HEIDELBERG, Germany – I may be a week late writing about my night at the open mic in Jack Doyle’s Irish pub in Budapest, but there was no way I was going to let this one slip away. Budapest is not the greatest city for live music, unless you like double bass, guitar and violin players in chintzy restaurants coming up to your table and interrupting a deep and loving conversation. But open mics and open jams have become increasingly present compared to just six years ago when I started looking for them in Budapest in my around-the-world open mic journey. And about four years ago, maybe, I first found the Thursday night open mic at Jack Doyle’s, just off Vaci Street, and I’ve attended every year since. Wild voiced lead player at Jack Doyle’s in Budapest
This is by no means a hugely successful open mic by the standards of the kind I often write and rave about on my blog. But it has been animated by the same MC – with the very cool voice and repertoire – since I’ve been going, and he is always accompanied by an excellent guitar player, this time being no exception. In fact, it was an exception this time in that the lead guitar player also suddenly decided to sing at one point, with the most amazing, unique bass voice! You have to hear it on the video. MC at Jack Doyle’s in Budapest
There are never that many musicians present, but there is a steady flow, and that means you can have a chance to do more than just the usual two or three songs at the mic, if you’re lucky. Great not dire lead
The bar staff is great, and what I’ve found incredibly, is that the clients of the bar are really happy to listen to music too. It’s not one of those Irish pubs where clients are present for anything BUT the music. third at Jack Doyle’s
So all in all, it’s an excellent night at Jack Doyle’s in my experience, and last week was no exception – it was, in fact, exceptional. I got to sing and play to my heart’s content, and the guitarist played along with me, adding much value. Fourth at Jack Doyle’s
The rest of my weekend got derailed by personal things I don’t need to get into right now. Suffice it to say that I did not get to attend my other favorite open mic/open jam at the Szimpla Kert, but I know someone who did, and so I do know that it was still happening. I also heard that there were mountains of people waiting to get in this jam-packed beer garden complex in what looks like a squat. So it remains as popular as ever….
I’m now in Heidelberg, and so far so bad, in terms of live music. The university town decides to turn off for the summer…. But I will continue to explore…. I ended up at another Irish pub last night, and who knows….
BUDAPEST – Timing was everything at the Szimpla Kert open stage in Budapest last night. I had only previously ever played in the open jam session at the Szimpla Kert on Sunday nights, but I had noticed this trip that there is an open stage on Friday. So, figuring it was another one of these open nights that starts around 9 PM and closes early, I decided to check it out before eating dinner. Good thing I did….
The Szimpla is a fabulous garden bar place that looks like a squat, and is made up of all sorts of different bars, rooms, chicha smoking areas, a recording studio, everything. It has always been one of my favorite places to go at least once while in Budapest, and it gets absolutely packed tight with thousands of people in the various mazes of the rooms and halls.
The stage for the open jam and open stage is a wonderful, quite large, end-of-a-long bar room and last night there was a pretty sizeable and receptive audience, and a could of guys who were running it, jamming throughout. I showed up in time to get on the stage as the next performer and played a number of songs, with one of the guys accompanying me on bass and the other on a drum. The mic was great, so I enjoyed the singing.
After my set, unfortunately, I had to make off pretty quickly to find a restaurant. Crossing the street from the Szimpla I immediately heard a gypsy band playing in a restaurant, and a crowd around the outside, in the street. I filmed a bit but did not go in there. Instead, I found a great little Hungarian food restaurant, a traditional one, a few streets over, completely abandoned of clients – all of whom wanted to get robbed paying for crappy food where the tourists congregated.
After dinner, well before 11 PM, I returned to Szimpla, but as I expected, the open stage was finished already.
The Noctambules open mic in Paris a success again
During this time I had received some messages from Paris and the the Place Pigalle, however, hearing that Raphaëlle’s weekly Friday night open mic at the Noctambules bar was yet another fabulous one; one, in fact, it turns out that was among the best, with probably the biggest crowd yet. I regretted missing it, but it is not possible to be in two cities at the same time, unfortunately, since I love both Budapest and Paris…. But I’ll be at the Noctambules next Friday…(and thinking about Szimpla?!!).
PARIS – I wrote nothing since my days in Budapest, which I left a week ago and spent two days driving back to Paris, via Vienna. But that does not mean I have dropped the open mic adventure. My final night in Budapest I dropped off at the fabulous Szimpla kert to see if one of my all-time-favorite open jam sessions still exists.
