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
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!)
NICE, France – My feeling is that it is better to be late and short than to completely ignore my experience playing my songs, and listening to those of Marjorie Martinez, at Shapko Bar in Nice on Wednesday night. I mean, here I am on the Riviera, having suddenly disappeared from this blog and got sucked up by the sudden appearance of sunlight and sea air – or something like that.
But the more important reason for writing a post here on my evening playing music at Shapko Bar in Nice on Wednesday night is for the record of this blog: I’ve written about the amazing Shapko Bar on rue Rossetti in the old town of Nice since 2011. It became the highlight for me of coming to play in Nice.
So it was at first a shock to arrive for the Wednesday night jam session at Shapko and to find that rather than a band occupying the neat little stage on the lower part of the room it was now several tables full of patrons sitting there drinking, talking, and listening to the music of a woman playing at the mic on the new stage area in front of the bar at the front of the venue.
I learned immediately that Dimitri Shapko, the wonderful Russian saxophone player who founded the bar had just recently sold it to a new owner. I then approached the woman behind the mic – with her Gibson acoustic – after she finished her set, and I asked her if there was some kind of open jam, as there always had been. She said, “No,” but then immediately, in the spirit of Shapko, said that if I wanted to play some songs I could.
So I took the stage after her next set and I sang three or four songs, mostly mine, and “Wicked Game.” I then later spoke to the new owner of the bar, and he said he planned to continue the same spirit of the old Shapko bar – and he has maintained the same name – including having any concerts that start the evening finish as a jam. But there is also an official jam session night on Thursdays, and any kind of music goes.
A Change of Ownership at Shapko Bar
So the good news is that we have not entirely lost Shapko Bar. But let’s see how it develops….
In the meantime, Marjorie Martinez impressed the hell out of me: She had a very cool way of playing that guitar, ranging from folk rock, soft rock and blues into some very adept and fabulous sounding jazz stuff. That came in handy when she opened the stage for the jam, and a saxophone player went up and jammed with her. I mention Marjorie’s range and guitar playing first, but it is her singing voice that is the real center of her show: She sounds like a cross between Rickie Lee Jones, Joni Mitchell and Bonnie Raitt.
She is French, but her English accent is almost impeccable. In fact, in the gig it was impeccable. It was just in hearing her on her albums – that I bought and later listened to, that I noticed the slightest hint of a French accent. She writes most of her own music, but does not shy away from cover songs either, especially the jazz stuff. In fact, a lot of her own songs have a jazz feel to them in parts, and her backing musicians are clearly jazz-oriented. A very, very interesting discovery, this Marjorie Martinez of the French Riviera – because she is a local….
PARIS – Thursday night was the May 1st public holiday, the Fête du Travail, in France. So it was a great day to think of nothing but maybe going to attend a little gig by some friends and acquaintances that I have met at open mics in Paris, and who have now decided to perform as often as possible in gigs as opposed to open mics.
Well, not all of them. But in any case, I’ve mentioned or filmed each of these performers on my blog in the past, and seen a couple of them several times, and one just once. They all impressed me and showed me another side of their talent at this entirely entertaining 2 and a half-hour gig they put on at very neat bar venue called L’Angora, just off the place de la Bastille in Paris.
I’m talking about the French guitar player singer who calls himself Ventru; about the American singer songwriter from Seattle, Shelita Burke; and about the visiting American from San Diego, Aaron Bowen. Together, they put on a highly entertaining evening that allowed the fairly large crowd or spectators to see different sides to their talent than what their open mic appearances allow for, due partly to the often raucous spectators at open mics, and the often bad sound systems, and the often too low quota of songs.
Ventru started the show, and played his distinctive rhythmic guitar style and vocals in French; he was followed by Aaron Bowen, who deftly managed to pull of a different style of song in just about every single piece he played, from quiet, ethereal singing melodies to hard hitting rhythms and jazzy leads and chords….all of which was tied together by his own unmistakable style. And then the evening was closed by Shelita, with her hard hitting rhythmic guitar playing and vocals that for me seem to be a cross between Tori Amos and Bjork….
The Warm and Funky Venue of L’Angora, in Paris
I just was not bored throughout the evening. And the Angora is a great discovery: Located at No. 3 Boulevard Richard Lenoir, it has a real 19th Century feel to it both on the ground floor with its fabulous long, oak bar, its old fashioned ceiling mouldings and on the first floor where the music takes place, in a low-ceilinged private room with a piano, carpet and great acoustics. There is a blue jam on Sundays, but on the ground floor, since they do not have the right to use drums on the first floor. Definitely worth the visit.
