Open mic nights are a pisser. The talent ranges from three-chord Lisa Loebs to MFAs trying to impress their hippy girlfriends with Phish covers. It’s a funny scene and most bars that host open mics foster a certain group of regulars. Tonight I hit the open mic night at Quenchers on Western and Fullerton here in Chicago. It was standard fare.
A friend of mine called and left a message that he’d be down at the open mic at Quenchers and that I should meet him there. Well, I had some other business to attend to so I wasn’t sure if I’d make it. After some wrangling with the guy at the video store over my WAY overdue late fees for Bring it On and Citizen Cane, I made my way to Quenchers.
At first, things were slow. The hosts of the night were still trying to get the P.A. to work and weren’t having much luck. Rule #1 of open mic night is a crap P.A. Bar owners feel that if you’re willing to play for free, unannounced and without a bar tab, then you probably don’t deserve a P.A. Tonight at Quenchers was no different, but with enough spilled beer and cursing they got the damned thing in order and opened the night up.
The hosts of tonight’s free-for-all didn’t do it for nothing. They were a two-piece acoustic group with a CD to hawk, and man did they. They opened the night with a short set and then promised to return for a midnight reprise. It was a girl singer who mentioned Lucinda Williams as an influence but wrote and sang more like any other college girl with an eighth grade break up on her mind.
Just the same, they were better than act two. The second group to perform was a “blues” group (this is Chicago, after all) fronted by a late twenty-ish guy decked out from head to toe in pristine Nike gear. Our boy Damien did his damnedest to bring us down to the delta but only managed to bring us to Bone Daddy’s Rib Joint on Armitage. The first song of his set was some rambling number in a standard blues progression that had something to do with leaving his girl alone. The only vibe I got from this cat was a sense that his shoes were too white, his golf shirt too pressed and that he was probably singing something along the lines of the Mutual Funds Blues— a tune my unemployed ass can’t even hum!
Act two fared worse. Candy took the stage with her ornately decorated guitar. It was a hodge podge of catalog pictures and Precious Moments scenes all laminated on the soundboard of her $35 guitar. To make matters worse, her songs gave me the distinct feeling that she was a charter member of the First Wives Club. Egad, would this torture never end?
Yes it would. As soon as we came back to our hosts.
They came back on stage for an early staging of their midnight set to calm the brewing frustration in the bar. The original numbers were well rehearsed, tightly written and easy on the ears. But their triumph did not come without a price. In the middle of the second song of the set someone from the audience decided to join in, This isn’t necessarily unusual and is often encouraged at open mic nights, but this character took over the set. A regular, who plays the conga, set up right next to the stage and proceeded to pound away at his native beats while our heroine poured her heart out. Now, not only was the interloper too loud, but his African ballyhoo was entirely out of place in the middle of Plain Jane’s honky laments. Evil eyes were cast upon Conga Jim, but to no avail. He played on and nodded appreciatively between songs. Nobody knew what to do, so they played with their uninvited guest. The essence of the songs was lost and we all kind of clapped dully when the set was finally over.
As another brokenhearted stockbroker strapped on his Ovation guitar for a round of health club sorrow, I ordered another $1.75 Pabst and scratched my name on the board. Who am I but another out of work dotcomer with three chords and a story to tell?