Adventures of an Open-Miker
Every Thursday, singer/songwriter Matt Cantor gives you the skinny on a local open-mic night so you'll know which stages to call home. This week, he wraps up his tenure as our open mic columnist by saying a few parting words about why open mics matter.
Philadelphia is a city that celebrates public art, from Isaiah Zagar’s mosaics to the Mural Arts Program. The phrase “public art” conjures up images of paintings on recycling trucks, sculptures at the airport — all important work that helps make Philly a great city. But public art doesn’t have to be visual.
Open mics are music’s public art. They’re not restricted to exclusive performance spaces; they take place in bars and coffee shops, and every one I’ve attended in Philly has been free.
What’s more, they provide an entirely democratic opportunity for local voices to be heard: There are no restrictions besides showing up on time; no auditions standing in the way of performance; no need for self-promotion to get a spot. Open mics provide a stage for those who might otherwise never have a chance to be heard. They also provide a venue for rising stars — a place where performers can get their first taste of the spotlight or learn to be comfortable onstage.
All this is particularly important in a world where music, like other arts, can be difficult to “break into.” Performers shouldn’t have to know the right people, or have good business acumen, simply in order to share their music with a crowd. Open mics mean music by the people and for the people.
Since there’s no money involved, the audience at an open mic is treated to real passion from performers. These are people who want to play purely for the sake of playing, most of whom make time for music in their lives despite career or school pressures. And even though they get less time for music than professional musicians, that passion translates into an impressive array of talent. Attending open mics around the city, I’ve frankly been taken aback at the quality of many of these shows. Don’t think open mics are for people who can’t make it in the music industry — Philly has open mikers who rival any pro.
The city’s not just rich with open-mikers; it’s rich with open mics. There are multiple events almost every night of the week. My favorites are HERE and you can find others in our weekly event listings.
As this column winds to a close, I wanted to give a quick overview of the Philly’s open mic scene so those new to the area—or new to open-miking—have a good sense of where to start. Over the past semester, I’ve been very impressed with the range of places to choose from—from coffee shops to bars, from truly acoustic to full-band setups—as well as the sheer number of available venues. Those looking to get used to the stage can find an event almost every night of the week.
Below, a few highlights of the Philly open-mic experience:
BEST OPEN MICS FOR BEGINNERS:
Milkboy Coffee (824 W. Lancaster Ave.) It’s a cozy little place with an appreciative crowd, a laid-back ambience, and good coffee. There’s no sound system, so it all feels very organic. And though Picasso Restaurant & Bar (36 W. State St., Media) has plenty of talented regulars, don’t be intimidated: it’s still one of the most chilled-out open mics I attended, and you’ll get a long performance slot.
BEST OPEN MICS FOR EXPERIENCED PERFORMERS:
Every week, singer/songwriter Matt Cantor gives you the skinny on a local open mic night so you'll know which stages to call home.
Not only does Newtown Square’s Burlap and Bean have tasty, fair trade food and an incredible cup of hot chocolate — they’ve also got a quality open mic on Thursday nights. I dropped by last night to check it out, and was impressed with the wide array of performers.
The place is big for a coffee shop, but with its comfortable couch, armchairs, and low lighting, it still feels intimate. I sat at a wood-and-glass table that was literally filled with coffee beans in a nice homage to my drug of choice. A corner of the room was designated as the stage area, with one of the better sound systems I’ve heard since starting this column. At the sound board was Kyle Swartzwelder, the night’s host. Nearby was a video camera attached to a laptop: the whole show was streamed online. The crowd, I noticed, overlapped with Main Line coffee shop regulars: there were familiar faces from Milkboy and Gryphon.
Kyle began the night with a pair of tunes played with intense clarity, both in his voice and on his delicately-played guitar. As the night went on, he kindly requested that people pay attention to those on stage — a welcome comment for an open-miker to hear. The audience heeded his request and focused on the performers, something which, of course, doesn’t always happen at these events.
