Texas Troubadour Abroad: Paris
My name is Keegan McInroe, and I am a singer-songwriter from Lubbock who’s been living in Fort Worth off and on since 2001, when I began my four years of study at Texas Christian University. Over the course of my ten years writing, performing and recording original music, I’ve played hundreds of shows and traveled thousands of miles throughout the United States and Europe. My latest tour is taking me to New York City, London, Paris, Amsterdam, Budapest, Prague, Barcelona, and dozens of stops in between. Whether you’re an independent musician like me, a fellow budget traveler, or simply a reader who loves a good tale from the road, Texas Troubadour Abroad –– my (mostly) weekly travelogue published here on the Weekly’s website –– will have something for you.
“But what is happiness except the simple harmony between a man and the life he leads?” –– Albert Camus
It’s another cool, gray day in Paris, and the fortysomething German woman who, at 9 a.m. a few hours ago in the elevator, Corona in hand, requested I play her a tune, is now ranting passionately to all would-be listeners about Putin and Hitler and long-haired hippies and war and peace and Jesus and Buddha and 9/11 and oppression and all things between and outside. She has been carrying on for an hour now. She keeps asking me to help her. I assure her I cannot. She laughs softly. She continues her epic sermon at volume.
I’m sitting in Belushi’s Canal, one of two venues I had scheduled to play here in Paris. Along one of the bar’s sides, visible from where I’m sitting through wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling glass panels, is the Canal de l’Ourcq; along the other side is a lovely square with Blue Jacarandas in bloom; catty-corner is a quaint, steel walkway bridge. A steady stream of Parisians and tourists move along via their various modes of transport: ferries, cars, rollerblades, bicycles, feet.
It was finishing up a light rain when I arrived in Paris on Wednesday, and, with few exceptions, it has remained overcast. Belushi’s is the party-half of a chain of bar/hostel combos located throughout Europe. The hostel half is called St. Christopher’s Inn, where I would be staying for two nights in a 10-bed mixed dorm room, by virtue of my performance at Belushi’s.
The garrulous Frau now takes a stray bit of random paper from the table and writes the url for a venue she assures me I must play in her mother country. I immediately type in the address (www.krune.de) on my laptop, curious as to what sort of establishment has earned the endorsement of such an individual, only to be greeted with a picture of a large green tractor. It appears to be the company website for massive vehicular rentals or purchases, but my German is poor, and I can’t be certain. I feel confident it is not a music venue. She is delightful.
This is my fourth and favorite stay in the famed Ville-Lumière (City of Light). Perhaps I have enjoyed this brief visit so greatly because I have some familiarity with the city now. Paris can be intimidating, particularly if you don’t speak French (je ne parle pas français). I am learning, though.
I arrived here after a long night in London, where I had performed in the bohemian-punk wonderland that is Camden Town at a small, shotgun-style bar called Bar Vinyl. Tuesday nights, an enthusiastic and most welcoming promoter by the name of Zaid Joseph puts on Camden Acoustic Club. It serves as a showcase for a range of solo and duo acts who perform over the course of three to four hours. Performers are treated to one munchkin-sized bottle of Carlsberg and an attentive audience, to whom they may peddle their wares.
I had played Bar Vinyl back in December, and Zaid was quick to affirmatively respond to my request for this tour’s booking. As before, I played both the first and the final set of the evening, a nice touch Zaid throws acts who travel longer distances, the idea being to catch two different crowds and increase your exposure. The additional set warrants an additional baby Carlsberg.
Shortly after my second set, Bar Vinyl informed us of last call and closed. Some new friends and I made our way up the road to a late-night bar. It closed an hour later, around 1 a.m. We then headed to an even-later-night bar. I had repeated this rotation my last gig at Bar Vinyl. As much time as I’ve spent in London, it is still unclear to me what the actual rules and regulations are governing closing time for London bars. It seems to fluctuate wildly, and I’ve definitely walked out of a London club or two with the sun already well into the morning sky after a night of partying.
I eventually caught a bus from the north to the south side of London where I was staying during my short two days there to gather my belongings and make my way to Paris. In the fall of 2004, I had the good pleasure of studying in London the first semester of my senior year at TCU, and this latest stay in London was in the flat of a close friend, Andrew Balkwill, whom I met during that semester abroad nearly a decade ago.
Andy –– an accomplished musician who will be touring with Charlie Simpson this summer in the States, including a handful of dates in Texas –– and I met at an open-mic he ran in Chelsea, just down the road from the international dorms I was housed in. It was in this dank and tiny basement bar called Bosun’s Locker where I decided music-making might be a plausible future for me. After being very well received there during my performances, I reasoned that while biased friends back home in Texas may have had a cause to be kind and supportive, these folks in London owed me no such niceties and praise.
A short time after I left back for the States, another group of lads started playing Balkwill’s open-mic. They would eventually organize and form a band: Mumford & Sons.
Anyhow, I collected my bag, said goodbye to my old friend, and headed to St. Pancras International, where I was to catch the 5:40 a.m. Eurostar train to Paris. Due to the early departure, I decided to pull my second all-nighter of the tour, the first being the night before and morning of my 7:45 a.m. flight from New York’s JFK Airport to London Heathrow.
