Fate, Freedom, and Anarchy: On Open Jams in Dortmund

A few weeks ago, Matthias and I stood in a yellow candlelit passageway papered with Soviet-style posters and invitations to seances.  To our left, the front of the shuttered Albertus Magnus Church was draped with large colored-paper banners decrying police brutality and calling for some kind of new order – starting here, at the Soziales Zentrum Avanti, Dortmund’s very own communo-anarchist enclave.

Word was getting around that the Avantis would be evacuated, kicked out, or otherwise made to scram in only a few days.  Matthias and I had rolled up with Pete and Roman (of Blue Elephant) with instruments in hand because we heard that there would be a jam, an epic swirling carnivalesque and kind of funky communo-anarchist kind of jam.  The sunset jam of a doomed quasi-neo-hippy compound?  This was not one to miss.

Strange types clustered around the doorway, and on the sidewalk in front.  They looked disparate, not held together by any interest or activity – unless, I wondered as I got closer, they met every month or so to cut each other’s hair using plastic zig-zag scissors.  Dressed in dusky button-ups and leather jackets and carrying our hardbody cases, we stood out; they watched us as we passed.

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JazzFunk in Dortmund

I may be partial, but with a little more recognition, Blue Elephant is poised to become the premier JazzFunk band playing in the Dortmund area today.  The keyboardist, Peter, is a virtuosic player with an excellent ear, and  his original tunes are sophisticated and promising enough to make any listener eager for an EP; and Matthias, the guitarist, blends the slickest jazz licks, smoky gypsy chords, and the mellowest Meters-inflected lines  in a potent aural stew.  On 18 August, Blue Elephant played played an hour long set to a packed audience as part of Bam Boomerang’s 2014 Battle of the Bands.  I recorded part of a vocal number, “Just the Two of Us” …

Unfortunately, Blue Elephant came in second in the final round – they lost to a flaccid rock group buoyed by frothing friends that jumped through their entire set.  A local music critic praised the band but complained that they lack a stamp or signature.  The band could flex a bit when arranging covers of standards like the one above, and should build up a bigger body of original work for the local critics to weigh; but at the intersection of the keys (Pete) guitar (Matthias) flute (Eliane) and trumpet (Ralph) there’s magic at work.  Dortmund, as far as I know, lacks the venue ideal for a band like this: an old-fashioned low-ceilinged beer-slinging dance hall.  When people listen to these cats, they want to move.

Though I had fun watching Blue Elephant, I would avoid Bam Boomerang: the Australian-themed bar, despite being committed to live music, is run by some of notorious cheapskates.  (A bartender, on mistaking my order for a bottle of merlot for a bottle of Miller, cracked the beer before I could stop him; he then had to call over his manager to make sure that he didn’t have to strongarm me into paying.  The same bartender hadn’t a clue how to prepare an Old Fashioned; when I explained the recipe to him, he frowned and said “…whiskey sour?” – then told me to order off the menu.)  The only positive thing that I can think to say about this unfortunate hole is that Patrick Bateman would approve of the bathrooms, which are equipped with ledges handy for all kinds of illegal preparations.

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Luckily, there’s much more to the jazz and funk scene in Dortmund.  In fact, the premier venue (aside from the Dortmund Konzerthaus) is domicil on Hansastrasse downtown, a club at once cozy and high-ceilinged, with bands downstairs next to the bar and bigger acts in a concert hall up the venue’s black marble stairs, past a series of photographs of broken umbrellas, on the second floor.

Steve and I hit domicil on the 19th, when the waitress (our good friend Christin) told us to come back the following day for their Tuesday night Summer Session.  We did, and caught the second half of Santoor Grooves’ act, light Turkish-fusion fare.  The music was good but not engaging enough to draw our full attention – it provided a comfortable, pleasantly international background in which to couch our conversation.  Naturally, we downed several of domicil’s quality cocktails.  After my traumatic experience at Bam Boomerang, I tried domicil’s Old Fashioned; though it wasn’t evenly mixed, I found the sweet kick of the last sip wasn’t such a bad touch.  My favorite drink off the cocktail menu, though, was the Jack Mack – Jack Daniels, So. Co., Aperol, and Ginger Beer – a sweet and spicy drink to wake your senses and keep you going through any jam or session or night-long show.  (Beware the käse und wurstplatte, though – it’s quite good, but you have to split it.)

