FINALE DI POLLINA, Sicily – The Hobo clown character goes back generations in the circus arts, with the most famous one being that of Emmett Kelly, whose hobo “Weary Willie” was a reflection of the tramps of the 1930s depression. We are now on the edge of an economic period that is being classified as potentially worse than that depression, but for circus performers and most other live entertainment artists, the period of Coronavirus has been even beyond the imaginings of the depression period. So it was that the show we saw last night in this extraordinary resort town on the north coast of Sicily was, as Ornella pointed out to the artist himself after the show, an extraordinary metaphor for our time.
The clown act was that of an Italian from Turin named Paolo Locci, which he calls “Hobo.” And while that name and Locci’s makeup and costume fall right in the Emmett Kelly tradition, this was an act with a twist: The clown was both the hobo and his dog; most importantly, throughout most of the act, the dog is trying to feed itself, but the food falls just short of his grasp. There’s the metaphor of the clown that today cannot feed himself – like most actors, circus performer, musicians and other live entertainers!
Asked after the show where he got the idea, Locci said he got it from his own dog. In fact, it was a beautifully executed and imaginative pole act from beginning to end in which Locci interweaves classic pole performance with the characters of the hobo and dog. Locci has trained at circus school in both Italy and France, and he performs around Europe. Paolo Locci Hobo on the pole
I managed to get a little bit of it on video, but I as too far from the stage to get a good quality video. This can just give a small idea of what it as about. Making the video was also a bit difficult as we were seated on the ground level in front of the stage, not in the arena seats behind, so there were plenty of spectators’ heads in front of us.
But that is part of the theme too: The show took place during an annual festival for street theater, contemporary circus and music called Valdemone Festival that was founded in 2010, but which, this year due to Coronavirus was not supposed to take place at all. The organizers fought to keep it going and managed to set things going in record time.
Our seats were spread out according to social distancing laws, and there were not so many spectators as to make it dangerous proximity anywhere in the theater. Locci’s act was preceded by a music concert by a three-man band called Trio CasaMia – a small acoustic bass or viola, guitar and saxophone – that mostly entertained by telling long stories about the music they would then play, most of which had come from popular films and television series of the past.
Pollina and its built-in theater
Our only regret was that we did not get to see a show in the other theater of the festival, which is located up in the town above where the hobo show took place in a theater the likes of which I have never seen before as it is a kind of amphitheater built right into the city-scape of the town (if such a phrase is possible!). Pollina is an ancient town built on a hill (a little like Mont Saint Michel in France) that is a major tourist attraction in Sicily; but it was too dark for us to see it from the beach area where we saw the show.
It felt a little like we had driven 150 kilometers to get fed, but it was just outside our grasp…
CASTELLAMMARE DEL GOLFO, Sicily – “That’s not Italy!” Such was the idea behind a message a Facebook friend wrote when six days ago I posted a brief dream moment that I captured in a video when Ornella and I found ourselves in the back streets of this Sicilian town, hearing loud Italian music coming from a window while church bells rang simultaneously. Not Italy, perhaps. But not Sicily? A few days later, we encountered a traditional parade through the marina area of the town, and Ornella told me that it was the kind of thing she had so many fond memories of in her childhood here. So, was that not Sicily?
I know what my Facebook friend meant: It’s a little like those American novels set in Paris in which the French are all about wearing beret hats and eating baguettes and they are “oh so quaint, oh so silly.” But sometimes the clichés and real life come together. Castellammare del Golfo, Yesterday & Today
There was an exhibit of his handwritten manuscripts and letters on the walls, and his old camera is still there, and the owner of the bar decided during the lockdown this year to publish a new edition of his collected poems called, Timpesti e Carmarii, which first appeared in print in 1938, when the poet was 46 years old.
The parade that I show in the video, by the way, was part of a huge celebration of an evening in the presence of the famous Italian fashion designers, Dolce & Gabbana, who were in the town to show the film about them called, “Devotion.” (Dolce was born outside nearby Palermo.) The film was made by Giuseppe Tornatore, who is a famous Italian director, who filmed, notably, “Nuoco Cinema Paradiso,” and as he also has had a long association with Ennio Morricone – who died recently – Morricone composed the music for the film.
