Todd Sharpville keeps gigging alive online during lockdown
PUBLISHED: 12:10 21 August 2020 | UPDATED: 12:10 21 August 2020
Steve Adams 2020 07398 238853
The Norfolk musician, who’s performed with Robbie Williams and George Michael, tells Stu Lambert about The Sharpville Show
As lockdown loomed, Todd Sharpville faced a tricky situation. The renowned British blues guitarist, who has performed with Robbie Williams, George Michael, Van Morrison, Brian May and many others, needed to move house and knew, from online chats with his extensive international contacts, that an emergency was likely to be declared. He also believed that a principal source of his income, live performance, would suffer catastrophic decline as public gatherings were banned.
Todd also sensed the potential harm that might come from depriving people of the live music experience. “I’ve been a gigging musician pretty much most of my life, a 30-year career, and I don’t remember any time, even when life was it is worst, when I wasn’t playing with other musicians,” he says.
He believed that, If this deprivation was going to affect him emotionally, it would affect other musicians and especially some of the fans. “Over the years, you get to know quite a lot of fans personally,” he recounts. “Quite a few of them feel dispossessed or lonely; the gigs they go to are a form of music therapy, as they imbibe the communicative chemistry of the musicians.” He thought that the lack of live music could contribute to a mental health crisis for many of these fans.
Todd is not only a member of the musical aristocracy, he is a ‘blue-blooded bluesman’ the younger son of the third Viscount St Davids – his given name is The Hon. Roland Augusto Jestyn Estanislao Philipps. As well as his feelings for colleagues and fans, he says: “My upbringing gives me the notion of noblesse oblige - it’s your job to be the better you. It’s a responsibility of privilege, including the privilege to make my meagre living out of music.”
Todd had a Big Idea. He would put a shout out for other suddenly-underemployed musicians to join him in a ‘lockdown band’, find a suitably large place to house them and their families and broadcast live concerts to the world. From a plethora of enthusiastic responses, he invited three other reputed professional musicians to join him, his wife Cyrilla Whyte and their one-eyed Shih Tzu Genghis in the venture, which would be called the Todd Sharpville Show.
Dave Swift has played bass for Jools Holland and his Rhythm and Blues Orchestra since 1991, as well as for a galaxy of star names: just some of the people called Paul include Paul McCartney, Paul Rodgers, Paul Simon, Paul Weller and Paul Young. Dave had stood in on bass for a couple of Todd’s gigs; they are a similar age and were ‘just becoming friends’ before the move.
The other two players are younger – Todd calls them ‘hot shot kids on the London circuit that includes Ronnie Scott’s, The Jazz cafe the Blues Kitchen.’ Todd barely knew them: he had jammed once with keyboard player Joe Mac, had never played with drummer Dan Hale but had rescued a guitar amp from Dan’s car when it was broken into , and his drums stolen, on Todd’s street in Islington.
The big house-hunt was simply solved; Todd contacted a website that many landed house advertise on. He explained the position, that he was forming a musical project which would pay nominal rent while commercial rental was impossible. “I wanted to help folks whose insurance companies had let them down and who might otherwise lose their properties. It seemed like if I was going to do this on my as well start with a bit of good karma, by seeing if it might help someone straight away,” Todd says.
He chose Gresham Hall, a 10-bed, 10-bath house near Sheringham owned by Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, Conservative MP for The Cotswolds. As well as the band, Cyrilla and Genghis, the community includes two singers – Dan’s girlfriend Emma Prior, resident singer at The Blues Kitchen in London, with their daughter Tala who celebrated her first birthday and took her first steps at Gresham Hall their cocker spaniel Bessie, and Dave’s wife Lucy Merrilyn a jazz singer and guest vocalist with the Syd Lawrence Orchestra. Joe’s girlfriend Shaiki Choudray and their son Oscar, three, complete the party.
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Todd had everyone (human) Covid-tested before they moved in and the Sharpville show hit the, er, rug. The first Sharpville Show was broadcast on April 16 and there have been regular 90-minute gigs streamed on Facebook Live and later on YouTube since. There have also been numerous one-song videos, including a bluesified We’ll Meet Again tribute to the late Dame Vera Lynn, who died in June.
Todd reckons that The Sharpville Show is the only professional band that has gathered during the pandemic. “We’ve been speaking to our friends online across Europe and in the US and there wasn’t another professional band that had done this. I was quite shocked I assumed I’d be one of many,” he says. The shows are certainly as close to 100-proof proper gigs as lockdown can get, very different from the many unplugged versions and distanced duets that fans have made do with since the live venues closed their doors.
The first shows were made with the personal equipment the band could bring and streamed from Todd’s iPhone. The videos are now streamed in 4K. Cyrilla manages the sessions and live streaming: “Cyrilla is my counterbalance, she’s very much the Sharon Osbourne to my Ozzy,” Todd laughs. The audio quality improved after Todd contacted Norwich equipment hire company Saturn AV. “At first they said they couldn’t rent anything to me because they were furloughed so not allowed to,” Todd recalls. “I told them about the project and said I was hoping they could lend me some stuff as I didn’t have any money and straight away the owner Olly Smith said ‘that’s a different matter, we’d love to!”
I ask Todd how the venture has been funded. “I’ve run up an enormous overdraft with the bank!,” he exclaims. The first shows had a ‘tips jar’ payment facility and there have been ticketed shows and quite a number of corporate private gigs, as companies strive to maintain relationships with their customers, but: “Until the end of June, it was a huge risk that when lockdown was over I would be walking back to a calamitous debt that I wouldn’t be able to pay off,” he exclaims.
Of course, it has never been about the money. “We’re really here to represent not just ourselves but our industry to the audience - particularly the grassroots industry, not just the one percent who are super famous,” Todd declares. He adds that it’s not just the musicians: The Sharpville Show flies the flag for the entire community: “All the technical crews, the tour crews… the entire structure that has broken down, the people in the background of everybody’s music experience. Talking to people around the planet from different genres, different cultures and nationalities, it felt like a responsibility to make sure their plight and the plight of the industry was firmly put on the table for all to see.”
In June the Sharpville Show moved about five miles to Voewood House, near Holt. Voewood is a handsome 17-bedroom Arts & Crafts building, owned by Simon Finch, a dealer in rare books. Todd says: “I’ve come to know more people in the county and found people with a lot of mutual friends. Simon and I share some family friends and also a lot of rock’n’roll friends. Simon’s a very rock’n’roll chap, he used to go our with Sinead O’Connor and Glenn Matlock of the Sex Pistols is a mutual friend.”
The crew expects to stay at Voewood until the performers can return to their professional duties on stage, which currently looks likely to be this month or next. The Sharpville Show has made news in New York, Bangkok and Sydney. Major stars have been in touch on Facetime and there will be news of a famous name collaboration on record. This is under wraps as we publish, though a look at the Sharpville Show YouTube channel could prompt an educated guess.
Until then, the Sharpville Show rocks every Sunday evening, reminding concert goers of the pleasures they have postponed.