MONZA, Italy – So far so horrible on the level of my open mic experiences in Milan. Followers of this blog will have noticed – or not – that in the last few years I have mostly been playing on Thursday night at a blues jam in a bar/restaurant called Fermento. Well, this year, this very night in fact, that jam don’t exist no more!!!! But I have had a really, really fun and very cool musical experience in Italy in the least expected of places: In the Formula One paddock in Monza, where I do my day job this weekend at the Italian Grand Prix. How so? It gets kind of long and complicated, so I’ll skip that for the moment, but let me just say that the experience was all about a mini-concert given in the motor home of one of the Formula One teams, by an Italian singer-songwriter by the name of Joan Thiele. I’ll try to get the rest of that story down here in as few words as possible, but that won’t be easy….
So it turns out that the Formula One team, called Manor, has as one of its sponsors, the music app called Shazam. And it turns out that Shazam is doing few little mini concerts around the world in conjunction with Formula One. (Does that sound like an alternative to the tiny desk concerts on NPR??!! In a way it is!) And it turns out that they try to use a local musician each time. So, as the PR woman at Manor knew that I was interested in music, she asked me if I had seen they were going to have a mini-motor-home-concert in Monza tonight. As it turned out, a sucker for the image of a microphone, I had indeed noticed this playbill outside the motorhome not three minutes before.
Joan Thiele – Save Me
So I went to the mini motorhome concert and found that, on the top floor of the motorhome – henceforth to be called a hospitality suite – they had set up a beautiful little playing area for the musician. There was a Fender Stratocaster, a ukulele, a couple of amplifiers, a microphone, and a mixing table. I felt envy and desire to go and play. Until I heard the musician, and said, no, I just want to listen to this. Enter Joan Thiele. What a mix of everything: A father who is Swiss, Italian, Canadian, Colombian, and who knows what all else, and Joan’s mother also a mix from one or two of those areas, and Joan having grown up partly in Colombia, but living in Italy now, and having spent two or three years in England, and learning her trade at open mics etc., this woman of – I think – 22 years old, got up with her Strat and used it as a kind of electro-music surrogate, and her voice too. Vocals that reminded me to a degree of Lana del Ray, and a sound that goes in that same direction – that’s my feeling, but there’s much more (in fact, I had a colleague who thought one of the songs reminded him of, “Down on my knees, I’m beggin’ ya…) – I listened quite hypnotised to the five or six songs she played. (Another colleague said she had Brooke Shield’s eyebrows.)
Joan Thiele – Taxi Driver
And I suddenly found myself forgetting I was in the Formula One paddock. As it turned out, I need not forget this: The Formula One paddock is a hugely diverse place. And it also turns out, then, that in that world, another of the reasons that we had Joan Thiele – who is working on her first album, and her A&R person from Universal Music was there with her – is also represented by Trident Management, which is a management and promotions agency that also owns one of the Formula One support race teams in the series known as GP2, the Trident Motorsport team. So it all suddenly fit together, in a way. Trident also represents two very well-know Italian musicians, Eros Ramazzotti and Jovanotti.
Joan Thiele – Hotline Bling
In any case, the other thing that fits together is that this being within the Formula One paddock, I, as a print media man with a print media pass, cannot use the video I made of Joan’s hypnotizing performance. The Formula One promoter sells audio visual rights to the television and radio companies for huge sums of money, and that then means that print media journalists cannot use any audio visual footage – or sound files – that they gather in the paddock, without fear of huge problems.
So my recordings will have to wait for the future. But in the meantime, I’ve decided to cut and paste some of Joan Thiele’s music videos that I find on the web into the blog to show who it was I got to hear and speak to today in the Formula One paddock and feel that from a musical point of view, my trip to Italy, even if it wreaps no musical stage-time for me, will have been fulfilling in another way! A nice discovery. Check her out, Joan Thiele.
The Morning Exercise Music Philosophy
First, as a reminder, the idea behind this regular – but occasional – column is that for most of my life I avoided classic daily physical exercise because I felt I was able to do without it and it bored me to death. In recent years, I had a kind of flash of aged wisdom and realized that I might bore myself to death if I DON’T exercise. (No time in life for exercise? No! No time in life to NOT exercise!) That did not, however, alleviate the boredom of doing it. So when not doing my nighttime exercise of riding my unicycle around the neighborhood – which does NOT bore me – or jogging – which does bore me to a degree – or riding the apartment cycle in front of the TV, which staves off the boredom – I do my exercises in the morning (sit ups, push ups, etc.) while listening to new (and old) CDs that I acquire from musicians at open mics (and including EPs on SoundCloud or other sites) or from any other source.
I do not pretend to be a music critic, but simply to talk about and describe, and give my impressions of the music I listen to during my morning exercises. Keep in mind that my impressions and opinions, therefore, will have been formed while straining to reach a record number of push ups, sit ups, couch ups, deep knee bends, stretch downs and simply catching my breath. So maybe my opinion will be warped.
