Brad Spurgeon's Blog

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Jamming at the Picolit Pub in Castellammare del Golfo, thanks to the Amazing Francesco Riotta

July 26, 2022

Francesco Riotta at Picolit

Francesco Riotta at Picolit

CASTELLAMMARE DEL GOLFO, Sicily – I had reached such a bursting point of frustration and desire in wanting to play some music on stage somewhere, anywhere, last night, that before we went out to dinner I said to Ornella: “I want to bring my Gibson J200 with me just in case I find a place to play!” It being very hot, and the likelihood of finding a place to play being very small in this dream of a fantastic seaside town on the coast of Sicily near Palermo, in the end I chose not to take my guitar. Then the miracle happened.

We ate in a wonderful, cheap, heart-warming restaurant – the town is full of them! – and then headed off to one of our two favourite pubs in Castellammare. I am speaking of the Picolit pub, which I have written about in the past, and which features live music at least four nights per week in its outdoor terrace, with the natural amphitheatre of a public staircase. (Our other favorite joint is Cantina Aurelia, which does not feature live music.) As soon as I heard and saw that it was guy on an acoustic guitar – occasionally joined by a bass player – I thought we had to go an listen.

There was something very attractive in his sound, and demeanour: I immediately felt something a little Brazilian in it, but it was manifestly more African, Jamaican, and reggae-related. His performance is very intimate, warm, and he has a great way of communicating with the spectators both through the music and its stories, as well as directly involving them – for instance in using them to create harmony for a chorus to one of his songs. The musician’s name was Francesco Riotta, and while he comes from Palermo, where he was raised in the tangle of culturally mixed streets in the central part of the city, he has also travelled all around playing his music, and learning more sounds, and mixing his culture and language with that of the countries he visits: English, French, African, Spanish, German, etc.

Francesco Riotta at Picolit.

I was intrigued by his guitar, which was steel-stringed but sounded more like a nylon-string guitare, and I could not read the brand name. So when he took a break, I decided to go to ask him if I could look at the guitar, which he had placed in its case. We got into a conversation immediately, and we switched from English to French, as he said he had lived in Paris for a while, and had even written and performed a song in French, and done a video with an African musician, who he met in the Goutte d’Or part of Paris. (He had gone there to seek out African musicians.)

Brad singing What’s Up! at the Picolit in Sicily.

He asked about me, and when he learned that I played guitar and sang, he asked if I wanted to do a song at the end of his set. Hey presto! That need to get up and do a song on stage that I had felt overpowering me before dinner was about to be calmed! Unbelievable! I did two songs, and I was joined by his bass player, Daniele Ferrantelli. This thanks to a generous, human musician who knows what it means to create a great vibe during a gig and give something to a fellow musician. In fact, Francesco knew it very well, because I turned out not to be the only one he lent the stage to. There were a couple of guys who go up from the Picolit clients and did a kind of rap competition – in Italian – and then another singer, a woman named Kristen Palmera, took the mic and she did a couple of songs, for which Francesco played the guitar – one was Hit the Road Jack….

Francesco Riotta’s latest clip.

But in the magic way in which these things almost always happen in the life of the musical troubadour, after the “open mic” ended and the instruments were put away, several of us joined together for a drink, and one of the rappers approached me and he too spoke in French. He informed me that in a neighbouring town, called Scopello (which is actually part of Castellammare, but a 15-minute drive from here), every Wednesday night there is an open jam session in a bar, and I should attend. Wow! It was only the day before that Ornella and I were saying that Castellammare is a perfect place for us, with the exception that I cannot satiate my need to play music by dropping into an open mic in the way I can at home. Hey presto, now I can! I will report on that here once I do it….

Francesco Riotta singing in English at Picolit in Sicily.

PS, lest I give a wrong impression about this place, it is absolutely full of music, and there are several bars with live music several times per week. But they book acts long in advance, so I’ve never had a chance to play in one.

PPS, and for those who noticed the hole in my storytelling…the guitar was a Crafter!!! (The hole was there on purpose, but against my wishes, because I had gone blank while writing this on what the name of the guitar was!!!)

Another great song with Francesco Riotta.

