Today I am walking on air, and that is not just because it was the first day since I arrived in Melbourne since last Wednesday that we have had a sunny sky and no rain. I may not have found an open mic last night, but this morning I started a dream project. It is ambitious and I should probably not be writing about it here and now. But I have a very good feeling about it, and it took off this morning thanks to my favorite Emily.
Let me backtrack a little on that last statement. My favorite Emily is my daughter. But Emily Brown is a young Australian musician – among other things – and she is also the organizer of an excellent open mic in Melbourne, at the All-Nations U-Bar. I wrote about it a few days ago, and which I visited last year as well. This morning, Emily made time to have a breakfast at Brunetti and an on-camera interview with me in a nearby park this Italian quarter of Melbourne.
Behind that was the following ambitious plan: A film to follow my musical journey, especially in order to show the musicians, the venues and the people who run the open mics and jams all over the world, in the 19 countries I will visit, including all the continents except Antarctica and Africa.
It is the natural next step to my adventure that started in 2009. I will have three years’ worth of material to use: writings, photos, sound recordings and video recordings. The film will look at this worldwide phenomenon of the open mic and jam session, where musicians both amateur and professional go to play in public for free and for fun. Why do they do it? Where do they do it? How do they do it? Who are they? Why do the organizers organize such things, usually for no pay, or very little pay? What needs does it fill for everyone involved, including the audience?
Emily is as enthusiastic as anyone I’ve ever met who runs an open mic, and she has been doing it for a year and a half now. She also has her band, My Favorite Emily, and several other personal projects in the works, including a television show about the stories of immigrants in Australia, and how they have adapted and succeeded in Australian life. It was thanks to her enthusiasm and the time she gave today that I was able to take the step from “wacky and ambitious idea” to doing the first interview. It was also thanks to the fact that the Australian Grand Prix didn’t start until 5 PM and I didn’t need to show up at the track until a little later!
Last night in Melbourne was the true beginning to my third worldwide musical adventure to the open mics and jam sessions of the planet over the next nine months. My first was in 2009, when I played my guitar and sang in 17 countries, nearly 30 cities and on every continent except Africa (where I did once live and play) and Antarctica (where I do not want to live or play). I did roughly the same adventure last year, and I will probably do even more this year – I think I have 18 countries planned….
The first year I worked on a book about the adventure – which I am still editing down from its initial 1,000 single-spaced pages!!!-; last year I put posts up on this blog about the adventure; and this year I will do the blog again, and I also have another project in mind that may involve linking it all together in a sound and/or image narrative.
Life changes, things change and move in ways we cannot predict, and last night I realized that this parallel life of playing in musical venues around the world for the third year has new possibilities I had not imagined: Call it a snowball effect, or a building up of experience. Last night I ended up playing again at the All Nations U-Bar open mic at 2 Spencer Street in Melbourne, which I had discovered last year. But I did that in the company of my friend Lara, whom I had met at the Softbelly Bar open mic in the first year of the adventure – and whom I had not seen since (although we maintained a correspondence).
I was a little disappointed with the U-Bar open mic this year because the sound system was horrible, and I performed very early and so probably the atmosphere had not developed into the fabulous, rollicking evening I had discovered the year before. But our impressions change from one year to the next, and I had also noticed that Emily Brown, the very cool woman who had organized and MC’d the show last year was not there. I thought maybe that was the problem.
I suggested to Lara that we leave and go somewhere quiet and have a drink and talk. And as we left and crossed a nearby street, I heard a shout in the distance from a woman.
I turned back and crossed the street to find that it was Emily, and she had recognized me out in the dark road as she returned to the U-Bar where she still IS the MC, although someone else was briefly filling in for her last night. She asked me if I had played yet, and I said I had. She said that she was bringing along a Latin music band to do the second part of the evening, and I thought, there we go – the open mic evening probably would turn out to be as good as it was last year. I had simply not given it enough time.
But most of all, I was delighted at how Emily had recognized me, a year later in the dark and slightly rainy street in Melbourne. (Yes, the weather is crap.) It gave me the sense of having musical friends around the world thanks to this adventure. And there I was, of course, with Lara from two years before. Melbourne was feeling like one of my many homes!
