Sunday 31 August 2014

Our gig at the Bombed Out Church, with the fabulous Laura&Claire, by Ruth

Remember a couple of days ago when I was banging on about how amazing open mic nights are? Well, at a recent open mic, I saw two young women, both playing acoustic guitars in counterpoint with each other, and singing the most lush harmonies; the pair were called Laura&Claire and as soon as their first song was about half way through I turned to Marc and said, “if we’re gigging again at the Bombed Out Church any time we should TOTALLY ask these if they want to play too.”

Now, partly, this was because I really enjoyed their music and guessed quite a few of our friends might enjoy their music too. However, part of it, possibly selfishly, was because I wanted to hear them play again and what better way than to have them play at our gig?

Anyway, after a long journey into town on a packed 10a ‘bus with the child, we arrived at the Bombed Out Church and got set up thanks to Jake, the Bombie’s sound man. Laura and Claire arrived shortly after and once they were set up, it was time for them to start playing.


Everyone to whom I’d said, “you must see these two” agreed with me that they were excellent. It was also lovely to see that as they continued playing, the place got fuller. The sound from outside the building is really good in fact and on hearing Laura and Claire playing I imagine quite a few people must have been drawn in!

The pair played a wonderful set; one of the things that’s great about watching musicians play live is when they clearly have a lot of fun doing it; watching these two you can see such chemistry and camaraderie between them that when you learn they’ve been playing together since they were children you can believe it.

Then it was our turn; by this time quite a few of our friends and family had arrived - huge thanks to all of you, so wonderful you could make it! - so we were very excited and a bit nervous. We played a really folky set this time around, including, for the first time together, live, our mandolin/accordion/harmonies version of Reynardine. We also started the set with our “nineties-tastic family-friendly Moss & Jones wedding medley,” a portmanteau of four songs played on ukulele and glockenspiel, and with a sense of humour.


(Thanks to our friend Beth for the picture.)

After the gig, we actually went to the ‘bus station in Liverpool One (better chance of getting a seat at the back which means Marc, the child, and I, can sit together) but on the way there, we saw that the pianos were out! Well, we couldn’t resist; we busked three songs; Sally and Millbrook, with Marc on the piano and me singing and on glockenspiel, and of course, a little bit of Bach’s second English Suite in A Minor (me, for once, on piano). And… we earned a few bob! We’ll buy a cake with it for all three of us, as the little one, of course, had his own little play around on the piano.

Then it was back home… and here we are. We’re back in the Bombed Out Church in two weeks, but it’s a relatively private gig (as we’re getting married)! However, if you’d like to see us play again, we’re going to be doing a song or two at the open mic at Sound Food and Drink on Duke Street in Liverpool, tomorrow (Monday) night.

What have we learned from this gig?

Well, I’ve had a dodgy wrist for a few weeks now; I’m wearing a support until I can get to the doctor. It’s nothing serious, however, a wrist support, and the intricate plucking needed to play the instrumental version of Pastime With Good Company on the ukulele, do not together go, unfortunately. It was, as they say, a “brave performance”. However when my wrist is a bit better, we’ll be getting mediaeval - well, tudor - on your asses again.

Secondly, a few bob from a quick busk is lovely, and it has really raised our spirits for a busking “tour” we have planned for the new year. Want to know more? Watch this space!

Tuesday 26 August 2014

In defence of open mic nights, by Ruth

I’ve read a few blog posts recently knocking open mic nights, primarily from the usual “don’t play for free” standpoint that gets hashed and rehashed and then mashed and bathed in oil and fried and re-hashed again over on many music forums (including the wonderful Liverpool Bands).

Now, the “don’t play for free” thing is quite an old debate and tends to go like this: “I’ll get a plumber to come over and offer to pay THEM with ‘exposure’ shall I?” “Yes but a plumber has had to take exams and learn how to be a plumber.” “So have I, I did my grade 5 piano when I was 19.” And on, and on. I don’t want particularly to rehash that argument because it never ends. I will say, we’ve played the vast majority of our gigs for free, and we’ve also done a handful where we’ve been paid (though not huge amounts by any stretch).

I am also perfectly aware that it’s different for us, an acoustic duo who practise at home and don’t have massive overheads (although we really should get that piano tuned), than, say, a four or five piece band who have to pay out for rehearsal room hire and sound equipment and so on. But this is about open mic nights, and let’s face it, they’re aimed at small bands and solo acts.

Anyway, the anti- open mic stuff I’ve read seems to be based on the premise that this, too, is playing for free, and given that musicians should apparently Never Ever Do That, it’s also wrong to perform at an open mic.


That’s a picture of us, performing at an open mic, by the way, in case you were wondering on which side of this argument we fell.

I really do think that doing a slot at an open mic is different than doing a gig for free. I have some sympathy with the idea that bands shouldn’t do the latter (though, see earlier, we have) but … an open mic? Really?

Let’s take this in two parts.