The Haunting Cello Suites from Kirk Brandon, with Sam Sansbury
This is the one CD that I did not receive directly from the hands of the musician at an open mic, as I have never met Kirk Brandon. Brandon was the leading member of the post punk, new wave band Theatre of Hate, and then the more mainstream, Spear of Destiny. We’re talking early 1980s Britain, with the former group’s Westworld album rising to 17th position in the British charts. He has had a long, varied and sometimes controversial (can it be any other way for a former punk?) career, including playing in the supergroup Dead Men Walking. I was given this CD, Cello Suites, by a friend in England who knows the cello player, Sam Sansbury, who accompanies Brandon’s guitar and vocals, in a very haunting, minimalistic style of music that holds together from the beginning of the album to the end in an original concept of darkness and light. What the hell do I mean by that? Well, with Brandon’s poetic, but also sometimes outrageous lyrics and declamatory style, you sometimes don’t know whether to laugh, cry or fly. In fact, you do a little bit of all of that. And the CD, although it will never be to everyone’s taste, really invited me to want to listen to it again and again to figure out what it all meant. Ultimately, it’s a unique Kirk Brandon voice and world – definitely cool.
Rusty Golden and His Sober Musical Tour de ForceI discovered Rusty Golden in Bahrain of all places. He was playing keyboards and singing as well as accompanying another singer, at a place fittingly called, Big Texas BBQ & Waffle House. And yet the last thing I expected to find was Rusty Golden, an American musician of the illustrious country and gospel family, his father being a member of The Oak Ridge Boys, a Country Music Hall of Fame band the name of which any music lover in the U.S. knows. Even less did I expect to see that Rusty, after a long and illustrious career with disparate bands, and solo efforts since the early 1970s handed me an album that I found spine-tingling bona fide music that I would first call Rusty Golden, then situate somewhere in the folk-rock, country, pop area. In fact, I kept thinking even of The Band. There’s something about Rusty’s deep down-home vocals, and strong emotional grounding. Did I say “grounding?” This CD is all about recovery, thus the name. And while that’s a theme that you might think you could get tired of over the 13 songs of this album, the answer to that is no way. Working with Scott Baggett as producer, and with some great Nashville musicians – including the legendary bass player, David Hood from Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, who has played with everyone from Cat Stevens to Paul Simon to Traffic, Boz Scaggs and Etta James, this CD is lyrically, emotionally and musically first rate. I wished I could have spent more time in Bahrain listening to more of his stuff live, and learning stuff….
Greg Sherrod’s Mighty Blues, Soul and RocknrollI met this blues, rock, soul singer on his first night in Paris on a bit of a European tour he was doing. He had found an open mic – Some Girls, on the rue de Lappe – through my blog, and we immediately hit it off, enjoying each other’s company, and sets behind the mic. We also exchanged CDs. When I went home and then played this CD, I found a whole new world, or rather, three worlds: As the album’s title says, it is Blues, it is Soul and it is Rock ‘n’ Roll. The album is set up, in fact, with those three categories covered section by section. And of course there is crossover amongst the sections. Some people might define some of the blues as rock, etc. One thing is sure: Greg Sherrod has his own voice, and his own world. But he works well within the traditions, and the whole production is first class. Too bad I could never see him with his band in his home area of Connecticut, amongst his fans…who, by the way, paid for this CD in a very successful crowdfunding operation. Thank goodness! Thank them!
Yann Destal’s Ethereal Vocals and SoundsI met Yann Destal several years ago at the restaurant of the Bus Palladium venue in Paris, and I was immediately captivated by the purity of his vocals and emotional delivery. He’s also an exceptional multi instrumentalist, and one of the few French singers I have ever heard who seems not to have an accent in his English delivery. I quickly learned that he might be playing in an unassuming way in an interesting, but far from massive venue, but he had in fact as a very young man had a worldwide hit in the year 2000: Lady, from his band called Modjo. Since that time, he has gone on a solo career, releasing most recently the album, “Let me be mine,” which I received from him while we were both performing at an open mic in Paris called Mammalia. The album actually dates from 2013, but it is fabulous, haunting production, with his airy vocals, and lyrics and almost a concept feel to this. And if Yann plays mostly cover songs in places like that open mic, or the restaurant of the Bus Palladium, the album consists of 13 of his songs, plus the very original take on The Beatles song, “Oh! Darling,” which is so original that at first you don’t recognize it – then you go, brilliant!
