CHATEAU-THIERRY, France – Last weekend Pierre Bensusan held a fabulous two-day event outside his adopted home town of Chateau-Thierry, located about an hour’s drive east of Paris, where he has lived for the last 21 years. They called it the 1st Salon International de Lutherie, and it consisted of an exhibition of guitars, mandolins and violins built by luthiers from around Europe, all of whom are friends of Pierre. For his part, in addition to speaking to and meeting the public in the exhibition, Pierre put on a concert on Saturday night in the wonderful concert hall in the same building where the salon took place.
In addition to luthiers from around France and Germany (see my list of those present below), there was, of course, the presence of the Lowden Guitar company of Northern Ireland, showing off the latest prototype for the second Pierre Bensusan signature model guitar. Aaron Lowden, the son of George Lowden, who is the company founder, was there to talk about the guitar, which is a modern copy of the original 1978 Lowden that Pierre used for 25 years. It was made to honor the 40th anniversary of Bensusan’s career as a professional musician, which also happens to be the 40th anniversary for Lowden Guitars, by the way.
I’m hoping to write more about this craft of lutherie in some future article somewhere, but my main goal for this post was to put up on my blog the wonderful interview that I had with Pierre during the salon, which I have recorded and dressed up a little – with sounds I recorded of Pierre playing from the concert the night before, and other surprises – in the form of a podcast.
The interview was a broad, wide-ranging talk about his life and music to mark that 40th anniversary of his career as a professional musician. He started out at age 16 at the American Center hootenanny in Paris, and today, at 56, he is roaming the world and earning honours and fans everywhere. He will be performing a monthlong, 50-date series of concerts in the United States starting next week, and is just finishing up a 21-date tour of France, his first here in 25 years.
I’m also hoping to make this podcast the first in a series that I intend to do throughout the year as I embark on my sixth worldwide musical adventure around the world, starting with Melbourne, Australia, next week. So I’m not going to write more about the concert or the festival of lutherie. Just listen to the podcast – Pierre was a fabulous interview subject!
Here, though, is a list of some of the luthiers who were present at the salon. I highly recommend you check out some of these instruments. It was a real dream to play some of them – and frustrating, too, if you happen to be a poor musician!:
PARIS – Now that was fun. Really fun. And, actually, funny too. I rarely ever go to stand up comedy open mics, and when I do go it is usually because I have heard that there is a chance to play music as well, and I’m desperate to play a song or two. Last night, it was neither open mic nor desperation on my part, but I ended up attending a very cool evening of comedy by a Paris group of comedians, and I ended up playing a bit of music too.
That invitation came after I had thoroughly and relaxedly enjoyed the first half of the evening. Needless to say, while I accepted to play my music for the end of the evening, I spent most of the rest of the evening in a state of nervous stress about playing in a medieval cellar with arched ceilings amidst a group of people who came to laugh, not cry! My experience in the past of playing music during comedy nights is that either the audience has been so laughed out by the time I get to the stage that they’re ready to laugh at my sorrowful sounds of music and it doesn’t go over so well, or I have laughed so much that I cannot reach the depths of my soul to find those sorrowful sounds of music and emotion and I end up wishing I hadn’t come.
Last night would turn out to have none of that existential problem once I got on stage. For the comedians had been of a high and entertaining level from the beginning, and the room itself is an absolutely fabulous one. I had actually played in a music open mic in this bar three or more years ago on a single-night open mic that started there and then moved to the Ptit Bonheur la Chance. For this bar was called La Pomme d’Eve, and it is located on the rue Laplace, just up the street from what used to be called the Ptit Bonheur la Chance and is now La Tireuse.
Pomme d’Eve Walls
The Exceptional Location of the Pomme d’Eve Historical Monument of a Bar
And the Pomme d’Eve is a bar that everyone in Paris should go and visit at least once, because it is a 12th Century Gothic cellar that is so impressive in its architecture and history, that it has been classified as an historic monument by the French government. The bar is run by a congenial South African named George, and he loves putting on shows: The stage is fabulous, and the feel of the place is really 1960s beatnik New York. That is what inspired me to sing “Just Like a Woman,” and my own song, “Crazy Lady.” Raphaëlle did a couple of her own songs, an it was a pleasure to hear her sing without a mic in these intimate surroundings.
The comedy night was a real pleasure as well, as I said, and is an excellent idea put together by Olivier Bergot et Mikaël Bianic. Bergot, by the way, was one of my favorite of the evenings performers, as he had a very funny sketch about being an alcoholic!
Someone ought to try doing a worldwide open mic comedy guide and blog like this one I do mostly about music open mics. That would be a real adventure! Of course, the advantage of music is that you don’t have to speak the local language to be understood…. Which brings up a point about my brief videos from last night: My apologies to readers who do not speak French….
PARIS – I just finished a day of work at the office, and I find myself having to rush off for a meal before another, early-starting open mic tonight. That means I have no time whatsoever to do a blog item about the absolutely wonderful open mic I attended last night. But because it was so absolutely wonderful, I desperately want to write about it here – i.e., just mark it down in this blog, mark my territory, place it in the page before time takes over with another few adventures….
