So the Catweazle Club has returned in a new venue, which I really like. (See above.) I was able to make it to the opening (although parenthood means I’m unlikely to be able to come to others for a while). But only as a spectator.
As I was watching, I was thinking about what songs I might perform when I actually get the chance to. Which of my songs would work in this new setting?
And I had a bit of a mini existential crisis, as I realised that none of them really would.
But it was weeks after that I realised I’d forgotten something important.
Catweazle was always one of two regular music events that formed the centre of my social and artistic world. It was where I went to catch up with old friends, but it was also where I went to regularly perform.
But I had a formula, and that formula wasn’t really about the songs that I wrote myself.
What I would do was get there really early and join the performers queue before anyone else. I would sometimes be first, sometimes second, occasionally third, very occasionally fourth. I would get a seat right at the front. And then, usually, Matt (Sage – ‘Mr Catweazle’) would put me on as the first act. Performers get two songs, or around 10 minutes (if not music), unless it was a very busy night when we’d get half that.
So I would start the evening off with a high energy cover of a well known pop song. I became well-known for it. And over the years I came to believe that it would actually influence the whole night, because it would establish to the artists who came on after me that you’re allowed to be loud, go big, show your emotions, be a bit extra. And you didn’t need to worry about looking foolish and ridiculous, because the first act was some bald bloke who just tried to sing Wuthering Heights in the original key.
Then, if I got a second song, I would play a traditional English folk song. And this could influence the evening too: having established that it was okay to look ridiculous I wanted to establish that this was a space where it was also okay to be a bit more thoughtful and sincere, even if that was sometimes in danger of being a bit pretentious.
Once I’d finished my two songs, I’d sit in the front row, and… er… try to work the crowd.
I’m not sure if I pissed Matt off doing this – I hope not. He must have gathered (over the decade and a half of me going) that it was a deliberate strategy on my part.
Here’s what I would do:
There is a natural gap between when a performer finishes their act and when the audience applauds. And we’re all social animals, and we take our cues from each other. At pretty much every other open mic night I’ve been to the applause starts off underwhelming, because no one wants to seem too keen. And it might build if everyone really enjoyed the act – or it might fizzle out, even if everyone did enjoy it!
So, after every act (unless they were actively cruel or abusive), I would applaud, and often cheer or whoop, as soon as possible in that gap. Loudly. I would broadcast “well, I think that was great, no matter what anyone else thinks”. Again, establishing to the room that there’s at least one person who is happy to be a bit extra.
If you noticed me doing it over and over then I could imagine it might have got irritating. But it had a cumulative effect through the night. The room got into the habit of applauding, early and loudly, and that had an effect on the performers. They tended to get more hyped, and up their game.
Now, Catweazle had been an extremely welcoming space in the decade before I started going. But I was consciously working the room every night I went from pretty early on. For a few years I went literally every week. Then for a few I would go every fortnight.
I made it my mission, basically, to make the night as amazing as possible.
And so when the time came for me to start my own regular music night, the Bastard English Session, I took that formula that I’d developed from Catweazle and based the whole night around it.
This was an event for which I never played my own material: it was either Trad or it was Pop (usually in that order).
These two styles of music – Traditional Folk and well-known Pop – have always gone together with me. Perhaps because the folk music I’m drawn to is really just old popular music.
I always liked the idea there might one day be other types of ‘Bastard’ Session: Irish, Breton, etc. But I realised that getting that very particular Bastard energy does require a very particular MC.
Specifically, someone who can Bring The Pop.
So why is Pop so important? To me and, I would argue, to most people?
Because there is this unifying power in shared musical references.
Noel Coward once famously wrote: ‘It’s extraordinary how potent cheap music is.’ And he was, of course, a snob, but I do think that music which we consider to be ‘cheap’ does have a tendency on creeping up on us, emotionally.
When a bunch of strangers and semi-strangers find themselves singing along with a pop song that they never realised they really liked, the energy in that space goes through the roof. If it’s a folk song, you know that you’re taking part in a tradition. If it’s Teenaged Dirtbag then it’s really just about sharing joy.
All of this to say that I’ve realised that for the last 15 years or so I’ve been writing songs, but I haven’t really been performing them. Because, I realise, that’s not the job I’ve given myself.
It’s partly to be the one who explores the tradition. But it’s maybe mainly to be the one who brings the pop.