Sunday, 27 October 2013

Words on Tap - The Chemic, Leeds (25.10.2013)

"A Canadian spoken word specialist, a Derbyshire 
Poet Laureate and an eccentric musical wordsmith
walk into a bar .."

I've been writing poetry for a long time, longer than I've been playing music, and I buy a lot of poetry too, my latest purchase being 'It comes with a bit of song' by David Grubb.  So when I started my open mic travels a few years back, attendance at spoken word nights was a must.  Unfortunately, the first events I tried were snobbish and clique affairs where outsiders, particularly outsiders who were doing something different, were not made very welcome.

I attended several events at that time and found many poets were strangely unfriendly and disinterested, almost sniffy with each other, and I couldn't get my head round what that was about.  Aren't poets the last people on earth you would expect to be snobbish and elitist?  Possibly not.

The last straw was an experience at a slam event where the competition was all sown up and the majority of attendees were left feeling deflated about themselves and their own ability as poets.  Those experiences put me off live poetry and I recoiled back to enjoying reading, rather than listening to, poetry and poets.  I concluded that whilst most music nights were open and welcoming affairs, poetry nights were the opposite, deeply cynical of everything that didn't fit within a particular way of doing things.

That was until I started to discover nights like Beatification in Manchester, The Shipping Forecast in Sheffield and Words on Tap in Leeds.  These nights were genuinely open to new ideas and also mixing things up a little, throwing in some experimental music as well as testing the boundaries of poetry itself through invited guests and open mic slots.

So I was delighted to be asked by Matthew Hedley Stoppard (pictured) to do a guest appearance at Words on Tap at The Chemic in Leeds recently, alongside the wonderful poets Jeff Cottril and Helen Mort (see picture below).  

I kicked off the night with a combination of improvised electronics and beat poetry, and ended with a gypsy tinged piece on guitar called The Vague Plague, which is an abstract narrative about life in a Northern Town.  It all went very well and I was even given a bottle of the specially created 'Odd Ale' for my efforts - inspired by my song 'I Was Odd'. 

I was followed by Canadian writer Jeff Cottrill, who performed a tongue firmly in cheek piece called 'How to win a slam poetry event' - which pretty much confirmed everything I loathe about those nights.  Jeff also did a very clever piece - a review of his own review, which collapsed in on itself in all sorts of interesting ways.

After the break, a line-up of high quality open-mic(ers) returned with too many great performances to list them all, but here's a few.  Steve Nash told the tale of a carnivorous pet rabbit that ate his Mum and Dad - well Halloween is nearly upon us.  Becky Cherriman read poems about Morley and working mills, here's an extract from In Bloom:

Daisy HIll before bungalows and new builds
a time of timed hides and working mills
when the snap of rhubarb resonated in rusted iron drums.  

I could almost hear the rhubarb snapping when she uttered those words.  And Jimmy Andrex combined ukulele and poetry to good effect with a piece called Hearth, also winning a bottle of MHS homebrew in the process.

Helen Mort followed the open mic performers with some excellent poems from her new book Division Street, named after a street in Sheffield and containing poems about the miners strike, conflicts and personal relationships.  Helen's poetry is very real and down to earth, and helped bring a superb evening to a superb finish.

This kind of night does so much to rescue poetry from the pomp and elitism that is apparent at other events I have had the misfortune to attend.  The academic world does not own poetry, the specialists in poetry do not own poetry, the published poets do not own poetry, the publishing industry does not own poetry, the literary agents do not own poetry, the poet laureates do not own poetry.  Poetry is not owned by anyone, it is owned by everyone.

Martin Christie (October 2013)

Every picture tells a story

Here's the picture that Matthew took of myself and the headliners Helen Mort and Jeff Cottril.  Jeff is kneeling down to stroke Helen Mort's whippet but the whippet is not in the picture.  I put my hand awkwardly on Jeff's shoulder as if we were the best of mates because I didn't know where else to put it.  Jeff, being a true gent, didn't take exception to this and later on we exchanged Chapbooks.  Helen Mort looks great and I look a little odd - hence the name of the beer ... and the song.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

How to Start an Open Mic by Carl Chamberlain

I lifted this from Carl Chamberlain's Facebook notes so that others could read its good advice.  It's from a man who knows pretty much everything there is to know about running a decent open mic.