Trying Out My New Martin D-42 at Brislee’s Open Mic

May 3, 2017

Martin D-42

Martin D-42

PARIS – What better environment to try out a new guitar than Brislee’s open mic at La Fabrique just off the Place Blanche in Paris? I bought the new Martin D-42 yesterday afternoon so late that I only had time to return home and prepare dinner and eat, giving up all idea of attending his popular open mic, as I knew there would be no room on the list. Last week he had 21 musicians playing from that usual time of just after 9 pm until midnight. Then came a message on Facebook that he still had room – so I finished off the dinner quickly and took the metro and my new Martin Dreadnought over to the Place Blanche, to find, as I expected, the perfect environment to test my new guitar….

As it turned out, as there were a few fewer musicians signed up last night than usual, Brislee ended up giving me the time to play five songs behind the mic. Fortunately, I got to listen to the other musicians first before my turn came, and so I wasn’t just thinking about my new guitar all night. There was the regular Ash Orphan, with his distinctive Lowden guitar, and there was another guitarist doing tapping and slapping with another great guitar, and Triinu doing her melodic stuff. So all together, a nice night – in addition to other musicians and Brislee’s final closing number.
Ash Orphan at Brislee’s open mic in Paris

My Martin D42 does not have a mic inside it, of course, because this is all about one of the greatest acoustic guitars in the world with the fabulous wood it comprises. And I have strong doubts that I will set up any kind of mic system in it. I did buy an L.R. Baggs M1 Active Body-sensitive Active Magnetic pickup that you can strap into the hole, though, since it can also be removed whenever you want. But although I had it with me last night, I decided not to fool around with trying to put it in the guitar in the dark while listening to other performers.

slap n tap at Brislee’s open mic in Paris

So I asked Brislee if we could just use a mic for my new guitar, and he agreed. In a way, in fact, it seemed to me the most appropriate way to christen the Martin on its first public performance. Suffice it to say that I felt immediately, immediately at home and at one with the Martin in this live performance. I started with a Bob Dylan (“You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”), then did my “Borderline,” then did my “When You’re Gone Away,” then Soul Asylum’s “Runaway Train.” I decided to end with a Dylan too, with the simple, “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.” When I hit the end of that song, the Martin told me to do some flat picking instead of the strumming I usually do. And that was pure joy.
Triinu at Brislee’s open mic in Paris

This is not a review of the D-42. There are hundreds of those online. Let me just say that everything I have read in the reviews is true: It feels like the perfect guitar. I still love my Gibson J-200, but it has a very limited use for me, where as the vast range of this D-42 is a great all round guitar for my music. And I was really pleased to hear exactly the same comment from Ash Orphan at the open mic, as I did from my son earlier in the day when I was buying the guitar at Woodbrass: “This guitar really suits your style.”

second by Brislee at Brislee’s open mic in Paris

Amen. It feels great too, to know that my D-42 has a note inside it stating that it is one of the Centennial edition guitars of the Martin Dreadnought. Martin’s first Dreadnought was made in 1916, mine – although it came straight to France from Nazareth, PA, was made in 2016.

another at Brislee’s open mic in Paris

And thanks again to Brislee’s great open mic for this first time playing the new guitar – a great replacement for my semi-retired, weary, 8-times-around-the-world-Seagull-S6.

The Inspirational Example of John McLaughlin, at the New Morning in Paris

March 4, 2017

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin

PARIS – It was 1973, in Ottawa, and I had recently discovered Jimi Hendrix and was looking for another guitarist of equal genius. Perhaps it had to do with Hendrix being dead, perhaps it was because Hendrix was so good that I could not accept that one man alone have that level of talent. In any case, it was through a neighbour who was a little older than me, who passed on a few records of potential Hendrixes, that I found another guitar genius of a completely different kind. Among those records were Santana, which I liked but did not fall in love with, and this other guitarist with his album of the amazingly strange, almost psychedelic cover; this was no Hendrix, but in his own way, with something stricter, more ordered, and yet chaotically, bizarrely ordered, I discovered John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra and the album “Birds of Fire.”

