This week I went on a bit of a mini-tour of some open mic sessions, performing with Jacqui Sampson as our new folk ‘band’ The Wildest Way. We had a great couple of nights playing to some great crowds at a couple of marvellous venues in the South East of England. The tunes we played went down really well (I think!) and we had a wonderful time listening to the other performers around us.
Highlights: There were some great moments of proper music that it was a joy to be in the audience for. The best things were the unexpected and quirky things that we wouldn’t have seen at a ‘normal’ gig. The Schubert lieder performed beautifully on the pub piano, the bizarre but perfectly unanticipated keyboard electronica performance with equally perfect growled vocals, the proper blues played on harmonica and slide guitar showing that melancholy doesn’t have to be sentimental.
Leider at The Brunswick, Hove
Lowlights: The plague of singer / songwriters with mock melancholy angst… [ find yourself another outlet for your therapy! ], The scariest of prima donnas shouting abuse at people closing a door slightly too noisily as they came in to listen during her exquisitely painful creations.. [This could have also been a highlight, as it had Jacqui and me giggling in terror throughout the rest of her performance!]
Great session in action at The Trolley Stop, Tooting, London
I’ve been playing regularly at various open mic sessions for the last 18 months or so. The first one went to was down in Cornwall a couple of years ago, where I went down and didn’t dare to get my banjo out to play on. [things have changed a bit there...] In my mind I didn’t know of anything like this that happened near me and it was a wonderful part of the Cornish folk thing…. I have since learnt that there is so much of this happening on my doorstep that I had just not realised was there before. On any weekday night there is a plethora of different venues with various styles of sessions going on with a wonderful cast of local musicians sharing the stage together.
However there are issues that people raise… about how open mics devalue music… Pubs and venues get used to paying for a single person to run things and bands then miss out on bookings. But on the other hand bands are expensive and if having an open session means that a pub can actually get live music in this way rather than none surely that is a good thing! These sessions are also fantastic in that they give a beautiful chance for people of all walks of life to get up and perform in front of a friendly audience. Performers who couldn’t manage (or have no urge to put on) a whole gig can perform and more experience players can try out new material, network and get better known by venues.
I think the issue with open mics is more subtle though. For me its more about the platform that these sessions create. Our pubs and the music we play in them should be more shared, and we shouldn’t need a special night, a PA system and a stage to make this happen. All we need is musicians who are willing to perform in, and with, their community and venues to have the confidence to make it happen. Pubs should have pianos that are open and encouraged to be used, pub goers should turn up with an instrument and expect to play it. Everybody should have their own song and be encouraged to sing it!
I have blogged previously about professionalism in music here. Maybe I’m hankering after some rustic idyll that can’t exist in our society, [but if it does let me know! ] but for me the Open Mic session promotes the idea of the professional performer rather than detracting from it. Musicians end up doing mini gigs, with mini sets of their own music, rather than something collaborative. The open mic is somehow too much about the ego and not about the musical experience.
I’ll still be going to the sessions near me. There are some great ones in local pubs and I love performing alongside the other musicians there. I do love these sessions, both watching and playing at them, but somehow I feel that they and the musicians at them could offer more!