My worldwide open mic journey began in China in 2008 after the Formula One race in Shanghai, and little did I know that it was a journey that would continue for six more years and cover most of the globe, every continent except Africa (where I once lived and played music in an open mic decades earlier) and Antarctica, and that it would spawn a book, a blog, an album, a documentary film, numerous podcasts, music videos and other multimedia projects.
This year, 2014, I have decided to finish all of the projects and tie them together into a consolidation of multimedia. As part of my personal impetus to gather it all together for myself, but also put it into perspective on this blog, I have decided to create a page for each city I have visited on the journey, tying together samples of the whole multimedia adventure linked to that city.
For my U.S. chapter, I divide it up between the two cities I visited for the adventure, New York City and Austin, Texas.
AUSTIN, Texas – On this trip to Austin, I’ve been discovering musical joints both with live bands in concert, and open mics for me to play. In the past I would always try to find ONLY places for me to play. But this time, I decided to relax a little and find out what else exists. That has led me from a dive bar to a record store to a cool open mic I did not know in the center of the city….
The dive bar is the Longbranch Inn on 11th street, and the music was about as raunchy as the bar. I was pleased that I brought my earplugs from the racetrack, since the music was so loud I could not really hear it. So I managed to record some of the set and take the recording back to the place I’m staying in, and there I heard the band for the first time. Liked the guitar, and the harmonica – and great rhythm too. But you’ll hear the singer’s voice was too low through the amp and we can’t make out much.
That was Saturday night, by the way. Sunday night I spent the whole evening writing my race report of the U.S. Grand Prix. So last night, I attended two different events, in fact. The first was at a record store that is reputedly one of the best two in Austin. And I can confirm that “End of an Ear” is a great shop. Not only full of CDs, but mountains of vinyl. I went to the record store because there was a photo vernissage by a friend of the friend I’m staying with, as well as a band.
We got there too late for the band, but I enjoyed looking at the photos by Renate Winter, the photographer. It was photos of bands, young people, musicians, from around the U.S., some from Austin, some in Atlanta and elsewhere. In some ways it reminded me of a world I know in Paris…. Check out my short video of the photos….
And Then Off to the Ten Oak Open Mic in Downtown Austin
It was my host who told me about the open mic at the Ten Oak bar on Colorado near Fifth Street, and boy was I happy to discover this relatively new open mic, which began nearly two years ago. Run by Ronnie Hall, who has a fabulous duet called Thomas and Hall, it’s worth going to just to hear them play!
But ultimately, the real pleasure is playing through the nice sound system on the terrace of this bar in downtown Austin where other musicians and music lovers can hear what you’re doing, as does the appreciative audience within the bar. Singing in the live music capital of the world, you feel a different vibe to many other places, like being part of a secret club run by musicians and music lovers.
The level of the musicians was so high at one point that I was begging in my head for someone crap to go up just before me, but that never happened!!!
Gotta run now to another couple of musical events….
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.
I arrived in Austin, Texas last night late and had a problem at the airport and no time to go out and play in my first open mic. But I will have plenty of time in the coming week to do so, and I just wanted to put up a quick post to lay out the challenge and set the stage for the coming days. On my worldwide adventure of attending open mics and jam sessions over the past four years I have found lots and lots of musical cities and made new discoveries. I had never been to Austin before, but I knew that it called itself “the live music capital of the world.” Naturally, my reaction to that was: Prove it.
My feeling was, this is another one of those American boasts that if it happens in the United States, it must be the best. The center of the world. The “World Series of Baseball Syndrome,” you might say. But two things have led me to believe that I might, I just MIGHT have my mind changed over the course of the next week as I taste the music scene and perform in the open mics in Austin.
That feeling not only has to do with the massive number of open mics and music venues that I see listed on the internet and in the local papers. It also has to do with the small taste of the city I have had in my first couple of hours there this morning before heading out to the race track.
And ultimately, can you imagine my enormous surprise when I went to the baggage claim belt at the Austin Bergstrom International Airport and found a bunch of statues of guitars above the baggage belt?!?!?! I had my own guitar on my back, and a feeling of come “home” was huge. I could not believe it! I almost felt comical, like someone who has show up by accident at a Halloween party in bizarre costume one usually wears out of eccentricity.
That may be pushing for metaphors, but it was an amazing and odd feeling. Keep tuned to see how things progress.
Having said all that. While I am seeking my own answer to the question, what do you think? Answer my poll question:
If my first night in New York City seemed to be launched figuratively by a little taste of American trash, my last night in NYC was literally an American Trash experience. I went to Dan Schteingart’s open mic on the Upper East Side at the American Trash bar. I had been advised to go to an open mic in Brooklyn, but I began to fall heavily into the cold I had contracted after walking through the record rainfall monsoon from Common Ground to the Bitter End a couple of days earlier. And I also thought that since all the open mics I had done so far were in the lower part of Manhattan, I ought to go to the upper part for a taste of something different. Paradoxically, where the Upper East Side is supposed to be a little classier than the Lower East Side, this open mic takes place in a bar that celebrates American trash.
