All of us who’ve ever walked onto a stage have to be thinking about what’s happened to our way of life right now. Even if we could have audiences, there would be great risks for everyone. Life would become very cheap again if huge swathes of people were dying with the plague in this neck of the woods; so what happens to performance art in the enforced ‘furlough’? And more importantly, what happens to our venues?
There are thousands of venues. Places where people can virtually get up out of an audience for the first time to give of a piece of themselves, open up, and maybe expose some genius that they’re not really aware of.
Small independent venues are the lifeblood of so much of what a vibrant local society does for its people. Everyone, most local players, actors, comedians, singers and even dancers perform at a very good local level, their own level, and become part of the creative scene in their town forever. Everyone needs them to be there. They’re not surplus to necessity.
Some realise a couple of steps further, and move on, but the independent venue stays, until it can’t. Until the world suddenly changes, and it’s hanging on, and things become really difficult. Sometimes because there’s been a steady social move, for a while.. or even some kind of social shift in national behaviour.. or in the extreme, like now, total disruption in world society.
When I first started playing and singing, Jazz clubs and Coffee Bars were in vogue. It wasn’t until 1965, when what became known as ‘Contemporary Folk’ started to break through, that I found a place to play on a nightly basis. That place was at ‘Les Cousins’ in Greek Street, Soho, London. It was a new club looking for custom in terms of players and crowd. I quickly slotted into my own qwerky spot. I’d been playing for years, so I arrived in quite a mature state as a singer, though I was still very young in the head.
55 years later, I’m living only a few miles away from one of the best music clubs in Europe, De Barras Folk Club, Clonakilty, West Cork, in Ireland. On the raging Atlantic Riviera.. It’s a slightly bigger version of exactly what ‘Cousins’ was in 1965.
That ‘Contemporary Folk’ movement has moved on into various other places. It spawned ‘Folk Rock’ and has permeated, contributed to, and informed most branches of modern music since then. A lot of the reasons for this is its simplicity. All you need is a guitar and a voice. It’s as basic as that. A piano isn’t portable, although a keyboard is, etc., so hairs can be split in terms of simple, and ‘portable’.
Back in the day, ‘Cousins’ seated 120 packed, and only sold coffee and a bit of tea. That old place, that old atmosphere is still there/here, on my doorstep, half a century later. Testament to the longevity of the venue dedicated to simple local performance.
It’s in lockdown right now, but I should really visit De Barras much more than I do. I know that I could do, but for the mountain of ‘stuff’ I have to catch up on all the time. In my eightieth year, it might seem like the perfect place for me to be, athough I’d be the oldest person in there. But I’d have to find time to write, as well as a dozen other things.
So I potter on, dreaming that one day, come a vaccine, I’ll be able to turn up with a guitar at De Barras in a joint local effort to encourage people to gather in the new normal. Help to populate a folk club. Help to put an old stamp on the ‘new normal’, whatever that turns out to be..
What it’s definitely going to be is an opportunity for a new beginning.. for all of us.. which might benefit our own localities, at least for a while. We might yet see a more lively local economy. One in which the local music scene becomes more of a nightly focal point again, where more of us can enjoy each other’s interaction, temperamental orientation and courage. What better could we do..
…with the skies now empty of toxic condensation trails from aircraft?!
Will the vaccines thwart the chance of a new normal? Will we see tourists emptying out of jumbo jets and piling into De Barras next summer to try to sample their origins in gulps of brew, to the sounds of a distant past on guitar, banjo, pipe and drum?
Will we soon be standing at the back again, shoulder to shoulder, listening to the wondrous humans communing with their supernatural psyche? Or will we all be gently distancing for an age until such time as this dark invisible ghost has lost its shadow… and ‘the new normal’ is starkly new, and VERY different? Courage, mes amis!
Courage is sometimes what it takes to get up onto a stage, however small, and deliver personal ideas with some kind of humility. “All the world’s a stage…” We all have our voices. They can be related to other voices, and become part of a bigger voice. They’re missing right now. Our live voices are missing. It’s become a dire and lonesome moment.
Better we remain careful for our friends and ourselves: and contribute by supporting each other, locally. I think I can remember that; almost. Welcoming people in, whispering hello at the door, next to the stage, at the bottom of the steps, listening to the voice. Quickly coming in, inbetween songs, quietly melting into 120 temporary friends. Where are they now? Half a century down the line…
Tobacco and coffee, staining the walls. Sleeping bodies in the all-nighters. Stepping over sleep to get to the loo, and back. Waking them all up with the last rousing chorus at 3am. Leaving at 4 to sleep on someone else’s floor. Up by noon, by highest bloodshot sunshot faded crescent moon.
People cry with joy, hearing familiar touchstone sounds of their journey.
Sharing song with people you know is a joyfully shared responsibility, and an intimate setting is where that should happen. Where the singing voice can warn itself to be more mindful than to be used as a tool of mass abuse? Support and humility are at the top of the list.
We are here for each other, and our meeting places are very important to us, and among those, the places that we can gather to sing are often the most emotional places.
In many instances, where it’s run with a light touch, a folk club is not just a folk club any longer. I like to think that it’s become more than that now. It’s a more ubiquitous place these days.
Like any place where song is the main medium, a gathering can sometimes have a multi-dimentional element that might resemble, in odd moments, the basic, primeaval atmospherics of emotion that probably developed into a place of worship thousands of years ago.
That deepest of deep places from our distant past where we can imagine communing in a more primeval expression of community. Where we dispel the tiny embarrassment of laying ourselves open to others in singing out from the depths. From subconscious places that are forgotten in the hum drum everyday. Even if many of us can’t really sing, most of us need regular visits to that kind of passionate belonging.
Singing is an emotional bridge to the inner heart, and we have local places in which we can share that heart. It’s now a new time to be using them for what they’re really here for.. to rest the emotions.. to put life to verse and reach out for that alternative inner universe. The one we should celebrate more often. The deeper spirit of our intention. The loving feeling of our care for others.
In this current world, humans are suffering. It doesn’t matter about digging down into possible reasons ‘why’ at this moment. What matters is that it’s ‘all hands on deck’ to try to help in any way we can. One friend has been at the scientific coal face. My own effort is comparitively sub atomic. We try our best here to avoid catching the virus, and like everyone else we do our best to help to preserve that local consensus.
A vaccine might give us some of our freedoms back, but it’s going to take at least another year to begin to recover all that’s been lost.
During this time, we must strive to preserve ourselves and our local venues, be they clubs, pubs or anywhere people previously gathered, because it’s them that we are going to need the most when we get to be able to frequent them again.
If we think about what it used to be like, we’re a bit uneasy without our community at this moment. This has been a bleak moment in time for us; almost a break in civilisation. Perhaps we needed it, although we didn’t need the attendant sorrow. Remember what it was like? It’s return will be doubly welcome. There will be joy. It’ll be like the end of a war. We’ll all have that experience.
When it all does open up again, think about where the most open places in your community are, and make a bee line for them. Particularly the one where you can have a laugh, drink, be merry, and maybe sing your heart out, even if it is silently.
The one where you can momentarily be staring into the invisible mirror again, or be made to disappear from it. It may be a little longer getting there, but let’s look forward to the re-boot of live performance.. Even if some of the practitioners might be learners and spaced out leaners on the job, they’re us. Go and join in. Be one. Listen to dreams. Be in one.
Think about how wonderful it’ll be to have our venues back, and our lives. Be well everyone, there are hopeful signs on the horizon.
Debarras Folk Club and other independent music venues around Ireland have been keeping the music scene alive with quality live stream events and have worked hard to secure much needed support from The Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht.