SAO PAULO, Brazil – Yes, here I am sitting in my hotel room in Sao Paulo, overlooking the bright lights of the big city. But thinking still about my last night bar-hopping in Austin, and seeing two French-like bands, both of which have members that have been in Austin for 25 to 30 years. So there was a very cool, and unselfconscious mix of English pop and French pop.
Un autre monde at the Firehouse:
The first was taking us full-circle from the first night in Austin, where I saw one of Olivier Giraud’s groups playing with him on guitar and synth, to now, Olivier with his original big huge successful 8 1/2 Souvenirs band playing all sorts of traditional lounge kind of stuff, including some very French stuff, as you’ll see in the videos. This was at the relatively new, and relatively cool C-Boy’s Heart & Soul bar, with its neat stage with red ribbon kind of backing to it. 8 1/2 recently reformed at popular demand; it was a well-known Austin swing jazz band from the 1990s that released two albums with RCA, and something else with an independent label in Austin.
From there, I went on to the very nifty Firehouse lounge, with its more basic and brutal stage and sound of the band of the crew from Justine’s restaurant, a fabulous French restaurant where I ate a few days earlier. The owner and some of the staff put this band together with other friends, several of whom have known each other since they were teenagers, and guess what? have lived in Austin for, like 30 years!
Check out especially, “Un Autre Monde,” of the French band Téléphone.
Oh, and by the way, the Firehouse is accessible from the front hostel entrance by pulling to one side the bookshelf, which disguises a door. And please note that on Wednesday nights, the Firehouse becomes an open mic….
Austin’s Open Mic Scene in the Midst of the Musical Capital of the….
Austin likes to call itself the Live Music Capital of the World. My own feeling is that it is certainly the live music capital by square mile of the U.S., and but I think there are other amazingly equally vibrant live music places, like Istanbul. Whatever, the truth is, there is music everywhere in Austin. Of that there is no doubt. On the other hand, there are so many musicians and so many concerts of every level and in every kind of location, that the open mic scene itself does not necessarily profit by the musicality of Austin, in my experience so far after only two years’ brief visits. The city has so many locations for musicians to play, in other words, that it has less need of open mics as entertainment spots, and there are more places for musicians themselves to play. That said, Austin is a cornucopia of open mics! One open mic organizer told me that she thought there were five to 10 open mics on any given night in Austin. I think it might be a bit of an exaggeration, but there are certainly lots. My problem is that in the limited time I have been there, and with my job responsibilities, I have not played in that many.
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 more than 20 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.
AUSTIN, Texas – I wrote quite extensively during my visit to Austin last year about how this amazing city really does live up to its “weird” name sometimes. So last night’s open mic adventure added another little chapter to that impression….
I set out for an open mic at a place called the Waterloo Ice House, which is a bar in a mall in south Austin, an open mic that has existed for around five years and is hosted by a woman named Julie. So first of all, par for the course, the car’s GPS decided that it did not want us to get to the correct address and did all it could to prevent us from getting there, as it seemed to have done last Friday when I wrote on this blog about getting lost in Austin and never finding the open mic we set out to find.
So the lesson having been learned, my friend who was driving decided to turn off the car’s GPS and use his own knowledge and his telephone’s google map. Bingo! We found the Waterloo Ice House. My immediate impression when I entered, though, was that there was no one there in the way of either musicians or spectators. But my friend told me the open mic was taking place in the garden in the back. So we went to the garden in the back and there found that the open mic was indeed going to take place there, as all the equipment was set up: A couple of speakers, mic stand, the usual stuff. Looked really professional.
Still, there was a table of about three people, and that was it. And there was music from speakers from the bar and music coming from the inner park of this mall structure, too. Julie approached immediately, and I was relieved to see her hospitable attitude and she said immediately that her feature band had not shown up, so if I wanted to play, I could.
I agreed, sat down, took out the guitar and waited for Julie to return, since she said she’d gone off to turn off the above mentioned music. She was gone for around 10 minutes, and when she returned she bore bad news: “Sorry, but we can’t turn off the music, so I’m afraid the open mic has been cancelled.”
I told her I’d come all the way from Paris, France for this open mic, and so she offered me a beer and an apology. It turned out, she said, that the owner or manager or something of the mall had changed and they suddenly realized they did not have access to the room wherein they could turn off the music in the park outside, and so they could not very well hold the open mic with background music on top of the performer’s music. As I was the only performer, and my friend by then the only audience, it didn’t ultimately matter that much.
I accepted the beer, and spoke a while with Julie. It turned out that not only has she been hosting this open mic for around five years, but she also hosts another on Tuesdays in Austin at another location. And as with many other open mic hosts, she knew about the other open mics in town. In fact, she told me that there were something like 5 to 10 open mics every night of the week, although they were not always easy to find….
