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COVER STORY

Acts of daring

It's a hopeful circle: performers with a few minutes to reveal themselves, clubs that help them click with fans or one another.

September 07, 2006|Jeff Miller | Special to The Times

TO the non-musician, the idea of an open-mike night is freakishly masochistic: It's a veritable free-for-all, where anyone can sign up for five minutes (or so) of stage time and perform to a sometimes indifferent crowd, most of whose members are waiting for their own brief moment in the spotlight. There are open-mike nights of all stripes: poetry, hip-hop, comedy. But songwriter-heavy showcases are by far the most common, playing to the time-honored notion that any artist with the right combination of notes and words can change your world, or at least your mood.

On any given night in the Southland, hundreds participate in the open-mike ritual, going to their venue of choice and signing up to bare their souls onstage for an audience of their peers. It's democratic: Performers range from kids to songwriting veterans. Some are performing in public for the first time. Others are music-biz survivors letting out some steam. Still others are people trying to figure out where their voices are. Some play merely to gain a sense of fraternity; others long to be discovered.

As uneven an experience as those dichotomies might make open-mike nights for the casual patron, they are the ties that bind the participants. For two weeks this summer, I experienced them all.

McCabe's Guitar Shop, Santa Monica

It's the last Sunday of July, and I'm in the cramped hallway at McCabe's in Santa Monica, between the stage and the men's room, my Martin guitar slung over my shoulder and my mouth dry. Behind me, hiding behind the stacks of music books deep in the store, a couple in their 40s huddle, practicing vocal harmonies. Onstage, a woman plays a bizarre stringed instrument, which I hear only as the door swings open and shut.

And then I hear my name. I take a deep breath and walk onto a stage that in its nearly 50-year history has hosted everyone from Beck to Townes Van Zandt. Bathed in red light, I look out over the guitar-lined room at a host of completely unfamiliar faces. I breathe and squint.

"Have fun." That's what Jef Davis, who has been running McCabe's monthly open-mike night (now over 30 years old) since 1996, tells performers when he gathers them after distributing playing cards to determine performance order. I'm trying to, but it's hard: Beads of sweat are running down my back. It doesn't help that the eight performers before me have blown me away; all are looking back at me right now.

"In 1996, when I started doing open mike here, I went to every open mike in town for three months," Davis says. "I wrote down a list of the things that didn't work at other open mikes.... For example: showing up early so you can pick a good time slot."

Not only does that create long lines, Davis says, "If people know when they're playing, they don't stay. What really makes it work is the chemistry of all the performers with each other -- if they get along with each other, talk with each other and give each other advice, they may even end up playing together. They have to be here for all of that to happen -- and that's what I like." A prize of a session at a local recording studio is randomly given out to one of the night's performers at the end of the McCabe's show -- another incentive to stick around.

Later, Holly Barber, who's at the open mike night with her father, plays an original, "Under the Bluegrass Influence" and a jazzy reworking of "Moondance," the Van Morrison song, which she mashes up with Gershwin's "Summertime." She's good. So why open mike? "Open mikes are available for anyone who wants to participate, so I don't need to be as bold or as serious about it," she says. "Also, I really like the sense of community that's there -- being able to hear so many different artists. It's really inspiring to see what other people do, and the creative impulse filtered through so many individuals."

At the end of her two songs, everyone applauds, and it is more than just polite clapping.

Highland Grounds, Hollywood

There is a constant murmur on the outside patio of the Highland Grounds cafe, a swell of music coming from the myriad future performers tuning, testing and rehearsing on their instruments. Inside, though, is another story: The audience is hushed as a twentysomething man sings a solemn song about Tennessee.

David Kowal, 52 -- whom I've already seen, once, at McCabe's -- is here, too: He's been on a three-nights-per-week open-mike tour of Los Angeles since April, and on this stop he plays the gruff political rocker, "Deciding the Fate of the World." Kowal makes his living playing and composing music for film and TV -- but, he says, open mikes fill a void that that his job doesn't. "I was 13 years old and heard 'Tears of a Clown' by Smokey Robinson and said, 'I want to write songs like that,' " he says.

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