Brad Spurgeon's Blog

A world of music, auto racing, travel, literature, chess, wining, dining and other crazy thoughts….

Dancin’ in the Táncház (Dance House) in Budapest – To the Rhythms of Transylvania

July 26, 2014



BUDAPEST – In yesterday’s post I said that open mics and open jams were not really much part of the culture in Hungary. I have to take it all back. Or, rather, I have to redefine what an open mic and open jam session is, and say that they are very much alive and well in Hungary. I stumbled into one last night in a kert in downtown Budapest, but this is strictly, totally, a Hungarian form of what my blog is all about.

I heard the music from the street, violins, a bass fiddle, some smacking and stomping. So I entered the kerf – a beer garden of a kind that Budapest is full of, using mostly ruined buildings or the foundations where buildings used to be – and followed the sounds of the violins into a small sub-bar off the edge of the kert. There I saw a fabulous vision of three young guys in their 20s and a young woman in her 20s playing what sounded to me like Hungarian folk music. In front of them danced a man in a crazy body slapping dance I’d already seen in a completely different context.

I took a beer and sat and listened, and when the band stopped, I decided to ask if it was an open jam session, even though I knew that if it was, it was strictly Hungarian traditional music. I asked the right violin player of the three present – the woman played the bass – because he immediately launched into an explanation of the entire history of the location AND the music, and told me what it was all about.

The Hungarian Dance House Craze, Part of a Folk Revival

It’s called a Dance House, and Budapest has five or six ones that run different days of the week, according to this violinist. The music comes mostly from Transylvania – yes, yes, Dracula and all that – and is part of a Hungarian and Romanian folk tradition that goes back hundreds, and even thousands of years. In more modern times, Bela Bartok, the great Hungarian composer, began collecting the music and preserving it, and soon the phenomenon of the Dance House, or Táncház, was born basically from the 1970s onward, in a Hungarian folk revival period.

The musicians now get together to play this traditional music, they share the songs amongst themselves, and they play it in the many Dance Houses around the country. But it is essentially a kind of gypsy music played in villages. My interlocutor – who is a music student from Transylvania, by the way – told me that even the gypsies that play gypsy music in the cities do not necessarily know this kind of music, which is different.

He said that in some villages the musical sessions usually at peoples’ homes Dance Houses and at weddings can go on for days on end, with dancers and musicians even taking shifts – going off to sleep while another group returns to celebrate.

Last night several other musicians showed up, more and more dancers joined in, then some people began singing to the pieces, and for once I did not take my guitar out of my bag, but rather hit the dance floor and spun my partner round and round – or rather, I think that she spun me.

Cool Time at Jack Doyle’s Open Mic in Budapest

July 25, 2014

jack doyle's budapest

jack doyle’s budapest

BUDAPEST – Budapest is one of the coolest, swingingest and musical cities I know of. It is one of the cities with the seemingly youngest hippest populations. There are sectors of the city that look like Berlin ( – or rather, what I imagine Berlin to be like, since I’ve never been there!!!!). But there is the weirdest thing about this city: I have a hard time finding open mics here, year after year. Open mics and jams and their venues last such a short period of time that they disappear fast. Or maybe it is just not in the mentality of the place – but that seems unlikely, since the open mics I HAVE attended have always been great.

Last night, therefore, I was really pleased to see that the open mic I discovered last year – or whenever it was – and that takes place at the Irish pub called Jack Doyle’s, right near the busy pedestrian tourist trap street of Vaci, still exists.

Jack Doyle’s is a pretty typical Irish pub, with the nice touch of a little library and reading area at one end, and a small stage located centrally in the room so providing great viewing and excellent sound for all spectators.

In fact, the sound system last night was really amazing, and I don’t remember it being that good last year. The vocals came through so crisp, so clear, and you could even hear yourself singing and playing. The guitars might have done better to be a little louder, but that was ok.

It turns out that the Irish owner/manager of the place used to work in the Coolin in Paris! It turns out he is friends with John Murphy, the once upon a time MC of the musical activities at the once upon a time Beckett’s Irish pub in Budapest, that was closed in January. So it is a small, small world – well, especially in the international world of Irish pubs!

