The Open Mic Blog

On any given night in this country, people pack up an instrument, a lyric sheet, and a little bit of courage and head out to play in front of an open mic crowd. The idea behind this blog, or maybe it's mission statement if you will, is for me to go out once a week to a different open mic, give you a feel for the place and for the type of musician who's playing there. Heard about an open mic at a new club and wonder if it's any good? I'll see what I can do to give you an answer.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Beyond The Bridge Cafe, Tacoma

Friday night open mikes are not all that common and so far the only one I’ve been able to find in the immediate area is on 6th Ave. in Tacoma.  Beyond the Bridge Café opened last August after moving into town from Sumner.  Last Friday night the place was packed with all the tables taken and a good number of people standing in the back by the counter.  As their regular open mike host was absent (how is this a pattern in my open mike adventures?) and how Doug Mackey had decided to come out with me to check the place out, Doug quickly offered to help with the PA and soon thereafter was asked to host for the rest of the evening.   Music started at 7:00 pm and went until 10:00 pm.  Each musician is given 15 minutes to perform.

The whole space has an easy lived-in feel with some couches and stuffed chairs thrown in amongst the tables as well as a decent sized stage that could hold a small combo and an adequate PA.  The crowd is attentive and appreciative but not to the point of rapt silence.   They are there to listen but also to hang with their friends and have a good time.  The owner Ben Rubke, along with his wife Trish, have been hosting an open mike for the past four years, both in Sumner and here in Tacoma, and think they've helped a lot with their business success.  When they moved to Tacoma, they wanted their café to be a place for musician to congregate and feel at home and last Friday night, that was exactly the feel the place had.

Gina Belliveau letting it rip at Beyond the Bridge
To me, this was the best group of singer/songwriters I’ve seen in the short time I’ve been going out.  The talent that Ben and Trish have been able to attract is a real testament to their passion for music and for trying to create a place that musicians would like to come and perform.

How would I rate it?

I had a great time and saw some of the best songwriters I’ve seen so far.  The have a good stage and lights but could really use a pair of stage monitors as things sound pretty muddy up on stage when you’re playing. Word is, the pulled pork sandwich is the best in town, but as I’d just eaten, I’ll have to try it another night.  Besides the regular espresso/cafe fare, there are also a number of beers on tap.  They allot room for twelve musicians although if there’s time, they will let more get up on stage and play.  Things shut down promptly at ten, so get their early if you want to be sure to get a spot.  Also the fact that they serve beer is a big thumbs up…it’s nice to be able to have something other than coffee to drink late on a Friday night.  Cheers!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Antique Sandwich Company, Tacoma

Victory Music has been hosting the open mic at the Antique Sandwich Company for more than 22 years.  It’s the first open mic I can ever remember attending and I’m pretty sure the first one I ever played.   That was all a long time ago though, and it’s been a number of years since I headed to the little town of Ruston to catch what I’ve long thought of as the mother of all open mics in the South Puget Sound.   The Antique Sandwich Company is an all ages coffee/tea deli that feels straight out of a different era.  This is a bean-sprout whole-wheat free-trade joint that was, for years, the counter-culture meeting point between Seattle and Olympia.  If you wanted to find the folk scene or even just a long haired hippy during the 80’s and 90’s in Tacoma, this was a good place to start.  There is no doubt this place has a deep and long history in promoting acoustic music  but after attending their Tuesday night open mic I was surprised to find out how far it seemed to have fallen.

Things are run a little differently with Victory Music and this is the only open mic I have been to where they charge a cover for all non-musicians.  $3.00 per adult and $1.00 per child.  It’s also the only open mic I’ve been to where they are in charge of filling out the sign-up sheet.  You fill out a sign-up/release form (to accommodate the fact that every open mic will be broadcast on and they create the running order.  This means that it doesn't matter if you arrive early to get a better spot, as that will have nothing to do with what time you perform.  On the night I was there, there was only a handful of non-musicians in the crowd and I have no doubt some of the people who did perform, did so only because they didn’t want to pay a cover simply to watch their friends.  

