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Buskers and Open Mic nights have been popping up in pubs and clubs in huge numbers during recent years. The entertainment is free with musicians of varying abilities having an audience on which to perfect their talents and enjoy impromtu jam sessions with other players. A host for the evening ensures musicians get a slot and deals with the technical issues of getting a nice balanced sound.
Blyth has two buskers nights on the go at the moment. The Mason Arms Buskers takes place on a Thursday evening and the hosts describe it as a "busy, bustling, vibrant night of live music".
But this week I popped along, with guitar in hand, to the The Seahorse on Plessey Road which stages an Open Mic night every Tuesday. The blurb on a leaflet I had picked up stated:
"Hosted by Dave Cowan, PA and mics are provided. Guitars are available for use or players can bring their own instruments. A relaxed and welcoming evening for players and audience alike, widely varied, always entertaining for the attentive, appreciative audience. In 2015 we had over 100 performers from across the North East."
I should also point out the venue has a small stage and there was a cajon lurking in the background.
The Open Mic session was hosted by Dave Cowan and, to be honest, I had visited The Seahorse last year during the Christmas holiday break to have a listen. Dave had been very welcoming, getting around all the audience for a chat and to find out who they were and what, if anything, they were going to play.
So... The lights dimmed. Stage spotlights came on. Candles were lit on the tables. Very romantic? If only I had brought along the one I love, but I guess the wife would have found out eventually? And then Dave kicked off the proceedings with a couple of folkie-type numbers and some banter to put us at our ease.
Then I was invited to do a couple of numbers. The sound from the compact PA was great. The best I have played an acoustic guitar through actually. It was so natural it was hard to tell that I was playing through a PA system. Then I looked up and instead of seeing an audience all looking down at their mobile phones they were actually watching. And they applauded at the end. Whether they actually enjoyed it or were just being kind I dont know. But they were certainly respectful and I appreciated that fact.
I was followed by Steve White doing an acoustic Billy Joel number. Then Paul Allen, on semi acoustic and Steve Thompson, on Fender Strat, played a blues-type set ending with All Along the Watchtower in Hendrix style.
Two young lads called Lee Wallace and Callum Houston were next up. I have know idea how old they actually are, but young to a dinosaur like myself. They played a melancholy, hypnotic number on acoustic and electric slide guitar respectively. It worked a treat and should be recorded. I had seen these lads play at my previous visit and they were massively improved since that time. Obviously this is not just a venue for seasoned musicians, but somewhere novices can learn their craft too. In fact, Dave told me that he has a regular musician in his 70s that only took up his instrument three years ago. There is a wide mixture of ages and abilities attend the sessions.
Then there was Dom Malloy, in what Dave described as an acousto-punk style, doing one of his own compositions and Bowie's Man Who Sold the World. Denis Jorgenson did a Willie Nelson song, Dave Ellison played in melancholy country style a Johhny Cash number and then we had some culture from Jim, a classical guitarist.
All this was interspersed with musicians jumping up on stage to help along fellow performers with impromptu harmonica, cajon and lead guitar where appropriate.
I asked Dave Cowan when it had all began? He explained that the Seahorse Open Mic had started about four years ago. Pete Shaw had been hosting the sessions originally, but when he gave it up Dave asked to take it on. He thought it was worth preserving as it is such a great venue for musicians, the acoustics being great and it being so homely. "Music is the main priority for musicians and listeners."
Dave is the administrator for a directory of buskers nights in the North East on social media sites. He also hosts another buskers night at the Clef and Clask in Cramlington. I put it to him that buskers was a large part of his life, had he been doing it for a long time? He said that he only got back into playing around five years ago, having played in bands in younger days, but it was a big part of his life, yes. It was a better way to spend your time than in front of a TV on a weekday evening.
Can't disagree with that!
The advice is come along and listen for a while to get a feel for it. You will find other musicians there who will be prepared to help out.