After a pandemic-forced two-year break, Open Mic Sundays are back at Niagara-on-the-Lake’s Royal Canadian Legion Branch 124 this weekend.
Organizer Randy Busbridge is excited to once again welcome people for what became a very popular event over the six months it ran from October, 2019 to March, 2020.
“Right from the get-go, it was great,” Busbridge says. “I think we had 30 people the first time. Word got out and it got a little bit bigger. The last time we ran it we had about 45 to 50 people. They were all buying drinks, and the legion made some money.”
The retired Toronto computer consultant conceived of the idea to host the Open Mic sessions after speaking to a friend who ran a similar event in Uxbridge. Told how it populated that area’s Branch 170 on a traditionally slow day, Busbridge convinced the local executive to give it a shot.
Known by his nickname, Buzz Hummer, Randy hosts the sessions and plays a few songs himself. He supplies his public address system and microphones, while participants bring their own guitars, ukuleles, harmonicas or mandolins and sign up for a slot that usually runs about 15 minutes, or three songs long.
In the past, the repertoire has included traditional Irish folk songs, singer-songwriter fare and some acoustic classic rock. One person stepped up to recite his poetry, while local resident Holmes Hooke did a spoken word performance complete with his homemade jingle stick.
Some, such as Peller Estates employee Sal Fasullo, will take a crack at introducing the crowd to their own compositions, though the afternoon usually consists of cover versions of well-known songs. Renditions of numbers by Janis Joplin, Joan Osborne, Bob Dylan, The Tragically Hip and Johnny Cash populated the last session before COVID shut everything down.
Busbridge, a veteran of a number of different Open Mic sessions across Niagara, says there’s something unique about Sundays at the NOTL legion hall.
“Typically the audience at an Open Mic is 100 per cent participants,” he tells The Local. “They show up, maybe buy one drink, do their number then leave. What was really cool about ours is that people would stay for the whole show. About half the audience were participants, the other half were there to just listen. And of course there were some legion members as well.”
Some seasoned veterans of the music industry performed on at least one of the local Sundays. Steve Goldberger of the Old Winos and the Niagara Rhythm Section, and former Mashmakan and Lisa Hartt Band member Rayburn Blake, both NOTL residents, backed up a few of the participants at that last pre-pandemic session.
“It was drawing that calibre of musician, and I hope they come back,” Busbridge laughs. “There were two or three others coming from further afield, too. It’s not all just industry professionals, but overall the quality of music was really, really good.”
The success of any Open Mic session relies on those unseasoned singers and musicians feeling comfortable stepping in front of an audience to perform. Busbridge has seen a few aspiring performers a bit hesitant to take the spotlight. Having welcoming professionals on hand for encouragement and accompaniment can be a bonus.
“We don’t have a house band per se,” he says, “but Rayburn and Steve did jam along with some people that they knew. It’s a very informal, flexible thing. I remember one time where someone wasn’t sure if they wanted to commit themselves, then borrowed my guitar to get up to play and sing. I remember one lady telling me she wasn’t really confident on the guitar, so I went up and backed her.”
Busbridge calls himself a life-long guitar player who always wished he was a better singer. When he moved to Niagara about 10 years ago he joined a band called the Remnants. They played the local bar circuit until 2017, with a set list consisting of classic rock from the likes of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin.
When the band members went their separate ways, Busbridge began to look for opportunities to play solo, and local Open Mic sessions became an important part of that transition. He will play a few songs at each session, sometimes throwing in one of his self-penned originals to gauge audience reaction.
It’s clear he relishes the opportunity the Open Mic sessions give him to help out the local legion while also giving fellow musicians a chance to perform to receptive music lovers.
“The audience is very, very appreciative, very attentive,” Busbridge concludes. “They’re there to have fun and listen to music. It’s a fun afternoon.”
The first Open Mic session at the Royal Canadian Legion hall on King Street is this Sunday, April 24 from 2 to 5 p.m. Future sessions will continue on the last Sunday of every month, as long as they are successful. If you go with the intention of performing this Sunday, make sure you sign up on the sheet for your time slot.