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.
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….
There has been a long break from activity on this blog, partly because I have been traveling from Japan to South Korea, but mostly because I was lying sick as a dog in a tiny town called Mokpo in the south of South Korea for two of the three days. Sick as a dog is not a term I really wanted to use in this place, but it was the best one that came to mind. The good thing about all that is that it did give me time to contemplate the new CD of David Broad, one of the few guitar players I have seen at open mics who has made me briefly contemplate quitting playing guitar.
Mokpo is the location of the Formula One race this weekend, and I got in so much music AND work in Japan that sleep and proper nourishment and all of the rest of the things we do to keep ourselves healthy were left out of my life for a little too long, resulting in a wretched, flu-like deathly cold. Now under control, I found a moment to write about the music I did NOT play, but would have liked to – that of David Broad.
Broad is this amazing finger-picker guitar player from Leeds, England, who spent some time in Paris last year playing at the open mics and doing some concerts. He sent me his new CD a couple of weeks ago, and is it beautiful. You feel like you are in the same room with him and his band listening to his songs performed to perfection. Old time, country, blues, it’s all here. Broad’s heroes are above all the country blues stars of the 1920s and 1930s, people like Mississippi John Hurt, Rev. Gary Davis, Skip James, Blind Blake, and of course Robert Johnson.
The album is not just beautifully produced in sound terms – with its mix of his finger-picking guitar, warm vocals, harmonica and double bass, and the mandolin, lap steel guitar, fiddle and 12 string guitar of the other musicians – it is also a wonderfully produced physical CD with a screenprinted cardboard sleeve. Recorded in Leeds and released on Folk Theatre Records, it has been produced in a limited edition of only 500 copies – so get one. If you’re sick and/or low, it will bring you out of it. If you are doing just fine, it might head off the flu – or the blues – lurking just around the corner.
It is one of the main reasons I do my worldwide open mic and jam session musical adventure, and it happened again last night: Despite being in my second year in Mokpo and failing after last year and the first three nights of four this year to find anywhere to play, I did not give up, I pushed myself beyond my safety and comfort zone and I found a place to play.
Having said that, it was not an open mic or a jam session. But I did play with my guitar and sang my songs. But I’m jumping ahead of this little story, which is really about pushing ourselves forward beyond our preconceptions, our comfort zones and into territory we may fear. Last year in Mokpo the only place I managed to find to play was with buskers in the Street of the Roses in downtown Mokpo. I had ventured into one or two bars that had musical instruments and advertised live music. But they were empty of both musicians and clients. This year things went the same way and I did not even meet up with my young busker friends.
But a couple of nights ago I thought I had discovered a local equivalent of live music joint where there might at least be a jam session, if not an open mic. (Oh, Moe’s Bar and Grill, an expat joint, is holding an open mic, but not until this coming Friday, when I will be in Paris.) The places are called a “Live Cafe,” and some are “Music Bar.” There are a number of them around town. I dropped into one where I saw a guy playing keyboards and singing Korean music. But there was not only no clients in the bar, I couldn’t even see a bartender or other worker. So I just left the guy to sing for himself and continued checking out other places.
Two nights ago I found one near my hotel called 7080, and it had a neon guitar outside, and it had photos of The Beatles, c. 1964, in the stairway leading up to the bar. When I opened the door to the bar and looked inside I saw a nifty but strange neon stage, screens on the walls, and neon and silver lights and walls and chintzy music and people at tables all over in a half inebriated state. Someone came quickly to see me at the door and my immediate reaction was to say, “No thank! Sorry, not for me….”
Why? Because it was sooooooooo foreign. A lot of the Formula One journalists are forced to stay in so-called Love Motels in Mokpo because there is not enough housing. These are motels rented by the hour where young lovers and prostitues alike alight. The district in which we find ourselves, and where I found the 7080 bar is pretty much the sex and games part of what is probably the crime capital of South Korea.
