Let's Say You're In Chicago and You're Rattling Along on the El

Let's Say You're In Chicago and You're Rattling Along on the El

In a previous post, I extolled the virtues of the world-class, All-Star open mic host at St. Louis' best listening room, The Lone Wolf on Tuesday nights. Without a great host, the likelihood of a magical night is slim... but it's still nothing without good performers delivering memorable renditions. Tonight, we had a heartwarming, longform poem written on the spot by one of the local college kids; an amazing solo acoustic Billie Jean (no small feat); a bluesy number inspired by a Peace Corps assignment to West Africa; and, yes, I chipped in a pair as well. It got me thinking about what makes for a good (or bad) outing?

  • It's not about you. The most important thing to remember about an open mic is, it's an open. mic. Everyone there is an equal. At least half the people there didn't come to see you - it's your job to earn their attention and applause (I was lucky in the video above - kids, don't try this at home). This also means you listen to everyone else the way you hope they'd listen to you. The two worst things to do at an open mic: 1) leave after your set, 2) (audibly) tune your instrument during someone else's.

  • Be ready: tune your instrument. You want to be at your best, and it's hard for a song to sound great on an out-of-tune guitar. The Snark is a nice, quiet tuner that works in just about any environment; I strongly recommend stepping out to a back room or some quiet corner to get tuned up at least once before your set. Being ready to immediately play your first song can make the difference between keeping and losing the crowd; this is also why I am so laser focused on first lines of my songs — I always figure I have no more than 4 seconds into a tune before I risk losing the crowd.

  • Break the fourth wall. An open mic is a place where you hone your craft - it's not the halftime show of the Super Bowl (hmmm.... dancing sharks would be a nice touch), so the performance doesn't need to be canonical, nor can it be. If you're there to build a following, engaging the audience is key. Be humble, funny, vulnerable, be yourself. What were you thinking when you wrote that song? What did you have for lunch today? Was there something about another performer you really enjoyed?

  • Play through mistakes. Nobody at an open mic knows your song better than you, and odds are they don't know if you fumbled a lyric or played the wrong chord. Don't apologize for mistakes you haven't made yet (if you say what you're about to deliver to us is going to be bad...), and wear the ones that you do make like a badge of honor.

  • Focus. The single easiest way to make a mistake you can't play through (i.e. forgetting a lyric) is to start thinking about anything other than the song you're playing. How. Many. Goshdarn. Times. Have. I. Done. That.

  • Make the payoff easy for the audience. This comes in especially handy for original material. Some/most of the room hasn't heard your stuff before. If there's a particular line that's obscure, an inside joke, or simply one that you really want the crowd to remember, tell them about it ahead of time. I spent a good minute setting up the "train rattling by" line in I Don't Watch The News tonight[1]... and that made the difference between it being memorable and it sounding like (yet) another textbook-throwaway-lyric-by-Erick moment. Ditto the near-rhyme on system/assistant in Heart of Alaska.

Finally, a special mention about playing covers. This will be provocative and controversial, because this is what open mic nights are about for most folks. Things we can all do to help make a cover performance memorable:

  • Why did you pick this song? There ought to be a very good story. "Anyway, here's Wonderwall" does not qualify.
  • Don't worry about reproducing the original note for note. In fact, try not to do that. We've all heard the song before, and our brains will conveniently fill in all the missing pieces for you. Don't play the version, or even a version... play your version.
  • Take big risks with a cover. Bend genres and genders. "I can't believe he/she just played ____. That took some guts!" is the absolute best reaction you can get to performing a cover at an open mic. The delta-blues version of Mary Had a Little Lamb I heard last month was a quintessential moment for one of the already superlative regulars at The Wolf.

Get out there and let your freak flags fly, folks!

  1. Hence the title of this blog post. Not this. ↩︎