PARIS – I have no idea how many years it has now been that Nicholas Ullmann has been hosting his Kararocké at the Bus Palladium, but I do believe I discovered it in 2010, and have been going occasionally ever since. I returned on Saturday evening – it runs every first Saturday of the month – to find his institution still alive and more than well. And this, despite the recent sad death due to cancer of the regular bass guitarist of the band, Erik Fostinelli, also known as Guy Pop.
In fact, I believe the Kararocké has been more than a decade that this formula has been working for Ullmann, the master of many disguises and above all, master MC. (Master master of ceremonies!!??) That the formula works is no surprise: It is a super karaoke, with a live band on a large stage in a large room with great sound, spotlights, and just absolutely everything to make the spectators that get on stage feel as if they are rock stars for a night.
On Saturday night, it was the turn of Yann Destal, known for his hit song, Lady (Hear Me Tonight), which was a worldwide success in 2000 when he was just 20 years old and in his band then called Modjo. Yann continues a strong musical career, but one that is out of the limelight compared to the days of early success. He plays around Paris all the time, and recently even starred in a musical about Woodstock.
I myself did not even try to get on stage, for two or three reasons: 1) I am usually crap at doing Karaoke because when I play and sing cover songs, I usually do it with my guitar in my hands, and I do it my own way, (they call this “interpretation,” but I prefer to think of it as making felicitous mistakes when it works, as I inevitably try to imitate the real thing but fail); 2) I did sing once with success at this kararocké, when somehow the band played “What’s Up” in my key, but I made a horrible failure of singing an Arthur H. song just a few weeks later, as it was neither in my key, nor a style I can do!, and 3), in fact, I was wearing my contact lenses and cannot read with them, so I’d have to know all the lyrics by heart! Oh there was another reason too: Ullmann, in his fair way, was asking all night long only for singers who had never before sung at the kararocké. And I did not fit that category, obviously.
This was a beautifully chosen song for the night, because it was written in protest and disbelief of the horrible American politics of the day…plus ça change….
But it was well worth the night. On the less good nights of this formula the music has tended to be too much hard rock. But on Saturday there was a broad, broad cross-section of sounds. I regretted enormously not having brought my Zoom recorder in order to get great sound, as we have to settle for the terrible sound of my Galaxy S8….
AUSTIN, Texas – It was a deadly combination of life and death in the streets of Austin last night, that brought the city – particularly 6th Street – back to death with a bursting forth of action in the deadzone that is this Texan city on Halloween night. The Halloween festival is always a big one, but with the added 100,000 or so Formula One fans taking to the street for the F1 Fan Festival for its first night, it was a celebration like none before.
I was half asleep by the time I arrived on 6th Street with a friend, and then I was immediately swept up into the riotous affair of the local population going crazy with Halloween costumes and filling the street from side to side – with only the central part cordoned off from the revellers, where the cops watched over the action.
Austin is particularly respectful of Halloween since there is a large Mexican population as well, with its deadly equivalent of the dastardly festival. The F1 Fan Fest runs Friday, Saturday and Sunday in conjunction with the U.S. Grand Prix that is taking place in Austin this weekend. The festival has four stages for music running throughout the weekend, and there are also little entertainment fairground-type activities for those who attend. The concerts include Joan Jett, and a few other bands better known locally than around the world. But all in all it’s a fabulous line up and an amazing atmosphere.
I had been thinking about trying to find a place to play music, but I had been advised against it. Then I discovered that in fact, on the Austin360 stage there was a daylong live band karaoke yesterday, and it is happening today too. But I am too busy working my job to think about doing that.
In any case, I have never seen such a Halloween occasion, and some of the effort put into the costume defies belief. You’ve got to see them in the little video I assembled of footage I took last night. My favorite wa the man who played the role of a gorilla and of a captive human in a cage carried by the gorilla. Check that one out on the video, I put in a few freeze frames on it, as I had a very small window of opportunity to grab the image….
HEIDELBERG, Germany – Just when I started feeling depressed about the idea of ever finding – or rather not finding – an open mic or jam session in Heidelberg, I stumbled upon an historic, amazing, astounding student pub and restaurant called Zum Seppl, in the old town. It may not have been a classic open mic or open jam joint of the kind I try to find to play in, and I may not have played there myself last night, but not only was there music all evening long by a piano player, there was a sudden eruption later on of restaurant patrons launching into what seemed like traditional German songs, with a freedom and fun attitude and feeling equal only to the best open mics.
