OXFORD – For the first time since the first time, I was too late arriving in Oxford last night after working at the circuit to be able to sign up for one of my favorite open mics in the world. That is the Catweazle open mic in Oxford, which is unlike any other open mic anywhere. The only problem it you really have to be there around 7 PM to be sure of getting a spot on the list, lining up in the front hall and waiting half an hour until the real sign up time – and I got to Oxford after 8 PM. But I nevertheless made a short visit to the open mic, had 20 pounds stolen when I lost my wallet for a couple of minutes, and then I went on to the Half Moon open mic down the street and had the best time I’ve ever had there before….
And I must mention that I also ate one of the best Indian food meals I’ve ever had, with his huge prawn or gambas or whatever it was in some kind of Bangladeshi dish, and some nice Indian red and white wine, and great rice and wow! This must be the UK. First at the Catweazle
Right after the Indian meal on the Cowley Road just around the corner from the East Oxford Community Centre, where Catweazle takes place, I decided to see if I could drop in for a bit to the open mic. I arrived precisely at the end of the mid-show break, and so I got in easily. In taking out my camera to make a couple of videos – you’ll see the uniqueness of the place – I dropped my wallet from my guitar bag without realizing it. Or maybe it dropped out as I left. In any case, I left without my wallet and noticed that it was gone, and then returned before leaving the place, and the wallet had been found and was returned to me. Minus 20 pounds! Damn! But thank goodness the pound went down so massively last week. I mean, had they not voted for Brexit, I’d have been out a lot more euros than I was! 😉 And anyway, I was so grateful the wallet was returned. Imagine if I had lost everything. Second at Catweazle
And from Catweazle on to the Half Moon with ITS open mic
So, I decided to go on to the Half Moon pub just down the street that I knew also had an open mic on Thursday nights, and although I’ve probably been there almost every year since I started this open mic journey in 2009, it was the first time that the man who runs it was actually present. That is the cool lumberjack, Sparky, and I can tell you that when Sparky is there, the open mic is another affair…. Cool sound, nice ambience and a man who cares about his open mic – and who has been running it for maybe 15 years…. his mama at half moon
I came late, but he still managed to find a spot for me near midnight, and I was the last guest. A really funky pub, by the way. Really feels like someone’s living room. Oh, and back to Catweazle, what makes it so different? It’s a vast room, everyone is sitting on pillows on the floor or the few chairs and couches available, and there is a backdrop to the stage, and there is complete silence amongst the spectators. A religious appreciation of the acts, you can hear the proverbial pin drop. And a vast cross-section of talent from this great university town. Still one of the top of my list. Unfortunately, Matt Sage, the usual witty and fantastically adept MC was not there last night, and I much enjoy his patter. But the replacement was excellent, and obviously following to some degree the role model of Matt…. sparky poem at half moon
OXFORD – It has become my main goal when I come to Oxford to not make a wrong move to miss a chance to attend and play at the Catweazle open mic in the East Oxford Community Centre on Thursday nights. I got ever so slightly lax on Thursday, my sixth time attending, as for once I had a hotel almost across the street from this Oxford institution that is celebrating its 21st year in existence, and in my final few minutes of preparation I decided I could take my time. My heart dropped to my toes as I entered the building at 7:20 PM to find nearly 20 performers already standing in a line up to sign up for a slot.
But I was underestimating the savvy, flexible, sensible approach of Matt Sage, who founded and has MCd this dynamic and unusual open mic all those years; he decided that he could get around 18 of us up on the stage area in the limited time available if we were all reduced to doing just one song – or poem or whatever it was we were doing – each. I felt a sudden relief that having arrived around 10 minutes later than last year I had not jeopardized my moment in front of the Catweazle audience. There were, unfortunately three or four performers behind me that did not make it this time. (But my suspicion is that they did not come from Paris, like I did, on my once-a-year visit!)
So off I was again on the adventure of Catweazle. And once I got up to the performance spot – it is not a stage, and there is no microphone – I suddenly wondered why it was that I so avidly seek out this thing every year! Catweazle ranks as one of the scariest, most nerve-wracking open mics I have ever done, and it does not become any easier.