Firstly, the idea which I’ve read a bit that landlords are putting on open mic nights to avoid paying to put on a band. Okay, let’s start with the thing about “landlords”. Most open mics I’ve been to have been in cafés or bars. I’ve been to literally one open mic in a proper old school “pub with a landlord” pub, and that was a weird little place in Deptford in 2001, back when I lived in London. Also it was a poetry open mic, which may - or may not - be different.

In fact, I ran an open mic a few years ago in a café in St. Helens. The owner of the café actually opened it up specifically on a Monday evening once a month just for the open mic. I approached him with the idea, not vice versa. He made no money off it on the night, at least at first, as everyone brought their own booze. The only people who came were performers and their friends; there was no passing trade because the café wouldn’t have been open then anyway. If it wasn’t for the open mic, the place would have been closed on a Monday night and it might even have saved him some money on heating and lecky bills. He was a big advocate for the arts, and in the long term, I think having the open night there made people kindly disposed towards the place and more likely to come back. Hardly a cynical landlord putting on an open mic because he was too tight to pay a band.

Also, let’s be brutally honest here. Lots of acts performing at open mics are amazing, but some are … on their way to amazing, and not quite there yet. That’s okay, of course, everyone starts somewhere, but the idea a pub landlord would believe that punters would be just as happy with an open mic as with a booked band is a tad silly, n’est ce pas?

I’ve also met quite a few people running open mics, but never once have I met one whose motives have been about “saving money on bands”. Mostly, they’ve wanted to give new talent a platform, hear new music and have a bit of a ‘jam’. Occasionally they’ve wanted to make a bit of a name for themselves as a compère. Once or twice it’s so they’ve a regular opportunity to perform their own songs/poems. But even the more cynical of those reasons is nothing compared to the suggestion that they want to save money for the venue.

Most of the time, running an open mic is an unpaid task, too. If anyone should get narky about not getting paid, it’s the compère/organiser and not the performers; they’re doing a hugely hard job behind the scenes and on the night and usually on a volunteer basis too, and usually they go largely unthanked (people seem to think the compère is part of the furniture. So I’d like to take this opportunity to thank from the bottom of my heart anyone who has ever ran an open mic event we’ve attended. You’re amazing, you really are). But no one seems to mention them in the anti-open mic stuff.


There we are at another open mic night, depriving booked performers of a decent crust. Oh, wait, there were some booked performers that night too, earning a decent crust.

Secondly, the idea that playing an open mic is the same as playing a normal gig, unpaid. It just isn’t! In order to get a gig, you have to - well, I’ll be honest, we haven’t completely figured it out yet. Be lucky, in the right place at the right time, know the right people and work hard. And be really cheeky too, but the right amount of cheeky. But what you CAN’T do, is just turn up and start playing.

Unlike an open mic night.

Time to be totally honest here. We’ve not always been that good. I know, I know, you’re shocked and horrified. But it’s true. When we started out in the winter of 2012 with nothing but a violin and a really cheap ukulele we played the rounds of open mics because we were literally okay. It took us over half a year of playing open mic nights before we could even dream of being good enough to play a full gig. We are SO grateful to those places that put them on and gave us the chance to practice in front of an audience, seeing what worked, and what didn’t, and who put up with our “let’s use a violin to open Hark the Herald, instead of a trumpet, that’ll totally work!”

Let’s face it, too; not all, but some open mic events have some quite sophisticated sound equipment and someone knowledgeable around to work it. If you really can’t shake the idea that you’re somehow being “done” because you’re playing for free, think of it as a barter. You’re getting to hire a PA and a sound engineer for fifteen minutes; they’re getting to hear your unique finger-plucking cover of Shakermaker.

And at those open mic events that are unamplified, which are basically busking without the hat? What does the performer get there? Well, we’ve made friends at these and got talking to other musicians who are at similar stages to us; we’ve shared tips and swapped contacts, and again… you’re getting to practice in front of an audience. Yes, you could do that with busking too (and we plan to) but people are less likely to sit and listen when it’s chucking it down and freezing cold. It’s also fantastic for young musicians (I mean really young, too; I’ve been at an open mic where a ten or eleven year old boy performed a violin solo that would have made Nigel Kennedy’s eyes open wide with amazement) who wouldn’t normally get that kind of platform outside of school assemblies. You’re getting a warm audience, in more than one sense of the word “warm”.


One thing I will say, however, is that the idea that venues and promoters, or even music executives, are scouring the open mics looking for new talent, has certainly not been our experience. I think we’ve got just two gigs from people seeing us at an open mic, and that’s in going on three years of doing them (as I said earlier, we have got our gigs through a mixture of other methods, but rarely this). I think if you’re going around open mics expecting to be noticed and given gigs, or signed, or whatever, you’re possibly approaching it with the wrong idea and it’s going to make you a bit miserable. If, however, you see open mics as a great place to practise playing in front of an audience, and also a wonderful opportunity to be the first of your friends to hear some amazing new music, and of course, to make friends, to have fun, and to do what you love, then you’re probably going to enjoy yourselves.

