Monday 27 April 2015

The Zoetic – Friday every 2 months

Ages ago I and my dad went to see a very weird version of Philip K. Dick's A Scanner Darkly in the movie theatre. It was not a popular movie, so it quickly became difficult to see it anywhere, rep theatres being the exception. We drove up the mountain to Concession Street and sat at these looonnnnng banks of table/bar things bolted to the floor in front of comfy movie theatre seats. It was pretty cool, though it did strike us that maybe this wasn't a highly-frequented place. I hadn't been back there in years, though I did send a student there last year because he was obsessed with Back to the Future (kid was 10!) and not only they were showing it on the big screen, they also had THE Delorian outside.

A couple weeks ago my friend Sarah Farr told me about a new open mic being held at the Zoetic – the very same theatre's next incarnation. Gone are the long banks, updated with new amphitheatre seating, and with lush antique chaises and couches tucked away in corners. An open mic on a real stage!

[photo credit: Benjamin Washington]

The first act set the bar very very high: Jeff and Jill they were, acoustic guitar(s) and double bass respectively, and sounding vaguely like a cross between Nick Drake and Mumford & Sons. Really beautiful stuff. The rest of the night saw a talented mix of stand-up comics, singer-songwriters, a bananas 3-keyboard organ player, all buoyed by a decently-stocked cash bar in the lobby.

Great sound system, competent organizer/MC (Jeremy), and an amaaazing backdrop of the city, with a giant full moon that sets over the course of your ten-minute set. The audience was generally pretty respectful, too, which I think is due in large part to the focus of it being an actual theatre.

I posted a while back about the damage open mics are sometimes said to have on a music scene, and one of my main defenses of them was that they are excellent places to meet and network with other musicians. After my own set, Jeff and Jill and I chatted and are gonna start playing together this month, with a gig booked May 15th at the Odd Fellows Hall. So it can and does work!

Wednesday 8 October 2014

On Open Mics themselves...

A few days ago Jacob Moon sent me this article from Britain called 5 Reasons Why Open Mic Nights Are Killing Live Music. The week before we had sat around at an open mic in the city and chatted about the music business and live music and the whole open mic thing, so it wasn't entirely out of the blue.

Basically, I had said, I am playing open mics for two primary reasons
1) I have till very recently been known as a horn player, not a singer and/or songwriter and/or guitarist (although actually I've been playing guitar longer than trumpet).
2) I am a terribly lazy musician and almost never practice, so I use open mics as a chance to workshop my songs. It's pretty focusing to play tunes in front of people, regardless of whether they are a rapt or a disinterested audience.

He said he had stopped doing open mics some time ago mostly because it's a bad place to put yourself in, musically: an unappreciative audience, and sometimes sandwiched between other performers who, frankly, suck. Add to that that it's not a paid gig, and that you're basically building the venue's business not your own, and he has a point.

In fact, back in August I had an email conversation with Glen Brown, who's involved in the business side of music in Hamilton in a number of different ways, and I said some of the same things that the article says. So I don't entirely disagree. I just think it falls short of really considering the issues. So, point by point:

1) "they're a bad advert for live music"

True. And not true. I have been to and played a LOT of shows over the years, and so I know that good music is out there to be heard. I also happen to know a large number of very talented musicians who, for whatever reason, have never really made a blip on anyone's radar (to say nothing of some talent-starved megastars). We all know success is equal parts talent, hard work, and luck, and that last one can be elusive; sometimes the stars just don't line up. There certainly are plenty of performers who, really, should not, but then there are also rough – or even sometimes quite polished – gems who just love to play and make music, and they raise the bar and buoy the spirits of everyone there.

More pointedly, though, I want to push back against the "reification" of music. For decades now western culture has been pushing the idea that music (and art generally) is a specialized thing that only "experts" do. The effect, of course, has been the erosion of traditional folk musics, of people's desire and willingness to sing together, and even a contribution to a general breakdown of social cohesion. Singing used to be one way people got together and shared common experience. It was bonding. And I see that same spirit, often, at open mics.