Having been raised with jazz – from my father’s vast record collection – and having actually attended concerts by bands called The Duke Ellington Orchestra, or The Count Basie Orchestra, the idea of an “orchestra” that had nothing to do with symphonies was not foreign to me, despite my chest-length hair and hippie sensibilities. In fact, the clearly Eastern sound to the name of the Mahavishnu Orchestra was as intriguing as Hendrix’s hallucinogenic covers.

Then, as soon as I heard the first notes of the first piece – “Birds of Fire” – I knew I would go right out and buy that album. It was probably the only one of those that my friend lent me that I did buy. The Santana was far too soft for me, but while John McLaughlin was not at all like Jimi Hendrix, and could never “replace” the reality – or rather, irreality – that Hendrix offered me, this was clearly one of the coolest guitarists I had ever heard. His style was unmistakably his. The frenetic, manic, super fast playing was a wonder to listen to, but the songs also made up a world of their own to which I felt like some kind of initiate allowed to step in to a world that sounded to me like my own generation’s Bach.
John McLaughlin at New Morning fourth

In a time, now, when all of the heroes of my generation – and in fact, the heroes of all the popular music of the second half of the 20th century – are dying what seems like almost at a daily rate over the last couple of years, that a hero like John McLaughlin, is not just still alive, but playing as if he was still 30, at the age of 75, is not just an incredible gift, it is a wonder and an inspiration. It took me 44 years before I ever got to see McLaughlin in concert, but seeing him Wednesday night in Paris in the intimate New Morning venue, was like being invited into one of the local practice studios neighbouring this legendary music venue, and hearing and seeing this hero of my youth.
John McLaughlin at New Morning seventh

And it was fitting that almost immediately, McLaughlin and his latest band, the 4th Dimension, played “Miles Beyond,” from that very album, “Birds of Fire.” Unlike at so many concerts by heroes of the past, though, I found myself equally mesmerised and carried away by songs that I did not even know of, some of them from the most recent recordings of this amazing guitarist. McLaughlin is a treasure, and if you get a chance to go and see him on his upcoming tour in Europe, or his later tour this year in the U.S., which will be his first there in something like a decade or so, just don’t miss it. And take music lovers from the current generation, since McLaughlin is not just a jazzman, he is a rocker.
drummer scat stuff with John Mclaughlin at new morning eighth

He may have come of age with his jazz rock fusion, but the fabulous thing about McLaughlin is that anyone who studies much about the history of rock music will find that he came out of the same England that produced so many of the rock stars of the 60s, playing at one point with Alexis Koerner’s band, actually giving lessons to Jimmy Page at one point, and performing as a session musician for a vast swathe of other musicians-
John McLaughlin at the New Morning first

And then, of course, he played with Miles Davis and others, including segues into projects like his Band of Doom with Jaco Pastorius.

And then there was John McLaughlin’s Incredible 4th Dimension band

Not only is it worth seeing and hearing him now because he is in more than full control of his instrument at age 75, and still looking like a supercool dude from the rock generation rather than any kind of sit-down old fart bluesman – he stood up for the whole show while playing, and took just one minute break on a stool to take a drink, in a more than 2 hour show – but he also has accompanying him three outstanding musicians who all look like they are enjoying themselves as much as McLaughlin is.
John McLaughlin at the New Morning third

On bass was the fabulous Étienne M’Bappé, originally from Cameroon, who has a bass playing style equally aggressive as McLaughlin’s inimitable guitar playing. M’Bappé is the first bass player I have seen play with gloves, by the way. But his playing is so percussive that I’m not surprised he wants to protect those fingers – I just can’t figure out how he does it!
John McLaughlin at the New Morning again

On drums was Ranjit Barot, and Indian drummer who grew up in the tradition of Indian classical music, but has vast CV playing in numerous styles, and also has scored films, composed, arranges, everything. And he sings fabulously well too, and loved his sort of scat stuff.
John McLaughlin at the New Morning second

And on keyboards, and occasionally also on drums, was the incredible Gary Husband, who to my ears sounded equally as good on drums as on keyboards. Husband has played with Mike Stern, Jack Bruce, Robin Trower, Billy Cobham, Spectrum 40, Level 42, Andy Summers and Quincey Jones, among many others.