Why? Because the audience is just so good, so quiet, so attentive, and always so full. There must be close to 100 people in the Catweazle performance space every week, all sitting on the floor or sofas or chairs in that room that is barely large enough for them all, and they are there for one thing only: To listen to the performer.
I reviewed all of my personal songs – my own songs – that I must have done over the years, and I thought about all sorts of possibilities in cover songs, but finally, I decided that perhaps the best way to give the audience something that they did not already have in spades last that night was to sing a song in French. I only know one song in French, so I did Raphael’s “Et Dans 150 Ans.” As it turned out, not even my decision to keep my eyes closed much of the song to concentrate on remembering the words was enough, and I realized instantly that I began singing the third verse after the first verse. But I soldiered on, and decided that three verses of French instead of four was probably enough, and I just excluded the second verse.
It went O.K. otherwise. But some of the talent throughout the rest of the night was fabulous, including a stand-out poet, named Rachel McCarthy, 30, who has been named one of the top young poets to watch – or read??? – in England at the moment.
So if ever you’re in Oxford and want to take part in a very cool, acoustic – no mic – performance space open mic for theater, poetry, music, or whatever you want, do, do, do show up at 7 PM to sign that list, you won’t regret it. It’s not for nothing that it is now celebrating 21 years of its existence.
OXFORD – Arriving in Oxford yesterday for my coverage of the British Grand Prix in nearby Silverstone, I had written down on my mental agenda that there was no way in the world I would miss attending one of the coolest open mics in the world: Catweazle. Little did I know that it would be a classic edition, and that it would finish with a bang as the musicians of a traveling circus now in a stopover in Oxford decided to take to the stage to close off the night – and they drove everyone mad… mad enough for several to drop into a nearby pub afterwards, where the circus musicians could not resist another moment of music on the pub piano….
Catweazle has existed for well over 20 years, and it even spawned a few branch offices in places like London, New York and I think somewhere in Canada. I don’t know how many of those still exist, but the original one, here in Oxford, and run and MC’d by Matt Sage, is the one and only as far as I’m concerned.
What makes it so special? Like any successful open mic, it has to do with the MC and the location and the idea/approach/zeitgeist. Catweazle is run by the smooth talking, funny and worldly Matt – worldly, but very Oxford anchored…. The format is that anything goes, but that it is always done in a purely acoustic set up: no mics for the voice and no amps for the instruments. It’s also poetry, acting, comedy, whatever you want. The singers get one or two songs, the poets one or two poems. I’ve seen bands close off with more numbers when they are exceptional, and that turned out to be the case last night when there was a surprise visit by the musicians of Giffords Circus.
Giffords Circus is a classic European-style one-ring circus with a cross-section of typical acts, including clown, juggling, unicycling and animals. And the band is supercool. These three guys come from similar musical backgrounds, each with his own specialty. But the formation last night was acoustic guitar, percussion and piano and a little singing. Check out the videos – I could have been better placed, but you get a great idea of their wacky-coolness.
And Off to the F1 FanZone in London Where I’ll Perform a Set Tomorrow
F1 Fanzone stage in London
The F1 FanZone is a racing game, activity and live feed on large screens area that follows Formula One around the world at certain races – I’ve seen them in Abu Dhabi and Monaco and one or two other places – and this weekend they have set up the area at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London, where the Olympics took place. I’ve been invited to perform a set tomorrow, Saturday, at 4:55 p.m., and I’m very hyped up about it. The stage looks fabulous, as you can see in the photo on this page. There will be other very interesting acts, too, like Eddie Jordan’s band tonight, and the Duke beatbox band and another interesting electro-acoustic band from England called Skinny Living. (Jordan, by the way, is a former Formula One team owner who plays the drums and who has played around the world with the series as I have, but generally in much better circumstances than the bars I hang out in!)
For my ninth city installment of my worldwide open mic guide today I am loading my Oxford page. As a reminder, it all started with my now very popular Thumbnail Guide to Paris Open Mics, Jam Sessions and other Live Music, and due to that guide’s success, I decided this year to do a similar guide for each of the cities I travel to during my worldwide open mic tour. Unfortunately, due to lots of work and lots of travel and little time available outside of that, I did not manage to put up the Oxford guide while I was in Oxford last weekend, so I am putting it up this weekend – while I am in Cologne, Germany. Still, here it is – job accomplished!