Wrapping Up With Vincent Lafleur, Velasco, Florian Gasquet, Ant Henson, Claudio Zanetti, Tsipora and DTSQ
And so I come to the round up area at the end of this morning exercise report. I’m not rounding up these final CDs because they are in any way lesser in my heart, but because, holy crap, if I don’t get this page out there tonight, who knows how much longer I’ll be sitting on it before I finish it! It has already been so many months!As I write these words, I’m pretty sure that Vincent Lafleur is directing the music orchestra on his piano at the crazy Soirée Buzz, in Paris. Vincent is an accomplished pianist, and I have known him for a few years now hosting one open mic or another, and doing the music behind the Soirée Buzz. But until he gave me a copy of his new CD – Mr. Lafleur, “Des racines, Et…” – I had no idea that he was writing his own songs too. And most importantly, where he may sing in English during most of the open mics, here he has written songs in his own language: French. What did not surprise me was that they were written – and sung by him – in the medium in which he seems to feel most at home: Soul. And if Van Morrison can do Irish soul, why not Mr. Lafleur doing French soul! Ok, Mr. Soul, thanks for the CD and 13 songs to savour…. When I showed up at the open mic of the Féline bar the other day I was told I had just missed an incredible electro pop band from South Korea called DTSQ. But I went out front of the place and found them talking to some musicians and I joined in, and together we shared stories of the various bars and venues where they play in South Korea, since I had gone and played there annually for about four years. We knew of some of the same places. I then offered them my CD, and they offered me theirs. Electro, yes indeed, and shocking. Rhythmic would be the word above all others. They gave me both their latest 2015 CD as well as their tour CD of live stuff. I loved how the former was full of fabulously produced electro static, hard stuff and then suddenly, the final track was this somewhat primitively recorded song with the accompaniment of what sounds like a crappy acoustic guitar from the back of some bar somewhere. It was done on purpose as a contrast, no doubt, and it worked wonders. Ant Henson I met at the open mic at the Noctambules last year that I helped to found and host. He lives in England but came visiting for a while. His CD, “57,” has as its opening song the clever and catchy, “57 Stars,” and that sets the tone for a wonderful collection of 10 songs that Ant told me he had been putting together for years, including something to do with “teenage angst.” Well, the angst was there, but I couldn’t find the “teenage.” It was very catchy CD most of the way through, with the bopping, lively approach that he gets across in his live performances shining through no problem at all.
Now, I said at the beginning of this post that I had 11 CDs, but I think the list grew from when I began to write it, and today when I finished it and post it. I don’t care! I don’t want to count up the number of titles. Suffice it to say that I have four more to talk about, and keep finding myself going into so much detail! So here’s something I’ll try to shorten:
I met Tsipora at the open mic of the Café Jean in Pars, and found her to have a lively, cool voice full of energy and inventiveness. This was clearly confirmed by her CD, “Mes rêves, mes envies,” which again, like Lafleur’s had the lyrics all in French…and was nicely recorded.
Claudio Zaretti’s CD, “Deux Diamants,” let me know what Zanetti was all about after I’ve seen him many times in live performances around Paris, mostly at the old and now defunct “Le Baroc” open mic. Zaretti has crystal clear lyric writing skills, and melodies that place one right in a French tradition that reminds me of people like Michel Delpeche, although I may be totally wrong on that! Zaretti had a small career a few decades ago, and as I understood it, returned fairly recently to music – this is the result – fabulously recorded and produced.
And speaking of French traditions, this CD called “D” by Florian Gasquet, whom I met at the short-lived Zebre Rouge open mic, for me falls right into the tradition of the French chansonnier who focuses so much on the lyrics, story-telling and word painting…. He’s a good guitar player, too. Five songs on this EP, that will take you right into Gasquet’s world.And now, it is always necessary to have a case of “last but not least,” right? In fact, I really really enjoyed this CD by Velasco, an Italian who lives in Paris, and whom I have met on several occasions mostly at the Some Girls open mic near the Bastille. But I did also happen to bump into him in the park in the Place Vendome recently as we were both picnicking! In any case, this CD, called, “Just Begun,” did not really surprise me for its excellent vocals, solid rock backing, and very lively, moving four songs. All in English, we have here a guy like Yann Destal, who has no problem singing or writing in the language of Shakespeare….
Well, that rounds that up. Another morning exercise crop of CDs and SoundClouds, my 11th edition since I started doing this in April of 2013….
I have to just at least acknowledge those two nights, 8 bars, and the end of the O’Sullivan’s Rebel Bar on Sunday night last week. This was a fairly cool open mic run by Etienne Belin, the host of the absolutely phenomenally cool Coolin’ bar open mic that closed down a while back after the bar was bought up by a big conglomerate. The Rebel open mic was a great place to go on Sunday night’s in Paris, but unfortunately it did not consistently reach the highs of the Coolin, and Etienne has said he has many other projects he needs to focus on – like a CD – so that’s the end of that.
Duet at the Green Linnet
It was fabulous night, that last one – which we did not know was the last – and followed on the 4-bar crawl I was doing: I started out at the lnce-monthly Green Linnet bar open mic right near the Coolin’, where it was calmer than the previous month, but still fun – with Stephen Saxo and Andy Bone’s warm MCing – and then I wandered off for a look at the Ondulatoire Mechanique’s big birthday party for a friend. That was also to feature a new band by some friends, but alas, I was too late for the show, and arrived just as they were packing up.
Duet at the Galway
After the Rebel Bar, I then moved on with some friends to the Galway, where there was a duet playing most of the night. Some nice talk, a Kilkenny, and it was back to home for a day of recuperation.
French trio at the Rebel Bar
The CD arrived on Tuesday, and I HAD to get out to the bars again and start handing out some copies. (More on this blog soon about the CD!!!) I started by checking out the Zebre Rouge open mic, which had turned into a real jam session, and because I needed to do several bars, I opted not to stay. I handed out a few CDs at the Zebre Rouge, then went over to finally try out the nearby Féline bar open mic, which has been running for two or three months now.