"A friend asked me for info with regards starting an open mic night, this is what I sent him,
Research: Go to other open mics, if you perform, go as a performer, if not, talk to performers, find out what their favorite things are about the open mics they attend. Take notes, contact details, try and get a list of performers before you start.
Things I know:
The management have to want it and know that it is not a profit making enterprise, some nights will be full and profitable, some nights will be empty.
Even the best nights have quiet periods, sometimes for weeks.
Make sure you know what the management want: If they are expecting you to bring a crowd, maybe you should think about another venue.
They may want to hear fantastic music and many nights they will but the only way this can be guaranteed will cost them lots of money as you will be doing a showcase night.
Performers love reward, whether that is food or drink is up to the Management, lots of great open mics offer nothing though and this is not imperative, it is a choice.
It will give performers a sense of respect.
It will bring some people who are only there for the free stuff, they are called free-loaders. There are some who will only come because there is free stuff, these people are called musicians, poets, story-tellers and artistes.
Many will come because of the sound.
Sound is the most important thing to performers, a good sound will beat a good crowd…8 times out of 10, some will never return if the sound is bad.
Better to have a totally acoustic night than use shit pa/equipment.
Advertising your night: Use every avenue.
Make it clear the open mic is happening at the venue before you start.
The regulars need warning, even if they are positive about it, regulars don’t like change until after it has happened. Sudden change will get there backs up.
The regulars are the second most important thing after the management and staff.
For you, the host/compere, the most important thing is the comfort of the performers. The space, the sound, how long they get. Letting them know when they are due to perform, even if the list is visible, by keeping them informed is imperative, I find that telling the person who is due to perform, they are on ‘next’ before the person who is on has started means they can tune up, get a drink, go to the bathroom, have a ciggie, (remind them to tune up, they are nervous and might be used to doing it on stage, try to cut that out of your night if you can, it may not be possible due the venue) do all this by being proactive and positive.
If you have been an audience member and now a host, it is very different. You will rarely get the chance to fully enjoy the night because you are a part of it.
If you are a performer and now a host, don’t use it as a chance to showcase your talent, by all means play, perhaps begin the night, but remember it is an OPEN mic and your guests are more important than you.
When it is over, your joy will be overwhelming, there will be a smile in your heart.
If you are a sound engineer or have one your life will be a lot easier, however they can cost money, some will work for drink or food, some for the love of music or you.
Pay for one if you can, make sure they are willing to teach you so you can cover them if they are ill, having a fag, etc…
A lot of open mics have a continuous stream of performers on stage one after the other. This is cool, this is what open mics are about, the continuing supply of entertainment, music, poetry, comedy.
However, I always have a break between performers by playing recorded music: As a punter, I always want to chat with performers after they come off, to congratulate them, get their details, buy them a drink…as a respectful audience member I won’t talk while another act is on, sometimes missing out on the chance of a flirt, sorry fb/soundcloud/youtube detail.
Tell the audience that this is their chance to go to the bar, talk loudly, meet a stranger, get details from the performer coming off.
I find the chance for audience members to chat at normal levels means I can ask them to be quiet again/grab their attention without it being annoying.
Again, don’t get me wrong, the power of continuation means the vibe can reach a superb level of joy.
The host is the kingpin of the night, your management of the night, ability to make people feel at ease, being professional, honest and fair will allow forgiveness if things go awry.
The atmosphere will depend on you, the success will depend on you, if you are trusted, everyone will support you.
Introduce performers to each other, they are there to network, make it easy.
THE LIST: Decide early how the list will work: Can people book a slot? Is it first come/first served? Are you going to have a ‘showcase’ slot? How many songs/time are you allowing? (3 songs is my favourite)
Be professional, don’t drink until the list is full or the night has started, you will be nervous, things will go wrong. You may need to perform/fill time on stage.
If you’re drunk you may be too honest and diplomacy is one of the keywords.
Respect is another.
Some people will be beginners, encourage them.
Some people will be experienced, listen to them.
Some people will be shite, applaud their bravery.
Some people will be amazing, treat them the same as everyone else.
Successful open mics depend on regularity, sound, atmosphere, host, management support, regulars support, friendliness and luck.
To add to this, if you do have a pa, you may need 2 vocal mics 1 condenser mic that doesn’t need phantom power + 3 mic leads and stands, 2 guitar leads, 2 DI boxes, if possible a stage monitor.
To add to this, you will need to love music/performance and remember the hours/weeks/sometimes months/years of practice the performers have put in and show your respect for that."

