By long-time Ottawan, Samantha Everts, who ended up out west for love but quickly came back to the city she loves.
A while back, my best friend decided to cut his teeth on the open mic scene of Ottawa. Having worked on his own stuff for a while he still wasn’t brave enough to go it alone, so I dutifully padded along. Disclaimer- this research has been conducted over the last few years.
The first place we hit up was the now closed Elephant and Castle in Rideau Centre. It was the most bizarre setting to consider original music was being heard every Thursday night with Ottawa songstress and now Big Money Shot signed Amanda Rheume hosting the thing. People masquerading as cowboys without horses, high school kids in their first band, and this one guy that without fail played the same song set every week. Tourists and alternative rock radio listeners made up the audience. The waitresses would constantly hassle the crowd to buy more drinks or get out. A good first time.
The Royal Oak on Bank Street’s open mic is a bit of a secret. A local musician doing covers of Sweet Home Alabama and Honky Town Blues encourages bar goers to drink more. The few open mic’ers that do go ahead in are for the most part are ignored. There’s a reason why know one knows about this one. Even the placard on the street’s chalk writing has been smeared, ‘open m’’ This Royal Oak is not to be confused with the Royal Oak in the Glebe that has a thriving open mic crowd.
A newcomer on the scene that offers ‘live recording studio quality’ is the Live Lounge, a bar that is partnered with local radio station Live 88.5. I’ve been here a few times supporting the same friend and have been surprised at the professionalism of the players. Generally, each of the performers has confidence that many open mic’ers lack, despite the equally as empty bar. Each Wednesday night people seem to meander in and out of the pub for their friends alone so despite the excellent recording and audio capabilities, few ears are there to be leant. One major bonus for any up and comers, the stage is equipped for full electronic instruments including keyboards and powerful rock guitar power! If you’re lucky too, the DJ will play some Think About Life in between sets.
I haven’t made it to Café Nostalgic yet, but I’ve heard through the grapevine that it’s also an awesome place that showcases talent. Thursdays sign up at 8:30 p.m., music at 9 p.m. 603 Cumberland Street near University of Ottawa.
Also to be noted, Irene’s Pub on Bank Street offers a Saturday afternoon slot from 3 pm – 6 pm for any open mic’ers. Make sure to try their incredible homemade veggie burgers (vegan!)
The most popular destination for any serious open mic’er has got to be Umi Café on Friday nights. Make sure to get there early as the sign up list fills up quickly. The most unique and powerful performances are to be found here. Guaranteed, there will be a mix of hippies, families, intellectuals sketching the artists playing, and poets always up for a slam. The artwork is constantly in rotation to highlight local artists or members of the Umi co-operative. Unlike the others listed, Umi offers fair-trade coffee and tea in lieu of alcohol and during the day is a cozy place to read. Umi is also home to a piano and full drum set for any open mic’ers or coffee shoppe folk in the mood to entertain.
Just up the street from Umi is the still new Raw Sugar Café in the heart of Chinatown. I feel like I’ve heard of open mics happening there but can’t find anything to support this. Check them out regardless, as they support lots of new local artists (mainly acoustic).
For the literary folk, In Words (Carleton University’s literary magazine) holds an open mic monthly at Montgomery Legion. The music is reserved for the ‘inhouse’ band of older folk musicians eager to share classics with young ears. Readings typically start about an hour after music. Literary readings are not limited but include poetry, song, short fiction, and monologues. Alcohol is available but make sure to chuck in a few coins for the zines for sale first.
Honourable mentions go to Avant Garde Bar who occasionally hold an open mic. How could an open mic with constant Aqua and Kraftwerk videos streaming behind the performer be bad? Plus, their vodka list is so extensive you’ll be calling out ‘vstrobe’ before you know it.
Mercury Lounge also acts as venue for Capital Slam events.
It’s funny because in Edmonton you could open up the local arts newspaper and dozens of places would be hosting open mics on any given night. Maybe Ottawa needs to pick up on this, or does Ottawa really need more Jewel covers and John Mayer-wanna-bes distracting from the true talent.