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.
For my U.S. chapter, I divide it up between the two cities I visited for the adventure, New York City and Austin, Texas.
If my first night in New York City seemed to be launched figuratively by a little taste of American trash, my last night in NYC was literally an American Trash experience. I went to Dan Schteingart’s open mic on the Upper East Side at the American Trash bar. I had been advised to go to an open mic in Brooklyn, but I began to fall heavily into the cold I had contracted after walking through the record rainfall monsoon from Common Ground to the Bitter End a couple of days earlier. And I also thought that since all the open mics I had done so far were in the lower part of Manhattan, I ought to go to the upper part for a taste of something different. Paradoxically, where the Upper East Side is supposed to be a little classier than the Lower East Side, this open mic takes place in a bar that celebrates American trash.
The walls are covered with American trash-like things, paraphernalia, objects – like a racing car (kart) – and each table is adorned with “yellow” mustard. You’ll get the idea from the videos. I went to this open mic two years ago, quite close to the time it began, I believe, and it is still going strong. Dan is a friendly, easy-going host, and while it takes a while to adapt to the spirit of this open mic after the ones on the Lower East Side, it ended up being a very fun, unpretentious evening with a great jam at the end. In fact, the jam just made the whole thing so worthwhile. We played a number of songs together, from “Mad World,” at my suggestion, to “Just Like a Woman,” at someone else’s suggestion, to “Hotel California,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” and many others.
It took me a couple of days to get this blog item up as I had to travel back from New York to Paris, and also recover from the aforementioned cold. I now ready myself for the final foray into the world on the third annual open mic adventure around the world.
P.S., thanks to Kama Linden’s friend Alejandro for doing a video of me in the jam below:
It is difficult to figure out which angle to swoop in on the Caffe Vivaldi open mic experience, that I went through last night. Although the Sidewalk Cafe open mic is often cited as the main one of Monday nights in New York City, while I tried to figure out where to go – to avoid the legendary No. #381 position at 3 AM at the Sidewalk Cafe – I kept on hearing from people about how I should go to the Caffe Vivaldi.
Located on Jones Street in Greenwich Village, I decided that I would go there and forgo the Sidewalk Cafe, but it was partly also because I had to run off to interview someone for my open mic film right in the middle of the open mic, and I figured I might succeed at the Vivaldi but would be too far away at the Sidewalk, among other considerations. So I went to the Vivaldi, and I had the most comfortable, wonderful night, beginning to end.
This is a phenomenon. It is run by Kate Sland, who is a fine singer herself, and an exceptionally talented organizer of open mics; she is authoritative without being pushy. She is fair, too, and kind and appreciative of her singers. In fact, the Vivaldi is one of the great examples of “community” in an open mic. Kate has her people who come regularly because they love her and the Vivaldi’s vibe.
I got there at 5:30 PM for the sign up, as the open mic starts at 6:30 PM, but you have to be there early. I was the third musician to arrive, but within 15 minutes there were around 30 musicians. They all stood in an orderly line waiting to sign up and then choose their lottery number for order of appearance. This is a method much in practice in NYC, but which I rarely encounter elsewhere. It’s also a system I cannot understand.
I lucked into No. 13 – but it turned out to be bad luck, as I will say in a moment. Kate puts a maximum of 30 performers up, and up to 10 PM each one has two songs, after that one song until it ends at 11 PM. In fact, she fit in a few more people and went on until after 11 PM. That is when she did a fabulous singing number at the bar with a local regular old-time singer guitar player named Erik Frandsen, who is a long-time Greenwich Village songwriter, actor and co-author of an off-Broadway musical called “Song of Singapore.” (Frandsen has also played with Dave Van Ronk and Bob Dylan, by the way.)
Speaking of “old-time,” that is exactly what the Vivaldi is all about. And if the Bitter End has landmark status, so no doubt should the Vivaldi. It was founded and is still run by an Indian/Pakistani immigrant named Ishrat Ansari. It has been running for 28 years. The feeling I get and the buzz I hear is that this kind of old style cultural and musical bar in Greenwich Village and the Lower East Side – like Banjo Jim’s too – is under serious threat of extinction. Where the buildings in the past were owned by individual landlords with more than the bottom line as their goal in life, such real estate has been bought up by massive corporate entities that are closing them down for reasons linked to the bottom line. Or they are raising rents so high that small businesses cannot afford them. The area risks losing its character, and above all its culture.
