- August 1, 2014
This week gave me the chance to make the fourth stop on my local tour of the Open Mic scene abuzz in our fair town.
This journey began four months ago as a personal exploration of the questions:
So far, I've checked out the scenes brewing on the North Trail on Tuesdays at Growler's Pub; out east at the old-Florida, impressively intergenerational open mics on Mondays at J.R.'s Old Packinghouse Cafe (the longest-running in Sarasota). I also forayed outside of the "open mic" category to experience the Bee Ridge Park Jam.
So far, themes are emerging. Open mics are an important space of interaction where novice musicians gain experience and confidence, where experienced musicians try out new material and where all levels find connections that help them move forward with their music. People also find friends, release and relaxation, and a sense of community.
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When Wednesday night rolled around last week, I made my way by foot through the Gillespie Park neighborhood down to Main Street. As I approached the warm yellow lighting of Pastry Art, I thought about how this place has enchanted me from my first step through its glass doors; I sensed a buzz of welcome, interaction, comfort and familiarity that I came to learn is generated every day by the flow of folks who come regularly. It's a great "third place" in our community, and I'd been looking forward to visiting the open mic here to sample its specific "flavor."
As I entered, a beautiful young woman with short dark hair was singing quite enchantingly with a guitar. But what struck me first was that, more than any other open mic I had entered so far, there was a golden hush within the walls of the place.
There was no background chatter. All attention was focused forward from the filled tables toward the performance area near the front entrance. (That being the case, I had the disorienting experience of walking into a thick wall of "attention" which, though it wasn't aimed at me, jived my senses nonetheless.)
I greeted a couple of people I knew but, unlike other times coming into this coffee-shop, I knew very few people there. Ages ranged from teens to late 60s. But what I couldn't get over was the respectful hush that cloaked the room and the air.
After she finished playing, I approached the singer and introduced myself. Her name was Angela Menzie, and she happily agreed to oblige me with an interview. We took seats at the metal tables that flank Main Street outside (another thing I love about Pastry Art: awesome people-watching!). Angela, I learned, is from Indiana originally and moved here earlier this year.
Angela's from a very small town --- the kind where everyone knows each other and feels part of a tangible community. Here, she missed that cohesion but soon discovered it at Pastry Art's open mic. She attends nearly every week and has made a large number of her friends here. She especially treasures the opportunity the Open Mic provides to try out new songs --- some covers, some originals --- in front of a supportive group of musicians and music-lovers. Also, she comes for the music itself. "Music relaxes me," she says. "It puts me in a better place."
The conversation actually blossomed past the interview, trailing into our beliefs, life experiences and philosophies on life. Angela added that the open mic has given her a chance to get to know and understand people she may not otherwise meet. I soaked up her fresh, open and vibrant personality and then realized I'd miss the rest of the performances if I didn't get back inside --- but not before we both supported our local art community with a purchase from a friendly palmetto-leaf artisan.
Returning inside, I took in a few more acts. It was all acoustic in varying styles. My friend Ed Midler arrived, one of my personal heroes of the local music scene, who helps drive the all-local, all-original Noise Ordinance music project as well as Sarasota Music Scene, a hub for local music buzz and happenings. I never see him without a laptop, and tonight he used it to show me Sarasota Music Scene's snazzy new website.
I then met Chuck Black, a fellow Florida native with a natural big smile who I learned is one of several organizers of the weekly Songwriter Showcase at the Coffee Loft. James Cademan, who I'd met at the Old Packinghouse open mic months before, also greeted me. I plumbed the two for perspective on what makes this particular open mic unique.
James: "It's a mixture of artists. When you go to Starkeeper's [open mic], it's mostly musicians. Here, you get artists too --- such as Sue [who often sketches performers], who is here every week. It's the only place where people perform poetry and comedy ... I think it's because it's downtown."
Chuck: "It's welcoming, encouraging ... Joe B welcomes people. It draws people from everywhere since it's downtown. There's a very nice, low-key atmosphere."
Ben Thurmond, guitarist and singer for local band The Send Offs and yet another compelling local talent, added a note to Pastry Art's flavor bouquet: "Encouraging."
Regarding the value of open mics, James echoed other open mic attendees I've asked so far, especially those who are active as working or serious musicians. He said it's a useful way "to glean from other peoples' styles. It's good to get your feet wet performing in front of people."
As the night wound to a close and I neared the sweet ending of my decaf cappucino (yes, really --- love the flavor, but I get psycho on caffeine late at night), I caught up with "Joe B," the open mic coordinator. He was the man who moved in as musicians started and stopped their acts, adjusting the microphone and other technical doohickeys. He did a wonderful job of "holding space" with his smile and quietly welcoming air.
Hailing from Vermont and New York, Joe moved here about three years ago. He teaches English by trade but also works as a rock-n-roll/Americana-style musician. Joe took on the role of open mic coordinator for friend and local musician Carmela Pedicini (of bands Radio-Free Carmela and the Transmitters and Passerine) and has shared the role with Michael Miller (The Heart Machine) over the last several months.
Why does Joe host? It's been a lot harder for working musicians down here than in New York, and this weekly work opportunity is a good deal as well as something he enjoys doing.
One of the key differences Joe notes between this and another popular open mic (which I have yet to visit ... next stop?) is that, while the open mic at the Starkeeper Café is predominantly working musicians --- say, 80 percent --- Pastry Art tends to draw fewer --- probably 30 percent, Joe estimates.
"There's a lot more raw talent here," he says. "It gives people a chance to try stuff out." Joe listed three main reasons he's noticed as to why working musicians, including himself, come to Open Mics:
1. To try out new material
2. To try to get gigs at a place where you haven't yet played
3. To promote an upcoming gig, especially if you have a gig someplace that hosts an open mic.
"We get a lot of repeat players --- which is a good thing," Joe says. "People come back because they feel safe. Everybody's welcome." He added, "It's a tight ship, though. Tonight I opened up sign-ups at 6:30, and at ten minutes to 7:00 I filled the last slot." Performers can sign up for a spot via Facebook, text message or by just showing up.
Joe also enlightened me about the working music scene in the Sarasota/Bradenton area. Unlike New York, Joe has found people less willing to pay musicians reasonable rates. There is less of a perception, he says, of the costs required to perform music, including practice time, travel time, equipment and set-up time. "There's a lot of overhead," he says.
I asked Joe how we could help to change a difficult environment for working musicians.
"Venues have to commit to paying people, and people coming to venues have to commit to paying for music. Gone are the days when one dollar is enough of a tip ... and change? Please."
I left Pastry Art rewarded for having come. I learned some new things about local musicians' experience trying to make a living locally, and how open mics fit into and support their creative livelihood and development. I also heard and felt that "thing" that everyone named in different ways, but seems to hold a common glow and magnetic attraction for all who come: a sense of community, connection and inclusion, and the joy that these things bring.
If you're looking for a warm, relaxed way to spend your mid-week evening, swing by Pastry Art on a Wednesday night to get a taste of this unique event's flavor, which Angela described so well:
"It comes with a laid-back, easy, mellow feeling ---and still welcomes people with a little bit of crazy."
That, and the pastries ... !
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Do you attend open mics at Pastry Art or elsewhere? What's it like? How do you find it valuable?
How can we make Sarasota/Bradenton an even better place for music and musicians to thrive?
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FOR FURTHER EXPLORATION:
Open Mic @ Pastry Art
every Wednesday, 7 to 9 p.m.*
* If you want to perform, come by at 6:30 p.m., or hit up Joe B on Facebook.