PARIS – I have no idea how many years it has now been that Nicholas Ullmann has been hosting his Kararocké at the Bus Palladium, but I do believe I discovered it in 2010, and have been going occasionally ever since. I returned on Saturday evening – it runs every first Saturday of the month – to find his institution still alive and more than well. And this, despite the recent sad death due to cancer of the regular bass guitarist of the band, Erik Fostinelli, also known as Guy Pop.
In fact, I believe the Kararocké has been more than a decade that this formula has been working for Ullmann, the master of many disguises and above all, master MC. (Master master of ceremonies!!??) That the formula works is no surprise: It is a super karaoke, with a live band on a large stage in a large room with great sound, spotlights, and just absolutely everything to make the spectators that get on stage feel as if they are rock stars for a night.
On Saturday night, it was the turn of Yann Destal, known for his hit song, Lady (Hear Me Tonight), which was a worldwide success in 2000 when he was just 20 years old and in his band then called Modjo. Yann continues a strong musical career, but one that is out of the limelight compared to the days of early success. He plays around Paris all the time, and recently even starred in a musical about Woodstock.
I myself did not even try to get on stage, for two or three reasons: 1) I am usually crap at doing Karaoke because when I play and sing cover songs, I usually do it with my guitar in my hands, and I do it my own way, (they call this “interpretation,” but I prefer to think of it as making felicitous mistakes when it works, as I inevitably try to imitate the real thing but fail); 2) I did sing once with success at this kararocké, when somehow the band played “What’s Up” in my key, but I made a horrible failure of singing an Arthur H. song just a few weeks later, as it was neither in my key, nor a style I can do!, and 3), in fact, I was wearing my contact lenses and cannot read with them, so I’d have to know all the lyrics by heart! Oh there was another reason too: Ullmann, in his fair way, was asking all night long only for singers who had never before sung at the kararocké. And I did not fit that category, obviously.
This was a beautifully chosen song for the night, because it was written in protest and disbelief of the horrible American politics of the day…plus ça change….
But it was well worth the night. On the less good nights of this formula the music has tended to be too much hard rock. But on Saturday there was a broad, broad cross-section of sounds. I regretted enormously not having brought my Zoom recorder in order to get great sound, as we have to settle for the terrible sound of my Galaxy S8….
In France we are in the middle of the first set of weeks in which public holidays divide the week in half. The 1 May and 8 May are public holidays – a kind of labor day on the 1st and the Victory of WWII on the 8th – and in France that means that a large percentage of the population will created what they call a “bridge,” or a “pony,” of days off between the weekend and the middle of the week. The and what THAT means is that for these two weeks there are hardly any people in Paris. And what THAT means is that the Kararocké organizers may well have been worried that there would not be many people there on Saturday for the once-a-month giant karaoke with the live band. So was that the reason that Nicolas Ullmann, the MC, decided to announce that Pete Doherty would sing a song or two before the kararocké?
Many of the regular clients of the Bus Palladium will by now know that the artistic director of the venue is acting as manager for Peter Doherty, the British rock star of the former Libertines and Babyshambles, who lives in Paris. So maybe, just maybe, Ullmann thought that would attract people during a potential down period. On the other hand, as many of the clients to his great Kararocké know, Ullmann is the master of disguise, and he dress up as a different character for each show. This time, guess what? The character, it seems, was Pete Doherty!
And it was Ullmann doing the impersonation…. Doherty has recently played at the Bus Palladium, and even in small cafés in the neighborhood, so it would not have been unreasonable to expect him to show. But the game was Ullmann’s this time, and I don’t have any idea at all if it actually worked, but what I can say is that the crowd was its usual size and enthusiasm on Saturday night, and Ullmann put on another great show.
I was surprised at how many people were there. But I also know that a lot of the people who showed up came to see the basically unknown band that opened for the Kararocké, the band called, Velvet Veins. I went specifically to see them – although my interest was piqued by the idea of a Doherty intervention – as the Velvet Veins is the new band of my sometime lead guitarist Félix Beguin, with whom I have played many times, and recorded a couple songs too. He met his new band in the studio where he works, just outside Paris. The Velvet Veins, for their part, did NOT let down.
I was just noting yesterday how open mics that occur only once per month are generally not so successful, often forgotten, and would do better to be every week. I also remarked how happy an evening it turned out to be at the Truskel open mic for me on Friday, that open mic that happens once per month but is now closing for a long, long summer break…. Last night I went to one of my favorite open mics, which, in fact, is a live karaoke, with a live band and a set-list you choose your songs from, the wonderful Kararocké at the Bus Palladium. And guess what? I concluded that some open mics are better off happening only once per month….
