By Bob McMahon
By Allison Babka
By Kelsey McClure
By Carolina de Busto
By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Steve Brennan
By Joseph Hess
By Allsion Babka
Proposal: To observe open mics and document the mores, habits, and music of this unique cultural formation.
Method: Participatory observation, or "Don't criticize what you can't understand: Whoever walks a mile full of false sympathy walks to the funeral of the whole human race."
Working hypothesis: Open mics offer the most effective means of social control since the demise of public hanging or (at least) since the advent of satellite TV.
Obie's, Sept. 11: On the evening of the Tuesday of the end of innocence, Soulard is pretty much empty. The TV above the bar flashes images: sobbing faces, sober generals, tangled metal. Death counts tick across the bottom of the screen. Kim Voorman begins the night with "All Along the Watchtower." Her voice, desiccated with gravity and emotion, mixes hate with love, anger with confusion, much as Janis, Siouxsie and Grace, in equally volatile times, had done.
Along with Ranger Dave Montgomery and Bryan Hoskins, Voorman has the best voice of any open-mic host in town, and no matter what she sings -- even the zany "Show Us Your Tits" -- she never showboats, never pretends she's doing more (or less) than running a fair and friendly open mic. She draws warmth and attention from Obie's often unruly pot- and shot-plied audience. With a suitcase full of makeshift percussion, she turns most evenings into a free-for-all -- at least until, in a rather Talibanesque move, the owners banned dancing on the bar.
Tonight no one would have danced anyway. The performer sits with his notebook and bourbon and watches a well-grassed, soon-to-be hand-fastened pagan picker named Joe cradle his mandolin and gesture towards the whirlwind of ash and fire spinning on the television. "Don't let this make you a killer!" he calls out. "If you were a pacifist before this happened, you're still a pacifist today." The performer has been attending open mics for more than a year; he can't remember anything quite so brave.
Venice Café, Sept. 24. Being a mirror of life, the open mic depends on fortune. You may arrive early and sign up for a choice spot, only to find that 10 others have called ahead and slotted themselves and their friends. If you get that choice No. 4 on the list, it's just as likely the joint will be dead. Venice host Ranger Dave is a pro: He announces the performers and makes each feel welcome, and if he likes your songs enough, he'll sit in and pick along. He invariably opens with "Why I Don't Know," then on through the Lyle Lovett songbook. It matters not how many times you've heard him do "Family Reserve"; his tenor is unflagging and his bluegrass-honed licks flash and chime. "Drink up, Shriners," he offers after the song. "It's a party."
The Duck Tape Duo have brought their own folding chairs; they sit, deciding to dispense with amplification altogether, much as they've done in their parents' game rooms since they were kids. Barefoot Mike whaps at a tenor guitar (four strings, strung wrong), and Steve thumps along: They rock pretty hard. "Wish I didn't wear another man's shirt," Steve sings. "Please stay and help me stare down at the floor." Inscrutable yet unclear. Their legs keep the beat like pogo sticks: They sound like an old-time 78 going at 7,800 rpm, or maybe if the Everlys cut a Guns N' Roses tribute album -- in other words, it's better than it sounds.
A woman named Wanda is out on the town; she notices the performer scribbling in his notebook. She wants to see, can't make out the words, then demands the pen. Fingers and Butcher, an "entertainment duo" called Helliphino, are midway through a cover: Cypress Hill's "Insane in the Brain." Wanda writes: Adam Sandler on a bad day. Hurts my ears. Some people find it hilarious! Even sing along. "Insane in the Brain!!" But turn it off! There are talented people here in St. Louis, here in Soulard, here on Pestalozzi and Lemp, that are not drunk, who are waiting their turn, their chance to be heard, to be critiqued by strangers who may not know music technically but who know what they like -- who know what their ears find acceptable, find pleasing. That guy before them, Robert [Collins], I felt his music from the vagina and up. Others I felt from the mind down to the soul.
Kennealy's, Sept. 26. The best open mic in St. Louis is a matter of some controversy, and the performer, who has attended as many as anyone, knows no way to resolve the matter. Michael O'Brien and the Dimby Mafia seem concerned with elevating the Shanti's Tuesday-night event to such lofty heights, but perhaps such obsessions are equivalent to declaring the best crackhouse or best sanitarium.
The longest-running open mic is slightly less debatable: The Venice and Molly's are virtual ties. The best sound belongs to Cicero's or Off Broadway. More abstractly, however, the most inviting open mic is Wednesday night at Kennealy's. The stage is small and close to the floor, with thronelike chairs and a laid-back, living-room feel, with pink lights strung sparkling overhead. It's an even bet the audience will listen to more than just their friends play. Host Bryan Hoskins knows and cares enough to tweak the good PA, even if it's just the performer doing another number as slow as a Lava Lamp and nearly as on key.