Friday, April 26, 2013

Swan Song

It’s funny. 

Antics from DJ Baqbeet and LBJ
 The open mic feels very much like the biggest contribution I’ve made to this scene to date.  I’ve gotten such good feedback and such positive vibes from so many of you about what we’ve been doing.  Yet somehow, as this thing draws to a close, I can’t help but feel a little… anxious maybe.

Open Mic Nights exist in this weird space between karaoke and a booked performance—a space carved out for folks aspiring to be true performers but still developing the chops, experience, or connections.  The distinction between karaoke and open mics are totally lost on many people, non-musician people like my neighbor Joe who, early on in my St. Louis music career, would sit out late and ask me, “How was karaoke?” when I returned, toting my gig bag, from an open mic.  Open mics are how the new, untested artist spreads his wings, gets his sea-legs, or whatever metaphor you want to use for gaining experience.  Don’t believe that.  Check out LBJ just 2 years ago at his FIRST open mic outing, a week into moving to St. Louis, courtesy of Craig Deeken (

Scared?  You bet.  Awkward?  Extremely.  Having the time of my life?  Don’t sleep on me!

If you’ve seen me lately, you know I’ve improved (I hope).  That started with hitting these open mics hard.  Not only that, I would have had a really tough time meeting, oh I don’t know, EVERYONE I KNOW in the music scene, had my devotion to the open mic been less dogged.  Everyone I’ve done a project with, nearly every musician who’s asked me to be on a bill, the co-founders of St. Louis Songwriters Anonymous, even Dan and Jelani, I met at open mics.

Dr. Dan, the pancake man.
Devotion?  Yeah, that.  With the exception of a few outlying venues and some newer events, I’ve been a repeat offender at nearly every open mic in and around this city.  And for the most part, every one of them is a ball and worth attending, each in its own way.  But, other than Plush, I’ve been to very few where the hosts are routinely taking pictures and video (Wesley’s gig at Joanie’s, which you should check out, is the only one I can think of).  I’ve been to even fewer where the hosts conduct onstage interviews.  Only two, The Shed at Gramophone on Mondays and Hwy 61 Roadhouse in Webster Grove on Tuesdays, have a full backline that enables open jam.  And I don’t think I’ve ever seen another one where the hosts offer free studio time and slots on an internet radio show. 
I guess what I’m saying is, open mic might have been a little bit of a misnomer.  We’re more like a once a week community rec center for aspiring artists.  

You guys have been phenomenal.  The energy, the support, the sheer attention paid to each act—you don’t get that everywhere you go.  And that’s not something that Dan, Jelani, and I had a lot of control over.  We just did our song and dance, clowned around and rolled the dice.  You guys made stuff happen.  It was a positive experience every time we took the stage.  And the things that people made happen, the connections made, the projects embarked on and content created, I’ve extolled at great length and need not elaborate here.  You made my day; you made this thing worth doing every week.

So, I guess what has me anxious is, what happens now?  Where will you go?  Where will the next IQ and Daniel Dwyer meet?  Where will a mastermind like Darian Wigfall meet a prodigy like Darris Robins and set out to take over the scene together?  Where will Freevibe get funky every Sunday?

Jamming with our first featured artist, Bongo Jak. Mike on drums.
 Maybe it just seems like it to me because I was in the middle and my typical vantage point has been from the perimeter, but a lot of awesome talent converged on our little corner of the city.  

On Sunday, April 28th, we sing our last song, but don’t let that be yours.  Do what I did.  Hit the scene.  Schedule to meet up with the friends you’ve made at the Shanti or Foam or Pop’s Blue Moon.  Meet new folks to jam with at The Shed at Gramophone, Hwy 61, or the acoustic jam at Handlebar.  Get your chops and expand your circle.

It’s your scene.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Plush Pulled the Plug

Let me tell you a little story. 

In the summer of last year, I was in talks with several venues, Plush among them, about putting on a benefit concert for Teach For America.  Plush’s offer was by far the most generous, to their credit, so we booked a date in September with them.  However, when we were in the planning stages (booking bands, reaching out to alcohol sponsors, making flyers) I was informed that we had been double booked with a touring band and that my benefit was getting the boot.   Guess giving $5,000 to some teachers isn’t as cool as the $1,000 Plush might have made on the touring band.

“Get me once” right?  Shame on you.

I failed to learn the correct lesson from that experience because I was caught in the throes of what I thought was, and what proved to be, a great idea.  It was at this time that I first conceived of hosting a Sunday, mid-day open mic at Plush.  Now, eight months later, Plush has pulled the plug on me once again.  Shame on me.

