I stare dumbly at Bob, who is really very good, trying hard not to think about the fact I’m up next.
I stare dumbly at Bob, who is really very good, trying hard not to think about the fact I’m up next.

Armed only with a guitar, a music stand and a couple of sheets of paper bearing hastily scrawled lyrics, I make my way to AL's Bar in Dundas St.

Inside, a small crowd of the curious and the brave are gathering to take in a night of live music, performed by amateurs such as me. We shakily chalk our names up on a blackboard. Mine is there, squeezed between "Bob" and "Pops". I'm too much of a coward to put my name at the top of the bill, instead timidly slotting it in at number four.

Barely a week previously, Avenues editor Yvonne Martin had suggested I might want to step up to the mic, so there hadn't been a lot of time for preparation. I must admit, though, that I enjoy playing the guitar at home and making up my own tunes. Years ago, I used to be in a few bands.

Kim Newth takes to the stage.
Kim Newth takes to the stage.

But sitting with my guitar beside me at the bar, I'm suddenly horribly aware of how out of practice I am and the nerves start to kick in big time. I find a shot of vodka always helps at moments like these. At the bar, owner and muso Al Park assures me the audience is very friendly and supportive. I've decided the trick is not to look them in the eye.

Al starts the evening off with several of his own wonderful tunes, reflectively describing his life at the bar and recalling the days when he worked at Echo Records as "the secondhand man". Then, there is an unaccompanied poet-cum-crooner called Geoff, followed by a lovely folk singer called Kristina, who dedicates one of her songs to the men of the Pike River mine.

All too soon, Bob, an American keyboard ace, is called to the stage. It will take some time to set up his equipment, so Al asks if I'd like to play in the meantime. Not likely! They turn up the house music, while I scuttle off to the rear band room, beyond the bar, to tune up.

By now, all the usual symptoms of extreme fear are kicking in: dry throat, sweaty palms and an unaccountable urge to run. Avenues photographer Joseph Johnson helpfully relates how he'd read that Irish singer Ronan Keating believes the best way to approach performing is "not to think". I stare dumbly at Bob, who is really very good, trying hard not to think about the fact I'm up next.

Then the moment comes. Al takes a few moments with my guitar and the PA, making sure it sounds okay. After a quick introduction, I'm away, playing three of my obscure songs, heard previously only in my lounge at home. There are a few mucked-up chords, a couple of missed words, but, overall, it doesn't go too badly and I even start to enjoy myself by the end. The watching punters and fellow performers are polite enough to clap and show some enthusiasm. I know it could have been better if I'd had more time to prepare, but what a great night. No one was there to judge.

One guy even said, "you're a natural". Fantastic.

Cool Al has owned the bar for four and a half years, running it as a performance venue. His roots in the Christchurch music scene go back a long way. The club he managed in Mollet St (Club da Rox) is remembered as the place that gave birth to punk in Christchurch during the late 1970s. At the time, Al was in a fast and furious R&B group called Vapour and the Trails.

"We catered to the alternative side of things. It was a place where lots of people got their start, like The Vauxhalls."

AL's Bar caters to every sort of musician, from indie rock to pop and metal. "The fact is people need an outlet for their music. No one had been doing that across the board before this bar opened."

As I pack my guitar away and prepare to leave, the open mic session continues into the night. It has been great and, who knows, with a bit more practice I might be persuaded to return.

AL's Bar's mic is open from 8pm on the last Wednesday of every month. An open mic poetry night is held on the first Wednesday of every month. Other open mic sessions are held at the Honey Pot Café (The Hive), the Christchurch Folk Music Club (Dux de Lux), The Bard on Avon, the Vespa Room and Wunderbar.