There were too many standout performers to note them all, but to name a few: Loki strummed a punchy Cheap Trick cover and an excellent original tune full of ringing, open chords. Rapper IV was undaunted when he faced sound system troubles; he had the guts to do his bombastic, well-worded songs a cappella. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone rap as fast as he did on his second tune. I’m always impressed with hip-hop artists who enter a field of mostly singer/songwriters, and there were two of them last night: later came Black Wolf, who opened his set by asking, “How many people here like books?” He proceeded to dominate the stage with a paean to literature. The featured performer, who played a half-hour set, was Aaron Nathans. He offered up some clever and off-beat songs, including one celebrating grapefruits and another slamming John McCain. Later, keyboardist Chelsea Allen showcased a dark, captivating voice with an original song called “500-Pound Day.” Closing out the night was Sam Vile, who I mentioned in an earlier post about Milkboy; tonight he played with a band made up of performers from earlier in the evening. In a song called “Wear Me In Wear Me Out,” his unique tenor, comparable to early Thom Yorke, rang out over the band. Then he told everyone to get the hell out, and we did.
The nitty-gritty for performers: Thursdays, 7 p.m, Burlap and Bean, 204 S. Newtown Street Rd., Newtown Square, burlapandbean.com. Free entry; 2 songs each plus a featured performer.
This week’s open-miker adventure took place at the El Bar in Fishtown. It’s a good local hangout with a community of regulars. The place puts a focus on local breweries, offering a nice Kenzinger draft for $3.
El Bar is divided into two halves, with the bar itself in the center. One side has tables and a TV — where the Flyers game was playing to a deeply-invested crowd. This side also had a pair of cats, though I assume they make appearances on both sides. This Wednesday, they were snuggled together in a quiet corner.
The other side of the building featured a pool table that was clearly popular, as well as a small stage, on which the open mic took place. It was hosted by Dave Robins, who’s been doing it since well before the Northern Liberties/Fishtown area became Philly’s local music mecca. Perhaps he helped lead the way: he was playing guitar there when the neighborhood was known far better for crime than for rock 'n' roll. For the past few years, he’s been joined by Herb Fineburg, and on this night the two played hours of acoustic tunes, with Robins singing beautiful and tragic versions of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” and Jackson Browne’s “These Days” in a rough-edged croon. He strummed a bold rhythm guitar and played harmonica as Fineburg played lead guitar.
Though the bar was well-attended, there wasn’t much of a turnout performer-wise; it varies greatly from week to week, the friendly hosts told me. It means this column will be short—but it was a good night for a quiet beer and a long listen.
The nitty-gritty for performers: Wednesday nights, 9 p.m., the El Bar, 1356 N. Front Street.
After hearing John Faye play at the Grape Room a few weeks back, I knew I had to check out the open mic at the Legendary Dobbs, which Faye hosts. The South Street bar is a great place to play music, with a well-equipped stage that regularly hosts great acts. Players look out onto a long room with only three walls; the fourth side is open to the street, so that passersby will, one hopes, stop in for a beer and a listen.
Maybe it was the weather; maybe it was the Flyers’ victory the night before. Either way, the atmosphere felt remarkably jubilant. The welcoming bar staff served $3 drafts and $2 bottles of Coors Light. Faye himself is one of the friendliest open mic hosts I’ve met so far, and he’s got talent to match. He opened the show promptly at 9 p.m., belting out a pair of original tunes, which might be called punk folk. The lyrics were as good as his voice: “I’m on life number eight out of nine/ and I’m running out of time.”
