Brad Spurgeon's Blog

A world of music, auto racing, travel, literature, chess, wining, dining and other crazy thoughts….

Changes at the Great Britain Hotel Open Mic in Melbourne

March 17, 2016

great britain open mic joint in Melbourne

great britain open mic joint in Melbourne

MELBOURNE – The Great Britain Hotel open mic in Melbourne is one of my favorites, and always has been. I’m not quite sure why, except to say that I have always felt comfortable there. Otherwise, it is hardly the best attended open mic, either in the numbers of musicians or in the numbers of spectators. I had not been there for a year or two, but it was the first place I decided to go on this trip to Australia, after arriving yesterday, jet-lagged out of my brain. And it turned out to be a fabulous evening, despite one of the best features of the venue having been done away with….

I’m talking about the absolutely fabulous stage in the back room that this place used to have, and which was one of the main features of performing at this open mic. They got rid of it. Imagine getting rid of a large stage with a kind of proscenium arch effect and everything, and putting in its place … a kitchen! The slightly open kitchen. How could they? And they replaced the stage with a kitty-cornered stage in the front part of the pub. A very small, kitty-cornered stage.

Having said that, this also fixed one of the main problems with the Great Britain Hotel open mic as I had noticed it in previous years: It was the kind of place where the audience would assemble in the back room when friends of the spectators were there, and then they would clear out of the room entirely when an unknown musician went up. You could not play to the whole hotels space and might often find yourself playing to no one!

The new setup means that you can reach not only people in that back room – and kitchen – but also in the middle room, on which the stage also plays out to, and the front room (where the bar is, in front of the stage), AND to the people outside on the street. This is highly, highly preferable. In fact, it gives unknowns a chance they never had to attract listeners.

On top of that, they also changed the format of the open mic, and now it is broken down into half-hour sets for each performer. That’s fabulous! And if you happen to be a spectator and don’t like the performer, you can still seek refuge in the pool room off the other side of the bar, or in the back terrace outside, far from the stage.

So all in all, I kind of like the Great Britain Hotel open mic even more than I did before, despite the death of its fabulous stage. Oh, and I think I know why I like it; I’ve always just felt comfortable in this place. And that’s important – especially when you’re performing.

I’ll be back! (If I still keep coming to Melbourne.)

One-Day Open Mic Festival in Melbourne

September 12, 2014

Melbourne Skyline

Melbourne Skyline

As many readers of this blog know, I have a list of open mics, my Thumbnail Guides to open mics in more than 20 cities around the world. These are the cities I visit as a journalist covering Formula One, and I basically only put on the lists the venues where I have played. Today, though, I just wanted to use the blog to announce a one-day open mic festival in Melbourne, Australia on 28 September, to welcome in the spring (there!). I’m putting this up for two reasons: 1), because someone involved in the festival sent me a link to the Melbourne open mic festival page on Facebook, and I encourage readers to give me their local information, since I visit the cities just once a year, and 2), because, as it turns out, my Melbourne Thumbnail Guide to Open Mics and Jam Sessions happens to be my second most popular list of open mics, behind that of my home city Thumbnail Guide of Paris open mics. This festival looks great. I’d go if I was there, but I’ll be in Paris that weekend….

Worldwide Open Mic Journey 2014: The Multimedia Consolidation

March 16, 2014

Melbourne Skyline

Melbourne Skyline

MELBOURNE, Australia – My worldwide open mic journey began in China in 2008 after the Formula One race in Shanghai, and little did I know that it was a journey that would continue for six more years and cover most of the globe, every continent except Africa (where I once lived and played music in an open mic decades earlier) and Antarctica, and that it would spawn a book, a blog, an album, a documentary film, numerous podcasts, music videos and other multimedia projects.

This year, 2014, I have decided to finish all of the projects and tie them together into a consolidation of multimedia. As part of my personal impetus to gather it all together for myself, but also put it into perspective on this blog, I have decided to create a page for each city I have visited on the journey, tying together samples of the whole multimedia adventure linked to that city.

So here is the page devoted to tying together the pieces of the open mic adventure that I have lived in Melbourne, Australia since I first started here in 2009. At each subsequent Formula One race I visit this year, I will add a new such page. Keep posted….

Hello and Goodbye to the Soon-to-be-Defunct Funky Cool Acoustic Cafe in Melbourne

March 14, 2014

MELBOURNE, Australia – Just when I was getting all excited about experiencing a new open mic in Melbourne last night, just when I was thinking I had another catch to add to my Thumbnail Guide to Melbourne Open Mics, Jam Sessions and other live music, I learned that this most amazing open mic is going to close down at the end of the month after four years of existence. And so it is that I find myself writing an obituary for one of the great open mics I’ve gone to anywhere: Acoustic Cafe, in Melbourne.

