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…
I am late, late, late in coming out with this one, since a personal blog is all about momentum, and recently I lost the momentum. But I always say there is nothing to worry about on a personal blog – and in life itself – that if the momentum dips, pick up the momentum again! I’m referring to a day on my last trip to Italy that started with a piano event at the TAC Teatro that was just one of dozens set all around Milan, and ended with a fairly last-minute decision to hold an open mic at a bar-restaurant, which turned out to be a great success.
The first event, at TAC, was part of a city-wide event called “Piano City,” in which for a three-day weekend there are small piano concerts all over Milan. TAC hosted one of these little concerts, with a demonstration of four-handed piano playing. It was quite successful, with perhaps close to 30 spectators. When you consider there were dozens of these events in various locations throughout the city on the same day, that must have brought together quite an audience for the piano!
“This year, once again, pianos will invade houses, yards, stations, roofs, farmsteads, museums, schools, libraries, laboratories, parks. Music won’t stop from the sunset to the dawn and from the dawn until the sunset in a continuous love declaration for the piano, its music and for the city of Milan,” says the Piano City web site. “In these last six years, like a kaleidoscope, we changed and shaped ourselves to give voice to the music and to the most surprising urban sites. 2017 edition wants to tell about these five years of changes throughout Milan. A two-day&night journey from the centre to the suburbs on the notes of our pianos spread in the best spaces telling the story of the city from historical locations to new areas.”
That same night, I went to an impromptu open mic at the cool bar/restaurant near the Via Padova called, Salumeria del design. It seems the open mic was part of another related musical day event, but in any case, the bar decided to open the mic to any musicians who wanted to play. It turned out to have a wide-cross-section of styles, if there were only four or five of us in total. But that gave us the opportunity to share the mic throughout the evening. Fifth at the Salumeria open mic in Milan
And I enjoyed hearing the different Italian musicians singing Italian songs I had never heard, and keeping the English to a minimum – or leaving it to me. I got to close the evening, playing to just a handful of people at the end who wanted to hear me, after quite a raucous night of music before that with the crowd singing along to the popular Italian repertoire…. Second at the Salumeria open mic in Milan
MILAN – Wednesday night in Milan for me has mostly two significations: The Arci Turro jam and the jam at the Milan Joy bar. But last Wednesday I decided after a spell at the Arci Turro – in fact, when it ended at midnight – to go off to the Spazio Ligera bar for a nightcap and forgo the Joy bar jam. But Ligera being Ligera, I found myself invited to open my guitar case and play a few songs. Then one of the owners decided to play a song on my guitar behind the bar, then another one decided to bring out a bongo and invite me to play more while he played the bongos. And so there I was with a jam anyway…!
The Spazio Ligera bar proved itself to be the genial, warm and open place I have always said it was. There is often the possibility to just pick up a guitar and play, if not much else is going on – especially not in the concert room in the basement. jam moment at Spazio Ligera
In any case, it was a fine feeling of fulfilment from the jam point of view last Wednesday in a completely unexpected way – par for the Milan course….
MILAN – This is just the kind of thing that confirms my increasing belief and understanding about the Milan cultural scene: It took until Wednesday evening for me to discover one of the coolest open jams in the city. And the Arci Turro open blues jam has been going on weekly for more than three years. How could I have missed it? The answer is simple and goes back to that bit about my understanding….
Milan is spread out all over the place. There is no real concentration of any particular kind of life in the city – except perhaps the most easily recognizable Duomo kind of life and its major commercial center in the middle of the city. Elsewhere, to find an open mic, an open jam, a theater, a music venue, you have to know where they are, either by word-of-mouth, or long, long experience and contacts. Arci Turro blues jam second
Of course, it is all up there on the internet in one form or another, but that seems not very clearly communicated either. In any case, the xxx open jam takes place in one of the coolest bars I have discovered so far.
Located in a completely residential and/or business area just off the via Padova area, the venue sits on a side street with complete anonymity. It has a completely laid back club house sort of feel to it, with large dining tables in the front room, a neat bar in the back, a giant billiards table – the kind with no ball pockets – and a multi-level back porch with more tables and chairs. It is also decorated in almost a clubhouse kind of way, with newspaper clippings pinned to a corkboard, books in shelves, and various other bric-a-brac. Arci Turro blues jam first
In fact, it is something of a clubhouse, as it is the location of an association that is linked to all sorts of events, and just happens to have this bar and jam – the blues jam is run by Giulio Brouzet, who joins in on harmonica and vocals, depending on the situation. There is also an upright piano, and basically it seems every kind of instrument is accepted.
