My worldwide open mic journey began in China in 2008 after the Formula One race in Shanghai, and little did I know that it was a journey that would continue for six more years and cover most of the globe, every continent except Africa (where I once lived and played music in an open mic decades earlier) and Antarctica, and that it would spawn a book, a blog, an album, a documentary film, numerous podcasts, music videos and other multimedia projects.
This year, 2014, I have decided to finish all of the projects and tie them together into a consolidation of multimedia. As part of my personal impetus to gather it all together for myself, but also put it into perspective on this blog, I have decided to create a page for each city I have visited on the journey, tying together samples of the whole multimedia adventure linked to that city.
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
This is Oxford, right? So the fact of going up to perform in an open mic and finding yourself facing a battery of art sketchers and writers, and why not professors, is not really that surprising, right? Well, last night at the Harcourt Arms pub in Oxford, I was a little taken aback by it all. And I had the greatest time in the world. Not just singing, speaking to the artists – who were sketching the musicians – and taking in the local beer, but also listening to a nightlong lineup of wonderful musicians.
This IS Oxford. It means it is full of interesting people, loads of musicians, open mics, and great pubs. The Harcourt Arms is a mainstay, located in the highly sought after Jericho – I’ll have to check that spelling – district of Oxford. A friend of mine told me they used to have a weekly or monthly Gothic night there, but lately the pub was bought by a new owner and it happened at just the same moment that the Bookbinder’s Pub around the corner went through some change of hands or renovation and got rid of its four-year-old open mic. That highly successful open mic was run by Nigel Brown, and somehow he and the new owners of the Harcourt Arms connected and came to an agreement about having an open mic on Sundays. Thank goodness they did. This was very cozy, warm, well run, and there is even a backyard area where you can escape to think of other things, if you want.
But you won’t want. If you like open mics. The sound system is great, the room is convivial, and the night was full of musicians and spectators. And as it turned out, I felt like I was an art school model, but when I asked the artists if they were a group belonging to a school, they said “No.” They were just there for the fun of it. I also noticed a novelist or memoirist writing during the music; so it was that I felt more at home than ever doing my videos of the performers and then my interviews with spectators and Nigel Brown, for my documentary.
Loved some of the performers, the last two – Sam Quill doing a John Martyn song and Kasra – being particularly interesting, but also Jon Soul of the JJ Soul Band, with his Tom Waits voice….
Oh, and someone very kindly offered to do a video of me singing Borderline – second time in a week – and I accepted, and I’m glad I did. We get the artists here too, and it’s not a bad video….
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!