I decided to continue on to another bar with Lara, so we went to the Softbelly bar on Little Bourke Street, where we had met at the open mic on the Wednesday before the F1 race in 2009. I did some advance work this year and wrote to the organizer of the Softbelly open mic and found that it no longer exists…. Until we got there and Lara noticed a little poster that said there IS an open mic at the Softbelly on Wednesdays, starting at 7 PM – but it obviously has a different organizer.
I think part of the reason I did not feel quite so good at the U-Bar was also, in fact, because of Lara’s presence. Having her there made me very nervous when I sang my songs, as she had arrived only around 10 minutes before I had to sing, and I was terribly self-conscious all of a sudden about singing in front of the beautiful Lara and letting her down. (As it turned out, I need not have been too worried, as I received some compliments from a couple of people – as well as from Lara – on my four-song set afterward, as Lara and I left the bar.)
But I also had the terrible task of deciding if I should sing the song, called “Lara, Lara” – that I had written for her two years ago. Could I really do it in public here in front of all these people – for there was a fairly decent number of clients at the All Nations U-Bar. I decided I would not sing her song for fear of embarrassing her. But later on I realized I had made a mistake.
Here is the recording I did of “Lara, Lara” in 2009:
So it was that when we sat in the U-Bar and talked, I mentioned that I had considered singing the song and I could see she would have liked that. So I decided that we had to find a secluded alley somewhere and I would sing her the song, as she had pointed out she had never heard me sing it for her live.
We crossed the street from the Softbelly and found a perfect secluded alley where there were no private residences. Together we sang there for probably close to an hour. We went through a large part of my cover song repertoire and a few of my own songs, including Lara, Lara – which was the first I sang. Together we also sang “Cat’s In the Cradle,” which of course was the subject of yesterday’s post…. Lara’s voice was magic; her musical talents and skills are well developed as she has many years’ worth of training on the violin.
So this was an amazing first musical evening in Melbourne, the first true day of my new adventure, and it was made new and unusual by the fact that it was Year III of the adventure and there is a building up of connections and friends and situations.
The only problem was that I managed to do only two videos of the U-Bar open mic, and only one of these is in any way worth putting on the site. I do a panoramic turn around the bar with the camera, and I particularly like the painted mural on the wall that you see near the end of the short video.
Don’t bother trying to figure out the real order of the words of the headline I put on this post. Just go to 2 Spencer Street in Melbourne, Australia, on a Thursday night. There you will find one of the coolest open mics down under, I’m sure of that. I am the happiest man alive after showing up there tonight and playing my three songs and listening to the other open mic singers and the house band.
And it proved a thing to me again: Go off the beaten path, break your habits, try something new, force yourself! Last year on the Thursday of the Formula One weekend I played in the open mic of the Spleen Bar on Bourke Street. So being like most people a man of habit, I decided to try it out again this time.
But then life got in the way – thank goodness! I ended up staying late at the track, well not that late, but until 7 PM. And could not find any indication that the Spleen Bar was still doing its musical open mic night. And this being Comedy Festival month in Melbourne and the Softbelly having canceled its musical open mic, I feared the Spleen might have canceled its musical open mic too, since the Spleen is more known for its comedy open mics on Monday or Tuesday (can’t remember which).
So it was that I stumbled across this open mic announced for the U-Bar at the All Nations Hostel on 2 Spencer street. It looked pretty certain to be happening, and on my way back from the track, I happened to find it on the corner of Spencer street where I got off the tram and where I had to head uptown on another tram to my hotel. According to the Internet it would start at 8 PM, and I was there at 7:40 or so. So I popped into what looked like a dreary bar with few people in it, and I asked if there was an open mic.
“Yes, it starts at nine,” I was told by a young man behind the bar.
The walls were painted graffiti-like with strange cartoon drawings and other graffiti-art like stuff. Very colorful, but my main impression was of potential dreariness. And I noticed a crappy looking amplifier against a wall near the bar and the pool table. It looked as if the open mic would be an afterthought.
But it was so late I decided I had no choice but to take the tram to the hotel and then return to the bar, since I now had plenty of time as it started at nine, not eight.
Returned to the hotel, warmed up my voice with a song on the guitar – ‘Father and Son’ – and then ate a very quick meal at the buffet in the hotel before taking a tram back down to the U-Bar or whatever it was called.
