MONTREAL – It was supposed to be a dead night at the Bull. I was really happy that turned out to be a bunch of bull. The Bull Pub open mic on Ste. Catherine Street is about as raw as they come: A bar with a clientele ranging from just about everyone to just about everyone else. But that stage is nicely placed, the sound works, and Eric the MC is enthusiastic and fair.
The open mic has not been the most successful in its recent history, it seems, but Eric and his team – of one or two others? – has taken over in recent weeks, and it looks like it is building up a following. It is another part-jam, part-open mic type of evening, and the stage has a drum set and amps and so can greet a whole band without problem.
In fact, last night, I was the only solo singer songwriter to perform, while I was there. But the bands ranged from romping rocking to punk-like country, to a very cool singer woman doing classic rock stuff from the 60s….
A real fun night, and I got to go up twice and did a total of seven songs. I will be back…if I get back to Montreal again next year.
MONTREAL – I had long heard about the Crobar open mic on Crescent Street in Montreal, but I had never had a chance to play there. Until last night. It turned out that despite it saying “open mic” out front, as well as jam, it is much more geared toward a jam session than an open mic. But it became clear instantly, with the warm greeting by the host, Louis, that the Crobar has the open mic spirit, and that means all are welcome, and anything goes.
So I got to play my acoustic set in a night that was – and always is – dominated by bands and jams with various high-energy rock musicians. There’s a drum set, electric guitar and bass, and the volume is super high. The stage is low and cool, and the television is overhead in case you get bored and want to watch the Stanley Cup finals….
The standout moment of the evening was a really interesting trio band that performed in public for the first time. It is so new that they have no name for the band yet! It sounded really promising, and by the time they played my iPhone had recharged, so I filmed it. I had come all this way, and left my Zoom Q3HD in my hotel room, so the sound is not great.
Leaving the Crobar I headed back to the hotel and on the way there, just around the corner, I heard sounds from the first floor of a corner building that made me think there might be an open mic there too – it was audience laughter, a person talking, something that sounded open mic for some reason. So I went up and found that the bar was called l’Escalier, and that it is an open mic, mostly spoken word stuff, but also music.
I was told by the organizer that it was about to end – at midnight – and so I was too late to make the list, but I should come back next week. I told him I could only come back next year if I was lucky, but that did not change anything!
As I began to leave, I heard a call from across the room and turned to find Danny Fonfeder. I had met Danny at an open mic in Paris in 2011!!! He is a businessman who lives in Montreal and does a lot of travelling for his business, and he takes his guitar and plays in open mics around the world. Sound familiar??? My own adventure may have led to all sorts of – unprofitable – side projects, but Danny the businessman came up with an interesting idea for himself, which is the creation of his company “Blueberry Guitars.” These are beautifully crafted guitars with carvings on them – take a look at the Blueberry Guitars page.
So we spoke a little, and Danny told me he had played in the open mic just 15 minutes earlier. I was not happy I missed this one!!!
It was another insanely fun night at Brutopia, a mainstay open mic of Montreal. I say “insanely” fun because two or three of the acts were quite insane, in fact. A reflection of Montreal?
It was my fourth or fifth time at Brutopia, and again I found it the kind of evening that by the time I left I was thoroughly satiated by the investment of time – and beer money in their microbrewery products. The one thing that it also had in common with previous nights was a bit of a slow beginning with louder sounds coming from the spectators than from the stage.
But that did not last long before the stage activity began to take precedence over the crowd. And in the end, there were enough cool and insane acts to make the whole evening worth it.
Plus I got to hear my friend from Paris, Raphaëlle, doing her amazing songs that I am used to hearing in Paris, and blowing away the crowd completely. I was also joined by a few Formula One journalist colleagues, and while they came during a bit of a down moment in the evening and made me worry I had got them to come to an off-night at Brutopia, things suddenly picked up.