Tornatore’s was a fabulous film, by the way, although it was also clearly designed as an advertisement for the fashion house. For me, best of all, it was a great excuse to bring the past back to the presence in the form of the parade. There was a fabulous moment during the parade – which I put in the video – in which the performers sing a popular song from here, called, “Si maritau Rosa.” This will strike home very strongly with the actors of TAC Teatro (of whom I am one) as it is a song that we are singing in the new show, and which none of us knew anything about. It was, of course, Ornella’s idea.
But in any case, there it was, the past in the present. The folklore moment of ritual, bright colours, dance and music that may not be Sicily in many peoples’ minds, but it certainly was Sicily last weekend! I’ve edited part of the video in old looking black and white to show that the images we see of the town and the parade look like something we imagine having seen in the past, no more relevant to today…but then the color comes and it looks very much like today…as the past would have no doubt to our eyes had we been there…!
ALCAMO MARINA, Sicily – The last thing I imagined finding myself doing yesterday evening as the sun set on the Mediterranean was to be standing on the vast sandy beach of the Alcamo Marina playing songs to save the lives of unborn Loggerhead sea turtles. But that is precisely what happened, thanks to an invitation from TrinArt, an association based in Castellammare del Golfo, that in turn had been invited by the association – called Thalia – that was interested in protecting the turtles after a recent attack by vandals of the beach site where the turtle eggs are buried.
I will likely be speaking more in the coming days about TrinArt and its artist founder, Simona Nasta, but for the moment back to the event on the beach to save Claretta’s eggs! Claretta is the name of the turtle – no doubt for its scientific name of Caretta caretta – that laid the eggs on the beach. The site was cordoned off with the help of various associations, including the World Wildlife Fund, but when some idiot man went and allowed his dog to go in and tear apart the nest, destroying some of the eggs, it was time to draw attention to the fact that the eggs needed protection.
So TrinArt set up an event to invite artists to the nest yesterday to perform and attract attention to the turtles. These sea turtles are in a precarious situation in the area – in fact, it is an endangered species – so it has been celebrated whenever they have been laying eggs anywhere. The beach that Claretta chose, however, is a very popular one for vacationers, and is, in fact, lined with vacation homes. But only a very small fraction of the turtles that will be hatched from the eggs is ever expected to make it to adulthood, once it leaves the nest and goes into the sea. So any disruption to the already perilous process is highly to be discouraged.
Nasta had invited Ornella and me, and so it became a TAC Teatro experience, and I brought along my guitar to play music with the other artists. Strangely, the first musician who played stole two of the songs I had planned to play, which I considered on theme: “Stand By Me,” and “What’s Up!” with its strong and appropriate line: “What’s goin’ on?!?!?”
So I decided when it was my turn, at the prodding of Ornella, to do “Mad World,” and “You Ain’t Going’ Nowhere,” finishing off with my own song, “Borderline.”
Nasta led a blindfolded ritual painting with the public, and I have decided to show the result of that work here – done by her, and several members of the public, who led her blindfolded to the canvas in front of the turtle egg nest.
For TAC Teatro, it was a nice moment tying together with the company’s past, as Ornella has led theater research projects along with the World Wildlife Fund in the past, and this reminded her of those great moments. For me personally, as we drove back to Castellammare del Golfo, I suddenly remembered the last time that I had taken part in an artistic event to save a species. Unfortunately it dates back to what is now more than 40 years! I was living in Nairobi, Kenya, and I was invited to perform an act with my ventriloquist’s dummy, Peter McCabe at a “Save the Rhino” event. I guess that worked out pretty well for the Rhino, even though they still have big problems. I only hope this event yesterday will save the sea turtle – or at least Claretta’s eggs….
Save the Rhino interview with Peter and me from 1970s
CASTELLAMMARE DEL GOLFO, Sicily – How many times during lockdown in Paris from March to May this year did Ornella and I say to each other that if we managed somehow to get to our favorite summer retreat again this year we would feel blessed? No doubt too often to count. In any case, we have now been here for three weeks, and we still feel blessed every day. After the confinement of lockdown we find ourselves in an average of 30 degree temperatures, cloudless skies and warm, smooth Mediterranean waters. Still, it might be the calm after the storm, but I am reading the Italian press daily to keep an eye on the possibility of rough waters to come, and a storm after the calm. Needless to say, it is a holiday like none before….
