By Matthew Dusenbury
As one of the most popular night spots in London, Jack’s is known for its pounding music and energetic atmosphere, where 20-somethings go to have a drink and dance the night away.
Tucked off to one side of the main floor, however, is a narrow stairway, and climbing it means crossing a threshold, leaving behind the blaring Top 40 hits of the day in favour of the intimacy and nostalgia of a live singer and an acoustic guitar. It’s here, on the second floor of the club, that Jamie Shrier and Graham Spriel — also known as Verbal Karate — prepare to take the stage for their regular Friday night set.
“Welcome to Jack’s! I’m Jamie, that’s Graham and we’re your hosts for the evening.”
The crowd is lukewarm at first, as the two launch into a rendition of “Bittersweet Symphony.” But by the third song the small dance floor is packed with bodies and Shrier’s vocals are nearly drowned out by the crowd singing along.
For Shrier and Spriel, the chance to play music in front of hundreds each week is a dream come true, but one that is also hard earned.
Hailing from Montreal, Shrier, 33, moved to London in 1999 to study English with a minor in film studies at Western University. Originally, he planned to stay in academia.
“I thought I’d eventually become a professor,” he said with a chuckle.
Throughout his undergraduate career, Shrier found time to attend open mike nights across the city. Years of networking within London’s music community eventually led him to hosting these events at bars like the Rose & Crown and the former Alex P. Keaton.
|Jamie Shrier screams into the microphone during a performance at Jack’s.|
It was as a host that Shrier first met Spriel. A graduate of management and organization studies at King’s University College, Spriel, 24, ran in many of the same circles as Shrier, playing music at night and on weekends.
The two knew each other casually, but it was a serendipitous moment that led to their musical partnership.
“My singer moved out West and right at that time Jamie’s (former partner) wasn’t working out,” recalled Spriel.
The duo began playing the familiar spots across the city before being offered the chance to play at Jack’s by Adam Campbell, the club’s general manager.
“I wanted (Jack’s) to offer something different on all levels, to appeal to all people,” said Campbell. “And these guys are great. They play all those songs everyone knows.”
Six months later in May 2011, Verbal Karate was offered the coveted Friday night slot, playing cover songs to the delight of those looking for something other than the standard dance-floor fare. With a catalogue of more than 200 hits to choose from, the band has more than enough material to keep its listeners happy.
“You’re not going to make any money playing originals (on weekends),” said Shrier. “But we stay true to our roots. We get to play all the great one-hit wonders.”
For Brandon Besley, a 19-year-old student at Western, it’s the familiarity of those songs combined with the live performance that draws him out to the club on a regular basis.
|Graham Spriel strums his guitar on stage at Jack’s.|
“If it weren’t for these songs,” he said, pointing to Spriel and his guitar, “I probably wouldn’t be here.”
It’s a feeling that resonates around the room, as partiers look to Shrier and Spriel to provide the soundtrack to an exciting evening.
Not bad for two men who otherwise lead fairly quiet lives. During the day, Shrier is a dining room supervisor at La Fiamma restaurant, while Spriel works as a financial services manager at the Bank of Montreal.
But once they are on stage, they are anything but subdued.
“We try to keep our energy level up for all these kids,” said Shrier. “I’d rather come here and scream into a mic for two hours.”
As Friday night turns to Saturday morning, Shrier and Spriel let their inner rock stars shine, high-fiving audience members and even venturing into the crowd to serenade those around the room. Finally, amid deafening chants of “one more song,” the two begin to wind down their performance.
“Thanks for sticking around and hanging out with us,” Shrier belts into the microphone, as Spriel strums Weezer’s “Say It Ain’t So” on his guitar.
“We’ll see you next time.”