So my immediate reaction was fear and also a sense that if I went into that place I would surely be robbed, propositioned, or otherwise volunteering myself for some illicit act that I wanted nothing to do with. But over the day or two since I did that, I began as I said, finding these music bars and live cafes (which are also bars that serve alcohol), and the more I thought about it, the more I thought perhaps the 7080 was just another of these. Perhaps the 7080 was a bona fide local entertainment bar with live music and karaoke and whatever. Nothing to fear but the real, true Korean experience I had been looking for all along. At Moe’s none of the expats I spoke to had any idea where I might find live music or a jam or open mic. They had not even heard of the live cafe….
So I returned the following night to the 7080 and found it had been rented out to host an F1-related party. Some kind of Korean company involved in oil and gas had bought up the room and they were doing live-band karaoke when I arrived. I was promptly asked to leave, this time, which was the inverse of what happened the previous day.
So it was that last night, desperate to prove to myself that I could indeed find a place to play in Mokpo and that if I had failed to do so it was my own failure as opposed to a failure of the city to provide. And above all, I decided I had to be courageous and not shy away from what is unfamiliar, since that is the very essence of what I am seeking out in this adventure.
I went to the bar, walked in, asked if I could buy just a beer, and I was told yes. (That was another fear, that I’d be fleeced for thousands of won in a so-called cover charge.) I went to my table and the woman very kindly brought me my Hite beer from Korea, and a piece of paper for me to make a request for a song. Although I had come in to listen the musician on the stage – who played keyboards, electric guitar and sang – it turned out it was a karaoke too, with the musician playing part of the music track.
The room had some 20 or so people in it, not bad for a Sunday night. I watched and listened, and then decided that although the Karaoke was written in Korean, I would try to request doing a song. I asked for anything by the Stones, Beatles, Dylan or Cat Stevens, since all the other stuff had been in Korean…. In the end, I got to do “What’s Up!” by the 4 Non-Blondes, which I have done a lot lately. And I did a great job! I’m usually terrible at Karaoke, but this worked. (It’s easier.) I received massive applause, people sang along, and a man immediately asked for an encore and then invited me to his table to talk.
His name was Kim Sek-Soo, and he is a Korean painter and Pine Art Master. He offered me beer, he went up and sang himself, we talked as much as we could with fractured English. And he and his wife and the woman running the bar and I all communicated for some time and had a great time. He requested I play more songs, but the musician in charge took a break. So that is when I took out my guitar and played some songs for Kim and his wife. They clapped along, the other people in the bar did too, I received applause, and then the karaoke started again and I did another song – “Unchained Melody.”
After I did that, Kim came up to me in front of the stage and importuned me to do a song for everyone with my guitar. The musician, with some sense of wounded pride – I think – eventually agreed to this, and so I played “Since You Left Me,” my song, with my guitar and vocals. It received warm applause, and we drank and spoke more and the evening eventually ended.
This, I thought and realized, was a REAL musical night in Korea at a place where the people go to have fund – the Koreans, not the expats. And I had my chance to sing my heart out in Korea for Koreans. Above all, I had broken down a communication barrier and a preconception in my own mind, and I had screwed my courage up, with the reward being absolutely massive.
That’s a lesson that I want to apply to life in general. That’s why I love this adventure.
P.S. Oh, by the way, I managed to get a video of me doing “Unchained Melody,” and “Since You Left Me.” But it was too long for YouTube, so I tried to put it up but it would not go. I will have to edit it and perhaps put some up another time. Or use it in my film.
Last night in Mokpo, South Korea, I was hit by the sounds of music everywhere – even where I least wanted it, as loud as anything in my cheap and crappy motel room. But the one place I really wanted it, I could not find: An open mic, jam session or other music-friendly place for amateur musicians.
Mokpo is celebrating the Korean Grand Prix Formula One race, and the city is in festivity mode. There is an outdoor stage just around the corner from my motel, and the stage was rocking all evening and until after midnight. They told me at the reception desk that the loud music – that pierced into the room through closed doors and windows – would continue until the morning. That is when I despondently filmed the dreary interior of my motel room in order to give an idea of how loud the music was in there. As it turned out, the music stopped shortly after midnight, so I could sleep. (I had an early interview to do in the paddock today.)
