Every time I go to the new open mic at the Mazet Pub on rue St. André des Arts on Thursday night in the Paris Latin Quarter, I like it more and more – and I already liked it to start with. Okay, there is one problem: This is one of the loudest, most talkative audiences I know of! But they are also an appreciative audience that seems to enjoy both talking AND listening to the music, as they applaud and are generous in their compliments, their little dancing moves when the music moves, and a general sense of well-being.
Last night I was also really pleased that I resisted the temptation to NOT take my new Gibson J-200 with me. I had been thinking that since I had been having so much trouble with the amazing, yet complicated, Fishman pick up and all its controls, that I was better off taking my Seagull, which just plugs in and sings. But I fell to the temptation to bring the Gibson just because I love playing it. I am pleased I did because, in fact, it took no work at all – except turning on the anti-feedback switch – to get it sounding great. I only really knew it sounded great, however, when I gave it to Justin Purtill to use during his songs. Then I was able to stand at the bar and listen and appreciate his great fingerpicking playing as I heard the Gibson from the room PA and not from the stage monitor amp.
Justin and I later went up for a second set during which he played bass along to my songs, although he had never heard them before. He learned as we went along. Actually, not quite true: He did know “Crazy Love,” by Van Morrison, and that was cool just to slip into doing that perfectly.
Justin then played with a Frenchman whom he did not know and whose songs he did not know either. There were some cool things to come out of that too. In all, I’ll be returning as often as possible to the Mazet….
Can this really be classified as a lesson? Or was it a freak occurance? In any case, what happened on my last night in Istanbul seemed to go counter to every other musical lesson I learned in that magnificent city, so there might be a lesson there somewhere.
As I think I made clear in the previous entries in this blog about my musical adventures in Istanbul, the city is certainly the most music friendly city I have found in the world. As you walk through the streets with a guitar on your back you are importuned everywhere to take it off, enter a restaurant, bar, sidewalk cafe or wherever, and play music. I learned last year that most of the musicians who play in the bars throughout Istanbul – and it seems that nearly every bar has live music – are from a slightly different caste of people. There is something gypsy-like about them and the way they are regarded.
So is it in that fact that my lesson the last day may be learned? After the race I returned to Istanbul and with a friend and a couple of his associates had a drink on the terrace of a hotel overlooking the Bosporus. This friend likes my music and knows that I am on this musical quest around the world with the races, and he knew that I had not found or set up a venue for Istanbul on Sunday night. He decided to set up this meeting with his associates for fun and so that after the drink we could return to his associate’s nearby apartment and I could play a few songs for everyone.
It turned out that the apartment was a large penthouse with a terrace encircling the full floor – or at least most of it, from what I could see – and it too had a view of the Bosporus. In short, a beautiful apartment above Istanbul in a relatively luxurious building with a view. It was a kind of venue I had not played, and obviously it fit in wonderfully when you think that I’d played in a prison and in the streets, and last year in several different bars. Playing in a private home was one more link in the chain covering the gamut of possibilities in Istanbul.
So after hours of drink and talk at the hotel we arrived at the apartment and our host opened a bottle of Veuve Cliquot champagne, served us glasses and I was very quickly importuned to play – it was already close to midnight.
So I prepared my guitar, the three others sat on the couch and in an armchair, and I stood in front of them and decided to sing “Crazy Love” to start with, simply because I find it a good one to warm up my voice and my emotions and my guitar playing. I started tapping my foot and realized that I was tapping on a wooden floor – a thick, hard wooden floor – and I moved over a couple of steps to a thick carpet in order that the tapping not resound too loudly for my audience.
I finished “Crazy Love” and launched into “Just Like a Woman.” I got through a verse of that and I heard the doorbell to the apartment ringing. I kept singing, but I had a bad vibe telling me something was going to happen. The host returned and shrugged and said, “Sorry, we’re bothering my neighbor downstairs. We have to stop.”
That was it. One song and one verse and the woman who lived below had decided that the foot tapping was too strong and not to be had – at least that was the excuse I heard. But when you consider that the floors between the apartment were thick, and that this was a well-built, fairly luxurious building and that we were not yet past midnight and had done only one song by the time she set out up the stairs – it is all very surprising for any city, and even more surprising for Istanbul, where I people love musicians more than in any other place I have been.