Worldwide Open Mic Guide Philosophy
The only guide I am really in a good position to update regularly is that of Paris, since I live there. But I decided to do guides to all the other 20 and more cities on my worldwide open mic tour in order to give the knowledge I have personally of each city’s open mics. The guide has links to sites I know of local guides that may be more up-to-date, but I have chosen to list the open mics or jam sessions that I have played in myself. There may be others that I know of, but if I have not played there, I will not include it on the list. That way, the user learns a little of my own impressions. But I cannot be as certain that the guide is up-to-date – so check before you go.
Oxford the Student Town is a Great Place for Open Mics
Oxford is an amazing city for open mics because it is obviously one of the most important university towns in the world and therefore has lots of young musicians from all over the world – as students are often in the midst of their man musical creativity as well as being students. But in addition to the students are the crazy mad professors, and some of these open mics are spoken word meetings too, and so you frequently have university professor poets reciting their latest works. It is easy to walk from open mic to open mic, or take a bus, as Oxford is not all that large either. So there is a high density of open mics in a small area. My only problem regarding this list is that I am never in Oxford outside Thursday to Monday morning – still, there’s a good number during that time
OXFORD – When Matt Sage began his unique, usually witty and sharp spiel in opening up the night of festivities at the Catweazle Club in Oxford last night, he talked about how he had met several interesting people just beforehand and how he had this feeling that swamped him about how human nature, when you got right down to it, was really sympathetic and nice. This, naturally, drew some nay-saying comments from the nearly 100 or more spectators and musicians in the hippie-like environment of the East Oxford Community Centre where this iconic open mic has taken place for more than two decades.
But what Matt did not refer to was his own sympathetic nature and the act of kindness he performed the moment I arrived after a nearly 1 hour 30 minute drive through thick traffic from the Silverstone racetrack to the Catweazle Club, also known as Catweazle Performance Space. I took my guitar out of my rental car and decided to put my computer bag in the trunk, and I suddenly started searching for my wallet and instantly realized I had left it in a locker at the racetrack. That meant that I was 1 hour and 30 minutes’ drive away from my cash, credit cards, every bit of my lifeline for the night, and with an empty, growling stomach after the trip from Paris to Oxford via Eurostar, walk, rental car, etc. And there was no way I wanted to drive back through the pouring rain AND miss my one chance per year to attend and play in the Catweazle Club.
So I entered the room where the gathering takes place, and I said, “Matt, hi, it’s Brad Spurgeon….” He immediately recognized me from past years, and I said, “I’m really sorry and embarrassed, but I have just discovered I have no money or credit cards or anything, having left my wallet at the racetrack.” My immediate thought was not my dinner, but how could I take part in the evening. I forget that as a performer I do not pay an entrance fee, but I would need to buy a drink, certainly. The entrance fee for the public – well worth it – is something like 5 or 6 pounds.
“We’ll sort you out,” said Matt without hesitating. He then pulled out an envelope from his pocket and from the envelope he removed 40 pounds and said, “Is that enough?”
I could not believe his kindness. He only knows me as a guy who has showed up annually once per year for the last four or five years, and even during that time he was absent on one occasion – replaced by someone else. So it was a risk he would not get the money back – but his empathy overruled any doubts.
Thanks to the loan – I ended up returning 20 pounds later in the night and will return the rest today or tomorrow by mail or special delivery – I was able to have a meal and a beer and to spend yet another absolutely fantastic evening at this amazing open mic “happening.”
Catweazle, in fact, has such an enviable ambience and approach to the open mic format that it has been imitated in several different places, including London, New York, and lately even in my home town of Toronto. (Last night there was a Catweazle happening in Oxford, New York and Toronto, in fact.)