I played with my guitar and sang, and accompanying me were a trumpet player, a violin player, a harmonica player, a drummer, and a lead guitar player. There may have been more, but as you sit in something close to a circle halfway between the two main rooms of the venue, I’m not sure I saw all the people who were playing along when I did my number! And, yes, I did not do a blues song, since I don’t know how to play any – so although the emphasis here is about 90 percent blues, the jam is open to other things, or at least a broad definition of blues. Arci Turro blues jam … after the jam around midnight….
In any case, the atmosphere is so cool at the Arci Turro in both the jam and the bar in general, that I will be sure to return whenever I can. It also happens to be on the same night of the week as the Joy Milano jam that I have written about several times, but as it turns out, the Arci Turro ends around 23:30 and the Joy Milano only really gets swinging into high action at around that time, so you can go from the one to the other. As did several of the musicians last Wednesday, I was told. But I was so comfortable at the Arci Turro that I hung around for another hour or so talking to people on the back porch and drinking some of the many available wines….
PARIS – It is only now after a trip to Milan and back in Paris that I have finally had the time to sit at the blog again and dream about the past…without any jealousy, but many warm memories. I’m talking about yet another night at the Joy bar jam that I have not been able to note; about a fabulous visit to an annual variety show in a very neat theater; and about actually taking part a couple of nights later in another such annual show in a bigger theater and event space. All of which has continued to allow me to dismantle, bit by bit, my feeling that Milan is as boring a city as its mostly boring outer appearance of the streets and cityscape would have us believe.
There IS a mountain of “underground” activities in Milan, you just have to know where to look for them. And how strange and in some ways ironic can it be that it is in this city that I used to classify as “boring” that I would find myself performing for the first time since my early 20s in the area of my life in which I started: In the circus arts!
Yes, it may have been the last of these events, but it stands out first in my mind not just for its proximity in my memory, but especially because I got to dress up as a clown and clown around with a fabulous little troupe of clowns and actors, to ride a unicycle through the event, and even do a little bit of juggling. And, now that I think of it, I managed at one point to gate-crash a musicians’ group and take their acoustic guitar and perform a song – along with them singing along with me.
Brad Spurgeon with Ornella Bonventre of TAC Teatro
I’m referring to the annual “Irreality Show,” which took place at the fabulous associative theater and event space known as, Arci Ohibo. I was invited to join the troupe of actors and clowns of the TAC Teatro – which I have written about before on this blog – by Ornella Bonventre to clown around during this fabulous event. Naturally, having not done such a thing since my teenage years and early twenties, I was a little bit worried. A little bit reticent. A little depressed at the prospect of looking lack a fool – in the bad sense. Especially next to the fabulous talent of the TAC Teatro troupe.
But I decided that part of my new life approach over the last decade with its philosophy to do “everything” (except destructive things), I really ought to give this a try and hope that I could have a George Plimpton moment again, of the kind that I had the first time I dared go on stage with a band at the Jazz-Si open mic in Barcelona of 2009. And man, was I right to try.
more of the TAC Teatro clowns
It only took entering into the Ohibo space to see that I loved it immediately and would feel at home. The Irreality show consists of multiple little shows and events spread throughout the space, and performing at the same time. Spectators pay 5 euros and get to walk around all night from room to room, stage to stage, space to space, and take in the various acts and activities. The TAC clown troupe were just about the only ones who had the luxury of being itinerant within the space, an free to roam all over the place. What better way to see everything and take part than to be part of that roaming troupe.
Brad Spurgeon unicycling TAC show
So it was that I could see it all, and take part in what I wanted, riding my unicycle, clowning, juggling and playing music while also remaining a spectator of the amazing collection of acts: An Irish harp player, a mermaid, three or four actors and actresses doing one-person shows, a band of traditional musicians, a folk music trio, a body painter, a marionette act, a cross-dresser, a musician playing a saw, painters, photographers, and performance artists like the depressed man who sat in the same spot all night looking depressed, or the other itinerant one, the Andy Warhol with his head in a picture frame.