PARIS – As I prepare to fly out tomorrow to Shanghai for the next step of my worldwide musical open mic adventure – well, all right, mostly for covering the Formula One race in my job as a journalist – I decided I had better do a very short post just to announce on Bradspurgeon.com that I have a new web site now that I have just launched. It is Bradspurgeonmusic.com and it will in no way replace this current web site, which is a blog and general repository of all sorts of wild and crazy Brad Spurgeon ideas and articles. The new site will be strictly devoted to my own musical recordings, videos, CDs and other musical news and creations concerning my upcoming gigs and other personal music news. I have created the site because this blog, while wonderful as a medium in many ways, is not the idea place to group together all of my own music. So often at open mics or gigs or elsewhere, I have people asking where they can hear my music online – and I kind of have to send them all over the place, or to this blog, and it just isn’t adequate. So now there is: Brad Spurgeon Music. Check it out!
PARIS – There was a moment early in the opening act at James Hetfeeld’s Pub last night when Sophie Shiran made a snide comment about a guy just outside the doorway making noise as she prepared to play another song. She was pointing out how the guy making the noise happened to be her brother and you’d think the guy would have more respect than that! Actually, he did, as the two of them were putting on a very cool double-bill of a show in a neat cellar venue in a pub on the Boulevard de Clichy, called James Hetfeeld’s Pub, and the brother and sister acts turn out to be the perfect combination for an evening of musical variety and styles.
Sophie Shiran is the friend of my girlfriend Raphaëlle, and had it not been for the invitation that way, I’d no doubt not have had the cool evening I did last night with these two completely contrasting musicians, in this neat venue. Sophie Shiran specializes in singing her own songs and cover songs as a one-woman band using looping devices, vocal harmonising devices, pre-recorded tracks and live guitar playing, both electric and acoustic.
She has a wide range of styles and approaches, and added to the mix of the one hour show she has a dramatic touch, telling stories and acting a role that feels a little like theater or cabaret – which is no surprise, since Sophie Shiran is also an actrice and music hall performer.
Azul and Band With French Variety Music
By contrast, her brother, who calls himself Azul, is a traditional French varieté singer-songwriter in the vein of a Calogero or Pascal Obispo. He plays a mean rhythm and lead guitar and has a special quality to his voice – something sandpapery and smooth at the same time – and upbeat, uptempo songs that get the room moving.
He also plays with a group, or at least last night with a drummer and a bassist, the latter occasionally going quite mad and turning the bass into a bit of a lead guitar….
All together an interesting evening musically so see the huge contrast in styles and approaches of two siblings, who seem to have absolutely nothing in common in their musical approach, but both of which are valid and obviously came from the same source. The two acts as a double-bill meant spectators had an evening of variety – can you ask for more?
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
PARIS – As it turned out, I could have played in all of the three musical locations that I visited in Paris last night – but I played in none of them. And as it turned out, I was just as happy with that situation as going somewhere to play myself, as my real idea was to take in three in one night for a completely different cultural experience each time.
The first was the one where, I will admit, the idea of playing there myself is greatly exaggerated. The only reason I mention it at all was that when I arrived at the Shakespeare and Company bookstore to hear Gary Lucas play his guitar and talk about and read from his book, Lucas actually had a guy singing with him in a vaguely Jeff Buckley manner. The guy, it turned out, was just someone Lucas did not know or had never heard sing, and he had asked in advance if he could join in and sing along when Lucas performed at the bookstore. Lucas agreed, and it was a cool effect and a nice little addition to a very cool presentation. So it occurred to me that perhaps if I had asked, too, he’d have given me a chance – even if it was a longshot….
Gary Lucas was at Shakespeare and Company to promote his book “Touched by Grace,” which recounts his experience working with Jeff Buckley, with whom he wrote a dozen or more songs, including the famous “Grace,” and “Mojo Pin.” But Buckley is not his only claim to fame as a collaborator. Lucas has played guitar or otherwise collaborated with a Who’s Who of popular musical geniuses – to say nothing of Leonard Bernstein – from Captain Beefheart to Patti Smith to Lou Reed to Iggy Pop…oh and even people like Peter Stampfl, of the Holy Modal Rounders….
Lucas played his Gibson J-45 in opening tuning, filling the Shakespeare and Company bookstore and its full-house of people with the ethereal sounds that are his trademark. I bought one of his CDs, which I will be including in my next Morning Exercise Music review. Oh, and I must add that I was just delighted that although I arrived a little late, and the bookstore was entirely full to the point that the front door could not be opened, I was ushered up through the first floor library by another door into the building, and led down to the back of the “stage” to listen to Lucas. That, by the way, is why you only get my videos of Lucas from off to the side of the musician, and from behind.
