Brad Spurgeon's Blog

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Stumbling into the Last Open Mic at a New York Institution – Banjo Jim’s

August 14, 2011
bradspurgeon

I never seem to learn from my lessons. My previous post talks about how you have to never give up and just turn up at an open mic place anyway, even if you think you’re late, and maybe you will find you can play. Yesterday I left my hotel with my guitar on my back and plans for about five possible things to do, only one of which seemed like a real open mic possibility. But I had heard it ended at 6 PM, and I was leaving at around 5:30, so I returned to my hotel room and left my guitar in the room, saying, “I won’t need it.”

So I went to my first rendezvous, the Formula One car collection near the cinema where the Senna film is showing, down on Houston Street. There was only one car left, a James Hunt thing. So I filmed it for 15 seconds and decided to wander on towards Banjo Jim’s open mic anyway, since the thing I really thought I would do – a show at a venue on 11th Street – was not starting until 7 PM.

When I arrived at Banjo Jim’s corner pub at 9th Street and Avenue C, I found a funky-looking exterior with graffiti-like painting on it, a musician with a guitar in a case talking with a woman, and a few other people standing out front talking. So I went inside the bar to find an equally funking looking interior. And I found myself witnessing the last performer of the last open mic in history at Banjo Jim’s. I recorded it, and the final words of Wayne Kral, who has organized the open mic there for nearly five years. The bar itself is closing down, which is why the open mic is over.

In fact, Wayne said the open mic would nevertheless move to another bar – Otto’s Shrunken Head – but as experience has told me, the success of an open mic is as much about its location as other key factors (like the host and the musicians and spectators). But this was clearly an institution in the open mic scene in NYC, and it came recommended to me by both openmike.org and the MC of another open mic. And I could see instantly that this was indeed an open mic with a soul.

I spoke to Wayne, and told him I was traveling to New York from Paris just to play in open mics. So he told me there was a two-hour tribute session starting immediately after the open mic that featured many of the top performers from the open mic over the years, and that I would be welcome to play in that if its organizer – John Powers – accepted. John was one of the guys standing outside, and once I established with the musician outside – PJ Jestry – that I could use his guitar, John said he had no problem with me playing at all.

So I found myself not only witnessing the last act of the last open mic at Banjo Jim’s, but also taking part in the tribute show afterwards. And it was a warm and cozy tribute, MCd by John Powers, who was also the one to sing the last song in the open mic. He was also one of these people I have such great respect for that I meet occasionally around the world who accept a complete unknown, a stranger who has not shown what he can do musically, to play a couple of songs on their bill. That is the true spirit of the open mic, and it is all the more special when it is carried over to a regular concert program.

Clearly this warm NYC open mic in a neat, ramshackle neighborhood, will be missed by its locals. As it turns out, I also saw at least two of the people who were at the previous open mics. The bar was a local one for the singer of Ash Gray and the Girls, that guy who had the trio with two women backing singers at the Arctica open mic on Wednesday, and it turned out that the man I met in front, PJ, who lent me his guitar, was also in attendance at the open mic at Lucky Jack’s – although neither of us realized it until he read my blog item and remembered me shouting out that I was present but not on the list!

3 Comments

  1. hi brad,

    a very nice story about a place we’re all really gonna miss. each one of us has very warm fuzzy feeling for banjo jim’s. some of us were out of live music for quite awhile before we “found” banjos and when we did it quickly became like a home for us. it was a special, special place and you don’t find that too much in life. i’m glad that i was part of it and i’m glad that you got to be there and got a chance to play on the last day too. seems sort of fitting that you, a complete stranger to banjo’s, would just happen upon the place and get what it was all about. you know the motto they always had at banjo jim’s was “feel the love” and everyone who ever played there carried that feeling with them. i’m glad you “felt that love” too.

    just a quick note for all the people that will be looking at these videos, the uncredited female performer doing “jolene” is the wonderful kelley swindall; the unnamed piano player in the above video is the very talented “jack spann” and the blues dude is the equally talented “LJ Murphy”. i thought you would want to know……

    please stay in touch and join us whenever you’re back in new york.

    john powers

  2. Thanks for posting this video. I loved performing at Banjo Jim’s and miss the place a lot! I’m LJ Murphy the blues dude in the video above.

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