So with that in mind, and feeling desperate about being late for my dinner rendezvous and not being able to write anything that will live up to the great atmosphere of last night’s open mic, it suddenly occurred to me that, hey, how long does it really take to write a blog item just to get SOMETHING down on paper!?! (On the screen, not paper….) So then I thought of a challenge: Give myself a limit of three minutes and that’s the end of it! It doesn’t cost much in the grand scheme of things, maybe not even the metro I have to catch!
OK, but here we are now and I realize that it has taken me three minutes to write the above two paragraphs and I am losing my own self-imposed challenge! So I have to conclude this now before a fourth minute passes. IE, the open mic in question was the Wednesday night vocal jam session of the Swan Bar in Montparnasse, and despite it having a theme of jazz standards, it is entirely open to just about every kind of music, as you will see from the few videos I managed to take (and upload earlier in the day).
This is a very fun open mic of a different format, and much of the fun is thanks to the incredibly wonderful hosting of Sheldon Forrest, the pianist MC, organizer of the open mic who plays along with singers who do not otherwise play an instrument. Bring your sheet music and play with Sheldon, and now a sax or clarinet man and bassist. Or if you have a guitar or for that matter a harp, you can go and play that!
Anyway, I have now failed because that fourth minute has come and gone and I MUST go! Bear with me if you read through all this crap that I have laid down on the screen in the last four minutes and a bit more.
PARIS – Another night at the often wild and wacky Baroc bar in the Belleville part of Paris, that’s today’s theme. Although never abandoning this open mic location, I had in the last couple of years taken a little break from it as a regular hangout. But I’ve been going regularly lately, and not regretting much – except maybe that there could be a few more musicians. But not too many more, please!
Because at the moment, it is really possible to show up at a human hour – say 8:30-9:00 PM – and find a spot on the list to play. The interesting thing about this open mic, as I’ve said in the recent past, is the vast, broad cross-section of bar habitués. You are as likely to find some hip young band or musician as the local barflies who look like they just made it back from skidrow….
And those ones are, as any bar musician knows, amongst the most enthusiastic audience members. There is often a festive spirit at the Baroc, with dancing patrons in front of the stage area during more lively moments of the open mic.
Last night had a few of the regular performers of recent times, but also an unusual duet of two young women who specialized in playing an old man’s blues – can’t remember the bluesman in question – with one woman singing and the other plucking her cello, since neither appeared able to play guitar – I assume!
PARIS – This has been probably the lowest month ever in terms of me updating my blog. I should be ashamed of myself, or feeling guilty, or thinking that I’m lax, undisciplined, a scoundrel in the world of blogs who is incapable of updating on a regular basis. In fact, I’m celebrating! For a month of February the blog has never had more page views. The reason? Because my Thumbnail Guide of Open Mics Around the World continues to feed the blog and give it action and interest with evergreen material. But most of all: Because I am able to announce that I will continue once again this year my 20-country (at least) around-the-world open mic and open jam session adventure. It will all start in exactly two weeks from today with a return to Melbourne, and then will follow – as usual – the Formula One world championship car racing events as I continue to make my annual trip around the world to cover that series AND continue my exploration of the world’s open mics and open jam sessions. And I will update the open mic guides that I inaugurated last year, and actually, a few years before that with the Thumbnail Guide to Paris Open Mics and Jam Sessions. Is this a crap post or what?!?! Answer: It’s a blog and I can do what I want, and have fun with writing! Thanks for your ongoing interest!
PS: One or two of you might have noticed that I’m in the process of updating the look of the blog as well – although it is far from my desired end-result….
PPS: Oh, yes, I forgot to mention: This is the 800th post on this blog since I began it almost exactly 4 years ago. (We’re a week or two shy of that anniversary.)
MONTREUIL – There has been a big blank hole on this blog for the past several days as I have just spent four of the best and most important days of my life, rehearsing for a day, and then spending three days in a studio recording five songs, four of mine and a cover. That may sound like hyperbole or exaggeration, but really, I mean it. It was certainly four of the most enriching days I’ve had, and I am hugely impatient to show the results, but I won’t do that until the five tracks are all properly mixed. So in the meantime, just a quick post to say what I was up to.
It was Part II of a project I started nearly four years ago when I went into the studio to record four songs as part of my worldwide open mic and musical adventure, another media aspect to my open mic film, open mic book and this blog – i.e., the music I have written and been singing during this period. My goal is to do a full CD, and I now have nine songs recorded in full band mode, and I will add one or two in solo acoustic and maybe one live from an open mic somewhere…. I will put up links below to the first four recordings, from 2010, which I recorded live in the Point Ephemere in Paris. As soon as I have the mixes to the stuff I did this week, I’ll make that available somehow too!
But for the moment, a bit more on this week: Aside from my own guitar playing, singing and songwriting, another one thing that ties together the recording sessions from 2010 and this week is the presence on the tracks of the lead guitar player, Félix Beguin. I have spoken about Félix frequently on this blog, as he is also the lead guitarist of the bands The Burnin’ Jacks and Velvet Veins. These are two fabulous up-and-coming young French bands, the former of which had one of its songs featured on the Rock&Folk compilation CD last month. Raphaëlle – whose video “Mississippi” I put up last week – also contributed chorus and a fabulous vocal part on one of the songs.