From the Books to the Taps, it Was Time for a Beer at the Open Mic of the Tennessee Bar
From Shakespeare and Company I headed over to the Tennessee Bar to check out the open mic. There, of course, I’d have been able to play if I wanted to. But I had that third date of the night coming up, so I just stayed and listened to a few songs – including by the mainstay of the Tireuse open mic, Wayne Standley – and also by someone else using a Gibson, similar to the J-45 of Lucas, but which was either a Dove or a Hummingbird, and they were also using it in a similar manner. But to slightly less effect. Still, it was an incredibly beautiful sounding guitar and nifty playing. Once I had assured myself that my favorite Thursday night was going strong, I finished my beer and went off to the third location.
This final stop of the evening bore no resemblance to the first two. I was invited to this one by a Brazilian friend, who said that she had a Brazilian friend playing Brazilian music in this hotel – the Hotel Athenee. I was a little confused when I got there, as I had for mixed it up in my mind with the Plaza Athenee, or whatever it is. But this was quite a posh joint as it turned out, with a long lobby cocktail bar room in plush furniture and walls covered with casting photo portraits of famous Hollywood stars from the past.
With a Final Glass of Wine at the Hotel Athenee and Brazilian Music
The Brazilian music was guitar and vocals, mostly bossa nova stuff, and it was a very cool and relaxed evening and foretaste of my imminent trip to Sao Paulo. My friend got up and did a song too, by the way, and she invited me to play, saying the mic was open…. So that’s how I tie in that final unforeseen possibility of being able to play in all three venues, had I wanted to. But there at the Athenee, I felt that the atmosphere was so laid-back Brazilian bossa nova style stuff that my own songs or covers would be far too big a contrast, although I was definitely tempted.
In any case, it was a really cool evening, kind of like an all you can eat buffet of different foods and sauces, on the Paris plate….
PS, It turns out that in arriving late at the Shakespeare and Company performance by Gary Lucas, and hearing him talk about about his singer as someone who just contacted him and he’d never heard of him before, I had no doubt missed a more correct introduction beforehand. I’ve since learned from a reader of this bog – as you can see in the comments below – that the singer was Tim Watt, and he is a musician who was already known to Gary, and the two prepared together in advance… So the very premise of this whole blog post was faulty, as I’d never have been able to play at Shakespeare and Company after all!! 😉
ABU DHABI – I have seen busier days at P.J. O’Reilly’s pub in Abu Dhabi. In fact, I usually don’t like being there alone when it is so busy that party-goers are bursting at every seam. Last night, I decided to drop in to see the regular Wednesday night act, Paddyman, in order both to have a nice night out, and also to seek an open mic or open jam session for myself. I achieved the former, but not the latter.
Paddyman is a one-man-band Irish phenomenon who has travelled the world playing his music in Irish pubs and elsewhere, usually with an Irish theme from the crudest to the softest. He also does most bar rock stuff you can imagine, in his own way, and, I noted, it is so fast-paced that he rarely ever finishes a song before segueing into another song. He also writes his own songs, both comical and touching.
He is now based in Dubai, and sings around the Gulf, from Bahrain to Dubai to Abu Dhabi, and other spots. A highly in demand Irish singer, carrying the home flames to the legions of expatriates of the region.
A High-speed Paddy in Dubai
His real talent is in getting the audience to react, request songs, sing-along, and generally turn the most staid Irish pub into a party. That’s pretty necessary in Abu Dhabi where, although P.J. O’Reilly’s is an oasis of merriment, there are certain things in the Emirate that seem not to be tolerated…such as taking videos of the performer.
So it was that I only managed to get a couple of snippets of Paddyman, and they are in no way representative of the raucousness of his act. I got told off by the security guard at the door, near where I was standing, and he said if I continued making videos I’d have to leave the premises.
Anyway, I thought I’d mention this, my first night out in the music of Abu Dhabi. Yes, this is expatriate stuff in an Irish pub, and not representative of the local music. But in other ways, it kind of is. Keep posted for further notes as to why….
PARIS – In retrospect, I see it as very appropriate that Garland Jeffreys performed his gig in Paris last night at the New Morning venue on the rue des Petites Ecuries. The street was created in 1780 and it was near the royal stables. The thing is, Jeffreys, 70 years old this year, appears to be at the start of a new morning of his life – and you can’t hold this royal stallion down!
As regular readers of this blog will possibly have noticed, I hardly ever go to concerts myself, since I’m always trying to find open mics and jams to play myself, and so I say, how can I go and watch someone else without having a chance to get up there myself! In fact, last night, I left the Garland Jeffreys concert at the New Morning saying, “If I can learn that much about performance and pop music by going to a concert, I want to go a LOT more often!”
I had been alerted to the concert by a friend – who does go to lots of concerts – and as I had narrowly missed going to Jeffreys concert last year due to travel constraints, I said, “Go!”