Her hopes and expectations at the Green Linnet
This could be one of the best open mics in Paris if it gets the crowds it merits – although with so many other open mics on Tuesday nights in Paris, it is not sure that will happen. The stage is absolutely fabulous, and the management loves music. In fact, the management created this fabulous little stage – complete with a kind of proscenium arch style, spotlights and half decent sound system – because he wants more music, clearly.
Jules at the Rebel Bar
I handed out some CDs there and played a long set of maybe five or six songs. Then I went on to the Pigalle Country Club bar’s open mic, not far from the place Pigalle (!!). That is the place where the photo that adorns the cover and back of my CD was taken. So I had to go there and leave a few copies. It was a very lively night, and I was offered the mic, but I wanted to get going to my final destination, the Café Oz bar open mic next to the place Blanche.
Young one at the Green Linnet
I was too late to make the list, but the Oz was buzzing with musicians and music as usual. Some great acts, and a nice environment, and the usual great presentation of the evening by Brislee Adams….
In their heads at the Pigalle Country Club
First at the Feline Bar open mic
Duet at the Café Oz
Duet at the Feline
Another from duet at the Pigalle Country Club
Less nice is the nearly one year that has passed since my last morning exercise music rundown!!! That is pure laziness. Well, no, in fact, the more time that passes, the more CDs, EPs and other musical listenings that I have to choose from, and the more I feel a foreboding about getting it all down! So without further verbiage, here we go.
The Morning Exercise Music Philosophy
As a reminder to readers, the idea behind this regular column is that for most of my life I avoided classic daily physical exercise because I felt I was able to avoid it and it bored me to death. In recent years, I had a kind of flash of aged wisdom and realized that I might bore myself to death if I DON’T exercise. (No time in life for exercise? No! No time in life to NOT exercise!) That did not, however, alleviate the boredom of doing it. So when not doing my nighttime exercise of riding my unicycle around the neighborhood – which does NOT bore me – or jogging – which does bore me to a degree – I do my exercises in the morning (sit ups, push ups, etc.) while listening to new (and old) CDs that I acquire from compilations of magazines, that I also occasionally buy or receive from budding musicians at open mics (and including EPs on SoundCloud or other sites) or from any other source.
I do not pretend to be a music critic, but simply to talk about and describe, and give my impressions of the music I listen to during my morning exercises. Keep in mind that my impressions and opinions, therefore, will have been formed while straining to reach a record number of push ups, sit ups, couch ups, deep knee bends, stretch downs and simply catching my breath. So maybe my opinion will be warped.
The Americana from Malaysia of The Cotton Field ScarecrowesDuring my trip to Kuala Lumpur in March the last thing I expected to find at one of my favorite open mics in Malaysia – or in the world, for that matter – was a Malaysian group that has the Americana feel down to more than a convincing art form. The Cotton Field Scarecrowes (sic), may have a weird spelling for the word scarecrow in the name of their band, but the rest of it is bona fide Americana. Laid back, cool and earthy, deep feeling vocals make this album, “Dancing Hymns And Broken Rhymes” one of my favorite of the year. It is rare that I will listen several times over a long period to a CD from a band I meet in an open mic, but that is the case for this one from The Cotton Field Scarecrowes..
A Duet Made in Heaven, Called, Shall WeSpeaking of open mic connections, one of the cool moments of the end of the year has been discovering a project called “Shall We,” which is a duet composed of Olivier Bernard and Maddie Speed, two people I met in open mics, and whom I introduced to each other at an open mic a few years ago, and who have now created this fabulous duet and released their first Shall We EP on SoundCloud. (And as I write these words Shall We will be making their concert debut in Paris tonight at Le Mecanique Ondulatoire.) Olivier went on to start one of the best open mics in Paris, at the Ptit Bonheur la Chance, and Maddie went off to complete her studies in England. Somehow they met up again and Olivier moved to Berlin, and now, they have given us this fabulous EP that I can best sum up as having a feel of Nick Cave and Kylie Minogue. In fact, when I mentioned that to Olivier, he said they actually do sing the famous “Where the Wild Roses Grow.” In any case, with Olivier’s deep and sandpaper coated voice along with Maddie’s slightly fragile, smooth and gentle voice, the duet is a peaceful, laid back cool listen – with just the edge of vitality that I look for.
Leandro Bronze, the Powerhouse Personality from Brazil
All right, I can see where this post is leading. I’m onto my third open mic related link here. But given that this is the 1000th post on my blog, and most of the posts are related to my open mic adventures, I think it is probably just as well to devote this entire Exercise Music edition to the musicians I have met at the open mics. I mean, I have stacks of compilation CDs from the various music magazines that I had planned to review. I also have some links to music sent to me from PR people eager to get web presence for their clients – but I don’t know them from a hole in the wall, and none of the music has fired me up. So that’s it. I’ve decided this will be a special edition of music from the musicians from open mics that I met this year. As good a way to close out the year – and the 1000th post – as any.While my now ex-girlfriend was running what was for a very brief period this year no doubt the best open mic in Paris (and perhaps fittingly now no longer exists, since I started it with her), at the Noctambules on the Place Pigalle, one of the regular musicians was the boisterous and gentle giant, Leandro Bronze, who had come to Paris from his native Brazil to try his luck in Europe. Leandro, for whom I always had to raise the mic as high as the ceiling, was forever making up in his bright personality for whatever he lacked in the way of English or French. But it was with his onstage presence, his fine guitar playing and warm, boisterous vocals that he really lit up the room – and indeed, the whole Place Pigalle. His self-named EP, available as a CD, is a reflection of all that. Check it out.
