1. The student-y one
: Wudaokou’s student-friendly dive bar.
When Every Sunday, 9pm.
The vibe Booze-soaked and raucously fun, with music of hugely varying quality. Performers we saw ranged from drunks treating the patient keyboard-playing host as a human KTV machine for woeful Adele covers, to a ridiculously talented beatboxer named Johan who deserved (but didn’t quite get) a standing ovation.
As the tables piled up with beer buckets and burgers we enjoyed and endured ropy acoustic guitar playing but energetic Beatles barking from an over-friendly Aussie, introspective and impressive guitar picking from a young seemingly mute guy and, of course, ukuleles.
A nice touch was the distribution of African-style drums and tambourines to the audience members near the stage, allowing the musically untalented to join in and oiling the incredibly friendly atmosphere further. It’s easy to see why this bash is rammed every week.
Where Temple Bar
: the loveable, sticky-floored dive in Gulou.
When Every Sunday, 10pm.
The vibe As free-flowing as the cheap booze and, carrying on hugely late into a Sunday night, perfect for students, the unemployed and freelancers.
On our visit the music didn’t kick off untill after 10.30pm, when a four-piece cranked up a haze of jazzy saxophone-led jams. With no singer to dominate the set, the band provided noodly background music rather than a focus of visual attention and there was no call out for audience members to get involved.
The band did switch their drummer later and, we’re told, musicians from the music studio downstairs often pop up to join in to vary things up. It felt more like a house band show than an open-mic night, probably by intention, providing a consistent option for drinking until 3am with Temple’s alcohol-soaked regulars, which is a laugh any night of the week.
When The second Thursday of every month, 7.30pm.
The vibe Studious but not stuffy, with the friendly host on our visit offering the chance for audience members to play following his own impressive solo Bach rendition on piano. We were similarly impressed by the clarinet skills of two suitclad students from the Beijing National Day School and a chippy solo recorder set from another attendee.
This night may not be the place to test out your comedy naked buttock-slapping routine, but the host did explain that non-classical performances are welcome. An endearingly odd ukulele and vocals rendition of Frankie Valli’s 1967 classic ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off You’ from a female attendee was full of charm. This event is a mellow option and a good chance to scratch classical itches without shelling out for a concert ticket.
4. The quality one
: the cosy bar tucked down a hutong near Houhai.
When Every Thursday, 9.30pm.
The vibe A warmly inclusive atmosphere; Bob Marley songs on acoustic guitar; impromptu collaborations; a bearded student type playing mildly annoying tunes on ukulele: this popular bash has all the ingredients you’d expect at a great open-mic night.
Friendly American host Ryan Brown (himself a strong musician) creates an environment that’s welcoming to every aspiring minstrel and their battered instrument, but the steady flow of regular performers here makes the music a cut above your average bar session.
On our visit, members of local band Redundant Seconds pulled off decent Bob Dylan and Oasis covers, while the aforementioned ukulele player showed off impressive original material after his predictably tiresome Lady Gaga cover. It’s Beijing’s best open-mic night, in one of Beijing’s best bars.
5. The jazz one
When Every Sunday, 11pm.
The vibe Outside East Shore jazz club, strangled hutong weaselesque wails emanating from the terrible clubs on the other side of Houhai waft over the water, repellently mingling with air pollution. Up the rickety stairs of the club lies jazzy relief.
The atmospheric venue, which offers stunning views across the lake and a New York speakeasystyle feel, hosts a casual weekly jam night that officially begins at 11pm although a band begins performing there much earlier. When we checked it out the players were house band-style regulars and the standard was exceptionally high: it’s not one for anyone far beneath pro standard to take on. The flipside was that the meandering, stretched versions of jazz standards played by a piano, double bass and drums trio we heard were seldom less than sublime.
6. The mega-casual one
When Every Tuesday, 9pm.
The vibe As relaxed as a sloth on laxative. Jianghu is always a pleasure to visit, with its comfortingly weathered walls, craft IPA on tap and an atmosphere so laid back it verges on the Jamaican. The venue’s weekly jazzy jam night is a suitably off-the-cuff affair, on our visit focused on a saxophone, electric guitar, drums and double bass outfit teasing out ramshackle jazz-funk, later bolstered by a second sax player joining in.
The sound was rather aimless. While the performers at East Shore’s jam session demonstrate deft intuition and build as they improvise, Jianghu’s lot never really raise a flourish. As such, unlike the quality-bound likes of 4corners and East Shore, this session isn’t lapel-grabbing enough to be a proper gig substitute, but still provides a fittingly chilled soundtrack to one of Gulou’s best bars.
7. The ramshackle one
When Every Thursday, 9pm.
The vibe Ramshackle. Open-mic nights are all about inclusivity but there’s only so much close-tocollapse blues jams one person – and at 9pm on our visit the audience literally comprised one person – can take. After half an hour of such noise from an instrumental four-piece, the squelch-parps heard in the nearby public squat toilets sounded like a blistering Mozart concerto in comparison.
Things improved when an acoustic-wielding singer countrified the show with Rolling Stones covers, but cavernous gaps between set switches meant that any momentum gained was sunk quicker than the bar’s 15RMB bottles of beer. Hot Cat is a top hutong drinking spot, but during our visit we didn’t notice one audience member present to watch rather than perform – testament to the fact that this night is not a magnet for musical pedigree.