Blues Man Takes It To Paris!

jim bruce with guitar                                                                        jim bruce blues guitar lessons - eiffel tower

Jim Bruce, traveling pro blues man, takes us with him for a day in Paris, where he samples the local way of life and plays the blues in some regular tourist spots. The home of the Eiffel Tower, the Sacre Coeur cathedral and 'the Metro' is also home to an amazingly broad and diverse communities , working, existing and basically getting along in the teeming metropolis.

I'd Heard That Some People Play Guitar On The Metro

The Paris metro is the biggest in any city on Earth, and the other numbers are just as impressive. Take my word for it, you don't have to go far before seeing a station - there are well over three undred places to catch the metro and no place further away than about four hundred meters from a station! The underground railway here in Paris has a reputation for being a great place to play blues guitar, or any kind of music for that matter.  As I'm one these traveling musician people, it seemed obvious that I should at least give it a shot.

                             martin 000x1 acoustic guitar                                                 paris metro station

How Do You Start Entertaining On The Paris Underground?

You may reason that you just go down there, find a place and start to play the blues - I'm afraid not, it's not as easy as you'd think! That way of doing things has passed many years ago. The whole is really organized now (as only the French can organize) and newbies have to apply for, and go and sit for a full blown audition with the street performance organizers located the RATP headquarters, the managers of the metro underground system.

And there's more - each and every year the most popular metro performers are picked to go to a music studio and an album is made which goes on sale through commercial outlets. Of course, the styles of music found and the performers covers a broad range, from tin whistle players to brass bands! I read somewhere that some stars were discovered down there. I think the time is ripe for blues guitar to return to the forefront.

Just like all regulated activities, there are rules, such as 'no amplifiers', 'can't sell CDs', etc. But ... I felt it wouldn't hurt to bend a few of those rules. It's a truism, that nothing in life ever pans out the way they should ... read on ...

Who's Afraid Of A Little Old Audition? - Gulp!

I caught a North-bound train, suitcase in my hand (sounds like an delta blues rip-off , wouldn't you say?) from the south of France near Toulouse and several hours after that was sitting in an audition room in the Metro office building, bidong my time for my audition to commence.  I told myself that I'd play four incredibly powerful songs and sing my heart out, amazing him with those good old blues guitar sounds - 'got to get this permit, need this license' was my unspoken litany. It was my key to riches beyond my wildest day dreams, and my dreams often got really wild, I can tell you!

Of course I was wrong in thinking that my musical skills would be assessed by some other musicians. 'This is going be tough', I told myself. I tuned my guitar three or four times and waited. Without warning, a man came into the audtion room, set a camcorder whirring and called out "Hi - play me something." He then sat down, and started scanning a newspaper! Unshaken, I dived into a very loud example of the classic delta blues song 'Love In Vain' by Robert Johnson, and then he raised his head to glance at me strangely. He told me that my audition was finished and I'd get a letter in the mail after ten days or so. The audition was very short and not really very sweet.

I took the Metro to Montmartre, ate lunch with my mum-in-law who lives near Moulin  Rouge , down from the Sacre Coeur cathedral and then caught the fast TGV train to the welcoming South. As it happens, eleven days after that I received my permit in the mail and then set about organizing my first day playing the Paris Metro.

paris by night    

I Love Paris in The Winter, When It Glistens

I hate to let you down, my friends, but that's what the underground experience was - a let down. Well, not exactly true. It wasn't what I thought it would be, that's all. I got there on a cold morning and descended into the nearest station to start my job in the city. That was the first little mistake. There are lots of performers, so you need to be there at the crack of dawn to ensure you get a great spot. Just like real estate, it's about location, location, location.

In spite of that, I saw some wonderful acts during my search, a complete range of musical styles from hip-hop to delta blues. In one station crossover tunnel (these are sometimes enormous!) I came upon 12 Russian classical musicians, accompanied by dancers. As you might guess, the rules laid down by the Metro guys didn't mean much in this underground world. Probably three quarters of all musicians use amps and often sell albums. This makes a lot of sense, as in my town, album sales make up about 50% of my street based earnings.

Never Forget - Sax Sells!
Strangely enough, the musicians earning the most are the artists that don't have a license, and don't bother with playing in the tunnels. This is what they do. These people often play a trumpet, or clarinet, or a saxophone and play to on the people actually boarding the trains. I went with one such musician on one of his journeys and we chatted for a little while, as we were blood brothers, you might say.

He would catch a train for several stops, playing his sax with a backing tape. I thought he was really good at his job and people like him, which is a good trick when you play in a big city. He would then do the same thing in the opposite direction for the whole day, which makes him about 130 euros. This is a decent amount, but I didn't want to do it - I bet the first hour is the worst, after that you just become a little numb. Bravo to anyone that can make money with any musical activity. There's some footage of our short meeting in the embedded Youtube video below.

I was to get back into some (relatively) clean air and daylight once more, fully realizing that the life of an underground blues man is not my cup of tea. I spent the rest of the day looking around other areas parts in this fantastic city, and performing some songs in prime locations above ground. You can see a video diary of my day in Paris underneath the text.