While a plethora of new technology has provided fledgling musicians with the opportunity to get their material out into the world over the past decade, what has this meant for the grass roots mainstay of the humble Open Mic night? In times gone by, these simple but celebratory affairs would be the first platform on which embryonic artists shared their creative labours; they provided an invaluable role in celebrating and nurturing new talent. It seems that Liverpool, thankfully, still has a particular fondness and insatiable appetite for the form, as on any given weeknight scores of events take place in venues scattered across the city centre and out into the suburbs.
The movement today builds on the tradition immortalised at cult New York hangouts The Bitter End, Cafe Wha?, Gerde’s Folk City and, perhaps most famously, The Gaslight Cafe, and is the world depicted in the Cohen Brothers’ 2013 film Inside Llewyn Davis. Liverpool is no different; our music culture is rooted in coffee houses and jazz clubs and their open, collaborative, silo-like nature has helped create the music scene we love today. Contrary to popular belief, Open Mics are not synonymous with endless off-key renditions of Stuck In The Middle With You and ill-advised Ed Sheeran warbling; this is a dynamic, creative subculture and one which has flourished over recent years in Liverpool.
Longest serving of the current nights, Out Of The Bedroom, hosted by Johnny Sands at Leaf, has run on Tuesday evenings for the past half-decade (Rufus Wainwright famously attended the evening following his performance at the Philharmonic a few years ago). The night has flourished in to a stalwart of the Open Mic scene, and Johnny, with his inimitable hosting, has become somewhat of a flame-bearer for the form. Out Of The Bedroom is now joined by his weekly Saturday afternoon session at Heebie Jeebies Courtyard. “There was a bit of a stigma with Open Mic, the kind of ‘It’s a gig for a musician who can’t get a gig’ attitude,” Johnny states. “I wanted to take Open Mic out of what was a pub – covers, kinda anything goes – and make it into a more London-type setup. The first thing was to set out a load of rules of how I’d run the night: original material, make sure the PA was the equivalent of any good gig. In London it was the same principal but it was far more high profile, people were getting up and signing their songs and record industry people were watching them.” The singer also curates a sister event to Out Of The Bedroom, which is held every couple of months and is more of a showcase. “The performers at Maison Johnny are cherry picked. Everyone who’s either played at the Heebies Acoustic Club on a Saturday afternoon, or Leaf on a Tuesday, they go on there.”
“Over the years of doing it you see people progress from being an aspiring musician to an accomplished player; you can see them get that feeling of ‘this is what I want to do’,” he continues. “Because not nearly as many acts are getting signed and lower-level musicians aren’t given a chance, the local scene has become even stronger. Liverpool’s probably the best city in the country for this kind of scene, the way all the venues are close together. When I lived in Newcastle there were tonnes of bands in practice rooms but there were no venues. Nowhere to play and only one open mic while I was there.”
Over at The Brink, as part of the organisation’s accompanying events programme an Open Mic night has been run in-house by David Barnicle for the past two years. “It’s an integral part of the musical landscape,” David states, not just of the Brink’s Thursday night sessions, but of Open Mic culture in general. “When you have songs coming out of their initial conception and you just want to go somewhere and get a bit of stage time and perform it, you use the stage as a means of practising. It’s essential to have that means of performing. Not everyone who plays at an Open Mic is gonna get to a great level, but it can be important for people who start there to learn basic skills. It’s not as if the music scene wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t for Open Mics, but it’s part of that organism.”
“The Open Mic is a reflection of the way the whole place works, it’s not just people in recovery,” David emphasises of The Brink, which is a recovery social enterprise, meaning that all profits go directly back into the community to fund support for those who have suffered through alcoholism and addiction. “Out of all the people who come to our Open Mic, there are probably more people who aren’t in recovery that those in it. People who may be in short-term or long-term recovery who don’t want to play anywhere else, they only come and play here. Because we do the young musicians showcase here for under-eighteens, and because we’re a dry bar, they find their way to the Open Mic as well. To be in people’s minds you only get that through continuity, that’s what gives it the profile.”
Newly revived Slater Street landmark The Jacaranda, meanwhile, has recently inaugurated a night dedicated to Open Mic in the basement of the pub. “Some of the acts who get invited down to play will play a half-hour set,” Thom Morecroft – who hosts and runs the event alongside Joe Maryanji on Thursdays and Sundays – explains. “No-one’s got up and played Wonderwall so far, and it’s not like we’re going to say to people ‘Can you only play stuff from this really cool list of tracks’, because that would defeat the object of an Open Mic. Some nights will be in very hushed tones with people sat round sipping pints listening to music; others are more frenetic and everyone will get up and play three songs. Some of them go on until half-one in the morning.” Thom also believes that musicians raised in the digital age aren’t afraid of descending in to these basement venues, even when it might be outside their natural comfort zone. “SoundCloud – and the internet generally – has given a lot more confidence to the bedroom musician and has made it more likely for them to emerge from the house. However, the internet, in its infinite wisdom, hasn’t been that kind to the bar scene. You’ve got to be a bit more creative – not just for Open Mics, but if you’re putting on gigs. I think SoundCloud culture and Open Mics are natural allies.”
