Examining Open Mics, the Primordial Ooze of the Music Scene

An open mic at Lawn Gnome
An open mic at Lawn Gnome
Jeff Moses

To many people, open mics are nothing but the last-ditch effort of a bar, coffee shop, art space, or music venue to draw customers. Some might say they're bottom-scrapers, providing the least-talented and least-experienced musicians a stage they wouldn't get otherwise. We asked those in the music scene about open mics and got descriptions like "pointless" and "stupid," among more colorful adjectives.

But for the scads of open mic detractors and John Prine wannabes out there, bands have sprung forth from the proverbial primordial ooze of the music scene. For every Travis James (of the Acrimonious Assembly of Arsonists) calling open mics a waste of time, there are bands like Gin Blossoms and Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers, who turned their humble beginnings at open mics into big-time music careers.

"I started going to open mics probably in the late '80s, right when I started college at ASU and writing original music," Clyne says. "But I didn't have a band, and I was watching my heroes, like Gin Blossoms, play at the Sun Club. So I started going to the Sun Club's open mic, hosted by [Gin Blossoms frontman] Robin Wilson. I was a singer-songwriter trying to muster up the courage to try my own music."

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The sort of act that Roger Clyne was in during the late 1980s is exactly the sort of performer it seems every open mic is looking for. Whether it be the well-established, highly touted Walk-in Wednesday with Walt Richardson at Tempe Center for the Arts or the recently revived Pink Slip, hosted by Andy Warpigs at downtown's Lawn Gnome Publishing on Monday nights, local open mics appear welcoming to all, from the beginner to the seasoned veteran.

Clyne was not the only big-time Valley artist involved in the open mics of yesteryear. Both the Pistoleros and Dead Hot Workshop signed with major labels in the '90s, but they also have their beginnings in the inclusive open mics of Tempe. Downtown Phoenix-based open mic host and performer Ernesto Moncada recalls seeing now-established acts like Andrew Jackson Jihad, Michelle Blades, Tobie Milford, and the Whisperlights performing in backyard, coffee shop, and art-space open mics of the early to mid-2000s.

"[Open mics] provide something crucial that you cannot find elsewhere: a rehearsal space with an audience beyond your closest friends. What you learn as a performer through open mics is priceless and incredibly valuable as you grow professionally," Moncada says.

"I didn't have a band, and open mic was the perfect vehicle. And thank God there were no cell phones back then," Clyne says. "I feel pretty lucky that there weren't digital recording devices around when I was cutting my teeth and falling face-first."

Falling flat on one's face is all part of the open mic experience, both for the performer and the audience. Performers must learn to cope with bad nights, and the audience -- at least the regulars -- must learn to critique their peers in a useful way.

Moses Fidel Alvarez of Songs Lacking Talent thinks open mics are "cliquish self-congratulatory circle jerks that never produce anything decent." On the other hand, you have bands like Japhy's Descent, The Woodworks, and Sister Lip, whose members met at open mics and are making quality music all over the Valley while regularly attending, playing, and hosting open mics.

"I think community is valuable. An open mic gives an establishment a chance to gain a committed crowd because the patrons feel like they are a part of it. Artists get a forum to show and share their passion without fear of judgment or ridicule," says Japhy's Descent's Travis Ryder, who hosts C.A.S.A. SunBá's open mic on Tuesday nights. "No two weeks are ever the same. There are countless 2 a.m. drunken crashes with members of, like, eight different bands singing each other's songs like folklore at a campfire. I've met some of my best friends playing to a crowd of three people at a random night. What I'm getting at, I suppose, is every week has a story in it somewhere."  

For many of the best-known open mics of decades past, all that is left are the stories, as many of the venues that hosted open mics have shut their doors. But that has led the way for more venues to develop new open mics.

Jules "Cleopache" Dinehdeal has been taking part in the Phoenix metro's open mic scene since the early '90s and has witnessed many venues come and go. She was even forced to move her own monthly open mic Organic Poetry from Thoughtcrime Gallery to Firehouse Gallery in the early '00s after more than six years at Thoughtcrime.

Dinehdeal found her open mic beginnings at one of downtown Phoenix's best-known open mics at the Willow House.

"Poetry was essentially the thing I wanted to do. The music just got thrown in. But the poetry and music back in those days -- it was just random music with mostly heavy poetry. All the big poetry events were in downtown Phoenix, and of course the slam got started back then at the Willow House," Dinehdeal recalls. "It had so many different elements going on, everybody went to perform there. It was just a cool center of artistic elements."

Dinehdeal's open mic is a little different from the average open mic. Usually, there is a host and a signup sheet, and every act is given about three songs or 10 minutes to strut their stuff on stage. With Organic Poetry on Second Fridays at the Firehouse Gallery, Cleophache is the host, but there is no signup sheet. Performers just freely float on and off the stage contributing to the parts of the evening that seem right to them.

Besides the aforementioned events, countless open mics take place all over the Valley, including the Cultiv8n Culture open mic every Monday at ThirdSpace, C.A.S.A. every Tuesday, the Rogue Bar every Wednesday, Nacho Mamas every Thursday, and Firestage at The Firehouse Gallery every third Friday, among a slew of other open mics running throughout the week.

"I am very passionate about open mics. Even if I wasn't hosting open mic nights, I'd be going out to them," says Jason Messer, host of Yucca Tap Room's open mic, now in its 15th year. "So many things have come out of the open mic scene, and no one really sees that. A lot of the bands we treasure in the Tempe scene, like Dry River Yacht Club, the Sugar Thieves, and Japhy's Descent, came out of the Yucca open mic before I was even hosting. I do it because of the tradition and the unpredictability and all the great bands and artists who have come out it. The variety is what keeps it exciting. Some people understand it and some people don't."

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