Brad Spurgeon's Blog

A world of music, auto racing, travel, literature, chess, wining, dining and other crazy thoughts….

Having a Great Laff in Ottawa, and a Fabulous Moonshine in Oakville

January 5, 2019
bradspurgeon

moonshine café in oakville

moonshine café in oakville

Our last two nights in Canada were spent checking out a couple of open mics I have never played in before. In fact, as far as playing in open mics in Ottawa, I had never done that at all. Both nights had their amazingly cool aspects, as ultimately, I finally found myself in a familiar environment after a week and a half of discoveries of the past, present, and maybe the future, in a country that I used to call home.

I guess I can still call it home thanks to my friends and family still living there, but just about everything else felt a little foreign to me after not visiting much of it for a decade. Yes, I had been going to Montreal yearly for the previous nearly 10 years, to cover the Formula One, but that excluded Toronto, and made Ottawa a big step away. Moreover, this visit was only my second in a Canadian winter since 1983, and that was something else again!

The Laff – or Château Lafayette – calls itself Canada’s oldest tavern, as it was founded in 1849. (It also calls itself Canada’s original Dive bar – which generally means a scummy kind of place, but now means it can also be slightly trendy.) Ornella happened to see that there was an open mic on Tuesday night, and that was our last night in Ottawa, and we were staying within walking distance of the place in the Byward Market, so there was no way possible to miss this one.

The open mic has been running for more than 12 years, and has a large cross-section of performers, a good sound system, and I am sure that if it had not been New Year’s Day, there would have been a lot more musicians and a bigger “musician” vibe. (In fact, I was told this was the case by the longtime organizer of the evening,
John Carroll.) I was just thankful that it even took place on New Year’s Day, since so much of the city was closed down. And, yes, it was around 20 below zero outside with lots of snow and ice on the roads. I was astounded there were as many musicians attending as there were, but then again, such weather is just natural for Ottawa.

And then on to Oakville and the Moonshine Café

commandments of the jam at the moonshine

commandments of the jam at the moonshine

Our final night in Canada we went to visit my old friend, Mark Parr, who had been telling me about this great open mic he has been attending for as long as the Laff open mic has existed in Ottawa. Located in his current hometown of Oakville, which is about 40 minutes’ drive from Toronto, the Moonshine Café is the region’s biggest attraction as a music bar. Toronto itself may be full of bars and music venues, but certainly in the suburban areas, and the region immediately surrounding Oakville – and, as the denizens of the Moonshine say – there is no bar that devotes itself to music the way this one does.

Music every night, basically, it has an open mic, jam sessions, band nights, stars, beginners, everything you can imagine. And the vibe you get from the decor and the piped in music when the stage is empty – mostly they play recordings of people who have played there – shows that the Moonshine really is a musicians’ paradise as far as bars go.

In fact, it is a community as well, and the artifacts and posters on the wall – of musicians (Bob Dylan), house rules, definitions of the jam, photos of past evenings – all attest to and set the vibe of a warm, cosy, home for musicians and spectators alike.

house rules at the moonshine

house rules at the moonshine

The jam this night was – as you will see and hear in my videos – pretty distinctively that of a bunch of local musicians who have played together frequently. (But I am told that they also regularly come from all around the region.) And much to my delight, they were able to fit in really easily with even my own songs that they had never heard before. My friend Mark – who plays the recorder and penny whistles – goaded me on to doing my own stuff when I started out playing a cover song everyone knew. So I tried, “It’s Easy,” and then “Borderline,” and later I jumped into doing some covers I don’t usually try – such as “Runaway Train” by Soul Asylum – again due to Mark’s pushing me onwards. I’d like to have that kind of goading at every jam like open mic, as I usually tend to fall into what I see as the three-chord-safety zone of well-known covers.
mark parr and brad spurgeon in action at puck's circus in 1976

mark parr and brad spurgeon in action at puck’s circus in 1976


By the way, the highest point for me of this jam was that it was the first time in my life that I had found myself playing music with Mark. Who could have imagined that 42 years after we shared the same circus ring – as you will be able to see in the photo of the two of us during my juggling act at Puck’s Circus in Toronto – I was now playing music with him on another kind of stage…. Thanks Mark!!!!


