I host an open mic. It is a gig that I enjoy- I get to encourage everyone to feel welcome and talk to one another- Push people to play music they have only rehearsed at home, perhaps only alone. Playing on a stage, with a PA system, with an audience- it changes something. It makes the experience real. It forces the player to finish, to not give up and apologize for every little mistake. The performance happens as it will, and the more the player owns it- perfect or full of flaws, the more authentic it is. I have seen fantastic players grit their teeth through a well played set and novice players who grin and put on a show despite many errors… I would choose to dance and smile at the latter rather than sit and praise the skills of the former. Why would you do something you don’t enjoy and ask others to enjoy it vicariously?
The first open mic I performed at solo was Lickety Split. I walked into a crowded bar alone. I had just left my first Reiki session with my friend Ananda. It was not planned. I had a sudden gumption to do it, and I knew better than to waste it.
I had learned how this worked from hanging out at McGillicuddy’s in Ardmore and the Grape Room in Manayunk. First step, you ask who is hosting. Second step, put your name on the list. Kelvin, a slender blonde Brit was the host. A charmer, he was slipping in and out of the crowd, making everyone in the room feel like a million bucks. I sheepishly gave him the firmest handshake I could muster and asked him if he could slip me in for one tune. He obliged.
I barely remember the performance. Did I remember all the lyrics? Did the G minor ring out? What I do remember is Kelvin yelling, “One more!” I could not oblige. I only knew how to play that one song, the first song I had written. And afterwards, a now familiar surge of energy and pride sprouted inside of me. I ran to my car and flew down to a second open mic.
At Tritone, I ran into friends I recognized from the burbs; Marc, Tamara, Cooper. They were playing covers with a pick-up female singer. She was dressed for the occasion; dolled up in a white frock, hair done up, crisp clean makeup. I sat nervously awaiting a turn. At some point, they called out “Natural Woman”. I leaped to the stage and sang with this sophisticated looking lady. I was going for broke- I had no shame left to burden me from trying. It was not a good performance. I could not remember the lyrics. At some point, I recall my co-singer cuing me to let the band solo. It taught me a lesson I will never forget- Remember, you are just another instrument, another element of this miraculous creation called music… Just another star in the sky, not the moon.
When the band took a break, it was my turn. No one had an acoustic guitar. This was my first performance with an electric guitar… amazing. The response of the strings, the sound. I was paying more attention to listening to this new contraption in my hands than performing.
They cheered for me. Then I quickly said goodbye and ran to my car… I had to work in the morning, and it was late. Perhaps I was distracted by all the excitement. It was not until I was driving down the street that I realized I felt an unexpected breeze. I looked back to see one of my windows had been shattered. A quick inventory of my belongings revealed that my work bag had been taken, my laptop, my notebook. I pulled over, petrified.
My insurance company only told me that my policy did not cover a break-in. I tried the police. They took a report over the phone. Rattled, with no one to call for comfort, I phoned my brother, Sam, in Washington D.C. He talked to me the entire drive home. I felt so exposed. So violated. Did I make a mistake? Did I do something wrong? Sometimes it is hard to accept that things just happen. It was a hard fall, given how high the evening’s events had me feeling.
It did not deter me. In the following months, I went to open mics across the city. I wrote more tunes. I played every day. The soft puffy pads of my left fingertips turned into flat callous hammers. I poured my broken heart out into lyrics of hope and melodies of cheer. Within weeks, there was not a venue I could walk into without seeing a familiar face, smiling to greet me, happy to hear me play. Within months, I was booking my first gigs. Suddenly, what had seemed so impossible was all so probable...