An incredible bit of synchronicity or something else has come about recently between the troupe of TAC Teatro and me. We are working on our first full-blown play, and in recent weeks there has been a sudden incorporation of a couple of bits of music that I had nothing to do with but that lie at the heart of my life-long musical loves.
As it turns out, both of the pieces were introduced by the same member of the company. But the skills and talents that we have in the company mean that the music can be performed to a degree that I never imagined likely. I mean, I knew we have great musicians in the company, but here I am talking about Irish music! And the company is made mostly of Italian and French actors and musicians.
So how amazing it was when over recent rehearsal days the troupe began playing and incorporating into the play the famous Irish piece of music dating back to the 1930s – and one of the most popular pieces of the last century – called “Cooley’s Reel.”
Anyway, I made a video of the musicians rehearsing the piece (and I added into the video some of the first exploratory acrobatic workout we did with the ladder that is also part of the show – check it out, above). It was only one of a handful of the first efforts to play the reel, so there are a few minor moments off the rails, but it sure sounds great to me already! Bizarrely, for me, I have found myself playing the bongo a little bit like a Bodhran, rather than me doing my usual musical instrument, the guitar. My Seagull guitar is here played by Pacôme Puech – I didn’t have the confidence to get the rhythm right on the guitar – and on flute is Marine Lefèvre, and on fiddle is Marina Meinero.
The other bit of music that I was stunned to find one of the actors – Marine – wanted to incorporate somehow in the show was “Only Our Rivers Run Free,” which I also first heard through Christy Moore’s version in Planxty. It is one of the few traditional Irish songs that I occasionally have the guts to try to do myself on stage, as to me if feels like a great Bob Dylan protest song, and I try to ignore that I’m not Irish and I can attack it like a Dylan cover.
It was written in 1965 by Mickey McConnell, who was only 18 years old at the time. He went on to have a career as a journalist at the Irish Times, before decided in his 40s to return to a career in music. Extraordinary. The poetry of the song is astounding, and even more so when you realize it was written by an 18-year-old. I love that line, “are you gone like the snows of last winter?”
So that’s the update from my adventures at TAC Teatro. In the meantime, I hope the snows of winter go fast and I’ll be able to post some great thing about the completed show in April! In the meantime, we will be inviting the public to check out our progress in our “second stage” open-door event on 29 February, as the poster at the top of this post explains….
PARIS – Ultimately, my Saturday in Paris yesterday was a very personal thing, but in another way, it belongs entirely on this blog as it started with some themes recently expressed here, and it ended with a surprise musical interlude of the kind I love.
So I went to the Bilipo, thumbed the pages of the mystery magazines from England, France and the U.S. and then I spoke to Catherine Chauchard, the longtime director of the library. It turned out that we shared a passion for the band Moriarty, and ended up talking as much about music as crime literature.
From there I went off towards the Seine and ended up stopping for a salad in the park of the St. Julien le Pauvre church next to the oldest tree in Paris, planted in 1602. This, of course, was right next to Shakespeare and Company, and I decided I must buy a copy of the New York Review of Books. So I went there and started entering this great bookshop only to find a hand and a voice preventing our passage: “Sorry, there is a line up of people here and you’ll have to wait in line before entering.” I turned to see this lineup of around 10 or so people, and I looked in the store to try to see what people were lining up for, and I couldn’t figure it out, so I asked.
“There are currently too many people in the shop, so you have to wait in line until your turn,” was the response.
Huh? I looked in the shop and found that it had fewer people in it than many times I had visited, and fewer than many stores. Clearly, though, the guy at the door did not seem to be wanting to get into a discussion of what this new policy was all about, and the last thing on earth I wanted to do was to wait in line as if I was visiting one of the seven wonders of the world, when in fact I had freely entered the bookshop for 30 years…. So I told the guy I wasn’t going to wait and I went off to the Abbey Bookshop, even if they don’t carry the New York Review of Books. Despite the even more cramped quarters of the Abbey, I’d never been told to wait in line….
So I went to the Abbey, which of course, I spoke about in two recent posts here. The place was buzzing along with business, and rather than being told to wait in a lineup to get into the mausoleum, Brian Spence, the owner, greeted us by saying immediately, “Oh, just in time for a cup of coffee with maple sirup!” So I had a cup of coffee with maple sirup and I explored the bookshop, descending into the cave which Brian referred to as the scene of the crime – in reference to my short story. And while I did not buy an NYRB at Shakespeare and Company, I did decide to ask Brian for some book recommendations, and I left with three (A Steinbeck, a Patrick Leigh Fermor and Paul Auster)…. Now does this not show how effective good customer treatment is in business?!