Some of the most touching moments of the evening were his pieces that Mclaughlin wrote for moments that clearly filled him with great emotion, like the song he wrote during the bombing of Gaza, or the song for his friend Paco de Lucia. The duelling drum moments between Husband and Barot were also a hugely entertaining bit that gave spectators a little of everything through the night in the intimate room for a band that could fill Paris’s biggest theatres.

Birds of Fire

Birds of Fire

What was really most inspiring about this show, aside from just listening to great music, was to think of a man of 75 playing as if he was 30, no impediments from age. He spoke in French most of the evening, too, by the way, as he lives in Monaco since the late 80s, and he said at one point that he had a broken collarbone on the mend. Having had my collarbone break on three different occasions as a slightly perturbed child, I know just how painful that is. And for a guitarist of 75 to stand up and move around and play with his guitar strapped over his shoulder with an injury like that, there’s nothing to say but that McLaughlin, in addition to everything else, is a real trouper.

How the New Ville d’Epinal Open Mic in Paris Inspired Me to Fix the Pick Up of My Guitar – and Other Irrelevant Frivolities

September 12, 2016

Ville d'EpinalPARIS – It was a kind of quiet night on Friday and I had planned to stay home and do some work on my various projects, as I have all week. But I received a message from a Facebook acquaintance who told me he had a friend who was as fascinated with open mics as I am, and I should contact him. So I did, and then I found that he had recently started an open mic near the Gare de L’Est in Paris, and it was for Friday night – which is a pretty barren night for open mics in Paris. So I decided to go and check it out, and use some of my meal tickets to treat myself to a meal out, at what turned out to be an interesting, hidden-away old-time Paris café on a kind of lost street running parallel to the railroad tracks.

It turned out to be the third time the open mic had taken place at this bar restaurant, called the Ville d’Epinal. And it had a nice crowd of people eating, dining, and wanting to see what the even was all about. I ate in the opening of the café with a view of the Gare de l’Est on the one side, and the stage area on the other.
first at the Ville d’Epinal open mic

I then went up and played a few songs, but found that once again my Seagull guitar was lifeless in the amp. Ever since the guitar had been used as a dance floor, despite having the wood surface fixed, the electronics had ceased to be reliable, working only in some places and not others, and giving off a buzz in yet others.

b-band-pick-up-like-the-one-in-my-seagullThis was enough for me, being once again in a situation where I was taking my guitar to an open mic and it wasn’t working. So the next night, Saturday, I decided I would take the whole thing apart and see if I could fix it. The B-Band pick up was, it turned out, pretty cluttered with a furry substance – no idea where that came from – and the connection between the bridge and the pick-up processor looked suspiciously not quite entirely plugged in to its limit. So I unplugged that, then plugged it back in, straightened out some of the wiring, restrung the guitar and put it all back together, and… it worked in an amp and with a cable that half an hour before it had not worked from.

second at the Ville d’Epinal open mic in Paris

So I have concluded that the guitar’s pick-up is now fixed! But I’ll see this week if it continues to work in Singapore, that humid city-state where in the past the pick up has failed to work upon arrival due – I think – to the flight and humidity….

Anyway, this long and meandering post is all to say that I had nice evening out – eating home cooked food – at the new open mic of the Ville d’Epinal café restaurant in Paris near the Gare de l’Est and that thanks to my frustration over my guitar in that place, I have finally got up off my butt and fixed the guitar! Thanks Ville d’Epinal. And I hope the open mic continues, and prospers. Paris has always needed a good Friday-night open mic…as the success of the briefly run open mic at the Noctambules on the Place Pigalle last year showed….

The Crazy Open Jam of the Spazio Ligera – Finally a Cool Music Scene in Milan

September 3, 2016

Spazio LigeraMILAN, Italy – The via Padova part of town in Milan, is apparently a little bit of the seedy corner of things. But I didn’t notice any of that last night as I took part in the coolest jam session I have yet been in in this otherwise not very musical – in the pop music sense – city. Oh, once upon a time I had another fabulous jam similar to this, at the anarchist’s club not far from the location of last night’s jam at the Spazio Ligera. And it should be no surprise, then, that the way I found out about this regular, if occasional, jam at this music bar/venue was thanks to my friend Emiliano Laurenzi – who plays the didgeridoo – the very man who had organized the anarchists’ jam at the Circolo Anarchico Ponte della Ghisolfa seven years ago!