The Little Happy Theater Open Mic in Paris

December 3, 2018
bradspurgeon

PARIS – It has been a long time since I’ve been to a new open mic in Paris, so it was a strange but exhilarating experience on Saturday night to finally get over to the open stage of a little, tiny, minuscule bar/venue/theater space in Montmartre, called the Petit Théâtre de Bonheur and perform in front of the absolutely jam packed space of about 25 square meters.

I had discovered this place while working on an article about Paris’s small theaters, but I wasn’t sure the place really fit in. One thing is sure: It only just fits into its Montmartre location on a stairway steeply climbing up the slope towards the Sacre Coeur. You find yourself, in fact, on simply a midway up landing on the slope, not even on any kind of a street as such.

The venue is also jam-packed into the tiny space, and the open mic takes place in front of the seated spectators, seated in rows of available chairs as in a theater. These are moveable chairs, so while it is cramped quarters for everyone if the open mic is as well attended as it was on Saturday, you can move the chairs about to find the best squeeze…!

While I call it an open mic, they have another name for it: Cabaret Voltaire! It is open to anyone, musicians, comics, you name it. We saw several comics and the rest musicians – even some who had no instruments but just sang their texts unaccompanied.

The place is so small and intimate that I decided to perform without a mic or pickup on my guitar. It was one of the first times that I actually really enjoyed that, since it was so intimate a space, and I knew I did not have to strain my voice (or guitar) to be heard.

Anyway, it was really unlike any open mic I have attended in Paris so far. If you are looking for “different” then this is it! Not to mention the fabulous location on the hill leading up to Montmartre.

PS, This open mic was the last before they close down for a few weeks for renovations – so be sure to check the web site for the program to make sure they have reopened.

An Update to My Paris Open Mic Guide

November 26, 2018
bradspurgeon

Thumbnail Open Mic Guide

Thumbnail Open Mic Guide

Just a note to say that I have updated my open mic city guide, The Thumbnail Guide to Paris Open Mics, Jam Sessions and other Live Music.

In fact, the only update is to bring back a listing for the fabulous Paris Songwriters Club open mic of Paddy Sherlock, which has already had five editions at its new location, O’Sullivans Rebel Bar. It had previously been at the Tennessee Bar before seeking a new home for many months, and finding this fabulous, intimate place. Check it out!

Caveau des Oubliettes is Back – and Just like it ever was….

September 5, 2018
bradspurgeon

Caveau des Oubliettes Jam

Caveau des Oubliettes Jam

PARIS – Just a very short post to celebrate that in this time Paris when night music joint after night music joint is closing down as the Parisian population becomes more and more bourgeois and gentrified and refuses to accept the sound of music at nighttime, I can celebrate with a few words to say that a longtime mainstay of the Paris live music scene has returned after months of being closed down. The Caveau des Oubliettes on the Rue Galande in the 5th Arrondissement, near Shakespeare and Company and Notre Dame, has re-opened after its change in ownership and renovation. And it looks the same as it ever did.

Well, of course, the little problem of paying 12 euros for a 50 cl of IPA beer will steer away many a poor musician. Or at least no doubt limit their spending to say, one beer, rather than probably three beers at 5 euros each (and therefore earning more money for the bar).

In any case, the jam I attended on Sunday night was one of the many it has during each week, and this one was the blues jam, now led by Youva Sid, who I met a few years ago at his own bar venue in Menilmontant.

The great news is that this place looks as if it has basically not changed at all. It has just cleaned everything up to make it look more stylish – but the jam principle is the same. Bring your instruments, make your presence known, get up on stage and play!

New Rush Bar Open Mic Another Real Rush!

August 15, 2018
bradspurgeon

Rush Bar open mic

Rush Bar open mic

PARIS – I have always said that for an open mic to be a success it is necessary to have three essential ingredients. And the new version of the Rush bar open mic has proven this to be true again:

First, a great location both within the city, but also the nature of the bar room itself. There has to be a bar that lends itself to intimacy for the musicians and the spectators. But it should also have a way in which the spectators can listening quietly to the music, or go to another part of the bar (or outside) in order to talk and socialise. This the Rush bar has in spades. Something about this room and the precise location on the corner of a couple of quiet streets really works.

