Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Showtime with the Big Blast Band!

Saturday 24th March 2012. AFC Wimbledon are at home to Burton Albion and the Big Blast Band are gathering for the finale of their project...

I had arrived at Kingsmeadow with a car full of useful bits and pieces. Extension cables, spare Wimbledon shirts, tape, clips... you name it, I had some, just in case. At least I knew I wasn't going to be alone when I spotted Andy and some of the High Path crew in the car-park, shortly followed by Elisabeth from the Merton Music Foundation and John Merriman from the Crown Lane Recording Studios. Wayne, our drummer for the day, didn't look his usual smiling self though and it seems that he'd been offered the chance of a party instead of playing live at the stadium and it had obviously been a huge tussle for him to make up his mind! He was here though and everyone else was arriving as planned. Time to set it all up...

Our intention had been to have everyone in the Main Stand for the first half and for the participants  to make their way to the disabled section in the Tempest for our half time slot. This was going to be tight as the Under 10s were due to be presented on the pitch as well, but we thought we could fit it all in OK. Then we had a bit of a surprise. It seemed that the 1962 Cup Winners squad were also going to be on the pitch at half time as well and worse than that, the stewards were looking slightly concerned and anxious as we started to set up drums and cabling alongside the toilet block. Where were the goals going to go after the warm up? What exactly were we intending to do with the cabling? Did we know there were FA inspectors in the ground today? Was it possible for those with mobility issues to get down the far end of the Main Stand and into place in time? And did we know that the radio mike range didn't reach to the Tempest End? 

At times like this your heart sinks and the prospect of ignominious failure looms large in the imagination, so all you can do then is rely on the goodwill of all around you to see it through. The Stewards did everything they could to help us, when it would have been easier to say 'No'; the St John's Ambulance team rallied around with suggestions for setting up the electrics into their hut in such a way as to not cause a safety hazard; we gently ousted the usual inhabitants of the Disabled section who very gallantly used the space by the tea-bar and camped there for the entirety of the game, returning our tickets for some lucky people to get some late returns in the Main Stand. Chris in the Office provided us with some shirts, we put up our Big Blast Band flag, asked Philo to give us an introduction at half time and sank back exhausted before the game had even begun!

We had the junior team behind us and they very gallantly took their bow before the game started, freeing up the half time period somewhat. We all sat with djembe drums to the fore with a rising sense of excitement and waited for half-time to arrive...

There we were, Wayne on drums, massed djembes, electric guitar, Elisabeth on Keyboards and John ready to lead us all. A tense and nervous period as half time came closer. Then we were off! I had to get to the press area to pick up the radio mike, take it back and pray that it was in range - otherwise we'd be sunk! 

I had to say a few words off the cuff and was dismayed when nothing came out...but then the mike burst into life and with a great deal of haste I finished off and shoved it toward John who was going to wave it in our general direction as we were singing and hope it could pick up something.

We had been practicing for ten weeks, and it was only on the last session or two that we had run through the final version. It had been fine in the practice room, but in a huge stadium, live and with high excitement levels, we almost missed the first chorus! The group found a simple chant the easiest thing to manage so it was that combined with some enthusiastic tub-thumping that was supposed to take us into the rousing chorus when we would stand to sing the chorus of We Are Wimbledon, complete with Makaton signing for those that couldn't cope with the required vocalisation! We were a bit slow first time out though and it took longer helping some to their feet than we had thought but you know, I don't think anyone really minded - certainly not Warren, Robert or Ian who were around me. And certainly not Josh whose special job was to shout loudly during each chorus! 

Much to our surprise we were not only being filmed by a very expensive looking camera but cheered on by Haydon as well. We finished with a final crash of drums and, to our relief, some very enthusiastic applause!

This was a marvellous occasion for all of us, but the project as a whole was a valuable learning experience as well. We were working closely with the Merton Music Foundation and their director Elisabeth Wigley. Her experience of working with both disabilities and music was invaluable and she persuaded us to involve John Merriman of the Crown Lane Recording Studio, another inspired move! So we had four partners on the organisational side when you included the staff at High Path. However we all worked together very effectively with everyone bringing something to the project.

Although the intention was always to climax the project with a live performance it soon became clear that John would need to provide a backing track for the event and this required time in the studios, another great experience that everyone enjoyed. This also led onto the playing and recording of short riffs and the possibility of providing a souvenir CD for the participants. This in turn enabled us to involve the graphics group at High Path to design the CD cover and then, in an enormous leap of faith, the offer by Cherry Red Records to release the CD as an iTunes download, available to the public. 

The suggestion that having a couple of players come down to the vocal recording session might be a nice touch for the participants then turned into the slightly jaw-dropping realisation that ten first team players were stopping by after a morning’s training! The small recording studio was soon packed out and the party of visiting school children from Hillcross Primary were led away in disbelief shouting out “Its AFC Wimbledon, It’s AFC Wimbledon!” as their teachers hurried them out of the exit. There was at least one Dons supporter there as he recognised Jack Midson and Luke Moore straight away!

Could it get any better for the project? Well yes it could as it happens. The Big Blast Band was shortlisted as one of Merton’s Volunteer Project’s of the Year and I was honoured to receive a certificate from the mayor at the Civic Centre. and to top that off there will be a small display about the project in the Civic Centre itself over the next week or so. A successful climax to our largest, highest profile and most ambitious community project to date.

And that expensive looking camera by the pitch? It seems it was the True Volunteer Foundation filming a history of Wimbledon Sport and it seems the Big Blast Band are featuring in the closing scenes of a documentary that's being distributed free to every school in Merton. Fame at last!

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