It was 20 years ago today…
In the early Autumn of 1994, in the days before internet or mobile phones, I arrived in Oxford from London seeking refuge on a boat down in Jericho. I’d been in an almost-famous touring band, and wanted some peace and quiet among the reeds and swans.
I had been initially attracted to spend some time here by Oxford’s reputation as a musical city, but when I arrived, I just couldn’t find any scene that I could creatively call home. I love rock n roll, me, but I also like a gentler, more focused kind of music, one unaccompanied by what passes for cultural acceptance in England: the perfume of bleach’n’vomit or having to endure the roar of apes shouting over each other at the bar.
So, after 3 weeks of trawling around the pubs, and still inspired by the inclusive and inspiring unplugged scene I’d left behind – centred around The Troubadour in Earl’s Court, and orchestrated by the band Miro – I decided to take a small room somewhere and see if I couldn’t maybe carry a little of that flame into my new life. Amazingly, looking back now, there was not a single open mic night in Oxford at that time!
So, I booked the snug (as was) of the Victoria Arms in Jericho, stuck up a few posters around town, (with essential oils mixed in to the paste to magic up the vibes on a subliminal level!), and waited to see what might happen.
And on that first Tuesday night in October, as the leaves were gettin’ crunchy, some strangers shuffled in off the street, taking turns to offer a poem, a song or whatever else it was that they had with them, while everybody else just listened. Simple really.
That first night glowed with goodness.
Everybody came back the following week, and some even brought a friend. This pattern carried on for a couple of months until, very quickly, it got too crowded down there (max capacity was around 30!). And so we moved upstairs to the larger room.
We have been on the move ever since: a very memorable 2-year stint at Jude The Obscure in Walton Street came about after legendary Irish landlord Noel Reilly caught me nicking some wood out of his skip, and we struck up a conversation. Oh bejaysus! Let’s do it in here, Matt!
Noel remained a keen supporter after we moved on again, taking up a 7-year residency at the former LGBT centre on St Michael’s Street: Northgate Hall.
There then followed a year of nomadic wandering in which we found ourselves camping variously at The Wheatsheaf, The Jam Factory and Po Na Na’s.
Our home for the past ten years has been in the bar of East Oxford Community Centre. This feels about right – being in the heart of things, the true centre of Oxford. But who, knows, maybe we’ll be on the move again some day…
And then, of course, there’s been all the players: the singers, the songsmiths, the bards, the mystics, the weavers, the magicians, the dreamers, the heart-breakers and -brokers and the countless moonlit minstrels.
The Catweazle Club averages around 15-20 different acts every week, every month, every year. For twenty years. My maths probably isn’t as good as yours, but I reckon that takes the numbers of individual performances we have witnessed to well over 15,000.
The Catweazle Club is based on the simple philosophy that EVERYBODY has something worth sharing, and the very least the rest of us can do is to shut up and listen and give that person the space to do their thing, even if it’s only for five minutes.
If it’s excruciating for one person to listen to, it might well be the very thing that lights someone else’s fuse! And it has been my unequivocal experience over all these years that it is in this very listening, this attentiveness, this genius of generosity, in which the magic can, and very often does, take place. After all, let’s remember: Audience (n.) they who listen.
And this simple philosophy clearly has some universal appeal: people passing through over the years have been so moved by the atmosphere we have created that they have wanted to start a Catweazle Club in their own home towns: London, Exeter, Brighton,
New York, Toronto, Auckland…
We have also branched out over the past couple of years into publishing a quarterly magazine, The Catweazle, to feature other artforms that don’t translate so well on to the stage: photographs, paintings, recipes, etc.
It has been an immeasurably great privilege for me to witness so much talent, depth, humour, wonder and vulnerability over the past 20 years: it is the dynamo loop that keeps me excited and inspired to still turn up myself each week, and to also try and give of my best.
So thank you, Catweazle (and that means all of you who make it what it is by simply being there), and Happy 20th Birthday!
The Catweazle Club’s 20th Birthday
Saturday November 1st, 7.30pm, Holywell Music Room, Oxford.
Tickets, £10 (adv), available here