"Dear Alex," the email read. "This town, for all its touting of fabulosity, is culturally dead."
I mean, I've danced around this idea for the better part of a decade, as have many local culturally significant folks—but we've also heaped praise far and wide, so relax—but no one has ever just come right out to me and said something like this.
"Culture is a LIVING THING," the email continued. "What we have in Santa Fe is a continuum of rehashed, sentimental, overly done and status quo-sucking material. We're stuck in the nostalgia of the past. We desperately need a change … I would relish the idea of chatting with you on this subject—the subject of artistic rebellion. I want to create something out of the box—brash, revolutionary, yet small. I'm already doing it, but I need help."
Strong words from Charles Tichenor, sort of a piano bar legend in Santa Fe. Tichenor once studied acting with the great Stella Adler and performed piano all across New York City for years. It's there that he met one of the original owners of Vanessie some 23 years ago and moved to Santa Fe. He tickled the ivories down at Vanessie, a position he held for 20-plus years until, he says, he was unceremoniously let go while vacationing in France. It stung, and he kept mostly to himself for a time, but he was busy.
Tichenor studied up on Le Chat Noir, a late-1800s, pre-Belle Époque cabaret that began in the Monmarte district of Paris; an underground outlet that set out to lure the intelligentsia but, as these things do, expanded to include the masses. "Eventually the bourgeoise started showing up, because it became so cool they wanted to come to find out what was going on," Tichenor says, "and the emcees and performers would do all this anti-military and anti-government material. … The bourgeoise would show up for this fun cultural, intellectual abuse. … This is where the journalists and the poets and the songwriters and the artists all convened to discuss their ideas and the cultural milieu of the city."
And thus, Tichenor's own Chat Noir cabaret began, quietly, in the back room of Mexican restaurant Los Magueyes in Burro Alley—the last place any of us would have expected—every Friday and Saturday night. It's there that Tichenor tells jokes, sings songs, riffs parodies like he's Beethoven waxing poetic about farts and welcomes guest performers such as vocalist Michael Hely or accordion virtuoso Ron Romanovsky. It's a blast, too, with Tichenor leading the charge on subtly sexual love songs, politically charged piano numbers and the dipping of toes into subversively knocking down our so-called president a peg or two. For now, it's not entirely unlike piano bar karaoke with light elements of vaudeville—though it's entirely more cerebral. Tichenor's ultimate hope is to attract a certain intellectual crowd and to evolve the process into salon-like gatherings ripe for the exchange of culture and ideas.
"I'm trying to create something that has a little more of a point of view in town," Tichenor says. "One of the great things I learned from Stella Adler was the difference between art with a little 'a' and Art with a capital 'A,' and Art with a capital 'A' should be at least a little bit transformative; you should come out of it with a slightly shifted perspective and a slightly raised consciousness about things, so that's what I'm trying to do instead of just playing 'Jeremiah Was a Bullfrog' over and over again."
Not that there's anything wrong with covers, of course; but when their purveyors begin acting as if they're adding to the cultural conversation in meaningful ways and are therefore owed something (a fan base, a living, etc.), this is where Tichenor starts to waffle. But he's not unrealistic and he doesn't expect that he'll outright change the shared culture of Santa Fe and beyond from his cabaret room in the back of a restaurant, but it's at least trying something slightly new. (I'd also like to give a shout-out to "something new"-ers Cloacas at this point, because they weird.)
Tichenor has adoring fans who attend his weekly sessions, too, from the older would-be starlet to the Michigan transplant with the acoustic guitar who sings from a place of authenticity that few bar bands can muster.
But let us also be realistic ourselves: about recent venue closures and the overall state of the music biz in town, and about the people trying their hardest. Tichenor understands this well. It's just that he's grown tired of walking into the same old places and hearing the same old things. A cursory glance at dead-eyed bar patrons staring blankly at televisions while the band tries to do their thing is a pretty solid indicator that he's not alone.
Still, if you're in the market for something outside the norm (and like a damn solid burrito), this may be the place to do it.
Charles Tichenor's Le Chat Noir Cabaret
6-9 pm Friday and Saturday, Feb. 2 and 3. Free.
Los Magueyes Mexican Restaurant,
31 Burro Alley,