But this small former fishing village of Castellammare del Golfo – the castle on the sea – on the north coast of Sicily, less than an hour’s drive from Palermo, is about as good – and for the moment safe – as holiday locations can come. Sicily was not as badly hit as the rest of Italy with the virus, suffering still to date fewer than 300 deaths, and around 3000 infected (that’s a pretty high percentage of deaths per infections, though, isn’t it?) Since we came here, though, the town of 15,000 people is filling up rapidly with tourists from the rest of Europe, and we hold our breaths and wear our masks in an effort to believe that things will not this summer get out of hand here as they have in some other vacation spots in Europe, such as southern Spain.
We chose to give ourselves a quick escape method should things go wrong, by having driven here from Paris in my old Ford Focus, taking the ferry boat from Genova to Palermo, with the car aboard. It was a peaceful, fun, in fact magnificent journey, topped off on the boat by a fabulous seafood pasta in a restaurant that only we and an English couple, and perhaps another one or two people, decided to use. So there was little worry about the virus spreading there! The point was that if the pandemic grew back into the danger zone, as it has in Spain, we could just jump in the car and drive back to Paris or some other country. (Plus the flights were getting really expensive.) A Free Music Performance in Castellammare del Golfo
We feel so blessed to have had this summer in Sicily, in fact, that this year we decided that we would live it a little differently than in past years: This year is devoted to staying as much at home and at the beach as possible, while avoiding the center of the town as much as possible on the weekends. The reason for that is that if you are currently aware that there is a virus out there, you would be entirely unaware were you to venture out into the nightlife of Castellammare del Golfo this summer: It is difficult to find any bars or restaurants not bursting with clients wearing no masks as if there were no cases of the virus at all on this island. (And, yes, that is actually almost true: the known daily cases are rising in single digits at the moment…but….)
In years past we had decided that every year we would discover a new part of this historical jewell of ancient Mediterranean civilisation. But this year, as I said, we are staying put and feeling blessed. Personally, I decided that I would use my experiences of learning about the island in the past years as a base for a new project: Reading the daily Giornale di Sicilia not only for the coronavirus statistics, but also in order to practice my Italian, and make a real, strong effort to finally learn the language as well as another way of exploring the local culture and getting to know the place of Ornella’s birth and childhood upbringing much better.
And what an education it is turning out to be. In addition to reading stories all about the places I have visited in the last few years with Ornella each summer – Marsala, Palermo, Trapani, among other cities, and such ancient archaelogical sites as Segesta or the Valley of the Temples outside Agrigento (which is also the home of Pirandello, Camilleri and Sciascia), as well as Scopello and Erice, the medieval town on the hill – I have found the second most comprehensible stories for my limited Italian to be those about all the local crime. Yes, like any such local newspapers, the Giornale di Sicilia – preferably my local Trapani edition – brings me daily news of mafia arrests and crimes.
This is particularly interesting to follow as it turns out that this beautiful small town of Castellammare was itself the birthplace of many of the figures of the legendary New York City mafia in the 1920s and 1930s, including Joseph “Joe Bananas” Bonanno, Salvatore Maranzano, Vito Bonventre, and was the base in Sicily of Don Vito Ferro who decided to try to take over control of the New York mafia from Giuseppe “Joe The Boss” Masseria – who had the famous future boss “Lucky Luciano” on his side – and they all got into a battle that became known as the Castellammarese War – named after this town, yes – that lasted from February 1930 to Apr. 15, 1931. The faction from this town won that war, by the way, but then the whole crime syndicate would change form, leading to the so-called sharing arrangement set up by Luciano and called “The Commission.”
Ornella Bonventre at the Greek Theater in Segesta, Sicily
Falcone and Borsellino
I see this beautiful little seaside town more like a future Monaco, however, and I hope it takes as long as possible before any such transformation happens. But the nightlife grows every year, the real estate value grows, and the boats keep getting bigger. For Ornella and I, as I say, we are enjoying the calm, the sun and the sea. And it turns out that there are numerous free concerts and other events – notably, and partly on the theme of this blog item, we saw a theatrical production the other day about a fictional interview with famous Palermo anti-mafia judge Paolo Borsellino, who was assassinated by the mafia in 1992 (weeks after his fellow Palermo anti-mafia judge Giovanni Falcone was also assassinated)….