Seven years between amazing jams? Of course, I’ve attended the blues jam at Frontera regularly since then, but that is a blues jam. The Chitarrata at the Ligera last night was a jam the likes of which I have only really run into before in Sao Paulo, with everyone gathering around a table and spread out throughout the café and playing whatever instrument comes to hand, with any song that they feel like. Last night I heard more Italian songs in one single night than I’ve ever heard anywhere, and they ranged from pop to rock to the song of the resistance against fascism. But there was also Bob Dylan, 4 Non-Blondes and everything you can imagine in between from the 60s on up to today.
Third at Ligera in Milan

Spiral DidgeridooEmiliano was there, too, with the most bizarre didgeridoo that I have ever seen: A mini, snail-shaped, or spiral, handheld didgeridoo that seemed to have a voice as big as the long, encumbering instrument we know so much better. There were at least four guitar players, a bongo, a kazoo and I don’t know what all else. And vocalists galore. Amazingly, I was never really intimidated by a situation that usually makes me feel a little ill-at-ease, playing with no microphone. But it was best to find a vocal that could be belted out very loud above the din of the joyous gathering of people at the Ligera.
Second at Ligera in Milan

The walls of this underground café are covered with photos and posters of crime movies, and other interesting pop culture phenomena – I also noticed some kind of Stratocaster hung up high on the wall above our head – and I regret that I missed my chance to delve into the cave to take a look at the regular concert space, which in the photos looks like a typical European vaulted cave room. (Think “Cavern Club.”) It is there that Ligera usually holds its gigs with local bands. On occasions when there is no gig lined up, they often decide to hold an open jam like last night’s on the ground floor of the bar.
Fifth at Ligera in Milan

Incidentally, the café is also called a 70s café, whatever that is. All I know is that it was a fabulous cross-section of people attending, and there was as much warmth coming from the jam as there was from the other people in the bar there just to talk, occasionally listen and occasionally sing. It completely and totally lifted my previous sense of Milan as a pretty stuffy place musically speaking into being as capable as any other city of having a very cool and musically vibrant scene.
First at Ligera in Milan

It also confirmed my desire NEVER to jump to conclusions about a city’s musical environment when I have a very poor grasp of the language and cannot therefore easily find the musical get-togethers. To say nothing of my unfortunate timing in Milan in early September when everyone and every venue is still contemplating summer at Lake Como or some cooler place. How could I possibly have found out about this “Chitarrata” without a little help from my friend….

A Resurrected Seagull Guitar on Easter Weekend

March 29, 2016

PARIS – What’s that old story about a guy who was resurrected from the dead three days after he was buried? And they called it Easter, or something along those lines? Well, guess what? There will be readers who think my post of last week about a woman dancing on my guitar and destroying it was an exaggeration, and that, hey, just repair the guitar. But I never, ever thought my guitar could be repaired, and I feel it’s almost a miracle that three days after it died, I had a little help from a friend, and the guitar has been brought back to life over a series of critical operations on Friday and Saturday.

destroyed Seagull 2

destroyed Seagull 2

repaired guitar full view
I was going to wait a while to see if my Seagull guitar is really fully back to life and does not break down, burst out of its own seams or melt in the heat of Bahrain, where it will be heading very soon. But now, I’m playing with it, and have been doing so since an open mic on Saturday night, and then another open mic last night, and I can say that I cannot truly hear a vast, brutal difference between the guitar as it was before it was used as a dance floor and how it is now, after having a few of its ribs and teeth and other inner structures permanently removed, and having the cracks and breaks and remaining ribs all glued up back together!
destroyed Seagull 1

destroyed Seagull 1

repaired guitar right side
This Seagull, in fact, seems to have just been truly and miraculously brought back from the dead on Easter weekend!!!!
neck area breaks

