Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Songwriter Circle

"Kick my inhibitions to the curb…" A singer's mellow voice filled the room upon stepping foot inside The Waterhole, a rock pub. The lively chatter and bright neon lights of Leidseplein at night fade away as you turn around a corner into a dim, cozy room of booths, candlelit tabletops, and a small stage. You notice  your shoes stick to the wooden floor ever so slightly and smell a faint but pervasive scent you can't quite put your finger on---reminiscent of something old and nostalgic---perhaps like your great grandfather's cabin. The pub evokes all that is old and unkempt; it seems as though someone had splurged at a garage sale and had haphazardly flung old guitars, rock posters, liquor bottle caps, Christmas lights, and leather artwork onto the walls. Although disorganized, the decor creates a warm, casual atmosphere. The furniture could have come from an old cowboy's saloon. You make yourself comfortable in a booth with an unobstructed view of the stage and are pleasantly surprised when no waiter pressures you to buy drinks. 

The Songwriter Circle is a group of singer-songwriters who gather every first Monday of the month at The Waterhole to perform their music. For one hour, from 9PM to 10PM, four singers perform to a modest crowd of about fifteen fellow singer-songwriters and travelers who happened to grab a drink there that evening. In fact, there were very few locals at the bar. "How many people here are native Dutch?" asked the emcee. Two hands rose. It was evident that The Waterhole was frequented by tourists and travelers and the Songwriter Circle event catered well to this audience because both the singers and emcee spoke in English. "All of us try to speak Engleesh. Some of oos, like me, ees bad. Others ees very good," the emcee explained with her endearing Dutch accent and a bright smile. In the eclectic Waterhole, the visitor feels like he or she could be in a pub anywhere in the world; this charming accent gave a sense of place. It is a subtle reminder that you are in Amsterdam. 

The first singer-songwriter of the night simply went by the name, "Dutch." Dutch was perhaps forty years old and performed several country songs with a husky voice. He sang country songs with so much conviction that all that was missing was a cowboy hat on his head. He had an impeccable English accent. Moreover, his lyrics were filled slang and idiomatic phrases such as "kick my inhibitions to the curb," which further demonstrated his grasp of the English language. It was only in between songs when he spoke Dutch that it became evident he was a native of Holland. His songs told stories about memorable encounters, such as a commotion he witnessed at a bar: 

"Guy at the bar spilled beer on his shirt / What the fuck you gonna do? / Sit your ass down!

It was notable that his lyrics ("sit your ass down") could be fitting for many other genres---rap, hip-hop, pop---and wasn't immediately evocative of lyrics you might expect in country music. That was initially jarring; however, Dutch crafted the lyrics perfectly to suit his personality.  His appearance (a burly forty year-old man with slicked-back blonde hair) evoked someone who would go to bars and have a hearty laugh at the expense of a poor bloke who had ruined his shirt with beer. He complemented his lyrics with his appearance to create a compelling story that the listeners could visualize in their minds, thereby proving himself not only a singer, but a successful story crafter. 

Dutch, the first performer of the night

The following performer was Christopher David, an even older man who was at least sixty. Christopher was a Welsh street musician from Newport who had balding white hair and wrinkles exaggerating his expressive face. He sang folksy tunes with a low, gruff voice that rang of nostalgia. He, too, was a master of storytelling. While Dutch told anecdotes that were bold and funny through his songs, Christopher evoked deeper feelings of sweet nostalgia and melancholy through his pieces. He sang of a man on a train, reminiscing of the days gone by in a cabaret in Paris. Though he didn't always maintain perfect pitch, the imperfections in his singing fit the character he portrayed through his song: a wistful, old man in a sea of memories and emotion, more concerned with telling a story than hitting each note. Christopher did a splendid job engaging in all five senses in his lyrics. He gave character to the most ordinary of items, singing: 

"The freshness of morning with hummus on my bread / From Christmas and a great roaring fire / To the sweet smell of hummus / In the sunshine of August.

Christopher singing about hummus

The third singer-songwriter, Dani Lee, a native of Amsterdam, was the only female artist of the night. Another standout difference was that she played an electric guitar rather whereas the other performers used acoustic guitars. Her smoky, smooth voice contrasted beautifully with the preceding singers' and it paired well with the deep, long-lasting reverberations best achieved with an electric guitar compared to an acoustic one. Her voice was remarkably versatile. She hit the highs and the lows, and the small inflections in her voice were expressive. This soulful, deep voice was surprising for her small stature of approximately five and a half feet. Whereas the focus of the first two performers were the lyrics, Dani Lee's folk-blues music was laudable for the melody alone. 

Dana Lee singing and playing her electric guitar

Marco Manfredi was the final act of the night. He was visiting from Italy and at twenty-two, he was the youngest singer-songwriter at this month's Songwriter Circle. All of his songs were in Italian whereas the others had penned their lyrics in English. The use of Italian over English resulted in exciting new rhythms, soft rolling-Rs, and strings of syllables idiosyncratic of this romantic language, which created textures unique to Marco's music. Marco's voice was simple and silky-sweet, with the occasional high note. His singing was punctuated with complex guitar riff solos. His dexterous fingers zipping up and down the fingerboard was a performance in and of itself. Marco was also an excellent performer who knew how to play with the crowd. During one song he pulled a kazoo out of his pocket and stuck it in between his lips while simultaneously strumming the guitar. When the kazoo sequence in the song ended, he bent over, let the kazoo fall out of his mouth and unceremoniously onto the floor, and playfully grinned as he resumed singing---the crowd roared in delight. 

Marco Manfredi on the stage with his left-handed guitar

At the end of the night, the emcee walked onto the stage and thanked everyone for their attendance. It was only during the online research process after the event that revealed the emcee, Dzuana, was a singer-songwriter herself. Indeed, this was an event organized by a singer-songwriter, for the singer-songwriter community. It was clear that the performers cared immensely about one another and their music. Case in point: although the event attendance was modest, there were two video recorders on tripods, recording the event to be later placed on Youtube and to be featured on the Songwriter Circle's website. To the right of the stage was a sound engineer in charge of providing good acoustics throughout the night. There were several friends and supporters who took photos throughout the performances. This effort placed in the sound and video equipment proved that the community deeply respected each artist and their works. A music lover leaves the event with the uplifting sense that the Songwriter Circle is not merely a community of talent, but a community that is cohesive, caring, and proud.

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