An Audience with Catweazle

For the last twenty years, the Catweazle Club has presented a weekly event for musicians, poets, storytellers and performers of any kind. As a space for free expression and experimentation, it has become the pinnacle of alternative entertainment and the best outlet for aspiring artists in Oxford.

When I arrive at the club, I am taken to the room where the Catweazle takes place. For now, it is only a simple large room with white brick walls and scattered chars.  However, when I meet Matt Sage, the founder and manager of the club, he assures me that by the time I return to watch the show later in the evening it will be a very different environment.

Matt first conceived the idea for the club when he arrived in Oxford in 1994. As a singer-songwriter, it was vitally important that he had a venue where he could present his work:

“I started the Catweazle club because I needed somewhere to perform, and I needed to connect with other makers of music and poetry and spoken word. There was nothing when I arrived in Oxford. It didn’t exist.”

Matt’s ambition was to create an inclusive space for performers and audiences. His design means that the Catweazle is very different from conventional open mic nights – to start with there are no microphones.

“I wanted to get a listening space, somewhere more intimate, a more open gathering. It’s proved very successful I think. If you want to have a rowdy night out you can do that anywhere else. Here it’s a little bit more sacrosanct than that.”

The idea was born when Matt was growing up, attending similar evenings in London at the Troubadour in Earls Court. “It was my spiritual home. I really took an ember from that fire and started a new fire here in Oxford.”

The greatest feature of the club is that performances are not limited to a particular style or genre, Matt explains “we get on average every week between 15 and twenty performers doing a couple of songs, a poem, a story, a dance, anything. So after 19 years we’ve seen thousands of things. Anything and everything.”

Nineteen years is a long time, and the live scene in Oxford has changed tremendously over the years. I ask if he has watched the scene develop. “Hugely. I know that a lot of nights have started by people coming to Catweazle. People who think they could do it better or differently and now there’s lots of nights. Every night of the week there’s two or three things happening.”

Ultimately the Catweazle is for anyone and everyone. Their mission and ethos is to celebrate the creativity of artists and offer a setting where that can be shared. Plenty of musicians and writers have performed in the club since its conception including Sam Willets, an Oxford based poet, whose book New Light for the Old Dark was shortlisted for every award dedicated to first collections.

“Sam had never read poetry publicly before he came to Catweazle. He began to perform here and then it gave him a reason to write, something to write for, an occasion to build up to. He has said to me many a time in the past if it wasn’t for Catweazle he wouldn’t have been writing poetry.”

When I return later on to watch the event, Matt has kept his promise; the setting has completely altered. The space is now decorated with candles and cushions, creating the aesthetic of a Moroccan den which gives the room an instant atmosphere.

One of the things I am most struck by is the respect given to the performers by the audience. When someone gets up to read or play, the room goes instantly quiet – this is certainly no rock concert – and the attention afforded to their work could not be more appreciative.  The variety of acts on this night alone was surprising; I listen to the music of a psychedelic duo, a story teller who creates a modern feminist fable, and even an acoustic performance from Matt himself.

So if you’re a budding artist and want to observe Oxford’s growing live scene, the Catweazle club is the best place to exhibit your work. Its old fashioned variety style and non-judgemental environment is perhaps the most intimate listening space you will be able to find.

Catweazle takes place on Thursdays at 8pm (performers arrive by 7:30pm) at the East Oxford Social Club in Cowley.