Open Mic Odyssey
A journey through the most surprising scene in town
by Nick Farago
Every musical career starts somewhere. Being a young, aspiring singer-songwriter, new to Portland and with fewer friends here than fingers, I started at open mics.
I thought it would be easy: play a song, impress the owner and get a gig. But I’d never played live before. My audience was a bathroom mirror in Miami, where I’m from, and a group of friends on Vinalhaven, where I’ve spent every summer of my life. I wasn’t prepared for the ups and downs of the sometimes depressing, sometimes inspiring, nearly always surprising open-mic scene.
My first open mic was at Slainte, on Preble Street (Wednesdays, 8 p.m.). I had moved to Portland that night, and walked into the venue just as Dan Knudsen was starting his set. Dan’s hard to ignore. He delivers his honest, simple songs with an earnestness that causes people to either cringe or become instant DanFans, as he calls them. He plays most of the open mics downtown and has been making the rounds for well over a decade, self-releasing numerous albums over the years (including two “Best Of…” compilations) that he sells at shows. At the end of his set, he raises a hand in the air and announces, “Dan Knudsen is leaving the building!”
I’m surprised even Dan returns to Slainte’s open mic. The place is a cross between a sports bar and the lounge of a hostel. The walls are painted dark red and the lighting is dim. Most patrons watch TV at the bar or sink into the couches near the front door. Performers play in the back, partially obstructed by pillars and positioned in front of a freaky mural depicting a topless woman playing a guitar behind a flaming microphone. Listeners are scarce, but maybe my expectations were the problem. When I criticized another open mic we both attended, Dan looked me in the eye and said, “Nick, I’m sorry you complain so much.”
The open-mic night at Rí Rá (Mondays, 8 p.m.) has the same drawback as the one at Bull Feeney’s (Tuesdays, 9:30 p.m.): both are Irish pubs in the Old Port. They’re great for drinking beer and eating pub food while crappy covers play in the background. My first time at Rí Rá, I sat alone and ate a burger, tormented by insecurity. It seemed like every act was a reflection of my own: a guy, a guitar, and the sick longing that compels someone to sing their heart out to the backs of strangers.
The host sees things differently. His name is Evan Walsh, but he’s better known as Ev Guy, a nickname he got growing up in Rumford, where everyone’s a guy (“What’s up, guy?” “How ya doin’, guy?”). “This is it. This is my Zen,” Ev Guy told me. “My one night off a week. Drink a few beers, play music. That’s it.”
The barroom was loud and there wasn’t equipment to mic my acoustic guitar, so I borrowed Ev Guy’s, which can be plugged into an amp, not realizing it was out of tune. The performance was horrible. This night felt like rock bottom. On the long walk home, I fought back tears.
I didn’t yet have enough experience to appreciate that every open-mic night is a clean slate. You never know who’s going to show up, and strange and amazing things happen more often than you’d expect.
Remember Hanson, the silken-haired boy band of brothers who had a hit in the late ’90s with “MMMBop”? They were passing through Maine this winter after a gig in Canada and saw Rí Rá’s open mic posted on the website openmikes.org. Relating the story to me afterward, Ev Guy was still in shock: “I jammed with Hanson!”
This night, in addition to the barflies, a small crowd of musicians and their friends were gathered in front of the stage at Rí Rá. A skinny kid with a Mohawk played a dramatic rendition of Lorde’s “Royals” on the cello, and whether they were there for the music or not, everyone clapped.
A new open-mic night, called The Exchange (Tuesdays, 7 p.m.), started this winter at The Thirsty Pig, a bar on Exchange Street known for its craft beers and craft sausages. On the night I checked it out, Dan was there, of course, manning his merch table, and so was the cello player from Rí Rá, who was setting up to play alongside another cellist. “I call it the cello wrestle,” said Josh, the funny and unassuming host. Both cellists sounded like classically trained musicians — they played beautifully. Two intoxicated audience members were unexpectedly transported. “Holy shit!” one said. “I got lost, dude. Like, I was gone.” Josh beamed. He tactfully manages the performers’ time on stage to minimize awfulness. “Open mics can go a weird way, quick,” he told me. “Nobody wants that. Serious musicians don’t want that — sloppy Journey covers or whatever.”
Most open-mic hosts are performers themselves, like singer-songwriter Shanna Underwood, who runs the night at Blue, a cozy, candlelit nightclub on Congress Street (Tuesdays, 8:30 p.m.). “Musicians see themselves as above open-mics,” Underwood said, lamenting the difficulty she has wrangling experienced players to attend. Terez Fraser, Blue’s owner, agreed. “There’s a stigma to open mics,” Terez said. “That’s why we don’t call this an open mic.” At Blue’s weekly “Acoustic Jam Session,” musicians gather “in the round” and take turns playing their songs for the others, who are welcome to join in and jam along.
