Tuesday, 11 January 2011

The Old Bookbinders Arms – Oxford (9.1.11)

The Old Bookbinder’s Arms (or The Bookies) is in the historic suburb of Jericho in Oxford.  Jericho is just outside the old city wall and is said to have once been a place for travellers to rest if they had reached the city after the gates had closed.  Which made it the perfect place for me to call into after a long trip from up North.

When I arrive at The Bookies, 'Highway to Hell' is playing through the sound system.  I say hello to Nigel who runs the open mic and then settle in a back room full of interesting clutter.  A reel to reel tape recorder, a fishing rod, an assortment of old vinyl pinned to the walls, a selecton of radios - one of which has been hooked up to the sound system, pictures of jazz musicians, an electric guitar, a boran, a venetian mask, a bicycle wheel, bagpipes, a triangle, a battered looking bugle, a poster saying ‘Beheading a Lady’, a beer barrel turned into a chair, and some signed posters of the Beatles on the ceiling.  Random artefacts from times gone by.

Nigel kicks off the night with one of his own songs, which he freely admits is a ‘bit of a softy’, and some of the best songs are.  The Rotafors play next with two guitarists, Nigel on bass, and rhythm provided courtesy of some bongos. The first song is like a bit of a warm up, but by the time they get into the second they are much more relaxed and together.  A foot tapping number with a country feel.

Samuel (pronounced Samwell) from Argentina provides some spoken word, with Nigel picking out some backing on guitar.  I havn't got a clue what Samuel is talking about because its all in Argentinian, he could be talking about putting out the washing for all I know, but it works because he delivers the words with such energy and passion.

A girl by the name of Jess follows and she has a couple of her own songs to play. For one so young she doesn’t seem at all nervous and delivers her music to a supportive audience with confidence, I’d like to have heard more.

After Jess there are more musicians with their own tunes to play and I make a note that there don’t seem to have been any covers tonight.  Which is a good thing in my book, as I’d rather listen to what people have come up with for themselves. 

A duo playing accordion and guitar sing about ‘going down’ and I have to be careful how I describe that.  I’d been thinking of bringing my own accordion tonight, but I’m glad I didn’t because this guy can really play, I mean REALLY play.

I get talking to a lad called Andy and he sings in a local band.  He’s here to play some solo stuff and it turns out he writes a bit of poetry.  I give him a copy of my book ‘Poetry vs Lyrics’ which includes a CD of the kaoss sounds.  That book usually ends up in the toilet, I don’t mean literally ‘in the toilet’, I mean in the small room – its a slim volume and a perfect read for when your having a dump. 

When Andy takes to the stage he apologises that the first song he’s going to play is a depressing one.  If you think about it some of the greatest bands and musicians have favoured depressing music, so I don’t think its something to apologise for.  Besides, I like depressing music - it makes me happy!  And I like the song Andy plays too.  He follows it with a more uptempo Americana tinged piece called South of the Border.

Early in the evening I’d played ‘Its been a good year for the spiders!’ which is all about 2010.  The weird thing about the kaoss pad is that something unexpected usually happens and tonight was no exception, because within the drum pattern a strange crunching could be heard on every other beat.  You just got to live with what the machine will throw at you, make it part of the electronic fun.  This music emulates life, you just can’t predict what’s going to happen next.

After I’d played Nigel told me a secret.  It turns out he records all the performances and sends the music files through to the musicians.  This is a nice touch to the evenings proceedings as it means you can take something away from the night for yourself.  Thanks to Nigel you can listen to some of my set right here:


Theres a friendly and relaxed crowd in The Bookies and I guess it reflects the local Jericho community of students, academics, musicians, aging hippies and artists.  Nigel does a good job of keeping the night rolling and giving everyone who wants to play a fair chance, and there are certainly plenty of players.  I hope to go back to The Bookies some day.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Illusions Bar, Manchester (20.12.2010)

Dave’s Early Doors Open Mic

The streets of Manchester were paved with compacted ice on this freezing Monday before Christmas.  The shoppers were hobbling along in their droves trying to avoid going arse over tit into the tramlines, braced for the sub zero temperatures and crowded pavements.

I found myself being carried along by a swarm of people in the Arndale Centre and it was hard to escape.  Every time I got a bit of space someone else moved into it.  Every time I saw an exit, the way was blocked by hoards of people with that crazed look of Christmas in their eyes.  This wasn’t the Manchester I'd planned to see, so I set off for the sanctuary that is the Illusions Bar and Dave’s Early Doors Open Mic.

I don’t know of another open mic that starts at 5.30 like this.  The idea is that you can get along and play some music after work or college, or before going on somewhere else.  I like it, but there weren’t many in when I arrived, perhaps because the event is relatively new and word is still getting round.

The small stage area at the back of the bar is dominated by a grand piano.  Sat playing the piano is Chris who is sporting a Santa hat and singing out some festive tunes.  I’m a sucker for the piano and I reckon the simple formula of human voice plus keyboard is a great foundation for song writing.  It also interests me that songs written on a piano have a much different feel to songs written on guitar.  They go different places and do different things.

A man is circulating the bar offering cheese and onion Pringles to the few people that are in.  I immediately recognise him as Dave, the organiser of this event.  Two women who look like they have just arrived from work refuse the offer of a taste of Dave’s Pringles, but I am more than happy to accept.

“This is an anything goes sort of open mic,” Dave explains to me once we have introduced ourselves.

“That’s my kind of night.” I help myself to another Pringle, because I neglected to eat before I arrived.  The Arndale crush made me forget I was aiming for a chippy.

“People ask me what they should play and I just tell them play what ever you want." Dave continued.  "It’s up to you.  I set up the night so there’s somewhere to play, could be covers, original music, its all welcome here.”

Just then Chris on piano takes a break and Dave goes over to organise the next act.  Its another Chris, but this time playing guitar and strumming out a few classics, such as REM ‘Man on the Moon’.

A woman carrying a plank of wood enters the bar with some friends.  She is called Alexx, and it turns out the plank of wood is an instrument.  A home made twelve string instrument with a pick up and a bar that slides back and forth beneath the strings.  Now we’re talking!  This is what makes these nights so important, the fact that someone would build something unique and then treat us to a rendition of its sounds is fantastic.

Alexx dons some fairy wings and rests the home made instrument on her knees.  The sounds are fed through delay and reverb pedals, and it fills the room with a slightly hippyish vibe.  It makes me want to roll a massive spliff and float into an eternity of sound and vision.  Except I don’t smoke no more. 

Whilst the room is filled with a wall of abstract vibrations there is some other magic happening.  On a large screen behind where we are sitting a live feed is showing what is going on at the far end of the bar.  A magician is playing tricks on a group of onlookers who have gathered to watch him shape shifting a pack of cards and egg cups on a table.  All of it is televised and he has nothing up his sleeves because he has no sleeves.  Its clever stuff and I watch some more.

Meanwhile Dave plays several songs on piano, one of which is an oldie called Crystal Chandalier, reminding us that the trappings of celebrity are nothing new.  And that its destructive powers can make people forget their real friends and loved ones if their not careful. 

It’s a good mixed up kind of a night so I feel some beats and wordsmithing won’t go amiss.  I run through Testosterone, Smells of London and The Return of the Bed Bugs.  It goes down well and for me this is the great thing about Manchester nights, they genuinely embrace different music in this city.  It seems like Manchester revels in pushing the boundaries, and much more so than a lot of other places.
Dave’s Early Doors Open Mic spans the eclectic and the mainstream.  It needs more people willing to add to the variety, but no doubt this will come with time.  And if your lucky, you might just get one or two of Dave's Pringles to keep you going.