Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Open Mics and Me

When I first arrived in this hallowed land of musicians, clubs and all those trappings of the world's "live music capital" I sought out open mic nights to try my tunes out on the unsuspecting populace, the lucky beggars. Of course, open mics are mostly frequented by the musicians who perform and the joint's lucky/unlucky bar staff. Still, OMs offer aspiring musicians a stage, a generally convivial -- if slightly skittish -- audience, a supportive MC (usually) and something of a performance atmosphere; it's a happy medium between a full-bore spotlit gig and strumming your latest tune in your bedroom to your girlfriend/boyfriend/cat.

I focused on two venues in particular: The Cactus Cafe and the Austin Outhouse, both because they were between UT, where I was attending graduate school, and my house, where I was attending to all things un-academic. The Outhouse is long gone, having made way for the expansion of Flamingo Motor Cars  (that brown, rounded building on the left was the Outhouse.) The old broken neon sign lived on for years, but I think that, too, is gone. Everyone and his guitar-strumming aunt knows the impending fate of the venerable Cactus.

The way open mics work, and certainly the way they worked in the early 1990s, cough, is that you showed up and signed up in the order you arrived for your 15 minutes or three songs, whichever was shorter. I can't recall anyone going over their allotted time, though one or two shaggy dog troubadours came close, "Alice's Restaurant" an evident influence on the weak willed. It's still like this for the most part: show up at such-and-such a time, claim your slot, sing. A time-honored scheme.

But sometimes the muckety-mucks who run the OMs tamper with the formula.

To whit: A few years after my first forays I returned to the Cactus and discovered that musicians had to put their names into a hat as part of a random drawing for the limited number of slots (that the MC was taking 30 - 40 minutes right in the middle of the night didn't help). The drawing occurred as the night wore on, too, not at the start of the evening. You could arrive at 6:30 for the 7:00 sign-up only to discover as midnight drew closer that you weren't going to get on stage. No thanks! I switched my allegiance to the (then) newly opened Ruta Maya International Headquarters, which still does an OM, though I see it's a lottery now, too, sigh. I wonder if the MC draws names before the OM starts? At least then you'd know if you were playing without having to wait and wait and wait...

Is there some lack of trust of the musicians? I always saw us as a polite, orderly little fraternity, taking note of who was there when we walked in the door and who came after us. I remember no fussing at all about whose turn it was to sign up for a slot. People who arrived too late took it in stride that they weren't going to get on that night. Yeah, yeah, musicians can be jerks, but not open mic-ers, whose biggest fault is usually going for those vocals just a tad too hard or apologizing unnecessarily if a song doesn't go the way they want. 

I guess I can put all this to the test when I start to host an open mic night at Cafe Caffeine, the Ultimate Thursday Open Mic.* I plan to run it the old-fashioned way, with sign-up on a first-come first-served basis. So you can choose your time then call everyone you know to come see you play. Yeah, I'll do a slot, maybe the first one, or maybe the last. I'm looking forward to hearing what I anticipate will be a variety of genres and skill levels as I make the acquaintance of a slew of Austin's talented strummers, pluckers and warblers. Plus I intend to drag some of my friends in for those prime mini-sets to hear their new material. I'll post the few rules soon.

First open mic is Thursday, February 25. Sign up at 7:00pm. See you there!

*Because it's the last Thursday of the month, naturally!

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