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The Awkward Stage?

Newbie performers step up to the open mike

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Clutching a tarnished old French horn, a wiry guy with Fu Manchu facial hair, big boots, a black T-shirt and jeans makes his way to the stage. "Those of you who've seen me before know that I usually just get up here and fuck around," says Nick, who's not into giving out his last name. "Tonight, I'm going to make up for that by doing something serious. This has a story to go along with it."

The bespectacled bohemian tells a tale about his dying grandfather, a Russian immigrant who plays him a song he wants his grandson to perform at his funeral. It's a traditional tune about "a blind guy who yearns to see his daughter." But Nick loses the song. "He died shortly afterwards, so it fucked me up."

Recently he was going through a friend's record collection and discovered the tune, Nick explains, on a Boris Karloff Plays Russian Folk Songs album. "It's about seven years late, but this is the song I would have played for my grandfather at his funeral." With that, Nick launches into a sad but breathtakingly beautiful song. The 20 or so people in the audience are mesmerized and motionless. When Nick finishes, they burst into resounding applause.

Back at his table, Nick turns to the audience and says with a sly grin, "That was all bullshit, by the way. My grandfather died when I was 3 years old."

Laughter erupts from the somewhat stunned spectators. "You're such a shit," says one woman, smiling. "I almost cried."

It's just another Thursday night at Rhapsody Natural Cuisine, home of the weekly Montpelier Community Coffeehouse open mike night. The brightly lit space with sunny yellow walls provides one of many such soirees that spice up Vermont's work-week nightlife. Creative citizens, and listeners, congregate to celebrate words, music and song -- and just about anything else that feeds their fancy.

A proving ground of sorts for aspiring artists, talented and otherwise, open mikes can help newcomers tackle performance anxiety, get tips from more established musicians, and find a nurturing environment for new material. For spectators, the typically no-cover scenes can lift the spirit, entertain and inspire. Some venues serve coffee or tea, some beer and wine. Some even offer dinner. But regardless of what's on the menu, each open mike has a distinctive flavor, its own particular hue.

The Burlington Coffeehouse may not actually serve coffee, but some of the area's finest folk artists gather at the intimate Rhombus Gallery on Tuesday nights. Singer-songwriters are the general rule at what may be the state's longest-running open mike, though over the years poets, actors and even escape artists have also honed their acts at the College Street venue. "It's a true open mike," says host Jeff Miller, who has almost single-handedly fostered the thriving local folk scene since taking the Coffeehouse reins in 1992.

Left-leaning activist Ken Lawless typically gets things going every Tuesday with his off-key but pointed political rants and raves. One unseasonably pleasant evening in late September, popular locals Karen McFeeters and Bob Williams are among the 10 or so songsmiths making the most of their 12-minute slots.

McFeeters confesses to having "one of those down days where you feel kind of blah." But after playing her first song -- a wistful, Joni Mitchell-like lament about lost love -- McFeeters announces she's "feeling better already."

"There's just something about music and singing that's so amazing," she marvels. "That's why I do it." Though she's a keyboardist, McFeeters is giving the guitar a shot. Later she applauds the open mike's "supportive environment" as "a great place to try out new skills." McFeeters -- who celebrated the release of her debut CD, Bachelor Girl, to a capacity crowd at FlynnSpace in August -- was "terrified to do an open mike" when she started out at Rhombus four years ago. Now, she's clearly comfy on stage. "I really owe it all to the open mike," she says. "It's a family, and it's so much fun."

Phil Henry, who recently moved to Burlington from the Adirondack region with his "Dave Matthews-ish" jazz-funk band, says he's "glad to come here and find so many open mikes." Such opportunities are rare back home, he notes, "so our band made one." The goateed guitarist delivers an impressive solo show at Rhombus. Henry says he's "so thrilled to share music and listen to this music" that he even penned a paean to the scene, aptly entitled "Happy Sounds."

Williams is also a big fan of the Coffeehouse, even though he was already a well-traveled singer and guitarist when he moved to the area more than a decade ago. "I never say... how grateful I am for this open mike, which is so great," he confesses as he closes out the evening with some spirited, genre-bending originals. "I was really astounded at the culture of respect for everybody. Jeff has really built this fabulous place. When you have a thing like this, you really have a culture."