Wrapping Up With Jan Sloane, Steve Kessler and Lorin Hart
Aactually, blog posts are supposed to be fairly short, easily digestible things, and I’ve been running on forever here! So I think that I will have to do a quick roundup on the final three performers that I met and whose music I listened to this year on their albums…. Continuing on from the Noctambules open mic mentioned above, another who showed up several times was the British singer songwriter, Jan Sloane. I must admit that it was not until I heard Jan’s CD, Factor 55, that I truly got the gist of Jan’s very typically and specifically British sound and lyrics sense. His music was so highly personal or specific at the open mic, that I was very pleased to finally be able to say, “I get it now!” When I heard his CD and realized where he was coming from.
The first thing that made me turn my head and ears directly toward the stage of the Baroc open mic (hey, wait, that one no longer exists either, and it was the place I introduced Olivier and Maddie a few years ago, oh, and Olivier’s Ptit Bonheur no longer exists… what’s going on?) was when I heard Lorin Hart talking about how she had attended the Woodstock festival of 1969…. That’s a good line for anyone anywhere in the world to announce their presence on stage! But Lorin need not have such a calling card, since her songs, finely crafted and feelingly sung, do the trick. “Love Come Back” is a beautifully crafted album from a woman who has witnessed a hell of a lot of history.Last but not least are the two albums from Steve Kessler and the Saturday June Band. I met Steve at the O’Sullivan’s Rebel Bar open mic – hey, this one is still in existence, and run by Etienne Belin, formerly of the now extinct Coolin open mic! – and I could hear instantly without knowing anything about him that Steve was a true song craftsman, with lots of experience. The Saturday June Band is one of Chicago’s longtime – more than 20 years – local bands that has played all over town, and continues to do so. What I just loved seeing with these CDs is that the one that was released in 2011 “A Better Place,” actually appealed to me more than the one that was released in 2001, just called Saturday June, under the name of Steve Kessler. I love discovering any writers, poets, painters, musicians, filmmakers, anyone at all who does better work 10 years later….
Well, that rounds that up. Another morning exercise crop of CDs and SoundClouds, my tenth edition since I started doing this in April of 2013….
What a joy it was to see that this band that had so impressed me back in 2012 at the Ptit Bonheur la Chance (in its heyday) and when Salt Petal played at the Highlander, had continued to progress, to grow, and to turn into a band that is being hailed by publications across the U.S. – including Billboard, apparently – and is being played on MTV and has won a prize from an international panel of judges in the World Music Battle of the Bands.
The salty memories came back, I checked out my own blog, and found that I had been thoroughly impressed by the freshness and excitement of the two band members who came to Paris in 2012 – Autumn and Rodrigo – and had so enraptured the Ptit Bonheur and the Highlander. And so I checked out the video of the song that won that World Music prize, “Por la Luna.”
I compared it with the videos I had taken at the time, and said, yes, that’s the same two. Now it has turned into a collective with several musicians – and not just the two who were in Paris – and they have added different nationalities, expanding from American and Argentine to Japanese and others, and making a true collective of world music.
The PR reads well too: “Los Angeles is a city of diversity, a place of mixed cultures with a colorful tradition. Few bands better represent this than LA musical collective Salt Petal whose cross border musical influences of Argentinian folk, Brazilian tropicalia, Cumbia and up tempo indie rock blurs ethnic and musical boundaries. The band’s sound is one of the freshest to come out of Los Angeles, showcasing deep South American rhythms with vibrant indie pop harmonies and textures.
“Salt Petal has played high profile venues and festivals such as SXSW, Los Angeles Times’ Festival of Books and Make Music Pasadena. Performing alongside well-known artists including Lila Downs, Grimes, Hello Seahorse!, La Santa Cecilia, Dengue Fever, Las Cafeteras, members of Blondie and Jane’s Addiction. Their videos have been featured on MTV Tr3s and have been written up in Billboard etc.”
But ultimately, as I write these words, I listen to all of the tracks on Salt Petal’s SoundCloud, and it is beautiful stuff, combining the South American – Argentine and Brazilian – rhythms with a very clear American Indie sound, thanks in no small part to Autumn Harrison’s vocals.
They’re even calling it “Tropical Surf Rock.” What do I know? It’s very strange, but I actually find a tiny, tiny little touch of a sound that is similar to the American singer April March, who is known more in France than elsewhere (I think) for her modern version of French Yé Yé music. Is that what this is? An American interpretation of Tropicalia and other South American sounds? Updated? Give it a listen to see. May they pass through Paris again.