The insane ones? Well, there was MC Puzzle, to start with. This is a white Montreal rap artist of exceptional something – but I’m not sure what! Just check him out…. It was his birthday – apparently – and at the end of his act the MC of the evening – Scott – told the public they ought to by MC Puzzle some beers. A member of the public shouted out: “He oughta be buying us beers!” It was all in fun….
The maddest hatter of them all was the bass player from the band Street Meat, which I had seen last year or the year before. He wore a top hat and played solo bass and sang along. He specializes in a Jerry Lee Lewis lunacy. It was very, very cool.
The only guide I am really in a good position to update regularly is that of Paris, since I live there. But I decided to do guides to all the other 20 and more cities on my worldwide open mic tour in order to give the knowledge I have personally of each city’s open mics. The guide has links to sites I know of local guides that may be more up-to-date, but I have chosen to list the open mics or jam sessions that I have played in myself. There may be others that I know of, but if I have not played there, I will not include it on the list. That way, the user learns a little of my own impressions. But I cannot be as certain that the guide is up-to-date – so check before you go.
More Experience Than Existing Open Mics
Unfortunately, given the ephemeral nature of open mics – and bars themselves – in virtually all of the cities in the guide my own personal experience of playing open mics in the city in question usually goes way beyond the number of venues listed, since they things arise and close very frequently.
Two Mainstay Open Mics and Jam Sessions in Montreal
I do not claim that this worldwide open mic directory is anything other than a quirky Brad Spurgeon centric guide, based mostly on my travel as a journalist following the Formula One series around the world. Montreal, like all cities is a moving target. But for me personally the mainstay joints are Grumpy’s pub and Brutopia pub, both of which offer classic open mics, and Grumpy’s has the added attraction of its open jam sessions of jazz and bluegrass.
Two of the CDs came from my new source: As mentioned in my first post, the Lotus Formula One team is giving out CDs quite often now to journalists and any other takers and interested people in the paddock, as they have some kind of a sponsorship deal with Columbia Records. So at the Bahrain Grand Prix, in the 36-degree heat of the paddock, they set out for the taking a CD by Calvin Harris, the Scottish DJ, singer songwriter and record producer. Entitled “18 Months,” it is mix of dance music from beginning to end, and as such, its beats and rhythms and vacuous vocals make it perfect as morning exercise music. And nothing else for home consumption. In a club, yes, that’s the stuff. My only other “pertinent” observation is the strange and perhaps “telling” fact that in the 15 tracks almost every credit is attributed to someone with an “i” in their name, or an “i” vowel sound: “Kelis” “Rihanna” “Nicky Romero” “Ellie Goulding” “Tinie Tempah” “Dillon Francis” “Dizzee Rascal” “Ne-Yo” and “Ayah Marar” It turns out that almost every track title also goes through the “i”-sound ringer. Well, so much for my structuralist analysis of Calvin Harris’s dance music – wish I had more to say…but I was in the throes of sit-ups and side-bends and toes touching, so what do I know.
Bob Dylan’s album Tempest
The big, big bad CD, the one I was happiest to receive, and least happy to talk about, is “Tempest”, the latest Bob Dylan album. This is hardly a timely review, since the album came out last year and has been massively written about in the media, and massively listed as one of the top albums of the year in the music magazines around the world. And as a Bob Dylan fan for most of my life, I had, naturally, already listened to several of the album’s tracks over the Internet. Having said that, as proof that the CD, the album, the physical collection of a musical oeuvre still carries weight and counts for something, I was very happy to take this physical CD object and put it in my Marantz CD player and listen to it over my Bose speakers, and not just on my computer’s iTunes.
