Intimacy and connection are at the heart of musical performance, no matter how large or small the act or venue. Some big names, such as The White Stripes, who announced their breakup this past February, knew how to get at it or were at least willing to try. In 2007, the band staged an ambitious Canadian tour with shows in every province and territory, but odder than The White Stripes playing in Iqaluit was what they did between gigs. On a transit bus in Winnipeg, in a Toronto daycare, on a fishing boat in Charlottetown, the duo played when the impulse hit, building audiences from bystanders. It was unorganized and unmanaged, and judging by Jack White’s smile in the video footage exactly the way it was supposed to be, as if after ten years of writing, recording and touring, it was moments like these the band was after all along—raucous, unexpected, and, yes, intimate.
That’s what motivates and inspires most musicians, the possibility of creating an intimate connection with a listener. You don’t write a song as much to express what you feel as you do to discover what someone feels about it. That exchange is the beauty of playing live. Which is fine if you’re The White Stripes. But the question, at least for an amateur songwriter, is where to find an audience, so as to forge that connection and find that magic.
For the past six months or so, my friend Colin and I have been playing open stages in Edmonton. Apart from leaning toward one genre or another, they tend to work the same way: sign up, play three songs, collect your free pint. We’ve played together since high school. Twenty years and several bands later, we’ve settled into a two-guitar configuration with a growing list of original songs, slightly more rock than folk. We’d get up in front of an audience a couple times a week if we could find the time.
We aren’t unique. There are thousands of songwriters like us across Canada—so many that most open stages recommend players show up early to book a slot. Venues are catching on and cashing in. On any weeknight in the city, there are no fewer than three or four coffee shops, restaurants and bars hosting short sets by local songwriters. Nationwide, sites like openmicscene.com keep eager amateurs and semi-pros aware of where to play. Even Vancouver, a city known more for its DJ culture than its home-grown musical talent, lists a dozen spots a week.
Brian Gregg, a chatty guitarist known to friends as “Breezy,” remembers when the open stage was virtually non-existent in Edmonton. Sixty-one, Gregg is a veteran of the city’s music scene. In 1969, just before his bipolar disorder triggered a lengthy stretch of hospitalization and treatment, he played lead guitar for the Angus Park Blues Band, opener for Led Zeppelin at the Edmonton Gardens that spring. In those days, he says, there were more than twenty bars paying for bands six nights a week. You could live by gigging. Now that’s nearly impossible. A good band won’t play for what a house DJ will. Today Gregg busks, teaches guitar and puts in a couple nights a week as a janitor.
“Going through my career, I really looked down on open stage,” he said in a recent interview. And maybe he was right to; an open stage performer costs a venue nothing but a beer. While we spoke, Gregg picked at his goatee, neatly trimmed in contrast to the stringy grey hair descending from a signature felt cowboy hat. “I thought, ‘This is a rip-off. This istaking work away from musicians.’”
But for more than fifteen years he’s been hosting at least one event a week, mostly The Little Flower Open Stage, ina dilapidated, wood-panelled club beneath a southsideEdmonton grocery store. A local musician friend brought him around to the idea of the open stage, largely as a means of networking, but Gregg soon gained a deeper appreciation. For audiences, the absence of a cover charge makes live, original music easily accessible. “And for players who haven’t developed enough for a whole show,” he said, “it gives them a chance to get their stuff in front of people.”
Colin and I have enough originals for an opening set, but Colin has a genetic disorder that’s progressively weakening his muscles and motor neurons. Generally, by the time we’re through two songs, Colin’s fingers are too tired or too sore to grip a pick. So he’ll drop it and carry on, raking bare skin over strings. In a way, we’re the perfect act for the open stage: three songs are all we can handle. On a good night, three songs are enough to get what we’re after.
Yet that “what” isn’t easily defined. It changes nightly. For an audience, it ties into Gregg’s working-musician view that “a true performer knows they’re there for the people. It’s not about what the performer’s getting out of it.” On the January night we played his Little Flower stage, a young university student named Katie—pixie-cut blonde, awkwardly effervescent—showed up with a trumpet. After backing up a few acts, she staged a solo set a big-ticket concert would struggle to outdo. Katie read the room, opened her songbook to some Louis Armstrong, and silenced every voice but that of her horn for ten solid, shimmering minutes.
“I’m sad that she hasn’t been back,” Gregg told me. “That’s one of the really nice things about open stage, is that you get those magical moments. Not all the time, but now and again. Musical things happen that don’t get recorded, that nobody’s ever going to hear again. It’s a treat for an audience.”
On the night in question we certainly didn’t get whatKatie got. Nor we’re we entitled to it. “It’s up to the performer toseduce the audience into listening to them,” Gregg said.
Being listened to is precious, and is so very different from simply being heard. On some occasions, at other stages, we’ve been listened to. We’ve yet to hold that connection for more than a song, but those moments have been long enough to tell us that it can happen. Even in the days of the disembodied digital download, we all still want to be moved, in person, sharing it with others, which is what keeps drawing musicians to the stage and audiences to attend. That intimate connection is how and why music gets made.
Of course, Colin and I know our impromptu shows will never “seduce” a crowd like The White Stripes did between stops during their final Canadian tour. We may never even achieve what Katie and her trumpet did that January night. But because we’ve caught a glimpse of the truer sort of intimacythat can come of it, from onstage or from taking in a show, we want to play them anyway. We need to. Tonight. Anywhere that will have us. It’s not as if there’s anything holding us back. “All you have to do,” Gregg reminded me, “is put your name on the list.”