neck area breaks

repaired guitar first shot

repaired guitar first shot

I went and saw two different professional luthiers in Paris, and while one warned that the sound of the past could not return and the other said it could, they both agreed that the work to be done would be massive, very massive, and that the cost would be so much that it would cost more than the guitar had cost me to buy, 10 years ago. Then, out of the blue, I received an offer from a friend, who said that they would be happy to give a try fixing it, for a symbolic sum, really just to pay for the glue, in my opinion.
destroyed Seagull 2

destroyed Seagull 2

repaired guitar one closeup

repaired guitar one closeup

I must confess that I believed they were full of crap, that nothing could be done. But out of kindness on my part for the kindness they offered, I decided to go and see what could be done. There I witnessed the whole process over two days of the guitar undergoing a chiropractic operation of pushing, pulling, tearing, gluing and clamping, that brought the thing back to life!!!! I am not persuaded that it sounds exactly as it did, but I do know that I feel really happy to have this guitar back in my hands, that I don’t have to buy a new one, and that the long and storied history of my Seagull S6 will continue for another chapter or two.

I want to thank everyone who was so outpouring in their sympathy to me on Facebook for what was one of the biggest musical nightmares I’ve had to face. I really, truly thought the guitar was dead. And I’m putting some “before” the fix and “after” the fix photos on this page so you can see why.

The Sad, Sorry End of My World-Traveled Seagull Guitar – As a Dance Floor

March 23, 2016

destroyed Seagull 2

destroyed Seagull 2

PARIS – Some woman decided to use my Seagull S6 guitar as a dance floor last night. This fabulous guitar, which has been around the world with me 7 times, which just had all the frets replaced two weeks ago for 260 euros (so much do I love the sound of this guitar), which has a few battle scars that added to its charm and changed nothing of its fabulous sound, it is finally dead. I have debated for several hours now whether I can again help this Seagull rise from the dead, so great a guitar is it. But reading up on guitar repairs, and looking closely at the damage both inside and out on the table of this fabulous guitar, I have decided it must be time to put it up on my wall for retirement. (Note posted later: After many kind reactions on my Facebook to this post, I was encouraged to contact my luthier, who, in the end confirmed that the guitar was so badly destroyed it would never sound the same again if it were to be reconstructed, as it would be too full of glue and added parts to maintain its original integrity.)
Out of a Jam

Out of a Jam

In a way, it closes a chapter: The guitar was used as a dance floor by a woman who was told to watch out for it, while I was waiting to take a piss, in the the back room by the toilets at the Pigalle Country Club, where I was intending to play in the open mic. I had left the guitar in its case against a pillar where I always leave it. It was a soft case, and the guitar got knocked over and stomped on by the manic woman. The Pigalle Country Club is the bar where the guitar features on the cover photo of my CD. The CD consists of songs from my life over the last few years, all of which were composed on that Seagull S6. The guitar actually features on only four of the songs, however, with the rest of the songs being performed with my Gibson J200.
Johnny Borrell sings Vertical Women with my Seagull S6

What is certain is that I will attend even fewer open mics in the future with my J200. For if the Gibson had served as a dance floor to this drunken woman, then I’d be finding it even more difficult to be light-hearted about it. And come to think of it, I’m not really light hearted about my Seagull. I’m as broken as the Seagull is.
Daniel Haggis of The Wombats playing my Seagull S6

This is the Seagull that has been played at various times and in various countries of the world by people like Johnny Borrell of Razorlight; by Daniel Haggis of the Wombats; by one of the guitarists of The Cribs; by many of Paris’s former “baby rockers;” by Andy Flop Poppy of the Flop Poppies; and by countless other great musicians both known and unknown, around the world.
Andy Flop Poppy using my Seagull S6

Having said all that, I seek solace and attitude in the memory of my meeting with the great, wonderful and hugely human singer-songwriter Harry Chapin when I was 18 years old. I’ve frequently recounted the story of how this fabulous performer with the hit “Cat’s in the Cradle,” and I met while he was performing on a television show in which I was both performing and working backstage. Called “Bang, Bang, You’re Alive,” it was recorded in Ottawa, at the CJOH studios. I met Chapin backstage and we were talking in his room while he awaited his moment taping in front of the cameras and live audience. We learned we were both born on the same day – December 7 – although he was maybe 15 years older than me. We learned we both wanted to get into acting school.