The 20 or so musicians on the list broke down into two distinct categories.  One being a large youth contingent getting their first experiences in performing on stage and the second being the Victory Music old guard who sat in their clutch near the back of the room.  The two sides didn’t mingle.  

How would I rate it?

I had a lot of expectations going to this open mic.  I have always held it as the biggest and best of all open mics here in Tacoma.  There was a time that this event attracted some of the best singer/songwriters, folk purists, blue grass pickers our area has to offer, but to me, time has not been kind to this open mic.  I was shocked by how seriously it took itself, from the mc’s shushing of the crowd, to being rebuffed after asking if Doug Mackey and I could swap places on the list because they didn’t do that, as it was “too complicated”, to the fact that the instruments could only be miked and not plugged in.  It all left me feeling that this place needed to lighten up a little quit taking itself so seriously.

Of all the open mics I’ve played in these past few weeks, this one was the least enjoyable.  Perhaps it was my own elevated expectations since I had held it in such high esteem, but to me it felt over-bureaucratic and self important all the while having some of the worst music and musicians I’ve heard in quite a while.  Time was you would sit through all of that to also hear some of the best, but last Tuesday night, that time seemed like many long years ago.

As I left, I kept thinking of Norma Desmond ranting in Sunset Boulevard “I *am* big. It's the *pictures* that got small.”   This last Tuesday that picture felt very small indeed.


Tuesday nights, sign up at 6:30.  Music starts at 7:00 pm and runs until 10:00. 

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Stonegate Restaurant and Bar, Tacoma

Doug Mackey and I headed out to The Stonegate Restaurant and Bar (5419 S Tacoma Way) for their Thursday night Acoustic Open Mic.  The Stonegate is a good sized, 21 and older, bar with a band sized stage near the front door.  Although everything I read about this open mic said “Acoustic” once we got there I realized that I might have brought the wrong guitar. 

Billy Stoops is the open mic MC and for the first hour his band The Rectifiers played a blues driven set.  I was first up after the band played and played before an appreciative and fairly attentive crowd and right after I was done the band fired it back up, this time with a guest guitar/singer and that was pretty much how the rest of the night went.  This “Acoustic Open Mic” is really much more of a blues jam, an old Tacoma-school night of Northwest R&B.  

Billy Stoops looked and sounded pretty good for a guy who had just gotten off the plane from Mexico earlier that evening.  He’s been hosting the open mic for a little over a year, and last Thursday night he had the place hopping. 
How would I rate it?

Nice crowd, a good PA system and well organized were all pluses.  Stoops starts things off at 9 and plays for almost an hour before opening up the stage for other acts. There's a sign-up sheet next to the stage as well as a tip jar.

Waiting through an hour set of the host’s band, finding out it’s really more of an electric blues scene than the acoustic singer/songwriter scene as the name suggests, and the poor acoustics of the room are all minuses.  Next time I go, I think I’ll bring the electric instead and let it rip.

The crowd is nice and attentive, but they’re looking to get their groove on.  There are some great old school blues players in the Tacoma area, and on any given Thursday night you’ll find a number of them at the Stonegate trading licks.  A few weeks back at Dirty Oscars Annex I felt like I was the oldest one in the room, Thursday, if not for Jake Westhoff  (From Where Sails Meet Rails) who I dragged out,  I would have definitely felt like the youngest.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Tempest Lounge, Tacoma

The Tempest Lounge (913 Martin Luther King Jr Way  Tacoma)   is an awesome little bar located in the Tacoma Hill Top area.  They've been having Thursday open mic nights for almost a year now and bring in a pretty eclectic group of musicians.  The have a decent area for the performers and a PA system provided by Maurice the Fish Records who co-sponsors the event.