UPDATE: Pierre Bensusan has just been nominated in the Independent Music Awards for Best Live Performance for his piece “L’Achimiste,” on his album “Encore,” which honours his 40 years in the music industry – i.e., what the interview and post below are all about. Check out the nomination, and vote, on the link above; this is big stuff, as the judges are major league big….
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.
[gigya src=”http://www.mixcloud.com/media/swf/player/mixcloudLoader.swf” flashvars=”feed=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.mixcloud.com%2Fbradspurgeon%2Finterview-with-pierre-bensusan-by-brad-spurgeon%2F&embed_type=widget_standard” wmode=”opaque” allowscriptaccess=”always” allowfullscreen=”true” width=”480″ height=”480″]
If you have a problem hearing the podcast on Mixcloud, here is a connection to the same podcast but on the WordPress server:
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!:
André Sakellaridès – France (violins and mandolins)
Dietmar Heubner – Germany (classical guitars)
Gaëlle Roffler – France (classical and flamenco guitars)
Bruno Faucompré – France (guitars)
Roland Metzner – Germany (classical guitars)
Guy Butterlin – France (guitars)
The room filled with his presence, and I felt a bolt of something overcome my senses and turn what was until then your average dreary open mic night – even if it was at the legendary open mic where Bob Dylan and all the other 60s icons got their start – into an electrifying experience that left me, for one, not just entertained but also mystified. What’s going? Who is this guy? What’s he doing to the room? Where did he get this voice? Can I find one of those somewhere? How does he do this? And why? What does it represent?
Those were the thoughts going through my teenage mind at this period in my life when although I would have loved to have “been a singer songwriter” I felt far, far from any such ambition. (I would later that night at Gerde’s give a terrible, shaky, non-rhythmic version of Raggle Taggle Gypsies or some other traditional Celtic song, and I don’t know what else – maybe a Bob Dylan, maybe one of my own songs.) So I had all these questions going through my head about who this guy was and what I was feeling in the room. He was clearly known to the MC, so he had been there a few times before – and perhaps even a lot.
I would see the guy, whose full name I learned was Steve Forbert, two or three more times, and on one of those occasions I found myself standing just ahead or just behind him in the line up outside Gerde’s where the musicians waited to sign the list before the open mic. It was cold, and I recall clearly the inner lining and stuffing of his jacket was bursting out at the seams.
I decided it was time to try to find some answers to those questions and I asked him how old he was and how long he had been playing in bars and open mics. He said he was 21 and had been doing it for a couple of years.
Of course, he was not from New York City. He was from Meridian, Mississippi, and his strong southern accent is apparent not only in his speech but in his singing. But I did not learn all that much more about him, and I left New York City myself with many questions about just what it was I had witnessed.
I would go through many travels and trials and spend a four-month period down and out in London busking in Marble Arch (where I would discover the beginnings of a voice), then rent a room with a well known American DJ in London, and spend a period in Iran during the revolution and then finally on my way back from the revolution in Iran, while taking a black cab from the airport to the home of my American DJ friend, I suddenly heard the voice in a song on the radio. It was now 1978 and I recognized the voice instantly and just waited for the DJ on that station to announce the guy’s name: Steve Forbert.
He was, in fact, greeted with the doubtful and unfortunate acclaim of being “the next Bob Dylan.” Like so many others. His song, “Romeo’s Tune,” hit No. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1980.
Sometime in the early 1980s when I was living in Toronto, Forbert came to do a concert and I may or may not have attended the concert – no clear memories – but I do recall being thoroughly surprised to discover that the liner notes of his latest album were written by that DJ friend of mine – Paul Gambaccini – from London, who, it turned out, was a huge fan of Forbert’s. How strange the way people’s paths cross, I thought.
Over the years I have thought back many times to that period in New York City at the open mics, and my meeting with Forbert. I moved to France and for many years ceased to perform in public until I started again nearly five years ago, once again at the open mics, but now feeling much better about my reception as a performer. One of the songs I would try to perform would be that Hank Williams song as I tried to reach the same emotional and melodic heights not of Hank, but of Steve Forbert. Another song I would occasionally try was “Romeo’s Tune.”
In neither case would I ever feel satisfied to have achieved that level of what I recalled from Forbert’s performance, or his recordings on his records, which I later bought.
Living in France I never had a chance to see Forbert again, but I always vowed to go to one of his concerts in England, should I be here when he did a concert. So it was that this weekend I noticed that Forbert was doing a small tour of England that involved not only the famous Glastonbury Festival today, but yesterday, an appearance in Swindon.
Swindon is a 50 minute drive from Oxford, where I am staying during my reporting of the British Grand Prix in Siverstone. So I bought a ticket online for his show at the Swindon Arts Centre, and after my day of work yesterday, I drove off to encounter Forbert again – after 37 years!
