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.
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!!!
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.
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.