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Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Open Mic Nightmares

            It was the spring of 1997 in Austin, Texas. We finished playing the “open mic night” at Big Dave’s Dam Saloon and drove down to Lucy’s Retired Surfer Bar & Grill on 6th Street to watch about an hour of Reckless Kelly before heading over to the Cactus Café.  Summer nights in Austin, Texas can be down right charming. The “Cactus” is right next to the “Longhorns’” campus. That’s where we met Amy and a few of her sorority sisters. Jeff and I killed an hour watching “Kelly” and they were right on time; straight up- 11pm. For some reason, they were our biggest fans.  I deemed they took a charm to the strange dudes from Tennessee because when we first met them, they asked, “So what do you do?”  With guitars in tow; my long hair & Jeff’s agreeable hat, we deployed that little sentence that every crafty musician in Austin exploits… “We’re songwriters.”
             Next question: “Oh, Really?”
             “Yeah, we’re from Nashville.”
            Of course, neither of us was from Nashville but we were from the Tennessee hills. Amy was originally from Corpus, I believe, and as best I recall, the rest of those gals came from “Money.”  Perhaps they found amusement in propping up our egos on the “Open Mic” circuit; and laughing and giggling amongst themselves back in the dorms. At any rate, we always made it a fun night and they fermented themselves as faithful followers.
            They liked some of Jeff’s more serious songs and found me to be just goofy enough to enjoy… while I was on stage… and bearable enough to sit with at the table.
            That particular evening we had a little surprise in store for the ladies. I brought along a little something special; my Elvis “jump” suit. I couldn’t wait to get dolled up in my “white jumper” and bang my electric Fender on the same stage where Willie Nelson and a number of other Texas troubadours had jammed.
            Just like every Tuesday, the place was packed. But that night, it was “standing room only.” At first we were worried we had gotten there too late. I looked at Jeff and he looked at me and we kind of shook our heads in rejection. Then, out of nowhere one of Amy’s friends came screaming out of the crowd towards us and she’s yells, “I got a table up front… I got a spot up front, guys!!”
            As if given a reprieve, we scurried up behind her to get our names in the mix before the cut-off time. We looked around and started asking folks why the place was so crowded. The anchor of “open mic night,” was, oddly enough, a guy named Mike. Finally, Mike came over and told us that the “amateurs” would have to make a necessary reprieve lasting about 40 minutes. There was a “special guest.” We asked when this special guest (Shawn something) would be performing and Mike explained: the stage was his real estate upon arrival.  Apparently, he was scheduled to play at 10pm, but he was running late.
            Every “professional” “open mic artiste” can tell you that scheduling a “special guest” on open mic night is the worst news an artiste can hear. That equals fewer slots and “less clock” for “open mic-ers” and somebody’s going home with no stage time.
            Mike, however, knew we were regulars and that our entourage included several sorority girls with an optimistic disposition about our stage time. This being a college bar, Mike did not want us to prospect the notion of a departure until after the “special guest” performance.  That means one of us needed to take the stage prior to said mystery guest; on the premise that we would all stick around. We figured Mike would most likely sandwich “said mystery guest” between us.
            Anticipating the fact that both of us might not get a chance to sing, Jeff hinted to Mike that I should go first since I had my “Elvis suit” in tow. Wearing an “Elvis outfit” is not a normal thing for an “open mic” setting. In fact, it’s not normal in any “serious” music setting, but especially in a congested theatre venue like the Cactus Cafe.
            We made it clear that we had to work the next day and could not stay out too late.  Since we were “a regular” part of the scene, we hoped Mike would make a bold move and get us on stage as soon as possible.  
            But our craniums were clogged; aspersed with loose logic. Having worked in radio and television for years, we should have known better.
            Recognized in media as the art of the “tease,” we were about to become a part of that counterfeit conduit.  In other words, Mike could always bring on the “special guest,” and tell everyone to stick around for (fill in the blank here) to go on stage immediately following “said mystery guest.” We did not consider his thought process and the fact that his job was to keep patrons there.  Aside from the obvious, he was probably wondering how we wrangled those beautiful college women into parking at our table. That fact would have been enough to keep us seated as long as “customarily” possible; but I dare say, our other Achilles heel was “The Suit.”
