For the last few weeks, I’ve been out and about, staying up late into the night, listening to what’s happening on Hood River’s open mic music stages.
I found out that there are many opportunities — for every type of singer or player — no matter what the musical experience level.
If you need a back-up band, there’s a place to go. If you need to find an audience to debut some new songs you’ve been working on, there are places for that too.
Are you a newcomer to music or haven’t played for a while? Don’t worry, because the open mic stage accepts all players. It’s all good, so bring some friends to cheer you on.
But if for some reason your friends can’t make it, I’d recommend you go out and play anyway, because the audience is waiting. They really are!
Oh, I know, audiences talk a lot, and never seem like they’re paying attention half the time, but you know what? I know they’re listening — and you’ll be surprised at the reception you get.
Your stage awaits, so let’s review this Open Mic Survival Guide and meet some of the faces — and go to some of the places — that are making it easy to be a musical success night after night.
- Bring a few friends
If you play music but are shy about taking the stage yourself, consider recruiting some compadres and venture onto a nearby stage. Having more people with you takes some of the pressure off, making for a more fun experience. Just ask Rick Harrell, center, a local guitar player, who likes to play music with friends at The Pint Shack open mic on Thursday nights.
- Dancing is
Wherever they play, most bands want people to come out and dance. Although they don’t admit it, most open-mic’ers wouldn’t mind seeing some audience participation, too. You’d be surprised at how many of the open-mic performances play danceable music, so put the dancin’ shoes in the car. There’s hardly a more fun way to support your friends.
- Views from a beginning banjo player
One night, I spoke to Bob Reid, a guitar player who brought out his banjo for a few tunes at the Pint Shack. It turned out to be a very insightful conversation. I asked Bob why he went to open mics, and he said “Open mics are good for me because I have a hard time learning new things, and this makes me practice. The open mic stage is a stepping stone, it’s great for new people and weekend players. And, who knows, it just might lead to bigger things.”
- ‘If it wasn’t for open mic, I wouldn’t be playing.’
The open mic stage is a draw for musicians who have a lot of band experience and for folks who play, but don’t have the time to be in a full-time band.
Kay Floria had played piano for a long time, but never joined a band before. Now, she’s up on the Monday night Naked Winery stage singing with a multi-piece blues band — all because of open mic. You can tell that joining an open mic group has given her playing confidence — and she’s having fun!
- Welcome to the “Open Mark” show
Mark Farner hosts the open mic at The Pint Shack, aptly named the “Open Mark” show. One of Mark’s treasured instruments is a mandolin that he bought from a store in Michigan called Eldery Instruments. He used to live ten blocks from that store, and he’s had that mandolin for 13 years.
Mark has been running the open mic for a few months, and he works the sound gear for small groups and solo players. He keeps the energy going and is supportive of anyone who wants to take the stage. Mark always seems to have extra instruments on stage, which is nice for out-of town folks who happen to stop by.
- Don’t just stand there, sign up!
People coordinating the open mic nights want you to sign up — literally — on a poster, chalkboard or other list. Running the stage and sound system is a lot of work, and this is one more way to keep everything organized. There’s a famous joke that says trying to organize musicians is like herding cats. Don’t be like one of those cats. Keep your music set within the allotted time, and be prepared to start on time (tune your instrument, get organized) so everyone can get a chance to play.
- Try a different
kind of music
Open mic is a great way to explore new music. One of the nice things about having a lot of different open mic players is you get to see people you know play with people you don’t know. You also get to see the variety of instruments that seem to come out of the woodwork — for instance, Charlie Escher’s bass (right) has been with him since 1977, and when he tells you about it, you’re getting a mini-music history lesson, for free. Charlie played a bass slide-solo with friends John Bellacera and Sharon McIlhenny.
- Hang out backstage
Open mics give musicians a chance to mingle and, well, hang out backstage, just like your favorite rock-star. The Naked Winery’s back room becomes a gathering place on Monday nights where musicians can trade riffs and talk about the next gig — like Pat Driver and Jim MacMillan did before their set.
- Don’t let Crazy Pete play all night, give him some help
Guitarist Crazy Pete has been a fixture on the Gorge music scene for quite some time. He handles the open mic at Trillium Cafe on Wednesday nights. When I saw him, he played to a full house, but there were definitely more listeners than players. I’m sure he could use some help here.
This open mic is best for solo acoustic artists who like to play the late-late show to a large crowd. It’s a good thing the speakers can cut through all the crowd noise and still sound OK.
Pete mixes comedy routines in with his covers of Neil Young and Bob Dylan songs. He also has a very funny stage name — “Abe Winkleman.” I can’t believe a guy named Crazy Pete needs another stage name.
- I only play
originals ... is that OK?
Let’s face it, playing other people’s songs at open mic happens a lot. OK, probably more than a lot. But not all the time. Tom Lichty stood out at the Pint Shack with an all-original set, and he uses the open mic nights to get inspiration to write more songs.
The audience loves to experience songs that are familiar to them, but open mic is unique because everyone puts their own spin on well-known tunes, and you just might hear something new and different, too.
And remember, some open mics would love to have a comedy or poetry segment thrown in for good measure.
- Need a back-up band? This is the place.
The open mic at Naked Winery is designed for folks who would like to work solo or with backup house band. When I visited the other week, bass player Ryan McAlexander, (top photo right) who has a degree in music, and long-time percussionist Randy Bell, (top photo center) sat in for most of the sets. After a few hours, you have to wonder how they do it! The pair seemed to be able to assist with any style, any genre and work solos into the songs wherever needed. The house band lineup changes each week, so no two nights are the same — which adds to the fun.
- “It’s fun to hang out with everybody.”
That’s the sentiment of Naked Winery open mic coordinator Don Placido. Don runs the PA, coordinates the sign-up sheet and even gets to play a few tunes, too. Don finds it hard to believe that this open mic has been ongoing for 4 years, and there’s no sign of slowing down. “It gets hectic, working the PA and such, but it’s just fun to hang out with everyone.”