I just cannot imagine either the spectators or Nicolas Ullmann, the genial host of the show – and inventor of the concept – going through that every week. It is so high energy, such a blow out of a party of an open mic, and Ullmann puts to much into it – creating elaborate costumes for every show – that I think everyone would wind up having to take the work week to recuperate after each show. It would eventually drag you down and out and a visit to a sanitarium would be called for.
I have loved every visit to the show in recent months. Especially the night I sang “What’s Up!” in early October. For the last two times I have been there, I have somewhat timidly put my name into the bucket with the request to sing “Wicked Game,” and each time I was somehow over-looked and not called up to sing. Probably that had to do with Nicolas’s huge efforts to give new people a chance every week, and not just put up the same people all the time.
But part of me thinks it may have to do with the fact that if I did get a chance to do that song, it would be the most downbeat, slowest, heaviest and most quiet number of the whole evening. And I wondered if maybe Nicolas found that too depressing for the formula.
Having said that, last night I found myself so incredibly swamped by the upbeat madness of the songs sung – not all, but the accumulation of them had that effect – that oddly, for the first time since I started going to this mad show, I started feel withdrawn through sensory overload. Hey, let’s have a few quiet and low numbers to tone things down and bring people to earth a little.
No, this is not just sour-grapes for not being selected. In fact, each month I get scared shitless about going up on that stage to sing, and when the evening passes and I find my name has not been drawn from the bucket, I sigh great relief and say, “Phew!!! I won’t have to face the situation – but I had the courage to try!!!”
Anyway, the evening is so successful that whatever may be my opinion, I’m sure Ullmann knows what’s he is doing. I think at one point last night I felt it was the biggest crowd I’ve ever seen at the Kararocké….
So there was a little bit of everything, and this time everyone who performed received a present and there was a draw as well – including one woman with size 39 shoes winning some nice size 39 running shoes…
If this all sounds a little paltry and sort of not very hip as a critique of one of my favorite monthly open music nights in Paris, that is probably because it is the night before Christmas for me too, and I have yet to wrap a load of presents, and take care of various other Christmas and personal matters – like going for a spin on the unicycle – and so I am just winding up about three days worth of Christmas preparations by this very quick look at the Bus Palladium kararocké, which now prefer to leave to the videos to give the true idea of what it was all about….
Oh, check out the young rocker guy dressed in silver – not sure about his voice, but he sure had the attitude… and boy did he ever remind me of Nazi Dog in the Viletones from the concert I saw of them in 1977!!! (Minus the razor blades, and when this one gave a beer bottle to someone in the audience it was gently and with a thank you gesture, rather than breaking it and throwing the pieces at the audience and then cutting himself up – how times have changed….)
I wrote about Nicolas Ullmann’s Kararocké last month. That night, as it turns out, was a typical one at the Kararocké at the Bus Palladium. Last night was anything but typical, although it was, at the base of it, the same stupendous, Hollywood Kararocké as usual. But this time, the twist was enormous: They were filming a television show before and during the Kararocké. And how can I say it without sounding like I’m blowing my own horn – they invited me to make a cameo appearance on the show, as if singing in the Kararocké…. I was invited, it seems, based on my appearance at the previous Kararocké, singing “What’s Up!”.
I know how I can make it sound like I’m not blowing my own horn: By starting off by saying, crap, I could have done SOOOOOOO much better during my cameo appearance. But of that, I will say more in a moment. The fact was, after careful reflection after my performance – and after pulling out the remainder of my hair in the bald spot on top of my head – I realized that I had had an exceptional evening at the Ullmann Kararocké, and so, I could see, had most of the hundreds of spectators who showed up to watch the show AND play as extras in the TV segment that was being recorded.
Last month I mentioned that Arthur H, the French rock star, had shown up and sung in the Kararocké. This time, Arthur H brought a retinue of people and actually filmed a segment of a short film for the French national pay TV channel Canal +. From what I could make out in the evening’s filming, Nicolas Ullmann plays a karaoké presenter named “Eddie,” and Arthur H plays the world champion of karaoké, Gaspard Gaspaccio, who is Eddie’s best friend. But he’s a little bit of an eccentric champ, this Gaspard, a little moody, a little bit in his own world, and a little bit, “I’ll sing when I feel like it….”
It was a real pleasure to see the ambience of a television recording going on, as I recalled such things from my youth, and it was an even bigger pleasure to have been invited to take part in the film. I was part of a medley in which three couples – I was paired with Céline Perrier – were invited to learn to sing three Arthur H songs from his latest album, “Baba Love,” released last month. We were filmed onstage during the real Kararocké in front of the real live audience.
