For those of us who like to spend time in bars, Phnom Penh provides a wide range of options, from the frou-frou places that charge $7 for a soda water to the hello!-fronted YouTube-driven places of shotgun dimensions to pop up bars on wheels on street corners. And then there are a few of real character that really stand out, create and sustain community, and encourage prolonged stays and repeat visits.
For mine, one of these is Garage on St 110, under the sign of the Warhol banana, just off the riverside. The latest iteration in its nine or so years has been run for the last 18 months by Canadian Clay George, who himself has only been in the city for three years. Garage has great staff, a carefully and protectively curated playlist, inside/outside seating and some of the best burgers and margaritas in the city. Clay is also one helluva singer, and from time to time there’s a live music night.
A typical party will include a number solos and duos, tending towards Americana, country and singer/songwriter performances – although in the past they have included Khmer music, a poetry reading, a comedy set or two – and it’s where Clay makes his now rare solo appearances.
It occurred to me that perhaps the secret to making a great bar is being a bar fly yourself.
Clay George: It doesn’t hurt [laughs]. But I guess it depends on what kind of a drunk you are [laughs]. I’m generally a happy drunk, so it’s not so bad. Definitely a lot of the people who come here are friends or at least acquaintances. I’ve spent most of my life working in bars as a musician, but all of my side jobs were bar-related.
I’ve worked as a doorman, a sound man, a kitchen manager – I’ve basically done everything in a bar except own one, it so I know how the whole thing runs. Basically it’s about making sure customers are comfortable. It’s all about getting the little things right, and I’m constantly taking care of all the little things.
This Saturday night, for Garage Party XIV, will be a special event of all original music in a format known as Songwriters in the Round. Three writers with contrasting but complementary styles will take turns to introduce and then play songs from their repertoire, maybe offering comments about the history, biology or even physiology of the song – Clay, Greg Beshers and myself.
Clay George: We used to do this all the time in Canada, especially at festivals where they would be called workshops. A lot of the time they would have a loose theme, but it was essentially play a song, tell a little bit, then the next one had a turn. Just as if you were sitting around the living room or the kitchen. It’s a nice idea because instead of having one performer for 45 minutes, then another for 45 minutes, you mix it up. And of course it’s all original stuff as well – it’s a songwriters’ show.
So on Saturday night a Canadian, an American and an Australian will trade their songs – some you may have heard and some you may not have – is a relaxed, informal setting. BBC Four did a series of these in 2010 – search for the Richard Thompson/Suzanne Vega/Loudon Wainwright III show, or the Neil Finn/Janis Ian/Ryan Adams episodes online to get a feel for it. We’ll do our best to provide an effort worthy of the Phnom Penh expat musical community.
Note well: a recent innovation at Garage is air-conditioning (“I really should have got onto that earlier,” laughs Clay, “but I thought I’d time it for the cool season”), which will help to overcome the overheating problems that have cropped up at the crowded parties in the past (especially, I may add, on stage). Best advice: come early to get a good seat.
THIS WEEK IN PHNOM PENH
On Friday night at Bassac Lane, a night of bluegrass with Americana supergroup Grass Snake Revival, Billy Page with a full band at LF Social Club, while across at Alchemy, the Havana Kings. On Saturday, Alchemy presents the traveling duo of Clara Shandler, the Sidewalk Cellist, and multi-instrumentalist Theo Kraulis, and LF Social Club offers Friends of Brin. Then on Tuesday night at Bona’s Pub, Ace hosts a Pinoy Party – the Filipinos and Filipinas will rock the joint.