“Dolly Parton” at Rancho Texas, Tuesday 18th December
Christmas Voices In Puerto Del Carmen, Wednesday 19th December
In my pre-teenage days of black and white telly, whilst living with my parents, I would be out playing “cowboys and Indians” with my mates throughout the streets of Rochdale. Our alleys and ginnels and lush green, rolling hills, however didn’t bear too much resemblance to the grainy vistas that would drift across our tv screens in the days of Ward Bond on Wagon Train, or Clint Eastwood on Rawhide.
At six years old I was a bandit with a toy gun in my hand, and at sixteen years old I was sure I was the subject of Mike Harding’s novelty hit song, The Rochdale Cowboy, because I was, as the song described, a young man trapped in an environment I couldn’t escape. I knew I wanted to live in the Wild West but ´the spurs wouldn’t fit right, on my clogs.´
On my first holiday here on Lanzarote I knew I had found the imagined landscape of my childhood days. The road up and down through Femes seemed to be exactly the kind of trail taken across the country by the Wagon Train, and the road down to Famara resembled the plains where Gil Favor and Rowdy Yates were calling the cattle, trying to ´herd ´em on, move ém on and roll ém out.´
This landscape is what finally drew me to live here, for it is surely a miniaturised version of the contours of the old wild west. Even the Belens at this time of year remind me of this.
I am no longer six or sixteen but am now sixty six, and have put away all childish things. Last night, however, I was on ´the Deadwood stage (coach), rolling on into town, Yippee-i-o, Yippee-i-a, whip crack away, whip crack away, whip crack away.´
Suddenly our stage-coach was pulled up in the darkness on the dusty trail, and the sheriff of the nearest settlement climbed aboard and told us we were approaching his peaceful, little law abiding town and that there were one or two laws he needed to frequent us of.
OK,…. Now let’s get real. My stage (coach) did not actually bear the name of Wells Fargo, but was in fact a super, modern, state of the art Amanda Bus, and the region the sheriff was referring to was not Dodge City but Rancho Texas. In fact I would later find out that not only was he the sheriff of the community but also a guitarist, line dancer, food server, bartender and floor sweeper. Nevertheless, his welcoming speech about how he “didn’t want no trouble” captured the imaginations of me and my thirty or so fellow passengers and set exactly the right tone for the rest of our evening.
We were escorted into what was the biggest, liveliest honky-tonk in the whole of Rancho Texas, where there were musicians playing cowboy songs and a few honky tonk girls dancing and swishing along table tops to the rhythms of the songs. These ladies made a bee line toward we men from the stage-coach and the cowpokes even started flirting with our women. The honky tonk angels were distracting us fellas, though, with promises of “all you can eat and drink” and, with that, pitchers of beer and sangria were being slid down the tables, western style, to land right in front of a thirsty drinker. And you know what, these guys and gals kept “em comin´ all night long!” The beer was cold and the sangria sweet and the food would later prove just as excellent.
However, two black-stetson wearing cowboys, holding shiny geetars, were preparing to sing for their supper. They strapped on their instruments as a recorded sound track told us about how Spanish people from the mainland and The Canary Islands had played a part in the taming of the frontiers of America.
Appropriately these cowboy musicians then gave us their version of Neil Diamond’s Coming To America. They followed this with Get Up And Dance, and a few did, and then the duo exploded into The Devil Went Down To Georgia. This was their report on a bit of trouble way down by the creek, in which some kid with a new violin had challenged Satan to a fiddle playing duel. The kid had kicked the Devil’s butt apparently and the cowboys were pleased to tell us of this triumph of good over evil.
“Calamity Jane” then told us it was time to eat and explained that we would be served by the honky tonkers and the deputies with plates real full, but that a hand up and a yell of yeehaw would bring these waiters and waitresses scurrying back with re-fills and not to worry because it was all included in the price of admission.
We jerked at our ribs and chicken and forked our jacket potatoes, dripping in butter and picked at our salads and jawed with our neighbours to a soundtrack of Lyin´ Eyes, I Swear, and Stuck In The Middle With You.
By the time I began spooning at my ice cream, after first having a plateful or three of the real food, the music playing was of Don’t Be Stupid and The Gambler, that ghostly Kenny Rogers figure who haunted the ´Iron Horses´ across the States, making off with his winnings from other passengers.
And the drink just kept on coming.
The recorded sound track had by now been switched off again and the two live country singers and guitarists had returned to the stage to follow Country Roads, as they tried to escape Friends In Low Places.
As another jug of sangria replaced those we had already emptied on our table I made a note of how many country music giants had already been attributed amidst the music we had heard.
I counted up Neil Diamond, The Charlie Daniels Band, The Eagles, Stealers Wheel, Kenny Rogers, John Denver and Garth Brooks, but it was in the middle of this set by the duo that they scored extra points from me. They added the name of Johnny Cash to that previous list, but not by playing one of several obvious well-loved hits by “the man in black,” but by singing the song that reflects his soul and that reflected some of the faux-edginess of this evening. Fulsome Prison Blues will forever be the song that marks Cash apart and they played it superbly.