So, after the storm, a break. Let’s hope it continues. I’ll check back in as soon as possible with more news about virus life from here or elsewhere….
Borsellino Theatre Piece in Castellammare del Golfo
This is the article my father wrote for the Globe and Mail about man landing on the moon – written 50 years ago today, published 50 years ago tomorrow. I, with my brother and sister and mother, were there with him at Cape Kennedy (as it was then called) and we watched the Apollo 11 spacecraft lift off toward the moon. We stayed at Cocoa Beach while he then flew off to Houston, and Mission Control, for the rest of the coverage.
At one point, one early evening, without a board, I asked my father to rent me one. He said no, but that I should go ask that man over there with a woman if I could use his, as he was not using it. I was unsure why he singled out this man, but I went and asked for his board. “No,” came the abrupt answer. Returning to tell my Dad, he asked me if I knew who the man was. Of course I did not, but he responded: “That’s Norman Mailer, Brad.” Mailer was attending the launch researching his eventual book, “Of a Fire on the Moon.”
If my father perhaps wanted to use me to meet Mailer, he did give me another unforgettable memory when while I was swimming in our hotel pool, he drew my attention to an elderly man entering a room above – the doors of the rooms faced the pool below, as in a motel – and I can still see the image of the man entering the room. “That’s Charles Lindbergh,” my father told me. And, of course, it was. Lindbergh, then only 67 years old, and the first man to fly across the Atlantic Ocean, was still around to attend the moon launch. An extraordinary century.
But many decades later, in our own century now, my father asked me what it was like to cover Formula One racing as a journalist. I told him that it was very interesting because it was about so many different things: The drivers were heroes risking their lives and doing exceptional feats of athletic prowess; they drove cars that were the highest expression of cutting edge technology, and expensive as hell; that it was a mix of extremely rapid technological development, glamour, money and danger with the drivers as stars. His response to me was: “It sounds just like covering the space program in the 1960s.” That is when I realised that no matter how hard we try to escape our origins, our family background, our parents’ goals for us, well, we somehow end up back at the same place….
2:30 AM: Arrived in Cluj-Napoca, the capital of Transylvania. Expected at least one vampire sighting, saw none.
10:30 AM: Awoke, went to pharmacy for eye infection that looked like vampire bite. At pharmacy, pleasant Romanian able to speak English sold me magic garlic bullet – also contained cortisone and antibiotic – mercifully given me despite it requiring a doctor’s prescription.
11:00 AM: Went to fruit market to buy lemons, spinach and cloves of garlic.
1:00 PM: Returned to apartment to work all afternoon on various writing projects, along with Ornella, who is writing an article for an Italian magazine (not about vampires).
7:00 PM: After eating local food made by mother of our host – chicken soup for the soul made from her very own chicken (not killed by a vampire) -, took a walk around Cluj after several applications of garlic gel on eye infection. Saw many different quarters of university town, from typical public places with bars spilling out under awning-covered tables onto the sidewalks to rapidly flowing, violent river at edge of town to canal that looked like a perfect setting for Dracula to make an attack and lure is into unknown territory. Noticed scary looking metal spike on side of the bridge where Ornella and I both looked at each other and think about Vlad the Impaler.
Saw national theater with Hungarian words in name; national opera; another national theater; a few cool bars reminiscent of Budapest kerts (or beer gardens); noticed barbed wire and old communist era signs in several places.
8:30 PM: Went out for a glass of wine and chocolate brownie at Charlie’s, a bar with the image of Charlie Chaplin. First had a local white, then had a local red. Thought I saw vampire and accidentally spilled Ornella’s wine all over her with overly abrupt hand and arm movement. Fortunately was the white wine or vampire might have mistaken it for blood.
Found whole city to look like Budapest 20 years ago when first went to that East European country. Expressed surprise to host on seeing no Roma, or Gypsies, anywhere as I see them on a daily basis in Paris. Host laughed at me, as she had at every mention of vampires or Dracula.