The lesson? Was this neighbor a freak? Or was it to do with the lowness of having a gypsy like me playing and singing in a respectable Istanbul apartment rather than in the street or a bar or a restaurant? I don’t know if I will ever learn. But it was a situation that proved the cliché that Istanbul is a city of contrasts.
A musician usually has to have the stature of a Johnny Cash or a criminal in order to be able to play guitar and sing in a prison. Thanks to Vanessa and her guidebooks, I found myself with the opportunity to confront our Western preconceptions about Istanbul face on while performing some of my favorite songs in a prison in the country of Midnight Express.
While I was out at the race track working yesterday, Vanessa made her way around town with the help of a couple of guide books and the advice of the many people she met on the way. One of these people was a salesperson who recommended to her a restaurant in the Galatasary Tower area.
The restaurant, Vanessa was told, was not to be missed. Run by a Georgian couple, it was called Galata House, and it specialized in Georgian food. The couple consisted of Mete Goktug, an architect, and his wife Nadire, who we would discover not long after entering the restaurant, was a musician who played piano and sang. Throughout the first part of the meal we had as background music, her CD of popular and traditional music, with her on piano and singing. She often plays the piano live at the restaurant, but has been suffering a little tennis elbow of late and so did not play live last night.
We were warmly greeted at the front door of the building, and directed in to find an unusual series of rooms, the details of which I will get to in a moment. First, I would like to jump ahead to the food to say that it was indeed a fabulous experience, as we ordered the unique meal of Georgian and Tatar dishes. For the appetizer we took a mixed dish consisting of samples of several of the appetizers – chicken in yoghurt sauce, beans in another sauce, beets in another sauce, rice wrapped in leaves and marinated, and a slightly spicey walnut spread.
Vanessa took a veal stew with stewed potatoes and rice, while I was tempted for the first time in a while to not go with an entirely meat dish, and I ordered a pasta dish – although there was meat in the pasta. The woman said that it was her mother’s recipe, and that it was Tatar. Vanessa tasted one of my pieces of ravioli pasta – which looked like tortellini – and remarked accurately that it did not taste like Italian past.
“For once a pasta that does not taste like Italian pasta,” she said.
I agreed and said it tasted more like dumplings. It had some kind of light cream sauce in the middle of it that I chose not to mix up with the pasta but to dip the pieces into the cream.
We ate the whole with a Georgian wine that was not bad at all, and was the first time I have had Georgian wine.
For desert I had the biggest discovery of all: A chocolate cake with a meringue top to it. In fact, three quarters of the top of the cake was made of this fluffy white meringue with a little chocolate sauce on top of it. The chocolate part of the cake was also light and fluffy. All my life I have eaten Lemon meringue tarts primarily in order to have the meringue. But I love chocolate more than any other sweet, and this combination of fluffy white meringue with the light and rich chocolate cake was absolutely stupendous!
At the beginning of the meal, even before we began eating, Mete had asked us about our music. He was intrigued by Vanessa’s Portuguese roots and invited us to sing if we wanted to. We were both feeling a little shy about that, since there were not many people in the restaurant and it was not an open mic or jam situation, so it would mean that playing and singing would assume a certain amount of pretension to quality.
But throughout the meal as I listened to the music of Nadire, and later some classical music, I was bubbling and boiling and hot to sing in this restaurant. And that takes us back to the interesting physical aspect of the building that I mentioned. We had entered the front door and glanced to the left and thought at first that the restaurant was in the room to the left, which looked like someone’s living room, and indeed, I think it was the owners’ living room.
That we found boring, but we had looked beyond and down the hall to an exterior courtyard with a table, and we had wanted to eat there. But Nadire had told us we could eat outside on the terrace on the first floor. So we went up the stairs to find two more interior rooms, one in the front of the building overlooking the street, and the other in the back and with a piano, the stereo and photos of Nadire as a child and young woman sitting at the piano. The whole thing was very homey, but classy and restaurant-like as well.
Then we looked out in the back to see the horse-shoe shaped terrace that overlooked the courtyard. It had four or five tables on a narrow walkway around the courtyard, and the whole was surrounded by either dark brown brick walls or the wall of the building itself.
The windows everywhere on the building, I noticed, were covered with iron bars. I soon learned from Vanessa and the menu that the building, in fact, was built as a British prison, and served as such from 1904 to 1919. The Goktugs had bought it in 1999, at which time they made the restaurant out of it.