Suddenly, though, the music stopped and people were ushered from the dance floor. It seemed The Dakotas had just ridden into town and had come down here to their favourite honky tonk where the patrons liked to see the skills the couple had developed with their lariats whilst out riding the cattle for rawhide.
We had already witnessed some lasso experts earlier on throwing their noose around the waists of some volunteer women and children, then fastening the rope in a knot at their ankles and pulling them across the floor, at speed, on their bottoms. All that was missing was the shouts of “calf rope” that traditionally accompanied successful throws and the roping of a calf at the old cowboy rodeos and that can still be heard even today on the professional rodeo circuit in towns like Calvary.
The kids loved this, the women perhaps less so, but it was all done with a sense of humour and a respect for a modern day health and safety ethos, that might not have actually existed in the lawless days of this frontier saloon in this one horse town. However, this was another example of how the whole evening of raucous fun was actually superbly, if invisibly, organised so that everyone was fed, watered and entertained with a minimum of risk and very little overt supervision.
Now, The Dakotas were shaping their lariats, and dancing in and out of whirring loops of rope. They invited the honky tonk angels and the line dancers to ´skip-a-rope´ as it slipped at speed over the floor and one particular bar girl performed an incredibly fast and breath-taking routine. Impressive as all this was by the black clothed boy and girl who were The Dakotas, they then took the show up another gear by presenting some tricks of accuracy with their whips. (Whip crack away, indeed!). With unerring precision they lashed their whips to their full extent to burst balloons and snuff out the flames on candles.
They all then left the stage as the compere (the sheriff who had boarded our coach) announced a singer new to the Rancho Texas saloon and the curtains opened and as I looked I thought I was in honky tonk heaven. A beautiful female vision stepped on to the stage, small of stature, with falling golden hair and dressed in a shimmering tight fitting gown. She is new to Rancho Texas but the saloon has surely discovered a new bar room queen.
She immediately captured all the warmth and wit and musicianship of Dolly Parton as she opened with a surprising selection, perhaps, of Rolling Down The Track but it was in her second number, Jolene, that she also captured some of Dolly’s defiant frailty. She reached out and communicated with the audience, with her voice and with her eyes, and reminded us why Women Don’t Sing Honky Tonk Songs as we men lowered our heads and averted our eyes in shame.
It was the famous song Nine To Five that brought the house down, perhaps because people are so familiar with this song through the film of the same name.
We had travelled here with friends and had taken a bet earlier on whether or not we would hear Dolly Parton music tonight, and if so, what songs the tribute act might sing. I had pompously pontificated and predicted it would ´be all the usual hits, but not great tracks like Applejack, that most people have never heard of!
I think somebody who knows her must have called her and told her because there she was, picking a male volunteer from the audience and urging him to keep playing air-banjo as she sang of Applejack!
I managed to speak to her a few minutes after the show and learned that she performs similarly in the guise of Cher and even Shirley Bassey, but is thinking of putting together what would effectively be a tribute to country, which she says is one of her favourite genres of music. Her act here, as Dolly Parton, is the perfect complement to the rest of this wonderful show and I feel sure as she settles into her routines she will enthral the crowds.
But, too soon she was gone, although the resident duo were back to give us Achy Breaky Heart and the magnetism of The Mavericks´ I Just Want To Dance The Night Away was enough to drag my wife Dee and her friend to the dance floor. I stayed at the table to ensure none of the still free-flowing beer or sangria was spilled.
My wife is a somewhat private dancer so I enjoyed the moment to the full when seeing her trapped on the floor as Calamity Jane began giving line dance instructions before getting as many people as she could dancing to Tell Me Ma, Greased Lightning and a few rock-steady country standards to bring the night to a close. For the next half hour those sassy honky tonk angels danced their two-steps all across the dance floor as the cowboys looked on. However the music was irresistible to Buffalo Bill and his cohorts and they soon joined in with their spurs that jingle jangled.
We were finally all guided back to our various stage coaches and on the way we passed one of those mechanical bulls so beloved of Rita Ballou in Guy Clark’s country song of the same name. It was a shame we hadn’t seen her in action as she, apparently, ‘could dance that slow Ulvada shuffle to some local cowboy hustle, and she could make them trophy buckles shine, shine, shine.’
Too soon, though, a posse of deputies watched us all board and then escorted our stage coaches out of town.
The following morning, as I wandered around my familiar streets of Playa Blanca I saw portraits of me on posters at nearly every lamp-post. I was ´Wanted Dead Or Alive´ for murder and robbery said the poster (or souvenir photo for a very reasonable five euros) and added that I was to be approached with extreme caution, as I was a bandit known to carry 3 Colt pistols, 3 shotguns and a Bowie knife. I took a bit of offence at the poster describing me as “ugly and dangerous” but that the six year old me who had loved Two Gun Tex From Texas on the puppet western, Four Feather Falls, had grown up into a sixty six year old bandito felt, somehow, like a source of pride.
