The Open Stage Experience

[This article originally appeared in The Gargoyle, and I haven't updated it...]

It was like entering another world. Sure, it was only a bar, only The Cameron House, and it was in bad repair at the time. The Cameron was the location, but the scene was the Toronto open-stage scene. I discovered it in a half-assed way: it turned out that my favourite T.O. band, The Leslie Spit Treeo opened and hosted the Cameron's open-stage, and I was there to see them.

But the scene was more than the "Spits" performing. As people came in, they would sign up to perform. Then after the Spits had done a few songs, Pat, the guitarist, began announcing each performer who had signed up. Each would do a little act, (two songs or five poems) and then Pat would announce the next person up. There were more than musicians--there were poets and a rapper. It turns out that pretty well any act is welcome. (The "open" bit means "open to all".) When everyone on the list had performed, the Spits played a few more numbers to round out the evening.

So runs the idea of an open-stage. You might think it is a colossally bad idea to let just anyone take the stage. But you might be surprised. Yes, there are bad performers at open-stages, but there are bad musicians on the radio, too. In my experience, the ability of an artist has almost nothing to do with whether or not they "get signed" by a major label. Open-stage performers are either really good or really bad. You never get the kind of all-pleasing mediocrity which is so popular on commercial radio.

I think the secret is that real music is made by real people. Our media culture teaches us that there are very few talented people in the world. This is complete and utter bullshit. You do not have to be one in a million to keep an audience entertained. In fact, being a celebrity puts you in a different world and makes it harder to communicate with your fans and to write music relevant to them. Performing at an open-stage is the opposite of stardom.

The audience of an open-stage has to be a bit open too. Performers have all sorts of influences and styles. One of the favourite performers at Spit Fridays plays Delta Blues. Don't knock it until you've tried it. The audience also tends to be a lot more forgiving. You have to, if you want to want fledgling performers to grow. In return, the audience gets no guarantees. Nights are good or bad according to the whims of fate.

When I started going to the Cameron, I had never thought of performing in public. Me? I can't play guitar. But three months later, I started playing flute at the Cameron House. And once I started, there was no going back.

It was an emptier night than usual. Perhaps they encouraged me to play for that reason, since the list of performers was way shorter than usual. I think just wanted to help me do what I already wanted to do. I had vague ideas of convincing someone to let me jam with them, and eventually, I convinced a guy named Peter to do that. My hands were shaking. But I played, and no one died or howled in horror. Having done it once made it so much easier to do again.

Not that I received a lot of appreciation at first. I was something of a one-hit-wonder, and I was writing songs that required chords and vocals. So I changed instruments to keyboard. Then I changed to ukulele. That was my breakthrough. Suddenly I was getting good applause almost every time I did a song. The affirmation was wonderful, especially because some of it came from the Spits.

A few weeks ago my ukulele broke just before open-stage. I went into withdrawal; I felt awful. I was all psyched up with nothing to strum. My friends at the Cameron helped me figure out where to get my uke repaired in time for the next open-stage. When I was back in the harness, I was exuberant. This live performance stuff can get under your skin.

Open-stages are just part of the live performance scene in Toronto. For beginning performers, they are a risk-free way to start out and build a reputation. They give the performer a chance to develop her stage presence and her ability to perform with the pressure of an audience. For more established artists, they can be a venue to try out new material or attract new fans. My favourite performers are all involved with the Cameron House open-stage. Most of them are my friends, too.

But enough about me. Let's talk about you. If you like music, this is a scene you should check out. There is an open-stage to fit your schedule. Open-stages and jams happen all over the city. One of the good ones is Kevin Quain's Mad Bastard Cabaret every monday night around 10:30 at Graffiti's (170 Baldwin).

I'll see you there.