Open Season

A performer's diary charts the brilliant, the bawdy, the baked and the banal among St. Louis open mics

Tonight he follows Celia, who, when her schedule of inoculating St. Louis against meaningful songwriting permits, may drop in at the Noiseday Hoot or Kennealy's. To her credit, the weapons-grade perkiness of her songs is as genuine as it is jejune. If Shirley Temple had grown up listening to Dar Williams, her press kit might read, "Sonic Zoloft! Better than Cats!"

Why is the performer so bitter? A year spent attending open mics -- jotting and cobbling and trying to find sense -- does not excuse a poisoned heart. Celia is better than Cats, and it's precisely to that genre -- musical theater as serotonin-reuptake inhibitor -- that she belongs.

The performer has had a few beers, but he's certain he would shell out to see Celia play Sally in You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown. As a local singer/songwriter, however, her talent has yet to catch up to her status as celebrity and mascot. And no, the performer hasn't answered the question he posed at the start of this paragraph.

Frederick's Music Lounge, Sept. 27. The Noiseday Hootenanny hasn't rested on its laurels as the RFT's pick for best open mic a couple of years ago. It's not, or not always, but the communal aspect, the sense of play, is always in play. Of course, that means braving Mrs. C's tuneless "Imagination," or a syllable-chomping original called "Taliban People" ("Are you from outer space?" she asks of the Afghans), or her big hit, "Poop in Peace"; enduring some anonymous strummer singing a patriotic love song to the Statue of Liberty ("Dry your tears and hunt them down in the holes where they live!"); or indulging Dave Simon, who, had he a straw hat and candy-striped pants, could make an honest living performing show tunes on a casino cruise. In song, he advises all not to worry about "little earthquakes" -- tell it to Armenia -- or sings nebulous, hormoneless songs about a girl who wants to live in China, though she (and he) can't find their way out of lily-white pop suburbia. To be fair, the performer thinks -- but why start now? -- "Goodbye California" suggests that Simon may yet write his way out of the flimsy paper sack of his songs.

Barre-chord solos, though, must be stopped. They must be. Doing so, however, would reduce Robert Collins' songs to 45 seconds, which, the performer reflects, might not be a bad thing. All of 25 years old, Robert introduces one number as something he wrote "a long time ago." He's so of his generation, with a Rufus Wainwright T-shirt and dogtags and baggy multipocketed pants, that he's charming -- which is, after all, why anyone attends an open mic: not for the music but to be charmed and appalled by the spectacle of humanity.

Stagger Inn ... Again, Sept. 30. Butch, the Sunday host, is joined by a bongo player and Mike, the Wednesday-night host: Onstage, the trio looks like a reunion for Arlo Guthrie's Group W bench ("Group W's where they put you if you may not be moral enough to join the Army after committing your special crime"), and if they make the unfortunate choice of "For What It's Worth," everyone's favorite innocuous protest anthem, they follow with Tom Petty's "Yer So Bad," letter-perfect until brainfreeze. After a wrong version of "Folsom Prison Blues," Mike pulls out a right rendering of Steve Earle's "Fort Worth Blues." The Stagger's open mics, featuring free popcorn, $1.50 pints of Stag, fleet bartenders (if you perform, Charmane might get you a drink on the house) and good sound afford little danger of hearing the same hopefuls (the Chads, the Brians, the Reds, the Catfish, the Roys) who play the same five or six songs every night in Soulard as if punching the clock. You'll hear collegiate posses testing their latest Guitar Center gear -- "I don't know any Collective Soul," a singer replies to a request; "Most people know multiple Collective Soul songs," someone shoots back -- and suburban kids jamming the blues, but the effortless camaraderie of the Stagger makes it all go down easier.

Venice Café, