The Politic of Open "Mike" or

Blind Dog Struggles to be Heard

By Keith Wicker

Almost every night, somewhere in the city, at least one club opens its stage to anyone who wants to perform. The concept is called "Open Mike." Its existence is validated by its inclusion in most of the schedules of bands and solo performers found in publications such as this one and LEO. Nevertheless, an open mike night is not like going to see the Merry Pranksters. As one surly barfly told me, "It's one step up from karaoke." That is to say, it does not promise consistently good musical offerings. I'll leave it to others to defend karaoke, but I'm here to defend the concept of open mike. While I want to praise it, I also want to suggest how it could be made better and its reputation improved, which would entice more club owners to offer it.

Since moving to Louisville in mid-August of this year, I have occasionally ventured onto open mike stages: Gerstle's, the Rudyard Kipling, the Lighthouse, Jake and Elwood's, and the Air Devil's Inn have all had my songs thrust into their smoky atmospheres. I've had a great time at least once in each of these places . Sometimes the performers outnumbered the non-participants, but that never dissuaded me.

After more than a decade, during which I set aside my instruments and concentrated on raising my children and teaching English, I was pushed to get back into music by an ex-colleague at the University of Southern Indiana. He coaxed an Evansville club into sponsoring a songwriter night, then coaxed me into participating. I had a handful of original songs, so the first night I did those. But I didn't want to return and do the same songs the next week, so I skipped a week and wrote some new songs. The third week of my friend's songwriter's night, I did my new songs. Songwriting became like a virus. If I got a good response on a particular song, I'd bring it back, but mostly I tried to bring in new songs every week. Today my original song count hovers around 200. As Bob Dylan said in a recent interview, "I've got a song for every occasion."

I insert the biographical paragraph not as a public relations scheme, but as a means of addressing the most serious problem with open mike as I've seen it in Louisville. Performers are simply not working hard enough at their craft. On one level, this means they aren't always doing original or interesting work, but, on another level, it means that some not very rehearsed performers return week after week singing and strumming the same old chestnuts.

No matter what level you're working at as a musician, songwriter, or singer, you should occasionally "woodshed." Bring to the microphone material that you're confident in, and confidence comes from rehearsal. Use a tape recorder to find out what you really sound like. If you write your own, you should always bring at least one new song. If you sing or play other people's songs, try to choose those that are not overdone. Who but the most brain-dead wants to hear "Brown-Eyed Girl" again? There are millions of good songs out there that people don't play every day. I can't remember the last time I heard a female vocalist sing "Midnight at the Oasis." If you're a guitar player, choose a Leo Kottke song instead of those tired blues riffs. Better yet, if you know someone who writes songs, but doesn't perform, do his or her songs or put a melodies to a friend's poetry. Most of the music I've heard at open mikes is original, but I've heard that cheesy Michael Martin Murphy hit "Wildfire" once too often, as well.

Open mike nights are primarily for non-professionals. Therefore, these folks should swallow a humility pill and ask why they are willing to expose themselves to possible ridicule. An actor friend of mine once said that there's no reason to act in local theater except for fun. Is performing at open mikes fun? I've watched acts sweat and stumble and stop and apologize and start again. Can this be fun for them? It certainly isn't fun for the audience. If performers are confident in the material, it shows; they look like they're having fun. Once again, confidence comes from practice. Similarly, good songs come from those who write lots of songs, not just a handful.

Open mikes are hosted by well-intentioned musicians. Some of these hosts perform, thus giving themselves a credit for their web site, "See Blind Dog perform every Thursday night at . . . " and an outlet for their creativity. Others are there to turn on the P.A., introduce acts and run up a bar tab.

Hosts can improve open mike nights in two ways. First, they need to be sensitive to the fact that they are not working with professionals. Frequently, guitars are not top of the line, pickups aren't strong, or performers don't know how to work microphones; in other words, these people are not experts with the tools of a musician's craft. The primary role of the host should be to make sure that each act sounds as good as possible. If the guitar is not in tune, offer a tuner. If the guitar has a passive pickup, provide a good preamp. If the guitar is not tunable, lend a better instrument.

Frequently, the club's P.A. system is used, and usually it's adequate. Nevertheless, many hosts are satisfied to simply switch it on and raise the microphone to an audible level. At one venue, I pointed out that his stereo equalization unit was set in a flat pattern and the host said, "I like it like that." Hosts should provide good microphones, do a decent sound check, provide adequate monitor levels and make certain that there's enough high end to understand the words. If possible, add some echo or delay to the voice for a professional quality. One reason that open mike nights are viewed negatively by the public is that the sound doesn't equal the quality of paid acts. I've seen the Merry Pranksters spend an hour doing a sound check. At open mike nights, the hosts are the only ones paid; therefore, it's their job to make the sound as top-notch as possible.

Second, hosts need to do a better job at introductions. I suppose that one reason a person takes a job hosting an open mike night is that the person believes himself or herself to be a good emcee. But I've seen little evidence of expertise. Usually introductions consist of these words: "Next up, we have Blind Dog." An especially amiable Louisville host will say after the act, "Let's hear it for Blind Dog." A good emcee should prime the audience. He or she should answer the question for the audience member: Why should I look up from my brew or stop my conversation with another slightly inebriated person to pay attention to this? Perhaps the singer is also a local contractor or nurse. If the emcee says, "Blind Dog first picked up the guitar as a child in the Mississippi Delta," wouldn't that create some interest? Yet most emcees I've worked with have never asked me where I'm from, why I write, or even what I want said about me.

Musicians and hosts have only moderate control over the audience, but patrons are club owners' main concern. As I have said, open mike audiences sometimes are comprised chiefly of other performers. To those open mike participants who ignore the other acts, I say "a pox on you and your house." Sadly, I have found such obnoxious behavior common among musicians. Perhaps this is due to egos or competitiveness, but it's time for musicians to try to tap the kinder part of their souls. At one club, where most of the open mike participants are in their twenties, the folks stay outside of the club until it's time for their or their friend's set. Do these people think that they have nothing to learn from hearing others? I listen, applaud loudly, and if I think the artist offered something unique, I try to deliver a personal compliment.

The non-participatory audience is something else. They may have wandered in not knowing what to expect. They may be regulars who slump over their drinks every night, paying no attention to the stage. Making these folks pay attention requires better acts and better sound. However, just because they are paying customers doesn't give them the right to act rudely. Bellowing out like a deranged person, as I witnessed one patron do, is uncalled for. Requesting cover songs from unpaid artists is ridiculous. Demanding that a solo act provide music for dancing is also asinine. Artists and particularly hosts should do everything within reason to discourage these types of behavior.

Open mike nights are a good idea. They provide songwriters an outlet for their wares. They provide club owners entertainment at a bargain price. They give up-and-coming and returning to the scene musicians a chance to play for an audience. Open mikes encourage fresh ideas. Unfortunately, many club owners' attitude can be summed up by the words of Mark Langley of Clifton's, "I've thought about it [open mike night], but I'm afraid that some people will come in expecting good music and find some clown singing `Old Time Rock and Roll' out of tune."

I call to all those who enjoy performing at open mikes to "kick it up a notch." I beseech hosts of open mikes to be actively pursuing high quality sound. When audiences grow, club owners like Mark will notice, and new venues for open mikes will bloom. If we don't act, the ones that support us now may wither. Then what will all the Blind Dogs do?