Brad Spurgeon's Blog

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Weirdnesses – White French Guy Doing Japanese Rap – and Coolnesses at the Paris Monday Mics

August 9, 2011
bradspurgeon

It was a little world weary that I was last night as I returned to the open mics in Paris in the middle of the summer, not having played in an open mic since, could it be, more than a week, and Budapest? The trip to Brussels set that up, and a return to Paris on a quiet period for open mics. So I felt off center going to the Tennessee Bar and the Galway, my regular Monday haunts. But it was with a great sense of suprise and pleasantness that I entered the Tennessee Bar to find Jesse Kincaid on stage doing his number. Jesse, readers will remember, was in Paris a few weeks ago and delighted audiences with his compositions, and songs from the New Rising Sons. He had so much fun here, it seems, that he returned early from a stay elsewhere in Europe.

There were some unusual things happening on stage at the Tennessee, with the gold medal being taken by a French white guy dressed in conservative bureaucrat clothes and haircut, who brought his own canned music and did a few rap numbers. He had been there before, it seems, and it was with great acclaim that the audience requested he do his rap in Japanese. You can see just why when you look at the video. Didn’t catch his name. But if a video of him doing this – mine or someone else’s – does not go viral, I do not know what will!

I played four songs, starting out with four of my own songs, and making a mess of “Lara, Lara,” which I had not sung in a while and for which I suddenly forgot the chords. But I managed to get through it, and two others and then I decided to lift the joy level a little by doing “Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right.” But I forgot the words on that one and then suddenly felt really foolish and pointless playing such a cliche Dylan song in an open mic, so I stopped in the middle of the song and left the stage – in good humor. It was, after all, an open mic. I try my hardest, give my all, but the open mic allows for caprices too.

The Galway was ticking along well as well, and I tried a few more songs I don’t usually do, like Marc Bolan’s “Catblack the Wizard’s Hat,” and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” by Hank Williams. But then I felt the urge to do my usual “Borderline,” and it seems it went down the best. I also did “Only Our Rivers,” the Irish sort of protest song.

Jesse came along there too and regaled us with a fabulous rendition of Autumn Leaves on my guitar, which made me feel even more massively deficient – but it was great to hear how good my guitar can sound.

Family Day at the Galway and Elsewhere; or Jamming With a Last Waltz Band Member – my Son

May 31, 2011
bradspurgeon

Going to the Brasserie Lipp to celebrate my daughter Emily’s 18th birthday, I decided nevertheless to take along my guitar, since that legendary brasserie is located in the same Latin Quarter neighborhood as the Tennessee Bar and the Galway Pub and it was Monday night and that meant the two open mics;

So we had a great meal at Lipp – with my son Paul and daughter eating the same dish of pig’s foot, not for me, and I had the famous choucroute – and of course we all had a nice Beaujolais to go along with it, since the legal drinking age in France is 18 and we had to celebrate that. We finished eating and got out of their at around 10:30 and headed over to the Tennessee Bar where the action was hot, the room was full, and some hard hitting and hard singing guy was on the stage. I took one look around the room and knew that I’d probably not get on – too many performers – and anyway, I had known that from the beginning but just wanted to show my son and daughter the Tennessee joint where I hang out so often.

So we stayed for a bit of this guy and then went to the Galway. My timing was perfect, as Stephen Prescott put me up as soon as we arrived and I did four or five songs. Then Stephen spent much of the rest of the night trying to get my son up on the stage, as I had told him before that Paul has a group, called The Last Waltz, and that he plays guitar and sings. In his band, in fact, he only does the occasional backup vocal, so he is not really used to singing in public – having only done it once or twice before. (To my knowledge.) Eventually, at the end of the evening, with Stephen, me and my daughter pushing Paul, we decided that he and I would go up together and jam a bit. Or rather, I’d sing some songs and he would do lead, some rhythm guitar, whatever.

He and I never play together at home. His music is his music, mine is mine. We did jam a little in the early days, but never seriously. And we never learned the same song. So this was not just our debut performance in public at an open mic, it was our first time playing what ended up being four songs together without break or practice, from beginning to end. We started with Marc Bolan’s “Cat Black, the Wizard’s Hat.” Then we did “Unchained Melody,” then we did, “I Shall Be Released.” By that last song we were starting to get the feel for things, and afterwards we would be complimented on that one. But none of it really showed off Paul’s best talents – he writes his own songs and learns the classics note by note -, and just before we left the stage he started playing “Little Wing,” and I said, “Crap, you should have played that and I’d do and improvise the singing.”

But there it was, a birthday and a birth – of a father and son duo. Well, probably not. But he might go again with The Last Waltz.

Too bad we didn’t get any of it on video, but there were some other high moments in the night – like Stephen’s “Common People,” and Sven Cosnuau singing with Pierre Doucet playing backup guitar.

Best Brad’s Brunch Yet, in a Weekend Roundup

January 10, 2011
bradspurgeon

It feels somehow not right to make such judgments, and in many ways it is difficult to do anyway: But yesterday’s musical brunch at the Mecano, my first of the new year, really felt like the best one I’ve ever had since starting them last fall.

I had more musicians dropping by and playing than ever before, and a great level of quality, and I also had a large audience of intent listeners, coming from all over the place, including a couple of women visiting from Belgium.

Amongst the surprises were picking up for the show the wonderful Vessna Scheff from San Francisco. Vessna had intended to go to the Pop In open mic, but she said the Pop In was closed and there was no open mic there last night. So she ended up finding my brunch, and she ended up entertaining us with her lyrical and melodious music and voice. Rym also played some of her songs with her ukelele, and then gave the instrument to Vessna for her last song.

Two members of the band Black Butterfly played several songs, and Vincent Barriquand, the singer of the group, also did some solo stuff with the guitar and his voice. He also played with Sven Cosnuau, who came to play and sing on his own.

A young Frenchman who lives down the street from the Mecano also discovered the brunch yesterday and rushed off to bring his guitar to play and sing some songs. So all together, the vibe, the crowd, the musicians, it was all fabulous and a great beginning to 2011. In fact, Vessna may not like me to quote her here, but she said it was the best Sunday open mic she has ever done. Of course, it is not entirely an open mic as such – but as it turns out, the mic is always open….

Because the brunch was the closest thing in my memory, I started writing about that. But I did not blog for the last couple of days, so I want to move backwards and continue telling the musical adventure: On Saturday night I went to the Baroc and heard The Romantic Black Shirts, the band of my friend Joe Cady. As a special guest they also had Chris Kenna do a set. I first met Chris in 2009 at the Biz’Art open jam. He is a wild Australian with the voice of a Tom Waits. He played on Saturday with Melissa Cox on violin. A big moment, with both of these bands. I loved the Daniel Lanois cover that the Romantic Black Shirts did, and Chris’s voice and the violin were mesmerizing.

Friday night I went to a party hosted by Sister Fay, who is from Sweden and sings a lot at the open mics in Paris these days. There I met both Stephen Prescott and Ollie Fury, both of whom host open mics. And there was also Pierre Doucet, who plays violin with Stephen at the Galway Pub and elsewhere. I got Pierre on video with a bit of fiddle music in the middle of the party, though no one was really listening. It was a nice moment – but too dark for the video.

I then went off to the Planete Mars bar and listened to some DJ music mostly and spoke with a friend. A high moment with the DJ music was when he played a song from the last – or second last? – T. Rex album, Dandy in the Underworld, that I had bought at the time. Hadn’t heard anything from that for along time.

The Highlander and The Cavern, Paris’s Musical Neighbors

April 30, 2010
bradspurgeon

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….

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