The open mic phenomenon is sweeping the nation, so it is not too big a surprise that it thrives in Gwinnett County. In fact, if you want, you can visit an open mic venue every weeknight (Sunday through Thursday) in Gwinnett. I know. I’ve tried it. But here’s a word to the wise: if you seen one, you have NOT see them all. Each has a unique personality.
What exactly is an open mic? Strictly speaking, it’s when a night club, coffee bar or restaurant, rather than booking an act, hires an emcee to perform a little, and then open the microphone to all who sign up. The more popular the event, the greater the competition between performers, the more varied the show and the harder for acts to get their names on the list. Every venue operator sets a cut off time, or some programs would be so crowded with performers they could never shut down.
For artists, playing around the open mic scene is a great way to stay in top performance shape, especially if they’re angling for a paid slot on Friday or Saturday night. It’s also a good method for testing new material, checking out the local music scene or selling CDs. Seasoned performers bring their recordings with them wherever they go, and always have something available for audiences to purchase.
For venue owners, open mic is a way to bring in crowds on traditionally slower nights, or after the holidays when people’s wallets are thinner. “I’m a musician,” says Bob Evola, the new owner of Dillon’s Restaurant in Lawrenceville, a cavernous, L-shaped sports bar at the southeast tip of Gwinnett County, just north of Snellville. “But I worked in corporate America for 30 years. Buying this club was a way for me to be around the music I love, and meet all sorts of people who share my interests, not just experienced musicians. Kids from Brookwood High School come in here with their parents. It’s a chance for them to perform, and the whole family has a great time together.”
For audiences, an open mic can mean an inexpensive night out, and a great show. Hey, if you don’t like the guy who’s singing now, a new one will be up in 20 minutes. But it’s hard for me to imagine most audiences won’t enjoy the sampling I heard over the course of just a few days: blues, rock, pop, R&B, country, acoustic and world music, all competently – sometimes brilliantly – performed.
At Dillon’s, emcee Slaus Brown-Paul opens the Wednesday show with an acoustic rock set, made up mostly of his own protest and environmentally-aware compositions, and punctuated with soft-spoken, waggish humor. Brown-Paul has a showman’s sense of varying the acoustic pieces, like a cover of Rolling Stones’s “Wild Horses” with rougher cuts such as his own composition, “Haste,” using the guitar as a pounding, percussive voice.
Next, the Blue Street Blues Band’s performs. Its five members – whose lead singer and rhythm guitar player Tim McDaniel sounds like Mick Jagger and Greg Allman combined – live in same neighborhood, and have been playing together since the seventies. Although they prefer the blues (the night I saw them they pounded out a superb rendition of B. B. King’s “The Thrill is Gone”), they are accustomed to covering crowd-pleasers, and tunes like Eric Clapton’s “After Midnight” dominate a five-song set.
At 37 Main, an upscale, trendy restaurant bar in Buford, the open mic has a country/R&B orientation. The emcee, April Cummings whose strong singing voice recalls Whitney Houston’s, or Janis Joplin’s, has a contingent of adoring fans in attendance who sing along with the songs. Between numbers, one shouts, “Last night I dreamed about you,” while others bellow requests. Cummings asks the audience, “Do I look like a juke box to you?”
“In my dream you did,” says the first man.
Cummings is followed at the mic by Nashville songwriter and accomplished guitarist Conley White, who introduces each of his numbers with a joke. “This is a bunch of songs about people getting maimed,” he begins. Then, “Here’s a song about accidental shooting.” He grins infectiously. “Hope you all enjoy it.”
The menu at 37 main features items that mirror Gwinnett County’s diverse cultures, including fried green tomatoes from the south, Cuban sandwiches from the Caribbean, and nachos made with red tortilla chips. Even European immigration is represented in the lobster ravioli. There’s also a long menu of designer martinis: the “dirty old man” made with blue sapphire gin, “Oscar the grouch” with Grey Goose vodka, and popular sweet martinis.
Wild Wing Café, Suwanee’s super-casual, family-friendly tavern with a menu featuring almost every kind of chicken offers an open mic show on Sunday nights. The wait staff sport available-for-purchase T-shirts with the slogan “BEER it’s not just for breakfast anymore” written on the back. Aaron Newman, the talented emcee, and keyboard artist Doctor V open the show with a medley of Bob Marley tunes including, “I Shot the Sherrif,” and “Jammin.’” Newman plays rhythm guitar and sings while V hams it up, joyously, bobbing his head like a rooster, and running his hands over the keyboards like a rockin’ Liberace. Soon, Newman and V are joined onstage with drummer Frank Tucker. Tucker doesn’t know the songs, and hasn’t played with these musicians before, but he quickly picks up the beat, and soon the three are jamming like they’ve been playing together for years.
The next musician to perform is Jonathan Carter, a big guy wearing a baseball cap who looks more like Home Depot employee than a musician, but he when he opens his mouth, the audience’s mouths fall open too, with pleasure and surprise. An accomplished guitar player with a deep, powerful voice reminiscent of Creed’s Scott Stapp, every note is absolute. Carter’s further innovation is to play only his own music — no covers.
Cedar Creek is an upscale bar with a stylish, grotto-like interior. The book-long menu features bar food as well as restaurant selections like prime rib and filet mignon. Emcee Scott Sadler plays electric mandolin with a five person band whose soulful, multilayered sound is the most professionally integrated I’ve heard in my mic-hopping travels. Bellain Marshall is playing the bongo drums tonight, the skins, but he is also proficient on keyboards. The rhythm guitar player and vocalist Timothy Road dedicates one song to his wife. Lead guitarist Matthew Twinty hails from Chattanooga, and lets us know he has never “seen this much concrete before.” He plays rapidly, demonstrating a true musical sense of inter-meshed melodies. The audience encourages him to continue playing solos although there is a list of performers waiting.
If you are thinking about checking out the open mic scene for yourself, here is what you need to know. First, some venues serve alcohol, others don’t. Every show has an emcee, so it can never fall completely flat. Sometimes the list is full within five minutes of posting, and at the end of an evening all the musicians may crowd onto the tiny stage for a final jam session, an especially fun conclusion for audiences and musicians alike.