On the geographically varying culture of the Open Mic, and Playing Dead Last.

As many of you know, I am currently taking a brief hiatus from the blustering winds of the North Carolina winter to visit my family and friends in sunny, hippy-dippy Austin for a few weeks.  Over the past two years in Durham, I have played roughly a Bajillion Million open mics, but had never played one in Austin before last night.  Before I begin my social commentary on my first Official Austin Open Mic, I’ll give a little background.

Open mics are THE reason that I’m currently on this music-maker trajectory.  They’re how I began to get over my stage fright and insecurities – and believe you me, that was no easy feat.  One particularly traumatizing open mic night found me on stage in the middle of a song that I couldn’t finish because my fingers were shaking so badly, so like any logical human being I got off the stage and then went and cried in the bathroom.  If you’ve ever heard a more pathetic story than that, let me know.  But, in spite of the fact that it was so hard for me to perform – no, actually, because it was so hard for me to perform (what can I say, I’m a masochist) – I kept going back to the open mics.  It was there that I met many fellow musicians who gave me the encouragement and confidence I needed (special shout-out to Jason Hitchcock) to keep trying until I was offered my first “real” gig at The Broad Street Cafe in February of this past year.  One thing led to another and after playing every single gig I could possibly land over the past ten months (almost 30 – somewhere in the midst I lost the stage fright), I thought I was “kind of over” (read: too cool for) open mics.  Then I read Josh Ritter’s blog post, Open Mics and the Glamorous Bottom, quickly reaching the conclusion that if Josh Ritter (even in the early stages of his career) was not too cool to play an open mic, then I SURE AS HELL am not.

All that being said, I decided to hit up the Ruta Maya open mic on a humid and rainy Tuesday night to see what the Austin-bred, struggling-to-make-it singer/songwriters have to offer.  I showed up at 8:30 to sign up (as the website instructed) which, at the outset, was a lot different than my beloved NC open mics.  Everyone congregated around the allocated sign-up area right before 8:30 in anticipation, because it is assumed that there are not enough spots for everyone to play.  Guitars in hand and on personal missions from the higher powers to deliver musical poetry, everyone was too caught up in their own angst to talk to anyone else.  Wait, what?!  I thought everyone at open mic is supposed to be my friend!  Okay, whatever.  I can handle that.  Then I learned how the order works.  Ruta Maya uses a “lottery system” whereby of the 21 names on the list, people are randomly selected to play one after the other as the night goes on.  This is a clever way of thwarting those musicians who show up at open mic intending to sign up on the list, leave, and then come back in time to get on stage, thereby refusing to listen to anyone else.  Okay, whatever.  I can handle that, too.  What follows is an approximate play-by-play of the next four hours.

9 pm  The first act goes on.  It is two guys singing some perdy harmonies, but nothing too mind-blowing.  I get a beer and make friends with the dude next to me.

9:30  My mom and four of my friends show up to cheer me on.

9:45  A guy gets on and sings the word-for-word Spanish translation of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison” which was ridiculously entertaining.  I have video of it that maybe I’ll post later.

10  A 17 year old boy starts singing about the intimate details of his sexual escapades.  The word “deep” is involved on many levels.  Also ridiculously entertaining.

11:00  My name has still not been called.  Two friends depart because they have work in the morning.  Bored.  We need more wine.

11:30  Name still not called.

11:45 Name still not called.

12 am  Night is beginning to grow long.  More and more people trickle out.  I thought about leaving but, hey, I’d already been there for the past 3 hours… might as well stick it out.

12:30  My name is finally called.  Dead last.  DEAD LAST.  I now understand why we use the modifier “dead” in this situation.  Probably about 15 people are still here, which amazes me.  This in addition to my personal cheerleading section.  I got on stage and mumbled some nonsense about how being DEAD LAST at my first Austin open mic appearance must “mean something” though I wasn’t sure what.

Performance successful.  I gave out all 5 of the demo CDs I brought with me and received a total of $6 in unsolicited donations!  This covers 37% of the cost of alcohol consumed over the full 4-hour period.  Still, it was a fun and interesting experience.  Next up is the open mic at Flipnotics on Thursday night.  I’ll also probably reappear at Ruta Maya next Tuesday, if I can muster it.

Til next time.


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