It’s approaching 7pm on sweaty Thursday night in Brissy. The Elephant Hotel in the Valley is filling rapidly. There’s a nervous energy in the air. Small groups gather and eyes keep darting to the make-shift stage at the front of the room, as more and more people squeeze into any spaces available. A figure steps onto the stage and greets the audience. She looks expectantly at the crowd, about to sing, but first Astrid Jorgensen issues a clear warning to the packed room of almost 500, “This is my favourite song people, don’t fuck it up!” No, this isn’t your typical night at Karaoke, this is something so much better. Welcome to Pub Choir.
Pub Choir is such a simple and beautiful concept that it’s hard to believe that no one has jumped on it before. Bring together a bunch of music loving strangers, marinate them with their favourite drinks and convince them all that they actually can sing. The Pub Choir crew work show the crowd how to actually harmonise and mix their voices to take their favourite songs to another level and Brisbane audiences can’t get enough of it.
Pub Choir has become something of a sensation in it’s very short life. What started out as a simple idea just over a year ago between two friends who studied music together (singing with strangers, plus drinks – who knew), has turned into one of the must-attend events of each month in Brisbane. The first Pub Choir was held at the Loft in West End almost a year ago, with a tidy group of 80 of Brisbane’s finest and it quickly outgrew far beyond the expectations of the organisers. By the third pub choir, they had to turn people away and start looking for a new venue, and month after month, the Choir kept growing. This month’s Pub Choir #11 was held at The Elephant Hotel in the Valley and by the time the night kicked off, the venue was at capacity, filled with almost 500 people, and they were turning people away again.
So, what makes Pub Choir, so popular? A lot of it comes down to the able direction of Astrid and Guitar Wizard, Waverney Yasso, who live by the ethos that everybody can sing, and it’s their mission to prove it. Each month, they choose a song, break it down into a three-part harmony and effortlessly guide the group through the song until they’re singing like a choir. And all in under 90 minutes. The audience is filled with passionate regulars, people who come just because they love the song of the night, newbies and people of all ages. Past song choices have included Throw Your Arms Around Me by Hunters and Collectors, Brother by Matt Corby and Teenage Dirtbag by Wheatus.
This month’s song is Zombie by the Cranberries, of course. As if it could have been anything else after the recent passing of Dolores O’Riordan, former lead singer of Cranberries. It is a song close to the heart of the Pub Choir crew and to many members of the audience. After her warning, the chorists are focused and Astrid and Waverney quickly get to work. They break the audience into three sections, low, middle and high and go through small segments of the song with each group, before mixing them together. The harmonies are simple and effect and smiles start lighting up around the room as people realise the power of mixing voices together in harmony. Obviously, many didn’t spend much of their childhood in church, because hymns were always the most power part of my religious upbringing.
This would be powerful enough by itself, but it’s Astrid’s passionate and enthusiastic direction and her irrepressible energy that really takes the night to another level. Throughout most of the night she is the supportive teacher, convinced you WILL get it, and that it is all on her teaching and nothing to do with the fact that you’ve always been tone deaf and your childhood attempts at Sing-Star would wake up all of the dogs in the neighbour. Her instructions come with complete with diagrammatic representations of the harmonies for the ooos and aaas (think ooos that look like mountains), unique descriptions of harmonies (“I would like a waterfall of notes here.”) and ample encouragement at the right times (“Is it making sense? Yeah, we’re not fucking stupid, right?” and “Damn guys, that’s kinda hot!”). But, in order for us to get through the song before dawn, she also swings ably between task master (“Oy, no one is allowed to enjoy the chorus without my permission”) and playfully ribbing members of the audience (“Oh my God, someone is in full on yodelling through that section?”).
In less than an hour we’re through the song, and everyone is ready for their debut, but first we’re sent on a short break to lubricate so that we can be truly ready to give ourselves over to the song. During this time, I asked a few of the punters what they love about Pub Choir.
“Because I feel like I’m Alanis Morisette, but this is the only time I feel like I can sing in public outside of the shower.”
“In two hours she teaches three parts of the song and it sounds awesome”
“It’s Astrid, she’s a full on comedian!”
“Dude, there’s at least 3 times more women than men here – it’s a great way to meet chicks”
“Because it’s choir man”
Because it’s choir. Look, I don’t want to over analyse things, and everyone at Pub Choir comes for their own reason, but you can’t underestimate the power of being a part of something bigger than yourself. Where, just for a moment, everyone is working together and the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts. How often do most of us experience that these days? In a time when we’re told we are more disconnected than ever, and many of us feel this, maybe something we all need a little bit more of is to connect with our neighbours and strangers in song. And it doesn’t hurt that there’s a bar nearby if you need a little extra liquid courage to warm up the vocal chords.
When we come back, the energy is palpable. This group of strangers is just itching to break into chorus. Astrid and Waverney quickly take us through a few small sections that need polishing and then Astrid announced that we are ready to sing. And sing we do. As one we sing, our parts harmonise and it’s beautiful. Looking around the room, there are people losing themselves in the song, sharing smiles and encouragement across the room and singing with more passion than most doing karaoke. Together, our voices are lifted to another level. Mobile’s light up and sway in time and we all explode into spontaneous applause as soon as it ends. And the chills. Baby, there were chills all round.
“Holy shit, goose bumps everywhere! Good work everyone.” Astrid, sums it up best and we are all way too proud of ourselves.
So, what was the end result, you ask? Well, you can check out our chops here and judge for yourself, but if you watch that clip aren’t even a little moved, you have a cold, dead fish for a heart. Was it perfectly harmonised? Hell no. But it was perfect for us in that moment and for a short while we were lifted out of our own little worlds and experienced choir and it was beautiful.
Adam Wood attended Pub Choir #11 at the Elephant Hotel on the 8th February 2018. Pub Choir #11 was the last time the event would be held in The Elephant Hotel, as more than 500 of Brisbanites just want to sing together, dammit. From Pub Choir #12, their first birthday celebration held in March 2018, they moved to their new home, the Triffid, which has a capacity of 770 and they’re already selling out there. For Pub Choir #12 there were a few surprises and a special guest, so who knows what will happen at future events? What other inspiration do you need to join 770 new friends and raise the roof at the Triffid?
You’ll find the details about the the next Pub Choir events here. Pub Choir is now held in at least three locations – Brisbane (at the Triffid), on the Sunshine Coast (at Solbar in Maroochydore) and the Gold Coast (at Miami Marketta, Miami) – keep an eye on their website for news of the next pub they take over.
Director| Astrid Jorgensen
Guitar Wizard | Waveney Yasso
MC |Meg Bartholomew
Plus | A whole mess of helpers and currently around a thousand or so of Queensland’s finest amateur choristers and rising.