It turned out to be a small theater, and as I entered the room to take my seat 10 minutes before the performance was to start, there was Steve already on the stage, tuning up and preparing his equipment. He was up there for the full 10 minutes, just waiting for the spectators to enter and preparing. Now 58 years old, wearing jeans, T-shirt and another open-collar shirt over that, in full possession of all his hair, I felt instantly as if no time had passed whatsoever. Later, during the show, he mentioned there were CDs for sale and asked people to kindly not hold the cover up to his face – in reference to the fact that his youthful face on the CDs would be a contrast to the one he has now. In fact, he looks in great condition, physically trim and fit, and as I said, I had the feeling from my seat in Row F, that I was seeing exactly the same “Little Stevie Orbit” as I saw at Gerde’s Folk City.
The concert was, again, for me in particular a very emotional one, and one in which I was constantly trying to figure out what had changed in his voice, his delivery, his persona, his music. Had anything changed? If not, why was Forbert a big star 30 years ago and today known mostly to aficionados and grey-haired people walking down memory lane?
My conclusion, after two 45-minute (or more) sets of Steve playing his guitar solo and with no electronic effects and entertaining us purely with his magic, rhythmic playing, his harmonic and his raspy voice, was that not much had changed at all, in fact. Unfortunately, before the concert, his assistant announced that Steve preferred that no one make a video or take photographs. So I had to set my Zoom Q3 HD aside and not grace my readers with material to make up their own minds about his performance today.
But what I did come away with was the thought that Steve had not changed that much, but that I now had a new and different interpretation of his voice and of my own encounter with him playing 37 years ago before he became a success. What I realized was that his extremely distinctive raspy and emotional voice is one that may sound different according to the circumstances – be it live or recorded, with a band or solo, in a large room or a small bar – but that behind it all is the same “center” of Steve Forbert’s poetic, musical world.
And that world is all about, guess what? Our passage through life. I bought his re-released first album last night to hear its 11 bonus tracks – and they are fabulous, some outtakes and some live stuff from the time, as well as demo stuff – and on one of the songs I noticed the lyric about time passing and him now being “23 year’s old,” as if he was much older and wiser now…. And there was a lot of talk of this kind of thing last night, too, and I realized that he had not changed – Steve Forbert the observer of life is still there, and still Alive well past Arrival. If he had not changed, then perhaps popular tastes change; but that means they’ll perhaps come around again….
Forbert’s patter with the audience was a blessing, a brilliant way to connect, and I admired how he warmed up both us and himself through the patter, the songs, and as he did, his voice warmed up, got stronger, warmer. He had a constant, excellent, drole rapport with the audience, asked for requests – I asked for the Hank Willams song, but did not get it – and he played many of the old hits, as well as more recent stuff, including stuff from his recent album from last year.
It was admirable to see how he carried these two sets without a band and without electronic looping or other cheating gadgets: Just his own musical world and the songs his fans love.
After the show he came out to sign CDs and speak to the spectators. This gave me the chance to present myself and tell him about meeting him at Gerde’s 37 years before.
“Those were great days, weren’t they?” he said.
They were, I said. And he said something upon my departure about how maybe he’d go through another 35 years and we’d meet again. During the show he had mentioned visiting his dad who was 90 years old. So I told him that his dad was 90, and my dad was 88, and so we’d both get there, wouldn’t we?
During the show, by the way, he said if you don’t have the recent re-editions of his albums then you don’t have the albums, because he has added so many bonus tracks. I can confirm that the Alive on Arrival is definitely worth buying. I’ve been listening to it in my rental car driving around England and I realized that while we were fed the slick, well-produced 10 tracks of the original, there was a treasure trove of more raw but perhaps more pure gold in the outtakes and live stuff….
So it was that I had a very fine collection of CDs from amateur and professional musicians when I returned from that trip, and I have been listening to new music for days during my morning exercises since then. I decided that I should occasionally share my morning exercise listening experiences with readers of this blog when I have no open mic news or videos to exploit.
Please keep in mind that I am ill-educated, and ill-equipped to be a music critic, with a terrible memory for who played what when, for an atrocious lack of care about who actually plays the songs I love and maybe even sing to myself in the shower – after the morning exercises – and that I have no music critic pretensions at all. In fact, I tend to agree with Hemingway that you cannot hunt with the hounds and run with the hares, or whatever it was he said about literary critics.
Still, I have music I like, love and hate. I have my personal impressions, and so like any listener in the world, I can say something about what I listen to, and share my point of view with other non-critics, many readers of this blog. And that is what I’ve decided to do occasionally when there are enough CDs to talk about. Keep in mind also that my impressions and opinions will have been formed while straining to reach a record number of push ups, sit ups, couch ups, stretch downs and simply catching my breath. So maybe my opinion will be warped.Let me start with the three CDs handed out by the Lotus team: Foo Fighters’ Greatest Hits, Depeche Mode Delta Machine and Bowie’s latest album, The Next Day. This was a really interesting listening exercise (no pun intended), as it set off bands from three decades against each other: The 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Of course they all span all decades since then, but for me the clear, clear, clear winner was Bowie. In a word, the Foo Fighters album just sounded like background music to me. Sorry, but I really like original melodies and vocals, and … well, this was just the same rhythmic rumble from beginning to end. Nothing more to say on that one. I listened to it once, and may listen again in some faraway future. But I just don’t see the point.
