Concertini talks to Stringfever!

In the first of a series of interviews with the bands and musicians that Concertini collaborates with, Emma speaks to Ralph Broadbent! Ralph is one-quarter of Stringfever, the world's most entertaining electric quartet. As middle brother, MC and chief musical arranger, he reveals the amazing genesis story of the band of brothers (and one cousin!), what it’s been like getting back to playing live, and where his love of music stemmed from. It really is a family business…



Emma: Hi Ralph, how are you?


Ralph: Yeah all good thanks! It’s funny, Having had things close down for two years on and off we've now had a few inquiries coming in which has been nice. We’re actually doing an evening show on the day of the Concertini!


Emma: Oh yes I saw, at Brasserie Zedel, that’s exciting!


Ralph: It's good to be busy having not been…


Emma: Yes, I can imagine! How was the whole pandemic experience for you?


Ralph: I think the best word is a challenge, yeah. I think I'm generally a positive, optimistic type but I think it really challenged us at times. Yeah, I mean there are some good things … I think what it's given me now is a more realistic outlook. You know, after the first lockdown we got a party in July and I thought, “Great! Things will pick up again!” … and then we had nothing for 3 months. And then when after the second lockdown we had all this stuff in the diary I thought, “I’ll believe it when it happens.” But I think it’s easy to say now that the phone’s started ringing the last two weeks and it's given me the optimism back.


Emma: And how have your live gigs been since you’ve got back?


Ralph: In 2021, in July, August and September we were busy as we’ve ever been at our peak. And that was just great, for 3 months to be doing sometimes 4 gigs a week. And it was all the delayed parties of 2020, the weddings or 50th birthdays… it just felt really great to be back on the stage!


Again, talking about positives that have come out of the situation I think from the audiences’ perspective there’s a real amount of appreciation of live performance - whereas I'm not saying people didn't appreciate it before - but having been starved of it, you know, you've got the TV and internet as a sort up back-up entertainment and things on zoom, which is all good in a kind of willingness to stay in touch, but I think the public has a real appreciation [of live music now].


We happened to be doing a soundcheck for a gig on a little island on the River Thames, on Temple Island down near Henley. And so we were playing outdoors and we were doing our soundcheck and there were people walking their dogs or going for a run or whatever and so they could hear the music. And it was just amazing the reaction, people were stopping and trying to listen to it, and it was like “Oh I remember that! That’s live music!” and it was that real thirst for live performance. I remember specifically the first performance we did last year in May after the second lockdown and you could just see it etched on the faces of the audience, yeah, they were so pleased, and it wasn't just us it was comedians and other musicians, it was a variety show. So that was a tangible thing that I can say it's a positive thing, I think people’s appreciation of live music … they’re certainly not taking it for granted.



Emma: I’m in exactly the same boat as those audiences, getting back to see stuff live as been amazing! How's it been for you getting back to it as performers? Have there been any more nerves than usual?


Ralph: I’m trying to throw my mind back to how it actually felt, I think the adrenaline you get is really a positive thing. We're from the same family, we’re close family obviously, we've been working together getting on for 20 years, how many are we on now, 18 years?! Gosh, yeah, so we have that close bond. So to be on the stage not just generally but with that group of people, that we've toured with and performed with for many years. It just felt like music again, and performing you felt that energy.


Talking about the importance of live music again, which I think really ties in with the Concertini ethic, it’s about getting people of all ages but particularly younger people involved. We're lucky in our family that our dad was a music teacher, specifically a violin teacher, that was his passion all of his life. He died sadly just before the pandemic, he was 73, even till his dying day, aged 73 he was teaching up to 25 to 30 pupils privately a week. So the best way that you could describe him was sort of like a mad professor type, he was very enthusiastic, very engaging and he was very good at getting people to have a rounded technique so it wasn’t just the enthusiasm, it was allied with a methodical way of teaching, it was quite awesome to experience.


And of course, I didn't know how lucky I was to have this Dad, and it wasn’t just us as we were growing up, he set up a Youth Orchestra outside the school he taught at and do these holiday summer camps. So literally from my earliest memories, we would have 20 kids staying at our house, and they’d stay in tents or caravans. And as well as doing the orchestra rehearsals we’d spend the downtime together and go on the coast and swim in the sea and play football and rounders and it was just that sense of making music fun and very social.


And so that was my experience but also it meant that I saw these performances - I mean quite often they were school performances but as a kid, you don’t know any different - just being exposed to live music at that age, I think was just something that we were so fortunate to have but didn’t realise at the time. And moving it forward to our generation now, I think without being too stereotypical and cliché, I think the music budget has been cut in schools for the last … I don't know how many years, the arts generally have been squeezed in this country, I think that’s far to say. And so for things like Concertini for example and anyone that’s trying to put on concerts that are not necessarily specifically designed for kids but that kids can come along to and see that not only is it interesting but it’s exciting and fun. That’s definitely what I see with Concertini, it’s not just there’s a concert that you can bring kids to and we’re aware that they’re kids. It’s good quality, I think Julia said we want it interesting for the parents as well we don’t want – without being too patronising – we don’t just want someone banging a tambourine and singing three blind mice.


I feel what we do at Stringfever, it does cut across the ages, we didn’t design it specifically like that. But we came up with the idea of our show – here’s a brief genesis of how our show evolved … lots of things collided at the same time back in 2003.