Noooo regrets. Garland Jeffreys is one of the most unique cult figures in pop music, and at 70 years old, he puts on a show that is so much fun, so cool, so audience-friendly, that I can’t imagine anyone walking out without being touched. Jeffreys is not the greatest singer in the world, his melodies and songs are not epoch making or breaking compositions of extraordinary originality. But all the parts of this guy come together to create a real unique experience. He IS a natural showman, he gives everything he has – sometimes too much for his own good, as when he jumped backwards off a box cube at the edge of the stage and narrowly missed – or actually beautifully hid – seriously damaging his shin on the corner of the box. He leapt the meter or more height from the edge of the stage to the audience on several occasions to be amongst the audience, hug and kiss the women, and generally whip up a storm of great vibes with the audience.
It was only in seeing Jeffreys that I could really feel as if I understood something about this guy I knew some stuff about – and knew some of his music – without ever really understanding what he was all about. In fact, again, he is the sum of many amazing parts. A unique character, cult figure, and really a consummate showman. He is also a kind of musicians’ musician: From Brooklyn, he majored in history at Syracuse University with Lou Reed before the latter formed the Velvet Underground. He was friends with Bob Marley, has played along with Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, Patti Smith, John Cale and even Sonny Rollins.
Garland Jeffreys Started Way Back in the 1960s
His first solo album, Garland Jeffreys, came out at Atlantic Records in 1973. He has recorded several more, including “The King of In Between” in 2011 and this year, “Truth Serum.” In the last couple of years has been touring all over, and is in the midst of a 30-date tour at the moment – if I heard that correctly – and at 70 years old (I repeat again), he said he is now on what he calls “The 90-year plan.”
The latter means he wants to keep on playing and performing until he is in his 90s. This little bit I actually heard from him myself in a short conversation after the show. He came out to sign CDs for the spectators after the show and stayed for what I think was around half an hour. But an hour and a half or so after the concert he ended up sitting in the same restaurant around the corner from the New Morning where I was sitting with my friends. So I took the opportunity to speak with him briefly – he was sitting with a group of around 12 people, at least some of whom seemed to be simple fans – although he has many friends in France.
He appears, in short, to be going through a fabulous renaissance at age 70, and I didn’t see a single person in that full house of the New Morning who appeared disappointed. For me, the key to Jeffreys IS his personality, his personage, his true emotion, his character, his past, his outlook on life. At a time when Rodriguez has risen out of obscurity at 70 to be a star, there is one point of comparison with Jeffreys: They are both street poets, one of Detroit, the other of Brooklyn.
A Comparison Between Garland Jeffreys and Rodriguez?
But the comparisons stop there – as Jeffreys’ flamboyance – think Springsteen – is far from that. Oh, yes, Jeffreys has also been the subject of a documentary – directed by Wim Wenders and produced by Martin Scorsese.
The great news is that above all some of the recent songs were fabulous – we loved this song he did about his grandmother, also, by the way, which was very, very emotional.
With a background like this, with a talent like he has, the biggest question I think I would have after leaving the New Morning last night was not about Garland Jeffreys and who he is and what his talent is all about. It is why 90 percent of the spectators last night had grey hair! In an age when kids in their teens know more pop history thanks to YouTube and the Internet than that which I have spent a lifetime trying to absorb, why is Jeffreys not more on the radar with them?
NAGOYA, Japan – It was not the first time, and I hope it is not the last time, that I get to play at the Plastic Factory, in Nagoya. After discovering this wonderful venue in the Imaike neighborhood of Nagoya two years ago, I got to take part in a concert night last year with a bunch of other musicians, and this year I was invited at the last minute to play a brief set in the gig of a duo that call themselves Zengo Kankai.
The only catch was that it was a night of 80s music, as these guys specialize in that sound, complete with synthesizer and vocals, and if I was going to fit in anywhere, it had to be with 1980s songs. So it was that I did a little bit of quick research and discovered much to my own surprise that three of the songs I sing regularly are from the 1980s: “Mad World,” “Wicked Game” and “I Won’t Back down.”
So I got invited to play and sing, and the band very kindly opened the stage to me for the beginning of the second set. In the meantime, I had met an Irishman who, it turned out, loves the song “Only Our Rivers Run Free.” I love to take any chance I can find to sing that song, so after singing the first two of my 80s songs, I decided to be a bit of a shit disturber, and I sang first, a song that I myself wrote in the 1980s – in 1980, to be exact – and then I finished my four-song set with “Only Our Rivers Run Free,” from 1966.
Yeah, well, what the heck.
The Plastic Factory is a wonderful venue that I recommend to anyone visiting or living in Nagoya, and it can have some amazing theme nights as well as open mics, and some more quiet affairs that are still worth absorbing the atmosphere over. It’s also a great chance to go out into a little quiet neighborhood of Nagoya where you might not otherwise think of setting foot. But it’s close enough to the downtown area to make it possible to walk back to a central hotel even if you stay all night at the Plastic Factory and miss a metro….