SEOUL, South Korea – I was saying to Tony at Tony’s Aussie Bar in Itaewon last night that I had a weird feeling of both never being in his open mic and bar for more than about five minutes at a time, and yet never really feeling the break in between, as if there was a continuum to it. Maybe that is because you always know what to expect at the open mic and jam session at Tony’s: Fun, crowds, great music, wonderful hosting and an amazing sense of being welcome.
Itaewon is a very cool neighborhood in Seoul, the capital of South Korea, where an expat also feels at home in general. Fortunately that does not mean that there are no Koreans present; I mean, what would be the fun in going to Korea if you did not rub shoulders with Koreans. Itaewon is full of locals, but it is also a big hangout for foreigners and their culture: cookie shops by the dozens, fast food outlets, antique shops aplenty, the Hamilton Hotel – and the much better IP Boutique Hotel, where I stayed – expat bars like the Rocky Mountain Tavern, which I mentioned last week, but above all: Tony’s Aussie Bar.
The open mic is mostly an open jam where Tony, who plays in just about every song on his practice, electronic drum kit, manages to put up as many musicians as possible at the same time. I seem to have found a great bass player there each year I go, and each time it is a different one. Last night it was the French-speaking Marshall from the Ivory Coast who played his fretted bass so smoothly it sounded like it was a fretless.
There were some of the usual locals I have met there before like my fellow Canadian, Yvon Malenfant, who plays a mean acoustic and sings his own songs and a few covers. There was an excellent Korean singer songwriter kind of guy with a very smooth voice. And then there was the new Italian contingent, with the mad lead guitar player who put as much energy into histrionics as he did his lead and riffs.
A Multicultural, Multimusical Vibe at Tony’s Aussie Bar Open Mic
There was also a keyboard player from Italy, and that was a discovery for me as he played during my set of the three song, and I realized how sweet a keyboard backing could sound on my song “Borderline.” I had intended for the first time to not play “Mad World,” and I wanted to try my more quiet, acoustic, delicate “Crazy Lady,” but once I got up there with all the musicians, I succumbed once again to the feeling that I needed to do something that I was certain everyone could jam on.
So I did “Mad World,” and once the official jam had finished Yvon and another guy and I began playing acoustic and continuing a quiet little jam – when I did play “Crazy Lady” – and it was during this that Tony told me that he always loves it when I come each year and play “Mad World.” He gets into the drumming groove, and also loves Tears for Fears. So I realized that I had done the right thing.
And so has Tony, in creating this amazing corner of an amazing corner of Seoul – decided expat, but also, decidedly open to any kind of music in the world.
MOKPO, South Korea – For my 14th city installment of my worldwide open mic guide today I am loading my Seoul page. (Pay no attention to my MOKPO dateline. I am in the south of Korea today, but return to Seoul tomorrow, where I will again play at Tony’s Aussie bar!) As a reminder, it all started with my now very popular Thumbnail Guide to Paris Open Mics, Jam Sessions and other Live Music, and due to that guide’s success, I decided this year to do a similar guide for each of the cities I travel to during my worldwide open mic tour.
Seoul’s Open Mic Scene is Driven by Expat English Teachers
Seoul is so big and my time spent there on each trip is so limited – I stay one or night on my way to Mokpo in the south, and sometimes another night on my way back – that I have not been able to properly explore all the Korean musical venues. But the city has a vibrant expat community, and within that, a vibrant, if often ephemeral – open mic and jam scene. This expat community is bursting with struggling musicians and singer songwriters from Australia, England, the United States and Canada who work as English teachers on the side. They have set up open mics all over, with a high number in the Itaewon district, which is the expat centre of the city as far as I can make out.
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.
SEOUL – Back on the road after a short week away, I spent 24 hours getting from Paris to Seoul via Dubai and I was pretty exhausted. But as I knew I was spending only one night in Seoul before moving down to the real action in Mokpo, on the south coast, I decided that I must never assume that it is too late to find out if there are any open mics happening in which I might be able to play.
I certainly had an excuse to despair: It was already around 9:30 at night and I had arrived in my hotel room barely an hour before. What chance would there be of finding an open mic in Seoul, South Korea, when nothing showed up on the Internet for a Wednesday night? Still, I decided to shoot a message off on Facebook to an American musician friend I met at an open mic in Seoul a couple of years ago. And he happened to be online, and he happened to know that there was an open mic happening in Itaewon – my cool, laid back neighbourhood – in a bar called Rocky Mountain Tavern.