The walls are covered with American trash-like things, paraphernalia, objects – like a racing car (kart) – and each table is adorned with “yellow” mustard. You’ll get the idea from the videos. I went to this open mic two years ago, quite close to the time it began, I believe, and it is still going strong. Dan is a friendly, easy-going host, and while it takes a while to adapt to the spirit of this open mic after the ones on the Lower East Side, it ended up being a very fun, unpretentious evening with a great jam at the end. In fact, the jam just made the whole thing so worthwhile. We played a number of songs together, from “Mad World,” at my suggestion, to “Just Like a Woman,” at someone else’s suggestion, to “Hotel California,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” and many others.
It took me a couple of days to get this blog item up as I had to travel back from New York to Paris, and also recover from the aforementioned cold. I now ready myself for the final foray into the world on the third annual open mic adventure around the world.
P.S., thanks to Kama Linden’s friend Alejandro for doing a video of me in the jam below:
I never seem to learn from my lessons. My previous post talks about how you have to never give up and just turn up at an open mic place anyway, even if you think you’re late, and maybe you will find you can play. Yesterday I left my hotel with my guitar on my back and plans for about five possible things to do, only one of which seemed like a real open mic possibility. But I had heard it ended at 6 PM, and I was leaving at around 5:30, so I returned to my hotel room and left my guitar in the room, saying, “I won’t need it.”
So I went to my first rendezvous, the Formula One car collection near the cinema where the Senna film is showing, down on Houston Street. There was only one car left, a James Hunt thing. So I filmed it for 15 seconds and decided to wander on towards Banjo Jim’s open mic anyway, since the thing I really thought I would do – a show at a venue on 11th Street – was not starting until 7 PM.
When I arrived at Banjo Jim’s corner pub at 9th Street and Avenue C, I found a funky-looking exterior with graffiti-like painting on it, a musician with a guitar in a case talking with a woman, and a few other people standing out front talking. So I went inside the bar to find an equally funking looking interior. And I found myself witnessing the last performer of the last open mic in history at Banjo Jim’s. I recorded it, and the final words of Wayne Kral, who has organized the open mic there for nearly five years. The bar itself is closing down, which is why the open mic is over.
In fact, Wayne said the open mic would nevertheless move to another bar – Otto’s Shrunken Head – but as experience has told me, the success of an open mic is as much about its location as other key factors (like the host and the musicians and spectators). But this was clearly an institution in the open mic scene in NYC, and it came recommended to me by both openmike.org and the MC of another open mic. And I could see instantly that this was indeed an open mic with a soul.
I spoke to Wayne, and told him I was traveling to New York from Paris just to play in open mics. So he told me there was a two-hour tribute session starting immediately after the open mic that featured many of the top performers from the open mic over the years, and that I would be welcome to play in that if its organizer – John Powers – accepted. John was one of the guys standing outside, and once I established with the musician outside – PJ Jestry – that I could use his guitar, John said he had no problem with me playing at all.
So I found myself not only witnessing the last act of the last open mic at Banjo Jim’s, but also taking part in the tribute show afterwards. And it was a warm and cozy tribute, MCd by John Powers, who was also the one to sing the last song in the open mic. He was also one of these people I have such great respect for that I meet occasionally around the world who accept a complete unknown, a stranger who has not shown what he can do musically, to play a couple of songs on their bill. That is the true spirit of the open mic, and it is all the more special when it is carried over to a regular concert program.
Clearly this warm NYC open mic in a neat, ramshackle neighborhood, will be missed by its locals. As it turns out, I also saw at least two of the people who were at the previous open mics. The bar was a local one for the singer of Ash Gray and the Girls, that guy who had the trio with two women backing singers at the Arctica open mic on Wednesday, and it turned out that the man I met in front, PJ, who lent me his guitar, was also in attendance at the open mic at Lucky Jack’s – although neither of us realized it until he read my blog item and remembered me shouting out that I was present but not on the list!
Wednesday night at the first open mic in New York that I went to, at Paddy Reilly’s Music Bar, I was recording a performance with my Zoom Q3HD as I always do when I like something. I was sitting at the bar, not moving around, just holding up the camera like it was a cell phone and recording. In the middle of the song, the guitar player/singer guy – there was a woman singing with him too – stopped playing the guitar, stopped singing, and he looked in my direction and said, “I have this guy filming, can you shut that please?”
Here was the second guy to tell me to stop the video:
His tone was of anger and self-righteousness and he made me feel very uncomfortable as I had not been in the bar very long and had not yet had a chance to meet and talk to anyone or even sign my name to the list to play. And before I had a chance to respond he pointed at me and raised his tone more aggressively and repeated in a commanding manner, “Can you shut that please?”
