Sunday, 22 July 2012

Songwriters Cafe 2012 season: feeding the five hundred.

Behind the scenes at Songwriters's Cafe as it readies for the final live stream of the season. The penultimate aubergines have, indeed, been deep-fried.

Thursday 26th July saw the last in the 2012 summer season of live streamed performances at Songwriters Café. This is their third season, and it's been great. You owe it to yourself to catch the last stream this Thursday - see the notes at the bottom of the post for more - if you haven't listened yet. I’ve been working there on a documentary project, and doing continuity on the online stream, playing some of the fantastic performances from previous weeks; it’s been a blast. 

We’ve heard some fabulous music, and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. But it’s also a lot of work, especially for hosts and organisers Paul Murphy and Valeria Rispo. And over the course of the season, Paul, especially, develops an unusual intimacy with, er, aubergines.

It starts on the day before the event, when Paul and Valeria work out some numbers. How many musicians? Are they bringing friends, family or partners? How many helpers are coming on the night? What sort of margin for error?  How’s the salad patch looking? OK for beer, wine, juice, tea and coffee? Is anyone lactose or gluten-intolerant? Then it’s off for aubergines and other supplies for Thursday night’s communal meal.

Paul on a roll
On Thursday, work starts early. Bread dough is mixed, kneaded and left to prove. It’s a 50/50 mix of wholemeal and strong white flour, and that’s Paul’s responsibility. So is the main course, Paul’s Aubergine Parmesan. Aubergines (or eggplants, or melanzana), are breaded, egged, and deep-fried – note that some purists insist on shallow-frying, but phooey to that - and layered with Valeria’s genuine home made Napoletana tomato sauce, and parmesan, ready for the oven. 

By six o’clock, Paul has knocked the dough back for the last time, and formed it into rolls, also ready to share space in the oven.

It’s always the same meal. Paul cooks, Valeria fixes the salads. It’s a key part of the evening; the bonding event around which the night pivots. It is hugely appreciated, and is becoming famous in its own right. A three month season of live shows means 13 weeks of aubergine parmigiana, salad and bread rolls. And as the season progresses, Paul’s dish just gets… better and better.

CDs and Teas
The meal is central to Songwriter’s Café evenings. This is not, by any stretch of the imagination, your typical gig. When the artists arrive, they are greeted, made welcome, and in good time before the live show, fed a very decent meal. 

It’s late afternoon now. The night’s helpers start to arrive, to man the door, make tea and coffee, dispense drinks, sell artists’ merchandise, light the fires, sweep out and tidy up the performance area, fix any last minute snags in the building, and help with the artists.

From half past six, artists and friends drift in. It’s time for greetings, hugs, catch-ups and gossip, time to settle people down in the green room area, to show them around the performance space, to let them get a feel for the acoustics, to make (more) cups of tea for everyone. Paul and Valeria are working flat out. 

I’m privileged to be among the helpers. This is the point where I record interviews with the artists about their ways to write songs. We do that early, to get that part of the night’s work wrapped up before suppertime.

Now it’s 7.30. Food and drink flows out of the kitchen, ferried up to the decking area outside the Cafe. Everybody settles down around two huge tables for a communal meal. Musicians and helpers, who might never otherwise meet, talk, exchange ideas, and break bread together before the night’s concert. 

The fires are burning brightly now, and the evening gently shifts into its relaxed and magical performance mode. Around the table, ideas and thoughts flow back and forth. Paul is from Belfast, and Valeria from Naples, and neither of them has lost their accent – but that’s just the start. The whole night is a melting-pot of accents and cultures, with stories and ideas from different places and lives, to share and inspire.

Supper over, there’s one last burst of activity, clearing the tables after supper, back down to the kitchen where helpers wash up. Outside, we’re setting up the bar and lighting tealights. The Songwriters Café is ready to open its doors to its invited audience. 

Streaming and chatting online 
At 8.30, Paul is meeting and greeting, Valeria is rigging up the mixing desk, and putting the stream up. I’m hooking my kit up the mixer, ready for web continuity duties as we warm up to go live. 

It’s 8.45. The show starts at 9. We’re going online…

This is a slightly modified version of a guest post I wrote for Chris Bouton’s brilliant and witty A Dash Of Culture blog, which looks at the role of food and its place in our culture. It’s a great blog, and I heartily recommend it.

The Songwriter's Cafe 
Paul Murphy's solo work can be found here
See also Paul's work with the inimitable Destroyers

Read Chris Bouton's A Dash Of Culture blog
Other live music events which provide supportive platforms for new musicians include
   The Free Love Club,
at the Old Print Works,
   and Muso Monday at the Station, King's Heath, Birmingham

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