Tuesday, 27 January 2009

I gotchu open

Open mics bring out the crazies. And you’re left with a stomach churn of unease: either this is so brilliant and avant-garde and my pretensions aren’t sophisticated to appreciate this or this guy is batshit crazy. Yesterday was a prime rib of good bad open miccing, all with the spirit of comraderie and community that makes squat parties the ultimate in self-indulgent democratic free-spirit dross, all with the blessings of the oneness of our souls. First up was a Dutch pianist, or was he. The long drawn out corridor feel of the place wasn’t amenable to his quiet sparse humour and heavily-scripted inability to improvise- surely a comedian’s core tool? He would occasionally launch into context-less plumes of vaudeville piano. Pity we couldn’t hear him. A carefully prepared and reworked set of material based on an unfunny idea was suddenly rendered useless by its lack of crowd-engaging dynamism. This was followed by a man in a Mozart wig and General Haig moustache, a tuxedo and a fat suit underneath. He was pretending to be French.

‘Zis,’ he announced...
‘Zis is ‘ow yoo bowl an egg...’
‘Zis is ow yoo bowl an egg.’

People were giggling. I was missing something. What was I missing? I was infuriated at my inability to penetrate this thick slice of avant-garde comic poetry. This slick meditation on our lives and times and the inner complexities of our souls. Before I could even begin to pass through the mist of material, it was over. He was replaced by a guy gurning with attitude and street smarts, he was bare bad an’ting ya get me. He grabbed the mic.

‘Yo, we’re about to get live in here. This is real life, ya get me. I’m gonna bring it to you straight cos y’all play it safe and cushty in your nine to fives... you don’t know about real life. This first song I’m gonna do for you is about a kidnapping gone wrong. Cos sometimes, things go wrong, especially when you’re doing a kidnapping. That’s real life...’

At this point, I’m thinking- if this is his real life, does he kidnap a lot of people? Might he hold us all hostage if we don’t buy his mixtape after the gig? How many kidnappings has he done? How has he done enough kidnappings to know what a kidnapping gone wrong feels like.

‘So yeah... drop the beat...’ A two bar sample over a four bar drum beat comes in. ‘This is about a kidnapping gone wrong. It’s called “Wrong Kidnapping.”’

He launches into a scary yet faintly ridiculous story about kidnapping a schoolgirl to make her dad pay up and falling in love with her. It’s gone wrong. But ultimately he triumphs and gets the cash and the girl. Cos he’s real. Once he’s finished laying down the foundations of truth on us, he asks us to hush so he can spit bare truths to us. He reveals he is in his mid thirties. And he’s coming up. And he’s selling his 23rd mixtape after the show.

‘This song is about social apartheid, about how the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. It’s called “Rich Get Richer.”’

At which point, I’m thinking you don’t need to explain your songs to us. They’re hardly complex. Especially if the explanatory bit is in the song title. There’s this false importance about explaining yourself. Sure some things may need a backstory but ultimately, your stuff is going to exist on an album with no explanatory notes about what it’s about (unless you wish to write the most informative and dull liner notes ever) so don’t over-explain. We get it: ‘Rich Get Richer’ hmmmmm possible about the rich getting richer.

After my set, which goes down a storm just by the context and comparison of my peers, a drunk squat-poet ambles on to stage. He lets people chat to themselves for a few seconds. He then harangues them for talking. Instead of drawing them in, he pushes them out, firing off a soupcon of polemical lines about being an agent of revolution, about how everything’s rubbish and how he, because he is conscious and politically aware, more important than you, the audience, the audience he failed to charm into listening to him. He’s replaced by a beatboxer. Beatboxing as an artform is NOT a one-trick pony. It is not a surface art. It has depth and possibility and amazing potential. Nathan 'Flutebox' Lee and Shlomo have taken it to the dizzying heights of its potential. And now everyone wants to be Flutebox or Rabbi Shlomo. Get your own tricks, beatboxers, there’s millions of things you are able to do with the artform. Whether Flutebox or Shlomo are pioneers or just well-known practisers, it doesn’t matter, they’ve become synonymous with rapping and playing the flute, and indie cover versions, and amazingly, they’ve moved on. You don’t need to copy them for an easy impress.

And that beatboxer, sadly, was then replaced with an angst-ridden busride home, worrying about my art. Open mics are a great leveller, the ultimate democratic creative privilege, a place where you grow, a place where you go to impress your peers and meet people and win over crowds of actual strangers. Open mics have built me, improved me, hurt me, grazed me, wounded me, made me want to be better everytime. Last night, on the bus home, I wondered if the open mic had changed or if I had changed. I’ll never be above open mics and using them to train and get better with my material. But I wondered if, somehow, once again, I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

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