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Stumbling into the Last Open Mic at a New York Institution – Banjo Jim’s

August 14, 2011

I never seem to learn from my lessons. My previous post talks about how you have to never give up and just turn up at an open mic place anyway, even if you think you’re late, and maybe you will find you can play. Yesterday I left my hotel with my guitar on my back and plans for about five possible things to do, only one of which seemed like a real open mic possibility. But I had heard it ended at 6 PM, and I was leaving at around 5:30, so I returned to my hotel room and left my guitar in the room, saying, “I won’t need it.”

So I went to my first rendezvous, the Formula One car collection near the cinema where the Senna film is showing, down on Houston Street. There was only one car left, a James Hunt thing. So I filmed it for 15 seconds and decided to wander on towards Banjo Jim’s open mic anyway, since the thing I really thought I would do – a show at a venue on 11th Street – was not starting until 7 PM.

When I arrived at Banjo Jim’s corner pub at 9th Street and Avenue C, I found a funky-looking exterior with graffiti-like painting on it, a musician with a guitar in a case talking with a woman, and a few other people standing out front talking. So I went inside the bar to find an equally funking looking interior. And I found myself witnessing the last performer of the last open mic in history at Banjo Jim’s. I recorded it, and the final words of Wayne Kral, who has organized the open mic there for nearly five years. The bar itself is closing down, which is why the open mic is over.

In fact, Wayne said the open mic would nevertheless move to another bar – Otto’s Shrunken Head – but as experience has told me, the success of an open mic is as much about its location as other key factors (like the host and the musicians and spectators). But this was clearly an institution in the open mic scene in NYC, and it came recommended to me by both and the MC of another open mic. And I could see instantly that this was indeed an open mic with a soul.

I spoke to Wayne, and told him I was traveling to New York from Paris just to play in open mics. So he told me there was a two-hour tribute session starting immediately after the open mic that featured many of the top performers from the open mic over the years, and that I would be welcome to play in that if its organizer – John Powers – accepted. John was one of the guys standing outside, and once I established with the musician outside – PJ Jestry – that I could use his guitar, John said he had no problem with me playing at all.

So I found myself not only witnessing the last act of the last open mic at Banjo Jim’s, but also taking part in the tribute show afterwards. And it was a warm and cozy tribute, MCd by John Powers, who was also the one to sing the last song in the open mic. He was also one of these people I have such great respect for that I meet occasionally around the world who accept a complete unknown, a stranger who has not shown what he can do musically, to play a couple of songs on their bill. That is the true spirit of the open mic, and it is all the more special when it is carried over to a regular concert program.

Clearly this warm NYC open mic in a neat, ramshackle neighborhood, will be missed by its locals. As it turns out, I also saw at least two of the people who were at the previous open mics. The bar was a local one for the singer of Ash Gray and the Girls, that guy who had the trio with two women backing singers at the Arctica open mic on Wednesday, and it turned out that the man I met in front, PJ, who lent me his guitar, was also in attendance at the open mic at Lucky Jack’s – although neither of us realized it until he read my blog item and remembered me shouting out that I was present but not on the list!

Lucky Jack’s Very Cool Open Mic in NYC

August 13, 2011

Day 2 in New York City was not only much more reassuring than Day 1, but I also learned something about open mic attendance. I had such an interesting time on the first night – in more ways than one – that on the second night I said to myself, “Well, if you don’t find a place to play, it’s not a tragedy.” I got enough out of the first night to please myself for a bit. But of course I am always aching for more.

The problem was that the only place I could see on the very extraordinary web site, was a place called Lucky Jack’s and it looked like the sign-up time was 7 PM and I was finding the place after 7 PM already, and one of the reviews by a former participant was very negative.

So I thought, “Just go out, eat a meal, relax, don’t worrry about doing an open mic tonight.” But as I said, I was itching. So I go and eat on Great Jones Street in some kind of restaurant I stumbled upon that served late, good salad, good pork, nice carafe of wine. I read my newspapers and magazines – the Village Voice, NYT, other things – and then I decide to continue the trip over to Orchard Street.

I find the place, and discover that the open mic is taking place in the basement. Sign up time was 7 PM, I’m there well after 10 PM. As I arrive, however, the MC, Sacha Chavez, is going over his list of participants and saying into the mic the names of person after person, followed by, “Not here…” There was a nice comfortable crowd, however, a bunch of musicians, comedians, and a warm little room with brown brick walls, mirrors, benches, chairs, just a very cool feel to it, with the mic up against the wall and the place reminding me of my ancient memories of the Improv club – in smaller.

So I yell out from my seat, “I AM here but my name is not on the list.”

Sacha responds with some quip and then adds something about joining me for a whiskey, the inference being that maybe I’ve already been drinking several….

In any case, I went up after the next act and added my name to the list and he said, “No problem.”

So what I began to really like about this place was that contrary to the first open mic I went to in NYC, this was an open open mic. And I soon realized that the criticisms of the person on were probably based on one bad night there. But that this place really had a cool feel to it, and Sacha was a very different and interesting MC. I loved his preaching about life between acts.

The one thing that was more difficult to take was the mixture of comedians and musicians. This is very good from a spectator’s point of view, as it adds variety. But when you are a musician and you have to get up and perform and sing something woeful and heartfelt and sensitive immediately after a comedian who has blown everyone and everything into smithereens and had you and the whole audience laughing in the aisles, then you have a hard time finding the right emotional note.

This is what happened to me last night. Still, I somehow managed to pull through, and while I played my songs “Borderline” and “Except Her Heart,” Sacha drummed along with me, and the audience clapped and/or grooved along too. So it all worked out for me.

But especially interesting and cool were some of the acts, like the luscious Eve Blackwater, with her wonderfully emotional and strong voice, or the luscious Laura Summerhill, with her coolly camp and retro song and dance number. Or the luscious… well, there were a few others, and there were some surprisingly good comedians. All in all, a great surprise. Very hip, cool, but above all OPEN open mic. Oh, and not a soul said anything about me sitting there doing videos the whole time. Why should they?!?!?

Lucky Jack’s open mic, in any case, is to be recommended. And so is going despite it being late, having bad reviews, and you just think it would be more comfortable to do something else – it won’t.

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