Open mic jam sessions. Most people have stumbled across at least one such gathering. Where everyone is welcome and everyone is nervous, either because of what they are about to perform, or what they are about to witness. The adrenalin adds to the thrill. The experience is reminiscent of busking, except nobody gets paid, and there is an added sense of guilt if you walk away when someone is half way through a song. The hosts try and claim there are rules, but let’s face it, there are none. ‘Three songs only’ can be interpreted as ‘Open with Smoke on the Water, then play your morose 18 minute looped instrumental guitar piece, followed by a suicide threat relating to an ex-partner, then an ironic Britney Spears cover, because everyone knows Smoke on the Water was just a warm up. Then consider an encore’
When the host turns off the PA or has the offender removed by security after the third uninvited encore, the stage once again sits in a dimly lit anticipation, waiting for whoever has finally found themself next on the list. The earnest youth with all heart and no skills, the dedicated master with all skills and no heart. The too louds and the too quiets, the progressive, the kitsch, the unpredictable, the Next Big Thing, the last big thing, the once-was from decades past. The bits left in the sieve, the bits that are not yet (or never were) refined enough to slip through the cracks into the comfort of mainstream acceptance.
I collect these moments; a compendium of souls bore through song, in whatever city, village, nook or cranny I might find an open mic. Hotel lobbies, basement bars, converted churches or prison cells, cocktail lounges, alfresco gardens, non-descript corners and nowhere petrol station taverns. Interiors dotted with bar stools, pool tables, poker machines and plasma TV screens. Couches. Chandeliers. Candles. Crowded or near empty with cover bands, metal bands, rappers, and troubadours; suits, bohos, hobos, who knows…
The most recent addition to the compendium is the Parisian man shredding variations of Pachelbel’s Canon on a skull guitar in a packed den of warm smiles near Pont Neuf in St Germain. For the most part, the distortion in the amp drowned out the sounds of the Brazilian man throwing up in the toilets.
From two years earlier, there is the semi-crippled boy soldier (now a young man) from Sierra Leone, standing near a pool table in a tavern on an island off the coast of Washington, singing heart breaking tales with all feeling and no discernable melody as the unrehearsed and ill-briefed house band play a cheesy impromptu reggae backing mix. Never have I felt cringe and admiration in such equal measures.
Then there are the countless Mondays I spent with a friend driving down a deserted highway to a dilapidated hotel nestled between the bridge and the train line in North Fremantle in Western Australia. Of all of the evenings here, there is one that stands out. Present (other than my friend and I) were the MC, two Swedish backpackers, some regular orange vests straight from the wharfs, and Ozzie Osbourne (dead ringer). He was there every week, drinking his routine bottle of bourbon, with few words and ample presence. This was the first time I had seen him take the stage. Under the gaze of the two dull stage lights, his long black hair shone from the bottom of his black cowboy hat, his black leather get up glowed and his dark glasses reflected like half dead disco balls. The only thing that sparkled with any ardency was the white shell pieces in his yin and yang belt buckle. He slurred a few mutterings, fumbled onto his chair and then began to tune his guitar. This tension building exercise went on for about twenty minutes. The “audience” grew impatient and started to heckle (mainly: “play a song!”). As the tuning was just right he told everyone where to go in no uncertain terms, picked up the dregs of his bourbon, and exited the building. The room was quiet for a bemused moment of awe in his wake. Once again the stage was empty, waiting in dimly lit anticipation for whoever was next on the list.
Unlike a stadium gig, where every millisecond of uncertainty is choreographed away with pre-recordings, blinding lights and scripted or non-existent banter, these nights guarantee nothing. These nights cannot be replicated, only recounted by those who are lucky or unlucky enough to bear witness. These are the kind of nights you can’t pay for. These are the nights you don’t pay for.