10:37 AM: Woke up after bad night sleep and early morning storm worthy of a vampire (learned later that hail stones the size of golf balls fell on the location of our home for the next week and a half, in Talmaciu). Prepare to go to Talmaciu, to factory that is to be our home for next week and a half.
4:30 PM: Arrive at Fabrique RE-Évolution / FREE / France Roumanie Europe Ensemble to find no gypsies. Look on Wikipedia and find that population of Talmaciu is only just over 3 percent gypsy. Find no vampires either. Despite certain parts of factory looking like good homes for vampires (or Roma, or Gypsies).
7:00 PM: Attend first conference at fabrique, featuring former minister of culture for Romania, and former boss of the Romanian Culture Center in NYC, and former a lot of things. Learn much about what it was to live under communism. Learn even more about what it is to have lived under communism and then in 1989 to face freedom. Hear no word about vampires – except in form of former communist padres – and nothing about Roma, or Gypsies.
12:30 AM: Begin to jam in dining area of Fabrique RE-Évolution / FREE / France Roumanie Europe Ensemble with musicians. Have time of life playing music and watching two musicians clown around with the music.
2:00 AM: Go to bed, closing windows at first tight against vampires, then opening windows but put mosquito repellent against vampires. (And copious mosquitoes present.)
11:00 AM: Awake in sunlight, having survived no vampire attack.
2:00 PM: Take bus to Sibiu, local big town, capital of the county. Find typical architecture of the region, mix of Romanian, Hungarian and German styles. Tried to meet Rocco, man of more than 250 guitar collection. Rocco answers phone, says he is many kilometres away in another town. Leaves me with no guitar – because Wizzair wanted me to pay for an extra seat for my guitar, so I did not take it. (Devise inspirational, brilliant, advertising campaign for Wizzair (also known as Wizz): “Next time you go on vacation, take a wizz!”)
3:00 PM: Find one of two music stores in Sibiu, go there and ask to try cheapest guitar that exists. Play Emerald green “Flame” guitar costing 60 euros. Find it more than serviceable, not bad at all. Buy guitar, strap and Fender strings for total of 74 euros. In store meet elderly, white-haired man with strong accent in English, says he is from Denmark but lives in Sibiu. Has guitar on back. After leaving store, elderly man approaches again in street. Says he owns 250 guitars. Ask him if he knows Rocco. Says yes, adds, “Rocco has 2,500 guitars.” Danish man tells me he himself gives guitars away; makes me think 74 euros was thrown in waste.
3:30 PM: Look for second music store in Sibiu for small percussion instruments for Ornella’s workshop, meet up with strange Danish man again. Says he knows all of the music bars and music restaurants in the city. Suggests I busk in street to earn back 74 euros. Ask him if he knows the other music store in Sibiu, show him on map, he does not. But knows others.
4:00 PM: Eat lunch at restaurant in outdoor awning-covered terrace on main square. Wait half an hour for food despite no other clients present – or practically none. Eat quickly, find second music store in Sibiu and second cheapo guitar of same price as new Flame. Second guitar piece of garbage – despite visually better. Find percussion instruments for Ornella’s workshop – a tambourine-like drum but without the symbols, and also a tambourine-like loop with the symbols but without the drum skin … leads me to think second music store in Sibiu is trying to make us pay twice as much for same effect in two pieces as if we had just a classic tambourine.
5:30 PM: Go to main bus and train station of Sibiu to catch bus back to Talmaciu as instructed by host. Learn at main bus and train station of Sibiu that there are no more buses back to Talmaciu. Young man approaches – later tells me he saw me playing guitar and singing to locals on the parking lot of bus and train station of Sibiu – speaks in perfect Australian English offering a ride somewhere as we appear in distress. We tell him we are going to Talmaciu and he says he is passing by that way exactly and offers us a ride. In his van I learn he is son of a Baptist missionary in Romania. My family has long line of Baptist missionaries in India, and is directly linked to a famous Baptist preacher named C.H. Spurgeon. He knows my name and is surprised. Nice coincidence.
7:00 PM: Listen to conference on Hamlet at Fabrique given by an American English professor. Speak to the professor and find he lived in the same building as two of my former newspaper colleagues in Paris. Nice coincidence. No sighting of Roma, or Gypsies, but suspect man who directs factory is Roma, or Gypsy, as he brought to conference most interested and interesting spectators: Two Goanna “monitor” lizards from Australia. (See photo.) Goannas listening to Hamlet, Cioran and Pessoa.
