Rambles around Devon Open-Mic Nights

So I’m gonna take a different track with this now/every now and then/when I get around to it. Basically, reviews are grand but I don’t get to say everything that trundles its way into my scatterbrain in them. So here I am, ready to ramble.

First thing’s first; if you read my Parrotfest piece a while ago, you’ll have gotten a vague idea of the state of music in Devon. To summarise, it ain’t great. Crowds are lacking, venues are reticent and acts are often nervous, and to be quite frank given the ‘vicious circle’ nature of the problem, I don’t blame them. Thing is though, as I’ve been getting more involved I’ve been noticing something.

Living as I now am in Plymouth, a pretty student-centred city, live music’s been getting more and more defiant. In the last week and a bit I’ve gone to one billed local-band gig and two open-mic nights. Cynical as we are, my boyfriend and I assumed that we would be the only ones in attendance and would be forced to get absolutely mullered, just to cope with the awkwardness of constant guilty eye contact with disappointed acts. Now while that did happen a little bit, it wasn’t awkwardness that killed the sobriety. In fact, all three evenings were really a resounding success.

On our way to the first, an open-mic night in aid of the University of Plymouth Student Union’s Climate Change Conference, a friend told us not to bother, ‘it’s dead’. Giving it the benefit of bonfire night we went from literal fireworks to admittedly, a bit of a slow burner. After getting a sub-par rendition of ‘Hallelujah’ and a weird apparently political sing-along of simply ‘Syria! Libya!’ to a Yamaha drum-track out of the way, things finally got decent. While a number of acts were really rather good and did some great covers, Fergus Tanner stole the night.

I’d never heard of him before and given that I was tipsy and he was smashed, name’s got pretty confusing so for two days thought he was called Fergus ‘Talent’. Thankfully I wasn’t far gone enough to miss that he was great; haunting, impassioned and completely absorbed in his music. That’s right, his music. Aside from a frankly incredible cover of Ben Howard’s ‘The End of the Affair’ to close his short set, his originals were just that and for the first and last time of the night, the audience piped down and lowered their shot glasses to listen. A compliment of the highest order me thinks.

The next gig, a performance at the delightfully named ‘Nowhere Inn’ by Ska-Reggae outfit ‘The Miscreants’, was consistently delicious but perhaps less original. In this situation, that’s not at all terrible; the crowd were engaged because of their vigour and talent, sure, but mostly because they new and loved all of the songs, and came there knowing what they were going to get. It was an awesome time, don’t get me wrong, but as my much mentioned and much maligned boyfriend (who conveniently is in an all-originals band) said, ‘it’s depressing that they get that crowd and they’re just a cover band’. I totally know what he means. I have so much respect for the guys and gals of ‘The Miscreants’ and any bands in any way like them, but I really feel like they should use their powers for good. They’re bloody great, multi-talented musicians and so them receiving so much positivity is great to see, it would just be so much more encouraging if they could receive the same for playing their own songs. Not because it would make them any better, but because it would show that people are willing to really engage and step outside of their nice and cosy comfort zones.

Someone who did make me do this was at the second open-mic night of the week at the suitably grimy student dive, ‘The Fresher and Professor’. Sounds seedy, is seedy, but the open-mic night was, again, really well received by the majority. The thing is though that we who were hoping for the best had to struggle through so many soulless acoustic covers to get to the grit that many did, once again turn to the drinks deals to get through it. What surprised me though – and I was bloody glad that it did – was the direction what I thought was going to be just another Ed Sheeran song took. Anyone who knows me will know that I have a semi-irrational hatred of Ed Sheeran. So when yet another of his covers gets churned out, I tend to take the time to dash out for some fresh air to de-nauseate my churning stomach. This one though was different.

Sadly I don’t know the guitarist’s name, but I do know that he’d played a fairly decent set up until this point; confident, accomplished, but largely uninteresting. As the opening chords of the most palatable of the Sheeran semolina ‘You Need Me’ kicked in then, this trend seemed to be continuing. That is until local rapper Hayden Wright, a young talent receiving international recognition, busted in to take the verses for a run with some technically brilliant freestyle rap, before the song segued back into the conventional choruses. This, it seemed, was the way to get everyone on side.

By performing a song which everyone knows, the performer had the audience engaged (be that with whoops or moans). The appearance of Wright then pricked up the ears to something more than a tad different through its engagement of the original with the not-so-much. This, on its small scale, might be the way forward. Be it in the mashing up of songs or a whole set, such intertwining shows ingenuity and places the talent of the individuals in question centre stage. Get the crowd engaged and then snare them there, until they like you so much that they come back next time just for you.

Fingers crossed then that with the number of jam nights across Plymouth increasing, so will the collaborations and maybe, just maybe, the peoples’ propensity for something a little bit different.

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