The New Rope String Band
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The New Rope String Band

Band Folk Comedy

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The best kept secret in music

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"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.

- fROOTS


A skillfully preposterous blend of musical recital and circus

"Overall there was rather a lot of fiddling, an impressive amount of accordionising, a good deal of guitar-wielding, a noticeable presence of banjos, an assertive contribution of mandolin, an unforgettable trumpet, plenty of singing, ceaseless action - and more plastic tubes than you could easily count." - The Ilkley Gazette


My favourite part of the show, I’ve decided, was the New Rope String Band ... who had very little to do with world music I’m pretty sure, but like I said, I’m not going to let that spoil my RWMF2008 experience. These three Englishmen are a theatrical group more than anything – they make music out of plastic tubes, play the accordion while underwater and do rather silly things on stage with fiddles. Their stage show is interesting – a lot more fun to watch in a smaller venue than on the big stage. But what I especially liked and learned about them is that they are very ordinary people; interested in things like where to get the best laksa in town and how to catch mudskippers; they’re ready to give you a crash course in dancing, and are eager to share pictures of their children (Pete Challoner’s son is the spitting image of him, btw). I would never have known these things if not for the wonderfully warm atmosphere at the festival which almost nudges you into getting up close and personal with ... everyone.

Pete shared a tale with me about his friend Joe Scurfield who was the founding member of the Old Rope String Band and who had written a tune for their planned first trip to Malaysia in 2003. Sadly just before that, Joe was killed in an unfortunate accident and the band never came here ... until now. During their performances at the RWMF2008, the New Rope String Band performed that song to grand applause.

This is kind of how the song goes (and remember, the New Rope String band brings it down in three-part harmony):

Kita suka berada di sini, Kita suka berada di Sarawak, Kita suka berada di sini, Terima kasih banyak, banyak, banyak.

A simple tune but a fitting tribute indeed to Joe, the band, the organisers of the RWMF2008 and everyone who has graced the festival in one way or another. - The Star Online


Tim O'Brien laughed till he cried

"I'll use up the remaining space to say how much I enjoyed a performance by the New Rope String Band. Jason and I had a free Saturday just before the tour's end, so we took a day in Lincoln shopping and sightseeing before heading to the village hall in Helpringham to see the Ropes. I was uninitiated, so can't compare them to the tragically ended Old Rope String Band, but they made me laugh until I cried, and played some great music. The door prize drawing at intermission calmed me down but then they came back and did it again. If the Queen could Knight them each or something, it would be a good idea." Tim O'Brien - Tim O'Brien, musician


Probably the most bizarre review ever!

When our Arts Consultant, Linda Cowley, suggested (or rather insisted) that The New Rope String Band appear at The Exchange, I probably replied with an unenthusiastic "who?" After looking at their website I started to understand Linda's enthusiasm, and started looking forward to seeing them in action. Then it hit me. We had done it again and booked a really good act for a Friday night. For those of you that are blissfully unaware of my geographical dilemma, despite working at The Exchange for a year (or 12 months community service as I like to put it), I still live in Chelmsford in Essex and therefore travel home on a Friday evening to see my fiancée (I usually call her my wife in the hope that one day she'll realise what the engagement ring was for) and children.

Anyway, the afternoon of New Ropes' performance arrived and I briefly met the members of the band as they were setting up. Disappointed that I couldn't stay, I asked where they were performing next. "Marks Tey Village Hall," they replied. Now most of you won't know this, but Marks Tey is a tiny place just south of Colchester, approximately 20 minutes from where I live! I phoned the hall the following morning and despite being sold out they managed to conjure up 4 tickets.

So we arrived at the hall to find our tickets waiting at the door, on which was taped a large sign which read "Tea/coffee and Hot Mince Pies - please make a donation". We snaffled seats in the second row and I went back for the food and drink. The importance of this part of the story is that the gentleman in front of me in the queue (in response to the "make a donation" part of the sign) offered one of his kidneys in exchange for a mince pie. This, for me, set the tone for the evening.

