If you've never performed at an open-mic night, chances are you've never been in the audience at an open-mic night, either. Because, save for a handful of loyal friends and unsuspecting barflies, the audience and the "featured acts" tend to be one and the same. If you prefer to perform for a larger, more diverse crowd, there are a few techniques that can be helpful in getting asked back to play an actual gig -- and being a highly skilled musician is not necessarily one of them.
I speak from experience, as I have braved the stage at more than one of these musically democratic happenings as one-half of my band: psychogirlfriend. My band mate Kelly Temple Wilson and I are an acoustic guitar duo specializing in angry-chick-folk-rock originals, with a few upbeat numbers thrown in to keep the patrons' feet tapping, something that can be absolutely essential to a couple of nervous newbies with racing hearts and limited guitar skills (and no percussion section) trying to keep some semblance of a beat.
You see what I did right there? That's Technique No. 1: Give 'em low expectations. Now, this is not something Kelly and I did on purpose, but in hindsight, we realized we couldn't have played it better if we'd tried.
On a Tuesday, at Carrollton Station's open-mic night, we signed up on the chalkboard list and sat down to have a drink to calm our nerves, telling anyone within earshot how anxious we were and that we had never really done this before. We were giddy, girly and giggly -- not qualities you'd normally associate with serious songwriters.
When we heard our name called unexpectedly early -- they had to skip over someone on the list, and our guitars were still in the car -- we squealed and rushed outside as the host, Eric Orlando, yelled out that we had "Four minutes!" We managed to further annoy Orlando when we finally got to the stage, had to tune our guitars and then found that the microphone setup was not to our liking, a situation that took him more than a few moments to remedy.
Needless to say, when we nailed our first tune -- a cover of Dire Straits' "Romeo and Juliet" -- and then belted some serious harmonies in two of our original songs, Mr. Orlando was pleasantly surprised, even stunned, and actually ended up asking us back to play a real gig at Carrollton Station a few weeks later.
We were equally shocked when Checkpoint Charlie's offered us a regular weekly gig after we'd played one or two of the bar's open-mic nights, also on Tuesdays. Kelly and I would like to believe that offer was based on pure musical prowess, but we are realistic enough to admit that it probably had more to do with the fact that psychogirlfriend tends to draw a crowd, or rather, we tend to pressure a significant number of our friends to be on hand to applaud our efforts. And that is technique No. 2: Always show up with a hearty group of indentured fans in tow, preferably the heavy-drinking kind. Bar owners seem to like that.
Technique No. 3 is simple: Dress to distract. This is a tactic psychogirlfriend has employed from day one. The idea was that, what we lacked in guitar skills we'd make up for with makeup and outfits that fit right in all the right places. (Can you say Brittany Spears?) So, if our strumming is off or we miss a chord, there's always a little cleavage to divert attention from our distress.
We got confirmation of that strategy's efficacy when another performer, the very talented Ruby Rendrag, came up and introduced herself to us at a songwriters night.
"Are you psychogirlfriend?" she asked; we nodded. "I knew it was you. Everyone's saying you look like Saintsations but you sound like the Indigo Girls," she gushed to our amazement. "I can't wait to hear y'all play!"
Saintsations? Really? Not exactly the look I was going for, but I'll take it. Kelly says she considers it the best compliment we ever got. And after that night, Ruby did end up inviting us to be the opening act at one of her gigs, which was pretty cool. But we were careful not to let it go to our heads.
Technique No. 4: Get comfortable with being humble. For instance, when the open-mic-night host at the Neutral Ground Coffeehouse says he'll entertain the possibility of putting your act on the schedule, on the condition that you do something about your guitar-playing deficiencies, you have to know how to take it. You do not act insulted. You simply smile and nod and pretend to understand as he takes you outside -- where there are other, more skilled musicians milling about -- grabs your guitar and proceeds to give you a few pointers on how not to embarrass yourself next time.
- Cheryl Gerber
- Checkpoint Charlie open-mic-night host Jim Smith shows off his own talents during a Tuesday night session.