2) "they are populated by a self-elected elite."

This is an interesting one. Again, yes. and again no. First, what this is actually describing in the article is people who bring their own fanbase, not a sort of artistic arrogance (which is nonetheless sometimes evident in spades). And so to address it, yes people do this. Must be nice. But the main problem with this one is that it just doesn't apply across the board. I can think of one or two open mics where this is definitely an issue for anyone who just wants to show up and play, getting completely ignored by the crowd as they wait for their friend, but I can actually think of more where the audience is in fact primarily other (attentive) musicians (and one where the audience could not care less whether anyone is ever playing music for them), and as such there's a general sense of support and appreciation. The Dundas Odd Fellows is by FAR the best example of this I have encountered to date.

3) "the money for a live act gets taken by a compere"

Again, I think this is just toooo general. I have no doubt that some "comperes" (I had to Google this: "host" to the rest of us) get paid, but I don't think that's unreasonable, and indeed I'd be dumbstruck if they were making anything more than a token amount for the night (as opposed to the 100-200 "quid" stated in the article), and that's because (with exceptions, naturally), most open mics – at least in this city – are hosted by musicians who genuinely love music. So they're not doing it for the money, and no one who gets up to play is expecting to make any money either.

4) "the brewery is taking a piss"

Basically, yes, the venue is making money and you're not. This is why there's not a single open mic to be found on a Friday or a Saturday: venues don't need help getting people in the door those nights. They need revenue the other 5 days of the week. By and large then, open mics serve that purpose. Even a venue that offers performers a free drink (and they're few and far between) knows they'll make enough in bar sales from you and your friends to make it worthwhile.

The one notable exception to this is the Dundas Odd Fellows Music Hall open mic, which happens monthly. When you buy a beer, they recoup the cost and give the rest to a charity they help support. If you tip your bartender your tip goes into the donation jar too. Not sure about bills and overhead, but I'd say this at least a not-sneaky way to do things.

5) "they become background noise"

...this one is about glut, and I'm not in wholehearted disagreement. The very fact that I can pick and choose from one of up to 5 open mics on any given night does mean this is currently a big "thing" in town. They're popping up all over the place; 4 new just since I began this blog! Some are very well-attended, some are not-so, and they do then compete with each other, with other events, with live music the rest of the week, etc etc. That's not exactly an open mic problem, though, that's a music business problem: glut is sort of the status quo these days, in everything. I'm not just competing to be heard at this open mic, I'm competing to be heard over the DoneFors at the Homegrown later this week, or with a big show in Toronto (although Cher did just cancel...), or with binge-watching the new season of House of Cards at home, or collapsing after another 14-hour shift at the steel plant... Meaning, I think this last complaint about open mics is really the most honest, because its frustration is inescapable: it's hard to get noticed, and it's even harder to make money making music.

What Do We Then Conclude?

An open mic is neither a perfect model nor a perfect system. But as a fledgeling songwriter, it has afforded me an "in" into the scene here in Hamilton, and I've met and started to get to know a whole range of people I would never have otherwise, and that has led to other opportunities and connections and collaborations. But also, as I say, I'm not really hoping some A&R guy from a big label is going to scoop me up. That's not what I expect. I expect to play as well as I can, figure out what songs work, see myself through the eyes of a generally pretty laid-back audience. I love to play, and no one really knows who I am, so I can't book myself into Hamilton Place (or even the Baltimore House, it turns out... or the Local in Toronto... ahem...) and expect anyone to show up. So as it stands, right now I can play a different venue every night of the week, to people who may never have heard my stuff and who may even remember me and come to see me again when I do start gaining traction, so for now I'll take what I can get.

Tuesday 30 September 2014

This Ain't Hollywood

First, an admission: despite having been invited to dozens of shows, I'd never been to This Ain't Hollywood before tonight. I know I know. I'm not sure how it happened.