She then asked if I wanted to go to another that very night, and when we found out there was another one about 10 minutes drive away, we jumped on it. Julie then actually sent an SMS to the host of this other open mic to ask if it was going strong and if I could still take part. The answer – from Raul – was positive, so we set off to the other open mic, at a bar called Stompin Grounds.
So I left the Waterloo Ice House feeling ever more like Austin really is weird… but I was enjoying it!
So when I arrived at this very cool and warm bar called the Stompin Grounds and I introduced myself to Raoul, he was ready for me. I got to go on within a half an hour and listen to several other acts. The only downer there was that the Stompin Grounds, last night, anyway, was one of those places where the audience listens to its friends, and then when the friend is not on stage, the audience goes outside on the terrace so not to hear the other musicians, and so to smoke cigarettes and consult laptops etc.
So it was that even at the Waterloo Ice House I ended up playing for an audience of two: My friend and a woman who stayed for one song, and when she left there was this other musician who had played before me…. Now I will refrain from saying that is weird, because it happens all over the world from time to time. I was simply happy to get behind a nice mic and sing my heart out in weird Austin again, finally!
In a conversation in the car as we returned home, my friend and I discussed about how Austin is chock full of open mics, but because it is also chock full of professional musicians doing gigs all over town in a city with more music per square mile than probably anywhere else on the North American continent, the open mics are not necessarily the biggest winners in all that. There is just no real huge need to seek out the open mic to play or hear live music….
That said, I hope I get another chance here next year….
Austin continued to give me reason to believe it is both the weird capital and possibly the live music capital of the world. The good news, or rather, the GREAT news, was the fun, laid-back and simple open mic at B.D. Riley’s Irish Pub on 6th Street. The bad news was the “Friends” bar next door – or rather, the bartender woman who proved to be very obnoxious.
I decided to go to B.D. Riley’s for no other reason than it was close to my hotel and located in the crazy center of the weird town, the vibrant 6th Street. I checked things out around the corner to find that the well-known and recommended “Hideout” open mic at 617 Congress was closed for the month for what appears to be renovations. But as soon as I walked into B.D. Riley’s, I felt welcome and ready.
It is just a classic Irish Pub of the kind you find all around the world. But the open mic takes place on a big stage at the front of the pub, overlooking the street. And with the large windows wide open, you know that you are playing not just for the pub patrons, but for the people walking by in the street.
Brad Spurgeon interviews Chris Olson, aka Johnny Fargo, the MC of the BD Riley’s open mic in Austin, Texas:
It is hosted by Chris Olson, aka Johnny Fargo, who used to host an open mic for around five years in L.A., and has now hosted this one for 5 years too. Check out my podcast with Chris, another in my ongoing series of podcasts. Unfortunately, because my computer broke down over the weekend, I lost my Audacity sound editor, and I just do not have the time to download another and do a proper edit of the interview. But aside from a few hesitations on my part, I think it holds together well as it is – it’s just a little heavy in bytes since it is high quality .wav and not the usual mp3….
I enjoyed several of the performers at B.D. Riley’s and I even managed to continue on my challenge of playing with a local musician in every country I visit. This was thanks to Chris being kind enough to ask Joe Gee if he would play with me, and Joe being kind enough to accept. We did Mad World, and it went over pretty well. Joe plays guitar and sings, as you can see in the video I did of him. But he is also a good jazz pianist.
It seemed that the night was just too good and without problems for this to be Austin – and judging by my experiences of the previous days. But that would soon change. As I left the pub with Joe I heard suddenly the sound of a guitarist in the bar next door, called Friends. The guitar caught my ear as it was Hendrix. But what caught my ear more, was that it was not JUST Hendrix. It was a great rendition of Hendrix, note and detail perfect…before it suddenly moved into a kind of Stevie Ray Vaughan sort of Hendrix. And of course, this is the home town of Stevie Ray Vaughan, and there is even a statue to him here.
Well Joe told me that this guitarist was named Eric Tessmer, that he was 30 years old, and that he could be playing anywhere all over the world if he wanted to, but tended to stay in Austin. Joe and I departed company, and as I started toward my hotel, the Tessmer guitar playing was just mesmerizing me. So I thought that with that Stevie Ray connection, I just HAD to get a bit of this on video for the blog. AND I just wanted to hear more.
So I quickly turned on the Zoom recorder and walked across the street, heading back toward Friends. I stopped in the door and recorded a lot of Tessmer from behind, before I decided I might as well enter – nothing held me back. So I went to the bar, holding my recorder all the time recording the blissful music, and when I found myself at the bar I thought I should do the decent thing and order a beer. (Remember that “fuck you!” violinist in Barcelona who was not happy I didn’t tip him? I had no change.) So I turned to the bartender woman and said I’d like a beer. All the while, I held the camera pointing at Tessmer, and recording.
