When Caitlin Stephen realized the covid-induced closure of Toronto’s bars had left local musicians with nowhere to play for the foreseeable future, she devised a workaround. Every week this summer, weather permitting, Stephen hosted Open Mic Thursdays at the Oculus, a low-key outdoor music event, held beneath a flying-saucer-shaped canopy on the Humber River Recreational Trail, a quick bike ride north of Lake Ontario.
A handful of people were already gathered by six-thirty on the warm August evening Taddle Creek attended. Some wore masks, and those who didn’t arrive together kept a respectful distance from each other. (Both hand sanitizer and bug spray were on offer.) Stephen, dressed in a black sleeveless top and dark green shorts, worked the crowd, clipboard in hand, slotting those she knew into the night’s schedule and attempting to convince strangers who had wandered by to sign up.
“Are you here to perform?” she asked one cyclist who’d stopped and seated himself on the grass.
“I play guitar,” he said. “I thought I’d just check it out and maybe come play next week.”
“We’re here late if you want to go home and get it tonight.”
Promptly at seven, Stephen moved to centre stage, welcomed the crowd, which had grown to about twenty, and started the evening with an original composition of her own, singing and accompanying herself on a battery-powered keyboard, the only “house” instrument made available to performers. She was followed, over the next four hours, by artists whose talents spanned the spectrum. One young man in pajama bottoms played an acoustic version of Blink-182’s “All the Small Things,” two middle-aged white-haired men with guitars performed the Skydiggers’ “I Will Give You Everything,” and a man and woman stumbled through “Blister in the Sun,” by Violent Femmes, despite the assistance of a lyric sheet.
As sometimes happens at open mics, the evening wasn’t without its unexpected surprises, like the Soul Maître D’s, a local duo who performed their signature song, “Freak Show,” followed by a freeform organ jam. “We need more of that level of quality coming out,” Stephen said. “We’ve had a spirit drum circle, a troupe with two violins, an accordion, and a horn. We’ve had tons of guitarists, we’ve had drummers. It’s pretty folky right now. There’s a little bit of R. & B., which I’m loving.”
Stephen, thirty-eight, spends her days as a licensing manager for Mattel and usually attends up to three open mic nights a week. She discovered the Oculus for the first time while biking the Humber trail with a friend earlier this summer. “We went under it and heard the acoustics and we were blown away,” she said. “My friend kept saying we should do a show there or a concert or record some music. At first I dismissed it, but then I started hearing about a lot of the local venues that we would usually play at closing down for good.”
By 10 p.m. the only light remaining came from the strings of outdoor patio bulbs circling the stage, but about a half dozen musicians remained, closing the evening with a lengthy group jam that included the Thompson Twins’ “Hold Me Now” before things broke up around eleven and Stephen packed up her small cart and returned to her nearby car. “This has made my summer. I want to keep it going into the fall until it gets too cold. I just don’t want it to turn into Trinity-Bellwoods,” she said, in reference to the downtown park that gained notoriety for its lack of social distancing at the beginning of the season. “If it gets completely full, I think we’d get shut down.”