Until I did, actually. Then I was struck with the biggest existential problem I have yet faced with my morning exercise music talk. How can I write about Bob Dylan’s latest album when I love Bob Dylan, when almost all of the reviews have been great, when as I say, it has made it to the top, or near the top, of the lists of the year’s best albums? And I just don’t get it? Yes, yes, yes. This album has one, maybe two or three tracks that have something really great – and the only one that really, really stands out for me is the first one, “Duquesne Whistle.” Using this old time music, singing this folksy up-tempo song, I really feel as if Dylan has written some kind of a classic here. Not, I feel, a classic Dylan song, but some kind of American classic. It was very hard for me to accept his voice on this, until I decided to pretend that it was not Bob Dylan, but Satchmo himself. I never complained about Satchmo’s gutteral, destroyed voice – why should I complain about Dylan’s? No doubt because Dylan once had a few other voices, and I liked several of those better – the original one from the early 60s, the one from Lay Lady Lay in the Late Sixities, the one from Blood on the Tracks in the mid-70s, the one from Desire at the same time, the one from some of the songs in the 80s, even…. But this Satchmo voice has never worked for me. In fact, for much of the album, I thought I was not hearing Dylan, but Tom Waits….
Another song that cannot be thrown away is the last one, “Roll on John,” about John Lennon. Come on, with subject matter like that, and you know the two knew each other…!
If Bob Dylan can’t write songs like Bob Dylan anymore what chance do the rest of us have?
But the problem with this CD, and maybe with why the critics give it so high marks, is that this IS Dylan. And I kept trying to figure out how some of these songs would sound when sung by other musicians…but then I wondered how many actually WOULD be sung by them. I love the fact that Dylan keeps making music, keeps touring almost every day, keeps creating. But even he said, in his fabulous book, Chronicles, that he can no longer write the kinds of songs he did in the 60s. That was in the chapter about when Daniel Lanois produced an album of his and wanted him to write the old stuff again. And that made me think of a funny line that I just kind of made up and found plopping into my brain as a guy who writes some songs too – without the success of a Dylan: If Bob Dylan can’t write songs like Bob Dylan anymore what chance do the rest of us have?
Of course, I step back from that and say, it’s got nothing to do with anything like that – we all reach our own creative peak in our own way in our own time. And ultimately, as T.S. Eliot said: “For us there is only the trying, the rest is not our business.”
Well, let’s hope Dylan keeps on trying – but I can’t really see how this CD got to the top of so many “year’s best” lists. There is a repetitiveness to the rhymes and melodies in a lot of these songs – that have also appeared in many of the Dylan albums of the last 30 years – that was not there in his classic work. The new Bowie album, by contrast, I could see if if it gets there at the end of the year….
In Bahrain I also got given a CD from a fellow Canadian musician, Félix Fréchette, who was the guitarist at the Dublin Club jam session on the Saturday night where I played – along with him and his band. The CD is a 10-track album of songs written and sung by Nelle Thomas, who is also Canadian – she is English-speaking,from Montreal, whereas Fréchette is a French speaking Quebecer – the music of which was written mostly by Fréchette. He also plays his lead guitar on most of the tracks.
The two, as I say, were part of the house band at the Dublin Club in the Ramee Palace hotel, but this CD – called Noise Rises – they made in Canada in 2012. It is a highly professional, eclectic mix of songs, starting off with a kind of soul music and heading into some soft rock and finishing off with a song on acoustic guitar that is almost – but not quite – folk.
While there were a number of songs that just sort of passed me by – although they were beautifully played and produced – there were three that really stood out for me. “Tell a Sad Story,” has a good catchy melody and lyrics, and really hits the spot. “Never Been Accused,” with its sort of 1970 rock sound, and its ripping lead guitar by Félix Fréchette is another – oh, and there is another nice guitar solo on “One Day at a Time.” And I really love the last song on the album, “Eleven Dollars,” with the great lyrics, vocals and acoustic guitar – reminds me very much of Tuck & Patti. Certainly the best song of the album – but maybe my liking of vocals, acoustic, folky stuff. Still, NO! I love Hendrix, King Crimson, Zappa, Talking Heads, Joy Division, so what the hell – I just think this one works.
It was interesting, once again, to compare an album by a completely unknown young couple to that of Dylan, and to say, well, yeah!!!
