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Perfect Melody at Perfect Fête de la Musique in Levallois

June 22, 2013

Melody SaysThere is a kind of fad amongst many musicians in France to say that they hate the Fête de la Musique, that night on the 21 June where music is allowed in the streets, bars and everywhere and anywhere else and goes on all night long, celebrating music (and the first day of summer, usually). It started in France in 1982, and it has spread to other countries, but I think there is probably no other country and city, especially, than Paris that celebrates this musical festival with as much fervor. But a lot of musicians like to say they are not going to play or celebrate the music, and they hate the festival. I can understand that in some ways, but my own attitude now is that I play music every day of the year – or if I don’t, I don’t feel good – and so why would I be so contrarian as to say the only day I’m not going to play is during the day that music has its official celebration?

Still, in recent years I have been much less enthusiastic about going out on the Fête de la Musique in Paris quite simply because it can be an absolute mad house in the streets of Paris, and even violent and loud and disagreeable. And if the metros run all night and are free, well, they’re also full of rowdy people pissed out of their minds and carrying a guitar on your back – as I always do – makes you stand out even more, oddly enough, than you usually do.

Anyway, all of this build up is in order to say that I ended up finding the most wonderful alternative to the madhouse of Paris during the Fête de la Musique after I was invited by the young and up-and-coming French singer songwriter Melody Says – with whom I had shared the bill last fall on a boat on the Seine – to play in the first part of her show at a bar in her native Levallois, just outside Paris. In fact, she had invited me without telling me where it was, and I immediately accepted, and then found out afterwards that it was a 23-minute walk from my home. That, of course, meant that I would perform during the Fête de la Musique without having to fight through the hell and noise of the Paris streets.
melody says with harmonica
It also meant that the gig itself would take place in a nice, calm, cool neighborhood pub, where, as it turned out, there were lots of locals and lots of guests and fans of Melody Says. And no wonder: Melody’s music is fresh with nice melodies, lively with moving rhythms and captivating with her lovely vocals. There is one wonderful song, “I Wish I Was Born in 1952,” that I particularly like, and I think it’s one of her most popular ones. But I kept wanting to interrupt her act and say, “Melody, listen, I’m sorry to have to break the news, but if you had been born in 1952 you would be hitting 61 years old about now, and I’m not so sure your future would be looking quite the same….” But then, who am I to say? Maybe it will – if she keeps up the melodies.

She had some interesting musicians with her too, by the way, with on bass a former bassist for Le Spark, and on guitar her producer Kenny Paterson, who it turns out – although I did not realize it last night – was a legendary engineer and producer from Scotland who has worked with bands like Texas, and INXS and John Martyn, and who today recorded Melody’s EP (in London), and worked recently as Pete Doherty’s sound engineer on his gigs. (Melody Says has, by the way, also toured a little with Doherty recently.)

I myself had a completely new experience as a musician working on the Fête de la Musique. When Melody Says asked me to play, as I said, I immediately agreed to do so. The idea was I’d play with my band. But here’s what happened: It being the Fête de la Musique, and me not really having any kind of permanent band (I play with several other musicians occasionally), I discovered that every one of the five or six or more musicians that I have played with were already performing in gigs around Paris in their own regular bands! I almost got one in the end, but he had a very non-understanding employer who would not let him finish work early for his music passion, even on this international music festival day.

So it was that I had to perform solo and act as the warm-up man before the real treat of the evening – Melody Says. Fortunately there was a kind of neighborhood feel to the pub, which, by the way, is called, The Last Drop, and so I found that starting the evening’s music with just my guitar was actually a great way to do things. I did shift from my original desire to play mostly only my owns songs into a decision to play some of the crowd pleasers too, some of the songs, like “Father and Son,” that everyone knows or can sing along with. And as it turned out, both Melody and her bass player joined me for several songs by playing on the drum set behind me. So I chose some very moving, thrusting rhythm songs for those ones and that got the audience warmed up a bit, and it was great fun to play with them.

So all in all it was actually a fabulous evening, and we finished it off by going to Melody Says’ place and doing a little rooftop jamming within sight of the Eiffel Tower and with my Gibson J-200 facing of with Melody’s Epiphone EJ-200, which is the Gibson clone and a fabulous guitar of its own…. Could it have been a better celebration of music in Paris – or rather, Levallois – than that?

Fete de la Musique at Ollie’s Place in Paris

June 22, 2011

Last night was the annual Music Festival and I decided to learn from my experience with the Fete de la Musique from last year: I did not want to walk the crowded, rowdy, chaotic streets of Paris looking for and listening to all manner of music on this mad night of musical letting go.

For many musicians in France, the music festival, au contraire, is something that goes on all year round. The annual organized music festival is for them just an excuse for people who don’t usually care about music to go out and get drunk, hurt, involved in fights and public rowdiness.

So as it fell on a Tuesday this year, I decided that the best thing for me to do was to continue living as usual and to attend the best open mic in Paris at the moment, which takes place on Tuesday nights at the Ptit Bonheur la Chance bar in the Latin Quarter. As it turned out, Ollie Fury, who hosts the evening, had a job beforehand playing music on the street in front of a crafts shop, because it was, indeed, the Fete de la Musique.

But he ran to the bar and started the open mic on time after singing for an hour and a half, and the bar was already nearly full of waiting musicians and spectators. Still, there were a lot fewer of the regular performers. But there were a sufficient number of interesting acts, and a big audience, to make the evening a memorable one nevertheless.

Most of all, like always at Ollie’s, it was a comfortable, fun, warm evening, and one that felt all the better when once I left the place and set foot in the streets made me appreciate my decision: The streets of Paris even at 2 AM were full of rowdy, drunk, aggressive people and very few musicians by that time. Cabs were all occupied, and the general feeling was one like New Year’s Eve, which did not drum up particularly good memories for me.

