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Feature Thu Apr 08 2010
"What have I gotten myself into?" It was only minutes after I committed myself to covering a week-long stretch of open mic nights that I began asking myself this very question. Of course it was my idea, but still, the question came. That's when I knew I was in for a strange and beautiful ride. That's always the first sign.
Music can be made in any setting, but music made on open mic nights demands the presence of strong drink, and a certain disregard for sleep. This is true for all parties involved. I knew that going in and realized some self-inflicted rules would be absolutely necessary prior to taking the plunge. One: In the interest of coherence, only one of these high-powered drinks would be allowed to enter my body and mind each night. Two: I would go alone and sit in the darkest corner I could find, among only the table-scattered essentials: audio recorder, pen/paper, camera and drink. And three: Before it was all over, with a blatant disregard for all things sacred and good, I would also perform.
That is the purpose of all this, isn't it? A free pass to perform without the burden of any shadowy shame, a sort of musical absolution — mercy for the awful, praise for the average, and an all-out adulation for the few capable of riding that high and mighty wave — the highs and lows on the open mic.
Monday - Uncommon Ground:
It was just after 9pm on Monday night when I broke my first rule. The timing couldn't have been better, I thought. Best to identify and eliminate the things that don't work for you early on. Yes, two or three drinks a night, I decided, would suit me much better in this environment.
Little more than an hour earlier, I'd taken a seat as far back as I could, against the back wall of the back room at Uncommon Ground. Not to suggest that there's a great deal of space between the walls, because there's not. If there were a stage on the opposite end, I'd have still been very close to it.
The room was quiet. To my right, several groups and couples ate dinner. Directly in front of me were two men sitting alone at two different tables, separated only by the two guitars on the floor between them. To my left, a small gathering of musicians sat around a table talking, laughing, tuning. They seemed to know each other. At the time, I couldn't tell if it was just the way it seemed or the way it was. I'm still not entirely sure. There were at least five of them and even as a whole, they were very quiet. The whole room was very quiet.
Where there was no stage there were microphones, a faded rug, and a cajón for those seeking company or cadence, or both. The night's host Niko moved generously and repeatedly between the soundboard and that magical area behind the mics, seeking the perfect imperfection that lies between them. When he found it, the music began.
One by one, fourteen singer-songwriters took their turn playing the two songs they'd chosen especially for that night, to be played on that faded rug. They shared guitars and borrowed picks, spoke their stories and sang them. Perhaps considering the contents of the tip jar that would line the pockets of the winner, perhaps not, they did this near flawlessly for just over two hours.
And while a winner was eventually chosen, I've always taken a personal interest in the beautiful losers. Shaina Hoffman was on the clock when she paused for a moment to pick up a guitar and sing her heart out; something like an exorcism but prettier and more peaceful. When she was done, she set down her borrowed guitar and walked out of the room with a tray of empty glasses.
Then there was Matt Shaw. I didn't even notice him sitting a few feet from me until he wasn't. By the time he'd finished playing I was mad at the world for not noticing.
And these are precisely the moments when grief turns to gold, those hidden and mystical flashes that, on these nights, move at once from dark corners and brush gently against the skin. You don't see them coming until you've already been flattened.
Tuesday/Wednesday - Sleepless Nights with Neutral Milk Hotel:
There are no photos from either of these nights, no recordings.
I walked into Subterranean at almost exactly 10pm on Tuesday, the start time for their hip-hop open mic. Then I sat for nearly two hours, waiting for an open mic that I would never see. I waited and read from my copy of Kim Cooper's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. I did this until it became too dark and impossible to, unless you had a headlamp on your person. Which of course I did, but that misses the point. And so I left.
My experience at The Globe Pub on Wednesday night was similar, but different. I again waited and read for nearly two hours, but what sent me out the door this time was the eventual cancellation: a combination result of the large group eating dinner on the stage and the foul, foul reality that is St. Patrick's Day.
On both nights, feeling the weight of the bummer, I headed home without any trace of satisfaction. This was until I got on my bike and rode home through that impeccable pocket of air that hovers somewhere around 50 degrees, and captures perfectly the scent of brake dust that falls from the trains overhead. In no mood for sleep, I stayed up most of both nights listening to Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea repeatedly. Then I left for work.
What's the point of all this? The point, is that if you find yourself turned away from the simple pleasures of an open mic, there are simpler ones. I'd highly recommend a late night bike ride, and a few sleepless hours with Neutral Milk Hotel as an alternate means to a bright and beaming end. It's simply not done enough.
Ian & The Hot Mess
Thursday - Red Line Tap:
It was shortly before 9pm when I walked into near blackness and emptiness at the Red Line Tap on Thursday. But there was no question about whether or not this open mic would happen. It's been happening there the same day every week for many years. Kind of like church. But also very much not.