Peace In Love
I also got a vinyl album by the British indie band, Peace, – their first album, “In Love,” which has been getting great reviews (9 out of 10 at NME) – but I am very old fashioned, and have no turntable, so I could not listen to this. Wait. That seems odd. Old fashioned? I grew up with vinyl. I had a large collection, then got rid of my turntable because CDs were better…. Right, that’s where the old fashioned bit comes in…. I don’t know ANYTHING, vinyl is better…. well, not for morning exercises – too much work putting the cartridge arm and diamond down the vinyl – and, actually, according to my research, vinyl is NOT better than digital…. but let’s leave that one alone, lest I become even more unpopular than I will be after these morning exercise “reviews” turn me into an evil “critic.”
A late night at Brutopia pub in Montreal on Crescent Street on my last night in Canada, and a good night there, meant a late posting on this blog – as I flew back to Paris on Monday, worked all day Tuesday and slept for nearly 12 hours to make up for all that! Brutopia was once again one of my best experiences at an open mic in Montreal. It started quietly and slowly, and I wondered what had happened to that great atmosphere I found at Brutopia last year…and then little by little it picked up and became just that same cool evening once again.
I showed up at 9:45 and signed up to a list with only three other names on it. The open mic started just after 10, and this time it was hosted by a man named Scott Mitchell, who has a voice reminiscent of Elvis Costello and Graham Parker. Last year it had been hosted by Bud Rice, and I would later learn from Scott that there are several different hosts who split up the monthly hosting job. He said it is the city’s longest running open mic, and that he thinks it will last for years to come – as long as the pub does. Check out the interview I did with him in my ongoing series of podcasts this year from my worldwide musical journey to the open mics and jams of every continent – or almost:
Brad Spurgeon interviews Scott Mitchell, one of the MCs of Montreal’s Brutopia bar open mic:
It became an exceptional evening, in fact, as I met up with friends both musical and others, whom I met or knew in Paris. One of these is my semblable, my frere, (to steal a line from a poem of a poet who liked to steal), Danny Fonfeder, the founder of Blueberry Guitars, and globetrotting businessman and open mic man himself….
I managed to drink three pints of some of the homemade beer, one of which was not planned but was offered since all performers receive a free beer. I like such places.
And despite what Scott said about the bar being an Anglo joint, I also had several interesting conversations with French-speaking Quebecers, especially about the current protest movement. Check out the videos of the bands closely and you might be able to see musicians wearing the red square that shows their alignment with the movement.
I will stop my chatter now, in order to ensure that I finally get this post up after such a long time away from this daily diary of musical adventures…. Oh, almost forgot to mention that the day before this, Saturday, I made a very early night of it, but managed to play my guitar and sing all by myself in the park outside the Berri-UQAM metro station, the place where all those protesters usually gather to start their night of protest…. Oh, correction, some people gathered around to listen, and when I finally had this woman tramp tell me she liked my voice, I decided to really belt out “What’s Up!” I had my fix.
I wrote about my disappointing visit to the Grumpy open mic in Montreal the other day. Last night I decided to attend the Grumpy’s bar weekly open jam session called Moonshine on Thursday, run by Mike Emmet. This is a completely different atmosphere to the open mic on Tuesdays.
Having said that, the crowd is no more respectful of the musicians, and there seems to be two different things going on in the pub during this fabulous evening. While the pub patrons stand around and chat at high volume, the musicians all gather around on the stage – which resembles a corner of someone’s living room, and play together in a circle, with a high powered omni-directional mic in the middle of the circle.
The musicians can barely be heard over the noise of the bar, but every once in a awhile the patrons applaud the musicians. There is a complicity and sense of community and communion amongst the musicians, however, that makes it so that this evening is really something special: while the clients drink and talk, the musicians have fun playing together. If they attract appreciation of the “listeners,” fine. If not, that’s fine too.
The only drawback to the evening for me is that this is almost exclusively bluegrass and “old time” music, or old country and hill billy kind of stuff. So although last year I sang Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” this year I felt unequal to the task of playing with these musicians, so I did not take part. Having already played in one open mic, and with another waiting for me on Sunday, I knew that my stay in Montreal would not be without music.
