Brad Spurgeon's Blog

A world of music, auto racing, travel, literature, chess, wining, dining and other crazy thoughts….

The Human Open Mic of the Harcourt Arms

July 1, 2013

LONDON – I have a few minutes in a Starbucks in St. Pancras station on my trip back from Oxford to Paris to write a few words about last night’s open mic at the Harcourt Arms in Oxford, where I played after the F1 race.

It was a bit of a race to get there and when I did I found a very human feel to the Harcourt Arms pub, its staff, spectators and musicians. I had to eat, ran out and got the world’s worst french fries with a passable fish, from a fish and chips joint that calls itself something like “posh.” And I returned to the Harcourt, having found that Nigel Brown had already put my name on the list, knowing I was attending.

I have attended Nigel’s open mics every year since I started staying in Oxford, but the first time it was located down the street from the Harcourt, at a place called Book Binder’s Pub. Book Binders still exists, but it changed management and closed down for a while and during that period, Nigel moved his open mic to the Harcourt. Last night the musicians of the open mic expressed their gratitude to Nigel by presenting him with a bottle of bubbly wine – I don’t think it was French, so I cannot legally call it champagne. It was a celebration of the two-year anniversary of the open mic at the Harcourt.

I decided to run down the street after the Harcourt open mic because I had heard that the Book Binder’s had started up a new open mic and was running it on Sundays too. I was not at all surprised to look into the windows at just after 11 PM and find the pub deserted and the manager putting chairs on the tables to close up for the night. I ran back to the Harcourt and continued to take part in the festivities of speaking with musicians and spectators, and to finish my beer.

Needless to say, I think probably Nigel has won the battle of popularity between the two open mics, if there is such a battle, and I’m not surprised if that’s the case: His MCing is warm and unassuming and enthusiastic, and the musicians range from complete beginners to very good groups of what sound like pros. Unlike the Catweazle club that I wrote about the other day, the Harcourt allows talk in the pub, but nevertheless the audience is receptive to every musician, pretty much.

It’s a great environment, and I will continue to return whenever I’m in Oxford. Oh, I almost forgot to mention, with my own turn behind the mic I had an incredible moment where I could not remember even a single verse of my song, “Crazy Lady,” which I had sung only days earlier at Catweazle, as well as in my hotel. I have no idea where that blank came from as it never happened with that song before – but I decided simply to do my song “Borderline” and then “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go,” of Dylan. It worked out fine.

Coming next on this blog, a little late, as I will be in Paris, my Thumbnail Guide to Open Mics in Oxford. Also, I will post the videos from Oxford, since I think I will not get any up here in St. Pancras on the train station wifi.

A Three-Part Blog Item to Make Up For Time Lost in Travel Warps

July 10, 2012


I just hate letting the blog slide, but things were just way beyond my control over the last couple of days, and I do not want to leave the impression that either I was not doing anything interesting, or not doing music, or not taking risks in life to live my dreams. OK, now that I have that dramatic lead out of the way, let me get on with a three-part blog item, which is the only way I can figure out doing justice to the last three nights of musical levity and profundity.

I left off with my last Oxford blog talking about the lost opportunity at the Oxford Folk Club. Well, Saturday night I had nothing lined up for playing music when suddenly a Formula One racing journalist colleague and I discovered after many years of knowing each other that we had a passion for music, and on his side especially jazz. It was clear we would hit it off when I told him I could never sing jazz, but loved it. But I added the singer HAD to be astounding for me to like it, as most amateur jazz singers sound to me like cold porridge – or flat champagne.

So he said, “Who is a great jazz singer?” I said, “Jimmy Rushing.” He said, “Guess who I was listening to in the car on the way to the circuit this morning?!?!” Yes, Rushing. So later in the day, this colleague told me he had been invited to a barbecue of a mutual colleague of ours – a photographer – and I was now invited and should bring my guitar to entertain the guests. I felt great relief telling him my guitar was in Oxford, that I could not return there and then back to the circuit. For the location of the party was in a small village next to the circuit. “Bad news, Brad. It turns out our colleague’s daughter has a guitar,” he said to me.