Watch this video till near the end, at the 1 minute 13 seconds point, where he tells me to turn off the camera:
My defenses went up, and I said, “I can….” with the sense of, “I can, but I may not.” And he said, “Would you please,” trying to show how perturbed he was and how wrong and impolite I was. I defended myself as well as I could, shocked as I was at finding myself in a situation I had never been in before, which was embarrassing.
“It’s more important to stop your song and ask me to turn that off???”
How odd, I thought, that the song and his expression of his music to the audience came second to the need to stop in the middle of it and tell me, self-righteously, to turn off my camera.
“You think I’m going to steal your song, or something?” I asked, feeling very much as if I was being embarrassed on purpose.
“Can you just shut it?” he said without answering.
And as soon as I said I could turn it off, he said thanks and then left the stage and said he had finished for the night.
Here was the MC telling me, impolitely, in front of everyone over the microphone that the polite thing is to ask:
I felt a little sorry for the woman singer who had no say in the matter, but she seemed to agreed with the man. So, okay.
I was trembling and wondering if I myself wanted to hang around. I decided that not only did I want to see it all through, but I actually had some nice video material of a kind I had never had before in the whole world. So I signed my name on the list and waited for the next performer to go up as the previous one left the pub.
The next was a man with a banjo who said he would sing “John Henry.” I was delighted, as I’ve heard some nice renditions of this traditional American song around the world, and I really wanted to get that one on video. So I turn on the camera and the guy started playing and and within only a few phrases he stopped and said, “Taking a video of me? What’s with the videos?” He was more aggressive than the first man.
Unfortunately I turned off the video camera too quickly here as I would have loved to have recorded the confrontation more. I did get it into my mind to turn it on again when the MC of the evening joined the other and started to tell me that I was impolite to make videos and that this was a nice environment that did not need such unruliness. But I only got a bit of that.
The amazing thing here, was that this second performer also stomped off the stage and said he wasn’t even going to play any songs – no John Henry or anything else – and was finished for the evening, and “Thanks for the kind reception.”
Holy crap!!! I could not believe that these performers in the land of “the show must go on” were so sensitive and aggressive as to prefer walking out of a performance without having finished a song because someone was recording their music enthusiastically. This, I thought, could ONLY happen in America. In fact, it only HAD or HAS happened in America.
I have traveled the world for the last three years playing and recording at open mics on every continent and more than 30 cities and since last year began recording with a small video device – not just sound – the acts I liked or, occasionally, thought were just far out. Throughout the world people in general are happy to have videos made of their performances. They appreciate it, and sometimes ask me if I can send them the videos.
On only three occasions out of the hundreds of videos that I have made have I had a performer tell me they did not want me to video them. A Frenchman feared losing his music as it was not registered. An American in Paris I had made videos of for several evenings before he told me that he did not like it, so I stopped. And a British person told me she did not want the video up on YouTube, but was otherwise agreeable to the videos even on my blog. But in none of these situations did the performer speak to me during their performance, or even in a public manner to embarrass me. In all cases, it was done after the performance, or days later.
I think that when someone performs music in a public place for people they do not know, they are exposing themselves to having their music remembered – ie recorded in the brain -, spoken about, appreciated or hated. They are also exposing themselves to having someone record the sound and the image, with a telephone camera or any other kind of recording device or camera. It happens all the time, I see it around the world. I am not the only one to record performers on video (check out YouTube).
Fortunately, however, two other things happened on Wednesday night that made me feel much better about America: two other performers at the same evening – among them the very cool Sterling8 – actually approached me and asked me if I would record their number on video for them because they would like to see the result. A third performer seemed a little bit uncertain as to whether he should join the herd mentality of the beginning of the evening and hang me up and tar and feather me, but he too accepted that I make videos of him.
The next very heartening thing was that I had time to go to a second, much better open mic, at the Arctica bar, with a much nicer and more professional MC, named Brian Bauers, and I videoed to my heart’s content all evening long, sitting at the front of the stage, and no one objected. There were around 20 performers, and this was a very cool and open open mic.
By the way, at the first open mic, the herd had continued to gang up on me through to the end. A member of the audience seeing what happened earlier made a point of going to the spot at the bar where I had recorded the videos from and he recorded me on his iPhone.
He then as I left the bar said that he had made a recording of me and wait till I see how that feels. I told him I knew how it felt, and that I often did not like what I saw of myself, but that I had to accept that what I saw was what I projected as a performer, and I had to accept it.
I also told him that I thought that it was normal that a performer expect that he or she may be filmed if performing in public, but that filming someone in a private situation was clearly out of the question. He said he disagreed. I told him I did not feel the evening was cool at all, and he said, “You’re not cool.” He also added, when I told him I never had a problem with this before that, “You’re not in Canada here, you know.”
P.S. I later learned that Paddy Reilly’s calls itself the “home of traditional Irish music in New York City.” But my experience of Irish pub open mics around the world is nothing like this. In fact, this was not the only open mic at the place, just the one on Wednesday.