“You know, that bag of yours is a little obnoxious,” said the bar tender woman.
You can hear this on the recording if you go right to the end. I was slightly in shock, because my guitar bag – she was referring to it being on my back – was not blocking the view of anyone standing at the bar. Of course, I had no plans to keep it on my back the whole time I was there, but it was clear that I was recording the guitar solo and would take it off when I finished that – or rather, when he finished.
“Ah, yes,” I said. “Well, I’d like an obnoxious beer, please.”
“When you take that bag off your back I will serve you the beer,” she responded.
I said, “Okay,” and I closed off my video recorder and walked out of the bar. I will not return. And once again I have found Austin WEIRD! I mean, HOW on earth can this be the live music capital of the world if a musician is treated like shit and insulted because he enters a bar with his guitar case on his back, and is clearly making a video of a performer – a fellow guitarist – so has not yet had a moment to remove the bag?
I have never in my life been spoken to with such arrogance and disdain because I had my guitar bag on my back in a live music joint!!! Or anywhere else, for that matter! (Except on flights when nervous stewardesses are convinced it’s a machine gun.)
It was rude, arrogant and above all obnoxious. And such a huge contrast to the style of the bar and above all the great music played by Tessmer, and the reputation of Austin as the live music capital of the world. Oh, it fit in perfectly with its status as being “weird.”
Don’t get the wrong impression by this post. I am not angry and frustrated by the woman’s reaction and nastiness. That’s more her problem and that of giving a bad image of the city. But I thought it was very much par for the course so far in terms of my strange mixture of experiences in Austin!
Tonight I head off for my final open mics in the city. I hope I find some, since the two or three best of them all that I had been recommended no longer run as of recent weeks or months. So I’m stepping out into the dark again….
The original challenge on this blog last week was for me to find out if Austin truly is the live music capital of the world, as it calls itself. I had no idea that over the full three next nights of my stay here I would not find out anything about that fact due to Austin ALSO being what it likes to call, a “weird” place, with a city motto of: “Keep Austin Weird.” I can now conclude on that part with a definite YES.
Austin is weird all right. But I’m hoping to establish over the next two nights whether it is the live music capital of the world. The weird bit got in the way on all three nights, although last night I finally, finally began having indications that this COULD be the live music capital of the world.
Weird? Well, the thing is this: Although I had basically resigned myself to the fact on Friday that I had missed the most likely open mic for me to do – a thing at a coffee house from 5 PM to 7 PM, because it was too early, I did nevertheless have an errand to run also. That errand was for myself and it had to do with going to the airport to pick up my passport, which I had left on my flight from Dallas to Austin on the Wednesday night, and which had finally been found.
Standing in the lobby of my hotel in downtown Austin, the reception desk people called the taxi dispatcher and ordered me a cab. After 20 minutes, and no cab, the reception called again. Each time they had been assured a cab would be sent – after all, this was a dispatcher for a cab company. They called a third time after another 20 minute wait. No cab, in fact, ever came in response to the call. That said, I did get a cab when one dropped off another person at the hotel. So I did get my passport.
That seemed a little weird, and what seemed weirder was that the reception people thought I was weird for thinking that was weird. It seemed it was normal in Austin. Okay, fine. So the next night, Saturday, I found the most wonderful looking open mic, at the Cigar Room in Lakeway, a suburb of Austin.
The deal was that the musician who got the best crowd reaction to his or her music actually would win $150!!! It is a weekly thing, and if there are four musicians or more, the prize money is there to be won. I was really, really excited about the challenge, and keen to try my crowd-pleaser songs (What’s Up!, Mad World and Father and Son seemed right.)
So I went to the hotel lobby and booked a cab.
Yes, you got it. You understand. No cab. Same deal as the night before. Exactly the same deal. Same story. Now I knew that Austin was definitely the crappiest cab capital of the world, no doubt. But again, the reception person in the hotel seemed to think I was the weird one, expecting a cab to arrive once it had been ordered. Was I in the Addams Family show, I wondered?
Anyway, the open mic was located 20 miles outside the city, it started at 9 PM, and it was already after 8 PM by the time I had spent an hour waiting for the cab. I decided to kill the idea, thinking that if I ended up in Lakeway with no cab at the end of the night I’d NEVER get back. Oh, I forgot to mention that during that hour wait I did also go out in front of the road and try flagging down a few of the empty cabs that passed by on the road out front…none of them stopped. I think they might have been scared of my guitar case on my back, but I’m not sure I understand. It was weird. I gave up.
So I asked where there was a good Mexican restaurant. And as I walked there to where the reception people had recommended, I passed by the coffee house that runs the open mic on Friday night that was too early for me (as I was at the race track at that time). I decided to ask them about their open mic. I then told them about my taxi cab story.