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I haven’t yet caught a live show at subrosa (what’s with the German jazz cats and Carolingian miniscule?) but I did stop at the eclectic jazz club just northwest of the city center on one of my first nights in Dortmund.  Matthias and I met up with Leif and Lea Ströher and listened to some gypsy jazz in a park before grabbing a table in subrosa’s semi-enclosed patio.  The bar offers classics like Brinkhoff’s and Kronen as well as a few craft beers for the … well, the Americans.  Even on a night without a live act, the funky, quirky DJs at subrosa spin some ridiculous platters – many of them excellent covers that you probably haven’t heard before, strange, cosmic transmogrifications of tunes you know by heart – kind of like the subrosa, which bills itself as a “livin’room.”  It’s appropriate.  The place is just as comfortable as your living room, but a good sight groovier.

Unlike Sligo, a visitor to Dortmund might not be able to catch a killer live act every night of the week.  That said, there are some summer nights – like my first night here – when a wanderer can stumble upon a major concert by the train tracks, get lost in a crowd of a few thousand; leave only to find a gypsy trio playing to entwined adolescents couchant in a park; walk into the open red mouth of a wacked-out funk club, drink beer and listen to hip vinyl you’ve never heard; then walk all the way back to the Reinoldkirche, through Dortmund’s auto-free glass-and-rock-and-neon downtown, dancing in the wide boulevards under the high-strung halogen lamps, to catch the first morning bus back home in time for the sunset.

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The Konzerthaus brings major international jazz artists (like Pat Metheny last year); domicil attracts acts almost as large, and pumps out groovy music almost every night of the week; and odd little magnets like subrosa attract all the vinyl priests and priestesses of the city.  There’s much to love.  And if acts like Blue Elephant keep growing in notoriety, I expect that Dortmund will be even friendlier to funk when I visit again, a few years down the road.

I’ve lost track of the nights that have bled into beautiful mornings here, ending with me stepping off the train at Gleiwitzstrasse and watching the sun rise over Scharnhorst before I crash in the Spruchs’ basement. (Photo credit: Steven Coffed)

SummerJazz in Hilden, Germany

Less than an hour after leaving Dublin, I walked downstairs at the Blue Note in Hilden, Germany, to hear the incredibly talented Richard bending time in a drum solo.   I was with Matthias Spruch and Pete de Haan, of the Dortmund-based funk collective Blue Elephant, who had come to Hilden for the annual weeklong jazz camp, which brings some of the best cats from the continent together for sessions, combos, and masterclasses.  The Blue Note was hosting their final performance.

Each combo prepared one or two songs, about fifteen minutes total, with the help of their mentor for that week.  The combos rotated quickly, in a jazz marathon that lasted well past one in the morning.  There were some novices, to be sure, but the spirit was noncompetitive – compliments flowed as freely as the Krombacher and were always followed with “Nein, danke, danke.”

Too jazzed to sleep, the players convened in the lobby of their accommodations in Hilden.  Beer bottles multiplied into a glass menagerie on a small central table – chairs spawned and clustered off that, and I floated like a skiff on the German they spoke all around me.

We were standing outside the glass doors when the sky started to lighten like tea steeped in reverse.  A blue glow came from somewhere unseen.  Inside, an almost-middle-aged fusion pianist was giving a back massage – complete with strange oils – to a sixteen year old girl, a fiddler, as he had been doing nonstop since 3 am.  One by one the cats slinked back to their rooms – there would be a final big band concert in about four or five hours (we missed that one).  Three of us stayed and filled a tall trash can to the brim with our bottles.  The sun was high when we slept.

The Music of Sligo

Unfortunately you won’t see video of the Fleadh Cheoil bands here, as my wanderings will take me to Dortmund just as that festival kicks off, but in the days leading up to the festival, the town has buzzed and hummed and generally jigged to the beat of bodrhans.  Here I have clips of some of the best music I’ve heard over the last two weeks -and many of these acts will be performing and competing in the festival from 10-17 Aug.

My first taste of trad came Monday night at The Harp Tavern, where a veteran guitarist led two teenage apprentices on fiddle and concertina.  He played reels and jigs, but Danny Boy was the one I had to record.

The Swagman’s Pub was a bit of a shock after The Harp.  I didn’t know that trad mixed so well with funk – nor with mindbending jazz chords and Hungarian motifs I’d more expect to find in Bartok or Mahler.  The Crackheads were cracking – here’s two snippets of two tunes.