Kim Archer, who along with her acoustic partner Nick Sandy, has been hosting this open mic since April of 2010.  Music runs from 7 to 10 pm with the signup sheet usually out by 6:30.  Standard three songs per musician but due to fact there were only 8 or 9 performers on the night I was there, they ran through the list twice. 

On this night Kim and Nick didn't stick around for the music as they had a gig somewhere else, so my new friends Kim Walen, Evy Cox and Steven Perez who I met last week at Dirty Oscars Anex's open mic were the nights host.  They're just about the nicest people you'd ever want to meet.  Now they just need to work on a few jokes... 

I thought the best of the night was Peggy Gordon who had some well written songs and a good voice.  She also brought the best cheering section hands down.  

How do I Rate it?

I think it would be hard to beat this open mic on a Thursday night in T-town.  The bar serves some of the best drinks in town and Katie the bartender keeps the orders moving.  They also have a full dinner menu and the under 21 crowd are welcome until 9:30. The music ranged from Mike Couccules who played with a trio of guitar, saxophone and djembe, to your standard folk cover-song fare.

Adding a light or two would be a big improvement so that the musicians aren't just playing in the dark.  This always strikes me as such a cheap fix I'm amazed that more businesses don't do it. The PA system is good, but the addition of a stage monitor would be a big help, it’s just so hard to hear what you’re doing when you’re playing behind the PA speakers.

I did have two people give me their cards which kind of threw me.  I guess I should think about bringing something to pass back so I don't get caught in that awkward somebody-just-handed-you-something-you-should-hand-them-back-something kind of moment that tends to leave me blinking and dazed.  Business cards just seem that just seems sort of the opposite of where my head is at at one of these things.   Maybe I should look into getting some picks made with my contact info on them, something someone might find useful later on. Too ostentatious?

Friday, February 4, 2011

Dirty Oscar's Anex, Tacoma

What used to be Sax on down near the end of 6th Avenue has gone through a change and is now Dirty Oscars’ Anex (2309 6th Ave, Tacoma).  Inside, D.O.A. (as they call themselves) is an old school u-shaped bar with a decent liquor cabinet and a space off to the side where they push away some tables for the musicians and their friends.  I talked with Kim Whalen, who alongside Evy Cox, took the remains of the Northern Pacific Coffee Company  open mic crowd out in Parkland after it closed and have tried to transplant it into the heart (or maybe just outside the heart) of the 6th Ave drinking district.  This is the 3rd week DOA has hosted the open mic and Kim and Evy are hopeful they can keep bringing in the crowds to keep it going.

After Doug Mackey and I left the near empty confines of the New Frontier Lounge's Tuesday night open mic, we finished up the night here.  The small crowd is young and enthusiastic and while it was clear they all knew each other, they were very friendly and made you feel welcome.  The open mic is hosted by Steven Perez. 
I ran into Kim Archer but try as I might, I couldn’t get her to play.  To her defense, she had four straight nights of performing in front of her and she was trying to get over the crud that’s been going around. Doug got up and played a few of his songs and I also heard some very good original songs from songwriter Michael Gee.

How would I rate it?

Tucked to the side of the room between the bar and the kitchen, this open mic feels a little temporary right now.  While the PA system is decent a few small items would help things immensely such as a boom stand for the mic so it doesn't keep hitting the guitar and perhaps a second mic for musicians without pickups in their instruments, as would a few lights to highlight the performers would make a big difference.

The open mic’s that I’ve played at usually fall into two categories, in one, the crowd is there for the music and will give you their attentions, in the other, the crowd is there to socialize with their friends and the musician is part of the atmosphere.  This open mic brought in a third element.  As I got up to play, this young never-knew-a-world-where-the-Soviet-Union-existed aged crowd were all looking into their phones—a room of people focused on their own little screens was a new and somewhat surreal performing experience for me.

Details:  The open mic is on Tuesday nights and starts at 9 and goes till closing.  When I left at 11:30 things were still going strong.  They had a sign-up sheet  but the list wasn’t very long on the night I was there.