There may have been other acts, but the point is, this strange evening of drinking, socialising, and watching the acts through the very hip and cool, sprawling Ohibo, did as I say, renew my faith in the coolness of Milan – once you find it. And while I felt somewhat rusty and ever so inhibited at times as a clown, I also felt amazingly liberated in returning to my own personal roots for an evening. I’m hoping to do much more of it in future, too….
And then there was the skit show at the Scighera Teatro
A few days before that, I found myself the envious spectator at the other space I mentioned at the beginning of this post, the Scighera Teatro, where the stage and space was given over to an annual kind of clowning competition show. This is a fabulous space with a bar in the front part of the building, and the stage in a vast room off the back, which includes the performers’ dressing room/off-stage in a kind of bird’s nest above and next to the stage.
The show consisted of several clowning skits, a Mexican trapeze artist, musicians and a storyteller. And it was entertaining almost start to finish. My two favorite acts were, first, the pizza dough chefs with their battle with the dough – this was so Italian and yet so universal, it was crazy. It could be understood in every country in the world, since I think every country has its pizza chefs! And yet here we were in Italy.
And the other act I loved was the incredibly skilled, mind-boggling one of the man who threw and caught paper airplanes in a kind of paper airplane ballet. Hidden behind the dance was a skill of a kind I could not even imagine existed. Unfortunately I had problems with my camera throughout, and particularly during this act – but I did manage to get a little bit of video of the paper airplane guy, as well as the pizza chefs. So check out the videos.
And then finally back to the Joy Bar jam…and then a return to Ligera….
Finally, I’m a little late on getting it up on the blog, but I’ve got a video or two or three of the latest Joy Bar open mic/open jam that I attended. In one of the videos I show the atmosphere as you approach the bar, with the music blaring inside, and the outside, dull, dead, depressing Milan environment from which springs this…joy….
And now suddenly, I remember there was another night of a fabulous, interesting discovery. This was at the great Spazio Ligera, which I have also written about several times on this blog. I was attracted this time to go to a concert in the large and cozy vaulted cellar room with its magnificent stage and regular music concerts, thanks to the appearance of an interesting story in the form of Julith Ryan, of Australia. This is an Australian musician who by complete freak happenstance ended up recording a CD with a bunch of Italian musicians in Italy, after a career in local Melbourne bands.
Julith was on a mini tour of Italy with the release of the album. When I heard the recordings on youtube and soundcloud, I was very intrigued to see her live. I didn’t put it all together until I did see her at Ligera, but that is when the parallel finally came to me: There’s something of the Marianne Faithful to Julith.
But it was the open act soloist on acoustic guitar and vocals who really blew my mind: That was the intriguingly named Jennifer V Blossom. A very powerful mix of strong rock vocals and nifty rhythmic guitar with a mesmerising delivery. And the sudden, surprising rendition of Edith Piaf’s song about regretting nothing. I sure did not regret this discovery….
PARIS – Back in Paris now, I attended a great open mic/jam on Saturday that I have written about several times. It has never ever let me down, even though it can vary from week to week. But the feeling at Le Paradis bar jam is invariably worth the attendance. And when I think of it, the second version of the Joy jam bar in Milan on Wednesday was even better than the first edition. In any case, despite their differences, there is a similarity of feeling between the two: People loving to play and people loving to listen, to music.