What makes it different and cool is just subtle stuff, and personally, I think most of what makes it different and cool has to be Matt’s presentation and MCing – he comes up with the funniest lines between acts. It is also the hippie lilke vibe: Everyone sits on mattresses, pillows, cushions, chairs and couches, right up to the foot of the performers on the performance space. Behind the performers is a curtain – like a stage curtain – with Catweazle written in large freaky letters above. There is no microphone and no amplifier, and the audience knows that it is expected to be religiously silent for every performer – and the audience IS.
Furthermore, just about any kind of performance is allowed. Although I have posted only videos of music, there were several spoken word performers and poets. And this being Oxford, I assure you that they were good.
This being Oxford, the performers were also very cool. There were a surprising number of Americans and Canadians, too, as it turned out. And two Germans. I don’t know about the other nationalities, but it was clearly a cosmopolitan mix.
I must apologize for one thing, which is that because I did not want to be too obtrusive with my video camera in this silent, respectful space where few people make videos and none took photos, I chose to sit at the back of the room, and that unfortunately meant that not only the focus of the camera was not what it should be – since I used the zoom of the Zoom Q3HD recorder – but also the sound was often pretty low, and WORSE: I had to hold the camera high over my head and my hands were shaking through most of the filming. So bear with me on that.
Oh, by the way, I also did manage to do my song “Crazy Lady,” and as usual at Catweazle, I felt bizarrely more nervous than I do at most other places. It’s that respectful silence and the 100 or so faces at your feet…. it’s at once fabulous and frightening! But I will definitely return whenever I can.
So, yes, human nature can be incredibly positive and wonderful – especially at Catweazle Club, Oxford.
There is no place on earth like Catweazle at the East Oxford Community Center, I assure you. Oh, there may be a few other Catweazles around – in London, New York, etc. – but there is no way they can be as good as the original, here in Oxford. That is thanks to Oxford itself, the people in it, the room in which it takes place, and last but far from least, Matt Sage, the founder of the open mic and its extraordinarily smooth and witty MC for the past 18 years.
Brad Spurgeon interviews Matt Sage the MC of the Catweazle Club open mic in Oxford England:
Yes, yes, there are open mics and open stages all around the world, and I go to a lot of them and write about them here. But Catweazle has a unique vibe because of where it is located, the kind of people who perform, and the makeup of the show. And Matt’s delivery as an MC. Wanna hear amazing new song compositions by Oxford University student types, or an explanation of Higgs Boson…go to Catweazle Thursday nights in Oxford.
Last night was my fourth time at the open mic here, as I showed up once a year for the last three years, and yesterday. The first year, I arrived at 8 PM, found myself too late to sign up on the large list of performers, and so I defected to the open mic at the Half Moon pub, down the Cowley Road five minutes away. The second year, I got up and did a couple of songs. Last year I did another couple, and last night, one song.
However many songs I got to play or not play, the atmosphere at this community center open mic is very, very worth any time you get to spend there. It is very hippie, with spectators and performers sitting on couches and cushions spread around the room. There is no mic – it puts up a wall between audience and performer, according to Matt in the podcast I did with him (listen above) – and there are no boundaries as to the kind of performance. Mostly music, there is also spoken word – prose, poetry…and scientific educational lecturing….
As a performer you have to arrive at 7 PM for a 7:30, 7:45 sign-up if you want to get on the list. I arrived well before the announced 7:30 signup last night and I was almost last on a list of 20 performers. It is a very difficult venue to play because it is so great: There were around 150 people present at the peak last night listening in a relatively small room, in complete silence. And as there are so many performers, most have only one song to do. Stepping into that religiously quiet atmosphere with 300 ears listening and just as many eyes focusing on you is unnerving. But if you hook into that vibe, it is also a beautiful, unique moment of performance atmosphere.
There was also a longer set by a regular performer, Luke Keegan, and his band, as he has just put out an album.
Words do not quite suit for the atmosphere of Catweazle – check out the videos and podcast to get a better idea.
PS, as I was in Paris the night before, and it was Wednesday, I performed at the Highlander open mic. Thank goodness I ended up going on just before the star of the evening, instead of after him: I would have had no chance against this 12 year old kid, or whatever his age was…and I could not get his name down either, as I did not have my iPhone notepad….