Carl Chamberlain January 2013

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

The Green Room, Sheffield (every Monday night)

It's been a while, but I just wanted to give a shout out for this great little open mic at The Green Room in Sheffield.  It takes place every Monday night and is admirably run by Glenn and Chris.  It's an anything goes night - my favorite kind, but also with a friendly vibe and lovely audience.  You don't get that "in it for themselves" feeling here and last Monday was like a party, which cheered me up no end after a tough day at the machine.

Glenn and Chris work hard to bring an array of instruments into the fold, from electric guitar, acoustic, bass plus amps, and a rather beautiful Hammond keyboard .. oh and a drum kit.  All of this makes for a diverse range of possibilities from full bands through to singer writers and the occasional .. ahem .. beat poet.

I get the impression this night has had its quiet ones, but right here, right now, it is most definitely on the up.  On this night there were so many performers wanting to sign up, the allocated number of songs was reduced from 3 to 2.  Oh, and they also serve some decent real ales to nicely oil the wheels of the open mic shenanigans.  I salute thee Monday Club Open Mic!

Monday, 16 April 2012

Friday, 13 April 2012

Heart & Lung Unit, LVPO, Soho (4.4.2012)

A visit to the Heart & Lung Unit might well be a place you wouldn’t normally want to go to, but the treatment on this once a month night is comedy and music, and the prognosis is a bloody good time.  I’d found out about this event having met one of the organisers Glenn Guest at a Spoonful of Poison gig.  Glenn liked my poet loops mix enough to invite me to come down and play his night, and although I normally only play London on the back of work, this invite sounded like one not to be missed.   I booked a cheap ticket on and found a shit hole of a B&B for thirty quid and was on my way, though I nearly didnt get there.

Let the chaos begin!

After weeks of beautiful sunshine, on the day I was due to go to London, it snowed - BIG TIME!  I looked out the window in the morning and there was a foot of snow on the ground and the traffic had all but stopped.  This was after two weeks of glorious sunshine.  I could hardly believe my eyes, or the bad timing, but I understood the way these things work – from chaos comes order, and after a few hours the gritter lorries sprung into action and the commuters had all turned round and gone home, so the roads were clear.  The show must go on.

Some hours later I arrived to a warm welcome at the upmarket LVPO just off Shaftsbury road with my pal Buck Theorom (phot right).  Buck is a talented writer and musician who plays in a number of bands including Lunar Engine and Book of Buzz.  Buck and I had arranged to do a one off musical collaboration and worked out a track whereby I would produce the live electronics, and Buck would come up with the words – all without a rehearsal.  It could all go horribly wrong, but I like that kind of risk, when you’re not quite sure what will happen next, as per my recent experience at Manchester's Hotch Potch.

By the way, while I think of it, here's a link to Buck's book:

Heart and Lung takes place in the basement bar which is a small space into which a friendly audience had gathered by the time I'm on the mic.  It’s a bit of a musical first for me as this is the only time I’ve taken the whole kaoss rig down to the big smoke.  I got the loops coming out of the loops and the poetry followed.  I played ‘Here come the words’, ‘Good year for the spiders’, ‘The Smells of London’ and ‘Disappeared Friend’.  Then Buck joined me for an improvised ending with something that had never been played before, and it worked surprisingly well.

Now let me tell you this, London can be a tough gig for outsiders, and I’ve played some of those gigs, places where the beautiful people gather and they don’t want their lovely ways polluting with the likes of me.  Superficiality reigns supreme and performances are judged by the latest fashion or who is present in the room.  Places where the performers are consumed by the desire for fame and frozen by the fear of it.

Thankfully, the Heart and Lung Unit is not one of those nights, just like the wonderful Spoonful of Poison, it has the feel of an all embracing environment where the variety of acts on offer are wide ranging and hand-picked for quality, and an audience willing to give anything a listen appreciate the difference, appreciate the openness, and even appreciate the moments when everything collapses into chaos and improvised madness.  I guess what I’m saying is, I couldn’t have asked for a better audience than the one me and Buck got on this night in London.

Buck and I are followed onto stage by Russell Swallow & The Wolf, a classy acoustic two piece combining electric piano and guitar.  Unfortunately, Buck and I missed the first half of their set on account of getting hugs from a cowgirl in the back stage area.  Ant Smith follows with some in your face comedy and poetry that challenges any delusions you might have had that this was a middle of the road sort of a night.  Glenn (who is also compere for the night) describes Ant as a marmite poet/comic and he's right about that judging by the deeply mixed response to his set.  Catherine Paver (the friendly cowgirl) plays some unique songs about horses and throws in some effective reverb for good measure, and then paradies a Kate Bush song (see picture left) about the frozen North, but doesn't mention the snow.  The dinner party rapper The Duke!! Duke Hancock combines jazz backing tapes with pieces of comedy spoken word such as "The Revolution will be Available for Download!" and to finish Eccentronic, described by Glenn as a lunatic couple in shell suits, take us through a set they are working on for the Edinburgh fringe.

