Don’t bother trying to figure out the real order of the words of the headline I put on this post. Just go to 2 Spencer Street in Melbourne, Australia, on a Thursday night. There you will find one of the coolest open mics down under, I’m sure of that. I am the happiest man alive after showing up there tonight and playing my three songs and listening to the other open mic singers and the house band.
And it proved a thing to me again: Go off the beaten path, break your habits, try something new, force yourself! Last year on the Thursday of the Formula One weekend I played in the open mic of the Spleen Bar on Bourke Street. So being like most people a man of habit, I decided to try it out again this time.
But then life got in the way – thank goodness! I ended up staying late at the track, well not that late, but until 7 PM. And could not find any indication that the Spleen Bar was still doing its musical open mic night. And this being Comedy Festival month in Melbourne and the Softbelly having canceled its musical open mic, I feared the Spleen might have canceled its musical open mic too, since the Spleen is more known for its comedy open mics on Monday or Tuesday (can’t remember which).
So it was that I stumbled across this open mic announced for the U-Bar at the All Nations Hostel on 2 Spencer street. It looked pretty certain to be happening, and on my way back from the track, I happened to find it on the corner of Spencer street where I got off the tram and where I had to head uptown on another tram to my hotel. According to the Internet it would start at 8 PM, and I was there at 7:40 or so. So I popped into what looked like a dreary bar with few people in it, and I asked if there was an open mic.
“Yes, it starts at nine,” I was told by a young man behind the bar.
The walls were painted graffiti-like with strange cartoon drawings and other graffiti-art like stuff. Very colorful, but my main impression was of potential dreariness. And I noticed a crappy looking amplifier against a wall near the bar and the pool table. It looked as if the open mic would be an afterthought.
But it was so late I decided I had no choice but to take the tram to the hotel and then return to the bar, since I now had plenty of time as it started at nine, not eight.
Returned to the hotel, warmed up my voice with a song on the guitar – ‘Father and Son’ – and then ate a very quick meal at the buffet in the hotel before taking a tram back down to the U-Bar or whatever it was called.
Went into the place to find a lot of people and a dreary, quiet singer at the dreary amp. I was guided by the bartender to a woman named Emily Brown, and told she ran the open mic. There was so much talking in the bar that I could barely hear the singer or Emily. But I gave her my name and she said she’d get me up. “Three songs each,” she said.
Turned out to be a nice crowd of young people, and very international. That clearly had to do with the hostel next door. I spoke to a Dutchman, and one of the performers was from Canada. A man named Brandon, who was from Burlington and there with his girlfriend as they were spending a year in Australia traveling all over the country.
Emily reminded me instantly of Bea, the 23-year-old woman from Sydney who ran the Softbelly open mic last year. I would learn that Emily was 22 years old, she had studied music at “uni” and she had run the open mic here since last August or so. She also had a band that would play in the middle of the open mic evening for a full one hour or so set. She taught singing in the Melbourne school system and also had a few other music gigs to keep her going. She was very enthusiastic and friendly. This was classic open mic stuff here!
And guess what? The music just got better and better, and the crowd got thicker and thicker and the atmosphere just grew stronger and stronger. Sure, there would be talking throughout the night, and there would be some people playing on the pool table, and you would have to move aside while singing a song to occasionally let the man hit the pool ball because the performer was too close to the table. Oh, and the sound system was indeed crap.
But this would prove to be so much fun, with such an eclectic group of musicians, mostly young, that I was very quickly persuaded that it had a real atmosphere. Several of the musicians came from local bands, too, and played acoustic for fun. A lot of what I learned about the evening came from a couple of the musicians, one named Jim, and the other named…Jim.
One of the Jims described the other Jim’s music as being very eclectic, and he asked me if I’d ever heard of his hero.
“Who’s that?” I asked.
I expected him to say, “Townes Van Zandt,” but decided to get him to say it.
“Townes Van Zandt.”
“Yeah,” I said. And the other Jim was surprised.
“What do you think of him,” asked the Jim who sang Townes’s songs.
“A genius,” I said. To which the other Jim just walked away in disgust and let us talk about Townes Van Zandt.
So it was cool indeed to be in Australia talking about Townes Van Zandt.
The Canadian Brandon played some blues of his own making, and had a nice strong voice and a nice fingerpicking style. A local rock musician who had given out his self-produced record played three or four songs that were fast moving and hard hitting, and perfect for the crowd. And he showed a wonderful attitude as several drunks joined him during his song and he stopped and spoke to them and at one point said:
“I’d like to introduce you to my band, I don’t even know their names, but here they are.”
I did not have to wait very long before I went up, in fact, I went up after that guy. I had planned to play Van Morrison’s “Crazy Love,” a song of my own, and Cat Steven’s “Father and Son.” But in the end, given how much noise there was and how the crowd felt, I did not do my own song, but instead did “Just Like a Woman,” by Bob Dylan.
It was one of those evenings where you wonder how much you’re really reaching people. But when both of the Jims told me afterwards how much they loved my songs, especially the Cat Stevens, I knew I had reached the people. In fact, one of the Jims actually gave me the biggest compliment I ever had with “Father and Son.”
“I was just saying to Jim,” said Jim, “that I actually liked your version of ‘Father and Song’ more than the original.”
No compliment can be better.
The singers varied a lot, from rocking to quiet and from singing originals to singing covers. One of them who got up just before Emily’s band was in fact the guitar player from her band, and he sang some very nice covers quietly but strongly.
And now to Emily’s band, called “My Favourite Emily.” This was fabulous. Emily sang, she had a female bass player, she had a 23-year old sax player who Jim told me had begun to play at age eight, and she had a drummer and the guitar player. They had some very nice jazzy stuff, and the sax player blew me away. I loved Emily’s voice too. I made videos all night with my new Zoom Q3 toy, and I will post something here:
In addition to the great musicality of the band, Emily had a nice way of communicating with the audience, and she frequently went into the crowd to get some audience participation in the songs – ie, holding the mic up to spectators to sing along.
Oh yeah, and Emily told me she took a couple of photos of me and will put them up on the open mic’s Facebook page, so I’ll link to them as soon as I see them.
This was a very moving, swinging, cool and hip open mic format, and Emily was all the things a great open mic host should be: Friendly, encouraging, nice, warm and enthusiastic. And on top of it, she is a talented musician herself. I’ll go back again – unless my desire to break all habits gets me finding another place on Thursday in Melbourne next year….