I moved on to eat a meal at a Thailand restaurant, the Lao Lane Xang. The food was great. Oh, and on the way to the restaurant, I don’t want to forget to mention, I explored some wonderful parts of Paris, including the Chateau de la Reine Blanche, just off the Avenue des Gobelins…. What a city!!
I decided to make a very brief visit to The Quiet Man pub since it reminded me of a similar kind of jam in Montreal that I had attended, the one at Grumpy’s. Whereas Grumpy’s is all about bluegrass, the Quiet Man is all about Irish music…played by French people. They all sit around a table in the basement room every Saturday evening and play jigs and reels, with violins, concertinas, guitars, flutes, etc.
I stayed there for a half a pint of beer and then headed off to call it a night, oh, and perhaps catch some fireworks for a Bastille Day display, if there were to be any the night before the 14th…. On the walk away from there, however, I suddenly heard someone playing an acoustic guitar and singing, and I heard an accompanying violin, and I turned my head and looked right, into a pub called The Green Linnet. It was another Irish pub, and the man singing finished his song and saw me looking in and invited us in… I asked if it was an open mic, and he said, “No,” but the violinist indicated that maybe I wanted to play, and he asked, and as I was trying to figure out what to do, I noticed a man at the bar waving to me.
I suddenly realized that I had recognized the guy without it really clicking in my head: It was Chris Kenna, an amazing musician from Australia who lives in Paris and performs regularly in bars mostly in around the 11th Arrondissement. I had met him first when he was hosting an open mic in that area. Now he performs quite a bit with a violinist named Melissa Cox, as “Kenna and Cox,” and I suddenly realized this was the woman playing behind the mic with the other singer man (as I had in fact met her before too).
So I stopped for a beer here, and they invited me to go up and play some songs after their break. So I played three songs: “Mad World,” “Borderline” and in order to suit the place, I sang “Raggle Taggle Gypsies,” which I rarely do anywhere. I was fantastically fun to have this impromptu, unexpected moment, and I had a nice conversation with Chris and Melissa. Then Chris and Melissa took to the stage and played a few songs, Chris with his deep, raspy voice that seems tailor-made for the blues, and a few other styles too…. They sounded great together.
I left, and never did see any fireworks, but all in all, I realized, it was the ultimate day in the streets of Paris. How could it have been any better and with more unexpected moments and adventures!!! It felt like the greatest decision to wander about Paris rather than drive three hours to Deauville and three hours back, but I’d still have loved to stick my feet in the sea….
Oh, yes, and if you read this far, you might have also realized that I never did make it to the Musée d’Orsay, and in the end, that matters little. Perhaps all of life’s journey is kind of like this???
Having ended up falling into this Irish night on Friday by accident in a bar near the Gare du Nord, it was only natural that I seek out an Irish place the following night. Only natural, really, mainly, because a), the band at the first place told me about the second place and that there was a jam on Saturday nights, and b), that I had actually already heard of this other mainstay bar of Irish traditional music, called Quiet Man.
I had first heard about the Quiet Man some time over the last two years from an adept of Medieval costume party dance nights, and I must say that I had a slight feeling of reticence regarding the Quiet Man, coming from a costume party man. I feared this may well be some kind of “Danny Boy” Irish charade. But having then on Friday heard these great French Irish trad musicians at the Bouquet du Nord and learning from them that the Quiet Man held an open jam for Irish music on Wednesdays and Saturdays, I said to myself that I could not decently call this blog a comprehensive overview of the Paris open mic scene without checking out all of the Irish jams and open mics.
So it was that I went with great excitement and pleasure to the Quiet Man, located near the Rambuteau metro. I walked in to find a nearly empty ground floor and I had a sudden recollection of having perhaps already showed up at this place to find the evening cancelled – and given all the cancelled open mics of late, I feared I had met with another. Then I heard the faint sound of Irish music that seemed to come not from a speaker, but from behind closed doors.
“The music is downstairs,” said the barman after I inquired.
I ordered a pint, went down the steep stairs, and found myself in another world. This felt completely like some Irish pub, in the small confines of the basement room with the rafters ringing with the reels and jigs – to quote a line from “Peter’s Song” by the Sands Family – and it also reminded me a little of a jam session I love in Sao Paulo, where all the musicians sit around a central table and join in and out of the jam all night long.
There were bodhrans, fiddles, guitars, whistles and flutes. There was a long necked mandolin or bouzouki and other mandolins as well. There was a concertina. There was just about everything you can imagine – except vocals. On this, my second foray into Irish music nights in Paris, I have found on each occasion that singing is not a part of the recipe. In a way I respect this, since while so many French people sing English pop and rock music and say to hell with their sharp accents, such a thing with traditional Irish music just won’t sit right.