So professionally my brother and I had both worked in West End shows and touring in the theatre for a number of years, after graduating music college, so that had been our main source of income. Prior to that in our late teens and sort of music college days, we did lots of busking, not just once or twice we made it a bit of thing. We used to borrow our parents' camper van when we were 18, 19, and just in the holidays we’d go with a couple of mates for 3 or 4 weeks and drive throughout Europe. This was in the early 90s, things were just opening up then - ironically from a Brexit perspective (!) - I mean I’m sure you can still go busking now, but just in that sense of ‘you’re young you can travel!’


Anyway, it gave us a great experience of how to engage with the audience. When you’re busking you can’t just stand there with the music in front of you like you would in a concert hall. So it gave us a real thirst to be more entertaining, shall we say, rather than just playing music. And that I think was at the back of our minds, you know, it would be great to do this … Then we brought our first electric instruments when we were students. And then when Giles’ show closed on the West End he suddenly didn’t have an income and we thought we’ve got to do something with this idea we’ve always had of doing an electric string group!


Coincidentally we met an agent and it turned out he was looking to put together a musical cabaret act that he wanted to market specifically to what they call the “after-dinner circuit,” so you have your event, your dinner and then the entertainment comes on, it’s usually for 25 to 30 minutes. He said if you can go away, in 6 weeks I’ve got a client that will book anything, so you can go and literally (!) go and get your act together. So it’s got to be engaging with the audience, it has to be funny and entertaining. And that had always appealed to me personally because I’d always wanted to do something that was funny and physical, I love people like Dudley Moore, he did comedy piano pieces, and those types of performers. Because they had an outlet, but when you’re in the theatre pit you’re beneath the stage, you’re part of the orchestra, you can’t really be the funny man. So from my perspective where someone is saying, “I’m going to pay you to entertain people,” I became the compere of the show. And my older brother Giles had a part to play because he’s always wanted to run his own group, he’s a lead violin but also a pioneer of the electric instrument.



And then one of the reasons we hadn't quite got it together by then was because we hadn’t quite got the personnel available, the two friends we used to go busking with, they were never going to do music professionally, they were quite good but they went to the city and had jobs so we didn’t have the other members. But then by the time that 2003 came along my younger brother was 18, he was taking a gap year and he'd audition to go off to music college, but we met this agent during that gap year who said I want to market this and there's no way that he could have the time to be a student with being in the band, you know, we want it to be a full-time thing, not just a hobby. So we kidnapped our younger brother!


My cousin was in the same West End show as my older brother and that closed so he was available and he’s the sort of comedy… I mean, we didn’t sit down and say how can we build 4 different characters on stage… but as the act evolved in the first few years - we did have one or two sessions with directors - but we are quite different individuals on stage and that helped to bring a happy accident, if you like, with our different personalities. So I’m the one with the microphone, that ties it all together, the cheeky chappy… Graham’s this big sort of jolly giant type and one of the numbers we first did was a sort of name that tune medley of film tunes and so you have to make the tunes not too obvious but not too obscure. So Graham started quoting famous lines of the films to give the audiences hints, be it The Godfather or Titanic and him doing a line from Titanic is just ridiculous! So getting these laughs spontaneously he kind of found this character on stage, so that was a nice, happy accidental evolution.


Emma: It definitely made me laugh out loud last time I saw you all perform!


Ralph: Good, yeah! And then the other unique thing that our group has, is the younger brother who we kidnapped [Neal], he has this ability to beatbox and he was doing it off stage you know in the car and stuff, and then we were saying you could do that in the show. And being the youngest brother he didn’t leap at the chance but then gradually, I think we did a James Bond medley and we persuaded him to it just for that number and then increasingly he did it more and more in the show. Obviously, with some of the classical stuff, you don’t need drums. But in a way, that was his character-forming, he became the one-man rhythm section. Effectively playing the cello like a bass for most of the show and then he’s doing the drums [by beat boxing] so he’s effectively the drum-and-bass guy. Once he felt more comfortable doing it on stage - because he was very reluctant at first! Because he was very modest about it - but that’s become his thing and he’s very comfortable with it now.


And then my older brother, [Giles] he doesn’t have a speaking part but he’s the virtuoso, he’s very technically gifted on the violin so he’s the lead violist.


Emma: He’s like the straight man isn’t he?


Ralph: Yes he's the frontman, but there are a few numbers we do that really show off his skills because he’s really an exceptional violinist, so whenever I’m drawn towards the comedy, he doesn’t mind that but he wants people to know that he’s a – not a serious musician – he would hate that but that his range of skills is something that he takes pride in. And I’ve grown up with him and he’s two years older than me. So I always had this really good violinist that was just a little bit older than me. But I never felt that was a bad thing, there was always a place for a second violin in a group.


So it is something quite unusual that we do. It’s something to be proud of. It’s important to us, music, family and we pretty much put the group together ourselves so that’s why it’s our baby in many ways. So it’s not just a job, it really is a way of life, and hence why we have a sense of pride about it.

Emma: Well we think it’s brilliant and we can’t wait to see it again soon!


Thank you to Ralph, Giles, Graham and Neal for the amazing Concertini that they performed on 25th February 2022. We hope to see you all again soon!


If you’d like to follow Stringfever to find out about their upcoming gigs you can find them on instagram @stringfever_uk and on Facebook at /stringfeveruk and details of their upcoming gigs here: https://www.stringfever.co.uk/tour-dates.



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