In bars, in open jam situations with no stage, just musicians getting up and playing together, musicians who do not know each other, and the clients who do not know the musicians. Joy jam milan second
I’m just running on at the mouth at the moment, trying to make text areas on this page with which to divide up the space where I will put the videos from each of these open jam sessions. joy jam milan first
I waited longer than usual to post, and so therefore, I have been terribly irresponsible, and only the general, fantastic vibe of the two nights has remained with me. Along with the point that a jam session, whether it is in Milan or Paris or Shanghai or Seoul or Melbourne or New York or London, is ALWAYS a moment of great emotional celebration, togetherness and release. joy jam milan fourth
MILAN – Definitely I think I have the most fun when I am in a city where there are not usually that many different open mics or open jam sessions, and suddenly I discover a new one. If I am in Paris, London, Toronto or New York, or even Melbourne, and I find a new open mic or jam, I’m really happy to attend. But unless it is absolutely extraordinary and different, it’s not the same buzz at all of the kind I experience in a city like Milan, where last night I attended the first ever weekly open jam at the Joy Milano bar. And this time, the joy was not just in the discovery of a jam session at a bar in Milan, but in this one being absolutely completely different than any I have attended before, with some amazing musicians – not the last of which is the man who organises the jam, Raffaele Kohler, a well-known Milan trumpet player. Joy Milano Jam Second
The Joy bar is located in part of a municipal building that includes an auditorium for local events, and public speeches. But the bar is independent, privately owned. So it sets up its own events that have nothing to do with the municipality. For this jam to succeed, therefore, it will require musicians to know it exists – it’s not located in the kind of place where passersby will hear the music and drop in. Third at Joy Milano Jam
I was at first worried that because the first two musicians present were brass wind instrument players, that this might be a jazz jam, and that I could not fit in. Then in walked a banjo player with some penny whistles, there was a cajon player, and then two electrical guitar players, and others followed. And the music was every style anyone wanted it to be. Playing my own songs with the “brass section” turned out to be quite wild and educational, and another bit of evidence of the importance and fun of open jam sessions. Joy Milano Jam first
The first edition of the Joy Milano jam last night, as you will see from the videos, was a fabulous success, with the sit-around-the table open free-for-all feel of jams I find occasionally, but rarely with such a fun feel. (By the way, check out the difference in quality between the videos, some of which were done on my new Osmo camera, the others were done on my old Zoom.) The people running the bar let the jam go without the least comment on volume, and while I had to leave at midnight, I understand it was to go on a lot later. A great sign. Joy Milano Jam Sixth
I have updated my Thumbnail Guide to Milan Open Mics, Jam Sessions and other Live Music. I’m pretty disappointed that the moment I update this guide is also the moment I lose the mainstay listing of the Fermento bar, which stopped its open mic/open jam. But thankfully, I do get to add a new open mic, the even cooler one at the Bachelite CLab bar that takes place every second Thursday….
(PS: Update to the update!: I’ve also added the new quasi open mic/open jam of the Spazio Ligera, which I discovered in September, and which is one of my favorite bars in Milan now, although the open mic/open jam is not regular – as you can see by my description on the Guide.)
MILAN – It has always been one of my greatest frustrations in my worldwide open mic travels that my annual visits to Italy coincide with the Italian equivalent of the French month of August vacation. That is to say, I always arrive in early September, when Milan is still in its annual June, July, August, September and October annual vacation. This is the period when all of the open mics and jam sessions in the city are closed down for the festive half year of inactivity that affects the entire city. Added to that is the fact that there just are not that many open mics in Milan. But now that I am in Milan for personal reasons in the month of December, I have finally been able to attend an open mic of a kind that I would never have attended before.
Having said that, the new open mic at the Bachelite CLab bar has only been going for a couple of months or so. But last night’s edition showed me that this must be one of the most fun, best open mics in the city. The bar is a lively, cool, stylish and easy going joint in the middle of a bunch of apartment buildings near the Porta Vittoria metro. The stage is not on the ground floor, but in a highly perched mezzanine above the bar and drinking area. This makes for a kind of area for the musician – complete with piano – that allows for a feeling of both complete freedom on your own as you perform, but also a contact with the audience below, any time you choose to connect with them with your eyes. Italian song at Bachelite CLab
And you know they are listening when you see them looking up at the perch. The sound system is devotedly taken care of by the Doc – the guy who runs the open mic – and others, and there is a mic, a board to plug in several instruments, and it was no holds barred in terms of the kind of formation of musicians and the music. Both Italian stuff, and the usual U.S.-Brit-Canada whatever pop rock folk blues stuff…. Another bit at Bachelite CLab Milano open mic
Although it is completely an open mic, it is also totally open to the jam style of event too, where several musicians can go up and play with each other, as happened with me in a second set with a guy on a cajon.
Although I think that the open mic is supposed to go on officially until only around 11:30 – starting at 9:00 PM – last night they decided there were enough musicians and enough enthusiasm to keep going until 1 or 2 AM. The great sign of it all is that I cannot remember until what time we played. If that is not the highest accolade to an open mic, I don’t know what is!