- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 27, 2003

At 9 p.m. any given Wednesday, most Washingtonians are wrapping up their day.

Not so the denizens of the bars, coffee shops and restaurants that feature "open mike nights," those showcases of undiscovered talent that allow musicians to meet, greet and strut their stuff and patrons to socialize and hear what's on the edge. This night life is just getting started.

"Open mike": Does it mean a parade of angst-ridden college students in tie-dyed T-shirts, nervously singing off-key? Yes. Does it mean an array of talented musicians with professional careers ahead of them? Yes again. They can both be found at the same open mike, in the same night, with a host of other acts in between.

"You never know what to expect," says Dan Mazer, a banjo player in the lineup tonight at the Iota Club and Cafe in Arlington along with blues duo Brother Hayseed, various soloists, and the hip-hop group Virginia Concrete. "The crazy kid with the out-of-tune guitar might be followed by someone playing a song so good it brings tears to your eyes."

Open mikes, always free of charge, are abundant in this region: Usually three or more occur somewhere every weeknight, and weekends see countless other jam sessions and songwriters' showcases.

In every case the faces are fresh. In almost every case the routine is the same: Musicians shake hands, plug in guitars and adjust their amplifiers, the red needles of the gauges pulsing with each strum of the strings. Patrons, mostly young professionals, mill about in expectation, talking and drinking beer as smoke loops above their heads.

Then the surprises begin. Here at Iota, on an ice-laced Wilson Boulevard in Arlington's Clarendon section, Rob Hinkal, 28, and Heather Lloyd, 22, tune up their matching glossy, midnight blue acoustic guitars while other members of their band, ILYAIMY, set up behind them. The band's name, pronounced "ill-yay-me" is short for "I Love You And I Miss You."

They charge through three songs from their fast-paced "contemporary folk" repertoire, as well as a powerful rendition of Jefferson Starship's "Go Ask Alice" that brings whoops from the audience. (Folk today has many nuances, but is generally defined as singer/songwriters with acoustic guitars.)

Mr. Hinkal and Miss Lloyd don't look like an obvious duo. She, in a red peasant top and jeans, is a pint-sized powerhouse of a singer with short, raven hair and almond eyes. Mr. Hinkal, who shares lead vocal duties, looks more the traditional folk singer, with intense expression, long, loose hair and an untucked flannel shirt.

But when they play together their fingers move so fast that, like hummingbird wings, they blur. ILYAIMY was nominated this year for a Wammie award from the Washington Area Music Association as "best contemporary folk group/duo," although they lost to nationally known Eddie From Ohio.

They credit much of their success to open mike nights like this one.

"Open mikes give us practice and exposure," says Mr. Hinkal, peeling off the plastic fingernails he has attached with electrical tape for easier picking. "There's nothing like being able to get onstage and play, and no one cares; people are just happy to hear you. Recently we've been playing open mikes a lot to advertise for our upcoming shows."

"I like meeting people and hearing other musicians play," says Miss Lloyd. "As a band member it is incredible practice to give an open mike performance, and to get what is the essential and more difficult part that cannot be rehearsed alone in a basement connecting with people."

•••

Open mikes vary greatly in the types of music they offer, though they generally fall into one of several main categories: folk, blues, rock, roots (country/bluegrass/Western) and hip-hop.

Open to anyone, they vary in the talent they attract as well.

"Open mikes are like that appetizer platter at your favorite restaurant," says Mr. Hinkal. "Most people play only 15 minutes, so you get a good mix. Someone's bound to be good, and if you don't like whoever's on stage, wait 15 minutes, and you'll get a different flavor."

As if to prove his point, up steps a rare sight: a comic, looking small and solitary with no instrument or backup singers to shield him.

"Who thought up the Cookie Monster anyway?" he starts, riffing on that "cross-eyed purple monster with an eating disorder" and he gets a polite, supportive hand.

Open mikes in coffeehouses and restaurants tend to be quieter and more family-oriented. Open mikes at bars typically draw a younger crowd, with a louder atmosphere and a leaning toward edgy folk or rock. Some musicians play cover songs, but the majority, especially the more experienced, play originals.

Iota, opened as a year-round music venue in 1994 by Steve Negrey and his sister, Jane Negrey Inge, sees a little bit of everything.

"We welcome all musicians, regardless of talent, because they take it seriously," says Mr. Negrey. "Open mikes are important because as a new artist, you have to be able to get over being on stage. Where else can someone get this opportunity to cut their teeth like this?"

Miss Lloyd used open mikes to conquer her stage fright. "Playing them all through my college years was my way of fighting it, forcing myself to do the very thing that scared me so much playing and singing in front of an audience."

•••

REM lead singer Michael Stipe once said, "Anyone who can walk can sing." For fledgling musicians, talent is helpful but secondary to their willingness just to get up there. New singers have many reasons for playing open mikes: professional aspirations, experimentation, catharsis.

Or just plain fun. Deep down, everyone wants to be a star. Everyone has sung in the shower or played air guitar in front of the mirror. Open mikes are the chance to do the real thing in front of an audience.

"Why do we watch 'Star Search' and 'American Idol'?" asks Steve Key, local songwriter and host of the Monday night open mike at the Vienna coffeehouse Jammin' Java. "We want to believe that there are still diamonds in the rough out there, and that America is still a place where anybody can be a star, if they have the talent and desire and catch a few breaks along the way."

For more experienced musicians, open mikes are like clubs where they gather weekly to support and learn from each other.

"I go to open mikes to have fun and connect with my community," says Mr. Key. "This is the closest thing we have to a church."