He must have picked up on my relief that I would not be found out as a fake, since I had spoken a lot about my musical adventure – as had some others of our colleagues to him. I was scared shitless that I would not be up to his expectations. But music comes first, emotions come first, the real reason for playing and singing, come first: expressing inner emotional truth, and who gives a fuck what others think.

So I went to the party, drank enough to relax, ate, and met the 25 or so guests. Then at the right moment, I got the daughter’s guitar out and began playing. It turned into about one hour of singing along, clapping, fun, emotion, and a general huge success. I had an astoundingly good time, and reports back the following day confirmed that I was not alone to have fun. So it was yet another example of, “Push yourself towards expanding the boundaries and doing what you love and taking chances.”


I ended up sleeping over at this person’s home, in the swimming pool room, and so thereby avoiding traffic and getting to the circuit early for an interview and then the race. I then returned to my hotel in Oxford, went out to dinner and then went to the Harcourt Arms pub’s open mic, which I also attended last year in its first weeks of its existence. Remember, this one came out of the Bookbinder’s open mic down the street, which was organized by Nigel Brown…. A year later, with Nigel still running the Harcourt Arms open mic, I was greeted warmly as I entered, by both Nigel AND the publicans. Wow! It is like a second home. I have a lot of those now around the world.

It turned into a perfect open mic evening with a wide cross-section of performers, wonderful meetings with musicians, locals, tourists and three drop-dead gorgeous German women students all studying biochemistry! (I now realize I should have gone into science….) There was a fabulous pub atmosphere as usual in this consummate neighborhood English pub, with the added attraction of it being located in the great university town.

But the adventure here would become for me yet another case of following instinct, desire and ambitions as I performed a set of two songs alone, and then got another chance to go up, and I asked Nigel a question.

“This year,” I told him, “as I travel the world, I am trying to play and record myself playing, in each country with a local musician. Would you like to play with me?”

He said fine, but added that I would be better off with a guitarist named Johnny Hinkes. So I asked Johnny, and he agreed to play with me. I had not really been very motivated to ask, as it really is like leaping across a big canyon to go out and put yourself forward and say, “Can someone play with me?”

But when I got up to play with Johnny, I realized that I was with a lead guitarist like none I had ever played with before. I started with “Mad World,” because I thought it suited the moment, and would be easy and good for him to play along to. But he did such an amazing and different job with it, that I decided to be ambitious and do my song, “Borderline.” He was even better with that, and had never heard it before. It was a fabulous success, I had the time of my life, and I got it recorded too – although not on video. The Harcourt Arms and Nigel Brown came through again – better than ever! (I was then offered a cab ride back to my hotel by someone going that direction, which was a fabulous time saver for my Monday travels.)


It was a long, long, long day from Oxford back to Paris. I had to drive my rental car to Avis in London, then go to the St. Pancras station and take the Eurostar. Just before entering the Channel Tunnel, the train stopped at a station and we sat there for 2 hours!!! That is 20 minutes short of what the whole trip is supposed to take. The train had a technical problem and could not go through the tunnel. Would we have been suffocated or something?

Finally, we switched to a new train, and I arrived in Paris at 20:15. It was too late to return home and THEN go to the Coolin open mic as I planned. So I just went directly to Coolin with all my luggage and my guitar and ate a meal there – English fish ‘n chips – and I waited for the open mic. I was not feeling particularly inspired about the evening, but it began to grow on me, I saw friends, I heard great music, I got into the vibe, did my bit, and then saw some people I met last week – the trio with Alix, Anzaya and Leyone, whom I had met last week when I hosted the Galway open mic.

Suddenly, I found that I was having the greatest evening, totally into it, loving every moment. It was yet another cool Coolin, and I was again on top of the world. A fine end to a busy weekend.

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