I had discovered the Szimpla open mic, open jam in 2011. It was also the year I discovered this now hugely popular phenomenon of the kert, which is a kind of beer garden, but very hippie, very ramshackle, temporary looking multi-space bar area part outdoors, part-indoors that looks a little like a futuristic, post nuclear holocaust meeting place. They are all over Budapest, often in ruined buildings, as is the Szimpla kert.
(This video above shows me playing a horrendously out-of-tune guitar and discovering that I would not be able to sing to my guitar playing at Szimpla, as the mic was turned off for the night due to noise problems.)
The problem, though, is that the jam session has never been what it was in 2009 since I have returned each year. At least it WAS happening this year, because I don’t think it was happening last year. The problem is, Szimpla has now put the emphasis on live bands doing gigs on the stage where the jam takes place, they play early, and when they finish the stage and its instruments is open to anyone who wants to get up and jam – until 11 p.m. Not much time. Worse, it is not possible to use a microphone for vocals once the band is off stage, as they do not want to bother the neighbors.
Szimpla is Not the Only Venue in the World With Neighborly Noise Problems – See Sous Marin in Paris
Bothering the neighbors is a leitmotif in open mics and jams around the world, in fact, in any bar live music venue just about anywhere around the world. So it was that I found once I had returned to Paris and on Friday attended the relatively new Sous Marin bar open mic on the Rue Mouffetard, that they had moved the “stage” from near the front door to the bar end of the room since the last time I attended.
The last time I attended – which was also the first time – I was a little pissed off when I got up behind the mic to find the manager turning down both my guitar and mic volume to the point that not only could the chattering spectators not hear me, but neither could I! A friend asked me to turn up the volume, but I felt I had to obey the manager. (Finally, the MC came and turned it up and things went really well after that, especially when the crowd was reduced.)
Friday, no such luck. The manager pushed me out of his path from the bar to the tables while I was in the middle of a song, and then he returned to turn down the volume of the guitar and the vocals. Given that the three musicians who preceded me were quite audible right to the back of the room, and given that I had been standing in precisely the same spot as one of them, I felt a little bit like my presence was not particularly welcome. So I stopped singing in the middle of the song and left, telling the audience that the great thing about not being a professional musician was that you did not have to be professional about what you do. (There are those who would argue with that – notably a quote I have in mind from a Hollywood mogul of the early part of last century who said something like, “Show me the star who does not give 100 percent all the time, and I’ll show you the next bit-part actor. Show me the bit-part actor who gives 100 percent in every role, and I will show you the next star….”
Anyway…. The bar manager told me that he constantly had problems with the police coming and relaying complaints about the volume of the music. So that was the reason behind putting a muzzle on me. Fair enough. But what good is an open mic where a musician cannot feel wanted, and especially, cannot be heard…? This same manager, by the way, clearly treats musicians well in other respects: It’s one of the rare open mics where performers all get a free beer! And despite my offer to pay my beer even though I had sung only half a song, he insisted it was on the house…. So check it out yourselves, and let me know if I’ve bad-mouthed a great place….
But last night it was back, and has been for a few months, now run by Zsolt, an IT professional in his day job, who likes to use the other side of his brain in the jam in the evening…. It was a little different formula than two years ago, in fact a lot different. This time the accent was more on free jazz, rock fusion sort of stuff. But that may only have been due to the particular musicians who showed up – a guitarist, drummer, saxophone player, bass player.
My problem was that I showed up far too late. Two years ago it started late and went to beyond 3 AM. Now, it seems that pressure from neighbors means that it runs from 9 PM to 11:30 PM. I had stayed late at the race track for various reasons, and then I went out for a pizza after first confirming that the jam was happening. But by the time I got there to play, after my meal, it was almost 11:30. Zsolt, however, keeps the spirit of the Szimpla jam as I knew it open. He invited me to play anyway, despite the lateness, but also deciding not to use the electric guitar and bass. And after the drummer began on drums, he turned to bongos.
I did not want to abuse their kindness, so I only played two songs – my guitar plugged into an amp and my vocals going through a mic. In any case, the vibe was great, and I enjoyed the two song jam immensely. And the audience was pretty big and applauded, so the whole thing was a great capping off to my weekend open mic foray, especially as the first two had been in Irish pubs, and this one in a bona fide Hungarian kert (beer garden thing).
Szimpla: Part of a Hungarian Phenomenon of Abandoned Buildings Becoming Bars
The Szimpla garden bar area is located in a building that used to be a factory and was slated for being torn down. It then got turned into a series of bars, a recording studio, a beer garden, a place for films and lots of music and the jam session on Sunday nights.
