Brad Spurgeon's Blog

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

Wait, Now Where Was I Again? Oh, Yes, From Oxford and the Harcourt to Paris and the Sous Marin on the Mouffe

July 15, 2014

Sous Marin bar Mouffetard

Sous Marin bar Mouffetard

The world has been too much with me of late as I spent my last evening in Oxford playing at the fabulous Harcourt Arms open mic on Sunday night, and then coming to Paris where I got caught up in life of a different kind before stumbling into the open mic of the Rue Mouffetard on Friday night that I had never attended, and then….

Well, getting robbed of my new, three-day-old iPhone 5c as I took a cab from the open mic on the rue Mouffe to an historic mansion in the Marais where I then jammed for a while with interesting new acquaintances before I left and returned the next day to buy an iPhone 5s, since I would not accept that my quality of life be reduced by a thieving taxi driver!

And then yesterday as I wrote my articles for my newspaper in the park Montsouris by using the iPhone 5s as an Internet connection for my MacBook Pro, I then realized tonight – too late – that this fabulous discovery comes at my own expense as I just uploaded the videos you see on this page from the iPhone connection and…used more than two thirds of my annual 4G free Internet connection from Orange France in order to do so!!!!!! (And will have to pay soon to continue using Internet via 4G!!!) So I hope you enjoy these very costly video uploads!


(that’s a smiley of desperation in the guise of a headline, even if it may not appear to be such)

Yes, so, let’s take a step back for a moment after that load of yelling and ranting.

The Harcourt Arms is a fabulous, down-to-earth open mic in Oxford run by the same man who ran the open mic at the Bookbinders Pub for many years, and who has been running another at a pub next to the bus station in recent weeks. It is a classic open mic in a classic British pub, and after now having attended for several years, I can only say that I will return every chance I have. Two songs to start with, and a third if there is still time.

I had discovered the open mic at the Sous Marin bar on the rue Mouffetard a couple of months ago, but I had never actually managed to get there until Friday. It runs every Friday from 9 p.m. until 2 a.m., and it turns out to be a fabulous open mic in the great spirit of “anything goes” and “let’s not worry about the quality of the sound, but just have fun.”

The Sous Marin is a tiny bar with tables against the left wall as you enter from the front door to the tiny bar in the back. You can barely find a place to stand or sit, and it’s everyone shoulder to shoulder and chatting away like mad. But the ambience is absolutely perfect for a “let’s have fun” open mic, and that’s exactly what I did.

The “stage” area is right in front of the door by the street with the big front floor-to-ceiling pane glass window leading into the rue Mouffetard, which is one of my favorite streets in Paris and full of people passing all the time. So it is that the pedestrians and passersby will see the musicians all night, and the bar may thin out but it will never empty out. In short, you feel like you are singing in the street – and you might as well be.

A great new addition to the open mic world of Paris!

Astounding Night at Catweazle in Oxford – also a Warmup for F1 FanZone in London Tomorrow

July 4, 2014



OXFORD – Arriving in Oxford yesterday for my coverage of the British Grand Prix in nearby Silverstone, I had written down on my mental agenda that there was no way in the world I would miss attending one of the coolest open mics in the world: Catweazle. Little did I know that it would be a classic edition, and that it would finish with a bang as the musicians of a traveling circus now in a stopover in Oxford decided to take to the stage to close off the night – and they drove everyone mad… mad enough for several to drop into a nearby pub afterwards, where the circus musicians could not resist another moment of music on the pub piano….

Catweazle has existed for well over 20 years, and it even spawned a few branch offices in places like London, New York and I think somewhere in Canada. I don’t know how many of those still exist, but the original one, here in Oxford, and run and MC’d by Matt Sage, is the one and only as far as I’m concerned.

What makes it so special? Like any successful open mic, it has to do with the MC and the location and the idea/approach/zeitgeist. Catweazle is run by the smooth talking, funny and worldly Matt – worldly, but very Oxford anchored…. The format is that anything goes, but that it is always done in a purely acoustic set up: no mics for the voice and no amps for the instruments. It’s also poetry, acting, comedy, whatever you want. The singers get one or two songs, the poets one or two poems. I’ve seen bands close off with more numbers when they are exceptional, and that turned out to be the case last night when there was a surprise visit by the musicians of Giffords Circus.

Giffords Circus is a classic European-style one-ring circus with a cross-section of typical acts, including clown, juggling, unicycling and animals. And the band is supercool. These three guys come from similar musical backgrounds, each with his own specialty. But the formation last night was acoustic guitar, percussion and piano and a little singing. Check out the videos – I could have been better placed, but you get a great idea of their wacky-coolness.