As I write these words I am in rainy England, on another racing and open mic mission. Yesterday I made the mistake of taking the Eurostar instead of an airplane, so I lost so much time in my day that I could not post anything of the concert I did the night before in Paris.
(The Eurostar was fine, but the car rental operation was a failure as I ended up spending too much time driving from London to the Midlands, where the race is – in Silverstone – and my lodgings are, in Oxford.)
The concert was great fun, as I got to play along with my favorite lead guitarist, Felix Beguin, and even sang some songs with Vanessa, including our by now standard, “Mad World.” The concert was organized for me by Calvin McEnron, who also performed, and also had Felix accompany him on two or three songs. Felix really changes the texture of things, really gives drive and movement to the songs. Love it!
Oh, yes, and the concert took place at the Green Room bar in Paris, not too far from the Bastille. It is a very cool venue, a long room with a stage at the end and a not bad sound system – although in listening to the videos made of my stuff, I wish there had been more volume on the vocals (for the videos)…. 🙁
From there, it was right off to England the next day, and what turned out to be TWO open mics. I managed to do the Catweazle Club open mic at the Oxford Community Center AND the Half Moon pub open mic down the street. That was two completely different experiences. Catweazle is one of the most amazing open mics in the world, with a massively respectful audience that sits on the floor, on chairs, couches, and standing by the bar, and you can hear the proverbial pin drop. No joking.
The acts at Catweazle are often very original as well, and the open mic is done entirely in acoustic mode. Last night there were microphones, in fact, but they were there for a sound recording that was being done of the show. I was nervous as hell because this audience is so attentive, and because it is so rare for me to play without a mic that I feel less in control and aware of what I’m doing. But I got through my two songs, “Borderline” and “Except Her Heart,” and afterwards I received several compliments. So I felt I did okay.
I then went down the street and saw the Half Moon open mic in full swing and went inside and did a duet of two songs with Vanessa, “Mad World” and “What’s Up.” The Half Moon open mic is without mics too, and before we played, I said to Vanessa, “Listen, don’t worry and don’t pay any mind but no one will listen, and they will talk and make noise throughout. So just don’t take it personally.” I really felt it could be painful for her, as it is for me in those circumstances. Boy were we surprised when everyone shut up and listened and then began to sing along and clap and encourage and demand an encore after Mad World. They went through the same thing with What’s Up. And we were in bliss.
It just showed that there is always a right song and spirit for no matter what crowd, and we left there feeling like we had had the time of our lives thanks to the crowd at the Half Moon.
Wednesday night in Paris, Thursday night in Oxford. I have had a busy couple of days, no time to think let alone sleep. But I have had time to play music, as usual, and the last two nights have been rich in discovery of new experiences at new venues, and a lot of fun.
Vanessa and I had signed up a couple of months ago to sing together at Chez Gudule bar in the Guduleries of the Bande a Gudules. (Gudule is the patron saint of Belgium, by the way.) It calls itself an open mic, but it is much more a cafe theater kind of thing, with a mixture of the regular actors and comedians of the Gudule group and four or five featured guests in the open mic part of the night. We had dropped by on a Wednesday only to find out that you had to sign up far in advance. So we did. Each night there is usually a mixture of one music act, a comedian, an actor, a poet, etc.
Each performer has five minutes in the first part of the show and five minutes in the second part, so for us that meant a first song and a second song. We did “Just Like a Woman” in the first part, and “Mad World” in the second part. The audience sits at tables, and there is a proper little stage with spot light and microphone and a red backdrop curtain. A lot of fun, and very much NOT a classic open mic.
Best of all, the spectators are there to watch and listen and be entertained. The room is above the bar on the first floor, so it is really a private theater-like set up, and Candice, who organizes it, takes it very seriously and insists on a certain protocol. It’s really fun to stand in the wings, in the dressing room and rehearse, etc. For an open mic!
At the end of the show the audience votes on the best act of the evening. I was surprised when we arrived to find Emeric Degui there to do a comedy routine. Emeric is the radio DJ at the station where I took part in the song contest a few months ago, and I ran into him again at the Culture Rapide Cabaret that I mentioned before on this blog.