Here is a great description from the web site: “The opening of Szimpla Garden in 2002 has been literally and also symbolically a milestone in the alternative life of Budapest. Converting an old factory into a huge open-air cinema and pub, we were able to create a unique framework for hosting concerts, theatre shows and many different cultural events. Szimpla defines itself as a ’cultural reception space’, indicating our intention to embrace genres and performers off the mainstream, presenting them in an informal atmosphere. Moreover, with constantly supporting initiatives for urban sustainability, Szimpla has been serving as an ultimate incubation house of green ideas from the very beginning.”
The jam has been on and off, so don’t get your hopes up. But if it is on, don’t miss it. An open stage where anything goes; sing your own songs or join into the free-for-all with lots of musicians on all sorts of different instruments.
BUDAPEST – Just when I thought I understood the Budapest open mic and jamming scene, after coming here now for my fifth year with my guitar and looking for places to play, I learned a new lesson. My feeling last night after I arrived in this beautiful city that I have always said does not have an open mic, open jamming scene, even if it does have a lot of music, was that I probably would find one or two places to play maximum in the four days of my time here. But as I set out to eat my dinner, I decided not to despair that I had no place to play on Thursday night, but take my guitar, keep my eyes, and above all my ears, open. And who knew?
So it was that I set out toward a specific, cool restaurant from my hotel, and I let my internal GPS and open-mic sniffing device lead me through the streets. I decided at one point that I was on a main boulevard and would never find any music unless I got off it. That led me into a very cool area where I found a lot of bars, and ended up completely by accident passing in front of the most amazing one of the city, the Szimpla Kert, a multi-level, multi-media, collection of bars, studio, smoking rooms and garden, where I played in the past in the most amazing jam session in Budapest, and possible in the world.
While it was not happening there last night – or even last year – I still hope that I may find it happening on Sunday. Suffice it to say that last night I just glanced in and then kept on my route. I decided to follow the most interesting streets right toward the center of town near the restaurant where I was headed, and I heard some musicians in bars along the way.
Stumbling Upon Dick Doyle’s Irish Pub in Budapest
As I arrived at V. Pilvax koz, 1-3, and thought I should turn right to get to the restaurant where I was going, I heard some music on the sidewalk ahead. I also saw it was one of the streets leading into the tourist trap road of Vaci Street. But then I noticed on the corner a pub called Jack Doyle’s, and I wondered if the music was coming from in there.
It turned out it was NOT coming from inside there, but in my exploration, I found that it was announced on a sign on the side of the pub that every Thursday night there is an open mic! So I entered the pub, asked at the bar, and found that it was indeed an open mic on Thursdays. If I came after 11 PM, I’d get a chance to play.
On Friday nights it has traditional Irish music and on Saturday nights a mixed night of a band and also, apparently, a fairly open stage….
So I returned after eating my meal at the restaurant, and I found the musicians who animated the evening playing, and they asked when I wanted to play, and I said any time after them. So I took to the stage around 11:30 and the lead guitarist stayed up with me and we played around six or seven songs or more, and while I played, a work colleague saw me from the street and came in and had a beer and we listened to the music together after my set.
Budapest and its Hard to Find Musical Open Stages
Then there were other singers who took the mic and sang, and the band returned, and having a very busy weekend ahead, I left well before the end of the open mic. But what a lesson: I have continually said that Budapest is not a great open mic and jamming city, but in fact, I continually find places to play. The key is never to give up, keep the eyes and ears open, and explore the most likely small streets with bars and restaurants with live music. I have a sense I may have passed another open mic at one point too, but it looked a little too dreary for me to find out….
In any case, it was a night to remember and led not only to a place to play and hear other musicians, but a discovery of a wildly animated Irish pub – yes, yes, another Irish pub! But this was run by Hungarians, with a Hungarian duo playing mostly western pop music, and a mix of expat, foreign and Hungarian clients. Check it out!
I made my way back from Budapest yesterday to Paris and then crossed town to the Batofar open mic, which happens so rarely that I decided I had to attend despite it being on the evening of the great Coolin open mic. Oh, and I must not forget to mention the last night in Budapest: Again I saw how open mics and open jams are such ephemeral things that from one year to the next you never know if they will still exist. The great and wonderful and extraordinary open jam session that ran on Sunday nights at Szimpla Kert in Budapest is no longer running. I went to Szimpla and met some musicians from Greece – one with an oud on his back – and they told me the jam no longer exists thanks to noise. They have to stop the music at 10 PM. These musicians, one of them said, had taken the jam slot for their group and they play there on Sunday nights. Anyway, back to Paris.