“Just ask someone where it is,” he said. “A few minutes from the station.”
As it was a few minutes from the station and so was my hotel, I decided to be clever and seek the address on the Internet and then go and find the place without asking anyone. Having walked around 10 minutes and not finding anything, I suddenly saw a couple of caucasians, one with a guitar on his back.
“Do you know where the Rocky Mountain Tavern is?” I asked.
“Ah, that’s where we’re going. You going to the open mic?”
And so we headed off in the opposite direction, the direction of my hotel. So had I not been so clever, I’d have found that the Rocky Mountain Tavern was just across the street from my hotel.
But what was even more miraculous in this series of events was that it turned out that the Rocky Mountain Tavern is a Canadian pub, owned by Canadians, and looking like a cabin in the rocky mountains and serving Canadian things like Canadian beer and even poutine.
Even better, the open mic had not yet begun. It turned out to be the first of a new open mic for the place, although they have had music and open mics or some similar thing in the past. It also turned out, very fortunately, not only to be populated by Canadians, but also by many, many Koreans, and even Brits and Americans. SO I had not travelled all that distance to find myself in a Westerners-only situation.
The open mic took place on the second floor of the bar – which feels like around the fourth floor of the building – and it was a full-band layout with drum set and several amps. In fact, one of the guys I met on the street was playing in the band that did most of the action last night, a band of Seoul expats, called “Fast Walkers.” And yes, they specialized in pretty fast music – even had a touch of the wildness of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, I thought.
On my last night in South Korea it all finally came together, as it has in the past, at Tony’s Aussie Bar in Itaewon, the cool expat part of Seoul where you feel like you’re in a true multicultural society walking down streets with English bakeries, Vietnamese, Mexican, Italian, American and, oh, yes, Korean restaurants and boutiques, all in a rolling terrain of …. That was becoming a run-on sentence so I thought it better to simply stop in the middle and get back to Tony’s Aussie Bar. Tony, the Aussie, is also a drummer. So when he opened his bar a few years ago, he ended up sticking in a drum set, and that ended up being a jam session, once a week.
I went for the first time two years ago, and I have not missed one since when passing through Seoul. Interestingly, Tony’s also seems to be the place where I end up eating my dinner beforehand, because he’s got great Australian lamb steaks – or at least they are advertised as such, and I like the mint sauce – and he has great Australian hamburgers, like the one I had last night with egg and … pineapple….
But most of all, in addition to the Hardy’s red wine and the various beers, he’s got the chops. Not lamb chops, drumming music chops. And he also attracts the best expat musicians in Seoul – or if they are NOT, then Seoul must be a dynamite city for expat musicians. This guy Ryan on on violin is great to play with, and this guy Ryan on guitar and vocals does the meanest Van Morrison cover I’ve ever heard – sounds more like Van Morrison than Van Morrison does, today compared to yesterday, I mean.
And then last night, this woman named Kira, an American who teaches English in Seoul, she gets on stage and sings this really nice and cool first song, and I wasn’t sure who it was by, but I really liked her voice. Then she announced that the next song is, “Summertime,” and I felt my heart drop. How many times have I heard halfhearted, half-talented attempts to sing that standard and NOTHING comes out? Far too many times to want to hear it again, in short.
But then Kira starts singing it, and I’m going, “What the fuck? That’s new.” She made it different, she has a beautiful natural sound in her voice that is complimented incredibly by some great technique, and visually she is one of those performers you just lock into and know that THEY are locked into the music.
Also met up with my friend and fellow Canadian Yvon Malenfant, who did a couple of very cool covers in addition to playing guitar to back up Kira. And Yvon offered to do videos of my songs. I was a little hesitant, because the truth is, I’m a little bit shy about having videos of me up here – or rather, let’s say I don’t usually like to see myself performing – which is really hypocritical of me, considering the thousands I have put up of other people! But anyway…. they’re up, and I’m grateful he took them so I can have a souvenir of last night’s jam at Tony’s Aussie bar, with Tony on drums. Oh, and get a look at that insane bass, and it’s amazingly good player….
