Open mic in the park kept Montreal music alive

Musician and host Lea Keeley’s weekly event filled a music gap of the pandemic

To ward off the quarantine blues, Montreal open mic host Lea Keeley decided to take the show outside.

Inspired by fellow open mic host Frisco Lee, who used Sir George-Étienne Cartier Square in Saint-Henri as his pandemic venue, she wanted to bring the concept to the Plateau.

Keeley chose the corner of Parc Ave. and Duluth Ave. in Jeanne-Mance Park. A gentle slope creates a natural auditorium, with the Montreal skyline as the backdrop. The minimal equipment would make it easy to miss, if it wasn’t for the clusters of people that came week after week. Open Mic Mondays in Parc Jeanne-Mance were an instant success.

“From the very start, people were just itching to play live music again. It’s something that we were all missing and needed,” said Keeley.

All good things must come to an end though. The Autumn cold signaled the end of outdoor open mic. Sept. 21 marked the last iteration of the event at Jeanne-Mance Park, though not necessarily the end. Keeley is looking at potential venues, but as we enter the second wave of the pandemic, she’s not ruling out taking a break.

“I’m just kinda taking it day by day and I’m gonna just enjoy the last one in the park tonight and see what happens after that,” she said.

Keeley’s love of open mic goes back to when she moved to Montreal ten years ago from Stratford, Ontario. She started attending the Brutopia open mic, which she would later host, and made friends with musicians in the community. She went on to host open mics at Ye Olde Orchard on Prince-Arthur St. W., and most recently at Local Legend on Saint-Laurent Blvd.

“[Local Legend was] where it started taking off,” she said. The Monday night open mic at Local Legend is where her open mic family started, which followed her into the park.

The success of Open Mic Mondays in the park faced a few hurdles. Police eventually stopped by to warn them about maintaining social distancing.

“I just had to announce in the mic to remind everyone to keep their distance, stay far apart,” she said.

“From the very start, people were just itching to play live music again. It’s something that we were all missing and needed.” — Lea Keeley

The wide open space leaves ample room for distancing, but groups would inevitably form with a density similar to what you would see in any other major park on a nice day. That was the only time they had any issue regarding public health, said Keeley. She explained that performers are asked to bring their own microphone and instrument. If they need to use the house mic, it’s sanitized between uses and hand sanitizer is made available. As far as she knows, there was no COVID transmission at any of the events.

Police did stop another time, but to warn them of a sound complaint. They had a drum kit that night, which they then stopped using later in the evening.

The few hiccups weren’t enough to dampen her success though. The highlight for Keeley came from chance encounters.

“The feeling of a stranger coming up to you and telling you that they just randomly stumbled upon the evening and how much it meant to them and how it made their night or made their summer just to have live music back again—it’s really special […],” she said.

To end on a special note, Keeley reunited with her former band, Soulhouse, for their first performance in over a year. They did an acapella set of classics like Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” and Earth, Wind, and Fire’s “September,” not realising it was in fact the 21st night of September. Although she was excited before the show, the final night felt bittersweet.

“It’s still pretty surreal to think it’s grown into what it is. I’m still just soaking it all in, and super grateful to be able to have held these nights,” she said.

While the open mic has wound down, she’s started another project: GirlGangLive. It’s a showcase focused on featuring women musicians in Montreal. The first event was held at Jeanne-Mance on Sept. 17, and Keeley hopes to hold many more.

Despite the cold, a sizable crowd made it out for an evening packed with performances. The final night included open mic regulars alongside first timers. The crowd was even treated to an impromptu freestyle by someone who seemingly wandered up to the microphone halfway through a performance.

The concert never wanted to end as the night fell over the city. The last performer was followed by a sort of encore by Keeley and friends, who kept playing one more song, each time calling it the last one, until well past the usual 11 p.m. end. What seemed to be the ultimate song was a cover of Ray Charles’s Georgia on my mind, which faded away as I hurried to catch the last 11 bus home, though I wouldn’t be surprised if they kept going.

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