The formula is a simple one at the Heart and Lung Unit and it comes in the shape of 3 bands, 3 comics for 3 quid, and the night has the feel of something that is evolving into bigger and better things.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Art Farmers Open Mic, New Beehive Inn, Bradford (14.3.2012)

There is something good happening in Bradford right now.  For starters, there’s a brave new monthly magazine called ‘HowDo’ (see cover shot of Issue 3 below) that is establishing itself as a positive voice for arts and entertainment in the city.  HowDo describes itself as an inclusive cultural magazine by the people of Bradford, that gives a platform for expression and a means to communicate cultural happenings.  Then there is the intriguingly titled group of ‘Art Farmers’ – a collective of like minded artists, musicians and creatives who have dedicated themselves to putting Bradford firmly on the cultural map, and have also established this once a month open mic at The New Beehive, on the outskirts of the city centre (see poster left).

If you’ve read my book, or any of my other blog posts, you’ll know that I have a preference for the eclectic and varied open mic night.  So the Art Farmers Open Mic had immediate appeal to me, the name suggested something curious and different – growing your own music and entertainment in a unique micro-climate.

The New Beehive is a wonderful venue and one in which the decor and dim lighting worked together in a way that made me feel like smoking had never been banned and gin was still sixpence a bottle.  I went back in time when I entered its old world rooms and only the wall paintings gave the game away, as the images of famous rock stars and singers are scattered randomly around the bar.  

I get talking to Doug Thompson who is a key person behind the Bradford uprising and HowDo magazine.  An artist in his own right, he is also a serial networker and before long I’ve been introduced to a sculptor, a graphic designer, a poet and a musician.  Time slips by through interesting conversations and then I notice all the seats are taken, and there’s little in the way of standing room, the place has nicely filled up with performers and listeners alike.

The compere, a skilled musician by the name of Jerrad Barraclough (pictured below with hat) kicks off the night with a song called Fat Chance.  Then Jerrad introduces the next guy as Harris, who takes us through a story song about stalking the Deli Lamar, which goes down a treat.  Ben Clarke reads two poems, the first is a clever piece called Epidermis and the second is called Waiting for Breakfast.   The poetry gets a good hearing at this open mic, which isn’t always the case at music open mics, but you get the feeling here that the audience are up for anything and will give everything a fair proper listen.

A singer called Ben is joined by a cajon player and its always good to hear a bit of rhythm moving things along.  Toes are tapping and heads are nodding, except for one guy in the corner who a little worse for wear, has fallen asleep at his pint.   Then Steve Pass reads a treat of a three minute story about a lad who was sent to school with pig tails, presumably through a misguided attempt by his parents to toughen him up.  When he finally gets his way and has the pig tails removed the piss taking doesn't stop, it just gets worse, as all his fellow pupils snear ‘Where’s your hair gone Piggy Becky?'  It’s easy to listen to something like this and not appreciate how much work goes into the words and I’d like to hear more short stories of this quality at open mics.

Then it was my turn and I played ‘A Good Year for the Spiders’ and ‘Smells of London’ and was knocked out by a positive response.  I mean you can never be sure what people will make of the live electronics mixed with spoken/sung words and I've had my fair share of knock backs, so it felt good to be appreciated for my efforts and I even got to play an encore.

After Poet & the Loops there’s a full band fronted by Sam, who had been doing the sound, they play some upbeat blues and ska tunes.  And then a singer called Katheryne (see pic below right), who it turns out has only played here once or twice before, plays some gentle and thoughtful pieces which the audience seem ready for.

There were more quality players too, but I'd fallen into an odd conversation with a drunk who took ages telling me of a place I should play somewhere I’d never heard of, and then finally got to the whole point of the conversation and asked me for a pound - "on a point of principle".  I'm still not sure what that principle was, but the band played on and it all felt like a very special kind of night, the type that doesn't come along very often, so I gave him his quid and he seemed happy at that.

There's some great things happening in Bradford right now courtesy of the Art Farmers and HowDo magazine.
[Photos courtesy of Douglas Thompson and Art Farmers Bradford]