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Melbourne / Kuala Lumpur Polarities, or Bye Bye Empress, Hello Backyard (Part I)

March 23, 2012

On this worldwide open mic adventure I prefer to write about each place I play and discover in a post dedicated to that place. But I have been so active and so busy travelling and working that I have had a bit of a backlog. So today I decided I will write about the last two nights where I played – and I realized that, actually, given that the one on Tuesday was in a classic venue in Melbourne and the one on Wednesday was in a classic venue in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, that contrast in itself was significant enough to give the post its own character.

Interview with Anthony Young, musician at the Empress Hotel open mic in Melbourne:

It is pretty representative of how wild and crazy this adventure can get, in fact, so worth writing about both together. My flight from Australia to Malaysia was not set to take off until 3:40 AM Wednesday morning. So I realized that I actually had another evening in which I could do an open mic in Melbourne. And even better, it was the classic open mic at the Empress Hotel, one of the longest lasting and finest open mics in Melbourne.

So I went there, ate a kebab – the messiest but one of the tastiest I have ever had – and watched the evening unfold in this wonderfully atmospheric pub, which I think has nothing to do with a hotel. I had discovered it two years ago, and wrote about it on the blog, but last year I was not in Melbourne on the Tuesday during the Grand Prix weekend, so I could not take part. I missed it.

The Empress is one of the most popular in the city, and it is very well organized – with an early sign-up in which you get to choose your playing slot – and an excellent sound system. You can play three songs, and the pub is laid out in such a way that you can sit at the small round tables and listen to the music, or you can duck out into the outdoor garden terrace and drink and talk a little while keeping an eye and ear on the music. There is also another room off to the side where you can go to talk, and still hear the music.

I recognized one of the acts from two years ago, but most of the people seemed entirely new. One of the very best of the performers came on near the end of the evening, and that was Anthony Young with his bright blue guitar. He played a kind of blues based first song in which the guitar playing and vocals really stacked up to a marvelous marriage of original sound and feeling. His second song was equally as good, both were his compositions.

In seeing him I was inspired suddenly to interview him for my podcast series. I decided that my original idea of interviewing the people who run the open mics should expand into interviewing everyone surrounding the open mic – musicians, spectators, beautiful bartender women…. Why limit it to the same thing all the time? That could get repetitious for the internaut. So I interviewed Anthony, and I’m glad I did – he had some interesting things to say about his music and the Melbourne music scene.

So eager was I to interview him that I ran out into the terrace area in the back and then ran after him at the bar and basically ran all over the place like a man out of control, with the result that when I found myself at the airport straightening out my guitar case for travel, I realized that I had left both my 60 euro guitar tuner and my 32 euro Steve Jobs biography – the great one by Walter Isaacson – in the Empress Hotel on the table where I had sat most of the night.

The biggest pain in that was that I was hugely taken by the Jobs book and only a third the way through. It would all turn out okay in the end, though, as the Jobs tome would have tipped the weight of my cabin luggage over the allowed 7 kilograms and I’d be in trouble. As it was I had to put some of the stuff into my suitcase to get through. THEN I found they were selling the Jobs book on the other side of customs, so I bought a new copy before boarding the flight. And I picked up where I left off.

This post has grown far, far too long, especially for the good of the next venue, which is the Backyard Pub in Kuala Lumpur. The Backyard is one of the top music venues in the city, perhaps THE most interesting of them all. I first played there last year, and so I immediately contacted the man in charge of booking acts there, Edmund Anthony, upon my arrival in Kuala Lumpur.

I had had a lousy night’s sleep on the flight, but nothing would stop me from visiting the Backyard. Edmund had seen me last year at an open mic in KL, and he invited me to do a set at the Backyard. This was a huge honor, given that the Backyard does NOT have an open mic, and that it features some of the best musicians and groups in Malaysia.

So yesterday, Edmund offered me a set and I took him up on it instantly. I managed to have a nap in the afternoon, woke up fully recharged, and I charged off to the Backyard. One of the interesting things about this place I s that it is quite far outside of the central downtown part of the city where most of the music venues exist. And yet people make the pilgrimage to this neighborhood pub to hear the great music and soak up the festive feeling.

Interview with Edmund Anthony, the artistic director of the Backyard Pub in Kuala Lumpur:

There was a good crowd there last night, and I started by having a wonderful noodle meal before performing my set on the splendid stage between about 8:55 and 9:55. After my performance there was a very cool three-piece cover band, called Bongga Bongga, that manages to produce some wonderful versions of all the songs we know, with two equally interesting vocalists, one on bass and the other on lead guitar.

Interview with Albert Sirimal, Malaysian musician, at the Backyard Pub in Kuala Lumpur:

The evening provided me with far too great an opportunity to miss in terms of my podcast project, so I interviewed Edmund and then I interviewed Albert Sirimal, a guitar player and vocalist for the five piece band that plays on Thursday nights. I wanted more of a feel for the Backyard within KL and for the music scene in Malaysia in general, and Albert gave me that.

In all, it was a fabulous night I will not forget, and I look forward to returning at the very latest next year – if the adventure continues – and maybe even this weekend. On the other hand, I seem to have two more gigs line up in the next two nights in KL so….

PS: For some reason of brain drain, in both of my interviews at the Backyard Pub I unrelentingly called the place the Backyard Cafe…. I cannot figure out why!

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