For years now, with a mixture of honour and trepidation, I’ve been occasional steward of the Catweazle Club, looking after the weekly event when regular host Matt Sage is absent picking flowers in Gibraltar or whatever it is that he does. It’s very unlikely, if you’re on this site, that you haven’t heard of the Catweazle, but just in case: it’s a particularly special performance arts evening in Oxford, responsible for a very high percentage of the good people and times which I’ve known in the last five years. Being trusted with the reins of this powerful beast remains one of the great privileges of my extremely privileged life, and is definitely one of my top five musical achievements (another, by the way, is the Catweazle Compilation Record which we did in 2011).
For many regulars, the running of the Catweazle itself is a great mystery. What does running the night actually entail? How does it work? How frequently do I sell performance slots in exchange for elephant tusks, human kidneys, and other black market goods? Two weeks ago, I hosted whilst Matt cavorted at the Secret Garden Party; today, I’m onstage in Oxford again as he saves the world from rampaging killbots in the something-something sector. Using photographs gleaned from my previous outing, I take this rare opportunity to draw back the veil, to show Catweazle behind the scenes, to reveal its darkest secrets, to- well, basically, we put some cushions out and then people do an art. Happy now?
The sun shines deliciously on a new mural on the Cowley Road. For many years, the Catweazle Club has been harboured out here, in the East Oxford Community Centre. I remember frantically calling the Dapper Swindler on the exact spot this photo is taken from back in 2008, gabbling down the phone that I’d found this new night and he had to come and play it at all costs.
People who see it are surprised by how normal the room looks when it isn’t in Catweazle mode, but in fact we don’t do much to turn it into itself. Some tactical lighting, rearrangement of chairs, a little incense, and, of course, the legendary Catweazle backdrop. the crowd does the rest of the work.
This week, excitement abounds in the form of big new pillows for the mosh pit (“hippy floor seating area of love and sharing”). Some moron keeps nicking our pillows, but a regular attendee took pity and made these replacements. Thus is cosmic balance achieved.
Catweazle is useless if you aren’t pissed, and therefore John is the most important part of the evening. His reasonably-priced alcohol and crisp provision has warmed many a weazleite, and in the run-up to the night he’s always on hand with smiles, conversation, and worldly advice. He also provides backing music, this week through his new and insanely overpowered speaker system (part of which is just visible to the left).
With the room prepared, I always leave time to pop out to meet my sidekick. Everybody has one, from Sherlock Holmes’s John Watson to David Cameron’s Tobacco Industry Representative Guy!
Back in the EOCC, we light the candles, dim the overheads, and open the doors. It’s a quiet evening – you can tell that because forty minutes before kick-off, it’s still possible to breathe inside. As a host, I like the quiet nights more: busy nights have a frantic, delicious energy of their own but the host gets to enjoy less of it, since all you do is worry about how much time’s left and how many acts you have to get through. Tonight, exactly the right number of performers have turned up. At fifteen, everyone gets to do two things, there’s no particular hurry, and we can chill out plenty. My record is thirty-one performers in a single evening – Birthday weazles, which happen once a year and which accept as many people as want to play regardless, go even higher.
This is probably the most mystical part of running the Catweazle – “the list”. Once all the performers are signed up, it falls on the host to organise a running order. Two halves with a break in between. You want the second half to be slightly shorter, and you want the poetry and the music to be more or less evenly distributed where possible. This week we’re lucky to have a high ratio of poets and spoken word artists, who are normally a smaller demographic than the “guys with guitars” crew.
I get asked about the list a lot. Some people think it’s essentially a random process – how can it be anything else, when I’ve never met or heard the work of half the people I’m assigning slots to (this week it’s more – about sixty per cent of the people on stage tonight are meeting me for the first time)? Others think it’s an opportunity for me to advance my own tastes, pushing my allies into prominent positions like Sweden did with Denmark in the outrageous Eurovision setup this year AMIRITE??
Other than to assert that these allegations are unjust, there’s not much I can tell you about how the list gets made. It’s a deliberate process, but not necessarily a conscious one. I think it compares well with eating a meal: if you pay attention to yourself next time you eat something good, you’ll notice that you actually put quite a lot of thought into what’s going to be in the next mouthful, what you’ll be combining next for maximum deliciousness, the moments at which you’ll drink, and so on. You do all this without really noticing. The list is a bit like that – you have this plate of dainties in front of you, some known, some not, and you have to decide the order which will get the most out of them. It’s a delicate process and I’m staying vague about it deliberately.
Everyone who runs the Catweazle has a unique style, which suffuses the evening without (ideally) ever dominating it. Matt Sage, the regular champion who set up the Club back in 1994, has a great memory for faces and can snatch the next performer out of the crowd at a second’s notice. When he’s in charge, you barely even see the list. I clutch mine like a kid with a hospital lollipop, terrified of missing out somebody who signed up or getting the order wrong. Occasionally, of course, you have to go off liste – the vibe of the evening is always ultimately in charge and you can’t plan for everything. Adjusting the list on the fly is part of the stressful magic of running the show.
By the time the list is done, the room is tolerably full and it’s time to kick of the festivities. I think the first slot is by far the hardest to play, although every regular performer has a different opinion about where the best and worst slots in the evening are.
The thing to say about Catweazle, if you could only say one thing, is that it’s an audience as much as anything else. The quality of the attention given to the performers is what marks it out from other similar nights – there’s a real sense of collective appreciation. As an artist, it’s both amazing and daunting. There’s nothing quite like it.
After the interval, we had a great surprise in the form of Henry, who looked like just another unassuming guitar-guy until he got onstage and let rip in a manner that has not been seen since Cobain himself.
Another treat of Catweazle is seeing people onstage in front of an audience for the first time. This teenage couple debuted their poetry together. They looked a bit morose about it afterwards, but I do hope they come back – part of the fun of the night is watching people grow into themselves and develop week after week.
And then it was nearly over, with the last slot of the evening going to these two guys who I hadn’t seen before. People never want to go last, but the good ones always rise to the challenge and these two were no exception.
After the show, it’s easy enough to strike the set, especially when the remnants of the crowd pitch in to re-stack the chairs. Final hosting tip: never touch the lights, they get really hot. INSIDER KNOWLEDGE. Aren’t you glad you read this?It’s gone from the room, and will have to live for the next six days in people’s hearts and minds. Next Thursday, we unpack it all again.