My Yeatsian compatriot Brian Devaney holds a session at The Furey’s Pub every Sunday with his band The Out of Towners.  On 3 Aug. I thought the place was filled to capacity.  But after I fought my way to a spot by the door, where I thought I’d be able to film the band, I watched a dozen, two dozen, two score more file past and warp time and space to fit.  The Out of Towners are a funky foursome, drawing heavily on American blues and folk, with bodhran, steel and acoustic guitar, harmonica, cajon, and electric hurler, a bizarre and sometimes ornate instrument that one of the players handcrafts from hurling sticks.  Their soulful folk-blues interpretations made Beatles songs suddenly new, and their originals were startling, fresh, and funky.  But I loved their Bob Dylan covers best, and was moved close to reverie by Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright, Subterranean Homesick Blues, and One More Cup of Coffee.

The following afternoon the Yeats Memorial Building hosted a pre-Fleadh Fleadh with Daithi Gormley, Cian Kearins, and Caoimhe Kearins.  Sligo residents have been watching the trio win Fleadh competitions since they were pre-teens, and they hope to win again this year across several categories.  They played reels, jigs, and tunes from the turn of a few centuries.  Cian’s flute playing was particularly adept, while Daithi, a music scholar working toward a Masters, played some of the deftest whispering, barking, and humming accordion I’ve heard.  I was most captured when hearing Caoimhe’s singing – she has a lovely spring-pure lightly nasal lilting, and practices a level of subtle control I’ve never heard live before.  (Below is a video of her singing on her last North American tour.)

Some of my favorite music, though, came from the events surrounding the release of Joan McBreen’s The Mountain Ash of Connemara CD.  I’ve already talked about Glen Austin’s stirring new scores and the talents of the ConTempo Quartet, but I didn’t manage to catch those on film.  The a capella tenor performances, though, were unforgettable.

That said, the music that most surprised me was Katie Cassidy’s bluesy cover of Soundgarden’s Black Hole Sun.

A Quick Guide to Sligo, Ireland

I haven’t been in Sligo long, but I waste no time in getting to know a new city.  (At two in the morning after my first night in town, I took a wrong turn walking home and found myself a mile up the road to Ben Bulben, next to an unlit Esso gas station and very little else.  This is about my only qualification to write this piece.)

So, here it is, a guide for culture vultures, beer snobs, Yeatsians, jazz cats, and trad lovers.

