Monday, July 13, 2009

Poitiers Rocks...Sometimes

Despite the 6000 miles which separate Champaign-Urbana and Poitiers, coming from one university town to another carries certain expectations with regards to the availability of late-night food, weird art, and music.

Champaign-Urbana's music scene was perhaps more developed than its modest size and distance from major metropolises might suggest. Jefe helped with a live local music show on the local independent radio station (WEFT 90.1 fm) for long enough to appreciate the quality and sheer volume of continuously maturing local talent.

It took us a while to wrap our heads around the music scene in Poitiers. Besides the various arms of the university, Poitiers is home to two music conservatories and a surprising number of instrument retailers and repair shops, including a luthier. But these vestiges of musical education are no guarantee of music that speaks to and evokes passion in the audience. Modern French music is notorious for borrowing from other people and cultures. Unfortunately, mimicking music far from its geographic roots can be a tricky enterprise. Case in point: Jefe has seen a few "blues" bands in Europe that, while adept musically, lacked the urgency and passion of their stateside counterparts. It was "blues," it just wasn't "the blues."

With a few exceptions, the bands and DJs performing at Poitier's local venues are mostly visiting groups. Sometimes from elsewhere in France, but just as often from Spain, Norway, Czech Republic or even from the U.S.

Besides mentioning a few noteworthy examples, I won't attempt to provide a critique of all the foreign and local groups that have passed through Poitiers. Partly because writing about something as subjective and ambiguous as music is extraordinarily difficult, but also because the venues are as interesting as the music they are hosting.

Our first ever music experience in Poitiers was at Le Pince Oreille (trans: The Pierced Ear). Located on the periphery of centre ville near Eglise Montierneuf it also houses a semi-upscale restaurant above the bar/music area. The offerings vary between DJs, repeater bands (various nights of week are swing, jazz, or blues) and the occasional foreign visitor, usually of the world music variety. This venue caters to a slightly older crowd. One that doesn't want to be forced to wear ear plugs or fight for space with the sweaty, drunk student crowd.

The big-name acts that come through town are generally showcased at the Confort Moderne. This is a one stop shop for all your alternative needs. Part music venue, part art exhibition space, it also houses a used/vintage record store, a fanzine library and even a small restaurant. It's located outside of centre ville in the area populated by many students & conveniently close to late-night pizza and kebabs. It's most interesting because it includes all the extracurricular activities that wouldn't appear at a normal venue. The problem is that the employees that make these interesting operations happen (young, inexperienced) are also really poor excuses for bartenders, lighting technicians, etc. Oh well.

The fanzine library at the Confort Moderne

For those members of the younger set who prefer to dress up a little, there is the recently opened Minima Cafe. Situated closer to the center of the action in Poitiers, the bar is located on the ground floor, with a beer garden out back and space for bands/DJs/dancing in the basement. The decor is minimalist (thus the name) and modern with new locally produced artwork/photos exhibited on a regular basis. Besides being frequented by mostly DJs, there are only a few drawbacks to this location. The clientele often orders labor-intensive mixed drinks, leaving someone craving merely a beer or glass of wine to wait while the lone bartender turns out armloads of pineapple mojito-margaritas. Also, with France's indoor smoking ban, the clope set is forced to fill the narrow sidewalks out front (on both sides of the already-narrow street) making entering and exiting a little more difficult, not to mention the danger posed by cars passing through this drunk, absent-minded, bifurcated smoking party. We saw the Czech band Sabot here.

Concert poster for the Czech bass-drum duo Sabot

Moving down the social ladder a rung, we come to Le Cafe du Clain. Located on the edge of centre ville on the banks of the Clain River it is a small, cheap, traditional restaurant by day and a punk- and alcoholic retiree-populated watering hole by night. A little idiosyncratic to be sure, it is a good bet for metal and punk bands traveling through town, often from Spain. Since it's a little out of the way, the patrons have only this bar or the nearby, more upscale establishment to choose from. Thus, the disparate crowd. If you come for bands, you'll want to bring your ear plugs (unless you're one of the retirees and/or already deaf).

Punk rockers from Spain at the Cafe du Clain

Just around the corner from the Minima Cafe on the Place Charles de Gaulle, Cluricaume Cafe hosts generally talented acts and is welcoming enough you might actually hang out there when there isn't music on the menu. As a Irish/French Celtic Pub it is frequented by a beer swilling, sometimes dreadlocked, underclassmen crowd that can get a little crazy if the musicians are too enthusiastic. If the music is of the metal/punk variety you won't have any trouble hearing it from the slew of tables on the sidewalk out front and across the street.

Meringue Alcohol and Us at Cluricaume Cafe

Finally, on the DIY side of things is 23 avenue de Paris. Resembling (and smelling like) a glorified squat, they host bands, art, and theater acts. The bands hosted are mostly local. I'm not sure if they sell alcohol, but most of the spectators seem to bring their own anyway.

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