If there is jealousy, it isn't apparent; musicians are friends with each other outside of the open mikes and often sit in on each other's sets to lend a new twang of banjo or fiddle to a song. Fuzzy, cheetah-print guitar cases neck with battered leather ones, symbolizing the blending of their different styles.

Sometimes it's difficult to tell just who's really on stage Tuesday nights at Silver Spring's Half Moon Barbecue, so many musicians hop on and off during songs. But no one seems to mind. It's more like an old-fashioned hoedown than an open mike as the audience, stuffed into booths or perched on vinyl-covered swivel seats along the soda-fountain style bar, sings and claps along with the roots-music.

This little joint is home to a big legend. Bill Kirchen, Grammy-nominated roots guitarist and frontman for the band Bill Kirchen & Too Much Fun, hosts and plays a little, too, either solo or sitting in on others' sets.

"This is great for me. I get to hang out with all these musicians," says Mr. Kirchen. "I'm really a performer."

And an "open mike maestro," according to Half Moon owner Marc Gretschel. "This is a big local favorite, not just an open mike where people take a number. It's interactive, and that's because of Bill."

But new musicians should not be intimidated, says Mr. Kirchen although his presence and that of other musicians like Mike Marceau of Big Hillbilly Bluegrass, or the Oklahoma Twisters' Ira Gitlin, might be daunting.

"This is not a 'Gong Show.' It's an opportunity. I love having people who are young and anxious to be onstage. I've never said 'I don't have time for you.' "

Jammin' Java also attracts its share of professionals. Amateurs play too, of course ("If you can do two songs, or eight minutes, you can play," says Mr. Key), but often touring musicians stop by, like Pam Shaber, who recently visited after performing at the Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage. Or blues slide guitarist Jennifer Erb, whose quiet disposition hides a passionate voice that alternates flawlessly between muddy and misty.

Jammin' Java's music-based atmosphere fits artists and audience alike. Part Seattle coffeehouse, part recording studio, and part listening room, it was designed with music in mind. There are rows of chairs for the audience, sleek posters of bands on every wall, and smoking is not allowed. Meanwhile, Mr. Key, who spent five years on the open mike circuit in songwriting Mecca Nashville, has set up Mondays at Jammin' Java similarly.

"Good sound, good performers and lots of them, and an audience to appreciate them make a good open mike," says Mr. Key.

•••

In Adams Morgan, Staccato Bar and Piano Lounge also aims to provide performers with a welcome environment, including a baby grand piano an uncommon treat for an open mike. All genres of music are welcome. It's cozy, dark and smoky, with hardwood floors and candlelight. The stage is barely higher than the floor, but musicians do their best.

Owner James O'Brien knows what makes musicians tick he used to play guitar and piano for several New York bands.

"We originally opened as a piano bar, but now we are a full bar and restaurant with music most nights of the week," says Mr. O'Brien. "As a musician, I know their needs, and how frustrating it can be trying to get started in the business. I try to make it as easy as I can for them."

"The atmosphere is very friendly toward performers," says singer Heather McLeod, 25, of the District. Wearing a kerchief and thick-rimmed glasses, she has just finished a set of two of her own folk songs and a cover of Lucinda Williams' "Drunken Angel." "There aren't 20 TVs on, and the people aren't rude; they pay attention."

Staccato has other perks for the audience: games. Patrons for whom live music isn't enough can busy themselves with "Connect Four" or card games in the upstairs lounge.

•••

Hearing the blues in a French farmhouse is about as likely as finding a restaurant on an airport runway, but you get both at the 94th Aero Squadron Restaurant's Wednesday night blues open jam sessions.

Overlooking the runway of the College Park Airport (the oldest continuously operating airport in the world), the 94th Aero pays tribute to America's World War I and II air power with its design and memorabilia. Full-sized replicas of warplanes are parked on the lawn, while posters, flight jackets, letters and other collectibles line the walls of the restaurant, designed to look like a French farmhouse of 1919.

The feel is more big band than blues, and the closest thing to Memphis on the menu is the "Memphis Belle Martini," but then again, with a French flag hanging from the ceiling next to a disco ball, anything goes.

Jam sessions differ slightly from open mikes in that they are gatherings of established musicians playing together outside of their normal bands. In tonight's case, it's strictly blues, and participants are also fully "plugged in" with electric guitars, basses and drum sets. While new musicians are always welcome, this is not the place to debut your rendition of "Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore."

Musicians are grouped randomly to play, but the result is incredible one would never know they don't play together regularly.

"It's such a rush," says Lisa O'Brien, bassist for blues band Takoma Crossing. "We all know each other, but no one knows what will happen until we get on stage. I love it."

So does the crowd, who stay long past midnight to hear singer Josh Basson or members of the Sherwood Blues Band.

"We've been here the last couple of Wednesdays," says onlooker Rick Simon of College Park, cozied up at a corner table with wife Wendy. "I'm not a big blues fan or anything, but this kind of makes me change my mind. These guys are really good."

•••

So good, it's hard to imagine that most musicians hold down full-time jobs between open mikes. Mr. Hinkal is a graphic designer, Miss Lloyd works in the University of Maryland communications department, and Miss McLeod works at the bookstore Politics and Prose. It's not an easy life. It's late nights and hard work, and open mikes don't pay.

"I work two jobs and play three nights a week, a lot of open mikes," says Jimi Estep, 23, lead singer for band Willie Strings and the Players. "But you have to get out there. It's the best way to create a buzz and gain more fans."

Some musicians are more fortunate. Steve Hagedorn, host of the Iota open mike, plays music full time.

"Life is so much better when you do what you love," says Mr. Hagedorn. "I never want to have a real job again."


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