And Off to the F1 FanZone in London Where I’ll Perform a Set Tomorrow

F1 Fanzone stage in London

F1 Fanzone stage in London

The F1 FanZone is a racing game, activity and live feed on large screens area that follows Formula One around the world at certain races – I’ve seen them in Abu Dhabi and Monaco and one or two other places – and this weekend they have set up the area at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London, where the Olympics took place. I’ve been invited to perform a set tomorrow, Saturday, at 4:55 p.m., and I’m very hyped up about it. The stage looks fabulous, as you can see in the photo on this page. There will be other very interesting acts, too, like Eddie Jordan’s band tonight, and the Duke beatbox band and another interesting electro-acoustic band from England called Skinny Living. (Jordan, by the way, is a former Formula One team owner who plays the drums and who has played around the world with the series as I have, but generally in much better circumstances than the bars I hang out in!)

Worldwide Open Mic Thumbnail Guide: Oxford Edition

July 6, 2013



For my ninth city installment of my worldwide open mic guide today I am loading my Oxford page. As a reminder, it all started with my now very popular Thumbnail Guide to Paris Open Mics, Jam Sessions and other Live Music, and due to that guide’s success, I decided this year to do a similar guide for each of the cities I travel to during my worldwide open mic tour. Unfortunately, due to lots of work and lots of travel and little time available outside of that, I did not manage to put up the Oxford guide while I was in Oxford last weekend, so I am putting it up this weekend – while I am in Cologne, Germany. Still, here it is – job accomplished!

Worldwide Open Mic Guide Philosophy

The only guide I am really in a good position to update regularly is that of Paris, since I live there. But I decided to do guides to all the other 20 and more cities on my worldwide open mic tour in order to give the knowledge I have personally of each city’s open mics. The guide has links to sites I know of local guides that may be more up-to-date, but I have chosen to list the open mics or jam sessions that I have played in myself. There may be others that I know of, but if I have not played there, I will not include it on the list. That way, the user learns a little of my own impressions. But I cannot be as certain that the guide is up-to-date – so check before you go.

Oxford the Student Town is a Great Place for Open Mics

Oxford is an amazing city for open mics because it is obviously one of the most important university towns in the world and therefore has lots of young musicians from all over the world – as students are often in the midst of their man musical creativity as well as being students. But in addition to the students are the crazy mad professors, and some of these open mics are spoken word meetings too, and so you frequently have university professor poets reciting their latest works. It is easy to walk from open mic to open mic, or take a bus, as Oxford is not all that large either. So there is a high density of open mics in a small area. My only problem regarding this list is that I am never in Oxford outside Thursday to Monday morning – still, there’s a good number during that time

So here, now, in any case is the Thumbnail Guide to Oxford Open Mics, Jam Sessions and other Live Music. Please do help me whenever you have information to give me on the venues – i.e., especially if they close down!

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 Sage Saves Me From a Night of Destitution – and Provides Another Unique Night of Entertainment at Catweazle, Oxford

June 28, 2013



OXFORD – When Matt Sage began his unique, usually witty and sharp spiel in opening up the night of festivities at the Catweazle Club in Oxford last night, he talked about how he had met several interesting people just beforehand and how he had this feeling that swamped him about how human nature, when you got right down to it, was really sympathetic and nice. This, naturally, drew some nay-saying comments from the nearly 100 or more spectators and musicians in the hippie-like environment of the East Oxford Community Centre where this iconic open mic has taken place for more than two decades.

But what Matt did not refer to was his own sympathetic nature and the act of kindness he performed the moment I arrived after a nearly 1 hour 30 minute drive through thick traffic from the Silverstone racetrack to the Catweazle Club, also known as Catweazle Performance Space. I took my guitar out of my rental car and decided to put my computer bag in the trunk, and I suddenly started searching for my wallet and instantly realized I had left it in a locker at the racetrack. That meant that I was 1 hour and 30 minutes’ drive away from my cash, credit cards, every bit of my lifeline for the night, and with an empty, growling stomach after the trip from Paris to Oxford via Eurostar, walk, rental car, etc. And there was no way I wanted to drive back through the pouring rain AND miss my one chance per year to attend and play in the Catweazle Club.

So I entered the room where the gathering takes place, and I said, “Matt, hi, it’s Brad Spurgeon….” He immediately recognized me from past years, and I said, “I’m really sorry and embarrassed, but I have just discovered I have no money or credit cards or anything, having left my wallet at the racetrack.” My immediate thought was not my dinner, but how could I take part in the evening. I forget that as a performer I do not pay an entrance fee, but I would need to buy a drink, certainly. The entrance fee for the public – well worth it – is something like 5 or 6 pounds.

“We’ll sort you out,” said Matt without hesitating. He then pulled out an envelope from his pocket and from the envelope he removed 40 pounds and said, “Is that enough?”

I could not believe his kindness. He only knows me as a guy who has showed up annually once per year for the last four or five years, and even during that time he was absent on one occasion – replaced by someone else. So it was a risk he would not get the money back – but his empathy overruled any doubts.

