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.
HEIDELBERG, Germany – Just when I started feeling depressed about the idea of ever finding – or rather not finding – an open mic or jam session in Heidelberg, I stumbled upon an historic, amazing, astounding student pub and restaurant called Zum Seppl, in the old town. It may not have been a classic open mic or open jam joint of the kind I try to find to play in, and I may not have played there myself last night, but not only was there music all evening long by a piano player, there was a sudden eruption later on of restaurant patrons launching into what seemed like traditional German songs, with a freedom and fun attitude and feeling equal only to the best open mics.
I discovered that the extraordinary look and atmosphere in this restaurant, and the amazing cragged wooden tables, were so astounding because this place has been a restaurant since at least 1703! Check out the link above to find out more about it, but for the moment I just want to say that if you ever get a chance to visit Heidelberg, drop in to this student pub. Heidelberg is a university town, and it and its already ruined castle were an inspiration to the German Romantics – including Goethe himself – already a hundred years after this student restaurant was a student restaurant.
It also has a tradition as a brewery, and the beer was great. But the food was fabulous too. I cannot quite describe the atmosphere and look of this place, so take in my iPhone’s look at it all – and the singing.
And Before that, It Was Off to a Karaoke at O’Reilly’s pub in Heidelberg
The night before I had settled for O’Reilly’s pub on the other side of the river, a classic Irish pub of the kind I find all over the world. O’Reilly’s has a karaoke on both Friday and Saturday nights, in the back room. It’s a fabulous little stage, a wonderful amphitheater-like room, and a great MC. The only problem with the place is that with such a great setup, they really should invest in better mics or other sound system materials to make sure that the voices in the karaoke can be heard in all their glory.
I feel as if I have succeeded in singing in karaokes only maybe once before – i.e., whenever I sing covers with my guitar I do them differently than the original, so I usually fail utterly in karaokes. But on Friday night, I found myself deciding to risk singing a song I barely know on my guitar, and have never tried in a karaoke: Born to Run. Somehow, the key was perfect and I was able to sing along in a way that felt wonderfully powerful. It was a real joy, and I fear I might try more karaokes….
Still, I’m overwhelmingly upset that aside from a jazz jam club at Cave 54 that has a jam on Tuesdays, I have still not found any of the kind of open mics that I seek out, and this looks set to be the first time in years that I have failed to find one in a new city I have visited. I chose Heidelberg because I thought it was the most culturally strong city in the area near the Hockenheim racetrack, and I think that remains true. So why is there not more live music in this student center of the region?!?
The Musically Less Than Great Cologne is a Bad Place for Open Mics
I go to Cologne while attending the German Grand Prix when it is run at the Nurburgring in the south of Germany, near Bonn and Cologne and another city the name of which slips my mind. The point is, there is not much choice in the region for places to go for open mics, so I chose Cologne as one of the major cultural and nightlife cities of the region. It is a wonderful, beautiful city with lots of culture – but a lower than average number of live music joints for a city of this nature – in my opinion. And after my third biannual visit to the city I have still only found one open mic, although I have heard of the existence of two or maybe three others over the years, but they either always seem to close down or never have existed, really. So this will be my weakest, poorest, thinnest list of open mics in any of my Thumbnail Guides to date.
Worldwide Open Mic Guide Philosophy
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.
COLOGNE, Germany – I discovered the Tankstelle bar’s open mic near the Barberossaplatz in Cologne’s student area in 2009, and I have attended each year that I have come to Cologne since then. That is, every second year. When I originally found the place, and the last time I attended as well, it was run by its founder, Daniel Klaus, who was a wonderful open mic MC, and he always managed to make a fun and successful night out of it. Last night, the first thing I discovered when I arrived around 9:00 PM was that Daniel is no longer there, and it is now run by Micha.
The year I discovered it, it had only been running for three months. Now it has been more than four years, and it is going strong. When I arrived last night, it seemed totally dead, with perhaps only one or two other musicians present in addition to Micha. I asked him until what time it ran, and he said until around 3:30 AM. So I said, “Fine, I’m going to eat dinner.”
I went to a nearby bar restaurant where I ate a pig schnitzel big enough for five people – although I only ate enough for three people – and then I returned to the open mic to find it much livelier. It would eventually become massively lively, amazingly lively, and turn from a classic open mic into a full-fledged jam of a kind I have not attended since the great Szimpla Kert jam in Budapest a couple of years ago.
There were flutes, a sax, congas, bongos, singers, guitars, bass, just everything! And I managed to play on two occasions – once for a set of four songs, then for a one song thing where I was joined by the sax player and some percussionists.
Cologne is a beautiful city, but there is not much music, or not much in the way of open mics and jams – although there is classic stuff and a few karaokes – so that may well turn out to be my last open mic this weekend. But it was well worth it, and Micha has clearly taken on the work of Daniel in more than honorable manner.