But that, for me, was not the high point of the evening, although it was a fantastic culmination. My disappointment, let me say, was simply that although I spent several days listening to and preparing the song, which is about Jean-Michel Basquiat, I only managed to do a short segment in French, where the spot I could really have shown off with and brought something to the table, to the spectators, was the English part of the song. This was written by the well-known Slam artist, Saul Williams, who does a major contribution to the Arthur H record. I loved the lines, the feel, the sound, but as it turned out, the medley had to be cut to a very limited length, as there were three songs to cover, and so I did not get to that rap….
Having said that, the evening was fabulous for me for having met and worked with the delightful Céline, and for having met the director, Joseph Cahill, who is a young American film director living in Paris who has a very interesting career for the moment, and for speaking to Ullmann for the first time to any great extent. I introduced myself to Cahill at what I perceived to be the first down moment, and we talked for a few minutes, including about my own open mic film. (I had to mention it.) The moment I chose to talk to him, in fact, coincided with when I saw that he was talking to one of his actors in the show. After I spoke to Cahill, I then spoke to this actor, whom I heard spoke English with an American accent. I told him what I was up to, asked him what he was up to – an American musician and actor living in Paris.
“Cool,” I said, before telling him that I had this monumental task that night of singing and reciting this song about Basquiat, with a lyric that was as challenging as a Bob Dylan song to learn – think “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).” I then added, “But it’s really good, the English text is by Saul Williams…”
“That’s me,” he said, this actor.
Crap! So it was I ended up having this nice discussion with one of the most famous participants in the Slam movement, and star of the film “Slam.” He advised me on the text: “Don’t worry, it’s more about the sound and the emotion, the explosion,” he said, or something like that. So it’s all right if I fuck it up and change the words? “Yeah, no problem….”
This was turning very sweet. Too bad, in the end, I didn’t get the chance to do it. But that talk with Williams was very cool, and I learned that he found as much or more pleasure in the open mic thing than the pure slam thing. He had grown up doing open mics, singing, and now continues to sing. And of course, act, do poetry and generally create. In addition to acting the lead role in the film Slam, he was also part of the documentary film called SlamNation. And in 1996, he won the title of Nuyorican Poets Cafe’s Grand Slam Champion. I had passed by the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in NYC in August when I did my week of open mics there, but somehow the open mic hour and my schedule did not coincide. Can’t remember why.
In any case, last night the evening was pure delight. But not only for me. The audience was clearly delighted to be part of the ambience, part of the TV show, and the regular Kararocké continued as usual, just cut up with scenes from the film. There were some great singers as usual, like Kristov Leroy, who has put out an EP of songs in English and is now finishing an album in French, and who did a great Bowie rendition. And then there was Syd and Félix from the Burnin’ Jacks doing a Hendrix, and a woman from the Crazy Horse doing a Brigitte Bardot/Gainsbourg, etc. Really quite a unique night out, when you think of it….
PS, I must not leave out that the audience was also treated to a special warm-up act featuring a magician – a kind of drunken magician, who did a cool act with a bird:
This post will no doubt be little more than a postage stamp-sized marking of territory where it might have been quite fun and elaborate. But having played at the Galway Pub open mic on Monday night and then returned home and stayed up all night before catching a flight to Tokyo and then a bullet train to Nagoya, I must say that my intellectual capacities are a little dulled out.
The all-night thing was intended to help me beat jet-lag, and it worked to a good degree, but I’m still feeling it. (I slept on the airplane for several hours during Paris daytime hours, where normally… this is turning into a rambling nothing….)
The Galway evening was fun, and it was particularly well illuminated by an interesting couple of guys passing through Paris from a California-based band called Alma Desnuda. They were funny, light, and also capable of being heavy and emotional. I liked the stuff a lot, and a glance at their Alma Desnuda band web site shows they are invovled in all sorts of interesting projects, including educational ones.
They were passing through Paris, and happened to celebrate the birthday of one of the two of them. Their band, they said, was founded while they lived in Spain.
I am writing these words from my hotel in Nagoya, and fighting the fatigue but hoping that I will find an open mic here tonight anyway. I have seen all sorts of open mics in the city, but most take place on days I will not be here. I hope nevertheless that the one I attended two years ago is still running on Thursdays…. Keep posted…. and I’ll keep posting.
I plan to write more about both of these things and my night at the kararocké, where my song offering was not pulled from the hat so I never made it to the stage. But first, I want to put up a few videos about this event that I took last night, while it’s still fresh. No more time, gotta run! More later: