Less ‘Look at me’, more ‘Listen to this’

It had been a very long time since I had visited a folk club. Back in the early days, there were no open mics. If you wanted to perform in front of people, then folk clubs were the only option. Then, as now, folk was an extremely broad church and included traditional songs sung by people with a finger in their ear or sad acoustic guitar lovelorn ballads sung by the author. I have to admit, I was more in the latter category than the former.

Open mics were Mother of Order’s first thought when it came to performing and trying out material. After all, Cath and I had already played at many with the Ukeaholics and I was a fairly seasoned solo (or collaborative) performer in my own right. So, it was a surprise when our friend Francis Greene suggested that we try playing at some folk clubs. Were they still going, could we be described as folk? Well, the answer to the first question was ‘yes’ and the second was ‘songs based on poetry from the Lancashire cotton famine are you kidding me?’

So, with a (fairly typical,) both footed approach, I emailed an organiser of a localish club and suggested they put us on. She, quite rightly, emailed back and suggested that we attend a night first so that they could get a look at us. Friends of ours were playing the next evening, so she kindly gave us a slot and we turned up.

The story of Cath’s first ever night at a folk club would make a post in itself and this is really just some thoughts on the difference between the two formats. So, we’ll talk about the fugitive from the police another day.

Thanks to that first night and some other contacts, we’ve played a few folk clubs now and the contrast with open mics is an interesting one.

An open mic is usually held in a pub and the audience is made up of other performers and sometimes their friends. There are also people in the pub, who could not be classed as audience, rather innocent bystanders who may or may not resent their favourite spots at the bar being taken over by a bunch of sensitive singer/songwriters. Neither audience or bystanders are guaranteed to be listening politely, some organisers try and enforce a silent attentiveness, but most don’t. It doesn’t matter, playing to indifference is good practise and a great leveller. I have played at an open mic where the table nearest the performers was populated by people passing around youtube videos on their phones with the volume turned up. There may be more people at an open mic, but they are not all paying attention.

Folk clubs also tend to be in pubs (or at least places with bars), but are held in private rather than public rooms. The audience may be smaller (and usually older), but they are just that, an audience. The number of people listening to you perform is the number of people there. And more than listening, one thing you can say about folk clubs is that they love a chorus. Give them a sniff at a group of lines repeated through a song and they’re on it like a rat up the proverbial. As an aside we’re about to enter a song contest in a localish club and the major concern as we were writing it was to get a chorus that people could pick up immediately.

The other difference that we found is that open mics are often attended trying to sell something, whether it’s product or themselves. They are more interested getting themselves noticed. Given that most of our local open mics are within a short distance of the Academy of Contemporary Music, I suppose that might not be a surprise in our case. But, even the organisers have to justify the time and the space provided by the pub. So, unless they’re getting people in buying drinks, it’s not going to last. But, all advice about etiquette aside, open mics are notorious for:

Kid coming with parents who film their entire performance and then disappear before the other acts start because it’s a school night

Performer coming with all their friends in tow, who talk through the other acts, receive their chosen one’s set with silent awe and then leave pretty soon after.

Performers with a dozen different pedals for instrument and voice, who take ages to setup before they even think about tuning (honestly, we timed one guy at over seven minutes).

Folk clubs are pretty much acoustic affairs and dare I say it, run by people who love the music. They are maybe a bit (or a lot) older and have learned a different approach to performance through the years. It is, as the title of this piece says, ‘listen to this’ and if you want, sing along.

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