Right, so between the Depeche Mode and the Bowie? I was really excited about the double CD of Depeche Mode, and when I started listening to it I could clearly hear sharp, strident, cutting beats and… then it all sounded like elevator music. There was nothing on this album that told me this band was still capable of making hits like some of the ones it did in the 1980s. Weirdly, very weirdly, it all sounded exactly like the Depeche Mode of the 1980s, but without anything that stands out. Horribly, in fact, I felt like the album could have been made in the 1980s. What was the point? How had they grown??? What had they done all those years? The vocals remain as fresh as 30 years ago. No loss of voice here. But this was cookie-cutter 1980s Depeche Mode without the originality. I listened once, then started listening a second time on another day, and said, “Nope.”
Jeez. I’m really being scathing here, and I’m wondering how intelligent this exercise really is. After all, I’m sounding as nasty as a critic! But since my words count for nothing, and as a musician I have a following of about 10, rather than 10 million, what the hell! Morning exercises criticism, right?
OK. So on to the Bowie. The first time I listened, I was pleased to hear it sounded like Bowie. I had actually read another critic saying in one of the aforementioned magazines, however, that Bowie had not developed anything new on this, and we were hearing something that might have been done in the late 1970s. In a way, I agreed. But the production of the album, and again, the quality of the vocals – Bowie’s voice is still there, mostly – were pleasing. So although I was not overly impressed, I was adequately impressed.
I also remembered that historically, whenever a new Bowie would come out, I’d usually write it off…. only to love it with time. So I decided to put it on again another day. Especially as a way of comparing to the Depeche Mode. I then started listening more closely to the lyrics, and also noticing the differentiation between the melodies and rhythms, and I said, “No, this is not ‘all the same’, and no, he could not have done these lyrics in the 1970s. This is now. This is new. This is Bowie.” I listened to it a third time, another day. And it brought more to me, and grew on me, and I have to say that the oldest musician amongst these three bands, the dinosaur amongst them, he’s the one who produced the most interesting album. And a really nice album. I will listen to it again. Oh, I’m not completely without my criticisms. What is it, I asked myself, about these geriatric giants that they are writing songs about, in Bowie’s case, Valentine’s Day, and in Paul Simon’s case on his album a couple of years ago, Christmas Day…? Both must be the worst tracks. But that Simon album was magnificent – for me, better than the Bowie. But in both cases, it warmed my morning exercise muscles, to say nothing of my soul, and made me feel as if there was hope in aging rockers….
A Formula One journalist friend of mine from Canada passed on a CD from a friend of his while I was in Malaysia. The musician is Peter Dick, and he is a pianist, and a fan of Formula One. His CD, based on some sessions he did in Hart House at the University of Toronto, is called “String Theory,” and it is a mixture of some kind of contemporary music and jazz, including one song by Bill Evans. I really love this kind of piano, which reminded me slightly of Keith Jarrett. One of the songs, bizarrely, or rather, fittingly, is called “Ayrton,” after Ayrton Senna, the deceased Formula One driver. I really liked the CD, but unfortunately, there are two tracks that I will have to program OUT of my playlist. These are the two tracks where Dick decides to “sing.” Sorry, but the singing style and lyrics just didn’t do it for me, and completely killed their respective tracks. The rest of Dick’s compositions were very cool, laid back, intricate listening.
When I did that fabulous open mic in Malaysia in the middle of the suburbs at a place I had a hard time getting a cab driver to find for me, there was a musician named Shaneil Devaser, who I quite liked during the evening. He had original compositions, a varied style, nice guitar playing and singing range. Clever lyrics, clever songs. So as I left the open mic, I gladly bought a copy of his CD EP, simply named after himself. It was fun to listen to it and hear how some of the songs sounded in a recording environment and sometimes with other instruments rather than just his vocals and guitar as he did live.Finally, upon my return to Paris while I attended the Tennessee Bar open mic the very day I had left Malaysia that morning, I had just arrived at the open mic and found a guy taking to the stage who came from Nashville. I was involved in conversations with friends who greeted me after my two week absence, but I had to stop talking and record the guy. His voice was very strong, and he had nice guitar work, and some catchy sounding country-like tunes. His name was Anthony Bernhauser, and afterwards he came up to me and introduced himself as someone who had read this blog and who had sent me an email asking me about places to play in Paris. I remembered him instantly, and he gave me his CD. Beautifully produced, you can really hear the strength and richness of his guitar, and it’s a real feel of Nashville, and current Americana singer songwriter stuff – I think, anyway….
Well, that’s it. Strange, I’ve been vicious with a couple of the most successful bands – although not with THE most successful. So maybe that means something. Personally, it was just the way I truly felt about this crop of CDs. But I never did like exercising….
Bonus track: While I’m at this, I might as well mention another CD that I received before my two week trip to Australia and Malaysia, even if it is out of synch time wise with these in terms of when I got it…. This is one from a guy I have seen play recently in Paris open mics, but who I first saw playing at Earle Holmes’s open mic at the Truskell when the guy was maybe 15 years old. This the EP of Josh Savage, called Mountains in Hurricanes. There are some very catchy lyrics here, and Josh could always sing. Nice move.