Seems we weren’t making enough money to justify continuing the free service we were providing there.  And even though our last event before the hiatus, where Darris Robins graced the stage, had attendance better than some of the shows I’ve attended at Plush, we can’t make a reasonable assumption that three plucky upstarts can make good on this thing with no advertising budget, no media support, and no money to get either of those things.  All hail the bottom line, and the scene be damned, right?

Now, I don’t blame the management at Plush for their shortsightedness nearly as much as I blame myself for this “Gotcha twice” moment I’ve found myself in.  Plush has legitimately decided that they will close at 3pm on Sundays to save money.  Now that we’re running AC again, the bar doesn’t make enough during my open mic to justify keeping the lights on.  That’s the sorry state of business in St. Louis, I’m afraid.  They are a business; they do have to make money, or at least not hemorrhage it.  It’s not their responsibility to see when they’ve got something truly magical on their hands.  Magic doesn’t always make money right away.  That’s why no first year magicians drive Bentleys.

But it was magic.  I was a little nervous about pissing off some of my friends when Dan started calling it “the best open mic in town.”  But fuck it.  It’s the best open mic in town.  Why?  Because people are meeting for the first time at this open mic, and then making shit happen.  Plushies (this is the last time I’ll use this term) are creating tracks together, booking shows together, joining bands together, releasing EPs, and releasing minds from captivity (yeah, yours).  By virtue of the Sunday evening, 4-8p format, we were able to bring together working adults and high school kids, ganja loving jam bands with hip hop hustlers, music lovers with music creators, and people who are always on the scene with people who can’t find any other time to break into it.  And Plush has got the nerve to offer me Tuesday.  You can go to Highway 61 or the Shanti if you want a Tuesday.  That’s not what this is.  This is something different.  You just don’t get it.

I come away from this experience grateful for having had it.  I strengthened my relationship with two guys who I will consider among my best friends for the rest of my life.  I met some of the most talented and driven people this side of the Mississippi and I gave them a platform to play.  At Plush, we enabled the formation of bands, collaborations, concert bills and jam circles.  We saw organic, spontaneous, creation WEEKLY.  And my skill as a guitarist and a performer went into overdrive.  It has been as valuable as anything else I’ve ever done as an artist and I am grateful for having had that opportunity.

Here are the things I’m not grateful for. 
I’m not grateful for having been ignored by the press in this city that claims to be on the side of the local act, the upstart, the do it yourselfer, the guy busting his ass; all of which I’ve been in this city for 2 years now.  I understand not covering all my little concerts, showcases and residencies.  But the open mic was something that deserved, that demanded attention.  NOTHING.  RFT, Eleven, KDHX have all ignored what we’re doing at Plush.  Though some coverage might not have saved us, it sure wouldn’t have hurt.  My friend, John Krane, the first guy in this town ever to offer to record me, a guy I’ve played shows with, wrote an article on open mics in this town and left out Plush.  I don’t think he meant any harm by it but his omission illustrates how thoroughly our little thing has been swept under the rug by the hip opinion makers in this town.

I don’t like that Plush agreed to renew us through June and then pulled the rug out from under us by email after one “slow” week.  Honestly, I thought I had some time to build momentum again.  Our first event back in November wasn’t a show stopper.  There were a lot more people out last Sunday than at the first event, hands down.  Matter of fact, Jelani and I had to play for at least an hour that night, sign up was so slow.  But we had the opportunity to get it rolling free of the fear of the chopping block.  I thought we had the same opportunity, which we need in the light of the kind of media support we get.  We’re an organic operation, fueled by the power of the flyer, the facebook event and good old fashioned word of mouth.  Had I known we were living week to week, I might have started putting up my flyers earlier or maybe asked Dan to reach out to Evan Sult again.

I don’t like that they’re going to have their Tuesday open mic, and maybe get some business, and maybe even pay their host (good luck finding another group of dipshits like the three of us to do it for free).  I’ve avoided the “Get me thrice” option and bowed out of that game.  If Plush will deal with me after this blog, which I don’t think has been too scathing against them, but people are sensitive around here, I’d be glad to do a show there sometime.  But never anything ongoing.  They are too unpredictable, too likely to just up and do something entirely different.  It’s best that we part ways  Because I think the full saying goes, “Get me once, shame on me; Get me twice, shame on me.  Get me three times, fuck er’body!”

But I do like you!  So come check out the LAST open mic @ Plush that we're putting on.  4-8p on April 28th.  After that, Dan, Jelani and I have cool things in the works.  Stay tuned kids.  We got something for you!