Following Faye was an impressive lineup of local performers. The talent at the past few open mics I’ve attended has been very consistent. At this show, the energy never flagged; with aggressive strumming and some powerful vocals, most performers seemed about ready to blow the speakers. Among the highlights was John Muccino, who brought down the house with some intensely sung, densely lyrical tunes. When, later, the crowd’s focus started to drift, Callie and Tony pulled it right back to the stage with stark, minor key pieces; Callie’s dark voice and confident stage presence demanded attention. Aaron Hehl offered some big, open chords accompanying a gruffly intimate voice. Desiree launched into two a cappella numbers with a giant voice that filled the room and beyond. Lucas and Ben were a guitar and vocal duo who traded lead vocals and sang rich harmony. They offered some good lyrics, too: “I dedicate this song/ to all the times I’ve been wrong.” Their talent was no surprise, since they take a songwriting class at Drexel taught by none other than Faye.
Dobbs was a perfect open mic for those looking for some upbeat acoustic rock on a warm spring night.
The nitty-gritty for performers: Wednesdays, sign-ups at 8 p.m., show at 9 p.m., The Legendary Dobbs, 304 South Street. Free entry; two to three songs each.
Every week, singer/songwriter Matt Cantor gives you the skinny on a local open-mic night so you'll know which stages to call home.
Last night, I decided to check out the open mic scene in Media, at a classy local bar called Picasso. A stage had just been installed at the back of the bar, in an adjoining room, which provided a cozy nook for the open mike. A giant Picasso painting dominated one wall, while others were neatly hung with squares of various patterns. I’m told that the number of attendees varies hugely from week to week; this time, a sizable crowd trickled in by around 11 p.m., drinking cocktails and beers.
The feel was very relaxed, as host Kendric Conn opened with a few songs, then kept track of performers largely in his head rather than on a sign-up sheet. The comfortable vibe led to a lot of banter both onstage and off; it was easy to get to know the very friendly regulars. They formed a crowd: the Picasso open mic has clearly developed a loyal following. Meanwhile, Conn was generous with his equipment, allowing other performers to play his shiny Martin guitar and even use his vocal pedals, the likes of which I’d never seen before: One doubled the sound of your voice, while the other actually created harmonies so that it sounded as if others were singing along, right on key. It did this, Conn said, by analyzing the chords you were playing and using them to build the harmonies. The PA system was crisp, and there was an onstage monitor—always infinitely helpful.
I was impressed by the consistency of the talent. Conn played folk tunes like “I’ll Fly Away” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’” with a rough-edged, emotive voice and a clean and well-defined strum. Later came Dan Howard, who ripped through some string-bending blues as well as lyric-packed John Prine and Paul Simon songs. Grimbridge, a guitar, bass, and percussion trio, filled much of the evening with a mix of originals and covers. Their aggressive and intriguing minor-key structures stood out from the usual open-mike fare.
This warm and relaxed open mic provides a great atmosphere for new open-mikers and old hands alike—and you get plenty of stage time. Definitely worth a visit.
The nitty-gritty for performers: Thursdays, 10 p.m., Picasso Restaurant and Bar, 36 W. State St., Media, free, 610-891-9600, Picasso-bar.com. 4-5 songs each.
The artists at the Grape Room open mic this Monday were, as a whole, unquestionably the best I’ve seen as an open-miker. Several offered performances richer than many of the professional shows I’ve seen; indeed, a number of the performers were professional recording artists.
The Grape Room, just off Main Street in Manayunk, is a local music mecca, its walls plastered with posters of upcoming local performances. With Yards and Victory beers on tap, there’s also a wide selection of bottled beers, as well as pub grub, including a range of hot dog options. Despite the caliber of the performers, the bar staff is warm and utterly unpretentious.
The open mic is hosted by Steph Meyer of Stargazer Lily fame. This week had a little treat in store: Comcast was filming the event to be played on local-access TV. That meant a fair amount of paperwork in the clipboard Meyer carried. “There’s a lot more paperwork in this whole music thing than I had anticipated,” she told the crowd. In fact, being a musician involves “a lot more landscaping and painting of houses than I’d expected.” Perhaps because of the taping, the best of the best performers turned out to play. To keep things moving, each was allowed only one song. But that was enough to impress me: for an open-miker, the whole night was a kick in the pants to improve your act. The bar was packed, and unlike at many open mics, people were there primarily to hear the music; they listened closely.