00:00 PM: Meet clown musician of night before going to another jam and offers us to join. I say, “No,” too much work at conference next day.
8:15 AM: Awake in Romanofir factory in Talmaciu, site of FREE. Feel fine, despite rooster crowing for 1 hour and sun flowing in window with no curtains.
Brad and Ornella in front of FREE event diary
9:00 AM: Start workshop – more or less – in incredible old theatre in factory. Theatre built as cinema, but with huge stage, lights, red seats for hundreds. Rundown after years without use. Building full of nooks and crannies and perfect place for Vampires or Roma, or Gypsies. No sightings, however, except maybe in projection room a reel of Dracula films. (Just joking.)
8:30 PM: Join members of workshop at their tents, play “Mad World” with Flame guitar. Informed halfway through song that sheep and goats in adjacent field run around like mad over music. Approach the animals, but only the three horned leaders come to check me out – and fend me off – as sheep hide in field behind. No sightings of vampires. Or Roma, or Gypsies. Continue to play music and listen to workshop participants play music with my new Flame – very good singer and player present among them. Makes me want to quit. (Well, ok, no, but you get the idea.)
Projectors at Romanofir Factory cinema and theater
10:00 PM: Attend concert of man playing flutes and cornemeuse and Lo Schuh, organizer of Fabrique singing and chanting and reciting to the music. No sighting of gypsies or vampires, but shadow of Lo Schuh from spotlight on wall of building next-door looking like Dracula, as Lo Schuh wears exotic Dracula-like clothing.
10:30 PM: Return to campsite, start thinking about vampires and Roma, or Gypsies in moon-flooded night. Romanians at campsite, participants in workshop, talk about how world outside has preconceptions of Romania, especially Transylvania, as land of Vampires and Roma, or Gypsies. Leap from my chair now aware they are aware of this stereotyping. Also learn that minority of Roma, or Gypsies badly treated by majority of Romanians. So Roma, or Gypsies in their mind same as in our mind in the West.
00:00 PM: Go to bed thinking how stupid I am to reduce Romania to Vampires and Roma, or Gypsies. Then remember moment on the way to listen to Lo Schuh when what seemed like a Vampire bat flew past my head and head of Romanian host. Host agreed it must have been vampire bat. Fall asleep anyway, no problems.
8:15 AM: Awake. Feel fine, despite rooster crowing for 1 hour at least and sun flowing in window with no curtains. No vampire bats. No Roma, or Gypsies. Forget all troubles. Do workshop, day ends well. Feel liberated to no longer have preconceptions about Roma, or Gypsies and Vampires in Romania. Have discovered amazing country, like so many in so many ways of those visited elsewhere in the world. Always people. Just people. Not Roma, or Gypsies, no vampires.
More to come in coming days, including explanation of discovery of cloves of garlic in Romanian woodshed pictured in first photo of diary … too busy to keep up beyond Saturday, but new week to deliver new adventures….
PARIS – I had some more really bad news for Paris open mics and jam sessions the other day when I learned that the fabulous Cave Café jam is no longer happening due, it seems, to another move by Paris police to enforce certain regulations. I don’t know exactly which regulations these are, but there have been several articles in the French press talking all about the endless closing down of live music joints in Paris due to the police enforcing sound regulations, safety regulations, and other regulations that are designed to destroy the musical culture and nightlife of an increasingly gentrifying city. It was so depressing to hear that one of my latest favourite places for a jam was no longer in action. I hope it starts up again soon. But immediately follow that news came an invitation for me to do an opening set for a young Paris rock band at a place that I know very well, but have not been to in years. And going last night to play, I was not just relieved, but absolutely ecstatic to find that this bar/venue, Le Truskel, is not just alive and kicking, but it is almost exactly the same as it was when I first played there 10 years ago!
Le Truskel is the place where Earle Holmes’s open mic moved to after it started at the Shebeen and then went briefly to the Lizard Lounge. So it was that in exactly this same period of time a decade ago I began playing every Monday night at the fabulous open mic Earle ran at the Truskel, until he basically quit the open mic business (except for a brief period when he got me to host a Sunday afternoon open mic at the Mecano Bar in Oberkampf, where he was working at the time).
