If there’s anything I can promise, it’s that my account of the second Open Mic event to grace the Union this year will be very little like the first. I can’t promise, however, that the members of Live Music Society will respond favourably to this article. So, as a preface, I’d like to say that I still highly encourage you to attend these events, support Imperial’s bands, the members of LMS who work so hard to put these together, and the staff at the Union who cater to boozy students seated at the time of the event.
There’s a reason I hesitate to call these students “audience members”; I don’t think they really intended to be there during the performance. And I can’t blame them. Metric had the same royal blue club environment, picnic bench set-up, and screen behind the stage displaying what looked like Excel bar graphs having a seizure (or as Yunke eloquently put it – a malfunctioning 2005 Tetris game). Last thing you’d expect is an LMS event promising relaxing acoustics and the classic wide-eyed guitar player and stool combo. Yes, there was more space than before (which is a definite plus point because relaxing acoustics and unhappy security guards present an incongruent duo). But I must admit it was a bit of a let-down for those of us who came for our dose of vibey folk-pop.
The night began with an unexpected hip-hop/rap act. Although it was hard to discern what the performer was saying in the middle of the chaos (thanks to the accidental “audience members”), anyone with ears could tell he was definitely skilled. He set up his backing track on a MacBook and placed it on a nest of wires before he began his performance. Some verses were slow and measured while some were sped through with impressive clarity. The interjection of a comedic sequence involving a virtual assistant’s voiceover telling him his fly was open derailed the act a bit, but who knows? It may have a received a laugh or two if anyone could hear him.
A performance of Bastille’s “Pompeii” invited just a little more audience engagement, but was still generally inaudible. This improved when an initially timid vocal performance of Sam Smith’s “Lay Me Down” crescendoed as the singer became more confident. However, it peaked when LMS crowd favourite Man Ho, the local Mandopop tribute artist, channelled Jay Chou’s romantic “Qīn Hua Cī” (or “Blue and White Porcelain”) while daintily holding a rose.
Another surprising performance was Pralaya, Imperial’s own prog metal band, who sang their favourites with only an acoustic guitar and cajón (a Peruvian box you sit and drum on). This included a toned down version of Foo Fighters’ “Everlong” – a highly evocative song when sung with genuine emotion. And if there’s anything I’ve learnt about Pralaya, having watched them for months now, it’s that they’re heavily invested in their love of metal (a genre I’m not a fan of but can definitely still appreciate).
As I’d come to realise, I judge these nights against a set of standards that don’t really stay the same through the performance. Sure, they begin with judging ‘talent’, ‘skill’, ‘passion’ and all that musical mumbo jumbo. Ultimately, they end with how much fun we’re having as both audience members and performers. Are we enjoying the music? Is my little notebook where I write about each performance finally shut and stuffed into a bag somewhere? These are things that tell me I had a good time. But tonight answered those questions differently compared to when I normally attend these events. Some impromptu performances of “Closer” and “All of Me” reminded me it was getting late and I had a bed to sleep on. I wondered why the singers (a broad definition of the word) needed to pull out lyrics to the most overplayed pop songs in music history. In fact, most LMS events actually steer relatively clear of this redundancy to a certain degree. But something about tonight didn’t feel like an LMS event. The audience made performers feel alienated because they would only get a cheer if their song was incredibly mainstream. The event felt more like an advertisement for noisy, attention-seeking friend groups, than actual performances. While this seems quite harmless, it could have been a major deal breaker for first-time performers – and after all, that’s the point of an open mic night.