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Ridgeway Fire: a musicians’ tribute to one of their own

NWN Reporter

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Smiling Des
The world is full of hyperbole but the untimely death of songwriter, singer and guitarist Des Simmons in January 2013 really did rob us of a genuinely unique creative talent. A year on and his family and friends have come together to celebrate his songs with a one-off concert at Arlington Arts, on Saturday, January 25, to raise funds for the Des Simmons Award for Young Musicians – which has been set up by the national charity Awards for Young Musicians. Most of the people who ever played with him will be gathering from far and wide to play as many of his songs as can be packed into three-and-ahalf hours. A tall, striking figure who was well known around the town, Des was something of a guiding light and mentor to many local rock musicians and an influence on many others around the world. Why is not hard to fathom once you hear his work, or if you were ever lucky enough to see him perform live. Brought up in Newbury, Des came from a home full of music. At St Bartholomew’s School in the early 1970s he met Colin Newman and together they started to experiment with sound influenced by British artists such as the Kinks and Small Faces, and increasingly by the stripped down urban sounds coming out of New York that were to lay the foundations of punk rock. Colin went on to channel that into the formation of post-punk legends Wire and always acknowledged Des’s influence in opening his mind to many different kinds of music, writing and art in those formative years. Often frustrated by what he considered to be the limitations of bands, compared to what he could hear in his head, Des followed his own creative path that culminated in his 1981 solo album Alone On Penguin Island. The title says it all, a personal and genuinely unique collection of songs and seemingly unfinished musical fragments. Often beautiful, sometimes angular and difficult, more than a little mysterious and hinting at more than perhaps it delivered in places, it still sounds as otherworldly and original now as it did at the time. It didn’t achieve commercial success but, with the benefit of hindsight, it worked in his favour as it became a touchstone album with a cult following of the sort of musicians who push the boundaries of modern rock and contemporary music. More importantly, it also drove him to become a mature and prolific songwriter who went on to write some truly classic songs over the following 30 years. As a songwriter, Des drew on personal experiences, including tragic events close to him, recounted with an objectivity and absence of self-pity worthy of a hardened Mississippi delta blues singer. But, more often he wrote with great simplicity and observational insight about the life going on around him, particularly the people and places he loved. It’s the range that’s impressive too, from confessional blues and country influenced songs about the complications of relationships, or how places change (and not always for the better); songs celebrating society’s outsiders; lusty, rip roaring indie pop in pursuit of the opposite sex and anthemic sing-alongs with massive chiming guitars and memorable imagery. Gathering to pay homage to the man will be at least 40 musicians from all over the UK, from all periods of his musical life and all the bands he ever formed and then split in his restless search for the next idea. As well as Colin Newman and other mighty musicians from various indie bands, in Des’s egalitarian style, there will also be people who don’t usually play a lot but have a close affinity with his songs and loved what he did. Everyone involved is pulling out all the stops to put on a wide ranging show that will span 30 or more years of his songwriting from flat out indie rock to acoustic folk/blues, to experimental electronica, improvised interpretations of his more out-there ideas and DJ/mashup versions of songs. Des’ family are fundraising through this event for the Awards for Young Musicians charity who have set up the Des Simmons Award for Young Musicians. The charity provides financial support to exceptional young musicians from low income families to enable them to progress musically. They also encourage and help them build confidence by providing performance opportunities and mentoring. As Des was an exceptionally gifted acoustic and electric guitarist, the award will support talented young people who are playing/studying acoustic or electric guitar. If you can’t make it to the gig but want to donate you can do so at http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/team/RidgewayFire A one-off gig for a one-off man that Newbury should be proud of.  Early booking advised. Doors open and frivolity begins at 6.30pm, main stage starts 7.30pm. Tickets £10 in advance, £12 on the door (students £7.50, under-16s £5), available online from www.arlingtonarts.co.uk Telephone (01635) 244246, E boxoffice@arlingtonarts.co.uk You can hear Des Simmons’ last album Blue Country at www.soundcloud.com/desmondsimmons By Paul James

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