“Hey, we called a cab last night for a man here, and it didn’t come either,” said one of the women.
Okay. Austin is weird.
So anyway…. last night I finally decided to defy all cabs in Austin and walk into the downtown area to attend an open mic at the 311 Club located at 311 East 6th Street. From my hotel across the river it was only a 15 minute walk at the most, and I wanted to finally see Austin and see if there really was live music all over the place. To say nothing of my desire to play in the open mic.
So I navigate my way across the river and as I get to the center of the town I hear music everywhere and I begin to get excited. I am so looking forward to doing my own music at the 311 Club – which had several listings on the Internet for its open mic every Sunday night – that I don’t stop to listen to any of the bands.
I get to the 311 Club to find it all closed down and looking like it is out of business. Yes, well, that was kind of weird too. So no open mic.
Oh, and just before that I had run into Lisa, the MC of the Flipnotics open mic from Thursday as she drove up 6th on her pedicab. She offered me a free lift, but I said I could walk. Small city, Austin, I thought. And I was reminded of the only good night I had thus far had in this musical city.
But I decided just to walk down 6th and see if I could find any action, and taste the live music sounds. In fact, it started feeling a little like Istanbul, which I consider the live music capital of the world, with all the various kinds of music pouring out of the bar facades and a kind of wall of sound hitting you in the face in the street.
A few doors down from the 311 Club a guy outside a bar called Agave sees my guitar and asks if I want to go in and jam. I look inside, and there is a man at a mic singing a karaoke.
“With my guitar?” I ask.
“Yeah, just ask the man on the mic.”
That was it, I go into the long, dark bar with around 10 women standing at the bar and only one or two guys, and I get a beer, listen to the karaoke and ask the guy who was singing if I can plug in and play and sing.
“Yeah, go ahead!”
So I do. And then a couple of women want to use my guitar and play – it’s the birthday of one of them – and then I do another song. So we have a karaoke that has become an open mic in the most relaxed manner I have ever seen outside Istanbul. And I begin saying to myself, “This COULD be the live music capital of the world.”
But whatever it was, and weird is certainly part of it, I liked it. More adventures to follow!
It was a sign. Definitely a clear sign. I was pressed for time and got back into downtown Austin at 7:20 PM. I had about six choices of open mics to attend, but a reader of this blog – the nicely-named Christy Moore – had suggested to me that I attend one called Flipnotics. I checked a list given to me by two Austin musicians in Paris, and Flipnotics was also one of the two best suggested for Thursday nights. So I looked for the address and found… it was 10 to 15 minutes walk down the street from my hotel, without even turning a corner…. Furthermore, it had been suggested that I show up by 7:30 to sign up, although the open mic starts at 8 PM. Could things be set up any better than that?
So, yes, I saw it as a sign. A freaky, really cool sign that the first open mic I should attend was a neat 15 minute walk from my hotel without me planning it. I went, got to this funky cafe-cum-bar called Flipnotics, and found the very cool Lisa setting up the stage. A few minutes later, around 7:45, she came out to the terrace where all the hippie-like musicians stood around discussing open mics, and told us the list was open. Oh, but first, she made sure that two or three musicians who did not get a chance to play the previous week were first to choose their spots on the list.
I knew from then on that I was in good hands, this was a class act, that Lisa was a true blue open mic MC. I would see that even more as the evening progressed. Oh, I almost lost faith when once she had got those first names on the list she basically said the list was open, go at it…. and it was each man, woman and weirdo to him or herself as we all descended like crazy people on the list to try and write our names in the 20 or so open slots. (I think there were 17 musicians.)
My mention of weird is NOT an insult. Austin, you should know – if you do not already – has as its motto: Keep Austin Weird. So I would have been disappointed, I now see in retrospect, if there was not some weirdness and weird musicians at this open mic. I was to be rewarded with weird!!! But only two of the 17 could really be called weird. So it was not in any way an impediment to the beauty of the evening. It was fun.
In fact the whole evening was fun. There was a real broad cross-section of musicians, songwriters, and even a bit of rap-type stuff. The place has a fabulous cozy feel to it – funky like I said – and Lisa is very strict about keeping the audience quiet to listen. And if you want to talk, you can go out a little beyond the terrace, or porch, and speak and warm up. Or you can go through the doors into the bar area and talk at the bar, order a beer or glass of wine – and some kind of Mexican food I do not recall the name of, but which I ate for dinner. It was okay.
It turns out that there has been an open mic at Flipnotics for years, but it had ceased to exist for a few years too before Lisa took it over a few years ago. Lisa is one of these special breed of open mic MCs who has a style about her that is really pleasant, and a basic openness and love of the musicians who come to perform. A real, cool, traditional open mic worth the visit. And that sign of it being just down the street could not have been more clear. Hope I do as well over the next few days….