I was very happy that I made the most of my time at Becketts on Saturday, but I was really looking forward to playing again, having not played on Sunday. So I went to the Batofar, that great boat venue on the Seine, only to discover it was closed…but that the terrace of the Batofar located on the quay opposite the boat hosted the open mic. Or rather, it was the genial Vincent Lafleur on keyboards and vocals who hosted the evening.
The sound was clear and strong as I approached, and I found a nice duo of women singers with Vincent on piano. I bought a beer, then went up a few minutes later and played several songs, had a guy doing tambourine along with me, and one of the women singers joining in occasionally. Then I listened to a few more bits, including Vincent, and then I left for Coolin.
Oh, not far down the quay three clochards who had heard me playing and liked it, asked if I could sing them a song. So I sang, “Miles From Nowhere,” by Cat Stevens, which seemed appropriate, and then “Jealous Guy,” which was not appropriate, but they wanted a Beatles – and that was the closest I could come.
Took a cab to Coolin, listened to a few acts and then did my own. Just when I was certain Coolin would run out of steam and customers – it being right in the middle of the summer – I found the place just buzzing and jumping with customers and musicians. In fact, it got more and more raucous as the night went on, with people dancing all around the pub by the end. And for some reason, after they said the open mic was finished, someone then pumped up the house music and everyone continued singing and dancing to the recordings…. Another cool’un at the Coolin.
John Murphy was as good as his word from the day before, and last night I took to the stage in Becketts pub in Budapest and played two sets and a total of seven songs. Even better, I played with Murphy and his Hungarian lead guitar player, the dynamic Daniel Kovago. It was a fabulous evening, even if Becketts was not quite as full of audiences members as it was the last time I played there, in 2009.
But for me the most important part of the exercise – aside from having fun – was to continue recording myself playing with local musicians in every country I visit this year, and once again I got that chance. My only regret was that I played only cover songs, and none of my songs. But playing along with Daniel on lead and John on acoustic guitar and backing vocals, with me on another acoustic guitar and the lead vocals, was definitely cool. Especially since the only song I had rehearsed with Daniel was “Mad World.” And it also turned out I was not the only guest to take to the microphone, as a new client at the bar, Winnie, also sang some songs. She recently moved to Budapest from England, although she is from Northern Ireland originally.
John Murphy has been playing in Becketts for at least seven years, both solo, and with his full band. He has an exceptionally good voice and his rhythm guitar playing is forceful. The ambiance of the pub is very much the Irish pub thing, and the place once rocked to the sounds of Eddie Jordan’s drumming – Eddie being a former Formula One team owner. Apparently, before the financial crises hit, Becketts was a central meeting place for Formula One people, particularly from the Jordan team.
Lately, it has become more quiet in that area. I met one colleague there last night, although he left before I played. What has happened in Budapest at the same time as the financial crises are the opening up of several far out bars and pubs of the Szimpla kind, with multiple bars, rooms, activities and a massive young people population. They are the equivalent of the Berlin kind of place, although apparently with fewer rules…. In fact, John is persuaded – and I suspect he may be right – that Budapest has overtaken Berlin in cool nightlife for the young.
We visited another of these bars – Instant and Szimpla being others – last night after the music at Becketts, and found the place rocking. It was called An Kert, and is located near Szimpla. Kert means a garden or courtyard, and that is where most of them are located, mainly in abandoned buildings. The closest thing to them in Paris that I have found are the squats that have opened occasionally in recent years, and closed within weeks each time…. Yes, Budapest is booming, culturally. Even if there are not that many open jam sessions and open mics….
I have not updated the blog in a few days not out of laziness, but because I did not attend any open mics or do anything spectacular in the last few days. That said, I flew to Budapest and spent my first two nights either seeking or dreaming about where I would find a place to play music here. My two previous best experiences were at an Irish pub called Becketts and at the extraordinary Szimpla Kert, a wild alternative world of a bar complex.
So last night on my first real free night – after I attended a dinner on Thursday night – to go and chart out future territories, I decided to check out both Becketts and Szimpla. In fact, I had not been to Becketts since 2009, and I feared it might not even exist anymore. Thinking I might be wasting my time going there, I almost did not go. Thinking I had dinner at a place closer to Szimpla, I decided first I would check out Szimpla first.
Then I said, “no, try Becketts.” It was the kind of decision that may have made all the difference to the success of the weekend, as I arrived just at 22:00 and found a jam session on the terrace just ending. I managed to film the last two words or so of the song, and I watched as the guitar player and singer ran into the pub as if seeking shelter.
