These two musical venues located about three minutes apart in Paris’s Latin Quarter could hardly be different in their approaches to the open mic and jam format. But they both have open evenings on Wednesday, and if you balance it right and if your musical ability and style suits both formats, you can play in both locations.
I went to both of them on Wednesday, as I often do. The Highlander is one of the longstanding open mics of the Paris scene, and it is perhaps the second place I played in during my return to the open mic scene in the fall of 2008 after a hiatus of several decades. Since I’ve been going the show has been run by Thomas Brun, a French musician who lived in the United States for a while and speaks and sings perfect English. He always does a three or four song act to begin the evening at 9:00 PM and warm up the audience. If you’re like me, though, you might not feel very good playing your set after him if you have not mastered all the electronic gadgets he uses in order to have looping, fuzz, etc., and make his set sound like it was done by a full band. After that a single voice and mediocre guitar sounds pretty empty.
On the other hand, ultimately, nothing much matters at the Highlander. It is always full of young people, it is well designed, a Scottish pub with both the ground floor and a basement room for watching live sports on a big screen, and the atmosphere is warm and intimate. The problem, however, is that in all the open mics that I have done around the whole world in the last year and a half – on every continent except Antarctica and Africa (although I did one in Africa many years ago) – I think that I must elect the open mic at The Highlander Pub as having the loudest, least respectful audience of any in the world. It does not matter how good a performance is, the audience will chatter and yell and laugh and carry on as if there was no musician. No, not EVERYONE in the audience. But a much larger percentage of people than what I have seen anywhere else. It is consistently loud. The only time a musician tends to break through a little to the audience is with a loud, roudy song. Do I care? Not much. I accept The Highlander for what it is, and the secret, as ever, is to play for oneself. On Wednesday, I must say that I did see a lot of people who listened closely to my songs – “Jealous Guy,” “Just Like A Woman,” and my own song, “Since You Left Me.” So that was nice.
I met and listened to and recorded a few people there whom I know, like Mat Hilde, and Sven Cosnuau.
Another problem with The Highlander is that it is so popular with musicians that you have to arrive very, very early in order to get a good spot. The first night I went there I arrived just after 9:00 PM and I had to wait until 00:20 before I went up to play – and by then everyone was gone. I seem to have some kind of curse hanging over me, though, because it seems no matter how hard I try to arrive by, say, 8:30, I still arrive at 9:00 PM, and last Wednesday was no exception. Two delayed metros and one long walk between metros and the walk from the Odéon Metro to The Highlander all meant that I arrived at about 9:05. I was lucky this time, though. I managed to sign up as ninth on the list. And that meant that by before 11 PM I was up and performing. I was ecstatic!
My happiness was based not only on the lack of pre-set burnout that a wait of several hours can cause, but also because I knew that I would be able to go to The Cavern, around the corner on the Rue Dauphine, within a good period of time. The great thing is that the Cavern open vocal jam starts at 10:30 PM and ends somewhere around 2 AM. So that meant plenty of time to get there.
I arrived at the Cavern unsure of whether I would go up and perform, however. The truth is, I am incredibly intimidated by this format of jam. First, let me describe a little the venue: A bar on street level leads to a winding staircase at the back and you descend that in the darkness into a stone walled, arch ceilinged tunnel – although there is a kind of “house of horrors” cage to the immediate left of the tunnel where I often expect to see either a corpse hanging by a rope or a Go Go Dancer…. Anyway, you go through the tunnel and you arrive in the Cavern. There is a rear room with tables and low ceiling, and it faces into the main room with the bar along the left side, and the stage at the end that you face as you enter. A projection on the wall to the right lists the events of the coming month, and it sits over the line of tables to the right also, and a table near the main pillar of the room. The room is shaped, of course, a little like the Cavern club The Beatles made famous.
The house band is strong and tight, and the guitar player is the spitting image of the guitarist I met at a band at the Blues Bar in Istanbul last year in a band that plays similar music in a similar format of evening. Weird! Or perhaps that’s part of the zeitgeist of such a group and evening. On the other hand, this Cavern club guitarist is a very hot and smooth player, much more complex than the man in Istanbul, who was an excellent singer and a pretty good guitarist.
The problem with this format for me is that the members of the public are allowed to go up and sing songs with the band, but they are not allowed to bring up their instruments and play and sing. Nor may they do anything outside the band’s set list. IE, if I want to sing a song with the band, I have to look at the list of songs they know, and choose from those. They will provide the lyrics if I need them. Sound familiar? Aside from the fact of this being a live band, we’re talking here about something resembling Karaoke. And I am pretty bad at Karaoke. And I have very little experience playing with bands, and I really prefer to rehearse at least a little bit before I play in front of an audience.
Having said that, I did play on my first visit to the Cavern last year sometime because the band does “Stand By Me,” and that is one of the songs I do myself. Still, I do it slightly differently to the original, and this is one of the things that makes interpreting other people’s music what it is all about: One’s own interpretation should bring something new to a song. (I don’t know if mine does.) But it is a drawback in situations like this kind of jam or even a Karaoke, where the band and soundtrack is the exact replica of the most popular or original version of the song. Then I tend to get lost.
So I have gone several times to the Cavern with the desire to sing, but I have backed out for fear of making a mess of it. Maybe eventually I will break through this and do myself a favor and improve as a performer. But the problem is that while I know by ear and name probably 80 percent of the songs on their set list, I sing only one of them on my own. On Wednesday, however, I decided that maybe I should have a go at Angie, by the Rolling Stones, since I have sung that occasionally with my guitar, but not enough to have it memorized.
In the end, however, I again chickened out. I thought to myself that I just did not know it well enough, and there were some good singers at the Cavern this night. I’ve always been struck by how the singers at the Cavern tend to be of a much higher level on the whole than those at the open mics for singer songwriters. I suspect it has to do with people not daring to get up with a live, professional, tight band to play and sing cover songs if they are not really polished musicians to start with. Having said that, I was well received the time I did “Stand By Me,” and I MUST try something again before too long.
In fact, after leaving the Cavern, I was disappointed with myself and still itching to go on. I walked nearly a kilometer away on my way home when I suddenly about-faced and said, “I MUST sing it….” I started feeling terribly optimistic and strong and as if I had a purpose in life…when suddenly I recalled how I once tried to sing Angie along with the Rolling Stones record, and I was way out of time throughout. So I hailed the first cab and went home to end my evening with a relatively early bedtime – 3 AM, I think it was by the time I finished my nightly ride around the neighborhood….