But for the moment, the few places like this that remain, are still delivering. The Vivaldi was used by Woody Allen as the set of a film, it was where Joseph Brodsky to give press conferences when he won the Nobel Prize, actors and actresses pass through, people like Sissy Spacek. There is just a massive history. And the business model is beautiful: Ansari has musicians playing every day, up to four acts per day, and he does not charge a cover charge. Moreover, the food is not bad at all – I started ordering one dish after another.
Anyway, why was No. 13 bad luck for me? Well, I had to rush out after signing up and taking my number and listening to the first four acts. I calculated that I would have an hour and a half to go out, take a cab, do my interview and return and do my two songs. When I returned, however, within the hour and a half, I discovered that I had JUST missed my turn to sing and play. Kate said that she would put me on later, however, but I would be in the final part of the evening, the zone where you get just one song. I could not complain. She lived up to her promise, and when you considered it, it was fair. You know you are in good, honest hands with Kate Sland – as with the Vivaldi itself. The level of the other musicians was very high, as well, and one of the beautiful things here is that you know you are going to be given a chance by the audience too, which rates listening to the performers as a higher priority than talking.
The name of one of America’s most famous music venues almost became the best description for my night out at the open mics last night. Thanks to Mark Greenberg, the guy who runs the Sunday night open jam session at the Bitter End, however, the night ended fabulously happy and on a high for me, and was not a bitter end.
In fact, it was a dream come true to play with a band at the Bitter End. This, remember, is a place in Greenwich Village where every musician and comedian that you can think of played since it opened 50 years ago. The list is too long, but ALL the names are on it, and you can see these performers on the site of the Bitter End. But of course I have to mention Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkle, Harry Chapin, Patti Smith, Woody Allen, Bill Withers, Stevie Wonder, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell… okay I better stop.
Since the jam at the Bitter End doesn’t start until 10 PM, I first found a very nice and cozy open mic at a bar called Common Ground, at 206 Avenue A. There I signed up and played as the first guest. Each musician gets a 20 minute slot.
There I met a woman from Latvia named Dacesita, who would later show up at the Bitter End too, and who sings and plays keyboards. And I also met Ace Elijah, whom I had already seen play at Arctica last Wednesday. It IS a small world in this big city.
But I was NOT going to miss the Bitter End. So I left Common Ground just after 9 PM in a torrential rainfall. And that is when I began to get bitter. By the time I arrived at the Bitter End I was wet, head to foot.
Then I sat under an air-conditioning vent for a decent seat to see and hear the music. I was bitter again. Not to mention freezing. Then the house band came on to open up the jam session. That gave me another reason to be bitter: They were so damn good and tight and flashy and neat that I said, “There’s never going to be any place for me to play anything up there amongst these great musicians.”
But I loved the place. This is the high-ceiling room with the red brick wall backdrop to the famous stage. How could I not be touched? Say nothing of the ancient posters on the walls of people like Simon and Garfunkle and friendly bar service and a pretty good crowd of people.
The more the night went on, the more I felt there was nothing I could play at this jam. It just wouldn’t fit in, I’d be the laughing stock of the night. Moreover, the music leaned toward blues, rock, funk.
So after avoiding signing up to the list for as long as I could, I finally decided I would pack up and leave – near 1 AM. But I had heard two or three performances that made me think that maybe with a bit of a stretch of the imagination I could play something. I had heard a strange, original rendition of “Helpless,” the Neil Young CSNY song sung kind of jazzy. I had heard Sonny, some Hendrix stuff. And was I not in a place where Van Morrison had played? Why not “Crazy Love?”
But I justified myself and say, “Naw, forget it, you have to leave and just say, ‘This ain’t my kind of thing.’ Too bad I would not play in the legendary club, but you had to draw the line somewhere.
So I left with all my things, and Mark was standing out front talking to people on the sidewalk. He looked at me as I left and said, “Do you play?”