But I did make it, tonight, to try out my own songs on the stage in front of an unfamiliar crowd. With the black painted brick and the roadhouse atmosphere it reminds me a lot of the Horseshoe... smoky, dark, atmospheric... A place it'd be easy to disappear into a corner and spend the night skulking and brooding, a little like the Doors (amaaaaazing beer there, btw).

I show up early, as usual, and am greeted by Patty "Buckshot" Beebee who tells me I can have any spot on the as-yet pristine list. I quietly decline to sign up yet. She plays a few songs to kick things off, then Yoda (Tim Lucas) plays (with my borrowed capo) some sweet simple Jack Johnsony heartache-tinged tunes. I'm up next. Jacob Moon has come by to see me, so I'm nervous, even though I've explained at length to him how much I like the audience getting to see "behind the curtain" in terms of flaws and changes etc. I play just adequately, but the bar is reeeeaaallly quiet and attentive, which is gratifying. I'm asked to play a 4th song, so I end w a less involved but lyrically smirky song, and come down.

This is a good crowd. You don't know what you're walking into initially, but it quickly feels quite accepting and receptive, and there are musicians willing to sit in if you want. There's no free beer for performers, but a pint of premium is only $6.50, which is not unmanageable.

I'm followed by a Gretsch in a cowboy-snap mother-of-pearl button-down shirt. He's amazing. Exactly in the pocket of 50s Rockabilly. He's joined first by drums, then bass, and eventually there are 5 guys onstage. They play and play... Maybe no one else has signed up? Jacob Moon has broken a fingernail and is thus out of commission, otherwise he jokes he'd air something new and not entirely complete.

In the end, this is again different from the other open mics in town. The stage is higher and more...central... the music on offer is different in a way that's difficult to pin down, but no one flops (maybe me? I can't gauge), and it's perfectly listenable. Good to get out to, finally. I will likely be back again.

Wednesday 17 September 2014

TWO mics one night...

This evening I did something unusual and went to TWO open mics. The Dundas Odd Fellows open mic happens every 3rd Wednesday of the month and, as I've said before, is a Good 'Un.

But before I get verbose, as I was planning my evening I was sideswiped by an ovation from a previous lover, the Staircase Theatre. About a decade ago (omg it pains me to say that) I was playing mentally unbalanced covers of pop tunes in an instrumental jazz context (I remember my bassist at the time saying "why are all your ii-Vs V-iis??") and the Staircase was really in its musical heyday. I played there a few times and was heartbroken when, to zero fanfare, it suddenly closed its doors. 

Fastforward a few years: the Staircase opened again, albeit *very* quietly, catering mostly to the improv theatre and comedy crowd, and it eventually started to book in the odd musical act here and there (Jacob Moon, Alfie Smith, CD releases, etc). Well friends, I have an announcement (!): from here on in The Staircase will be hosting an open mic every Wednesday! This is simply lovely news!... like a high school reunion (...for those of you who loved high school - ahem). All to say, yay!

But back now to Dundas. Having played to a lovely and attentive empty theatre (like kicking its proverbial tires) at the Staircase's inaugural open mic, I ventured west to the Oddfellows only to find myself forced to park TWO blocks away! Danny and Jay have clearly started something here. As always, an unbelievably appreciative audience and a  craaaazy spread of styles underpinned by all kinds of raw talent. And apparently I'm not the only one who thinks so! At least 40 people in attendance, and a totally packed venue.

This isn't exactly a review, then. At best it's a re-view. A snapshot. But it does afford me the opportunity to add a new and exciting open mic to the list at right...!

goodnight now.

Wednesday 6 August 2014

Baltimore House: "live blog"

(written while sitting there:)

Baltimore House: Aug 6

... There are always the usual suspects - same people show up to the same open mics. Interesting. It's about... What? Just playing live? Trying stuff out? Getting yourself out there? Getting the professional ball rolling?

   Seems to me that, in a way, playing the same one time again defeats the point a bit, @ least if the point is to get out of your comfort zone and get exposure... And, as I was saying to Glen Brown earlier today, when it's musicians playing to other musicians, there's only so far that can go...