So it was that we ate our meal overlooking the building and the courtyard, where I could see and imagine the prisoners out for their daily exercise. The whole thing was frightfully small when you think about the amount of time prisoners must have had to spend living there, and there were some very strong feelings of the ghosts of the past.
Overlooking the courtyard I imagined myself playing my guitar and singing, either on the terrace into the courtyard and to the other table of guests, or down in the courtyard itself.
We finished the meal and began to leave, paying the bill and talking a little at the end to Nadire and Mete. Nadire said, “Maybe next time you come you can play your music.”
That was it, my queue. I could not let drop an opportunity to do a concert in a prison in Istanbul. I was shy, all right, and Vanessa said she did not want to join me singing. But the opportunity was just too great for me to miss. So I swallowed my fear, and said, “I could do a song right now. Would that be okay?”
So we went into the courtyard – where I saw that the cook was in a kitchen in a back room – and I pulled my guitar out of its bag and tuned it by ear, not wanting to waste time with the tuner. Mete offered me a chair, but I said I could stand. My feeling was that I would be most comfortable singing “Crazy Love,” and singing it to Vanessa with her in mind.
So I started with that. I received some compliments from Mete, and I began to put the guitar down. But I still had one regret, and that was that I had not recorded me singing the song in the prison. So as we spoke, and Mete told me they had had concerts in the restaurant and had done a lot to create festivals in Istanbul to help make it more culturally popular and vibrant – which worked, as I pointed out that Bob Dylan was playing the day I left, that Eric Clapton was playing the following month, that John McLaughlin had played in Nardi’s jazz club around the corner from the prison a few weeks earlier – and all the while I thought about how I should perhaps force another song on them and get Vanessa to record it. So this, eventually, is what I did.
We had spoken about “Just Like A Woman” over dinner, as we both agreed that some people might associate the women with the prison. So that is what I decided to do. Part of the song I sang in front of the barred windows of the main building, another part in front of what looked like a prison cell door. Occasionally you can hear Vanessa singing, as she held the camera and filmed, and occasionally you can also hear the classical music playing in the background. A true Istanbul mélange. And a great Istanbul experience in both food, environment and music – like none I’ve had before.
Don’t bother trying to figure out the real order of the words of the headline I put on this post. Just go to 2 Spencer Street in Melbourne, Australia, on a Thursday night. There you will find one of the coolest open mics down under, I’m sure of that. I am the happiest man alive after showing up there tonight and playing my three songs and listening to the other open mic singers and the house band.
And it proved a thing to me again: Go off the beaten path, break your habits, try something new, force yourself! Last year on the Thursday of the Formula One weekend I played in the open mic of the Spleen Bar on Bourke Street. So being like most people a man of habit, I decided to try it out again this time.
But then life got in the way – thank goodness! I ended up staying late at the track, well not that late, but until 7 PM. And could not find any indication that the Spleen Bar was still doing its musical open mic night. And this being Comedy Festival month in Melbourne and the Softbelly having canceled its musical open mic, I feared the Spleen might have canceled its musical open mic too, since the Spleen is more known for its comedy open mics on Monday or Tuesday (can’t remember which).
So it was that I stumbled across this open mic announced for the U-Bar at the All Nations Hostel on 2 Spencer street. It looked pretty certain to be happening, and on my way back from the track, I happened to find it on the corner of Spencer street where I got off the tram and where I had to head uptown on another tram to my hotel. According to the Internet it would start at 8 PM, and I was there at 7:40 or so. So I popped into what looked like a dreary bar with few people in it, and I asked if there was an open mic.
“Yes, it starts at nine,” I was told by a young man behind the bar.
The walls were painted graffiti-like with strange cartoon drawings and other graffiti-art like stuff. Very colorful, but my main impression was of potential dreariness. And I noticed a crappy looking amplifier against a wall near the bar and the pool table. It looked as if the open mic would be an afterthought.
But it was so late I decided I had no choice but to take the tram to the hotel and then return to the bar, since I now had plenty of time as it started at nine, not eight.
Returned to the hotel, warmed up my voice with a song on the guitar – ‘Father and Son’ – and then ate a very quick meal at the buffet in the hotel before taking a tram back down to the U-Bar or whatever it was called.