I expressed my fears that I wouldn’t fit in. He asked what I could do. I told him mostly ballads. Then I said maybe “Crazy Love,” would work. But I worried about how there was a bridge and a chorus in addition to the regular verses and it could screw people up – the other musicians. He asked if I had any other ideas. I said, “Mad World.” It’s only the same chords more or less throughout, I said, telling him the simple chords. He said, “Do it.”
So I turned around and went back in.
So after another couple of songs, it was my turn. And it worked out phenomenally well. In fact, I loved it. The sound system was great – could have had a bit more monitor on the vocals – I could hear the band, they were tight and easy to play with (I was the weakest point) and the audience, I could see, was listening and appreciating.
In fact, when I finished, Mark and several people in the audience congratulated me. It had gone over well. I COULD play the Bitter End. And when I left, I was NOT bitter.
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 openmike.org 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!
Wednesday night at the first open mic in New York that I went to, at Paddy Reilly’s Music Bar, I was recording a performance with my Zoom Q3HD as I always do when I like something. I was sitting at the bar, not moving around, just holding up the camera like it was a cell phone and recording. In the middle of the song, the guitar player/singer guy – there was a woman singing with him too – stopped playing the guitar, stopped singing, and he looked in my direction and said, “I have this guy filming, can you shut that please?”
Here was the second guy to tell me to stop the video:
His tone was of anger and self-righteousness and he made me feel very uncomfortable as I had not been in the bar very long and had not yet had a chance to meet and talk to anyone or even sign my name to the list to play. And before I had a chance to respond he pointed at me and raised his tone more aggressively and repeated in a commanding manner, “Can you shut that please?”
Watch this video till near the end, at the 1 minute 13 seconds point, where he tells me to turn off the camera:
My defenses went up, and I said, “I can….” with the sense of, “I can, but I may not.” And he said, “Would you please,” trying to show how perturbed he was and how wrong and impolite I was. I defended myself as well as I could, shocked as I was at finding myself in a situation I had never been in before, which was embarrassing.
“It’s more important to stop your song and ask me to turn that off???”
How odd, I thought, that the song and his expression of his music to the audience came second to the need to stop in the middle of it and tell me, self-righteously, to turn off my camera.
“You think I’m going to steal your song, or something?” I asked, feeling very much as if I was being embarrassed on purpose.
“Can you just shut it?” he said without answering.
And as soon as I said I could turn it off, he said thanks and then left the stage and said he had finished for the night.
Here was the MC telling me, impolitely, in front of everyone over the microphone that the polite thing is to ask:
I felt a little sorry for the woman singer who had no say in the matter, but she seemed to agreed with the man. So, okay.
I was trembling and wondering if I myself wanted to hang around. I decided that not only did I want to see it all through, but I actually had some nice video material of a kind I had never had before in the whole world. So I signed my name on the list and waited for the next performer to go up as the previous one left the pub.
The next was a man with a banjo who said he would sing “John Henry.” I was delighted, as I’ve heard some nice renditions of this traditional American song around the world, and I really wanted to get that one on video. So I turn on the camera and the guy started playing and and within only a few phrases he stopped and said, “Taking a video of me? What’s with the videos?” He was more aggressive than the first man.
Unfortunately I turned off the video camera too quickly here as I would have loved to have recorded the confrontation more. I did get it into my mind to turn it on again when the MC of the evening joined the other and started to tell me that I was impolite to make videos and that this was a nice environment that did not need such unruliness. But I only got a bit of that.
The amazing thing here, was that this second performer also stomped off the stage and said he wasn’t even going to play any songs – no John Henry or anything else – and was finished for the evening, and “Thanks for the kind reception.”
Holy crap!!! I could not believe that these performers in the land of “the show must go on” were so sensitive and aggressive as to prefer walking out of a performance without having finished a song because someone was recording their music enthusiastically. This, I thought, could ONLY happen in America. In fact, it only HAD or HAS happened in America.
