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Thursday, Nov. 12, 2009 08:42 pm

The value of open mics

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The number of open stages and jams listed in last week’s Illinois Times Pub Crawl was 13. That’s more than double from the six I found in the July 23, 2009, issue of IT and averages nearly two a day for the week. What’s going on here and why? More than likely it’s a combination of the normal upsurge of bar attendance in the fall and, like everything that happens nowadays, a result of the national economic downturn.

When you think about it, hosting an open mic is a quite frugal method of booking live music. Bar owners pay only the host act, but produce a full night of live entertainment. The drawback is the lack of quality control involved with open mic performers and that’s part of the price you pay or don’t pay, sort of, when allowing anyone an opportunity to perform for free.

For audience members, the good news is if you don’t like this entertainer, sit tight for a couple songs and a different one is coming right up. Even if none of the ambitious artistes are enjoyable, at least you don’t have to listen long and the odds are more good than bad perform. But now we’re unnecessarily shucking the show and poor, little open mics already tend to get a not-so-well-deserved bad rap.

I ran several over the last 20 years at now-defunct establishments such as Davy Byrnes, Bruce’s Tavern, Union Station, and Bedrock’s, plus hosted the Songwriters Circle at Underground City Tavern. People would moan and groan about a performer not performing so well, but I’ve watched several novices come back week after week, improving until reaching the point of leaving the open mic nest and venturing into the land of real gigs. Not only is the open stage a great proving ground for beginners to get a boost in confidence and a jolt of reality, seasoned pros use them to try out new songs or dust off a rusty piece in a live situation.

So you see, open mics aren’t just a place for the losers who can’t get a real gig, as I’ve heard them described before, but a valuable tool in the music scene for nurturing talent, as well as a meeting place for networking. The fertile ground of a friendly open mic sprouted many an area band, including Backwards Day, Daddy’$ Money, Second Harvest, and plenty of others I’m sure. There’s also a Web site (imagine that) at www.openmics.org designed to link all open stages across the country so traveling salesmen with guitars can find a spot to play on a Wednesday night in Toledo. Unfortunately, no Springfield open mics are listed on this self-service site.

Whether you’re an artist or a member of the audience, please do yourself a favor and support your local open mic by frequenting one of the many now listed in Pub Crawl. There’s the popular all-ages night at Andiamo on Thursdays returning from a lengthy hiatus, and a gathering at the Ramblin’ Elk Sanctuary, a new happening spot in Elkhart, on Nov. 20. For more small-town shindigs check out Kyla’s long-running gig at Trails End in Curran on Wednesdays and Tim &%u2008Fred’s on Sundays, Raoul Brotherman’s new one at the East End in Riverton on Sunday afternoon, Nov. 15, or head to Virginia (Illinois that is) for a now and then Thursday night romp with host Jeff Newman at Dr. Ugs, or to the Blue Moon Saloon in Dawson with Hipbone Sam on Tuesdays. Or you could do some downtown open mic hopping on Monday night and hit Frank Parker’s Jambalaya Jam at the Brewhaus, Sarah Schneider’s at Bar None, the Illinois Central Blues Club’s Blue Monday Jam at the Alamo and Marly’s Pub with Micah Walk.

With a good variety of specific open mics available, including jazz, comedy, acoustic, folk, blues, and full-bands, plus an occasional poetry night, we’re quite prepared to fulfill the aspirations of open mic attendees no matter what side of the microphone they choose to participate from.

Contact Tom Irwin at tirwin@illinoistimes.com
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