The cream of the cream of the crop included Nick Everett, an immediately captivating performer who sang in a voice reminiscent of the seventies band America, but grittier—and his lyrics were better. Later came Reverend TJ and Lou, a guitar-and-bass combo who offered an effervescent tune reminiscent of Johnny Cash, but bouncier. Heads were bobbing across the bar. Danny Newport played what can only be termed acoustic hip-hop, rapping over his acoustic guitar, piano accompaniment, and a contagious electronic beat. “My girl only listens to Lil’ Wayne/ Shit drives me insane,” he rapped. “Hey girl, what happened to what we had?/ Since that album dropped you’ve had it bad.”
Then there was Sharon Little, who blew the roof off with a powerful, throaty voice and laid back confidence at the mic. This was clearly pro-quality stuff, and I later discovered she’s toured with Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. Next were John and Brittany. John hosts the open mic at the Legendary Dobbs on South Street. They tore through a rocker, with John’s blazing tenor soaring over two pounding guitars and commanding the audience’s attention. Later, Adam Gregory played a heartfelt and heartbreaking tune with chords that walked a line between harmony and dissonance—perhaps my favorite song in a night of incredible performances.
The nitty-gritty for performers: Mondays, sign-up 7:30, show around 8, the Grape Room, 105 Grape Street, Manayunk. Bring your a-game.
I have to admit, the clocks on the walls at Time, a classy bar on Sansom, kind of freaked me out. At first I thought they were real, since right at 8:30 p.m., I looked at one that said 8:30. Then, two hours later, it still said 8:30. Something fishy was going on. Then I realized. “This bar is called Time. They’re just decorations.” Still, seeing real-looking clocks everywhere saying different times makes you feel like you’re in a creepy kids’ movie.
Aside from that, I liked the place. It has a great beer selection from around the world, and good food that mixes gourmet with everyday — including some intensely flavorful macaroni and cheese. The open mic took place in a large space to the left of the entrance, where a bar formed a square island in the middle of the room. Along the outside of the room were small tables, each with a candle. Along with the clocks, the walls were adorned with mirrors and a large painting.
In the corner sat a small stage, with just enough room for a drum kit with two performers in front of it. The existence of the drums suggested this would be a night heavy on bands — and it was. Signups were around 9 p.m., and the first to play, at 10, were the Suntones, who hosted the night.
Talented and unpretentious, they performed a batch of classic reggae tunes. Though it was just guitar, voice and drums, they managed a full sound; Marc Lomax’s guitar mimicked a bass throughout. Their clean and well-balanced performance fit well with the atmosphere of the bar: upscale but not in-your-face about it. Following the Suntones, each performer was allotted three songs. Acts included Ryan Kilo, an acoustic guitarist and high tenor who injected his hard-strumming songs with contagious emotion. Later came the New Indulgers, folk rockers whose Jerry Garcia-esque lead guitarist traded solos with a trumpet player, who filled the bar with a sweet, clear tone.
The best part of it all was the crowd: The spacious bar was packed. Sure, they probably didn’t all rush out specifically to see the open mic, but they were there, and they gave performers many, many ears to woo.
The nitty-gritty for performers: Mondays, sign-ups at 9 p.m., show at 10, Time, 1315 Sansom St., timerestaurant.net. Free, three songs each.
For more locations, visit the Open Mic section of our online listings database.
Every Wednesday, open-miker Matt Cantor gives you the skinny on a local open-mic night so you'll know which stages to call home. Today, he goes to Gryphon Café on the Main Line.
Main Line coffee shops, I’m beginning to realize, are a haven for open mikers. Gryphon Café is no exception. I dropped by this Monday, guitar in the back seat, hoping to play; unfortunately I showed up too late. For this one, you’ve got to be there by 6:30 for sign-ups, as all the slots are filled quickly. But the early arrival is well worth an open miker’s while: Gryphon hosts plenty of talented local musicians, and everyone—the staff, the audience, the host—is friendly. The place was so densely packed that I had to squeeze into a table with people I don’t know, which is something I normally hate doing. Somehow, at Gryphon, it seemed socially acceptable. Meanwhile, I noticed some familiar faces both onstage and in the crowd. That posed an open miker’s dilemma: I can’t expect to play the same songs every time at such places, or someone will notice.
