The 16th Century Spanish writer Cervantes said, “He who sings scares away his woes.”
The therapeutic and communal power of making music predates human civilization, and archaeologists having unearthed evidence we were jamming around the campfire as many as 35,000 years ago.
It’s a tradition with deep roots in Guelph and a growing number of venues are providing opportunities for local minstrels to share their love of song during open mics.
“I’m in my 60s and I have been to a lot of these and the best one consistently is the Cornerstone Campfire Sessions here in Guelph,” said Guelph musician Dan McLean Jr.
“There is a table with a bunch of candles. That’s the campfire and there is a circle of chairs as well as people standing with guitars, mandolins, banjos, fiddles, an accordion, a euphonium, a tuba, and people with shakers. Somebody starts to play a song and if people know it, they join in, and it keeps going around the room. It’s the most community driven music event that I have ever seen.”
MacLean hosts a Facebook page, Guelph Open Mics & Jams, that provides a comprehensive list of all the open mic times and locations in the city.
“I post a new updated list every week or two and the last time I posted there were 15 in the area,” he said. “I think there is one in Elora and one in Fergus and the rest are in Guelph.”
Among the longest running open-mic groups in the city is the 2 Rivers Song Circle that gets together at the ANAF 344 Club on Gordon Street on the second and fourth Wednesdays of each month.
“This kind of organically sprang up years and years ago,” said organizer Dave Parkhill. “Through COVID, they were doing it by ZOOM and as restrictions loosened up, they started doing it in the park down by the river.”
Parkhill, an amateur musician himself, pulled some strings at the ANAF 344 Club to bring the song circle back inside before the cold weather hit.
“There are some folks with a lot of experience, but you don’t need chops,” he said. “Everybody is welcome whether you play or you don’t play, whether you want to sit and listen for the first time or two. We play everything from Elvis to 150-year-old songs and stuff that people just wrote.”
It was that welcoming atmosphere that encouraged local singer-songwriter Michelle Munroe to find her voice and eventually get invited to perform at the Hillside Festival.
“The Song Circle was the first place I went to just get out and enjoy music publicly then the pandemic hit, and I worried that I wasn’t going to progress,” she said. “I got to perform at Hillside this summer through a song writing showcase and to get all the nerves out I went to open mics all over Guelph and all over the GTA. I have probably been to 15 or 20 since April.”
Munroe is a regular during the Thursday night open mic shows at Royal City Studios on Woodlawn Road and occasionally helps mix sound for other performers.
Royal City hosts other similar events including a Blues open mic every Wednesday, an Under-19 Youth Networking Jam every other Monday and the Build-a-Band night every other Sunday.
“The open mics allow people to experiment and work things out with an audience that is very welcoming,” said Royal City Studios owner Jim Duffield. “Coming out of what happened in the summer when we were almost shut down, we have so much more awareness now of Royal City Studios, which has been great.”
Open mics on Monday, Wednesday and Friday have been a big draw for the DeBar downtown on Wyndham Street as well.
“It’s a win-win-win situation because we are bringing business to the DeBar,” said open mic host, musician and sound engineer Donny V. “It’s an open mic with a twist. It’s live music that is being recorded. We’re getting people on stage to make music that they want to do and the audience gets to share in the memories they make together.”
Each open mic in the city has its own appeal, but according to Munroe they all have one thing in common.
“What I can tell you is that in Guelph there is a tremendously supportive music community with committed people willing to keep venues and artistry alive and audiences willing to sing along and cheer for you,” said Munroe. “Like many other things in Guelph, we have something special here and a place can be found for anyone who wants to share in the love of music.”