Jesse Robbins’ first attempt at performing at an open mike a few years ago back home in Ontario did not go as he planned. He attempted to play three songs and was unable to finish any of them.
“I was ill-prepared; it was a new thing for me, playing live by myself,” Robbins recalls. “But the people there were awesome and super encouraging. They said: ‘Come back next week. Keep coming out.’”
So he did.
After meeting the 27-year-old – and stumbling across an event from his past that made news in Calgary – it’s not surprising that Robbins stayed positive after that first night on stage. A few months after moving to Alberta in 2011 he stood on the side of the road in Calgary holding a sign that offered passersby free hugs with no strings attached, telling the media when they arrived to interview him that he simply wanted to make people smile.
Robbins has taken his approach to life and connected it to his lifelong love of music. For the past two years he has organized an open mike event of his own every Thursday at the lounge at Smitty’s Restaurants in Airdrie, where he had met and become friends with the establishment’s music-loving owner Josh Shelton.
“We have quite a few regulars now and it’s literally people of all experience levels,” Robbins says. “I wanted to create an environment like the one I walked into. If someone comes up and they aren’t able to complete a song or they are discouraged, we want to encourage those people to come back and keep playing.
“The more you keep playing with a microphone the better your stage performance gets,” he adds. “It’s a great way to learn. You are surrounded by other musicians who are going to keep helping you. It’s a great environment.”
(The open mike at Smitty’s was expected to take a hiatus for July and August and resume in September.)
Robbins says that he has been taking music seriously now for four years, which corresponds with the time he arrived in Airdrie from his hometown of Ridgeway, Ont., near Niagara Falls. He began playing in Grade 10 when, after getting his first guitar, a bass, then joined up with some high school buddies to form a heavy metal band.
Robbins went home for the funeral of a friend who died in a traffic accident in 2011 and stayed for a spell, then moved back to Airdrie two years ago. He spent this past summer as a wilderness guide for the Boys and Girls Club of Airdrie.
Given his outlook on life, it’s not surprising to learn that Robbins has always leaned toward feel-good summertime music. The Beach Boys are his favourite band and a Beach Boys CD was the first music he ever owned.
“I still have it somewhere,” he says. “They were a big influence when I was younger and even now. If I’m ever in a bad mood it’s easy to put the Beach Boys on and get a smile.”
It was a feel-good tune called Travellin’ Life that Robbins submitted in 2014 for the SLAM on AIR songwriting contest. He reached the finals and although he didn’t win he drew the attention of Air 106.1’s program director Kevin Wallace, who subsequently helped Robbins find a studio to record a professional version of the song and then put it in rotation.
“It’s a feel-good song – I wrote it on the ukulele. It’s got whistling on it,” says the musician.
Robbins’ open mike is just one piece of a big music puzzle that exists in Airdrie, which is home to a wide range of performers with wide-ranging tastes.
“The music scene here is fantastic,” he says. “There are a lot of talented musicians in the area. Everyone brings their own flavour to the table.
“When we have an open mike here you don’t get a bunch of people coming out and playing the same style of music. You get a little bit of everything and it’s a beautiful thing,” he adds.