I remember seeing that this place existed in years past, but I’m not sure why I never managed to get there until last night. Even then, I was lucky to get on the list, as by the time I had called up the list was full. But because the Acoustic Cafe on at 187 Johnston Street in Collingwood has the truly great open mic spirit, Glenda – who runs it along with Ian, the instigator of the Acoustic Cafe – told me to come along and she would try to fit me in. As it turned out, there were some who had put their names on the list and did not show up. I will be eternally grateful, since this was one of the great open mic experiences, as I just said.

Located in a very funky little bar with the mic setup at the front window, and with a long corridor leading to a back terrace, the Acoustic Cafe has one of the ingredients that makes for a great open mic in the small size of the room. It is so intimate that everyone kind of has to conform to the attitude of listening to the music more than talking. Another ingredient is the great attitude and approach and openness of Ian and Glenda. Another ingredient is that it attracts some wonderful musicians of all ages, but very clearly it is open to and encouraging of the youngest generation.

It has another thing going for it that I have never seen before anywhere: It’s not an open mic with one guitar for people to use, but rather a whole museum of vintage guitars hanging on the walls high above the main room, any of which is there for a musician to ask permission to use, and then use. And not just guitars, but I think I saw a mandolin or two or a bouzouki, although I didn’t really check it out. Oh, and it turns out that if you want to buy one of the guitars, you can do that too. They’re for sale!

Another cool thing is that Acoustic Cafe records a video of your performance, and they’ll make a DVD for you if you ask for it. I was so nervous that I don’t think I want to see mine, but I was pleased that I got to play something like five songs in total despite the full list! (My songs: Crazy Lady, Borderline, When You’re Gone Away. And also the cover songs: Cat’s in the Cradle and Year of the Cat.) I liked that aspect of this place too, which is that they did not set the number of songs to a fixed quota, but let you go on or encouraged you to go on depending on the feel of the vibe of the music and the moment in the spectators.

There were a number of interesting singer songwriters, and that was the emphasis. Cover songs were in the minority, but not banished. It ranged from a mono-chordal Japanese woman of haunting melodies and lyrics to a guy with an eye patch – he said it was the result of a battle between him and a contact lens, and he lost – to a boppy Chilean and a local “many-friends-in-the-crowd” songstress singing (cool) songs about her friends….

The End of the Line for Acoustic Cafe in Melbourne

So after four years, why is the Acoustic Cafe stopping? They only announced the news for the first time last night, and the reason given was that the owner of the building also owned buildings on either side, and he wants to knock them down and put up an apartment building. (I kept thinking of the Joni Mitchell song about putting up a parking lot….)

So there are going to be two more open mics at the Acoustic Cafe before it closes at the end of March, on the next two Thursdays starting at 7:30 PM, and if you are in Melbourne, I cannot recommend highly enough that you attend, whether it is to play or to listen, or both. Glenda tells me that they will not be seeking to start up a new open mic, but I had some sixth sense that told me that I would not be surprised to see that she and Ian end up finding a new location – but can it be as good as this funky place? Well, if anyone can make a success of any location, I suspect they could….

Because it is the end of the line for the Acoustic Cafe I decided to get a few bits of atmosphere in my videos of the place, and not just music. So check out the atmosphere videos – I loved how the cash register had a number of guitar picks sitting on it….

Great Australian Experience at the Great Britain Hotel Pub or Whatever….

March 13, 2014

great britain open mic joint in Melbourne

great britain open mic joint in Melbourne

MELBOURNE, Australia – So here I am at the nighttime of the second day of my time in Melbourne, on a clock time of I don’t know what, since there is a 10-hour difference to my homeland of Paris. But I do know that I have now actually taken part in TWO open mics. And I do know that both experiences were astounding. OK, that’s hyperbole. Wait until I write a bit about tonight’s experience tomorrow. For the moment, I’m writing about yesterday’s experience today. If you find that confusing, imagine how I feel going through all the time differences….

Anyway… last night it was another visit to the mainstay Melbourne open mic of the Great Britain Hotel and/or pub. I say and/or because as far as I can see this place is not a hotel but only a pub. Still, there may well be a hotel upstairs – but if there is, I wouldn’t want to go there. Having said that, the open mic is well worth it.

It’s a well organized one with a great little stage, a nice sound system, excellent lighting, and an all together cool experience. And it has been going for years. I think this was my third or fourth year playing here, and each time I have actually had different experience. So anything I say about it today, will probably be out of date tomorrow….