I have a tendency to miss flights and trains, most often as a result of making very early-morning travel bookings. There is a method to the early-morning travel madness: Aside from the obvious benefits of arriving at one’s destination at a decent hour, mind-numbingly early tickets often mean discount pricing. And so, the all-nighter, when successful, is my safeguard against unpleasant, unnecessary, and ultimately expensive misadventures in tardiness.
The Eurostar is the train that runs from St. Pancras to Paris’ Gard du Nord –– and also to Brussels’ Gare de Bruxelles-Midi –– via the Channel Tunnel, an underwater passageway running the length of the English Channel. It is an enjoyable way to journey to the European mainland, arriving in the middle of the respective city of your choosing, especially if you have a guitar you don’t enjoy checking into the belly of a plane.
There are many budget airlines serving Europe with dirt cheap fares, but guitars and anything larger than a carry-on bag will quickly negate these low prices. RyanAir and EasyJet are two companies I’ve used and can recommend for folks traveling light. Just read the fine print carefully.
Arriving in Paris two days ago, I made my way via the Métropolitain, the city’s subway system, to Crimée station, walked to Belushi’s Canal, and opted to get some work done returning messages and so forth in the bar rather than nap. I handle all of my booking and management, so there is always a plethora of e-mails to return, websites to update, and various social media pages to shamelessly self-promote through. While the month of May is mostly booked, I have several dates in June, July, and August to fill. When I have a night off from playing, not only am I not making any money but I am spending money. If I am to break even or turn a profit after all is said and done, I need as full a schedule as I can manage.
And so after several hours of work in the bar, I showered, enjoyed a steak dinner on the house, had a cup of coffee, a naked shot of tequila to rouse me, and began my set.
This is as good a time as any to touch on a subject that any working musician has to consider each and every gig: the sound system. In an ideal world, I would hire a full-time sound engineer, and we would travel with or rent a system to handle any and all occasions, and every performance would sound like Jedi Master Dre’s work at Lola’s Saloon on any given night. But this is not such a world. Not for me, anyhow. Not yet.
I am traveling with one mid-size rolling bag full of about a week’s worth of shirts, socks and lace undergarments, two pairs of jeans, a fisherman’s hat, an oversized beanie, two pairs of shorts, a jacket, a journal/songbook, about 20 copies of my last album, A Thousand Dreams, my laptop, “business” cards, cowboy boots, and a few books; and one gig bag, conveniently equipped with shoulder straps, full of my guitar, a quarter-inch cable, a glass slide, a capo, a headstock guitar tuner, a couple of harmonicas I can’t play for shite, five packs of strings, and more “business” cards. That’s it. No room for a sound system on my back or in my other hand. It’s best to have one free hand.
This trip, like those before it, will undoubtedly find me running the gauntlet of good, bad, and ugly sonic projectors.
Belushi’s Canal has two 15″ main speakers, which I threw on a couple of dining-table chairs for makeshift speaker stands, and no monitor. On most any night, what the musician hears onstage is going to differ from what the audience hears, sometimes quite significantly. Where I was positioned at Belushi’s, namely, behind the speakers, I heard very little of anything. One of the bar’s managers, a fellow musician, was helping with sound, and so there was this comfort, and he had a vested interest to keep me sounding good. I trusted he would do it insofar as he was able.
Still, not hearing myself tends to make me tentative and even a bit irritable, and it wasn’t until after the first set when enough people had come up to me and offered their kind words about the sound and music from all their various locations around the room that I began loosening up and allowing myself to enjoy it. Prior to this, the show was a grind. But no sleep, several drinks, and three hours of performing later, I was feeling pretty good again –– excepting the bum ankle I was and am nursing from somehow managing to attack myself with one of my own feet while crossing a busy street in Paris.
Belushi’s was pleased enough with my blind croonings to ask me to play an hour set the following evening, which was last night. It went far more smoothly. I had some good sleep in me. Perhaps that also helped my perception of things.
In addition to the last minute show at Belushi’s, I was scheduled to perform later yesterday evening at Le Piston Pélican, a small and mostly local bar, very near Père Lachaise, the famed cemetery where the remains of many a famous corpse lie, Jim Morrison (possibly) among them.
Le Piston Pélican had hosted me twice during my last trip here, but when I arrived for my show last night, one of the two charming female owners informed me that the upcoming weekend is a raging celebration to commemorate the end of World War I, which would likely mean people would be staying in and resting up for the weekend. As I was to be playing for a percentage of sales, the decision was arrived at to simply enjoy a few beverages on the house and wait to see if it would be worth the effort to set up and play. Saving a few friends who’d come to hear me, the bar was indeed empty. They closed early, and my friends and I moved on. C’est la vie.
And moving on again is my next order of business. I have a train to catch to Brussels for a house concert tonight. As I gather my belongings, my German friend smiles broadly, taking a break from preaching her strange gospel to let me know she looks forward to seeing me in a town I cannot understand the pronunciation of and which, in fact, may not even exist. Indeed. Auf Wiedersehen.
May 10, 2013