It’s not hard to understand why there are so many open mics in town. “Venues want live music,” Terez said. “With an open mic, you put it in the corner, you might not have to pay the musicians.”
“Might?” I interjected. We both laughed. (At Blue, even featured acts are paid by passing a basket around.) Aside from a modest stipend for the host, open mics are basically cost-free for proprietors. Relatively few music fans attend open mics for their entertainment value, but the performers themselves, often multiplied by friends and family, can make it worthwhile to open the doors on a slow night of the week. The lack of chattering bar patrons makes Blue a special place to play, though the same also makes it harder for Terez to keep offering the sessions.
Open mics give performers the opportunity to connect with one another. I met Bobby at Blue. A recent transplant from California, he’s in his late thirties, with shaggy blonde hair and a ready smile that make him seem a decade younger. He sings sweet originals in a high voice and is prone to bursts of wild showmanship, taking a power stance in the middle of the room and belting out a chorus. “My ánimo,” he told me — using the Spanish word for spirit, or vital energy — “got to let it out.” We soon learned each other’s songs and played some open mics together. The company was refreshing; I’d almost forgotten that music is supposed to be fun.
“There is no new blood in that place,” Bobby said with a laugh while we stood in the parking lot of Spring Point Tavern, a townie hangout in South Portland next to SMCC (Thursdays, 7:30 p.m.). Earlier in the evening, an older lady, more than a little drunk and flirtatious, asked Bobby why he was there. “I have a kid, a family. I’m here to start a new life,” he said.
She looked at him blankly. “Why here?”
A one-eyed lobsterman joined us outside to smoke a cigarette. “Whap!” he said. “Rope just split it in half. Middle of February, by myself, things hangin’ out my face.” He chuckled at the gruesome memory.
Back inside, the house band was ripping through some classic rock. Another older lady, missing teeth and creaky as a barn door, was doing her best to slither in front of the guitar player, Dave Dodge, as he soloed. Dodge has been hosting this night for a couple years now. He enlists friends like drummer Pete Petcher and guitarist Ken Grimsley, an open-mic veteran who’s been on the scene for nearly three decades, to back performers who want accompaniment. Journey covers, sloppy or otherwise, are not considered a bad thing here.
By contrast, Turnstyle Thursday (7 p.m.), held weekly at the Community Television Network on Congress Street, is all new blood. Freaks, geeks, hipsters, anti-hipsters — an eclectic and endearing crowd shows up for the chance to play in front of the cameras (you can watch clips on YouTube and at ctn5.org). The studio gets packed and the sign-up sheet fills up quickly, so you have to get there early.
Host Artur Kaptelinin (who also hosts a weekly radio show of music from Russia and neighboring countries on WMPG), has a taste for fake designer sunglasses and glossy button-ups. “Look at this guy,” he said in a heavy Russian accent. “He plays the silent saxophone, huh? You probably don’t use oil to slip through the door, do you?” Around the holiday season, he went on a rant that ended with shouts of “Fuck Christmas! Fuck Walmart!” The audience can’t get enough of him.
That was a night of firsts. A friend named Morgan covered one of my songs. It was also the first time I saw Barry perform. Part musician, part shaman and part circus act, he’s a short, middle-aged guy who wears little woven beanies. As members of the audience juggled on stage and Morgan banged his homemade, hide-skin drum, Barry led the audience in a chant: “Bally ha oom ha chik chik, a chant to lift your soul, ba chik chik.” My soul, in laughter, took flight.
For a more traditional open-mic experience, there’s the Dogfish Bar and Grille (Wednesdays, 7 p.m.) on Free Street. The first thing you’ll notice is the sound of the host’s voice. Michele Arcand is loud and enthusiastic. She’s not a musician, and for that reason I love her. She’s a poet, who for eight years running has begun the night with this Plato quote: “Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.” Amen.
Bobby and I played the Dogfish together for a number of weeks. One Wednesday, when a group slated to play the next night cancelled, Michele offered us the slot. Our first gig! It was last minute, so we could only wrangle a handful of people to come. Michele, despite being a working mother, was front row.
The Dogfish became our hang out. Bob, Dax, Jojo, Mike, and all the characters whose names I’ve forgotten: the guy with gray sideburns who sings like Neil Young, the cute girl with the funny song about pregnancy, the greasy-haired guy who uses a suitcase for a drum. We’d gather in a corner to wait our turn, our clustered guitar cases like a raft supporting us. When we played, we jumped from safety.
For every musician who moves on from open mics, as I have, another shows up to replace them. The players come and go. The raft stays afloat.
Nick Farago plays Flask Lounge on Mon., March 31. You can find his music at youtube.com/nickfaragomusic.