It was great, however, to see the variety that Grumpy’s is capable of delivering, from a weird and cliquey open mic on Tuesdays to a warm and family-like bluegrass jam on Saturdays.
On my flight on the way from Paris to Montreal yesterday I watched the biopic about the French singer Claude Francois. At one point there is a talk between him and his manager where the manager says to him that he has to reinvent himself or he will be washed out in six months. Although I cannot compare myself to Claude Francois, and my musical career is non-existent by comparison, I was reminded of that aspect of performance as I played my set in Montreal at Grumpy’s Bar on Bishop Street.
The night before, at Coolin’s Pub in Paris during the open mic I found myself in a bar I am familiar with and where many of the people are familiar with me, and the place was really crowded and loud, and the previous performer was a little too quiet for the ambiance. So I realized that against my greater desires, I had better play my “crowd pleaser” songs, despite having a set list too small to avoid doing the same three or four songs all the time in such circumstances.
So I played “What’s Up!” and “Mad World,” and the effect was exactly the desired effect. The audience joined in, woke up, stomped feet, hands and whatever else they wanted to stomp, and sang along and we were as one. It was a fabulous feeling of being a mini-Claude Francois myself – or at least a Claudette…no I take that one back.
Anyway, from there I went back home and to bed and the next time I really and truly woke up, I was in Montreal after my transatlantic flight in which I had a smelly, large man beside me who made work impossible, so I watched the film. And I immediately found in Montreal that there is an open mic at Grumpy’s bar on Tuesday nights. So I went.
I played at the bluegrass, old-time, evening at Grumpy’s last year, but missed the open mic. So this was new for me. Grumpy’s, by the way, has the reputation of being one of the favorite hangouts of Mordecai Richler, the deceased, acid-tongued Canadian writer – whose biography I am reading at the moment. This will be relevant in a moment….
So I go into Grumpy’s and get signed up as second on a fairly long list of performers, by the MC, Massimo, an Italian-Canadian comic. Yes, it turns out the open mic is for music AND comedy. So it was actually fortunate for me that from second on the list I got bumped to first, as the first had disappeared. Perhaps a comedian who forgot his lines.
So I got on stage and found the sound system sounding pretty bad from where I stood, both the mic and my guitar. But I know how to play under any circumstances. Although the Highlander open mic in Paris is one of my favorites in the world, I have often said that it also is one of the most difficult, with THE most talkative, loud audience of people who don’t seem to listen – unless you get just the right song to get them stomping their feet hands and whatever else they feel like stomping. I have managed in recent months to break through the Highlander talk with my aforesaid songs, too.
Well last night, I started at Grumpy’s with my own song, “Except Her Heart,” and I felt that there were only from two to four people in the whole pub listening to me. These were the young woman sitting directly across from the stage. The rest of the people were talking so loudly and looking so distant and so uninterested and so ungrateful that I thought I would have to load the heavy artillery and do “What’s Up!” Guess what?
Not a single person sang along as far as I could see, no one stomped feet, no one looked like they were interested, and in fact, I felt as if I must have come from another planet. Undeterred, I decided that rather than hide myself behind one of my own unknown-to-them songs I would try another piece of heavy artillery: “Mad World.” Same reaction. Maybe even worse. Like a feeling of this loud, nasty crowd saying: “Who the fuck is this guy? Let’s see how small we can make him feel.”
Was it my jetlag? No, I know I sang well, and did the same thing as usual. So I concluded that it was Grumpy’s. Because it was a night of comedy mixed with music, and because it was a bar called Grumpy’s, and because Mordecai Richler used to patronize it, I thought that for the first time in my entire short career or open mic attendance I would insult the audience back again. Generally speaking, this is NOT something you do under any circumstances. It is up to you to grab them with your music. But this time I was laughing, I wasn’t angry, and I thought it would be really fun to insult them all.
