Open-mic nights offer the perfect place to tune up for the big(ger) time
Got a song in your heart? Let it out at one of many open-mic sessions in the area that invite aspiring musicians to get up on stage and make the leap from playing at home to performing before an audience.
Although the oldest, and perhaps best known, of area open mics is held at The Ark, there are plenty of others popular on the circuit, including those at Ann Arbor’s Blue Tractor and the Arena Sports Bar, and the Tap Room and Woodruff’s in Ypsilanti.
Veteran Ann Arbor singer-songwriter Dave Boutette, who has been hosting open mics for 25 years and who currently runs the show every Tuesday night at Woodruff’s, said he likes the sense of community they foster.
“You can welcome in new members and watch people develop and watch them change from someone who’s just plays sitting on their bed to somebody who can actually go out and play a gig,” he said.
“There’s a lot of huge differences between just playing in your house as opposed to playing on a stage,” Boutette added. “There’s all these things that pop up that you never think would pop up when you transfer from playing at your house to actually playing on a stage through a PA for an audience. You don’t know what they are until you actually go through it.”At Woodruff's, performers start arriving well before the scheduled 8 p.m. start time, stashing guitars in corners and signing in for their place in the lineup. All are welcome, from solo acts to bands, and the sound system is provided. Some are newcomers, many are regulars on the circuit.
“I live here every Tuesday, and Thursdays at the Tap Room. It’s like a church to me,” said Ann Arborite Jim Morningstar, who said he has been a musician for 30 years. “There’s lots of good songwriters, lots of musicians and everybody is very supportive. Ypsilanti is very cool that way. It’s not a competition—the common goal is expressing yourself.”
Janet Benson, vocalist for J.B. (Benson, John Baltic and Kim French), was second up on a recent Tuesday. “It’s kind of a chance to stretch out and have some stage time and polish some songs without a huge production,” she said. “This is a really warm and friendly (open mic).”
Although some people go to open mics to check out the entertainment, Boutette acknowledged that often it’s mostly musicians playing for other musicians—and that’s just fine, because the feedback is a key part of the learning curve.
Sometimes is performer is downright awful—hey, it happens—but Boutette said even that can be OK as well.
“We give them their three songs. Sometimes they realize they’re horrendous and they stop after one song,” he said. “What happens after that is they may sit down at a table and somebody might start by saying ‘hey, I’ve got this guitar tuner you might be able to utilize,’ so maybe the next time their guitar will be in tune. Or somebody might say ‘if you stand a little closer to the mic, people might be able to hear you better.’ Or somebody else might say ‘take a deeper breath. You might be able to hit those notes better.’
“It’s people helping each other out.”
It’s that supportive environment that drew vocalist Leah Taylor and guitarist Adam McMillan to Woodruff’s recently.
“We do it for fun, but it’s great to have the opportunity to showcase what we’ve been working on so hard. We’re in front of a lot of musicians and the feedback we get is genuine and honest,” McMillan said.
“It’s real important to play with a sound system and in front of an audience. This feels real—like playing a real show. It reminds me of The Ark,” added Taylor.
Although some open mics that have been popular in recent years are no longer in operation (the one that used to be at Drowsy Parrot in Saline and the one once hosted by Bombadill’s Cafe in Ypsilanti are often mentioned), as a whole, Boutette said open mics appear to be on the upswing.
“It’s an easy way for businesses, taverns, coffeehouses to get people in, and it’s basically free entertainment,” he explained. “It provides a service for pretty much everyone there. The musicians get some stage time, the bar or venue gets people in the door and everybody’s happy.”