Second, an owner of the bar that loves music and really wants to have an open mic, and understands what is necessary to ensure that the musicians and spectators are happy. The Rush bar changed owners last year and while I had met one of the two new owners before they took over, and they said they were really enthusiastic about keeping the open mic, that is not something that you can believe in until you see it. Well, attending the open mic on Monday night I found the owner I had met before and he seemed even MORE enthusiastic now about the open mic than he was before he bought the place.

Third, you must have someone running the open mic who has a knack for doing this highly specialized job. The knack involves a nice way with people – both musicians and spectators – and a love of music, and even sometimes a little bit of a side to them that is happy to see a big party…. Igor and the gang from the Escargot Underground Radio fit this bill entirely.

And that is why the old Rush bar has managed to successfully make the transition from its status a year ago to what it is today, as I saw on Monday. The open mic had been run from its inception only around a year or so earlier by Charlie Seymour, who ended up moving on when the management changed, and who now runs the Bootleg bar open mic near the Bastille. Charlie did such a great job at the Rush bar that I was very worried that this great open mic would die upon his departure.

It went through some months of I don’t know what – since I never went – until the open mic became the new Rush bar open mic, with Igor and the gang running it. And it looks like it has saved one of Paris’s great new open mics, and given it a different twist too. Like I said, it needed all of the ingredients to be a success – and it now has them all. Oh, and I really must add that an open mic also needs understanding neighbors who are inevitably exposed to the cacophony of music and talk that a great open mic invariably produces – and for the moment it seems the Rush bar has this ingredient too.

I’ll definitely be returning!

An Update to My Paris Open Mic Guide

August 11, 2018
bradspurgeon

Thumbnail Open Mic Guide

Thumbnail Open Mic Guide

Just a note to say that I have updated my main open mic city guide, The Thumbnail Guide to Paris Open Mics, Jam Sessions and other Live Music.

There are not a lot of changes. Mostly just the addition of the Olympe bar open mic that I wrote about yesterday, which is located beside the Parc des Buttes Chaumont; and the removal of the Paradis bar open mic, which ended months ago or even longer, but which I had overlooked taking off the list…. (By the way, the end of that open mic was marked by the beginning of the Carré jam that I wrote about recently, which takes place in the Don Camilo Cabaret, located next to Serge Gainsbourg’s old place. So no huge regrets about that one!) Check it out!

The Olympe Open Mic at the Top of (not Olympus) the Buttes Chaumont, in Paris in August

August 10, 2018
bradspurgeon

Olympe open mic

Olympe open mic

PARIS – Is it just my impression, or are there more than the usual number of open mics in Paris that have closed down for the summer – or the month of August? In any case, I managed to find a new open mic last night that is open all summer. The Olympe bar open mic located at the top of the beautiful Parc des Buttes Chaumont.

I have never been to an open mic in that part of Paris, and strange as it may seem, I’ve never set foot in the Parc des Buttes Chaumont, which is surely one of the most beautiful in Paris.

The open mic is located in a bar that clearly loves music, as there were instruments hanging from the wall around the makeshift stage in a front window with red curtains, closed to create the stage effect. The instruments on the wall were a stringed instrument like a little bouzouki, a banjo and an oud.

It was a very well organized open mic, with a maximum of 12 performers each Thursday, with the need to call up in advance and book a slot with Guillaume, the organizer of the Olympe open mic*, and with a precise starting time of 20:15, and an ending time just before midnight.

Too bad the place was not quite packed to the full last night – but that is part of the risk of running an open mic in August in Paris, no doubt, when the locals all head to the seas for the month. So thank goodness there are still a few bars that remain loyal to the residents who do not leave for the seas, and the tourists who come only for the month of August and still want an open mic!

* I have found out since publication of this blog item that Guillaume was just replacing the usual organizer of this open mic, whose name is James Z.

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