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Andy at the Old Gallery, 57 George St, Old Town

Colourful characters, crooked steps and alleyways…

HOT columnist Sean O’Shea interviews Hastings musician, artist and instrument maker Andy Dennis. He talks with Andy about his music making, his vivid pictures of the Stade and his love of Hastings.

Hastings Old Town is a jumbled patchwork of alleyways, crooked steps and many colourful characters. Hardly surprising then that artists have chosen to live and work here for centuries.                                            Andy Dennis

Sean O’Shea: You were born in Hastings and the above quote is drawn from your own description of the town as outlined in your website. Can you describe some of your early memories?

Andy Dennis: I was born in the so-called new town, in a house in St Andrews Square which was built in the 1860s. The house seemed to be all staircases and gloomy corners and was quite scary with lots of dark cupboards and grotesque gargoyles on the hall ceiling. When I was 8 or 9, the ceiling fell down and the gargoyles were smashed to pieces.  After that it didn’t seem so scary anymore.

Hastings is a town that over centuries has seen many unusual and colourful characters such as Titus Oates, Sweeney Todd, the Pre-Raphaelites and Alistair Crowley of witchcraft fame, to name but few. It’s cosmopolitan, quirky and a place where you can feel comfortable being yourself. I love it.

Sean O’Shea: Could you comment on some of the changes you have witnessed in Hastings over the years?

Andy Dennis: I’ve seen many changes over the years. In the 1960s the beaches were so crowded in the summer that it was difficult to find somewhere to sit and hordes of mods and rockers would come down here for the day. The rag and bone man still came round in his horse and cart, cars were few and far between and you could drive down George Street. We watched county cricket matches at the cricket ground and saw bands play in the caves and on the pier. By the eighties tourism in Hastings seemed to have declined and in the nineties many of the hotels were used as housing rather than holiday accommodation. Hastings is now a great place and definitely on the up. There is so much going on:   music, art and dance …something for everyone.

The Catsfield Steamers

Sean O’Shea: You play with the local band, the Catsfield Steamers. Could you tell us a bit about this band and your involvement with them?

Andy Dennis: The Catsfield Steamers was formed more than 30 years ago from the Mad Jack’s Morris musicians and, here we are,  still playing today. There have been a few changes in the line up but five of us are original members. To watch people dance, have fun or just listen to our music is a pleasure and a gift. We are privileged.  You are all invited to our sixtieth reunion in 2038, reserve your tickets now!

Sean O’Shea: You also host monthly open music sessions with your wife Cherie at The Royal Standard Old Town and in Ore Village and attend weekly folk nights at the Stag. Can you say more about these sessions, how they evolved and who participates in them?

Andy Dennis: The session at the Royal Standard on the last Tuesday of every month started in the early days of Mad Jack’s Morris. It has changed quite a bit over the years as musicians come and go but is still predominantly folk music and songs, is open to everyone and all are invited to take a turn. Each session is different depending on who attends but most of the musicians and singers are local people.

The sessions at the Old King John in Ore Village are held on the first Thursday of each month, run on similar lines but attract a different mix of musicians and singers. The landlord and landlady Jack and Sue are always very welcoming and provide sandwiches for participants.

The session at the Stag All Saints Street, held every Tuesday, is quite different again. There is a core of regular folk musicians who all play together, although everyone is welcome to come along and join in. The Landlord and landlady Alan and Star are very friendly and welcoming. They also hold a bluegrass session every Wednesday and sea shanty singing every Thursday sometimes hosted by a local acapella group Rattlebag. Again all are welcome to these sessions.

Sean O’Shea: You play melodeon, mandolin and banjo. Which is your favourite instrument and why?

Musical harmonies

Andy Dennis: The melodeon is my favourite instrument. I started playing when I was 28. I saw some Morris dancers at the Cock Inn in Peasmarsh; one of the musicians was playing a melodeon and I thought this is the instrument for me. I bought a melodeon and persisted with it. So here I am after more than thirty years behind the buttons.

When I play I hardly move my fingers which has elicited comments such as “I saw a finger move” or “Andy doesn’t play his melodeon, it plays him.” I’ve been asked how I do it but I don’t know. It just works that way.

I love playing the mandolin with my wife as she also plays a mandolin. We have such fun working together on new tunes and harmonies, or practising old ones. All you couples out there, ditch the TV and start playing music together. It will work wonders for you.

I also play the mandola and banjo. The banjo is the butt of many jokes, so if you own one, don’t get too fond of it!

Sean O’Shea: What have been some of your musical influences?

Andy Dennis: My grandfather played a fiddle and my uncle played fiddle and drums.  My parents and my uncle lived with my grandparents, and as a child I often heard live folk music at home. This was probably my biggest influence. At the age of 14, my brother and I went to the Lord Nelson folk club. I’ve always preferred live, local music but have also listened to big names such as Bob Dylan and Donovan.

Sean O’Shea: You make your own instruments. Could you describe this process?

Andy Dennis: I’ve made one mandolin and five mandolas, four of which I’ve sold.  Nobody taught me how to do it and I didn’t read up on it either.  All I can say is that the instrument is in the wood. You just have to find it.

A travelling show

Sean O’Shea: Is music and performance in your family background?

Andy Dennis: Yes, on my mother’s side of the family. They were in music hall as actors and musicians from the 1820’s and from 1920-1939 they owned a travelling show. My grandfather was a musician and MC and he also painted all the stage scenery. My mother and my uncle were child actors in the show.

The travelling show closed down at the outbreak of World War Two. After the War my uncle and grandfather performed musically in various pubs and halls in and around Hastings and painted scenery for the pier theatre.

I was glad that their passion for performance rubbed off on me and it was through music that I met my wife Cherie.

Sean O’Shea: You have a gallery in Old Town and you produce your own work. Can you tell us about the inspiration and focus for your work?

Andy Dennis: Having spent most of my life in Hastings, the contours of the landscape, architecture, sea and skyline have been subconsciously imprinted on me and I never cease to be amazed and impressed by its beauty.  I used to watch my
grandfather paint scenery.  He made it look so easy as if he was just splashing paint around but when you stood back it was stunning,  just like Rolf Harris.

I stand back and look across at the East Hill or the West Hill, at the Old Town or out to sea and what I see is amazing. I hope that my paintings reflect that and give some joy to others.

I don’t just paint scenes of Hastings but this is the main focus of the work that I produce and sell from The Old Gallery in George Street.

My wife and I feel privileged to live and work together in wonderful Hastings Old Town.

  • The Catsfield Steamers list of gigs is available online www.catsfieldsteamers.co.uk or view the HOT Listings section.
  • Musicians and singers are welcome to join Andy and his wife Cherie at the open sessions held on the last Tuesday of each month at 8pm at the Royal Standard, Old Town and on the first Thursday of each month at the Old King John pub near Ore village.
  • Local musicians are welcome at the acoustic music sessions weekly at the Stag.
  • Visit the Old Gallery 57 George St to view Andy’s pictures or take a look at his website www.theoldgalleryhastings.co.uk

Posted 09:47 Tuesday, Dec 4, 2012 In: SOS

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