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root salad: New Rope String Band

fROOTS July issue

The following article appeared in the July 2006 edition of fROOTS magazine, under the heading:

They once were Old and, after last year's tragic loss, they've come back New. Sarah Coxson finds out how it's going.
We are grateful to fROOTS for allowing us to reproduce the text of the article here, with additional photographs.

"It was always quite hard coldcalling!" reflects Tim Dalling on the difficulties of summing up the essence of the Old Rope String Band. The Old Ropes - stalwarts of two decades' worth of festival scene and beyond, practitioners of surreal wit, physical gags, acrobatics, contrived tensions, musical invention, fish-tank related stunts and kilts - elicited strong emotions in audiences. They meant a lot to people. They made a huge number of friends. So when founding member, Joe Scurfield, died, it shook the foundations of many lives.

A year on from the pointless hit-and-run death of Joe (and that of his musician friend, Keith Morris), the aftershock continues. But quite instinctively, out of the "numbness, lunacy and grieving," has emerged the New Rope String Band.

Fiddler and guitar player Pete Challoner, and accordeonist Tim, are now 40-odd gigs into the new venture with guitarist Vera van Heeringen and fiddler Jock Tyldesley. At times, it has been hard to separate it all out - the grieving process and trying to do something new and creative - but there's been no end of support.

"There have been so many moving tributes to Joe, but also a huge amount of positive feedback about us continuing. And it seemed like such a shit way to stop!" says Tim. "There's no way Joe would have stopped. We cancelled about 30 gigs or something. I don't think he'd have missed the one, to be honest! He'd have got something together," points out Pete.

The New Ropes' debut performance

The New Ropes' debut performance at The Annual Dance For Peace & Solidarity

The first gig that they played after Joe's death was at The Annual Dance For Peace & Solidarity in Newcastle at Christmas, which was something he had always organised. His brother, family and friends were all there to cheer them on. Pete reflects, "The audience could not have been more supportive. Laughing and clapping and cheering at absolutely everything. We were really highly strung... in such a state! But by the second gig, we thought, hey, it might actually work! And now we've relaxed into it."

Morbid curiosity is bound to rear its head around the new incarnation. And a certain level of apprehension. Back in April, as part of the village hall schemes tour, the New Ropes were playing around venues in Leicestershire, crammed to capacity with local folk. Despite their calibre, there's an inevitable what if...? Witnessing the audience embrace them, hearing them play a blinder, watching them relax into it and feeling a spirit continue, proves a blessed relief. "It's the same... but different!" shrugs Vera, trying to define the impossible.

Jock and Vera playing at the memorial celebration for Joe and Keith

Jock and Vera playing at the memorial celebration for Joe and Keith

The show is essentially guided by the same eccentric dynamic, but the musical backdrop is stronger than ever. As well as being old friends, Jock and Vera share many of Tim and Pete's musical affinities. The show offers hi-octane traditional musicianship, from soaring old-timey to accordeon-driven boogie-woogie and contemporary Swedish tunes played sumptuously on a trio of fiddles. Pete, Tim and Joe had met musically at Newcastle's Irish sessions many moons ago - bringing with them a varied selection of loves for ceilidh music, bluegrass, Scandinavian tunes, blues and general "outsider" music, like that of Shooby Taylor.

The joke of having an accordeon in a string band still holds, but Jock and Vera tilt the balance of sound towards those authentic American traditions. Jock is longstanding lynchpin of The Flatville Aces, joined now by his partner Vera, with a grounding in bluegrass, then Cajun music, in her native Holland which was mainly played out with The Cajun Company. They both still play "straight music" with The Flatvilles, their local band Sugar Moon, and, as highly regarded players, with several US touring musicians, such as Dirk Powell.

"It's great being in the New Ropes, but sometimes it's nice to just strum rhythm guitar grumpily!" says Vera, speaking volumes of the intensity of this new undertaking.

The physical side of the show has proved a challenge. It's bound to take time for them to settle into their new skin, particularly as the two new recruits are largely alien to physical theatre, beyond Jock's work with the Chipolatas. They are still feeling around each other's space and presence, finding the most effective character dynamics, developing gestures and ad libs. Already, many of the pieces are artful - a Python-esque po-faced ersatz traditional dance, string-band tennis and the old-school fish tank accordeon solo!

"I've always liked experimental music. Y'know, people playing with toasters on their heads... This isn't far off!" says Jock.

Pete, Rianne and Tim playing at the memorial celebration for Joe and Keith

At the memorial celebration for Joe and Keith, Pete and Tim were joined with Rianne, Joe's partner, to play some of Joe's favourite tunes

Having two new members, has, in a way, been an advantage ("just for the change of dynamic,") because there is less possibility of direct comparisons to what used to be. But, it has also turned out to be a tricky one in terms of logistics: managing long-distance rehearsals, fitting on small stages, and causing furrowed brows for the artistic directors they've been working with.

"Four's a difficult number..."
"...in the Kabbalistic world of comedy!"
quip Tim and Pete. Successfully applying for some Arts Council funding, they chose to work with different directors to help shape the new act. Amongst the fresh perspectives that they have benefited from are those of John Lee from Kneehigh Theatre Company, standup Keith Donnelly, Sam Thomas of the Chipolatas and John Nicholson from Peepolykus. But ultimately, whilst these perspectives have been invaluable, it's obvious that the four of them are going to evolve in their own way... and it's quite nice not knowing in which direction that might be. Only that it'll probably be quite hard to describe to someone over the phone.




Text © fROOTS magazine and Sarah Coxson; reproduced with permission.
Photographs © Roger Cornwell and Jean Rogers
Photographs from The Annual Dance For Peace & Solidarity, Newcastle, Christmas 2005,
and the Celebration for Joe and Keith, Newcastle, July 9th 2006.