Another culture is brewing around the corner and a couple blocks up Church Street, where "Liquid Lounge" is in the midst of its own "Open Mic Madness." A dozen or so twentysomethings are drinking beer and digging the Martin Sexton-like sounds of host Jeremy Harple. Prior to this evening's festivities, the shaggy Cambridge singer-songwriter was informed that it would be the last open mike at Liquid Energy, which would be closing in four days. "It was a total bummer," says Harple a few days later. "Everybody was pretty shocked." Liquid Energy had also been home to a slammin' "Hip-Hop Open Mic" that packed the joint on Sunday nights.

All is not lost, however. Now under new ownership, the echinacea-loving establishment has reapplied for a liquor license and plans to host open mikes again when the bar reopens. Or even sooner: Daytime manager Mike Morneau suggests that since Liquid Energy currently closes at 6 p.m., a Sunday afternoon open mike might be in order.

Harple looks forward to a new Liquid scene, even though the venue's previous open-mike affairs were "very up and down," he concedes. The former leader of the defunct jam band Speakeasy, Harple gigs regularly around town and recently released his own CD. But he still savors the opportunity to play open mikes. "Money's definitely important, but I'd rather play at a nice place that I really enjoy... It's nice to have a receptive audience," he says.

That's exactly what musicians get at Radio Bean Coffeehouse. If they're patient. A "sign-up to sign-up list" is evidence of the open mike's popularity at this tiny venue on North Winooski Avenue in Burlington. Anyone looking for some stage time has to sign up at 7:30 p.m. The sign-up to sign-up list starts earlier, however, and helps ensure a slot of one's choosing. In both cases, performers are required to stick around until their time has come, or they lose their turn.

It's clearly worth the wait -- the place is packed with a youngish throng. What Radio Bean lacks in space it makes up for in atmosphere, atmosphere, atmosphere. A multi-colored, patchwork glass lamp hangs above the tiny corner stage, which is further illuminated by strands of white Christmas lights. Black-and-white prints adorn the exposed-brick walls. Wood floors and furniture, plants and a piano all contribute to the funky vibe. Organic fair-trade coffee flows freely at the bar, where beer and wine are also available. People chat at tables, jot notes in journals and read poetry.

"Eclectic" is perhaps the best way to describe the performances one early October evening. They include the wicked acoustic guitar pickin' of Gabriel Moralez, the room-clearing chanting of the dreadlocked "Bird," and the jazzy vocals of Claudine Barrett. Bossa nova guitar stylings are served up by Oscar, and didgeridoo dynamics by David, whose unique sound might be dubbed "didg-hop." "This is all improvisation," says David. "I have no idea what's coming out of this thing. It's music on the edge."

"I think the diversity we get here is just incredible," marvels owner Lee Anderson, who recently celebrated the Bean's second anniversary. With a new host every week, "each open mike has a little bit of a different flavor to it," adds Anderson, who not long ago began a "no guitar open mike" on the last Monday of every month. The "everything else goes" credo has inspired some performers to invent their own instruments. "Most open mikes are just like lonely-guy-with-guitar kind of scenarios," Anderson says. "But since I started doing the no-guitar open mike, it's really opened up the rest of the open mikes, too."

Up north at the Kept Writer in St. Albans, patrons can peruse an eclectic mix of used and out-of-print titles, surf the Net or tap into their inner Hemingway at one of the many manual typewriters scattered about the bookstore. On Thursday nights, they can also hear some quality music at the open mikes in the adjacent cafe. Colorful plaster, plywood paintings and photographic prints adorn the walls, with funky table lamps adding to the mood. The java is locally roasted by the Vermont Coffee Company and Uncommon Grounds. Beer and wine are also served, as is an assortment of soups, sandwiches and sweets.

One crisp, clear Thursday evening in mid-October, a couple of Megs are entertaining an audience of 10 attentive listeners with solid original material. Meg Willey, a promising Rail City singer and keyboardist reminiscent of Carole King, sings sweetly about love's intoxication. Meg Devlin Irish of Waterbury Center is a more seasoned songwriter and guitarist who recently celebrated the release of her second CD, Grounded. "I've dug out a couple of old songs and I've been re-working them," Irish says before performing an especially poignant song about her mentally challenged brother Charlie and another about her Gulf War-bound son.

Kept Writer co-owner Jedd Kettler, who has kicked things off with some nice instrumental guitar work, later accompanies the Megs on mandolin for a rousing finale. "It's pretty mellow tonight," admits Kettler, who opened the bookstore/cafe with wife Launie more than two years ago. They added the weekly open mike last winter. "We get anywhere from two to seven performers," he says, "and the crowds come and go."