As at other Main Line coffee shops, the walls were covered with local artwork, much of it for sale. I was impressed by the quality of the work, which featured small paintings and larger woodcarvings reaching from shoulder level all the way to the high ceiling. Nestled among the works, in a corner of the room, was the makeshift stage with a bright sound system. On the other side of the fairly intimate room was the coffee bar. I sampled their jambalaya, which was excellent, and some elegantly-presented coffee; both were carried to me at the table.
Each performer was allotted two songs. As I sipped, I listened to the Describers — or, in this case, the Describer, as the host pointed out: only one was there. But he played with energy and sang with passion. Next was Tron, who performed earnest originals over some unusual and biting chords. His second tune featured a traditional fingerpicking style known as Travis picking, which you don’t hear often among current musicians, despite its pleasantly lazy bounce. I’ve mentioned Steven Singer before, but he bears mentioning again: This time, the keyboardist took rapid-fire requests from the audience, and was able to put together a medley ranging from Primus to Paul Simon as people yelled out artists’ names. Last to perform was Bill O’Meara. His live performance sounded as polished as a recording, with a rough-edged but sweet voice and real facility on the guitar. With some people, you can just tell they know their way around the fretboard. O’Meara also knows his way around the Philly music scene, having performed at World Café Live and Tin Angel, among other places.
If I had a seal of hearty open-miker approval, I’d give it to Gryphon Café.
The nitty-gritty for performers: Mondays, sign-ups at 6:30, show at 7, get there early, Gryphon Café, 105 W. Lancaster Ave., Wayne, gryphoncafe.com. Free admission; two songs each.
Every Thursday, singer/songwriter Matt Cantor gives you the skinny on a local open-mic night so you'll know which stages to call home.
This week I headed to Northern Liberties to check out the open mic at the Fire, one of the area’s top smaller music venues. The place has hosted the likes of OK Go, Iron and Wine, and the Moldy Peaches. Fortunately for us open-mikers, the Fire welcomes local talent to its stage on Monday nights.
When I arrived at the scheduled time, 8:30, no performers had showed up yet; they trickled in around 10 p.m. I got the impression, however, that showtime is fairly variable from night to night. Eventually, a small crowd filled the stage room, a long, shadowy, candlelit area separate from the bar. The stage was deep, with a drum kit at the back, a pair of mics, and a set of monitors — definitely more than you get at a lot of these shows. With an engineer always at the mixing board, the sound system was crisp and well-balanced.
There were about 10 performers, and each got a 15-minute set. Cowmuddy, the show’s host, kicked things off with some excellent original songs about heartbreak, loneliness, and eight tracks. He played a guitar with just five strings — someone else had played it a little too hard, breaking the top E — yet it still produced a powerful, dark, rhythmic sound. His soulful singing complemented the well-structured lyrics. Another standout was WillAmaze, who rapped over a thick, richly produced backing track; he won an enthusiastic response from the audience with a single song. Later, Stephen DiJoseph performed an innovative cover of “Norwegian Wood” as well as a pair of originals. His songs, full of open tunings, harmonics, and technical expertise, showcased some lightning-fast fingers.
Meanwhile, the beer was cheap and high quality — Magic Hat #9 for $3! — and the staff was warm and friendly. Usually, they said, you can expect about 18-20 performers, many of them regulars. There was also a lot of overlap with Fergie’s open-mikers; with the two good shows on the same night, some may manage to fit in both.
The nitty-gritty for performers: Mondays, sign-ups theoretically at 8 p.m., show technically at 8:30, free, the Fire, 412 W. Girard Ave, iourecords.com/thefire. Fifteen minutes each.
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