The microphone is open, and so are the possibilities for a burgeoning Rochester performing arts culture.
Open microphone events are “what build a scene, for any performance medium,” claims Andy Fisher, a guitarist for the local band Suite and a comic who occasionally fills in as host for the decade-old Thursday-night open mic at Goonie’s Comedy Club, in Rochester.
Without open mics, Fisher feels “there’s no way a local scene can grow or even survive.”
Rochester has plenty of them. Besides Goonie’s, there are open mics on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays at the Viking Lounge, the Creative Salon and Whiskey Bones, respectively.
Each aims to provide a welcoming environment. John Russell, Goonie’s regular host, says, “We try to be supportive of everyone. I’ve had many people tell me they enjoy watching the progression of a comic’s material.”
Chad Johnson, a Goonie’s bartender, said, “It gives the comics experience.”
Sticking with it
JJ Peterson has been participating in open mics for four years — and he has Band-Aids stuck to his guitar to show his veteran status.
“My favorite open mic in town is … the Viking Lounge hosted by Tracy (Sonnier). It is one of the longest-running open mics in town and has a lot of people showing up to play and listen, especially when he has it on the patio outside.”
Erik Henriksson, another seasoned performer, describes the Viking mic as “unpretentious” and explains that open mics “can be a good platform for testing songs … it gives you a sense of what works and what doesn’t.”
Humor works, as Peterson showed on recent Friday at Broadway Pizza’s final open mic event.
“It’s a shame to see this open mic come to an end,” he said, “so write your congressmen.”
Broadway’s Friday Free Jam had a short shelf life, starting earlier this year but pulling the shutters closed on July 31.
It’s host, musician Oliver Books — who himself participates in open mic events in Rochester and elsewhere — said a good open mic “is constantly evolving, bringing new things to the table, and (is) totally inclusive.”
By that measure, Friday Free Jam was a good one, featuring among its last acts performances from the SisBros, Eli and Tori Vouk, playing guitar and ukulele, singing “Lipstick Covered Magnet,” with lyrics including: “Would you kick me in my face please? It will make whatever I sing sound like poetry.”
Plenty of outlets
Despite one open mic’s closure, others still are going strong.
On Thursdays, the Creative Salon hosts Interlude Open Mic, which previously was held at Steam coffee shop. The event usually is busy and offers a wide variety of performance types.
Musician Michael Baker recorded his first solo album after connecting with Jim Fricker, of North Coast Productions, at an open mic, and now volunteers to run sound at the Interlude. Regular performers include poets, jugglers, dancers and performers acting skits. The open mic is hosted by Madi Culp.
Musician Pat Egan described one of his Interlude performances this way: “I was playing a soft original, and during the pauses, I heard nothing. Everyone was silently listening — a cool feeling as a performer!”
A Sunday night open mic at Whiskey Bones is hosted by Jason McKenzie, who advises, “It is your art. It is inside you, so let it shine.”
Lakota Samuel followed that advice one recent night as she sang an a capella version of a song from “Phantom of the Opera,” backed only by blue and red lighting.
A thriving open mic scene gives Rochesterites plenty of opportunity to similarly shine. And who knows what that performance can lead to?
Russell recalls one past performer, Tim Harmston, who used his open mic experience as a proving ground for his material on a bigger stage.
“He called one Thursday for a spot, Russell said. “And when he got here, I said, ‘How much time do you want? Do whatever you want to.’ He said, I’ll just do seven minutes, if that’s OK.’ The next week, he was doing the exact same seven minutes on ‘Letterman.’ I thought it was pretty cool he practiced his set at Goonie’s.”
That’s the nature of open mics.
“You never know who is coming next,” said local music aficionado Mike Fallenstine. “And you get some really good performers that end up surprising you.”