another seagull shot

another seagull shot

Chapin reached out his hand and said, “Let’s make a wager to see who gets to acting school first!” I don’t know if he was just trying to encourage me, or what. But we shook hands. Soon, an assistant producer came and told him that he had to go on stage. He leapt out of his chair, grabbed his Ovation guitar, lost his grip, it fell on the floor and a rib broke inside the guitar. Where I would have been furious, and frustrated and sad, Chapin broke out into laughter and said, “Well, I’ll just have to use it like that!!!” And he ran off laughing to the stage….
destroyed Seagull 1

destroyed Seagull 1

After all, it’s just an object, right?!!!? Still, I could never imagine using someone’s guitar as a dance floor.

Harry Chapin

Harry Chapin

neck area breaks

neck area breaks

To Russia, With No Guitar – I Won’t Back Down

October 7, 2015



SOCHI, Russia – So I’m sitting in my hotel room in Sochi, at the site of the Winter Olympics, and it’s pretty dismal outside, with lots of rain, and my work does not start until tomorrow.  So what would I do right now to be playing my guitar, like I have done for the last seven years while travelling on my job to cover Formula One races.  Yes, this trip to Russia is the first time in seven years that I have not been able to take my guitar on a flight to a faraway country to play in my room and seek out open mics and jams and other venues to play at. Thanks Turkish Airlines.

I love Turkey, I love Istanbul, and I’ve had nothing but good experiences with Turkish Airlines.  That’s why I decided to take Turkish Airlines to Sochi, since, as it turns out, it is also the cheapest way there from Paris:  Paris – Istanbul, Istanbul – Sochi.  In fact, the flight last night after midnight from Istanbul to Sochi was about 98 percent booked by Formula One paddock people, drivers, team staff and media.  So I’m not the only one who has discovered the Turkish Airlines way to Russia (with love).
Turkish Airlines

But as it has been many years since I flew on Turkish Airlines, and I have my paces all set out for most of the other countries I fly to, and as I’m aware that of all of the world’s airports, Charles-de-Gaulle, in Paris is one of the most difficult ones for a musician with a guitar to pass through, I decided to check out the Turkish Airlines site for its baggage policy before I left.

I was also spurred on to doing this because I noticed that in my international flight on my electronic ticket, it said I could take 30 kilograms of baggage – which is wonderful, since I’d be well under 30 kilos even with the guitar in a hard case.  But I then noticed that there was a special policy for lepers.  Sorry, I mean musicians.  It said that if you really wanted to take your guitar onboard – i.e., if the instrument exceeded cabin baggage size – you had to buy a seat.

This all seemed pretty absurd.  So I decided to call up Turkish Airlines at the airport in Paris and query.  They took my name, checked my ticket, and told me to wait, that they would look into it.  Actually, no, they did answer one of my questions, which was, if I have 30 kilos of baggage, can I divide that into two pieces.  They said I could divide it into as many pieces as I wanted, but that, oh, if one of those pieces happens to be a guitar, then I might have to pay an excess luggage fee.

Off the woman went, and when she returned, she confirmed that I would have to pay about 15 euros per kilo of that excess luggage.  In fact, it was NOT excess luggage, it was just a guitar.  I explained that with my main bag and the guitar – which would weigh 7 kilos, hard case included – I would have a total of 24 kilos in the flight, which is well under the 30 kilos allowed.

The woman told me that it made no difference, since one of the pieces of luggage was a guitar, I had to pay out of my nose for the privilege of taking it with me to Russia on Turkish Airlines, i.e., a minimum of 105 euros extra…and I’m not actually sure if I had to pay the 105 both ways, or if that covered the entire return trip.  And I no longer cared, because 105 euros to take my guitar which is NOT excess luggage, for me was not just torture of a musician, it was also a sum I cannot afford.

One of my journalist colleagues, upon hearing this story last night at the airport upon arrival, reminded me that he had seen me singing and playing my guitar in Sochi last year, at a pub, and that I had sung Tom Petty’s, “I Won’t Back Down.”  I was impressed with his memory, but I was suddenly less impressed with myself, as I said to him that this year, I had just backed down.  I had backed down from Turkish Airline’s extortionate practices against guitar carrying musicians.  But on the other hand in a way, I did not back down.  I was not going to let the airline make me pay a vast sum of money that they did NOT deserve.