I have traveled the world for the last three years playing and recording at open mics on every continent and more than 30 cities and since last year began recording with a small video device – not just sound – the acts I liked or, occasionally, thought were just far out. Throughout the world people in general are happy to have videos made of their performances. They appreciate it, and sometimes ask me if I can send them the videos.
On only three occasions out of the hundreds of videos that I have made have I had a performer tell me they did not want me to video them. A Frenchman feared losing his music as it was not registered. An American in Paris I had made videos of for several evenings before he told me that he did not like it, so I stopped. And a British person told me she did not want the video up on YouTube, but was otherwise agreeable to the videos even on my blog. But in none of these situations did the performer speak to me during their performance, or even in a public manner to embarrass me. In all cases, it was done after the performance, or days later.
I think that when someone performs music in a public place for people they do not know, they are exposing themselves to having their music remembered – ie recorded in the brain -, spoken about, appreciated or hated. They are also exposing themselves to having someone record the sound and the image, with a telephone camera or any other kind of recording device or camera. It happens all the time, I see it around the world. I am not the only one to record performers on video (check out YouTube).
Fortunately, however, two other things happened on Wednesday night that made me feel much better about America: two other performers at the same evening – among them the very cool Sterling8 – actually approached me and asked me if I would record their number on video for them because they would like to see the result. A third performer seemed a little bit uncertain as to whether he should join the herd mentality of the beginning of the evening and hang me up and tar and feather me, but he too accepted that I make videos of him.
The next very heartening thing was that I had time to go to a second, much better open mic, at the Arctica bar, with a much nicer and more professional MC, named Brian Bauers, and I videoed to my heart’s content all evening long, sitting at the front of the stage, and no one objected. There were around 20 performers, and this was a very cool and open open mic.
By the way, at the first open mic, the herd had continued to gang up on me through to the end. A member of the audience seeing what happened earlier made a point of going to the spot at the bar where I had recorded the videos from and he recorded me on his iPhone.
He then as I left the bar said that he had made a recording of me and wait till I see how that feels. I told him I knew how it felt, and that I often did not like what I saw of myself, but that I had to accept that what I saw was what I projected as a performer, and I had to accept it.
I also told him that I thought that it was normal that a performer expect that he or she may be filmed if performing in public, but that filming someone in a private situation was clearly out of the question. He said he disagreed. I told him I did not feel the evening was cool at all, and he said, “You’re not cool.” He also added, when I told him I never had a problem with this before that, “You’re not in Canada here, you know.”
P.S. I later learned that Paddy Reilly’s calls itself the “home of traditional Irish music in New York City.” But my experience of Irish pub open mics around the world is nothing like this. In fact, this was not the only open mic at the place, just the one on Wednesday.
I have just arrived in New York City for a week of open mics. With the time difference from Paris to NYC it means I have a 30-hour day today. But it also turns out that is not nearly enough for all I need and want to do. For instance, I would love to give a detailed report of the open mic at the Ptit Bonheur la Chance in Paris last night, but a), I have to run out to my first open mic in NYC, and b) I don’t think the wi-fi in my hotel here is going to be nearly fast enough to upload all the videos I want to upload.
Anyway, it started off being kind of like an oldies night at Ollie’s open mic last night as Ollie sang an oldie, Thomas Arlo sang an oldie, a Frenchwoman named Vanessa sang an oldie, Wayne did to. In fact, it was Jesse Kincaid who mentioned that theme to me early on.
So then I decided to try an oldie too, although it is only a 1990s oldie, called, Runaway Train, by Soul Asylum. I had begun to sing this song two days before… or was it the day before…? An and so my memory had no time to memorize it. But I wanted so desperately to sing it that I decided to read the lyrics on my iPhone. I failed at that, Ollie saw my problem and came and held the iPhone in front of me, I still failed, made a bloody mess of the song, and should know better than trying such a thing. It was a most embarrassing and horrible experience. So what! It was an open mic, after all. (Even though that was TWO bad nights in a row for me…what do I have?)
The other acts were of a pretty high level and the night was full and crowded as usual.
Looking forward to many discoveries here in NYC. Keep posted as I post it… 🙂
PS, yes, my wi-fi connection is far too slow for the uploads, so I will have to wait until later to upload the videos. Bear with me.