Went into the place to find a lot of people and a dreary, quiet singer at the dreary amp. I was guided by the bartender to a woman named Emily Brown, and told she ran the open mic. There was so much talking in the bar that I could barely hear the singer or Emily. But I gave her my name and she said she’d get me up. “Three songs each,” she said.
Turned out to be a nice crowd of young people, and very international. That clearly had to do with the hostel next door. I spoke to a Dutchman, and one of the performers was from Canada. A man named Brandon, who was from Burlington and there with his girlfriend as they were spending a year in Australia traveling all over the country.
Emily reminded me instantly of Bea, the 23-year-old woman from Sydney who ran the Softbelly open mic last year. I would learn that Emily was 22 years old, she had studied music at “uni” and she had run the open mic here since last August or so. She also had a band that would play in the middle of the open mic evening for a full one hour or so set. She taught singing in the Melbourne school system and also had a few other music gigs to keep her going. She was very enthusiastic and friendly. This was classic open mic stuff here!
And guess what? The music just got better and better, and the crowd got thicker and thicker and the atmosphere just grew stronger and stronger. Sure, there would be talking throughout the night, and there would be some people playing on the pool table, and you would have to move aside while singing a song to occasionally let the man hit the pool ball because the performer was too close to the table. Oh, and the sound system was indeed crap.
But this would prove to be so much fun, with such an eclectic group of musicians, mostly young, that I was very quickly persuaded that it had a real atmosphere. Several of the musicians came from local bands, too, and played acoustic for fun. A lot of what I learned about the evening came from a couple of the musicians, one named Jim, and the other named…Jim.
One of the Jims described the other Jim’s music as being very eclectic, and he asked me if I’d ever heard of his hero.
“Who’s that?” I asked.
I expected him to say, “Townes Van Zandt,” but decided to get him to say it.
“Townes Van Zandt.”
“Yeah,” I said. And the other Jim was surprised.
“What do you think of him,” asked the Jim who sang Townes’s songs.
“A genius,” I said. To which the other Jim just walked away in disgust and let us talk about Townes Van Zandt.
So it was cool indeed to be in Australia talking about Townes Van Zandt.
The Canadian Brandon played some blues of his own making, and had a nice strong voice and a nice fingerpicking style. A local rock musician who had given out his self-produced record played three or four songs that were fast moving and hard hitting, and perfect for the crowd. And he showed a wonderful attitude as several drunks joined him during his song and he stopped and spoke to them and at one point said:
“I’d like to introduce you to my band, I don’t even know their names, but here they are.”
I did not have to wait very long before I went up, in fact, I went up after that guy. I had planned to play Van Morrison’s “Crazy Love,” a song of my own, and Cat Steven’s “Father and Son.” But in the end, given how much noise there was and how the crowd felt, I did not do my own song, but instead did “Just Like a Woman,” by Bob Dylan.
It was one of those evenings where you wonder how much you’re really reaching people. But when both of the Jims told me afterwards how much they loved my songs, especially the Cat Stevens, I knew I had reached the people. In fact, one of the Jims actually gave me the biggest compliment I ever had with “Father and Son.”
“I was just saying to Jim,” said Jim, “that I actually liked your version of ‘Father and Song’ more than the original.”
No compliment can be better.
The singers varied a lot, from rocking to quiet and from singing originals to singing covers. One of them who got up just before Emily’s band was in fact the guitar player from her band, and he sang some very nice covers quietly but strongly.
And now to Emily’s band, called “My Favourite Emily.” This was fabulous. Emily sang, she had a female bass player, she had a 23-year old sax player who Jim told me had begun to play at age eight, and she had a drummer and the guitar player. They had some very nice jazzy stuff, and the sax player blew me away. I loved Emily’s voice too. I made videos all night with my new Zoom Q3 toy, and I will post something here:
In addition to the great musicality of the band, Emily had a nice way of communicating with the audience, and she frequently went into the crowd to get some audience participation in the songs – ie, holding the mic up to spectators to sing along.
Oh yeah, and Emily told me she took a couple of photos of me and will put them up on the open mic’s Facebook page, so I’ll link to them as soon as I see them.
This was a very moving, swinging, cool and hip open mic format, and Emily was all the things a great open mic host should be: Friendly, encouraging, nice, warm and enthusiastic. And on top of it, she is a talented musician herself. I’ll go back again – unless my desire to break all habits gets me finding another place on Thursday in Melbourne next year….