Last Tuesday, I was enjoying a date with a lovely person at Busch Gardens during the day, when I got a text from my friend Alisdair Lee inviting me to come see him play a few new songs at Growler’s Pub‘s Open Mic Night around 10 p.m.
It had been a long day, including a 90-minute wait for a roller coaster as the sky poured and rumbled in true Florida summer style — but in the spirit of supporting a friend and fellow artist, we went.
I ended up getting much more than I bargained for: Besides soaking up some incredible performances, I gained a great new insight into this phenomenon that has always held a magnetic pull for me … and I hatched a new Sarasota adventure plan!
I learned that open mics play a unique and powerful role in the creative development of our local music/performance scene and economy. To go deeper into this, I’ve decided to launch a “Roving Open Mic Sarasota Tour,” with monthly report-backs via This Week in Sarasota on the following questions:
- • What, in essence, are these things called “open mics?”
- • When and where are they happening in Sarasota, and what is the “flavor” of each one?
- • What value do they hold for musicians, music-lovers, the venues that host them … and the rest of us?
The Growler’s open mic was a great evening. I watched my friend perform some new material with his unique style of nuanced, well-crafted lyrics and surprising chords. I chatted with friends and drank probably too much delicious craft beer (love me some Oatmeal Stout!). Friend and talented poet Zachariah Skylab read two of his compositions, including “When I Sang Godfire.”
In between acts, I enjoyed songs by the host, Justin Kaiser, who is also bassist and singer for Scone Train and Villanova Junction. Other performers included poet Adam Donovan and folk/rock singer-songwriter Dylan Jon Wade.
And then I found myself drawn in toward the end of the evening as a particular kind of magic happened. Four or five musicians, obviously friends, gathered around the stage. Closer and more concentrated around the stage than anyone had been all night, they played for and with one another in turns for about one hour.
While some people listened in the audience behind us, others carried on chatting. But regardless of the rest of the bar’s attention or lack thereof, what crackled was the air between this small front huddle. As each stepped up to play wholeheartedly, they were met with rapt listening and support. When this session concluded, I felt enriched, electrified and full.
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What did I experience? What did the musicians experience, and why were they there? How does this fit into the bigger picture of the local Sarasota music scene? I followed up with host Justin Kaiser and musicians Sara Nelms and Alisdair Lee for answers.
Justin Kaiser has hosted Growler’s Open Mic Night since January — although the event had been happening before that. It occurs every Tuesday at 8 p.m. He described it as “free-wheelin’.”
“It’s loose, social, having a good time, sort of informal. I welcome anyone,” Kaiser told me. “I also encourage people to do things other than play guitar, like comedians, magicians. It’s not strict. Cabe Unger is always bartending when I’m there, which is great, ’cause he’s the most awesome bartender in the world.”
Why did he decide to host? ”Part of the reason is that I wanted to practice performing by myself in front of people, to get more comfortable doing it,” he said. Kaiser has also found that the slower early hours allow him time to practice new songs.
“I wanted to meet musicians,” he added. “At the beginning of year I wanted to start a new band. Plus, it’s fun. It gets me out of the house.”
As for the value he sees it offer to other musicians, “A lot of people will come out that have never played — like Eric De Barros,” he said. ”The first time he played in front of other people was at my open mic a few weeks ago. We get a lot of younger people just starting out who don’t have connections, don’t have shows anywhere, who like to come out and play. I like to provide that for people.”
The most rewarding thing about hosting these weekly sessions, Kaiser said, is “giving people the opportunity to play that might not be able to play anywhere else. I know when I started out, I used to go to open mics all the time. It was a forum that was available to me. I didn’t know anyone. Maybe someone will listen to you and like you, and you can meet up and start playing together.” He adds, “It’s fun to see people who didn’t meet each other before and didn’t cross paths connect and watch them jam.”
Sara Nelms, a singer-songwriter with a highly developed vocal style, frequents this and other open mics frequently. She moved here from Nashville, Tenn. and now performs regularly in Sarasota.
“In general,” Nelms said, “I would say that they’re so valuable to people, even if they’re a player that has played all over the place and super confident in what they do. It’s a way to meet other musicians. When I moved here I didn’t know anybody, and going to open mics was the way I met almost all the people I know now. It’s a great tool for networking.” She met her “biggest collaborator” Justin Layman at an open mic. “He and I have written a song together on his new album.” (Listen to it on Reverbnation.)
Nelms described the Growler’s sessions in particular as “a laid-back living room — do whatever you’re working on. The bartender is super nice. It’s like a house party with a stage.”
I also spoke with Alisdair Lee, my friend whose personal invitation got me there. A fellow graduate of New College, Lee is an original singer-songwriter who has returned to Sarasota after several years in New York. He surprised me with his initial opinion of open mics: ”There’s something about them that depresses me in certain moments,” he said. Noticing my look of puzzlement, he continued: “At certain points it’s like shouting into the wind. People aren’t listening. But some people are listening, and that’s who you’re playing for. There’s an element of resilience in it on the part of the artists that makes it really worthwhile. It doesn’t matter what they’re playing — it matters that they’re making a stand in this culture.”
Lee agreed that networking is a major benefit. “Small connections are made between people, and that is so important to the vitality of the individuals. A lot of musicians feel very alone in their quest. Making a little connection can inspire them to write more and sing more.”
Lately it seems that every time I turn around, a new open mic or jam is being announced at a local venue. Why? I asked Kaiser for his perspective on this, since he’s lived in Sarasota for a total of 16 years.
“It’s just demand,” he said. “There are so many musicians and people who want to play.”
What has surprised Justin most since he began hosting? “The turn-out. Even the last couple of weeks [with college students gone], we’ve been getting a lot of people. Every week there are new people that have never been that want to play, that hear about it from somewhere.” Word about the event seems to spread primarily from person to person since, as Kaiser admits, “I don’t do a lot of promoting. Mainly because I’m lazy.”
* * *
Well, the word is out (at least little more now), and I got some questions answered.
So come check out this great mixing bowl of local talent on Tuesdays at Growler’s, as well as their impressive selection of tasty craft beers served up by one of the most jovial bartenders you’ll ever meet, Cabe Unger.
Now to pick my next open mic adventure. Which one will it be: Pastry Art on Wednesday? Coffee Loft on Thursdays? Poetry Open Mic on Mondays? What else is out there? Stay tuned to find out, and feel free to weigh in below on YOUR experience and perspective on open mics in Sarasota — specific or general.