I travelled from Tokyo to South Korea yesterday, but frankly, when I went to play at the open mic at a bar called “The Local,” in Haebangchon – a 20 minute walk from my hotel in Itaewon – I felt almost like I was back in Canada.
The Haebangchon neighborhood has recently grown up as another popular place for foreigners, thanks partly to its cheap rents, apparently. It’s defintely more downmarket than Itaewon. But when I heard about The Local and its open mic on Wednesdays, I was delighted. And not let down.
The open mic is run by a Canadian, Patrick, and owned by his girlfriend. It is a tiny, cosy, cool place that has become a magnet to the local foreign bands and musicians, and a lot of them turned up last night. In the room, either playing, or as spectators, there were at least four Canadians, including one from New Brunswick and two from Newfoundland. There were Americans, English, and others. Oh, and yes, Koreans too.
Like a lot of small bar situations, the open mic was a success because everyone is one on top of the other – as it were – and you cannot escape the music. I liked the decorations in the bar too, old photos of Dylan, the Doors, a few LPs pinned up on the wall.
Just generally a nice vibe and great open mic. You actually get to play for half an hour! Thanks to Yvon Malenfant for telling me about this place. Yvon, from Canada, was there to play too, and he lent me his cool guitar since my pick up doesn’t work, as I mentioned yesterday.
Gotta run to catch a shuttle and so will add more videos tomorrow, but must make due with the few I put up now….
When I first looked in through the dark and gloomy window of the closed Tony’s Aussie Bar in the Itaewon district of Seoul last night my heart dropped down a few beats. It looked really small and dark, and it was at the top of a dreary hill in a great neighborhood – which lay just a minute’s walk down the hill, and not up here at this location. Add to that the sudden freezing weather, and I thought, “Oh man, I’ve got friends who said they would be coming tonight to hear me play at Tony’s and what the hell am I getting them into?”
Brad playing with Tony on drums at Tony's Aussie Bar (Photo: Simon Arron)
The only thing that gave me hope was the sight of a drum set in the corner, with a microphone stand perched high above the drums. Yes, Monday was advertised as being open mic night at Tony’s Aussie Bar, and clearly there was a mic – and there a drum set that indicated music was really part of the deal.
But I still had visions of having my friends show up – a couple of F1 journalists, and from another part of Seoul, Suki and her friend, as well as possibly a journalist from the Korea Times – and say, “Gee, thanks for dragging us all out here…for nothing, Brad.”
Another thing I started worrying about was, “Where do I eat?” I had looked at the menu for Tony’s on the Internet and thought it looked passable. But seeing the place from the outside, I thought, no. It seems to seat no more than 20 people, I thought, and the menu looks…less than acceptable. Worse, the whole Itaewon area was full of Italian restaurants, a French restaurant, bakeries, pubs, Korean and other restaurants, a real delight for the palate. And I’d eat at Tony’s?
Itaewon, was, on the other hand, a real contrast to the area Suki took me to on my first day in Seoul last week. There in that university area I saw barely a single foreign face. Here, I seemed to see barely a single Korean face. (Suki would later tell me her friend was a little worried about coming to Itaewon since it was reputed to have so many foreigners!)
In the end, I opted to eat at Tony’s. I had so many people potentially showing up, that I thought it would not be good form to show up last after gorging myself on some Italian meal and wine down the road. Thank goodness I made this decision! Thank goodness I chose Tony’s! The world changed when the lights went on and the bar opened, and above all, Tony and his gang showed up for the open mic.
When I arrived there was only one person present, an American expat woman who acts as an editor and writer in a local expat magazine about life in Seoul. I thought the place would be empty to the end. Wrong.
I ordered my meal. Mostly hamburgers, fish, and other publike fare, I went for the so called lamb steak with French fries. It said it was pure Australian lamb, so I thought that maybe with a name like Aussie bar, it might be true. It was. And when Tony arrived, he told me that he prepared all the food in the place, and that it was all authentic stuff. The lamb turned out to be fabulous, and was in fact part of the shoulder of lamb.
“We have a corral out back and I supervise the chopping up of the meat,” Tony said, joking. Tony, by the way, is from Sydney, and he has run his bar for about 4 and a half years, and lived in Korea for nine years.