There is a magic at the Truskel, with its fabulous stage space, DJ area, dance floor/audience space, horseshoe-shaped bar and now also for many years, the incredible labyrinthine basement room. That room, smokers will delight in, has now been fitted with the necessary apparatus to make it a smoking room. Last night I just loved that while the gig was going on upstairs, downstairs there was a group of 25 or so soccer fans watching a local match and going crazy with chants and whatever else they go crazy with, and nothing upstairs was being affected by this mayhem.
The bar has a big following of regulars, mostly people in their twenties, but it also has plenty of older regular clients, and a long, long tradition of nurturing young bands. The band that invited me to open for them last night was called Britches, and it is an international mix of performers, the lead singer of which – Nadeem Hakemi – is a Canadian from British Columbia, with Afghan heritage.
I felt very much at home onstage doing just an acoustic set with my Gibson an no accompaniment. It really, truly, felt as if time had stopped from the 10 intervening years and that I was there again on stage at another open mic run by Earle. Well, ok, it was not utterly bursting at the seams with all the regulars that had shown up week after week for those insane open mics, but the Truskel had not changed one single bit. And that is hugely great news for the Paris live music scene. Especially for the young up-and-coming groups like Britches.
In fact, Le Truskel is not just great for young up-and-coming bands: It has hosted such established acts as Pete Doherty, Baxter Dury, Metronomy and incarnations of bands of Johnny Borrell of Razorlight fame…. In fact, it was also a funny, fitting thing that Borrell and Razorlight are performing at the Bataclan tonight.
Back in 1969
By the way, it was also a great opportunity for me to have a chance to try out my “Lay, Lady Lay,” cover of the Dylan song for the first time in public in preparation for the fabulous gig I will take part in on 19 February at that other famous music venue in Paris, Le Reservoir. That is a show called “Back in 1969,” which will, as its name indicates, celebrate the music of 1969 – ie, 50 years ago – with a diverse collection of very interesting musicians, including the French/Portuguese star, Lio, and Laura Mayne, who was part of the duo called “Native.” There will also be my faithful sax player friend and sometime accompanist, Stephen Cat Saxo – so I’m hoping to feel as at home at Le Reservoir as I did last night at Le Truskel!
P.S. Oh, yes, of course, I had to do my Mad World cover! Thanks to Ornella for filming – and also starring in one of these videos…I wonder which one….
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
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
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
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!!!!
PARIS – Having now arrived back in Paris after a weekend in England, I have finally found a few minutes to report on our final days at the Braziers Park Mini Indie Film Festival, and what came after. (Does that sound like one of those click-bait headlines?: “…what happened next will ASTOUND you!!!”)
The final day at the Braziers Mini Indie Film Festival was highlighted by a great fun final show resulting from Ornella Bonventre and her TAC Teatro’s Flow Zone workshop – three days of the workshop ended in a show put together by the participants – and the long shadow from the night before of a fabulous film by a 16-year-old director.
Actually, the film, called “Charlie’s Letters,” and about a voyage by the director’s great grandfather up through Italy solo trying to escape from the enemy during World War II, was certainly one of the high points of the festival. I think few of the spectators expected to find this mature work of a film done by a teenager, despite the hype around it stating that Elliott Hasler, the director, was the youngest ever director to premier a full-length dramatic film at a major film film festival in Britain, as he had already done at both the Brighton Film Festival and the Edinburgh festival.
Somehow, Elliott, with the help of his family’s financial support – with a miraculously small budget of about 7000 pounds sterling, managed to create a persuasive feature film where both the size of the budget and the age of the director is soon forgotten by the passionate story telling. It was in fact years in the making, as Elliott began it at between 13 and 14 years old and finished it just shy of his 17th birthday. He is now 18, and during the talk after the film showing at Braziers, he struck me as being as mature as all the great young and precocious Formula One drivers I have interviewed over the years – Jenson Button, Fernando Alonso, Max Verstappen, Kimi Raikkonen, and many more – and made me feel that there will be great things to come from him.
