I had a dream. I was tied to a chair at the front of a small, smoky bar where an urban hippie was playing an out-of-tune guitar and singing (badly) the Beatles' Across The Universe over and over again.I think this nightmare was provoked by the thought of researching the state of open mikes in Toronto.
But if the idea of going to an open stage terrifies you, you can now sleep easier.
"I'm blown away all the time by people I've never heard of and who don't perform a whole lot," says Kevin Quain, host of the Mad Bastard Cabaret open-mike night at Graffiti's pub in Kensington Market. "They'll come in and knock everybody out."
That's not to say every performer is the next Elvis Costello or Jeff Buckley, but you'd be surprised at how many interesting songwriters live in your neighbourhood, work in your local shops, sit in the back row of your Wednesday-night psychology class. And they're not all just guys with guitars.
"I came in one night and there was an all-female accordion quartet. It was like I'd died and gone to heaven. They were called Hell's Bellows."
Of course, you also get a disproportionate number of acoustic guitar players, but after hitting only a few open mikes I'd seen a great sitar player, a couple of piano players, a handful of djembes, a harmonica, a mandolin, a kazoo and a trumpet.
"It's great to have people come out who aren't the serious-guitar-player type," says Quain. "Someone might have a joke or an amusing anecdote from their childhood or can do a weird trick with spoons."
The mood changes from stage to stage and from week to week. Tuesdays at Dundas West's Hugh's Room are a little more reserved. People listen intently as performers politely file on and off the stage.
At Graffiti's on Mondays and Thursdays, the open stage is more relaxed. There's more chatting during the short three-song sets. Tuesdays at Oasis on College seem to attract more group performances and more electric guitars.
"I've gone to most of them," says Rick Keating, an old-school songwriter who recently moved to Toronto. "My favourite is Holy Joe's on Mondays because it's very low-key and seems to attract a lot of really talented songwriters. Since I'm new in town, it's a great way to meet other players."
And you never know whom you'll see.
Both Ron Sexsmith and Kyp Harness were regulars at the Fat Albert's Wednesday-night open stage, and Bob Wiseman can still be spotted at various open mikes around the city.
"Established performers will come out to workshop new songs or to promote an upcoming show," says Quain. "It's cool for me, 'cause I get to pull up to the piano and share the blame."
I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, "This all sounds great, but I'm bound to get hit with a nasty Beatles cover sooner or later." Well, maybe. There are no guarantees.
"Some nights just grind," admits Keating as he talks about making the circuit. "A lot of it is bad. But you put in your time and give support to people who aren't great but are trying."
It's the thrill of the possibility of discovering a helluva songwriter that makes it worthwhile.
"It doesn't matter how slick it is," says Quain. "If it's offered in a good spirit, people appreciate it. And if they don't, there'll be someone different up in a couple of songs."
Besides, it's not like you're tied to your chair.
open sesame Here's where you can play the open-mike crapshoot game: Fat Albert's 300 Bloor West Wednesdays Free Times Café 320 College Mondays Graffiti's 170 Baldwin Mondays and Thursdays Holy Joe's 651 Queen West Mondays Hugh's Room 2261 Dundas West Tuesdays Oasis 294 College Tuesdays Old York 167 Niagara Wednesdays