He had a pea soup with a kind of pie or dumpling in it that the woman ordered. And with my meat I was served mint sauce in a bottle, which Tony said he made as well.
I finished with an apple pie and ice cream. The presentation of this was a complete, circular, apple pie, but miniature – a single portion. Good ice cream too.
And one of my favourite parts of the meal was the best bottle of wine I had since arriving in Korea nearly a week before. A Hardy’s Shiraz of 2008, bought for 33,000 won.
In short, I was in culinary bliss… ok, not quite – the meat was a little too cooked – but I did not regret this choice at all! I thought of how horrible it would have been to miss it, in fact.
It was nearing 9:30 when I pulled out my guitar to tune it, and the bar began to fill up with musicians and spectators, including my F1 journalist friends, and before them Suki and her friend.
The open mic evening at Tony’s Aussie Bar turned out to be a cross between an open mic and a jam session. Tony manned the drums throughout, and a friend of his, Freddie, played a very cool six-string bass. That was a nice instrument to have since it provided a replacement for lead guitar occasionally too.
Tony wears a baseball cap, has long hair in a ponytail, and a beard. He likes to make quips throughout the evening, and as the open mic began the atmosphere had developed from a slightly cold thing when I first entered the black interior with the painting of the ocean as backdrop to the playing area, into a warm room of music and joy.
First up was a guy of 50 years old – he told us his age at one point through some kind of a story he wanted us to hear in introduction to a song – who looked like he was some kind of business executive who played music on the side. (Hmm, I’m thinking of that song in the French musical, Starmania, “Le Blues du Businessman” – “j’aurais voulu etre un artiste……”
This man played Tony’s cream-colored Stratocaster that Tony said he dug up somewhere in two or three pieces and had repaired. All four of this man’s songs sounded to me as if they had been minted in the style and influence of the Talking Heads.
It was a nice warm up, and got everyone into the swing of things. Tony offered that I go up next. So I started out by playing my usual “Crazy Love,” in order to warm up my voice, my guitar playing, and the group effort. Then I did my new song, “Borderline,” the first time I have ever played it in a group situation like that – aside from playing with the kids out in the street in Mokpo, but that was just another rhythm guitar, not a bass and drums. In any case, it went well. I felt Tony’s drums really adding a dimension, and the song is very rhythmic and pretty fast.
Next I did, “Since You Left Me,” another of my songs, and also pretty strong rhythmically. Here at the beginning because I could barely hear my guitar or voice, I also made a little mess of the chords and rhythm at first. But I eventually got it all together.
Since the first guy had played four songs, I thought I should just do four. So I finished with Cat Stevens’ “Father and Son.” I messed up the transition after each chorus, since there’s a bit of a rhythmic change with that fingerpicking stuff, and I even made a huge stop all together, but in the end, it worked out fine too.
Soon Tony was joined on a bongo drum by Josh, who was born in Dallas, but lived in Korea most of his life, from what I could figure. He looked like the lead singer for REM and had a wicked and warped sense of humor.
The next singer, guitar player was a Canadian musician named Yvon Malenfant. That name may sound French, but Yvon comes from Moncton, New Brunswick. His guitar was custom built for him, and he said the design was a cross between two Martins. I tried it out after the show and it was very nice, indeed.
I most enjoyed his song called “Cry.” His voice sounded very Neil Young on that, and his guitar playing was very agreeable. Again, these guys had their act together. Yvon is another regular at Tony’s Aussie Bar, so they had played together frequently. Yvon teaches English and a couple of other things – including counselling – at a university in Seoul, and he is married to a Korean jazz pianist.
That was the end of it. They played several songs, and with “Cry,” Tony said he wanted to dedicate that song to a friend, a woman, who had just committed suicide the week before. It was a woman who frequently showed up at the bar. It was a touching tribute, but I kept thinking to myself, evenings like that are examples, or reasons, why it is important to hold on, go the distance, and not back down.
P.S. On my last night in Mokpo I again met with my friends in the street of the Roses and we busked for a couple of hours, earned a lot of money this time as we had grown used to playing together and had a few songs down pat and we had a fabulous last night.
P.P.S. At the airport I saw more evidence this was a music-loving country with a space set aside for Korean culture and music. I made a little video of the beautiful and great musician playing her harp-like instrument, below.