Singing with Vanessa was just such an incredible pleasure with both songs and for different reasons each time. With the first song, it had to do with singing “Just Like a Woman” to a great woman, and feeling the woman in the song in her. I had to shake myself to not ignore the audience and turn away from her occasionally. I have not heard the song done as a duet before, but it is made for it, and although for the moment Vanessa sings mostly only the lines “just like a woman” and “like a little girl,” she also joined in with harmonies on other parts that really make the song so much more full and complete as a duet.
On “Mad World,” we’ve had more practice on it now as the months pass, but we’re still exchanging lines a little at random, probably each of us fighting to express the ones that suit our own particular feelings of madness and world view the song expresses so well…. It was probably an advantage to have only one microphone at Gudule, since it was a little easier to balance our voices, but I was again guilty of singing more loudly than I should have…. Vanessa has a great voice, and our voices go really well together – they complement each other – but I tend to blast it out louder than I should and sometimes I drown out her voice… But Candice said she played with the sound settings to get us both right. I’ll get it right myself someday, I hope.
Barely had enough sleep and I was off on a flight to Birmingham the next morning with my guitar in the hold of the small Avro airplane of Air France operated by City Jet. The cabin really was almost too small for the guitar this time, and I just offered it up at the luggage trolley at the base of the stairs leading on the flight.
Had a good productive day at Silverstone, where the British Grand Prix is taking place, and then went to Oxford to seek out the one open mic that most frustrated me last year as I arrived a few minutes too late to take part. I was frustrated because I had heard that this open mic – with another name as weird as Gudule – was the coolest, hippest open mic not only of Oxford, but almost of all Britain.
I had learned about the Catweazle Club, as it is called, through Anton Barbeau, the American with the French name who lives mostly in England. Anton had told me Catweazle was a fixture of the Oxford music scene, that it had a special ambience, an almost hippie-like vibe, and that the audience was so quiet you could hear a guitar pic fall. (Actually, I think he might have said a “pin drop,” but I’m trying to avoid cliches these days.)
That prospect filled me with both delight and fear, as when an audience is that quiet it means you’re really being listened to! In any case, as I said, I had missed the list last year. But this year, I got on it. Run and founded by Matt Sage since 1994, the evening and concept has become such a success that there is now a regular Catweazle Club night in London once a week, in Brighton, and most recently in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, on East Third Street, which of course is where Gerde’s Folk City used to be….
Catweazle has had many homes in Oxford, but Matt said that he is happiest with the most recent one, at the Oxford Community Center, where it has been located for several years. Indeed, the room is big but not too big. There must have been a hundred people in it last night, sitting on living room sofas, on cushions on the floor, on chairs, and standing against the walls or by the bar – yes, there is alcohol served.
It is difficult to say what makes it unique, but I think it’s the vibe, it’s Matt – he has a very good sense and talent for patter, and a mixture of slightly catty jabs and snide comments with good humored banter. The evening is not confined to music only, but to “music, poetry, story, song and all manner of acoustic artistry,” as a story in the current edition of the East Oxford Community News says.
There is no microphone and no amplification, indeed. But the other aspect of this that is unique is that the audience is invariably quiet as hell. I enjoyed standing under the spotlights, looking across the room at the young and old, hippie and conventional, student and worker. And I enjoyed many of the other musicians and performers and poets.
My only frustration was that I had the right to sing only one song, and usually it takes one song to warm up and by the second things go better. I had hoped to do a cover song and then one of my own. As it was, given the creative accent to the Catweazle evening, I decided just to do my own song, “Since You Left Me.” It went over well, and I had some nice compliments afterward. But it is very difficult to go from using a microphone to singing to a crowd of a hundred people without a mic.
I told a little story beforehand, saying I had never seen a place like Catweazle in all my travels to open mics around the world, and that was received with a few exclamations of agreement and appreciation. But it was entirely true. Afterwards I was thinking of a line that the jazz saxophone player Stan Getz used on one of his recordings – I think it’s on “Serenity” – in Copenhagen or some such place, where he compliments the venue and the crowd and they applaud and then he says, “I said the same thing last night in Stockholm….” to more laughter. But my words about Catweazle’s uniqueness were true. Try it out and see!