But after last year I thought it had taken a little turn for the less crowded and interesting, this year suddenly there was a nice sized audience and a number of very cool and interesting musicians. There were also about four or five comics, which I don’t think I had ever seen even one of before.

So expect anything at the Great Britain open mic in Great Melbourne!

And stay tuned for tomorrow at the open mic I attended tonight, because it was a real winner…. (As you can probably guess by the inebriated state of my prose….)

A Tuner, A Jobs Book, and a Spirit of Friendliness and Openness at the Empress Hotel Open Mic in Melbourne

March 20, 2013

In all my four years visiting open mics and writing about the experience, I don’t think I have ever had an anecdote to tell that says so much about the ambience and general coolness of the open mic as the following one.

Last night in my last night in Melbourne, I returned once again – for the third or fourth time – to the great and intimate Empress Hotel open mic on Nicholson street in North Fitzroy. The hotel is a well known music venue, and Robin and Frank have been running this open mic on Tuesdays for around six years, although an open mic existed before that. It is an excellent venue with a warms stage, hot lighting, back outdoor terrace, laid-back feel, and spectators who respect the other musicians, listening and generally staying to listen after their own sets.

I recounted on this blog last year how I was in such a state of nervous spent-ness just before leaving for my flight to Malaysia but also needing to interview people for my series of Podcasts, that I walked out of the open mic and went off to the airport having left a great guitar tuning device that I had just bought, AND the huge copy of the Steve Jobs biography that had recently come out. I was halfway through the Jobs book, and loving it, and I had just bought the tuner.

So imagine how upset I was. Well. After posting on the blog about leaving my belongings behind, Robin wrote me to say that they had recuperated the tuner and the book and would keep them for me. For me, this was the end of the story. I completely forgot about the tuner and the book, and yesterday I returned to the open mic a year later without warning Robin and Frank (who operates the soundboard so deftly) that I was returning again this year to play some more music and hear more music at their great open mic.

I got there early to get an early spot on the list in order to get out earlier this year to catch the same flight with less stress…. And when Robin and Frank arrived, Robin marched right up to me and gave me the book and tuner! The battery in the tuner is fully charged, as it was when I left it last year, and the book was in the same condition as well.

This was EXCEPTIONAL! It says all you need to know about this great open mic.

By the way, I here include my first video of me singing my song, “If I Only Had You,” because it was a song that until now I was not supposed to sing as my own. I had written it for someone else. But it has now been months since I gave it to them, and I’ve heard nothing back for many months. So I have decided to re-appropriate the song for myself.

I was filmed last night by my friend Emily Brown, who used to run the great All Nations U-Bar open mic, and as it turned out, she liked the song and said SHE might do something with it! So we’ll see if it has a life beyond me after all. The Empress Hotel certainly will have!

Well Armed at the Cornish Arms

March 19, 2013

It was the first time I had been in the heart of this Brunswick area of Melbourne, and when I took the tram from near my hotel on Spencer Street downtown out to Brunswick Road, I thought I had arrived at the edge of the earth. The houses in this area look like they are sitting on the Bayou in the deep south of the U.S., and the store and pub facades look like cowboy movie set facades. But I was assured when I entered the large, cavernous and cool Cornish Arms pub that I had arrived in the hip and cool hot part of town in Melbourne.

OK, OK, I know my observations of the way things look could get me grilled somewhere, perhaps fed to the alligators. But I would say the same thing of certain parts of of my home town of Toronto – or similar reflections on places like Jerhico in Oxford…. But anyway….

The Cornish Arms was another of these very cool Australian pubs with a fabulously cool stage with lighting and a good sound system and practically a proscenium arch. I would love to know the history of why so many of these neighborhood pubs have such cool stages built into them. Perhaps it’s from when the prisoners were required to make their own entertainment before the days of television and radio….

The place was great too for its wide open space, terrace, vast bar and decent meals available on the menu. So I ate dinner, signed up right at 7:30, got a slot for 10:15 – although I think I was probably within the first three or four to arrive, and it’s a rush for the sign-up – and did my songs. It’s a 15-minutes slot, which comes to three songs.
(more videos to come shortly, as they upload…)
My only criticism of this open mic, really, though, was that like that of the Great Britain pub last Wednesday, it was another of those situations where people came, sang and left. I did not really get a sense of a scene, a happening, or support of fellow musicians the way I do in so many of the best open mics, and in so many in my “home” town of Paris.

But I know those have existed in Australia – like with Emily Brown’s open mic in the past at the All Nations U-Bar, or a little at the Arthouse, and definitely at the Empress Hotel – and apparently it exists at the Artcafé, but I missed that one.

