So you think you’ve seen it all… The most famous rockstars in the biggest arenas, intimate shows with musicians from far away or that one gig they did before they started selling out. That is great. Then, we can talk about something else, something refreshing, something good.
Let me introduce you to the amazing people at Electric Umbrella, a charity founded by Tom Billington (musician) and Mel Boda (art therapist) in 2013. Their goal? To challenge perceptions of people with learning disabilities through the creation and performance of music. The charity currently hosts a weekly session each for three groups of twenty members in three groups around Hertfordshire. These are run by professional musicians and tailored to the members to have fun, get creative and embrace the life of the rockstars. Together, they write, experience, learn to play and then perform music at small venues, big theatres, festivals, live radio, schools and everywhere else on the road to rock ‘n’ roll.
They recently produced a new run of three unique shows entitled Meet Me Where I Am one dedicated to each of the groups and I had the pleasure to shoot and be involved in the second of these at the Pump House Theatre in Watford last Thursday, the 28th of November.
The Pump House is a lovely community theatre, where Tom Billington tells me backstage he “…spent his childhood wearing make up and tights” and apparently learning eventually that he wasn’t any good at actually acting. The team of musicians, sound and lighting engineers and other volunteers, prepare the strange props and instruments and run through the latest changes to the ever evolving eclectic setlist.
The doors open bang on seven and the room quickly fills up. The excitement is palpable, and as it reaches a peak, the curtains draw open and the show begins! The stage is just big enough to hold all the members, carers, volunteers and a full backing band. But from up the front I can see every smile and every face lit up. Not only on stage, but also in the audience.
Lead by Tom and Sinead Quinn, one of the Watford group session leaders, the show starts with three of the Electric Umbrella anthems written by the members during the weekly sessions. No Such Thing As Normal, my personal favourite, overflows with creativity and positivity and if you are still grumpy after this, I think you need a higher dose of Electric Umbrella – which is just what they have in store for you! For nearly two hours, each member takes a turn singing their favourite tunes. We start with Maria who, with session leader Tommy Waters, gives a brilliant rendition of Wild Thing. She is quickly followed by tiny Sian alongside the towering Miles duetting on Jessie J‘s Price Tag, the song’s maxim most definitely emitted by everyone onstage throughout the night.
The surprises are not over, and it is now time to find out what Electric Umbrella can really do. It’s Alexander’s turn to show off what he’s been up to during the sessions, I’m not sure I’ve heard Old Mc Donald at a gig before but with Alexander being mainly non-verbal, the band, members and audience hang in anticipation of each animal and with time and patience he gets each one out celebrated instantly by the band kicking in for a riotous deluge of farmyard chaos.
Meet Me Where I Am is a fantastic compilation of every member’s talents, and we are overjoyed to find out about them, one by one. Whether it be Lawrence the punk rocker covering Jilted John, the lovely Ruby, one of the newest members, giving her first ever live performance (and Elton John a run for his money) with her version of Honky Cat or Kirsty and her back-up singers Miles, Lawrence and Tommy singing Bring Me To Life by Evanescence, everyone is truly having a heartwarming, surprising and delightful night together.
Electric Umbrella really are making some beautiful changes in this world. We got a little sign language class with Tom and Howard during You Raise Me Up. They showed us new, adapted instruments they’ve built, like the “Spinny Stringy Wooden Thingy Guitary Windey Up Machiney” (a hand-drill grafted to strum an acoustic guitar) used by Chris to play Dirty Old Town, or other tech like Theramin, Soundbeam and Makey-Makey that members can hover around or touch with whichever body parts they feel to create sounds. Hillary and Kerry both shone so bright respectively singing You Can Call Me Al with Tom and a lounge style Stand By Me with Sinead on the piano and Tommy on the upright bass.
The show ends with classic tunes I’m Still Standing, by Chris, Hey Jude by John, another Electric Umbrella anthem Try Smiling, and I Am… – where each member sings their name and who they are… punk rocker, beautiful, happy, talented, kind, but most importantly, and thanks to Electric Umbrella, everyone is confident, empowered, soulful and transformed; and so are we, in the audience, witnessing it all happen.
If you love music and would like to find out more about Electric Umbrella, hear their full studio album and how to see and support them, head over to their website, Facebook, Youtube and Instagram pages. Forget about those sun-glassed backstage divas and check out some rockstars who will mould the show to meet you wherever you are!
Feature and Photography on Electric Umbrella by Pauline DiSilvestro, November 2019.