So I told them I was from Paris, that I travelled the world going to open mics, and that the worst crowd I ever encountered anywhere around the world was at the Highlander in Paris. Then I said that they had now taken the place of being the worst crowd I had ever encountered anywhere on the planet. Because no one was listening to me anyway, my comment elicited no reaction.
Or almost none. The only person I could see who laughed, turned out to be a guy later described as a musician but who decided last night to do a comedy routine ;- and it was the best of the night. I caught a moment on video, when he curses a step ladder: “You’re not my REAL ladder! Sorry,” he says to the audience, “that’s just my step ladder.” His whole act consisted of puns, and it was hilarious.
The evening turned out to continue in mixed manner, with the audience clearly cutting the chatter when there was a regular friend of the house performing, and talking more when there was an unknown. There was only one moment when the whole crowd fell to complete silence, and that was when a guy – well known to them – went up and sang a composition he wrote the night before. Quite strange and poetic lyrics.
All in all, it was a quite strange and totally bizarre evening for me as far as worldwide open mics go – but what do you expect in English Montreal?!?!?! Later, I ended up receiving tons of applause when I lent my guitar to a couple of young women who wanted to perform but had no guitar. I had finally become a star! Oh, yes, but while it did not make me doubt my abilities as such that I had been completely ignored as a singer, at the same time, I thought about that Claude Francois thing and renewing one’s songs, and approach to performing. I’ll get there; slowly, but surely, no doubt.
Brutopia was my utopia. At least for last night. I did the jam session Grumpy’s on Thursday, but it was not entirely made for my style. So I was banking everything on Brutopia, one of the mainstay open mics of Montreal. Brutopia, according to Bud Rice, who MCs the open mic, has been around longer than he has been on this earth…of course, that is not THAT long.
Located on the famous Crescent Street, where there is a street festival that accompanies the Formula One race, this open mic was in fact perfect for me after the race I attended. The Brutopia open mic does not start until close to 10:30, and there was no need to be there before that time to put your name on the list.
There were a lot of performers, but everyone got to play. The bar was loud, raucous, warm and friendly. The little part of Crescent Street where it is located seems to be made of a strip of pubs and bars of a similar kind, very English/Irish. There’s Hurleys and others I cannot remember the names of.
In any case, Bud Rice – not his real name – did a great job of MCing, and there were lots of interesting acts, including a crazy guy from Melbourne with whom I discussed a lot of the Melbourne open mics, and he knew of most of them. (The Empress Hotel, the Arthouse – which he said just closed – and the hostel All Nations U-Bar.)
It was so cool at this open mic that I felt very much at home and relaxed despite the talk in the room. The stage was very comfortable, and I enjoyed it up there, playing four songs on my set and then being allowed to go up and close the whole evening with a final song. I gave the remaining patrons the choice of “Father and Son,” something else that I do regularly and “Unchained Melody.” One person shouted out for the latter, so I did it.
PS: After I finished this blog post I then proceeded to download the files on my Zoom Q3HD and I then got caught in a tangle and I somehow wiped out half of the files, including the one-man band stuff and an interview I did – fortunately only on one of the three cameras I recorded it on – of Bud Rice, and the best videos of Bud performing. I did this while sitting in Le Depanneur Cafe on Monday afternoon before going for my flight. I then spent the next hour or two trying to figure out how to recuperate the deleted files, and failing to get them to work. I believe I may have found the secret to doing this and I will keep working on it and I hope in the next couple of days that I will get those videos up. For the moment, I will have only a few seconds of the one man bands preparing their bit. What a drag!!!!
PPS: I also sang two songs at Le Depanneur Cafe yesterday to release some of my angst after losing the files and before my flight back to Paris. This is a very neat and cool and hip cafe-restaurant that has a kind of eternal open stage, although there are also regular acts booked all the time, hour-by-hour. I got to play because the woman named Akua, who had invited me to come and see her play her hour, did not show up! So as it turned out, the woman named Bobby from the bluegrass jam was there and played, and I also played, as did a band called Ghetto Shul House Band, with a guest singer, Emma Frank.