I discovered that the extraordinary look and atmosphere in this restaurant, and the amazing cragged wooden tables, were so astounding because this place has been a restaurant since at least 1703! Check out the link above to find out more about it, but for the moment I just want to say that if you ever get a chance to visit Heidelberg, drop in to this student pub. Heidelberg is a university town, and it and its already ruined castle were an inspiration to the German Romantics – including Goethe himself – already a hundred years after this student restaurant was a student restaurant.
It also has a tradition as a brewery, and the beer was great. But the food was fabulous too. I cannot quite describe the atmosphere and look of this place, so take in my iPhone’s look at it all – and the singing.
And Before that, It Was Off to a Karaoke at O’Reilly’s pub in Heidelberg
The night before I had settled for O’Reilly’s pub on the other side of the river, a classic Irish pub of the kind I find all over the world. O’Reilly’s has a karaoke on both Friday and Saturday nights, in the back room. It’s a fabulous little stage, a wonderful amphitheater-like room, and a great MC. The only problem with the place is that with such a great setup, they really should invest in better mics or other sound system materials to make sure that the voices in the karaoke can be heard in all their glory.
I feel as if I have succeeded in singing in karaokes only maybe once before – i.e., whenever I sing covers with my guitar I do them differently than the original, so I usually fail utterly in karaokes. But on Friday night, I found myself deciding to risk singing a song I barely know on my guitar, and have never tried in a karaoke: Born to Run. Somehow, the key was perfect and I was able to sing along in a way that felt wonderfully powerful. It was a real joy, and I fear I might try more karaokes….
Still, I’m overwhelmingly upset that aside from a jazz jam club at Cave 54 that has a jam on Tuesdays, I have still not found any of the kind of open mics that I seek out, and this looks set to be the first time in years that I have failed to find one in a new city I have visited. I chose Heidelberg because I thought it was the most culturally strong city in the area near the Hockenheim racetrack, and I think that remains true. So why is there not more live music in this student center of the region?!?
In France we are in the middle of the first set of weeks in which public holidays divide the week in half. The 1 May and 8 May are public holidays – a kind of labor day on the 1st and the Victory of WWII on the 8th – and in France that means that a large percentage of the population will created what they call a “bridge,” or a “pony,” of days off between the weekend and the middle of the week. The and what THAT means is that for these two weeks there are hardly any people in Paris. And what THAT means is that the Kararocké organizers may well have been worried that there would not be many people there on Saturday for the once-a-month giant karaoke with the live band. So was that the reason that Nicolas Ullmann, the MC, decided to announce that Pete Doherty would sing a song or two before the kararocké?
Many of the regular clients of the Bus Palladium will by now know that the artistic director of the venue is acting as manager for Peter Doherty, the British rock star of the former Libertines and Babyshambles, who lives in Paris. So maybe, just maybe, Ullmann thought that would attract people during a potential down period. On the other hand, as many of the clients to his great Kararocké know, Ullmann is the master of disguise, and he dress up as a different character for each show. This time, guess what? The character, it seems, was Pete Doherty!
And it was Ullmann doing the impersonation…. Doherty has recently played at the Bus Palladium, and even in small cafés in the neighborhood, so it would not have been unreasonable to expect him to show. But the game was Ullmann’s this time, and I don’t have any idea at all if it actually worked, but what I can say is that the crowd was its usual size and enthusiasm on Saturday night, and Ullmann put on another great show.
I was surprised at how many people were there. But I also know that a lot of the people who showed up came to see the basically unknown band that opened for the Kararocké, the band called, Velvet Veins. I went specifically to see them – although my interest was piqued by the idea of a Doherty intervention – as the Velvet Veins is the new band of my sometime lead guitarist Félix Beguin, with whom I have played many times, and recorded a couple songs too. He met his new band in the studio where he works, just outside Paris. The Velvet Veins, for their part, did NOT let down.
The original challenge on this blog last week was for me to find out if Austin truly is the live music capital of the world, as it calls itself. I had no idea that over the full three next nights of my stay here I would not find out anything about that fact due to Austin ALSO being what it likes to call, a “weird” place, with a city motto of: “Keep Austin Weird.” I can now conclude on that part with a definite YES.
Austin is weird all right. But I’m hoping to establish over the next two nights whether it is the live music capital of the world. The weird bit got in the way on all three nights, although last night I finally, finally began having indications that this COULD be the live music capital of the world.
Weird? Well, the thing is this: Although I had basically resigned myself to the fact on Friday that I had missed the most likely open mic for me to do – a thing at a coffee house from 5 PM to 7 PM, because it was too early, I did nevertheless have an errand to run also. That errand was for myself and it had to do with going to the airport to pick up my passport, which I had left on my flight from Dallas to Austin on the Wednesday night, and which had finally been found.