Went into the place to find a lot of people and a dreary, quiet singer at the dreary amp. I was guided by the bartender to a woman named Emily Brown, and told she ran the open mic. There was so much talking in the bar that I could barely hear the singer or Emily. But I gave her my name and she said she’d get me up. “Three songs each,” she said.
Turned out to be a nice crowd of young people, and very international. That clearly had to do with the hostel next door. I spoke to a Dutchman, and one of the performers was from Canada. A man named Brandon, who was from Burlington and there with his girlfriend as they were spending a year in Australia traveling all over the country.
Emily reminded me instantly of Bea, the 23-year-old woman from Sydney who ran the Softbelly open mic last year. I would learn that Emily was 22 years old, she had studied music at “uni” and she had run the open mic here since last August or so. She also had a band that would play in the middle of the open mic evening for a full one hour or so set. She taught singing in the Melbourne school system and also had a few other music gigs to keep her going. She was very enthusiastic and friendly. This was classic open mic stuff here!
And guess what? The music just got better and better, and the crowd got thicker and thicker and the atmosphere just grew stronger and stronger. Sure, there would be talking throughout the night, and there would be some people playing on the pool table, and you would have to move aside while singing a song to occasionally let the man hit the pool ball because the performer was too close to the table. Oh, and the sound system was indeed crap.
But this would prove to be so much fun, with such an eclectic group of musicians, mostly young, that I was very quickly persuaded that it had a real atmosphere. Several of the musicians came from local bands, too, and played acoustic for fun. A lot of what I learned about the evening came from a couple of the musicians, one named Jim, and the other named…Jim.
One of the Jims described the other Jim’s music as being very eclectic, and he asked me if I’d ever heard of his hero.
“Who’s that?” I asked.
I expected him to say, “Townes Van Zandt,” but decided to get him to say it.
“Townes Van Zandt.”
“Yeah,” I said. And the other Jim was surprised.
“What do you think of him,” asked the Jim who sang Townes’s songs.
“A genius,” I said. To which the other Jim just walked away in disgust and let us talk about Townes Van Zandt.
So it was cool indeed to be in Australia talking about Townes Van Zandt.
The Canadian Brandon played some blues of his own making, and had a nice strong voice and a nice fingerpicking style. A local rock musician who had given out his self-produced record played three or four songs that were fast moving and hard hitting, and perfect for the crowd. And he showed a wonderful attitude as several drunks joined him during his song and he stopped and spoke to them and at one point said:
“I’d like to introduce you to my band, I don’t even know their names, but here they are.”
I did not have to wait very long before I went up, in fact, I went up after that guy. I had planned to play Van Morrison’s “Crazy Love,” a song of my own, and Cat Steven’s “Father and Son.” But in the end, given how much noise there was and how the crowd felt, I did not do my own song, but instead did “Just Like a Woman,” by Bob Dylan.
It was one of those evenings where you wonder how much you’re really reaching people. But when both of the Jims told me afterwards how much they loved my songs, especially the Cat Stevens, I knew I had reached the people. In fact, one of the Jims actually gave me the biggest compliment I ever had with “Father and Son.”
“I was just saying to Jim,” said Jim, “that I actually liked your version of ‘Father and Song’ more than the original.”
No compliment can be better.
The singers varied a lot, from rocking to quiet and from singing originals to singing covers. One of them who got up just before Emily’s band was in fact the guitar player from her band, and he sang some very nice covers quietly but strongly.
And now to Emily’s band, called “My Favourite Emily.” This was fabulous. Emily sang, she had a female bass player, she had a 23-year old sax player who Jim told me had begun to play at age eight, and she had a drummer and the guitar player. They had some very nice jazzy stuff, and the sax player blew me away. I loved Emily’s voice too. I made videos all night with my new Zoom Q3 toy, and I will post something here:
In addition to the great musicality of the band, Emily had a nice way of communicating with the audience, and she frequently went into the crowd to get some audience participation in the songs – ie, holding the mic up to spectators to sing along.
Oh yeah, and Emily told me she took a couple of photos of me and will put them up on the open mic’s Facebook page, so I’ll link to them as soon as I see them.
This was a very moving, swinging, cool and hip open mic format, and Emily was all the things a great open mic host should be: Friendly, encouraging, nice, warm and enthusiastic. And on top of it, she is a talented musician herself. I’ll go back again – unless my desire to break all habits gets me finding another place on Thursday in Melbourne next year….