In fact, the Tankstelle bar is a very genial location with cool drawings, murals and artifacts on the walls, ceiling and with sofas, easy chairs, tables, a horseshoe bar and a very cool youth population of clients and musicians. Really a happening spot in the desert of this otherwise not so pop-culturally inclined region of Germany.
Man oh man oh Mannheim, I never thought I’d find myself playing music in a McDonald’s in Mannheim, recording “Crazy Love,” with a German violin player with the Italian name of Tonio. But that is exactly what happened last night just before midnight, and just before we got kicked out….
Thing is, Mannheim is a crap place for open mics and jam sessions. I stayed here a couple of years ago while attending the German Grand Prix in Hockenheim, and I did managed to find one odd bar to play in and then a down moment in a karaoke to do my guitar and singing number. But arriving here yesterday, I felt quite demoralized, and after a nice dinner of schnitzel or some other pork-based delight, I walked out of the restaurant to find a young man looking at the menu and with a violin on his back.
My “opportunity” lights flashed brightly and I asked – with my guitar on my back – if he knew of anywhere to play in an open mic or jam. Tonio – as I would find was his name – spoke perfect English, and he said, “Heidelberg.” Yes, Heidelberg is next door to Mannheim, but there were no hotels available when I looked. So then he said he would ask some friends in a pub across the street, and each one he asked answered: Heidelberg.
Mannheim ain’t manly in the way of live music. So anyway, Tonio also told me that did like me, when he traveled, he looked for people to play music with. He had just returned from Amsterdam, where he had joined some buskers playing in the street.
Feeling somewhat defeated, I thanked him and left. But as I made my way toward the bar where I had played last year, I suddenly realized I had let slip the most important chance of my whole four-day trip to Mannheim. My project this year on the never-ending worldwide open mic and jam musical adventure is not simply to find and play in an open mic or open jam. It is to play with a local musician in every country I visit, and to record the playing. So far I have succeeded in every one of the 10 or so countries I have visited since March.
I suddenly realized that there was an interested and willing, classically trained violin player who liked pop and jazz as well as classical music, and that I had actually walked away let down. Without even asking him to play. So I ran back to my hotel, picked up my recording device – which I had forgotten there – and returned to the pub across the street from the restaurant where I had eaten. There I found Tonio again, about to eat his meal, with his sister and friends.
I arrived and told him my goal for the trip, and he said he would love to play some songs with me. So he ate, I socialized with him and his friends, had a beer, soaked up the atmosphere in this fabulous, popular, student pub, and then said: “So where should we play?”
We decided to head for the main public square, but by now it was so late it was likely to be considered a public disruption if we played there. Tonio suggested we try the McDonald’s restaurant just off the square. We arrived a bout 20 minutes before closing time, we were the only people in the McDonald’s – Tonio and two of his friends – and we ordered coffees and sat at a table. I turned on my recording device and we played “Crazy Love,” me on guitar and vocals, Tonio on violin and doing great mouth drumming sounds and then ad lib lyrics. Got through all but the final verse, and were then kicked out by the manager.
But I GOT my recording of me playing with a local!!!!! Couldn’t believe it! And in a McDonald’s of all places…. Thanks Tonio.
It went so smoothly I could hardly believe it: Without consulting any notes from two years ago, I walked out of my hotel near the cathedral in Cologne, took the U-Bahn to precisely the right station, headed down the precisely right street and arrived at the Tankstelle bar to find an announcement outside that there was an open mic.
I had first discovered the Tankstelle bar‘s open mic two years ago on my first world tour of open mics. It had just begun three months earlier, and it was the only open mic in Cologne, and it was run only on the Thursday and I had stumbled upon it on the Thursday. Founded and hosted by the genial Daniel Klaus, a fabulous guitar player – his flamenco is crazy – and good singer, I had very little hope that I would find the open mic still existed when I set out last night. But there it was, soon to begin.
So I went out, ate a pizza and returned. Not only did Daniel remember me almost instantly but he remembered me precisely: “Cat Stevens?” he said. “Yes,” I said. “That’s me.” It was at the Tankstelle that I had sung “Father and Son” for only the second time in public. (I’ve now sung it probably around 100 times.)
Anyway, the atmosphere was fabulous as it was two years ago, but the open mic stage had moved to another part of the bar and now dominated the evening and the bar. It was full, bubbling with life, and a good mix of both German and English songs. Oh, and there was a wonderful touch whereby Daniel bangs a gong between each act, before and after the act, so that the bartenders at the other end of the large bar can turn on the house music between acts, on cue.
Definitely a worthwhile event if you’re ever in Cologne. I hear there are some other jam sessions, but I remain skeptical as to whether I will find them, and precisely what the quality will be like. Keep posted.