It's organized chaos outside Highland Grounds. It's not quite 7 p.m., an hour before the show starts, and a line of arty-looking types, many with acoustic guitars slung over shoulders, stretches down the sidewalk.
The mood is jovial as they make their way through the door to sign up for a chance to take the stage.
Names noted, the hundred or so musicians catch up with one another, tune their instruments and wait. After 45 minutes or so, host Karen Fields will announce the 42 people--chosen by lottery--who will get to play. There are a few disappointed faces, but nobody leaves. Coffee, beer and munchies are ordered, and those in the bundled-up crowd take off their coats, get comfy and get ready to do some serious listening. Outside on the patio, a groovy jam session filled with familiar tunes begins around the courtyard's crackling fire-pit. Another Wednesday night of the sonic love-in known as Open Mind has begun, and the good vibes promise to be as invigorating as the music.
"Everyone here is seriously committed to their art, as well as getting to know people and networking," says Fields, a classically trained musician with an ear for talent who created this weekly open jamboree seven years ago.
Singer-songwriters get cyclical attention from the mainstream, but for the music professionals and hopefuls who religiously return to this hump-night happening, that's of little consequence. Their melodic motivations are inspired by their colleagues, as they find other creative souls to talk to or jam with. In this welcoming little world, being discovered by some A&R guy isn't as important as winning a paid gig on another night at their favorite coffeehouse.
"A real community has grown out of this night," says Sarah Gregory, a longtime employee who is now a co-owner of Highland Grounds. She's seen the best and the worst pass through the place's various open-mike nights since 1990. They've showcased acts such as Tenacious D and former MTV veejay Steve Isaacs (who hosted for a while) in the past.
At Fields' Open Mind night, there are some equally promising performers, as well as seasoned rockers and studio musicians.
"Art lives outside of the industry," says Danny Peck, an experienced player. "It's about losing your ego and standing in line, and then just singing to the universe."
As is true at similar nights around town, you never know what you're going to hear--from rhythmic rappers to skilled guitar gods--but what makes this one different is how it's presented. Fields runs a tight ship; each performer is allowed just one song or spoken-word piece for four minutes, period, making for a show that's structured yet spontaneous.
The crowd is attentive as well. The louder element congregates outside on the patio for a jam session around a crackling fire pit.
"Karen has created a very supportive atmosphere where people can develop and grow as musicians," says longtime Open Mind regular Marc Platt. "It's a great place to try out new material and get feedback."
On this brisk January evening, the stage is graced by a motley and mesmerizing group: young, hip-looking folk crooners, 40-ish psychedelic rockers, blues mamas, a ponderous spoken-wordsmith and a few who defy classification. When somebody is really jamming, everyone claps, sings or screams encouragement. But if a performer goes over the time limit, the crowd lets him or her know it in audible terms. It's like a family gathering with Fields the nurturing den mother.
Open Mind's respectful spirit makes those who take the stage more apt to take risks and stretch artistic boundaries. As Fields puts it: "When everybody is adhering to the same parameters, it's just amazing how people can shine."
Open Mind night, Wednedays at Highland Grounds, 742 N. Highland Ave., Hollywood. Signup, 7 p.m. Show, 8 p.m.-12 a.m. $3 cover; one-drink minimum. (323) 466-1507.