An accompanying venture to the Jacaranda session is held at Parr Street Studio 2. “The Parr Street Acoustic Sessions is held once a month on a Wednesday. It’s a lot more formal than The Jacaranda; it’s free entry but it’s always the case that we’ll have eight acts on who’ll play twenty minutes each and the audience has to be silent. It’s more of a showcase.” Warming to the theme, Thom goes to say: “There are now way more Open Mics in Liverpool than there were ten to fifteen years ago. People will play a good Open Mic – even if the connotations of that are ‘Oh, it’s an Open Mic’ – rather than play a crap gig. A good Open Mic scene helps people avoid doing rubbish gigs.”
The Bridewell, off Duke Street, has held an Open Mic night since November 2013, run by Iain Morley and Ben Singleton of The Buffalo Riot. “We didn’t realise there was that much of a scene out there, that people wanted it,” Iain explains. “Edgar Jones came down when we started to help kick it off. What we found was there were a lot of people booking acts, which isn’t really an Open Mic. We try and make it so that people know where you are; a constant every week to try and build up a community. Perseverance is the key,” the singer states. “People might go to an Open Mic night and realise it’s not for them; it’s all relative. It has to exist as a conduit for people playing acoustic music to get feedback, or even for someone to do it and say ‘this isn’t for me’. In between shows you’ll get singers from bands coming to Open Mics, and we’re even getting people from the first year of LIPA coming to perform. What we understood when we started doing it was that there’s already a community of people doing the Open Mics, and the more people the better.”
At the other end of the city centre, the Monday Club has been a fixture of The Cavern Pub’s programme since 2011. “The Cavern came to me almost four years ago and asked if I wanted to do an Open Mic in the Cavern Pub and gave me a six-week slot,” organiser and host Ian Prowse recalls. Observing a strict ‘no covers’ policy – “I don’t wanna hear covers of Wonderwall or Sex On Fire ever again,” Ian grimaces – the emphasis on musicians’ own material steers the event away from being a tribute to the band who once played at the street’s most famous address opposite, and has become a key platform for nurturing emerging new talent. Millie Courtney, the Liverpool teenager who enjoyed a meteoric rise to top the country charts in Nashville last year, cut her teeth at the Monday Club. And the comparison with New York also recurs: “We’ve had loads of people come over who’ve done the Open Mic scene in New York and said it was a similar thing,” Ian notes.
Elsewhere, The Magnet is the newest arrival on the circuit, establishing an Open Mic night alongside evergreen city-based promoters Mellowtone. Hosted by Dave O’Grady – alongside a rotating gabble of storied musicians – the setup is so new the night is still only a few weeks old. “Dave McTague at Mellowtone got me down to play at the first one with a view of hosting it… it turned out well,” Dave O’Grady explains of the venture. Hosted “upstairs” (i.e. the street level bar of the venue) on Wednesdays from 8pm, Dave thinks that “Open Mics are the only avenue for young singer-songwriters to get in to the scene. No-one’s gonna come and book their first headline gig for them before they’ve got their shit together.”
Nipping around the corner from Hardman Street onto Hope Street, you find the Bistro of the venerated Everyman Theatre, location for A Lovely Word, an Open Mic night that caters exclusively for spoken word and poetry. Taking place on every second Monday of the month and run by Bido Lito! contributor Paddy Hughes, the night continues the lineage of the Liverpool Poets (Henri, McGough, Patten et al), whose 1967 anthology The Mersey Sound became one of the bestselling poetry collections ever released. “I think diversity of Open Mic nights is crucial; they give people the chance to put themselves outside of their comfort zones and express themselves in front of a crowd,” Paddy states. “Everyone has different ways of expressing themselves, be it through singing or be it through spoken word.”
With “verse, sonnets, spoken word, rap and beat poetry,” all represented on a typical night’s line-up, Paddy thinks that the aim of any Open Mic night “shouldn’t be a platform for the host to show how great he is, instead it should be a safe plinth for experienced and inexperienced artists to thrive and grow. It is vital to learn from others in order to progress as an artist. Liverpool is a hub of creative talent so it would be crazy not to tap into it.”