Standing in the lobby of my hotel in downtown Austin, the reception desk people called the taxi dispatcher and ordered me a cab. After 20 minutes, and no cab, the reception called again. Each time they had been assured a cab would be sent – after all, this was a dispatcher for a cab company. They called a third time after another 20 minute wait. No cab, in fact, ever came in response to the call. That said, I did get a cab when one dropped off another person at the hotel. So I did get my passport.
That seemed a little weird, and what seemed weirder was that the reception people thought I was weird for thinking that was weird. It seemed it was normal in Austin. Okay, fine. So the next night, Saturday, I found the most wonderful looking open mic, at the Cigar Room in Lakeway, a suburb of Austin.
The deal was that the musician who got the best crowd reaction to his or her music actually would win $150!!! It is a weekly thing, and if there are four musicians or more, the prize money is there to be won. I was really, really excited about the challenge, and keen to try my crowd-pleaser songs (What’s Up!, Mad World and Father and Son seemed right.)
So I went to the hotel lobby and booked a cab.
Yes, you got it. You understand. No cab. Same deal as the night before. Exactly the same deal. Same story. Now I knew that Austin was definitely the crappiest cab capital of the world, no doubt. But again, the reception person in the hotel seemed to think I was the weird one, expecting a cab to arrive once it had been ordered. Was I in the Addams Family show, I wondered?
Anyway, the open mic was located 20 miles outside the city, it started at 9 PM, and it was already after 8 PM by the time I had spent an hour waiting for the cab. I decided to kill the idea, thinking that if I ended up in Lakeway with no cab at the end of the night I’d NEVER get back. Oh, I forgot to mention that during that hour wait I did also go out in front of the road and try flagging down a few of the empty cabs that passed by on the road out front…none of them stopped. I think they might have been scared of my guitar case on my back, but I’m not sure I understand. It was weird. I gave up.
So I asked where there was a good Mexican restaurant. And as I walked there to where the reception people had recommended, I passed by the coffee house that runs the open mic on Friday night that was too early for me (as I was at the race track at that time). I decided to ask them about their open mic. I then told them about my taxi cab story.
“Hey, we called a cab last night for a man here, and it didn’t come either,” said one of the women.
Okay. Austin is weird.
So anyway…. last night I finally decided to defy all cabs in Austin and walk into the downtown area to attend an open mic at the 311 Club located at 311 East 6th Street. From my hotel across the river it was only a 15 minute walk at the most, and I wanted to finally see Austin and see if there really was live music all over the place. To say nothing of my desire to play in the open mic.
So I navigate my way across the river and as I get to the center of the town I hear music everywhere and I begin to get excited. I am so looking forward to doing my own music at the 311 Club – which had several listings on the Internet for its open mic every Sunday night – that I don’t stop to listen to any of the bands.
I get to the 311 Club to find it all closed down and looking like it is out of business. Yes, well, that was kind of weird too. So no open mic.
Oh, and just before that I had run into Lisa, the MC of the Flipnotics open mic from Thursday as she drove up 6th on her pedicab. She offered me a free lift, but I said I could walk. Small city, Austin, I thought. And I was reminded of the only good night I had thus far had in this musical city.
But I decided just to walk down 6th and see if I could find any action, and taste the live music sounds. In fact, it started feeling a little like Istanbul, which I consider the live music capital of the world, with all the various kinds of music pouring out of the bar facades and a kind of wall of sound hitting you in the face in the street.
A few doors down from the 311 Club a guy outside a bar called Agave sees my guitar and asks if I want to go in and jam. I look inside, and there is a man at a mic singing a karaoke.
“With my guitar?” I ask.
“Yeah, just ask the man on the mic.”
That was it, I go into the long, dark bar with around 10 women standing at the bar and only one or two guys, and I get a beer, listen to the karaoke and ask the guy who was singing if I can plug in and play and sing.
“Yeah, go ahead!”
So I do. And then a couple of women want to use my guitar and play – it’s the birthday of one of them – and then I do another song. So we have a karaoke that has become an open mic in the most relaxed manner I have ever seen outside Istanbul. And I begin saying to myself, “This COULD be the live music capital of the world.”
But whatever it was, and weird is certainly part of it, I liked it. More adventures to follow!
I may only have actually played in one place last night, but I attended three open mics and a concert in Paris and took in all vibes and sensations available and went home still with enough energy to ride my unicycle five kilometers around the neighborhood. If that sounds weird, keep reading!