            As -- “unexpected,” Mike brought Jeff on stage first. Jeff did his three songs and the wild “sorority” bunch commenced to clapping and screaming, and pervaded the silence fast becoming the rowdiest table in the place.  They were having a super time and I developed a great sense of delight while contracting a bad case of anxious nerves just from their overexerted enthusiasm. It was far past my bedtime, and inside, I was secretly hoping our “mystery guest” would show up and I would not have to take the stage. I thought there was no way I could live up to the garnered frenzy of stimulation that had overrun the room; especially wearing a shiny sequenced suit sheltered by a silk cape. I called myself a songwriter because I was not too good at guitar.  How dare I present myself draped in a cape and decked out in all white garb;  the crowd would surely expect a prodigious musical super hero standing in the spotlight.
            After Jeff finished, he stepped off stage. A few talented performers later our host Mike must have figured our mystery guest was a no-show. He signaled me to get ready and I’d be up after three short songs. I hurried to the restroom and climbed into my white sequenced jump suit. Those pasted-on jeweled trinkets were “crazy” shiny in the “lavatory” mirror, and there were plenty of puzzled looks from fellow patrons.
            It was mostly a college crowd and for some reason they did not have the passion for the “King of Rock-n-Roll” that I shared. OR maybe it was my imagination. Perhaps the few attendees who snorted and smirked were simply jealous because Jeff and I were sitting at a table full of sorority girls; an impossible milestone for those poor young snickering college dudes.
            As I shuffled through the crowd in my glorious white Elvis type, “stage duds,” there was definitely a low rumble of attempted hazing. But I composed myself in my vetted splendor and strapped on my red, electric fender as I approached the stage.  Just then I heard a voice from behind me.
            “Shawn’s here!” Mike shouted.
            I looked back and saw a long blond haired, cool looking dude with a beat up acoustic guitar.  I glance over at Mike. He seemed a bit lost. Then the girls started chanting, “Kelvis! Kelvis! Kelvis!”
            Mike looked up at me with an awkward gaze. I don’t think he realized “the power” of the “THE SUIT!” Looking back, he probably thought we were kidding about the “Kelvis routine.”  There was a sudden stalemate as to the next move.
            Mike then said, “Sorry dude, Shawn (the special guest) came in while you were in the bathroom.”
            I said, “Is he ready?”
            All the while the girls were getting louder in mantra, “Kelvis! Kelvis! Kelvis!”
            Jeff had a video camera on Mike and me.  Mike looked back toward Shawn who appeared to be talking to someone near the soundboard. So he signaled me to get on stage and then shouted, “Just do two songs!”
            I said, “Got it! Thanks!”
            I was actually relieved. I didn’t think I could keep the crowd going through more than two songs. I jumped up on stage and started my "shtick."  Our sorority posse was diggin’ it and by this time in my Austin “open mic” career, a few fellow singers from the crowd were familiar with my songs.  They were singing along and cheering throughout the shortened routine. Perhaps they were trying to hurry me along to make way for the main act. In a few minutes I was done and I was happy to be finished, exiting stage left to go change clothes.
            That was an awkward moment!
            Shawn Mullins then took the stage and my lack of guitar skills more than amplified his guitar magic to an elevated rock status that he so deserves. It was the first time I ever heard someone play a single instrument and make it sound like three in one. In clear command of his guitar, he played down the neck while thumping out a rhythm orchestrating what sounded like a kick drum from the guitar’s polished wooden frame. There was a bass presence habitually inserted from somewhere near the top string all while his vocals lingered at home on various ranges. He sang and played lead in random succession.  I had also never seen anyone captivate an audience so precisely. He did something unique that worked extremely well in a live forum. He would virtually dial it down a notch and with a deep, gravelly voice whisper the lyrics into the microphone.
            We wound up staying out late that night.  We watched his entire set.  After he finished, Jeff bought one of his CD’s and we listened to it and talked about how great he was on the ride back home. I was still ashamed of the fact that he had to wait for “Kelvis” to finish two songs.  I kept ‘em short though -- no “bridges” – just guitar and lyrics.

            A couple of years later, I worked in radio and was playing Shawn Mullins on the air when I got a call from Jeff.  He was driving through town and heard the song, “Lullaby.”  He couldn’t resist calling to remind me of that night. I was laughing and confessed that I was still ashamed of making him wait on the “Kelvis Shtick.” But Jeff had a lighthearted way of putting things into prospective.
            Jeff said, “You didn’t make him wait.  You opened up for Shawn Mullins!”
            And from that unique perspective, I can hold my head high… AND say, “I opened for Shawn Mullins!”
            In the words of Shawn Mullins’ song, “Lullaby,”--- “ Everything’s gonna be alright Rockabye, Rockabye.”

The song “Lullaby” was nominated for a Grammy and hit No. 1 as a Top 40 (Adult Contemporary) hit in 1998.

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