From a New Pub to an Old, Amazing Times in Historic Heidelberg

July 20, 2014

Heidelberg castle

Heidelberg castle

HEIDELBERG, Germany – Just when I started feeling depressed about the idea of ever finding – or rather not finding – an open mic or jam session in Heidelberg, I stumbled upon an historic, amazing, astounding student pub and restaurant called Zum Seppl, in the old town. It may not have been a classic open mic or open jam joint of the kind I try to find to play in, and I may not have played there myself last night, but not only was there music all evening long by a piano player, there was a sudden eruption later on of restaurant patrons launching into what seemed like traditional German songs, with a freedom and fun attitude and feeling equal only to the best open mics.

I discovered that the extraordinary look and atmosphere in this restaurant, and the amazing cragged wooden tables, were so astounding because this place has been a restaurant since at least 1703! Check out the link above to find out more about it, but for the moment I just want to say that if you ever get a chance to visit Heidelberg, drop in to this student pub. Heidelberg is a university town, and it and its already ruined castle were an inspiration to the German Romantics – including Goethe himself – already a hundred years after this student restaurant was a student restaurant.

It also has a tradition as a brewery, and the beer was great. But the food was fabulous too. I cannot quite describe the atmosphere and look of this place, so take in my iPhone’s look at it all – and the singing.

And Before that, It Was Off to a Karaoke at O’Reilly’s pub in Heidelberg

The night before I had settled for O’Reilly’s pub on the other side of the river, a classic Irish pub of the kind I find all over the world. O’Reilly’s has a karaoke on both Friday and Saturday nights, in the back room. It’s a fabulous little stage, a wonderful amphitheater-like room, and a great MC. The only problem with the place is that with such a great setup, they really should invest in better mics or other sound system materials to make sure that the voices in the karaoke can be heard in all their glory.

I feel as if I have succeeded in singing in karaokes only maybe once before – i.e., whenever I sing covers with my guitar I do them differently than the original, so I usually fail utterly in karaokes. But on Friday night, I found myself deciding to risk singing a song I barely know on my guitar, and have never tried in a karaoke: Born to Run. Somehow, the key was perfect and I was able to sing along in a way that felt wonderfully powerful. It was a real joy, and I fear I might try more karaokes….

Still, I’m overwhelmingly upset that aside from a jazz jam club at Cave 54 that has a jam on Tuesdays, I have still not found any of the kind of open mics that I seek out, and this looks set to be the first time in years that I have failed to find one in a new city I have visited. I chose Heidelberg because I thought it was the most culturally strong city in the area near the Hockenheim racetrack, and I think that remains true. So why is there not more live music in this student center of the region?!?

Wait, Now Where Was I Again? Oh, Yes, From Oxford and the Harcourt to Paris and the Sous Marin on the Mouffe

July 15, 2014

Sous Marin bar Mouffetard

Sous Marin bar Mouffetard

The world has been too much with me of late as I spent my last evening in Oxford playing at the fabulous Harcourt Arms open mic on Sunday night, and then coming to Paris where I got caught up in life of a different kind before stumbling into the open mic of the Rue Mouffetard on Friday night that I had never attended, and then….

Well, getting robbed of my new, three-day-old iPhone 5c as I took a cab from the open mic on the rue Mouffe to an historic mansion in the Marais where I then jammed for a while with interesting new acquaintances before I left and returned the next day to buy an iPhone 5s, since I would not accept that my quality of life be reduced by a thieving taxi driver!

And then yesterday as I wrote my articles for my newspaper in the park Montsouris by using the iPhone 5s as an Internet connection for my MacBook Pro, I then realized tonight – too late – that this fabulous discovery comes at my own expense as I just uploaded the videos you see on this page from the iPhone connection and…used more than two thirds of my annual 4G free Internet connection from Orange France in order to do so!!!!!! (And will have to pay soon to continue using Internet via 4G!!!) So I hope you enjoy these very costly video uploads!


(that’s a smiley of desperation in the guise of a headline, even if it may not appear to be such)

Yes, so, let’s take a step back for a moment after that load of yelling and ranting.