I don’t want to go into detail about the film, as I’ve not got the skills of a film critic, but suffice to say that the story – with Elliott in the lead role and looking like a man in his late 20s or more – just draws you in from the first images and carries you along with expert editing, story-telling, visual beauty and acting. The only hint for me – as a non professional – of its low budget nature was the less than perfect sound capture. (So I was not surprised to learn that it was done with a mic on the camera, rather than a separate sound source.) But even this was dealt with in a way that managed to add a certain atmosphere to the whole.
My feeling was that Elliott, given the right support and continued interest (he said he started making films at around age 10) could certainly go on to become another David Lean or Richard Attenborough or…Elliott Hasler!
And from Braziers on we went to Giffords Circus in Stroud
Giffords Circus tent
It has been years and years that I had intended to attend Giffords Circus, a small family-run circus that I first heard about in 2014 when I met three of the musicians of the circus’s orchestra. I wrote about that meeting on this blog, as it happened in the context of my open mic journeys around the world. They showed up at the great Catweazle Club open mic in Oxford, and I could see immediately that they were massively talented – and entertaining – performers. I introduced myself afterwards and we continued our musical evening at a pub or two after Catweazle ended.
So it was that a light flashed in my mind last month when Peter Pullon (to be mentioned below) told me that I really should check out the circus up on the commons outside Stroud. It turned out that the final date of the circus in Stroud took place on Tuesday afternoon, and that I had just the time to attend on this, my return trip to see Peter.
So Ornella and I attended the show, and I was hoping to find my friend the musical director of the show, but he was not there for this performance! What we did find, however, was a very, very classy circus show that incorporated the best feel of the intimacy of a family-run circus along with a judicious hiring of acts from around the world to make up the non-regular acts. So in the end, I may not have met my old acquaintance, but I did meet a performer who used to live on the same street as I did in Toronto, while Ornella, who was born in Sicily, met a couple of Sicilian performers.
The show was sold out, and while I have no idea how many spectators the tent seats, it felt like it must have been anywhere between 500 to 1,000. It was smaller than many of the big Christmas shows I have seen in Paris, but bigger than the smallest. My favorite acts were the main clown, who was almost acting as a ringmaster too, the juggler, and the acrobats who launched themselves high above the ground in the second part of the show. I also absolutely loved the miniature ponies and the dachshund dog act.
The performers live at this circus in trailers, as it is a real, true travelling show. Part of the charm of attending this last show outside Stroud was to watch how the troupe began dismantling the tent and packing up the show the moment the place had emptied of spectators, as it was clearly time to hit the road. It reminded me of my life in Formula One and the biggest travelling circus of them all in the afternoon after a Grand Prix race ends.
And then back to Peter Pullon’s workshop to reunite with Peter McCabe
Peter Pullon and Peter McCabe and Brad Spurgeon
After the circus on Tuesday we headed over to the workshop of the master puppet maker, Peter Pullon, who was giving a facelift to my sidekick, Peter McCabe. I had left Peter with Peter last month, 43 years after Pullon made Peter! Pullon is a fascinating man, having had two or three successful careers in his life, including working in theater for the decade of the 1960s, before setting up his own business as a theatrical prop builder in the 70s and then becoming the film director and producer of advertisements.
And during much of this time he also sidelined as a great puppet maker. His two most famous creations were probably Emu, the bird figure of Rod Hull, who was massively popular in the UK in the 70s, and the ventriloquist figure, Orville. In recent years he decided to put an end to the TV commercial making career and return to his great love of making puppets. So he set up shop in the Cotswolds and now devotes his time fully to making – and repairing or renovating – puppet figures.
When I approached him a year or so ago and asked if he would take on a renovation of my Peter McCabe, he agreed, and I had to just wait for the right moment. I was, of course, somewhat worried at the prospect of what might happen to Peter if I sent him across the channel and subjected him to the no doubt painful process of a face – and body – lift at age 43, but when I stepped into Pullon’s studio on Tuesday and saw the masterful job he had done, I was overjoyed. So was Peter. He apparently had a lot more fun in the Cotswolds than he usually does with me in Paris.
Stay tuned for the further adventures of Peter McCabe (and me) in coming months….
In the end, our second trip in as many months, was as successful and fun as the first. We hope to do it again soon. (Peter is yelling in the background, telling me to cut the crap, he refuses to undergo another facelift for at least another 43 years.)
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.