This was followed by the gradual realisation that some members of the audience were greyhounds. This isn't some Essex euphemism; they were actually greyhounds. Now we hadn't realised, until someone got up to introduce the band, that one of the aims of the evening was to raise money for a greyhound rescue charity. Up to that point I had felt a bit like someone who had been invited to a 'bring a bottle' party but had forgotten to stop at the off-licence. Knowing how difficult it is to borrow a greyhound at short-notice we just sat there hoping someone would have a spare.

With a fanfare of fiddle vs. accordion the show started. Within seconds of the musicians introducing themselves the tears were rolling down my cheeks. The mince pies really were HOT and the roof of my mouth felt like it had been napalmed. Luckily I got away with the tears as, by this time, the entire audience was in hysterics (apart from the greyhounds who may be the seventh fastest land mammal, a useful fact that Tim the accordion player was to impart later, but have no sense of humour whatsoever).

After a while the music died down and an hysterical game of violin tennis ensued (my children thought this was the best bit). This was followed by a whole host of hilarious nonsense courtesy of Pete Challoner (fiddle, banjo), Tim Dalling (accordion, double bass, trumpet), Jock Tyldesley (fiddle, flip-flop) and Vera van Heeringen (on every stringed instrument you can imagine). The star of the show, for me, was poor old Tim; forced to stay on stage though he desperately needed the loo, so annoyed with the rest of the band at one point that he ate a boiled egg and drank from his flask in protest. It really is one of those situations where 'you had to be there'. It's just impossible to put into words what it is that the New Rope String Band does. The important thing though, is that they do it so well; their musicianship is excellent and the way they combine that with the rest of the show is what makes it work.

I can safely say that it was one of the most enjoyable nights out that we have ever had. I can also say that, without a doubt, I will do everything I can to make sure that the New Rope String Band returns to The Exchange in the not-too-distant future. Don't worry if you haven't got a greyhound, we'll still let you in!

Robin Savill, Centre Manager, The Exchange, Sturminster Newton, Dorset - The Exchange


The crowd were in for a treat, however, with the next act. Making a welcome return and with two new members, festival favourites the New Rope String Band announ­ced their arrival with the aid of a loud speaker and bounced on stage to cheers and applause.

Inviting us to join them on an “ear-hole adventure”, Jock Tyldes­ley, Vera Van Heeringen, Pete Challoner and Tim Dalling were a breath of fresh air. Or rather a hurricane. Their creative act consisted of a mix of music and gags which included a game of fiddle tennis, and an amazing display of timing with a life-sized musical scale which had holes cut out for the notes. Each band member then stuck their head through and sang a note each to form a hilarious song.

It’s difficult to choose between them as every song was brilliant in different ways, but the one about the Cuban revolution, dedicated to the late Old Rope String Band member Joe Scurfield, was priceless.

People in the crowd were bent double laughing, but among the hilarity were some beautiful tunes and the band’s genuinely outstand­ing musical talent is clear.

Their show ended with a bang, quite literally, with a glitter explo­sion and rapturous applause from the audience, whose reaction con­firmed my feeling that it is impossible not to love them. - The Shetland Times


Discography

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Bio

Once seen, never forgotten: combining superb musicianship with side-splitting comic genius, the New Rope String Band are truly unique entertainers. Elements of circus, clowning, vaudeville, slapstick and sheer inspired silliness are spliced with beautiful acoustic music from various world traditions, in precision-honed yet uproarious performances that have delighted audiences from Borneo's Sarawak rainforest to the Shetland Folk Festival. Equally at home in tiny village halls or on major festival stages, these maniac minstrels are now touring again as a three-piece, mixing up longtime favourite routines with ever-evolving new material. From musical tennis to deconstructed nursery rhymes, Python-esque absurdism to pyrotechnics and live interactive film, expect the hilariously unexpected.