Thanks to the loan – I ended up returning 20 pounds later in the night and will return the rest today or tomorrow by mail or special delivery – I was able to have a meal and a beer and to spend yet another absolutely fantastic evening at this amazing open mic “happening.”

Catweazle, in fact, has such an enviable ambience and approach to the open mic format that it has been imitated in several different places, including London, New York, and lately even in my home town of Toronto. (Last night there was a Catweazle happening in Oxford, New York and Toronto, in fact.)

What makes it different and cool is just subtle stuff, and personally, I think most of what makes it different and cool has to be Matt’s presentation and MCing – he comes up with the funniest lines between acts. It is also the hippie lilke vibe: Everyone sits on mattresses, pillows, cushions, chairs and couches, right up to the foot of the performers on the performance space. Behind the performers is a curtain – like a stage curtain – with Catweazle written in large freaky letters above. There is no microphone and no amplifier, and the audience knows that it is expected to be religiously silent for every performer – and the audience IS.

Furthermore, just about any kind of performance is allowed. Although I have posted only videos of music, there were several spoken word performers and poets. And this being Oxford, I assure you that they were good.

This being Oxford, the performers were also very cool. There were a surprising number of Americans and Canadians, too, as it turned out. And two Germans. I don’t know about the other nationalities, but it was clearly a cosmopolitan mix.

I must apologize for one thing, which is that because I did not want to be too obtrusive with my video camera in this silent, respectful space where few people make videos and none took photos, I chose to sit at the back of the room, and that unfortunately meant that not only the focus of the camera was not what it should be – since I used the zoom of the Zoom Q3HD recorder – but also the sound was often pretty low, and WORSE: I had to hold the camera high over my head and my hands were shaking through most of the filming. So bear with me on that.

Oh, by the way, I also did manage to do my song “Crazy Lady,” and as usual at Catweazle, I felt bizarrely more nervous than I do at most other places. It’s that respectful silence and the 100 or so faces at your feet…. it’s at once fabulous and frightening! But I will definitely return whenever I can.

So, yes, human nature can be incredibly positive and wonderful – especially at Catweazle Club, Oxford.

An Evening at the Amazing Catweazle in Oxford

July 6, 2012



There is no place on earth like Catweazle at the East Oxford Community Center, I assure you. Oh, there may be a few other Catweazles around – in London, New York, etc. – but there is no way they can be as good as the original, here in Oxford. That is thanks to Oxford itself, the people in it, the room in which it takes place, and last but far from least, Matt Sage, the founder of the open mic and its extraordinarily smooth and witty MC for the past 18 years.

Brad Spurgeon interviews Matt Sage the MC of the Catweazle Club open mic in Oxford England:

Yes, yes, there are open mics and open stages all around the world, and I go to a lot of them and write about them here. But Catweazle has a unique vibe because of where it is located, the kind of people who perform, and the makeup of the show. And Matt’s delivery as an MC. Wanna hear amazing new song compositions by Oxford University student types, or an explanation of Higgs Boson…go to Catweazle Thursday nights in Oxford.

Last night was my fourth time at the open mic here, as I showed up once a year for the last three years, and yesterday. The first year, I arrived at 8 PM, found myself too late to sign up on the large list of performers, and so I defected to the open mic at the Half Moon pub, down the Cowley Road five minutes away. The second year, I got up and did a couple of songs. Last year I did another couple, and last night, one song.

However many songs I got to play or not play, the atmosphere at this community center open mic is very, very worth any time you get to spend there. It is very hippie, with spectators and performers sitting on couches and cushions spread around the room. There is no mic – it puts up a wall between audience and performer, according to Matt in the podcast I did with him (listen above) – and there are no boundaries as to the kind of performance. Mostly music, there is also spoken word – prose, poetry…and scientific educational lecturing….

As a performer you have to arrive at 7 PM for a 7:30, 7:45 sign-up if you want to get on the list. I arrived well before the announced 7:30 signup last night and I was almost last on a list of 20 performers. It is a very difficult venue to play because it is so great: There were around 150 people present at the peak last night listening in a relatively small room, in complete silence. And as there are so many performers, most have only one song to do. Stepping into that religiously quiet atmosphere with 300 ears listening and just as many eyes focusing on you is unnerving. But if you hook into that vibe, it is also a beautiful, unique moment of performance atmosphere.

There was also a longer set by a regular performer, Luke Keegan, and his band, as he has just put out an album.

Words do not quite suit for the atmosphere of Catweazle – check out the videos and podcast to get a better idea.

PS, as I was in Paris the night before, and it was Wednesday, I performed at the Highlander open mic. Thank goodness I ended up going on just before the star of the evening, instead of after him: I would have had no chance against this 12 year old kid, or whatever his age was…and I could not get his name down either, as I did not have my iPhone notepad….

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