But that left me in a quandary. I was importuned, invited, greeted by gesture and request, to join in the circle of musicians right from the start. They were all open arms, having seen my guitar case. But I knew immediately what my limitations are: I can play songs and sing them. But I cannot join in an Irish music jam of jigs and reels without someone showing me every chord, and more reasonably, giving me sheet music with the chords on them.
So I said I would not join in immediately, and I sat off to the side and watched and videoed. But where, I thought, where and how could I have anything to do with this? No one sang. No songs were done – just jigs and reels and all the other fast moving lilting Irish music stuff that I feel is the equivalent to the blues jam, which lends itself to multiple musicians joining in and dropping out as they please. But a song?
Finally, after a couple of hours – the jam goes on until closing time at 2 AM – I interrupted and asked if it was acceptable to sing a song and play and have people join in if they could? Irish songs, of course.
“Yes, of course!”
So I sat down and sang “Only Our Rivers,” then “Raggle Taggle Gypsies,” and then I took my leave, sensing, nevertheless that I was taking away from the real purpose of the evening – a jam. But they played along with me and many seemed to enjoy, and one or two sang a little along with me for a few verses. Then at the end of the evening when there were only three musicians of the original dozen or so left, I was invited back to join them to play more.
I tried some other traditional songs – High Germany, and then Cunla, and then The Star of the County Down – and then I opted for a modern Irish song, and belted out Crazy Love by Van Morrison, to which they played fiddle, guitar and something else …. At the very end of the night when only the violin player and a couple of women spectators remained, I decided to shake up the status quo and sang, “What’s Up!” and promptly broke a guitar string for the first time in months…. there must have been a signal there somewhere. But this Quiet Man is definitely worth checking out. A wonderful atmosphere, a truly music loving pub.
I was hunting around for open mics on Friday night after finding that the one I really wanted to go to was cruelly cancelled by its slacker organizers – just kidding, I always like to hate them when they cancel an open mic – and I found a new list of open mics on a Facebook page devoted to jam sessions and open mics in Paris. So I showed up at the Bouquet du Nord, a café near the Gare du Nord, only to find that I had been massively led astray. There was no open mic.
Moreover, in approaching the café I had seen this brightly-lit, typical French café, and I thought, “Looks like there is no open mic, and even if there was one, what kind of trash would it be?” So I enter the place more than sceptically and start thinking about the next place on that list. And I find people at the bar who ignore me, and I see, nevertheless, a little stage-like area set up, a guitar, mic, amps, etc.
“No,” said a guy at the bar I queried. “There is no open mic here. It is just Irish music tonight.”
“We have gypsy jazz on one night, and we have Irish music on the second Friday of the month, and tonight it is Irish music,” he explained. “And it is not really an open mic.”
I said what a shame it was I came all the way over there on the information there was an open mic, and found nothing at all – except Irish music.
“Well, what kind of music do you play?”
“Pop rock folk blues.”
“Well, at the limit, if you know any Irish music….”
“Actually, I do know some,” I said.
“Well, you can ask the band members, maybe they will let you sing a song.”
I began warming to the place. And then, I saw that the musicians had flutes and, surprise, surprise, Uilleann Pipes. Hmm, I thought, this could be interesting. Well, came all this way, take a beer, sit and listen.
I first spoke to the band, and they reluctantly said that well, maybe I could play a song – on condition it be Irish. They, I must say here now, are French. Entirely French. Playing Irish music.
But there is Irish music, and there is Irish music. My kind of Irish music is not “Danny Boy.” My kind of Irish music is Planxty, the Sands Family, the Bothy Band, The Chieftains, even the Celtic traditional sounds further afield of Alain Stivell, the Boys of the Lough, Steeleye Span, Dick Gaughan, Pentangle, Fairport Convention, Paul Brady and Andy Irvine, etc.
So I sat down with my beer – from a small French brewery – and I listened as the three musicians fired up and played. Holy fucking shit! First song they did came from a Planxty album!!! And man, these were mean Uilleann pipe players. Two together. Then the flute, guitar and more pipes. Jigs and reels and all the stuff I love, and beautifully performed.
Irish night at Bouquet du Nord
Then one of them said I could sing a song. So I whipped out my guitar and did the “Raggle Taggle Gypsies.” Complete silence as they listened. Then they did more of their stuff, then they asked me to do another. So I did, “Only Our Rivers Run Free.” Here, they played along. This was it, the high moment. For me, anyway. I was delighted that here I was at this completely freaky situation, having been led astray into thinking there was an open mic, but finding myself right at home in a kind of music that I love and that influenced my teenage years, and the rest of my life – as a pocket of musical education and a kind of private garden of musical culture. They knew my songs, one had a story to recount about Only Our Rivers, and I felt like I had discovered a world within Paris that I had never suspected. And I had.
Again, however, I had walked out of my home without my Zoom recorder. So we have good images, less good sound. Check it out, this unique music.