I decided to follow him, and when he re-emerged from the back of the pub I realized it was John Murphy, the very man who had given me the microphone in 2009 for a full set of my music, on the break that he had taken with his guitarist. John has been living in Budapest for something like a decade now I think, and he plays music regularly at Becketts. He invited me to return tonight where he may be playing in full band mode, and where he said I could probably play a song with his Hungarian guitar player as part of my effort to play and record with a local at every country I visit this year.
Imagine if I had arrived two minutes later? I’d never have recognized or even seen John Murphy, no doubt.
Well anyway, from there I went to Instant, another bar, and checked it out, but found no music. Then on to Szimpla, where a man behind the bar confirmed that there would be a jam session on Sunday night as there was last year. But his English was so bad, I am not convinced I will find a jam.
So after two nights in Budapest, I keep my fingers crossed that this will not be the first country where I fail to find a place to play….
It is Szimpla mad this weekly open jam session in Budapest, Szimpla mad! Before I went to Budapest I was very worried that I would encounter the first country of the year where I would not find an open mic or open jam session. I had barely managed to find a place to play last time I went, and even when I did it was a “possibly” open mic at Becketts Irish pub. Not something to get the Hungarian paprika juices flowing. But this time, oh my God, did I ever find a jam – and a half!
There was supposedly two jams on Sunday night but I decided to settle for one, once I saw how mad, manic and amazing it became. When I arrived at the Szimpla kert, which is a kind of beer garden with a massively alternative flavor to it, I had to ask around at 8 PM where the jam was. It was written up on the web site, and we eventually found a small stage area with instruments in their cases. I was sure this was going to be a jam that might not even take off. I was so wrong.
As the evening progressed the jam became a wild Bacchanal of music, rhythms, audience participation and audience dancing and free-for-all on the stage. Szimpla is owned and operated by a couple of musicians, and it is very hippie, as is the jam. There is a fabulous music studio on an upper floor, there is a VIP room – not very hippie, but cool – there are bars and narguile pipes and video screens and a full-fledged 16mm movie projector showing old arty films on the wall… there is an open air area, winding staircases, art works on all the walls, weird shell corpses of cars to sit in. If my prose feels muddy, it is because the atmosphere at Szimpla is muddy, and wonderful. Anything goes.
The jam consisted of people sitting around on the stage mostly in a circle, and playing all sorts of instruments in unison: guitars, drums, bongos, accordions, violins, triangles, a flute, singing, hand clapping, dancing. And some vocals. And at the same time, I was allowed – and Vanessa was allowed – to do simple songs, cover songs, formal songs. It is supposed to start every Sunday at 7 PM and finish at 10 PM. It actually starts closer to 9 PM and sometimes finishes as late as 3:30 AM. (I think it went until close to 2 PM last night.)
The feeling was as vibrant and chaotic as some of the moments I have felt in Istanbul and Sao Paulo; but there was something unique about this, particularly in the way the audience participated, and how the music although jammed and unprepared, held together. But freedom and free-for-all have to be the key words. And the crowd was young and hip and hippie and alternative. And other.
But I never did get to go and check out the other Sunday night jam at the other art space, called Cökxpon Café Theater. Maybe next year. But if you are there next week for the Sziget festival, be sure to check out the Szimpla Sunday night jam. Boy did this renew my faith in Budapest after a down year….
I am caught in another bind of time in Budapest. A full night ahead, a full day behind, but last night was just so spectacular and promising that I have to put down a few words before I speed off again into the adventure of the Budapest night. We went looking for places to play music and that led us to all sorts of bars and clubs, with the most remarkable being this underground thing I forget the name of at the moment, but will put in later. There we found made Hungarian folk dancing that made me think the dancers had all taken LSD. But the greatest discovery was the vast underground – in a different sense – so-called-cafe known as Szimpla.
If I thought the folk dancers were on acid, Szimpla made me feel like I was on acid. It looks like a squat, but I do not think it is. It has a web site, an events calendar, and just too many little bars and businesses inside to really look like a squat. But it is so hip and cool and vast, with its music, wall decorations of every nature, infinite variety of private rooms, narguile pipes – chicha – and fashion statements, that this place cannot be defined in a few words here.
The greatest news, however, is that Szimpla has an open acoustic jam session every Sunday from 7 PM to 10 PM, so I have finally found a bona fide open mic or jam session in Budapest and I will definitely be attending. As it was, Vanessa and I sang several of our songs together last night, playing my guitar and singing in our corner in one of the many rooms, and a few people sang along, and we just had a great little private jam session going on. Despite the loud music that meant few people could hear us. But that is the free nature of this dynamic “cafe.”