The Harcourt Arms is a fabulous, down-to-earth open mic in Oxford run by the same man who ran the open mic at the Bookbinders Pub for many years, and who has been running another at a pub next to the bus station in recent weeks. It is a classic open mic in a classic British pub, and after now having attended for several years, I can only say that I will return every chance I have. Two songs to start with, and a third if there is still time.

I had discovered the open mic at the Sous Marin bar on the rue Mouffetard a couple of months ago, but I had never actually managed to get there until Friday. It runs every Friday from 9 p.m. until 2 a.m., and it turns out to be a fabulous open mic in the great spirit of “anything goes” and “let’s not worry about the quality of the sound, but just have fun.”

The Sous Marin is a tiny bar with tables against the left wall as you enter from the front door to the tiny bar in the back. You can barely find a place to stand or sit, and it’s everyone shoulder to shoulder and chatting away like mad. But the ambience is absolutely perfect for a “let’s have fun” open mic, and that’s exactly what I did.

The “stage” area is right in front of the door by the street with the big front floor-to-ceiling pane glass window leading into the rue Mouffetard, which is one of my favorite streets in Paris and full of people passing all the time. So it is that the pedestrians and passersby will see the musicians all night, and the bar may thin out but it will never empty out. In short, you feel like you are singing in the street – and you might as well be.

A great new addition to the open mic world of Paris!

Worldwide Open Mic Journey 2014: The Multimedia Consolidation – Oxford Edition

July 14, 2014



My worldwide open mic journey began in China in 2008 after the Formula One race in Shanghai, and little did I know that it was a journey that would continue for six more years and cover most of the globe, every continent except Africa (where I once lived and played music in an open mic decades earlier) and Antarctica, and that it would spawn a book, a blog, an album, a documentary film, numerous podcasts, music videos and other multimedia projects.

This year, 2014, I have decided to finish all of the projects and tie them together into a consolidation of multimedia. As part of my personal impetus to gather it all together for myself, but also put it into perspective on this blog, I have decided to create a page for each city I have visited on the journey, tying together samples of the whole multimedia adventure linked to that city.

So here is the page devoted to tying together the pieces of the open mic adventure that I have lived in Oxford since I first started. At each subsequent Formula One race that I visit this year, I will add a new such page. Keep posted….

Playing at the Fabulous F1 FanZone in London

July 6, 2014

F1 FanZone

F1 FanZone

F1 Fanzone stage in London

F1 Fanzone stage in London

LONDON, England – It was not a dream come true, really, as I never expected to end up on the fabulous covered outdoor stage of the F1 FanZone in Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London playing my songs and some covers to a crowd of F1 fans and with part of the London skyline as backdrop. But that’s precisely what I did late Saturday afternoon, along with Joe Cady on lead guitar and violin.

I had seen the F1 FanZone at previous races, and there had been some talk of me taking to the stage to sing a song or two. But it never happened, until a week or two ago I was invited to take part in the first time the FanZone has set up its bigtop in London, in conjunction with the British Grand Prix, which I came to report on this weekend at Silverstone, an hour’s drive away.

Brad Spurgeon on stage at F1 FanZone in London

Brad Spurgeon on stage at F1 FanZone in London

The FanZone is a fabulous concept, a kind of gaming zone where spectators can test their pit stop skills, their reaction times, their driving acumen and other things all in a portable theme park that travels along with the Formula One series. It is usually set up quite close to the venue – as in Monaco or Abu Dhabi – but this time, it was set up in London in order to allow spectators who could not attend the race to see all the action live on the the giant screens beside the stage.

For that’s one of the main draws of the F1 FanZone: It has the rights to show the live broadcast of the racing action over the weekend. For me the other attraction is clearly that big, beautiful stage where the FanZone also puts on acts throughout the weekend. This weekend, for instance, it had the band of Eddie Jordan, the former Formula One team owner (who pulled out at the last minute and sent a replacement drummer!); like a huge British beatbox band called “Duke,” like a famous cheerleading group of dancers and a band from Leeds called Skinny Living. Oh, and me.

I only got to see a part of the the Skinny Living set, as I had to rush off to collect Joe Cady at just that moment at the Stratford International station, where he had just arrived from his trip over from Paris on the Eurostar. So I managed to get a few bits of video of Skinny Living, but not much more. (Also, it was very windy, and that had some weird effect on the camera – or on me, or on both – so it’s very jerky.)