   Anyway... First guy is playing originals. They're rhythmic, harmonically complicated, and boring.
Heard the second guy last time, and this time out he's waayyyy more interesting! Originals, m4s, Beatles and Dylan covers... And his own Yamaha, which totally fits his "thing"... 3rd act has a Martin and some ridiculous high-heeled boots. Reminds me of Cindi Lauper. Yup. She's a good fingerstyle player, and she writes ok songs, but there's a disconnect btw the two I can't quite put my thumb on... Do the songs need to be more plugged in? Does her voice need more smoke damage?

   Anyway, then me: happy w my set, but everyone loud-chatted through it. Meh. Frustrating. After me: Aaron Schwartzman. Honestly. Even his personal, specific, slightly-too-close-to-real narrative tunes. Is he being ironic? Funny? Is it a send-up of the open mic thing? Of singer-songwriterism? Seems genuinely nervous... During his set, someone comes up to me where I'm sitting - an older guy - and tells me off for strumming my last song. "What the fuck is that?" he asks, good-naturedly... says he wanted to slap me. Makes me think of Barzin and his whole "vibe". Uncompromising. Tells me he was listening and clapping the whole set. Yay! Small victories.

   So I pack up, unceremoniously turn tail, and run for the Corktown. There are 9 people in the pub when I get there. I count them. Not many BUT they are allll listening. And my age. And I listen to Andy Griffiths, to Tomi, and to Frank Koren, and I play a set, and this is the right crowd for me. They listen, they chat with me while I'm up (just like @ a Bruce concert), it all feels friendly and relaxed. It's the Odd Fellows demographic. MY demographic.

Wednesday 16 July 2014

Dundas Odd Fellows Music Hall

...well so this is the open mic that feels the most like home to me. The Dundas Odd Fellows Hall Music Club open mic is relaxed, has a familiar cast of characters, and is eclectic and accepting... it's like a songwriting workshop without all the sitting around taking notes (NB I have never actually attended a songwriting workshop, so that's just what I imagine...).

   Hosted by trombonist Jay Burr (who is also an Odd Fellow and does the sound) and singer-songwriter Danny Medakovic (an odd fellow but not an Odd Fellow, far as I know - Hi Dan!), this open mic is held once a month at the Odd Fellows Hall in Dundas (the western edge of Dundas, really) and features a super-attentive and supportive audience comprised mainly of other musicians.

   Genre-wise it's often a weirdo eclectic hodge-podge of musics, from Nirvana covers to east coast traditional music to opera to solo piano stuff (e.g. Fur Elise mashed up with House of the Rising Sun) to  blues to straight-up rock'n'roll. Everyone jumps up and in at any point in any tune, people flounder their way through stuff they only half know (because that's okay here!), and there's lots and lots of people trying out new original material. This is really an open mic for artists, in the broadest sense of the word.

here is a picture of the space:

   The sound system is quite respectable, featuring a proper sound board and sound guy, multiple guitar plugins, various mics, monitoring, a Rhodes, a full drum kit, a few amps, and the requisite woven carpet to play on... Jay is pretty quick to pick up on people jumping up (tonight there was at least violin, sax, trombone, djembe, trumpet, and backing vox) and mixing them in tastefully. There's even a music stand (and I wasn't even the only one using it).

   Beer is $5 a bottle (nothing on tap), and tips all go to the Trillium foundation for disadvantaged kids. In addition to the 8-or-9-beer selection, tonight there was also a smattering of snacky foods strewn along the bar and available for a donation.

   This feels more like a potluck than an open mic. It's warm, it's friendly, it's accepting and supportive, and it tends to push the performers to be more adventurous and courageous than they might otherwise, trying out unusual or even unfinished ideas and music, which is great!

  It also happens to be one of the very few open mics that is all-ages, which makes a BIG difference to people like Hannah (aged 12? 13?) who played this evening. Maybe Democracy is also all-ages (?), but this one even starts at the kid-friendly hour of 7pm.

   This was my third time @ the Odd Fellows and I'm totally gonna go back as often as they're there!