Now a “wanted” man I had to slip back into my civilian disguise as a Lanzarote Information freelancer to attend A Concert Of Carols presented that evening by Christmas Voices. There were stars all around the Nuestras Senora de Lourdes in Puerto Del Carmen but, fortunately, none of them were made of tin and none were pinned to a sheriff’s waistcoat, so Dee and I were able to slip in to the church past the wonderful street-illuminations.
We had never actually visited this church before and I was struck by its long, narrow shape, thought provoking art work on its walls and, subsequently, by its wonderful acoustics.
That reminded me of one of my favourite jokes, told by my wife’s musical conductor when Dee sang with Rochdale Festival Choir. Val Chadwick had turned to the audience and asked if we could hear everything. When the congregation responded in the affirmative Val replied, “Good, because we have terrible trouble with the agnostics here.” It took us a while to realise Val was making a pun out of the word acoustics !
The opening carol, Once In Royal David’s City, was sung by the choir and included a solo by Alan Taylor before the audience was invited to join in the two closing verses.
It was immediately obvious that the choir has made great strides this year. Having seen their Christmas presentations over the past three years I had always thought of them simply as patently decent people sharing a musical ability to reflect on the spirit of the season and entertain their audience. Tonight, though, the choir seemed to have grown in both size and ambition and many of the carols, such as Mary’s Boy Child, with its solo by David Cooper, and The First Noel being complex in arrangements created to show the strength of each section of the choir. The sound was much fuller than anything we had heard in previous years, and the sound system of the church lent added volume and, somehow, gravitas.
The informative leaflet given out before the performance clearly listed members of each of the Soprano, Alto, Tenor and Bass sections and we were pleased to see a couple of our island acquaintances among their number, with Dena Emerson in the Sopranos and Christine Want in the Altos.
Not only did this celebration include some gorgeously sung carols but there were also a handful of cleverly chosen readings that captured a mood that was somehow both profound and relaxed throughout the whole event. Siobhan Casey perfectly read What Kind Of Messiah Are You, written by Godfrey Rust. This was an interesting look at how we each seem to have very different requirements of our Messiah, in a rhyme that was irreverent but never sacrilegious.
We all joined in with Hark The Herald Angels Sing before the choir showcased their increasing abilities on We Three Kings, with solos performed by Craig Milnes, Patrick Rodgers and Tim Mason, and then in a full choral delivery of Good King Wenceslas.
Terry Ewington then gave a reading of Keeping Christmas, providing enough interesting information about its writer, Henry Van Dyke, to ensure that many of us would be later asking our search engines to tell us more about this fascinating character.
It has to be said not only that the choir were in magnificent form but also that the congregation sounded pretty good, too. This was illustrated when we all joined in While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night and God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, a lyric that provokes occasional fierce debate about the placement of a comma, that I have often raised when teaching creative writing groups.
Three members of the choir, Danielle Baumgartner, Tim Macer and Alan Taylor gave us a deep and soulful Coventry Carol before the entire choir demonstrated their skills in harmony on The Infant King.
Siobhan Casey returned to read an extract from A Child’s Christmas In Wales, by Dylan Thomas and she revelled in every joyful remembrance in this wonderful piece of writing by one of my favourite poets.
Sharing in the spirit of the occasion, we all joined with the choir to promise Joy To The World and then to create a huge sound for Calypso Carol. The keyboard playing by Michael Emerson here and, indeed, throughout the concert, was full of interesting trills and rolls that suggested he had every confidence in the choir’s ability to follow him.
These were followed by one of the real highlights of the show, when Sue Cox gave a beautiful solo performance of Silver Bells that was somehow enhanced when it was later explained that the silver bells referred to were the hand/bells employed by Salvation Army bands in their early days in America as they offered respite from poverty and homelessness and alcohol dependency.
This, then, was a very appropriate piece to include in a concert that was raising money for a charity based here on Lanzarote. It was announced that last year Christmas Voices raised over 1,200 euros for Calor y Café and that they hoped we would once again give generously to support this organisation that itself supports those who are homeless and in great need. We have since heard from a choir member that Christmas Voices 2018 raised more than seventeen hundred euros !
A few minutes later, after singing O Come All Ye Faithful and then hearing the choir wished us a Merry Christmas, we all left the church to share a festive drink and a Christmas pastry given out by members of Christmas Voices and to drop a donation into the charity box. What a wonderful way this had been to begin a Christmas that by the time you read this will have been and gone. Let’s hope, though, that the sentiments inspired by this concert will live on throughout the year and that we will all continue to celebrate what Lanzarote offers to those of us who have come to live here and that we all remember what we can offer to the island.
We are reminded of other reasons to give thanks, too, by an exhibition of art work at the Casa de la Cultura in Yaiza. More than fifty paintings on display range in selling price from 100 euros for “Impressions Of The Island” to 1,300 euros for “El camino de la Romeria”. Any art-work here would adorn a house on the island, being often of broad-brushed landscapes accommodating workers of the land, walkers on the island and pilgrimages towards sunsets so wonderful as to remind all newer residents once again why we came here. The work of Brigitte Riesco will reward your attention but you should perhaps check out opening times over the holiday period.