So, yes, we’ll continue to do open mic events in amongst our gigs. Because we love them. The whole “don’t play gigs for free” thing is another discussion for another time, and with that, I can genuinely see both sides of the debate. But I don’t think open mic events fit into the category of “playing a gig for free”.

And if you want to earn a living from music? Join a covers band and practise every day and do the ultra-competitive world of weddings and pubs. Become a music teacher (hey, all you need to do is increase that grade 5 piano to a grade 8, and then maybe get your ABRSM diploma in music teaching, and sort out your DBS form, and get a customer base and a reputation). Work hard and learn a craft as a sound engineer (because it’s true, no one does ask them to work for “exposure”).

Or become a rock star. I’m not sure how you do that though.

(Other ways of making money within the music industry do exist and all involve lots of hard work and tend not to be impeded by playing, or not, open mic nights.)

Sunday 3 August 2014

The Beautiful Word, Baby Brave, Lisa Marie Glover... and us... lastnight at Sound Food and Drink. By Ruth.

Want to know a boring fact about me? Of course you don’t! But you’ll get one anyway: alcohol is sometimes a migraine trigger for me, so I mostly avoid it all together. The negative side is that I feel a bit of a party pooper ordering a lemonade when a venue is kind enough to offer free booze to performers. The positives, however, include “being able to remember stuff”, and I’m especially glad I’ll be remembering last night’s gig because it was AMAZING.


I was on twitter on Saturday and learned that one of my favourite bands ever, The Beautiful Word, were doing a last-minute gig in Liverpool, at Sound Food and Drink on Duke Street (by the way, we bought some pizzas there and they were DELICIOUS). I was just in the process of shouting to Marc, “oh my god Marc, The Beautiful Word are doing a gig in town, we have to go!” as I received a tweet asking if we’d open the night with a set ourselves!

Needless to say, I said YES PLEASE!

In fact, the night opened with a lovely surprise in the form of Lisa Marie Glover, the compère for the evening and a talented singer/songwriter, who played a couple of her witty, melodic songs in between sets. Needless to say, we bought a CD. Perhaps you should too?

Then it was our turn. We played a mix of originals (including Millbrook, the one about the ice cream van in Kirkby, and Shepherd’s Delight, which you can download for just 50p if you like), traditional music (including our uke/glockenspiel instrumental of Henry VIII’s Pastime With Good Company, and our acappella arrangement of Let No Man Steal Your Thyme) and covers, including our folky cover of Ebeneezer Goode, which a lot of people seemed to like.

Next up came Baby Brave. This lot call themselves “noise pop” and they’re right; foot-tapping, singalonging in-your-face wonderfully raucous songs with ludicrously catchy hooks. Of course, we bought their EP (on tape as well! TAPE!) which you too can own as a digital download! I especially liked Alone in Tokyo, and Colours (how can I not love a song with a verse in French?) - I’d definitely go and see these again; hopefully they’ll be up in town again at some point soon as Wrexham’s not a million miles away. You should go and see them too. They’re ace!

Finally it was time for The Beautiful Word. Now, I’ll admit, I’m biased. The first time I saw these live, a couple of years ago now, I texted Marc, “I’ve just found my new favourite band”. I own their album Particles, and it is gorgeous, but there’s nothing quite like seeing a band live, and The Beautiful Word are no exception. They started out with an adorable song called Starfish which they said was new, but I had the weirdest feeling I’d heard it before; maybe it was just so catchy that it made me want to sing along immediately? In fact, they played a couple of new songs during the evening, all of which I thought were fantastic and look forward to hearing when they’re able to record again. They also played a couple of songs from Particles, including one of my favourites (heck, they’re all my favourites, but you know what I mean), Emily.

It’s hard to put a finger on exactly what it is that makes The Beautiful Word such a perfect band. The harmonies of Emily and Megan that are so utterly note perfect that they blend into one voice with two channels? The instrumentation and arrangements which segue from indiepop into folk and back again via prog? That when you watch them live they perform with cheer and infectious enthusiasm? That they’ve pulled off the amazing conjuring trick of setting even occasionally bleak subject matter (e.g. Pop It) to a sweet, catchy tune… without detracting from the lyrics? Whatever it is, if you get a chance to see this band you MUST GO. You can also download their music too, and I’d recommend you do. Oh, and I now have a Particles t-shirt. :D

Time for our usual, and admittedly slightly self-indulgent section of WHAT HAVE WE LEARNED FROM THIS GIG?

  • Without going into too many embarrassing details, we need to be FASTIDIOUS about tuning. 

  • We need to sort out our merch. 

  • The ladies’ loo in Sound doesn’t have a sign on it … thus it’s easily mistaken for a unisex one. Oops, as Marc said on realising this!
Anyway, that’s all folks. Thank you to everyone who came, and to those who couldn’t come but helped get the message out. Our next full-length gig is at the Bombed Out Church in Liverpool on Sunday 31st August at 2pm, quid on the door (which goes to the church) and our special guests are the fabulous Laura&Claire.