From that point of view, my evening was once again saved by the amazing singer Aarti, who did this great a cappella song that I videoed, and with whom I spoke much of the evening. I had met her at the Great Britain last week, remember. But this time you can see the image of the video much better, thanks to the great lighting. And the sound is better too – so check it out….

Launch of the Multiple Thumbnail Guide Open Mic Pages – First Stop, Melbourne, Australia

March 18, 2013

Before embarking on my fifth worldwide tour of open mics and jam sessions last week, I announced on this site that one of my projects for the year would be to expand my popular “Thumbnail Guide to Paris Open Mics,” by adding making a collection of such pages, by adding a new page for each of the 19 other countries I visit around the world this year.

Today I have taken the first step, by putting up my guide to Melbourne, Australia open mics. I have also rearranged the blog to simplify and make sense of the new series of thumbnail guides. The Paris guide and the Melbourne guide and all future guides will be located in a new menu item at the top of the blog page, called “Worldwide Open Mic Thumbnail Guide,” which has a page with a full explanation of the project.

As I explain, the new pages will not be as exhaustive as the Paris page, since I live in Paris. But I hope they will help travellers and locals, and I also ask for locals and travellers to provide me with any open mics they think should be listed, by sending a word in the comments area on the relevant page, and I will add it to the list.

From Bad to Good at the Great Britain Pub in Melbourne

March 14, 2013

Last year in Melbourne I had a great time at the open mic of the Great Britain pub on Church Street, at Swan.  So last night on my first night in Melbourne when I searched around for places to play, I immediately decided to head for the Great Britain again.  This time, it started off by clashing with my memory, entirely.

Oh, I found the place buzzing with life and activity as usual, with the bar in the front having a few clients, another few playing pool on the table off to the side, and a steady stream of conversation coming from the outdoor terrace in the back.

It was the middle area of this pub where things seemed desolate and deserted, to start with.  I got there at almost precisely 8:30 and found myself lucky to be able to sign my name on the second to last available slot for the open mic.  The evening is divided into 15 minute slots for each performer from 8:30 to 11:30.

So I had avoided one of my worst open mic nightmares on this worldwide adventure – ie, travelling to the other side of the world and arriving on the very same day jet-lagged out and finding myself unable to participate in the open mic because the list is full!  Having got my spot, I went off to eat in a Greek restaurant on Swan, where I had an excellent glass of red wine – Shiraz from Adelaide – with a less than excellent kebab.

I got back to the open mic by 9:30, thinking that with a completely full list like that I would find the place just buzzing with energy and activity.  What I found upon arrival, was once again the bar itself and the rear outdoor terrace bubbling with life.  But the room in the middle, where the open mic takes place, was dreary, dreary, deserted, lifeless, unmanned, all except for the duo on stage and maximum three or four spectators.

The room itself, is wonderful:  sofas, chairs, tables, and best of all, a great sound system and an actual stage.  I mean, a real stage with curtains and lighting, the whole deal.  Very beautiful, if worn at the edges.

But what was missing was one of the most important aspects of an open mic:  And Audience.  And so proceeded the open mic.  Act after act went up and took to the mic, and as they did so, segments of audience entered the room to listen to their friends while other corresponding segments left the room once their friends had played.  I mean, this was grave….

As I was the last one on the list, I was pretty sure I would be playing to an empty house.  I mean, this was dreary!!  I know from experience that open mics are better some weeks than other weeks.  But I wondered if I had had a faulty memory on this one.

Then things changed a little, even a lot.  What happened, at least concerning me, was that when I heard one of the performers, named Aarti Jadu, singing her songs, I loved her voice and songs, and I decided I had to tell her that.  For me she was the stand-out performer of the night.  So it was just natural….

Well, it turned out that she was there with friends and family, and so she very kindly said that they would wait to listen to my set.  Hey, I had spectators!  But I also ended up talking to her a little more, partaking a little of the ambience that existed, and then finding myself once on stage, actually feeling committed to singing to expectant ears.

That changed the dreary situation into something quite fun, and made the open mic worth it.  Then during my songs, a few other people came in to listen, notably two or three guys, one of whom asked me afterwards if he could use my guitar to sing and play.  So he and his friend made up the last act.

All of which meant, human exchange, taking part in the evening, not feeling so cut off, and ultimately “meaning” had been given to the open mic – at least for me, the jet-lagged foreigner who had suddenly parachuted in from nowhere.

But I hope that the Great Britain open mic – a mainstay open mic of Melbourne – has a little more atmosphere than this on most other weeks.  The idea of having people go in and out of the music room depending only on whether their friend is playing, is one that while I can understand it, is not the greatest in open mic styles….

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