Whether or not the Red Line Tap would fill up is another question I didn't have. It seemed entirely reasonable that it would happen, even in that small window of time between almost 9pm and 9pm. And it did. In addition to those who came just to watch, to listen, the sign-up sheet was filled with regulars, semi-regulars and newcomers; each come to play, and to nurse the one free drink they'd earned simply for doing so.
The stage lights and sounds began to rise as host Micki Croissant began the night's first song. To her right, taped securely on the wall, was a large portrait drawing of late Chicago musician Pat Hall. It gave the appearance of a wild and watchful fatherly figure, and I became more and more fascinated by it as the night wore on. I didn't even know who it was until I asked someone later. But still, that portrait set the scene for the rest of the night, a night that seemed to circle around a loud and happy family of musicians, gathered together for no particular holiday. And in so many ways, that's exactly what it was.
At several points throughout the night performers were joined by The Hot Mess, the name given to whatever random group of musicians happen onto the stage to join the song. All are welcome. And in a sea of acoustic guitars, an accordion can make a king, or break glass.
The hot mess was still echoing through the sidewalks when I left at midnight.
Friday/Saturday - Scout Niblett, The Coma and The Northern Lights:
Friday and Saturday are not prime open mic nights. They exist, but that changes nothing. And this was a good thing. After getting only one to four hours of it a night for the past four, I was in desperate need of sleep. But first there was the matter of catching Scout Niblett at Schubas. This was the fine goodnight that sent me off into the coma that lasted most of Saturday. When I woke up, I watched The White Stripes Under Great White Northern Lights once through. Then I watched the final scene over and over, until Sunday came. The point, again, is the simple and musical pleasure that awaits everywhere and always. If you ever find yourself in a similar position, I'd recommend doing a similar thing.
Sunday - Gallery Cabaret:
It was on Sunday when I broke my second rule and honored my third. I would meet with friends for a night of song and drink, and before it was all over, I would also perform.
On Sundays at Gallery Cabaret, dinner is served at 7pm. The first open mic of the night begins at the same time. Both are free. I arrived early and alone, but after signing the name I made up to the fourth spot on the list, I was too distracted to eat. No, what I needed was strong drink.
I sat at an empty table in the almost empty bar, going over it all once again. I had a brief encounter with a drunken man who introduced himself only as Crash. We became instant friends before he wandered off. Which was good, because he wandered back often.
I was tuning my guitar and drinking my drink when Nate Marsh sat down and introduced himself. Nate was also on the list. As we got to talking he told me that, on Sundays, he regularly plays at two more open mics: one at Bucktown Pub, another at Wicker Well. He recommends both. At some point or another the conversation ended in the same natural and friendly way it began, and we went back to our guitars, our drinks, and our thoughts.
Shortly after 7pm, a small group of friends and a larger group of strangers began slowly filling the room. And we were off. There were wonderful and rotten things happening all throughout my body and mind. When the fourth name on the list, Sir Lionel Staircase, came through the speakers in slow motion, the rotten things took over.
Would there be enough air, I thought, enough water? Would my new drunken bar friend Crash know where to go in the unfortunate event that I burst into flames and sent the whole place spiraling into a mad and twisted frenzy? Would Crash be able to locate the nearest emergency exit? Sadly, I already knew all the answers. But it was too late. I'd already begun playing.
And so it was then that I began to accept and embrace the imminent doom. And it was then that it went away. Slowly, I was flooded with warm waves as sweet and calm as anything I'll ever know, the same waves that carried me there in the first place. For at least a little while, the wonderful things had won. Before I knew it I was sitting back at a table and at ease, among friends and strangers, the lines between them having blurred and faded.
I stayed for the rest of that open mic, and for most of the next one. The jangled audio recordings from both sound as though they were taken from deep within the Sierra Nevada, in some dark and drunken cave. And for all I know, they were. The walls were lined with people and celebration, and I for one had an intense taste for these particular mountains.
I drank cheap beer with my friends in Dastardly, and watched as they rode that high and mighty wave to its completion. And in this sea, on this night, I watched as a guitar crowned a king, and an accordion a queen. The crest they reached was the same one I decided to leave on. Lost in the soft blur, I wandered slowly out the door without my guitar tuner. But what I did carry with me was so much more, or so much less, depending how you look at it.
And that was the strange and beautiful end, to the strange and beautiful ride.
But these nights go on. They are endless. People in poorly-lit rooms everywhere will step on and off stages and rugs to sing, free for a few hours from the dark clouds that hang overhead; the ones that bring the rain, and the ones that are there sometimes regardless of the weather. And these same nights go on when the clouds break and the moon sails calmly through the sky, like a mysterious and glowing great white. To join the big song, all you have to do is pick a room and sign your name, or the one you made up.
This feature is supported in part by a Community News Matters grant from The Chicago Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. More information.