But so here I am on a rainy day in Sochi, and missing my guitar like hell.  Maybe I’ll find an open mic, though, and play someone else’s guitar….

PS, Last year I did the same trip with Aeroflot via Moscow. It was more expensive, and Moscow Airport was a little too crowded for my liking. But both the Aeroflot people and the people at the Moscow Airport were super cool about my guitar, allowing me to take it into the cabin, and even, at the airport, asking me if I wanted to go up and play some music on the stage that was being constructed behind me in the airport for some upcoming concert.

PPS, I keep on having these urges, where I am sitting at my computer, and I want to turn around and grab my guitar for a few chords and songs…. Have to keep stopping myself….

Another Wild Noctambules Night in Place Pigalle

August 9, 2015

Aux Noctambules

Aux Noctambules

PARIS – I personally have never seen such a long list of musicians showing up for the Noctambules open mic night on the Place Pigalle on Friday. Apparently there have been one or two nights with more musicians, but I wasn’t in town. This was clearly a great edition, and it was yet another surprise that it happened in the month of August, when so many other Paris venues decide to close down their open mics for want of musicians….

Very cool mouth harp playing.

In a reflection of the previous weeks, it was again a hugely eclectic evening, with even one woman who did a song a cappella in Russian. A musician with an electric guitar did a medley, another did the most amazing little act I’ve ever seen on a mouth harp – think electro – and there were some very welcome new participants from around the other Paris open mics, people who had not yet tried the Noctambules.

Woman singing song in a cappella in Russian.

And, of course, Raphaëlle’s MCing seems to be getting better every week, and it was already great to start with. And her cabaret interlude, and personal songs at the beginning and end of the night, just make the whole thing a fabulous treat for the musicians, spectators and passersby – many of whom become spectators….

Pierre singing at Noctambules.

Of course, I will not be able to say something new about the Noctambules open mic every week, I’m pretty sure of that, so even now I think I should stop and let the videos do the talking….

Les Spleens doing a Beatles song.

Insu does one of his songs.

Leandro takes us to Brazil again.

Trelys returns to the Noctambules.

Marie Jal plays the Noctambules.

Playing Stand By Me.

Second guy at the Noctambules.

Eclectic Night at the Noctambules Open Mic in Paris

August 3, 2015



PARIS – Is it a reflection of the location of this most interesting Paris open mic, one of the latest additions to the open mic scene in the city of lights? The Place Pigalle is nothing if not eclectic – music stores, strip joints and sex shops, but also the cool quarter at the foot of the Sacré Coeur, bars of every variety…the area around the Place Pigalle is a sea of contrasts. And Friday night, in mid-summer, it was the most eclectic crowd of musicians I’ve seen so far at the open mic.
Guitar and sax, Brazil and U.S. at the Noctambules:

I think it is a reflection of the neighbourhood, the fact there are a number of open mics closed for the summer so the musicians congregate here, and the MCing by Raphaëlle, whose own music is vastly eclectic.
A bit of gypsy jazz stuff at the Noctumbules open mic in the Place Pigalle:

In any case, there was gypsy jazz, Brazilian music, rock, pop and soul; there was spoken word of two different kinds; saxophone playing, bongo hitting, a mandole, as well as some telephone soundtracking. It was all there at the Noctambules on Friday evening. While there was a long list of musicians – but everyone got to play until around 1 a.m. and most people played twice – there were maybe a tad few drop-by spectators, as a large percentage of the Paris population left for the August vacation.
Deborah Elina plays at the Noctambules open mic in the Place Pigalle:

But the Noctambules open mic will continue throughout August, and I’m already looking forward to every edition in the coming weeks….
A bit of spoken word at the Noctambules open mic:

Simon Ferrante doing All Along the Watchtower at the Noctambules open mic:

A small bit of a wonderful song at the Noctambules:

Leandro’s new song at the Noctambules:

First one at the Noctambules:

Mandole gets in on the act at the Noctambules open mic in Paris:

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