Ken Maiuri’s Clubland: On the road again (this time, in Oslo) with Young@Heart Chorus
It’s a brisk Wednesday night in Oslo — the clocks chime 9:30 — and though the members of the Young@Heart Chorus have just finished their fourth out of five performances of “Young@Heart in End of the Road by No Theater” in the city’s National Theatre, most of the singers are not heading back to hotel beds. The night is still young.
Their destination is Queen’s Pub, where we’ve been told there’s an open mic, with instruments always set up. Word is that anyone’s free to jump up and sing, and that’s what people in the group plan to do.
The “End of the Road” theater piece, which takes place on a bar-like set, was partially inspired by the chorus’ love of hanging out for drinks and conversation after shows on a tour. So this is an interesting night, going from a dreamlike space-age metal and Plexiglas bar on a stage in front of an audience of hundreds to an actual neighborhood bar, weathered, dark and wooden, hidden down a city street.
“Suppejam!” reads the chalkboard sidewalk sign as we round the bend. As I sit down with a drink, a mellow bearded guy carries a big pot down the tavern’s stairs and over the heads of the chorus members; there’s actually going to be soup here tonight — split pea, and free for all — but I don’t partake.
I’m anxious about the room filling up with people — chorus members, technicians and guests and locals — with no clear plan in place. How will this work, anyway? Will the open mic hosts really just let us play? Is there a sign-up sheet?
I get up the nerve to talk to the wild-haired young guy wearing the “Who are the brain police?” T-shirt over by the bar. With a Frank Zappa quote like that emblazoned on his chest, I figure he’s got to be one of the musicians, and he is. I try to explain the situation, how we’re from the United States, performing in town, and were hoping to, uh, take over for a while. Would that be OK?
He says sure, they’re waiting for their lead singer anyway, so we’re welcome to start out the night until he shows up.
He and his buddy go to their instruments. The Zappa fan, Simon, stands at the piano — actually an electronic keyboard hidden inside a grand-piano-shaped shell (which is basically my same setup on stage for “End of the Road”). He twinkles avant-garde stardust out of the keys while welcoming everyone. He explains there’s soup, and that he’s heard there are special guests here tonight, so please welcome them.
In the back they’re shouting for Shirley Stevens to get up and sing “Snow” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, a song the chorus hasn’t done for well over a year. “Do you remember all the lyrics?” I ask her en route to the piano, thinking of the motormouth rap-like cadence of the song’s many, many words. “Sure I do!” she says, smiling and giving me a swat.
Pat Booth, a self-professed country music fan, nevertheless has up her sleeve a strong version of the Buzzcocks’ punk classic “What Do I Get.” Young@Heart guitarist F. Alex Johnson casually leans against the side wall, ripping leads out of the dodgy electric instrument that lives at the bar.
Gloria Parker appears with a smile at the piano’s end to sing her favorite Patsy Cline tune, “Have You Ever Been Lonely.” She adds a sweet little vocal flourish at the end of the clip-clop country song and the room cheers.
Joyce Dearman takes over for her trademark sassy version of Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’ ” and suddenly there are people up and dancing, and the instant party continues as Steve Martin sings Talking Heads’ “Heaven,” recast as a lively, romantic beguine.
Bill Sheppard chooses to sing a song the chorus briefly rehearsed months ago but never actually performed, Leonard Cohen’s slinky and simmering noir-ish tune “I’m Your Man.” While he’s singing smoothly, I’m at the piano looking at a hastily written cheat sheet and shouting out chord changes to bandmates.
Sheppard switches the mood with his gruff and growly version of an old Belgian new-wave song, “O La La,” which the chorus learned for its last overseas tour, and the dancers are up and at it again. “C’est magnifique!” the chorus members wail along with the jagged rock song’s refrain.
Jack Schnepp brings the party to a mellow oasis with his crooning version of John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy.”
With Beatles on the brain, someone in the back yells out for Paul McCartney & Wings’ “Live and Let Die,” not a song the band has ever played together, but we give it our best shot. “End of the Road” sound man Nick Sagar leaps across the room to get to the microphone just in time to bellow the lyrics during the reggae breakdown section, doing his best McCartney-esque throat-tearing shout.
Chorus director Bob Cilman, harmonica in hand, gets up to sing “Eve of Destruction,” which he performed as a teen with his early band The Torn Souls.
With no one else eager to grab the microphone, our jam ends and we take our seats.
The host musicians take over, led by vocalist/guitarist Robert Rustad Amundsen, and right away prove they’re no ordinary bar band: they start with “Don’t Want To Know,” a great John Martyn tune from his classic 1973 album “Solid Air” — not exactly typical cover band material. Sound man Nick knows and loves the record and grabs the bass guitar, and though part of me is unsure I should, the two pints of Hansa allow me to get behind the drums and join in.
As more local musicians arrive I realize I’d better leave before I can’t find my way home.