Students at Brock University have an ace up their sleeve, they have access to one of the most bustling hives of culture Canada. Downtown St. Catharines is alive with buskers, poets and painters from all walks of life, and it’s not hard to find something to be inspired by. Above of all its offerings, no event offers so wonderful or varied a selection of the city’s finest than open mic nights at Mahtay Cafe, every Thursday evening at around 8:30 p.m. In just two short weeks I’ve seen everything from Mexican flamenco music, to beat poetry, even stand up comedy. The focus is largely on singer/songwriters here though, so here’s some of the standout performers over the last few weeks and where you can find them.
Nicole is a Brock student who dedicates a lot of her time and energy to music. She has a unique voice that’s as powerful as it is vulnerable, which lends a lot of power to her somber, heartfelt lyrics. Her performance is filled with brooding, acoustic guitar-based folk, but her EP (available on Bandcamp and Soundcloud under the name Comma Fera) takes her sound to more experimental places. Alongside her original material, her performance also includes some covers from the likes of Rusty Clanton and Dodie Clark. Nicole plans to perform at open mic regularly.
Lux reminded almost everyone in the room of Amy Winehouse, from the moment she began to sing. Her short performance was entirely originals, the standout being ‘Time Moves Quickly’, an unholy waltz that captures an earnest and brilliant darkness at the heart of her music. Lux makes regular appearances at Mahtay, and will be performing at Merchant Ale House alongside other local artists on October 28.
All of the performers mentioned here have staggering voices, but Abbi stands out for being a different kind of brilliant. Her voice is less refined but packed with the earthly charm of the likes of Bob Dylan, Ryan Adams and Lucy Dacus. To top it all off, hers was some of the most impressive guitar playing I’ve seen in a long time. Her fingers soar across her battered acoustic, creating complex textures and fantastic rhythms that perfectly compliment her powerful lyrics. Abbi makes regular appearances at open mic nights, and can often be found busking all across downtown St. Catharines.
Some may already be familiar with Kirk as one of the faces of Brock’s own Go Live group (who host their own open mics and other opportunities on campus), but he also frequents Mahtay on a Thursday evening (where does he find the time?). His performance was perhaps the most distinctly pop-sounding, there’s a funk to his rhythm playing and a complexity to his chord voicings that marks him out as a distinct voice. His original material is just as crowd pleasing as his covers, his track ‘Cement’ even earning a chorus of claps from the audience. In the second week, he invited his friend Iman Kalo to join him for a beautiful vocal duet on Bon Iver’s ‘Skinny Love’.
As a guitarist with an extensive collection of effects pedals, I relish in seeing fellow guitarists using effects pedals. Jon Lepp is one of those guitarists, but he is also so much more. His musical composition is second to none, creating otherworldly textures through the power of his performance. Lepp occasionally performs solo, but he’s the lead guitarist and singer for St. Catharines band Fat Moth, who will be performing at Mahtay on September 30.
Uphill and Still
A lot of the artists at Mahtay’s open mic nights evoke the spirit of folk. Uphill and Still took to the stage with a mandolin and a washboard, and reminded everybody what folk really is. With jaunty rhythms and haunting, spiritual lyrics, the duet (and occasional trio, being good friend with Jon Lepp), bring all the fun and fantasy of their English folk heritage with them (their singer is from Somerset), and where a welcome change of pace for the evening.