"Poets and musicians unite!" proclaim posters plastered around Montpelier, referring to events at Trinity United Methodist Church. The youthful and surprisingly hip pastor, Rev. Mitchell Hay, has been facilitating Friday night free-for-alls -- organized by "an autonomous collective" of area teens and twentysomethings -- since October. The well-attended events, which alternate between Trinity and nearby Christ Church, typically draw 50 to 75 people, and have been providing teens with a positive alternative to drugs and drinking.

Though the Trinity open mike usually takes place on the church's spacious main floor, a giant rummage sale in mid-October has forced the action underground. A steady stream of teens with baggy jeans and cocked caps shuffle in and out of the low-ceilinged basement, which has concrete floors and fluorescent lights. Hay hurriedly sets up metal folding chairs. Soon spoken word flows from the makeshift stage, which holds a podium, mixing board and two sizable speakers.

"I drank the wine I wanted to share with you/ Just one of the million mistakes I've made," intones a poet with wire-rim glasses, long sideburns and a stylin' cap. Next up is Sara, an entirely black-clad singer with pressed black hair. She impresses with a soulful voice that belies her youth -- though her rendering of "Makin' Whoopee" is a bit rushed and uninspired. Timothy Luoma of Berlin, a tall, lanky poet with pointed sideburns, flows with finesse on an impressive new piece about his troubled "path." Another wordsmith with a wool cap relates a powerful tale entitled "Wolf Skin in Shackles."

All the performers are well received by the boisterous but respectful crowd. But when the next act -- the main attraction -- is announced, the increase in energy level is palpable. The "Concrete Poets," an all-white hip-hop collective of b-boys and b-girl singer, get everyone out of their chairs. The kids crowd around the stage as the beats start pumpin'. "We just lost one of our members to the police," screams their leader, U-32 senior Graham Goss -- two teens outside the church have just been busted with a bag of weed. "Just a bunch of kids, dash their hopes," rap the Poets with increased urgency, droppin' f-bombs left and right.

"Concrete Poets are the name of the team," chants the throng as a few nervous parents peer in from the hallway. It's just the fourth show for the 18- and 19-year-olds, who have only performed at the two churches. "It's just the only opportunity to do it," says Goss afterwards.

"It's still a little balkanized," says Hay about the teen scene. "A lot of people come just to see the Concrete Poets, but I'm thrilled to have an arena for them to be able to call their own. I just hope we keep the momentum up, because it's been great."

Hay is assisted by Laurie Lyon, who says she'd like to throw some visual artists into the mix. "We're trying to create a place for young people," she says, "and make it more appealing for the community."

Back at the Rhapsody -- a buffet-style, natural foods eatery down the street where you can serve yourself until 9 p.m. and drink organic chai for free -- the Thursday night open mike is in full swing. Fewer have showed tonight than usual, though. Electric guitarist and singer Ethan Ryea of Montpelier, a dashing dirty blonde in a navy-blue pea coat and scarf, is wailing away on Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan songs. Another electric guitarist, Jack Vendetto, comes in off the street with his red-and-white axe slung over his shoulder and a tiny amp in hand. Sporting a green tweed jacket with elbow patches, flare-bottom jeans, brown cowboy boots and a hat, the strapping lad looks like a cross between G. Love and John Hammond.

It's the last open mike for a while for this Pennsylvania-born New England Culinary Institute student -- he's heading off to an internship. "I guess I gotta say it's been a real good time," says Vendetto, dedicating his rendition of Neil Young's "Cowgirl in the Sand" to "all the artists who come every Thursday night and sing their hearts out."

Last up is harp player Geoffrey Hurley of Plainfield, a lively guy in a Mexican poncho who welcomes everyone to "the teeniest, tiniest capital city in the USA." "It's getting cold out there," he says before launching into his own "Cold Out There Blues," a soulful lament with funny, localized lyrics. Ryea and Vendetto join him for the finale, a rave-up version of "Kansas City." Ryea hams it up for the handful of stragglers in attendance.

"I don't take it too seriously," he says afterwards. "It's a chance to play music, and I like the fact that you can do whatever you want." Hurley, a seasoned street player who used to perform in Boston's Harvard Square, says he enjoys "the informal setting" and inclusive nature of the open mike. "We can express ourselves in our own way," Hurley asserts. "This is the heart of the community. This is a real community coffeehouse."

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