Having said that, there was a pretty good Led Zeppelin cover band playing much of the time, although it was not perfect and I enjoyed counting the notes they missed on the lead breaks. What was more difficult was figuring out during “Whole Lotta Love,” if the sexual panting was coming from the singer or from the room next to mine in the motel. Like many of the Formula One journalists, you see, I am staying in what is known as a “love motel,” meant for a short stop of an hour or so… such is the lack of accomodation in Mokpo.
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.
I think I found out last night why all the music bars have been empty in the new downtown area of Mokpo: The entire population of the city and all its visitors have been congregating down at the waterfront in a music and fun festival surrounding the Formula One race. I made a quick visit to see if there would be any chance of finding a microphone or stage for MY music, and quickly realized it was not possible.
So I headed back to the downtown area – the new downtown as opposed to the old downtown – and made my way to Rose Street, also known as “The Street of the Roses,” where I reported finding some music places yesterday. It was getting late and I’d had Korean barbecues for the last two nights, so I opted for pizza at the “11 A.M. Coffee Shop,” which is just below Moe’s Bar and Grill.
After I ordered the pizza I asked my waiter if he knew of any places I could go and sing and play my guitar and my music. I decided to cash in on his friendliness and his excellent English.
“Oh, just out there,” he said, pointing to the square on the pedestrians-only Street of the Roses that faced the coffee shop. “These guys go out and play there every night at 10 PM. You could go out and join them.”
I was slightly skeptical, and I could not quite believe that some guys would show up at precisely 10 PM to play in the square.
But as I sat down at 10 PM and began reading my MOJO magazine – still stuck in the August issue, though I have the November one too – as I waited for the pizza to cook, the waiter came up to me and said, “Come out here for a second.”
He led me out onto the terrace and pointed out two or three guys sitting on a bench and playing guitars and singing. They had just arrived.
“Great,” I said.
“They play pop music,” said the waiter.
“So do I,” I said.
“Oh, good, I’m really excited to hear you!” said the waiter, and that seemed to seal it for me.
Not to mention that I knew I had an open mic lined up for Monday in Seoul, so I did not want to take the risk of seeing all my time in Mokpo disappear without a little musical interlude of some kind. For the moment I had only managed a few songs each night in my hotel room.
So I ate my pizza, then ordered a cup of ice cream, then went out to the square. A small audience of mostly young women had gathered around the boys on the guitars. There were two guys who played guitar, and another guy who added some vocals and another who mostly watched, but occasionally drummed on the guitar case.
As soon as I entered the square one or two of the guys motioned me over to play, as they saw my guitar on my back. I nodded, took a concrete post as a seat and finished my ice cream while I listened to them.
Ice cream finished, I whipped out my guitar and began playing what would turn into an hour and a half of jamming, singing along, playing together, with Won Jin, Ye Eum, Seo Hyun and MJ. They all looked in their late teens to early 20s. They played some Korean songs, bust mostly the pop standards we hear all over the world, like “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door,” and all the rest. I played some Cat Stevens, Van Morrison, Dylan, Beatles, Lennon, and even a couple of my songs too, and they played along. We exchanged rhythm, lead, harmony and other vocal roles, and basically had a great time.
They all want me to return tonight. “Every night, here, after 10 PM,” said Won Jin, who seemed like the most dominant of them all – and the one I record mostly on the guitar and vocals on this page.
So I may well return there for another jam tonight. After I played last night I returned to Moe’s for a beer, and there I met an American expat English teacher woman from Florida, named Kelly, who told me that she saw these guys all the time. If they are indeed the same ones, she said they are actually professional musicians who play in bars in the old downtown area regularly. But they like coming to the Street of the Roses to play in that square at the end of the night.
I did too. Again, it built up the human dimension of my visit to this country I had huge misgivings about visiting before I came here – stories of a lousy rural area where the race takes place, a long horrible ride down from Seoul, inhospitable this and that – and which I actually now find to be one of my favorite trips this year….