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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!

Empress Hotel Open Mic, Melbourne

March 31, 2010

Sounds grand, this “Empress Hotel” open mic title.  But the rather spacious bar at 714 Nicholson Street, Fitzroy North, Melbourne, is not exactly “grand.”  What is fabulous, however, is the coziness of the open mic area, and the wonderfully spacious, yet not too grand,  stage.  I felt comfortable the instant I arrived tonight in the performance area of the bar.  There were guitar cases all over the place, tall round tables with stools, the stage well-lit, the horseshoe-shaped bar in the entry, and another large room off to the side.

Frank Shaw, balding white-haired man with a poneytail, who does the sound stood behind the soundboard, and his partner, Robin, made up the list of the performers for the evening.  She is a kind, easy-going woman, just the sort you want and actually run into so often with open mics.

I asked Robin how long the open mic had existed, and she couldn’t tell me.  They have been running it for around three years, I believe she said, but she said she was unable to find out how long it had existed but that it was many, many years.

When I say that the area was dreary, in fact, I took a walk down the street to go and eat dinner and as I walked along Nicholson I was suddenly struck by the sight of the buildings in the moonlight and I was reminded of the facades of a cowboy film.  It was extraordinary how cowboy wild west the buildings looked, but mainly compared to the usual facades I am now used to in Paris.  This cowboy facade look is something I equate also with many of the building fronts in Toronto, particularly along Yonge Street near Bloor Street, for example.

I later spoke to a client who equated it with colonial architecture.  “All the colonies were a little alike, I suppose,” she said.  And I agreed.

Unfortunately I missed the beginning of the evening, which started at 8:30, because of the pizza.  But the look around town was worth it, and as I went for the pizza I passed a hotel bar that had some kind of sign in the window talking about not wanting to kill music.

I noticed the sign, but did not read it and it was only later in the evening – at the end of the open mic – that the subject came up.  Robin told me that there was a big political problem in Melbourne at the moment involving live music and liquor licenses, and that it was killing live music.

I’ll have to look into it, but at the moment that is all I know about it, and also the fact that Robin said that the hotel bar where I had seen the sign was the center of the beginning of this political problem.

In any case, live music was certainly alive at the Empress Hotel open mic, as the level of musician was again good, and the atmosphere was fabulously laid back and comfortable.  The first act that I saw was a woman in her thirties – I suspect – whose name I did not hear, but whose singing was very folksie 1960s like.  I enjoyed it immensely.

I also liked another woman, this was Melody Moon, who later told me that this was her first open mic.  Her voice was dynamic and unique, and I told her afterwards that I thought she had her own sound.  Upon listening to the video recording, however, I realized that it reminded me a little of a singer popular at the moment whose name entirely escapes me, but who I will mention as soon as I remember!  (That’s one of the nice things about a blog – you can update the stories as you please.)

Melody had a very beautiful voice and an agreeable execution and some clever lyrics that could be interpreted in several ways.  She also had good direct communication with the audience as she tried to involve them in whistling in the middle of one of her three songs.  Her guitar playing was far from smooth, but she made a good effort at it, not using simple chords and chord shapes, but employing much of the neck of the guitar.

A man whose name escapes me too also had an interesting act, with good solid rhythm guitar playing and a voice he really knew how to sing with.  Unfortunately for my tastes, all three of his songs sounded a little like the soppy, obligatory and conventional slow songs of heavy metal bands, both in sentiment and sound.  So I didn’t really turn on to it in the end.

This is comedy festival month in Melbourne, and that means most venues are taken up by comedy acts for the festival.  It was therefore fitting that a guy came up to perform comedy, even on this musical open mic night.  He was clearly a beginner and he was trying out new material that was so new he kept referring to his notes about it.  But he had an agreeable easy way about him, and his humor was light and agreeable. He actually started with a little skit about the Formula One race being in town and how he hadn’t realized it until he turned on his TV for a basketball game and all he got was the F1.  Then he complained about the jets flying over during the race….

In any case, it turned out that this comedian, who had everyone laughing – including me – if only lightly rather than gut laughs, and who had lightened up the atmosphere considerably, was the act immediately before me.

There had been some dreary, horrible, sleep-inducing acts of people who still need to learn how to walk before they can run – ie, it was not entirely clear why they sought an audience just yet, as they had a lot of learning to do with both guitar and singing.  In fact, Frank Shaw decided to sit down and recite some kind of children’s story between acts at one point, perhaps to liven things up at that moment – I cannot remember exactly.  But I liked the moment, so I caught a little of it on video, as you can see below.

So the comedian’s act really lightened up the environment.  In fact, it lightened it up so much, and lightened me up so much, that I felt thoroughly out of shape for singing my songs in the mood an feeling they require.

“Well, thanks,” I said.  “That’s the first time that has happened to me.  I get to go up after a comedian.  Now that we’re all lightened up.   I’m going to have to change my whole set list now.  I was going to sing a bunch of depressing songs….”

That actually got a good laugh out of them, and suddenly I thought I should be doing my own comedy act.  But I did decide to change my set list of three songs.  I had planned on starting with Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle.”  But right after a comic, I couldn’t see how I could enter that world.

So I gave in and quit and decided to sing the song I had decided I definitely would NOT sing:  “Crazy Love.”

The audience helped me try to get into the idea of singing – “Come on, you can do it!” after I had joked about tackling the change in tone after the comedian.

So I sang Crazy Love, did a half okay job.  Then I took another swig of beer and decided to try out the Chapin song.

“I can’t remember now if the capo goes on the seventh fret or the eighth fret,” I said.  “That has to do with age….”

That was not a comedian’s line, but one related to the song about a father and his son growing up without him seeing it because life passes you by.

It went well and by then I’d warmed myself up with Crazy Love.

I then sang my song to finish it all off, the song called, “Memories,” about the time with my wife.  That received wonderful applause and I was happy with the singing and playing, particularly because the sound system was so perfect here – even with a little reverb added on the voice to warm it up.  In fact, it all seemed to go down so well that for the second day running the audience called for more, giving me a warm, heartfelt encore.

I was delighted, and couldn’t believe it.  And this time I was determined to do something other than “Jealous Guy.”

“Another cover?”  I said.  “How about a Dylan?”

“Yeah!  A Dylan!” people said.

So I did “Just Like a Woman.”  And I was in seventh heaven yet again when I heard the audience singing along with me on the song.  Wow.

A great way to end the trip to Australia.

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