For the itinerant musician, or a traveller who can play, the open mic night can be the key to acceptance in a new community. You get up and do your thing – it’s only about three songs so you wheel out your hits and don’t have to worry about pacing a set. Give ‘em the good stuff and leave the rest to their imagination.
I used to run one of these in Grand Turk. Some weeks it was just me and the drummer who used to bring his djembe every week even though I had never actually invited him to. And there was also the local masseuse who would sing two or three to my guitar accompaniment. Bringing someone else on for a few minutes breaks it up a bit, particularly when most of the audience have seen you before several times.
Other weeks there would be holidaymakers who wanted to strut their stuff. As the host, to be honest, you want them to be quite good but not that good. Not good enough that the crowd notices they’re better than you. Unless it’s an actual star, a professional.
So, Thursday night at a bar in Coronado, Panama. The host, a singer-guitarist, is about my age, which means he plays the same sort of stuff: Neil Young, Bob Dylan, James Taylor and any song of the 60s and 70s that sounds okay with one voice and an acoustic.
Based on my experience, I amble up and tell him I’d like to do a few, and I’m surprised when he refers me to a list of 10-minute slots between 7 and 9. They will all, he tells me, be taken. I put myself down for 8pm and sit down to listen to the cast of thousands.
He’s right: there are all sorts of people there and many of them want to play – or at least sing, because there is a karaoke option.
The host does his stuff, more relaxed and mumbly than is advisable in my opinion, and he’s wearing headphones, which probably makes him sound good in his own ears but doesn’t tell him what it really sounds like in the room. And then from a group of young teenagers, two girls get up and do Gimme Gimme Gimme by Abba. Then one sits down and the other gives us an Edith Piaf song, Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien (No Regrets) complete with the French singer’s piercing, tremulous vocal styling. Impressive, certainly, but where did she learn this and why? I discover later that a local singing teacher gets all her girls to do it.
There’s a 60-something visiting Canadian woman who has obviously sung before, and in the absence of a musician who knows her material, does it acapella, slapping her thigh by way of percussion as she belts out Janis Joplin’s Mercedes Benz.
Then there are two teenage boys, one a nifty guitarist, who give us Stairway to Heaven (up to but not including the solo) followed by something 21st century that I don’t know. It occurs to me that the performers (who are getting younger as the evening draws on) are going to find themselves doing the closing slot when they may not be up to it. For this reason (I think) I go up and change my time to 8:50, so I’m closing the show.
This move is welcomed by a woman putting her young son’s name on and clearly nervous about the headline spot. She accepts my earlier one gladly and her eight-year old makes what may well be his public debut in the safety of 8pm to 10 past.
Finally I get up, hoping the guitar is decent, which it is, and the sound balance is okay too. I’ve written down five song titles but reject two as I’m up there. Suddenly, without my trusty repertoire list, I can’t think what to do, but pick one that I like playing and it goes okay anyway.
After a lifetime of gigs, many requiring me to take sole responsibility, I’m still slightly nervous about doing ten minutes at an open mic. As ever, I’m buzzing with adrenalin afterwards and unable to sleep, so I stay up late, drinking rum and listening to music.
As you get older, you have to keep testing yourself, making sure you’ve still got it. You can’t bow to youth just because it’s young people. The older stuff is still valid and the kids have to earn their place. After all, why does Mick Jagger keep doing it? It’s not like he needed the money.