I did this for two reasons:
1. I was getting lonely being a jewish musician in not-so-Jewish Portland -- spiritually lonely because I'm a freelancer who has a complicated relationship with her home shul; and professionally lonely because I don't know anyone else locally who is devoted to making this a career.
2. Open mic shows bring me in front of audiences who've never heard of me; who are mostly younger than I am and who will react honestly and completely in their judgment of me onstage. Playing for such an audience in a seemingly brutal atmosphere is scary and good for me because it means I can never be complacent, the way Jewish artists can sometimes be with friends in a cozy shul setting.
Bars are harsh, tough palces. They make you focus on your performance and hone it. I used to play in bars as a sideman, a drummer for a jazz combo. It kept me on my toes and helped me to keep my playing fresh. So, in the absence of a regular creative Jewish atmosphere to hone my skills and gain a larger audience, I'm hitting the open mic scene.
I've visited EastBurn's open mic a couple of times already.
The downside: acts vary wildly both in genre and in quality, and sometimes I am sitting through some very, um, under-rehearsed performances before it's my turn to play. Also, the crowd is there not only to hear their friends play but also for the $2 whiskey shots, so the vibe is loud and sometimes raucous. If you're a singer-songwriter playing acoustic guitar, be prepared not to be heard and stay away from ballads.
The upside: host Brian Bauer is a local musician who's friendly, welcoming and encouraging. He's glad to see me and hopes I'll return soon.
Next up, I've been invited to check out the Sunday night open mic at The 1905, a small bar not far from where I live. The host is another musician, this one making a serious go of a music career who tours periodically and who is welcoming to singer-songwriters and especially excited by original material.
So next Sunday I'm thinking of going and checking it out.
I plan to look for more of these opportunities in my local area in the next few months.
Mostly what's involved in going to an open mic is:
-- making sure the tunes you choose to share are memorized forwards and backwards, so well that if someone woke you in the middle of the night, shoved a guitar into your hands and commanded you to play or die, you'd play the song perfectly.
-- bring business cards with you and, if you can afford it, a few download cards with your latest material (these are surprisingly easy and affordable to order through CDBaby if you're already selling your album there, but a number of online platforms offer the service. Worth looking into). Download cards are ideal for when you find yourself talking with a club owner who might be interested in trying you out for an early evening set all your own (ideally, one you're paid for, though if it's early days you might end up playing for tips and/or a percentage of the bar). And business cards can be had dirt cheap through any number of online sources -- Vistaprint, for example -- or more expensively and beautifully through a company like MOO. Either way, they're worth having on hand.
-- contacting the open mic host ahead of time to make sure that your style fits with their overall vibe (Jazz artists don't want to show up at a rock open mic unless they can switch styles on the fly), and also to find out how sign-ups work. (Many are first come, first serve the night of the event, while others may require online pre-registration. Also, make sure you know where the venue is so you can arrive early and settle in before the room fills up.
If you're too young to get into an open mic venue, why not grab some friends and create your own, in someone's basement or garage? This is where lots of musicians got their start as kids and it's still a good way to bring people together, make new friends and play your music for a live audience, something all of us need to do regularly to stay fresh.
This month, I'm home making cajons and writing songs and gearing up for Pesach. I'll be on the road again in April.
Meanwhile, enjoy this souvenir from my most recent performance at the EastBurn Open Mic.