And anyway, this time, Félix did much, much more than just play lead guitar on my songs as he did three and a half years ago – by the way, we first played together at the Lizard Lounge open mic in November 2008! – as he played lead and keyboards and did some backup vocals, and he engineered, recorded and even basically produced the five songs we did this week, along with Scott Bricklin and Jeremy Norris. Norris is the drummer for both of the aforementioned groups, and Bricklin is an American musician from Philadelphia who has lived in France for a decade now, and who has an illustrious history of making music – he is a multi-instrumentalist, and a singer-songwriter (I have one of his albums on which he plays basically all instruments).
Working with these three guys was superb in many ways, but not the least interesting aspect to it – which helps in the music – is that they are all used to working not only with each other, but also at the studio where we recorded: Melodium Studios in Montreuil, which is a funky neighborhood located just outside of Paris. Félix and Scott are both regular engineers at the studio, so everyone knew each other and the working environment, and it paid off in the music. In fact, it was three days of bliss in this amazing, spacious cellar studio that has several rooms, some really nice equipment and a warm and highly competent staff.
The Amazing Leslie Speaker at the Melodium Studios in Montreuil
One of the high moments in terms of the equipment was when they pulled out the absolutely wonderful antique Leslie speaker and ran the keyboards through that, and then later ran some vocal chorus stuff through it like the Beatles first did in the mid-60s. The Leslie, devised in the 1930s, uses a rotating fan-like device to distort the sound waves and give it a sound like an organ.
Cool cool Leslie in action in Melodium studios
Together, we recorded my songs “Borderline,” “Crazy Lady,” “When You’re Gone Away,” and “If I Only Had You.” For the cover song, we recorded “Mad World,” which I have been playing for a few years, and notably, with Félix for about four years on occasion. But this time, this is a monster of a cover song, unlike any version I know of “Mad World,” and I can’t wait to show it here!
In the meantime, here are the songs I recorded live at the Point Ephemere nearly four years ago. Believe me, the quality of the new ones is incomparable. (I feel like I’m boasting without showing the result – which is an empty boast – but I’m sooooo excited!)
Lighter, shrimpy, easy to download but less good quality file versions of my 2010 live recordings at the Point Ephemere in Paris. These are NOT the studio recordings of five different songs that I just did at the Melodium, and on these recordings Félix played lead on “Memories” and “Except Her Heart,” while Laurent Zarby played lead on “Let Me Know,” and “Since You Left Me”:
PARIS – Among the many touching and deeply emotional moments of Pierre Benususan‘s concert at the Essaion theater in Paris last night, was that accompanying the third or so piece this virtuoso guitarist played, when he recounted the story of how his career took off in the United States several decades ago. It was Joan Baez and Pete Seeger, who wrote a letter to the American authorities to back up his demand to be able to go and work in the U.S. Yes, Pete Seeger, who died last week at the age of 94 after one of the most important careers in American folk music.
Bensusan, who is celebrating 40 years of a career as a professional musician this year in CDs and a series of concerts around the world (of which the concert at the Essaion is his Paris leg – and there are two more to go, tonight and tomorrow night), is himself on a clear trajectory as a legendary musician. He finished his anecdote by talking about how he ended up at a festival with Seeger, dining next to him, and hearing the great musician say that music “needs musicians like you.” The anecdote was not told as a boast, Bensusan was clearly emotionally humbled by the presence of Seeger, and his words had clearly touched Bensusan. What Seeger may not have known, though, or what may not have been immediately apparent at the time, is that there are not musicians like Bensusan. There is only Bensusan….
Oh, there was once a Michael Hedges, who by the the way, once wrote a piece called “Bensusan,” and Bensusan himself, last night in Paris played a song he dedicated to Michael Hedges. But Hedges had his style, and Bensusan has his. This French troubadour, whom I have written about in previous blog posts, has developed such a massive repertoire of personal compositions and mixtures of styles, that I’ve never personally heard, seen or heard of another guitarist on this level and with this particular voice. And speaking of voices, Bensusan also occasionally uses his vocal chords, and last night in addition to some of the mad moments of guitar fingerpicking virtuoso stuff there were some mad moments of vocal scat in which Bensusan entirely looses himself in infectious pleasure – one of those fun moments being when for his first encore he returned to the mic and did a vocal scat without touching his guitar. For the second encore he returned, picked up the guitar, and said something like: “OK, with the guitar then….”
I’ve noticed that whenever I do a post about Pierre Bensusan I tend to write glowing accounts that could almost be taken for hyperbole. So I think I will cut this one short, and let readers make up their own minds about what a great guitarist this is – amongst his many laurels were Guitar Player magazine’s crowning him the greatest World Music Guitarist, in 2008 – by looking at a few moments I managed to capture on video last night.
Just Two Nights Left to Attend Bensusan’s Concert in Paris