.
I hadn’t been aware of this particular brewery, but it has an ale for all tastes. Personally, I decided to go for the bourbon milk stout, The Raven. After all, this last week did feature Stout Day.
Now, the brewery name and that of the beer itself are no coincidence, as I also learned that Coxhoe was home to a rather famous poet – most of you will at least be familiar with one of her lines.
For it was Elizabeth Barrett Browning who, in her Sonnet 43, wrote “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…”.
I’ve driven past Coxhoe thousands of times, but I had no idea that it was home to Browning, or that she had inspired a brewery.
The beer is likewise poetically-inspired, taking its name from Edgar Allan Poe’s gothic classic.
Likewise, I have driven past the Toronto Lodge countless times since the revamp and it has been remiss of me not to have called in before now. What a great place with reasonably priced, but very good, food and drink.
But what of the beer itself?
Well, it’s a pleasant discovery, with a full flavour that is at once bitter and also smooth; a proper milk stout. It’s not an overly heavy drink, so could easily be one to settle into for an evening, should the opportunity arise.
With a lot of my beer reviews, I’ve highlighted those ales that are a natural progression for a lager drinker coming into the realms of beer. This is not one, but Sonnet 43 have plenty that would fit that bill.
Overall, it was an outing of discovery for the brain and the taste buds and I will be returning to sample more of the food and drink in the very near future.
HELEN GILDERSLEEVE gets a taste of Louisiana as she chats to local Americana bluegrass band with a difference, Big Red & the Grinners.
Trying to describe the talent of this band is difficult – you just need to see them.
Featuring banjo, accordion, double bass, acoustic guitars and percussion, Big Red & the Grinners move seamlessly from the likes of Jay Z’s 99 Problems, Technotronic’s Pump Up the Jam, Tony Rice’s bluegrass classic Freeborn Man to a hilarious rendition of Paradise City by Guns n’ Roses.
It’s clear from the minute Big Red & the Grinner’s step onto the stage at any of their gigs (and I’ve been to six), that the audience love them. And if they don’t immediately, they soon will.
“They call us Big Red and The Grinners because I’m Big Red, and these are the Grinners” followed by yells of “Yee Haws” is how this band operates. You just can’t help but like them and I defy anybody not to.
So what makes this band so likeable? It’s a mix of their hilarious and foot tappingly addictive covers of classic songs through to the jovial and informal way they interact with their audience treating them to cheesy jokes between songs. It’s a struggle not to smile and get up and dance.
A particular favourite of mine is their cover of the popular ‘Crazy’; “my Grand-pappy wrote this song for a young fellow named Ceelo Green, or Gnarles Barkley, whatever you wanna call him”, shouts Red as he laughs into his microphone, beer in hand, and stays that way until they finish with John Denver’s ‘Country Roads’ with the whole audience dancing away and singing along at the top of their lungs.
Tell me a bit about Big Red and how you began?
Joe, our guitarist and banjo player had become tired of what had become a stale and predictable music scene in the local bars and clubs where most of the bands all seemed to be playing the same stuff. With a desire to create something different he set about assembling a band of musicians willing to try something out of the ordinary. We didn’t set out to create a certain ‘type’ of band, the only brief was that the song choices had to be different from what anyone else was doing at the time.
After a few rehearsals and some interesting early gigs, the songs themselves somehow seemed to shape what became Big Red & the Grinners and things just developed from there. Our music has been described as a combination of bluegrass, rockgrass, folk and blues – we’re still not entirely sure ourselves – or what ‘type of band we are! Ask ten people at one of our gigs and you’ll get ten different answers – we like that!
What’s the perks of the job?
Apart from the free beer and private planes? Getting to meet lots of interesting folks is a great part of the job. We’ve been lucky enough to share the stage with the likes of Ward Thomas, Della Mae, Lost Bros and Field Music which has been great. We’ve also popped up on TV a couple of times too and it’s been good to see how all that works behind the scenes. We’re still waiting on the call from James Corden that he promised though!
What’s your musical inspiration?
Well anyone who’s ever seen us knows that Red’s Grandpappy is our musical inspiration. People are amazed at how many hit songs that man wrote! We’ll be bringing out our first CD containing a good selection of them in time for Christmas. Forget Little Mix, Michael Buble or Lady Gaga….it’s Grandpappy’s Greatest Hits Volume 1 that you need as your stocking filler this year. Available from all good high street stockists…..or from us which will be easier!
Where do you enjoy performing?
We enjoy performing everywhere but festivals are our favourite gigs. You get to travel round the country to play for people who don’t often get the chance to see us – or have never seen us before. We closed the Upton Blues Festival down in Gloucestershire this year where almost every building in the town is turned into a music venue. Headlining the outdoor stage on the final night next to the river was pretty special.
Locally, we love playing Sage Gateshead and The Cluny. Two very different venues in terms of size and atmosphere but both have something about them. The Americana Festival at Sage Gateshead and Stormin’ The Castle down in County Durham are particular favourites.
Where does the deep south influence come from?
That will be Red’s Grandpappy again! He’s from that neck of the woods.
We keep telling Red we’re only bringing back home what’s rightfully ours though as much of American roots music is based on Irish, Scottish and English traditional music. He begs to differ but everyone knows he gets his geography mixed up now and then – I suppose it’s only to be expected from someone who must clock up more air miles than Springsteen!