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Pass the mic
Local open mic nights give both musical novices and seasoned vets a chance to show their stuff
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
At first glance, the succession of men and women waiting to take the stage at the Firefly coffee house on Wednesday’s open mic night might seem like character actors right out of central casting. Most of them seem young, a little scruffy, and deadly serious, armed with battered guitar cases and an insular attitude — exactly the kind of people I was told populate open mic nights in the area. For anyone out in the crowd, it looks like they’re in for an evening of acoustic earnestness…
Except if you stick around, you’ll find something much, much different.
For one thing, the performers are not all twentysomethings, not by a long shot. A lot of musicians who have been playing around the Fort Wayne area for years take the stage during the course of the evening. And they’re not all serious either. They’re serious about the music, and about performing, but some of them banter a little with the audience or throw a little self-deprecation into the onstage comments.
For another, it’s not all acoustic, and musically, it’s very diverse. Material ranges from indie rock originals to blues and folk covers to electric instrumentals. The performances are excellent; the musicians on stage may not all be seasoned veterans, but they can all play their instrument and hold a tune, something that anyone who has ever settled themselves in at a restaurant only to find out a minute after ordering that (surprise!) it’s the establishment’s karaoke night can appreciate.
Best of all, there’s a collegial, friendly atmosphere among the musicians that seems to transmit itself to the audience.
The Firefly coffee house on North Anthony is just one of the many venues in Fort Wayne that hosts a regular open mic night. You can find an open mic night, or something like it, practically any night of the week here in town, where you can play a few originals, perform a mini-set of your favorite covers, or even do a spoken word piece.
There are some guidelines (more on that later), but the hosts of some of the open mic nights around town say the only real requirement is a desire to perform. Bring your instrument, and you’re the star — for two or three songs, at least.
Mike Conley hosts the acoustic open mic Thursday nights at the Mad Anthony Brewing Company on Broadway and Taylor. Finding the area’s “best” open mic night depends on who you talk to, of course, but this one ranked pretty high with everyone I talked to. A prolific performer in his own right, who estimates he plays out anywhere from three to five times and week and can’t remember the number of songs he knows (“probably hundreds”), Conley says he puts on a different hat for his gig as host. “I am not there to be the star,” he says. “I am there to make everybody feel at home, and to make sure that person feels really good about their performance.”
Part of that includes diplomacy. Sometimes, 15 or 16 people will show up, and Conley, who has served as host at Mad Anthony for three years, says he tries to let all the performers have their three songs worth. “The ultimate goal is to be able to share their own songs with people,” he says. “At Mad Anthony, we’re fortunate, everyone is still supportive and respectful, even if it’s not the best performance. I’ve seen people who have been coming there since day one, and they’ve improved. It’s amazing. It’s almost like watching your kids grow up.”
Carl Peters hosts the Firefly’s regular Wednesday night open mic sessions. The Firefly is a coffee house, so naturally the atmosphere is a little bit different than what you might find at an open mic night or a blues jam in a club, but Peters says they have a similar mix of performers, poets, and others. “We’ve had kids in who were going to do a recital the next week, and they wanted a little experience playing someplace in front of people,” Peters says. “They come in and do their three pieces, and it just gives them a good chance to get over that feeling of ‘oh, I’m in front of people and they’re watching me.’”
As host, Peters says his job is to make the performers sound good. He says he’s more of a sound technician than an M.C. “The worst thing that can happen to a performer is to spend hours working on their music, and then get up and not be able to hear themselves, not be able to hear their instrument, and basically feel like you’ve been set on a stage and somebody put a bucket over your head and said ‘go ahead and play.’ I’ve been there.”
Peters says that one of the best things about Fort Wayne’s open mic nights is that it gives the novices and seasoned musicians a chance to mingle and sometimes even work together. “For less experienced musicians, it’s always great to play with more experienced performers, because it makes you better,” he says. “The Fort Wayne area is really, really lucky to have the quality of musicians they have here. I guess the thing that just makes it so great is that a lot of these musicians, if asked, will sit in with anybody. It’s not like people are saying ‘I don’t know if I want to be seen with them, because what if there’s a record producer out there, and I don’t want to bungle my chances.’ We’re just off the beaten path enough that if you say ‘do you want to sit in with me and do a few songs?’ I haven’t seen anyone yet who would say ‘no, I really couldn’t do that.’”