Joe and I took to the stage for a half-hour set at 4:30, advanced at the last minute to make way to vacate the stage immediately afterwards for the autograph signing of the Formula One reserve driver, Charles Pic.

Unfortunately, the only rain of the day began to fall just as Joe and I took to the stage, so some of the audience ran for cover under the various events tents, but our music was piped in and broadcast throughout the FanZone, and it was a pure fantastic pleasure to play on such a cool stage. The soundmen had come straight from working with a few supergroups at the Glastonbury Festival, and their fabulously professional work made me feel totally at ease, and in my element as I sang my songs and some covers.

Brad Spurgeon after performance at F1 FanZone in London

Brad Spurgeon after performance at F1 FanZone in London

The set list as I recall it (it was written in advance and then improvised as befit the feeling of the moment) was: “Mad World,” “Crazy Lady,” “Borderline,” “Wicked Game,” “What’s Up!” and “Not Much in the Mood.” So that was three covers and three originals, and I had at least three more originals planned, but the Formula One driver arrived in a helicopter and the fans were waiting for their autograph signing, so we cleared the stage and handed it over to the real star of the day.

I was then kindly offered a helicopter ride back to Silverstone by the organizer, but I had an appointment in a nearby record store to buy a bunch of CDs, and then a table waiting at an Indian restaurant. I opted for the latter, and had a leisurely evening in London, no doubt my best visit to the British Grand Prix so far…. (Oh, yes, and the race turned out to be extraordinary too!)

Astounding Night at Catweazle in Oxford – also a Warmup for F1 FanZone in London Tomorrow

July 4, 2014



OXFORD – Arriving in Oxford yesterday for my coverage of the British Grand Prix in nearby Silverstone, I had written down on my mental agenda that there was no way in the world I would miss attending one of the coolest open mics in the world: Catweazle. Little did I know that it would be a classic edition, and that it would finish with a bang as the musicians of a traveling circus now in a stopover in Oxford decided to take to the stage to close off the night – and they drove everyone mad… mad enough for several to drop into a nearby pub afterwards, where the circus musicians could not resist another moment of music on the pub piano….

Catweazle has existed for well over 20 years, and it even spawned a few branch offices in places like London, New York and I think somewhere in Canada. I don’t know how many of those still exist, but the original one, here in Oxford, and run and MC’d by Matt Sage, is the one and only as far as I’m concerned.

What makes it so special? Like any successful open mic, it has to do with the MC and the location and the idea/approach/zeitgeist. Catweazle is run by the smooth talking, funny and worldly Matt – worldly, but very Oxford anchored…. The format is that anything goes, but that it is always done in a purely acoustic set up: no mics for the voice and no amps for the instruments. It’s also poetry, acting, comedy, whatever you want. The singers get one or two songs, the poets one or two poems. I’ve seen bands close off with more numbers when they are exceptional, and that turned out to be the case last night when there was a surprise visit by the musicians of Giffords Circus.

Giffords Circus is a classic European-style one-ring circus with a cross-section of typical acts, including clown, juggling, unicycling and animals. And the band is supercool. These three guys come from similar musical backgrounds, each with his own specialty. But the formation last night was acoustic guitar, percussion and piano and a little singing. Check out the videos – I could have been better placed, but you get a great idea of their wacky-coolness.

And Off to the F1 FanZone in London Where I’ll Perform a Set Tomorrow

F1 Fanzone stage in London

F1 Fanzone stage in London

The F1 FanZone is a racing game, activity and live feed on large screens area that follows Formula One around the world at certain races – I’ve seen them in Abu Dhabi and Monaco and one or two other places – and this weekend they have set up the area at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London, where the Olympics took place. I’ve been invited to perform a set tomorrow, Saturday, at 4:55 p.m., and I’m very hyped up about it. The stage looks fabulous, as you can see in the photo on this page. There will be other very interesting acts, too, like Eddie Jordan’s band tonight, and the Duke beatbox band and another interesting electro-acoustic band from England called Skinny Living. (Jordan, by the way, is a former Formula One team owner who plays the drums and who has played around the world with the series as I have, but generally in much better circumstances than the bars I hang out in!)

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