So thanks to Ollie and the Ptit Bonheur la Chance and all the musicians and spectators for supporting the regular night of music on an evening where it might well have been cancelled – as other open mics did last year.

The Uncool Fête de la Musique

June 22, 2010

Dear X:

You were right, the French Fête de la Musique, or one-day musical festival on 21 June every year since 1982, is not cool. I had not experienced the Fête de la Musique in probably a couple of decades, and my memories of it were that it was splendid. All of Paris became one giant concert hall with musicians, groups, semi-musicians, half-musicians, full musicians, playing in the street acoustically, with amps, with radios and DJ sound systems, you name it – music everywhere.

So when you recently told me that the cool people stay in on the night of the Fête de la Musique in Paris, I must admit that I felt you were being overly cool, a little pretentious and pretty complicated too. But it now turns out that I have had a fresh experience with the Fête de la Musique, and I am sorry to have to admit that you were right about this, as you were with so many of the things that I misjudged you on. (Though I do not want to get carried away and say you were right about everything, because I know for sure that is not the case!)

There is always a small chance that my experience walking the streets of Paris last night in the Fête de la Musique was negatively colored also by the fact that I was doing it alone, without you, and therefore had a little grudge against the world and was seeing it through the dark glasses of my heart at the moment. But I don’t think so. I think you were just plain RIGHT.

And here’s why: Monday night being a good night for open mics and me being one who goes out as often as I’m alone to sing on a Monday night, I decided I would again seek out last week’s two venues. These, you will remember, were the Tennessee Bar and the Galway pub near St. Michel. Well, the first horror was taking the metro from Duroc to Odéon and finding the thing so jam packed with people going to see and hear the Fête de la Musique that although there was just enough room for me, there was no room for my guitar. I received some dirty looks from people for daring to think of carrying a guitar into a packed Métro – on the Fête de la Musique.

I also felt rather dorky and uncool carrying the guitar around as if I only did so on the day of the Fête de la Musique, when in fact I do it all the time. But I will return to that theme in a moment. Once I got out of the Métro at Odéon and went to the Tennessee bar for the open mic my worst fear was confirmed: I walked into the bar and the barwoman said, “There’s no open mic tonight. I thought James told everyone. He’s playing at the Moose.”

Okay, so the previous week, no doubt, James the MC did probably tell everyone there would be no open mic. But I had left well before the end to go to the Galway, so I didn’t hear it if he said it, and it was my own fault anyway. Still, the basement room was empty, and why not do an open mic anyway with another MC!? After all, it’s the Fête de la Musique.

Let’s move on. I then went to the Galway and found a soccer game of the World Cup on the television and a full crowd of soccer lovers. I asked the barwoman if there was an open mic.

“No, there isn’t,” she said. “But after the football game there will be a concert, and if you want, you can play. But it is not an open mic, it is a concert.”

This, at least, was more in the spirit of a Fête de la Musique. But it said this to me: Game ends between 10 and 10:30? Then the band prepares to play and plays and maybe if I’m lucky I’ll get to do a song sometime near midnight? Not worth the gamble, or the wait, I thought.

And in any case, I said, tonight is the Fête de la Musique in Paris, and maybe I should look around, and maybe I’ll be asked to play somewhere in the street or in a bar, when my guitar is spotted – you know, like in Istanbul, that music-loving city.

So I set out on a long, long walk through Paris, heading through several different districts, St. Michel, Les Halles, Oberkampf, Belleville, and elsewhere. And all along the way the city blared with music, just like in Istanbul, in fact. And here as you went from one quarter to another you often ran into the kind of music of the prevalent population of the quarter, as in Arab music in some places, African in others, French chanson in others.

But guess what? My growing feeling, actually it was pretty immediate, was one of disgust, a letdown and a feeling of a lack of authenticity. When I walk through the streets of Istanbul in a wall of sound in every street at nighttime, I know that it is part of the local culture. It is natural, and it happens EVERY DAY. Here in Paris last night, I had the sense of a fake culture being slapped on the usual staid and boring and silent world of the French capital. (Or rather, those parts of Paris that are usually able to be characterized thus.)

And I said to myself, too, “Where the hell do all these musicians come from? Why do I not see and hear them every other day of the year?” Actually, truth be told, I would not have WANTED to hear most of them every day of the year, and once was enough. My feeling was, you see, exactly what you were trying to tell me, I think: That suddenly all the weekend guitar players come out of their bedrooms to go into the street and “play Bohemian” on the one day in the year that it is not only permitted, but condoned. Whereas the people in your world – and also in mine, Dear X – are full-time bohemians and music lovers and committed to a love of music ALL the time.

One day a year for a Fête de la Musique? Get out of here. I think the people who had the best idea about the whole thing were the 239 thieves the Paris and regional police force arrested for petty crimes last night. Yeah, man, I hope they got a few of those guitars!!!!!

I considered recording some videos of the bands and the ambience with my Zoom Q3 for this blog as I always do on my musical adventures. Then I said, “No, don’t! Don’t stoop that low.”

So, once again Dear X, I must apologize to you for underestimating your understanding on a point of great importance – although again I will not go so far as to admit being wrong about everything! There were, for example, some cool, committed and hip bands playing about town, like The Shades, and as my son said, the ideal thing to do to really Fête la Musique, would have been to go listen to a concert pianist or an orchestra, or something that pop music lovers don’t usually do. That would really be paying hommage to music. But for the most part, you were also right, this was nothing more than another example of the hysteria surrounding the marketing tool known as Beaujolais Nouveau – it has a sweet and exciting smell to it, but no depth and is often downright unpalatable….

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