First stop was the Truskel Bar to see the Velvet Veins, the new band of my lead guitar player, Félix Beguin – who was supposed to play with me at that ill-fated gig of ours at the Lizard Lounge a couple of weeks ago – and his shockingly good young guitar alter-ego and singer. Félix is still part of the Burnin’ Jacks, but he created this band, the Velvet Veins, in order to play exactly 100 percent the kind of music HE is addicted to… kind of 70s blues rock, metal rock, rockin’ rock, guitar-based stuff with amazing lead exchanges between the two guitar players, some mad drumming and even a bit of harmonica playing from the bass player. Don’t ask me to be literate or even precise or accurate about what this sounds like – just give it a listen. Unbelievable stuff. (I apologize for the shaky camera work, but the excited crowd was jumping up and down so virulently in front of me – and on me – that I could not do any better.
From there I head over on a short walk to the much quieter and down to earth Vieux Leon bar near the Pompidou Center for the first of a new Wednesday night open mic, which was this night hosted by my friend Baptiste W. Hamon, formerly known as Texas in Paris. The bar could not have been a bigger contrast to the Velvet Veins-bopping Truskel, but that was just fine as a way to come down and do some of my own bopping music – actually, I opted for Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle” and my own, “Borderline.”
Highlander Open Mic 6th Anniversary Cake
From there I used my new iPhone maps app thing to get lost just trying to find the quickest way over to the Highlander. But fortunately as soon as I found the rue de Rivoli, I no longer needed the app. (Piece of shit, and I dread where it will lead me next week in Osaka and Nagoya and Suzuka….) So I just HAD to go to the Highlander, even if I knew there was no way I would even dream of performing. The thing was, it was the sixth anniversary of this most popular of Paris open mics, run by Thomas Brun. Thomas not only does a great job with running the open mic, but he sings and plays amazingly, and even more importantly he comes up with good birthday cake on these annual celebrations, and last night he added some champagne into the mix. I got my cake and champagne as soon as I arrived, and the timing was perfect since I had by then digested my main course of duck kebab and pasta….
From there I headed up the rue Dauphine to the Cavern, where the agreeable bass player master of ceremonies, Guillaume, again invited me up to the stage to play. But I learned my lesson long ago that everything I touch at the Cavern turns to rust and I have to either persuade them to let me take my guitar up with me and we do songs I know, or I’ll have to go to a massive number of karaoke bars and hone my skills in that area on the same songs they do. But I’m pretty blown away by so many of the singers there, that I know I have far to go…. But the band is really worth going for alone, say nothing of getting on stage and making a fool of one’s self.
So that was it, after that, all the beers, cake and champagne, I just had to do the unicycle thing around the neighborhood, despite it nearing 4 AM…. What a night.
I was just noting yesterday how open mics that occur only once per month are generally not so successful, often forgotten, and would do better to be every week. I also remarked how happy an evening it turned out to be at the Truskel open mic for me on Friday, that open mic that happens once per month but is now closing for a long, long summer break…. Last night I went to one of my favorite open mics, which, in fact, is a live karaoke, with a live band and a set-list you choose your songs from, the wonderful Kararocké at the Bus Palladium. And guess what? I concluded that some open mics are better off happening only once per month….
I just cannot imagine either the spectators or Nicolas Ullmann, the genial host of the show – and inventor of the concept – going through that every week. It is so high energy, such a blow out of a party of an open mic, and Ullmann puts to much into it – creating elaborate costumes for every show – that I think everyone would wind up having to take the work week to recuperate after each show. It would eventually drag you down and out and a visit to a sanitarium would be called for.
I have loved every visit to the show in recent months. Especially the night I sang “What’s Up!” in early October. For the last two times I have been there, I have somewhat timidly put my name into the bucket with the request to sing “Wicked Game,” and each time I was somehow over-looked and not called up to sing. Probably that had to do with Nicolas’s huge efforts to give new people a chance every week, and not just put up the same people all the time.
But part of me thinks it may have to do with the fact that if I did get a chance to do that song, it would be the most downbeat, slowest, heaviest and most quiet number of the whole evening. And I wondered if maybe Nicolas found that too depressing for the formula.
Having said that, last night I found myself so incredibly swamped by the upbeat madness of the songs sung – not all, but the accumulation of them had that effect – that oddly, for the first time since I started going to this mad show, I started feel withdrawn through sensory overload. Hey, let’s have a few quiet and low numbers to tone things down and bring people to earth a little.
No, this is not just sour-grapes for not being selected. In fact, each month I get scared shitless about going up on that stage to sing, and when the evening passes and I find my name has not been drawn from the bucket, I sigh great relief and say, “Phew!!! I won’t have to face the situation – but I had the courage to try!!!”
Anyway, the evening is so successful that whatever may be my opinion, I’m sure Ullmann knows what’s he is doing. I think at one point last night I felt it was the biggest crowd I’ve ever seen at the Kararocké….