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!