Indeed, many musicians seem to enjoy the relaxed collegiality of the open mic nights. “The better open mic nights give you a sense of community among musicians,” says Kevin Hiatt, a local musician. “In the bigger cities, the open mics can be very competitive. If you go up to the Ark (in Ann Arbor, Michigan), you have to take a lotto number to even get to play. Also in the bigger cities, open mic nights are the key to building any kind of regional exposure, which doesn’t necessarily seem to be the case here.”
A different sort of open mic night happens at the Mid-City Grill on Monday nights, where G Money, a fixture of Fort Wayne’s music scene and a tireless champion of the blues, hosts the regular blues jam with the G Money Blues All Stars. The blues jam, explains G-Money, is different from a strict open mic night, and not just because he focuses on the blues. “What I do, it’s more of a performer’s venue than a singer’s venue. I’m not saying it’s not a singer’s venue, don’t get me wrong, but it’s more for the instrument players.”
As he describes it, his job is slightly different than most open mic night hosts. He has to have a core band of at least three, preferably four, musicians gel on stage, so he relies on some of the regulars. “For the most part, I know the musicians that come in,” he says. “Basically, I have to mix and match the musicians according to what I know about their abilities. But my main job is to keep the music sounding good and interesting for the people who just come out to have a good time, have a few drinks, and share some good times with their friends.”
“If I see a new face, I’ll give anybody a chance,” he says. “When I get ‘em up, and they show me something, believe you me, they definitely will get called back that same night. Sometimes, I’ll get guys who couldn’t hold a beat if you give him a baseball bat. I’m not trying to trash anybody, don’t get me wrong, but like I say, I have to maintain a certain quality of togetherness with the musicians I put up there.”
G Money feels having this sort of forum for guitarists, bassists, drummers, etc. to flex their musical muscle is essential to keeping the blues and R & B genre alive. “Really, we don’t have R & B in music today, not as far as real players,” he says. “They (the current music industry) want to get one guy or a group of guys who can sing and dance, but can’t nobody do it like the Temptations used to. That was a long time ago, and I understand that, but the Temptations did it with a live band every night. These cats are doing it with pre-recorded tracks, what they call beats, or this, that, and the other.”
Open mic nights don’t have many strict guidelines — they’re sort of hard to regulate, if they’re a true open mic — but there do seem to be a few unwritten rules. The first one is don’t waste anyone’s time. You may not be a professional musician or a virtuoso, but you have to at least know what you’re doing, and approach it with some level of seriousness. “Ain’t nobody getting ready to sign a record contract,” says G Money. “It’s like a pick-up game of basketball out in the park — everybody out there want to show their best stuff, but you’ve got no scouts from the NBA getting ready to sign you. There’s nothing wrong with putting your best out there, but sometimes I get cats who are talk, talk, talk, and then when it’s time to deliver, it ain’t happening.”
Then, of course, you have to respect your audience, which means keeping the material relatively clean. Mike Conley says freedom of speech is fine and all, but some things just aren’t appropriate for certain venues. “The only time I’ve ever pulled somebody was a spoken word guy, and he was getting really graphic,” Conley says. “You have families there, kids there… You have to respect the audience. When you start talking about pornography, that’s it, you’re going way in the wrong direction.”
Most of the time, though, the performers are pretty serious about their time in the spotlight. They’re there to have fun, and they realize the audience is, too. According to the hosts, if the performers do their best, the audience responds in kind. “It’s a really cool night, because it’s gotten to the point where there’s such a good support system in the room,” says Mike Conley of the open mic night he hosts at the Mad Anthony on Thursdays. “You can feel it, where everyone is very supportive, and very courteous of one another, which is exactly what you want.”
“If they’re not the best performer, that’s fine,” Conley adds. “Sometimes they’ll be a little down, and I’ll make it a point to go over and say ‘hey, I hope to see you back next week.’ So they had a bad night. Practice harder.”
G Money echoes that. As he sees it, if you hit a few bad notes… well, that’s just part of performing. Some nights you’re on, some nights the vibe just isn’t there. “What we do is straight up, live, off-the-cuff,” he says. “If any bad notes come out, you’re going to hear that, but most of the time, there are good notes coming out. That’s pretty much real life for you, because you don’t feel good, 100%, like you’re walking on clouds, everyday of your life. If you did, there’s something that’s not quite right.”