  1. The Cafe Scene
    • Anyone accustomed to late night coffee joints in the U.S. or the streetside cafes of Europe – clean, well lighted places anywhere in the world – might panic in Sligo: most cafes close at six.  I don’t have some miraculous exception, unfortunately – local culture dictates that the cafe crowd shifts to the pubs, and if you need to do a bit or work or a little reading, or just want to enjoy a drink in relative quiet, Sligo’s rowdy pubs are no place for you.  One glaring, glowing exception is A Casa Mia in Sligo’s Italian Quarter, open late and serving light plates, wine, and coffee drinks at tiny work booths and one massive communal table.  The constant soundtrack of operas broken by the occasional (soft) bagpipe rendition of Amazing Grace is a definite plus, though the food, the hours, and the atmosphere should be more than enough reason to visit.
    • Honorable mentions include Osta Cafe & Wine Bar, however, which is open until 7 Monday-Friday and 8 Thursday-Saturday – although their hours are flexible and patrons often push them well past their schedule.  Aside from offering a decent wine selection, good coffee, and excellent, fresh, local food, the cafe also hosts Irish- and French-speaking discussion groups on Fridays and Mondays – anyone is welcome to join.  The best part, though, has to be the view: the Georgian Yeats Memorial Building on the left offering a noble counterpoint to the postmodern Glass House Hotel on the right, all above the Garavogue River bright with swans.  Meanwhile, just off Wine Street diagonally from the tourist office, the Cafe Fleur offers quite good espresso drinks and a salad bar with an array of imported meats and cheeses.  The salient con of the Cafe Fleur is its popularity, as it’ll be crowded at lunch time.  And through the wifi is good, there are no electrical outlets in sight.  I encourage you to visit Oscars Cafe on Wine Street just before the entrance to the Quayside pedestrian street and shopping center, which has the best croissant in Ireland. Sean, the proprietor of this 20th-century film-themed cafe, moved from his old Cafe de Paris this year.  In his new location he peddles standard coffee, a variety of cakes, and the best damn croissants you can have outside of Gay Paree.  The recipe is a closely guarded secret, but as one of those poets would say, gather ye pastries while ye may.
    • osta sandwich
  2. The Trad Scene
    • Traditional Irish music is alive and well in Sligo, Ireland: walking past the pubs on Teeling, Quay, or Wine Street, you’ll sometimes hear it as early as five o’clock.  Some of the best players have come out of Sligo; and in turn the city brings the highest class of performers to its coziest venues.  The Harp Tavern on Quay St. offers trad every Monday night, buoyed up on free-flowing Guinness (as well as the other standard beers of Ireland – Carlsberg, Heineken, and, inexplicably, Coors Light).  The Snag, just a quick walk down from Osta Cafe, also offers trad and folk bands in Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, and Shoot The Crow off O’Connell St. hosts good bands most nights of the week.
    • Trad fans should book their tickets for Sligo now: the Fleadh Cheoil (the world’s largest Irish folk festival) is coming to Sligo 10-17 Aug., and will likely double the town’s population.  There must be half a dozen excellent folk sessions going on seven days a week already – once the festival starts you won’t be able to escape it.  Prepare to be humming and jigging in your sleep – and (so I’m told) say goodbye to sobriety.
  3. Jazz, Punk, and All the Rest
    • While trad’s all well and good, Sligo is home to so many young jazz cats with heads full of syncopation and seventh chords that the fiddle-and-concertina set have to share space with a modern and decidedly global jazz scene strong enough to support the annual Sligo Jazz Festival and a permanent school of bebop acolytes and generally hip cats.  People come to Sligo just for the jazz: case in point, America’s Christian Scott, the Congo’s Tropicana Musica, and a host of students from continental Europe and the Americas in for last week’s festival.  5th on Teeling is the first club I’d head to for jazz and blues, but my favorite music pub has to be The Swagman.  This bar explodes backward from the front door, with plenty of high secluded booths and a parallel beer garden lit in jolly yellows and perfect for taking a bit of air or nicotine or a girl.  The bar also has the city’s widest selection of craft brews on tap – one of my favorites was the Galway Hooker IPA (that’s I for “Irish”), but visitors should grab at least one pint of the Swagman’s homebrew, Shtuff.  But I’m drifting off course: the Swagman’s best feature is its music.  On a Tuesday night, I found The Crack Heads, a bass, fiddle, electric guitar, and cajon/bodhrán band self billed as “Irish folk wi’ a bit of the funk.”  Actually, they played jazz-funk filtered through Irish trad and even incorporating Hungarian motifs.  The bar has music every night: on a Wednesday, I found a DJ mixing W.A.R., A Tribe Called Quest, and Led Zeppelin.  (And Parliament-Funkadelic, when I asked.)
    • Fureys is worth mentioning, if only for their Sunday night band, the Out of Towners.  This bar is packed on Sunday nights, such that moving, sitting, drinking, standing, and sometimes talking prove difficult.  But the music is worth it – the Out of Towners are a funky, bluesy, deeply original band, with new material as well as a host of covers that will surprise and delight.  (I’m talking Dylan’s “One More Cup of Coffee” here.)
    • The Swagman Pub

      The talented Crack Heads on a Tuesday night at The Swagman’s Pub.

  4. The Arts
    • There’s too much going on in Sligo’s art and theatre scene to mention in a single post.  Suffice it to say that the Hawk’s Well Theatre‘s schedule is the first place any visitor to Sligo should turn to (or perhaps the second, after grabbing a pint and a local to fill you in).  The theatre offers a diverse mix of events, including lectures, plays, and trad concerts from acts too big for the local pubs.  The plays presented here won’t be as stylistically avant-gardeas the fare in Galway – but this is one of the only places in the world you’ll get to see Yeats’ plays, which are often too minimalist and stylistically challenging for art directors and dramaturgs elsewhere in the world.  Last week the theatre hosted jazz trumpet stylist Christian Scott; this week they present lectures from world-class Yeats scholars, a sold-out performance of The Man in the Woman’s Shoes, and a tribute to the late poet Seamus Heaney, led by his friend and contemporary legend Michael Longley (who’ll also have a book launch in the Hawk’s Well Monday at 7).  For visitors coming to Sligo in the next few weeks, the theatre will put on Yeats’ The Dreaming of the Bones followed by an octet of concerts from top artists across the entire spectrum of the trad scene, from Michael Rooney’s harp suite to the trad “supergroup” Máirtín O’Connor Band, much of this part of the Tread Softly Festival running through 8 Aug.  Poetry fans shouldn’t be dismayed that they missed Wednesday night’s Ciaran Carson, Ciaran Berry, and Andrew Jamison reading at the Wine Street Methodist Church: there isn’t a dull day in the festival, and the schedule is here.

[Click here for my Flickr album from Sligo.]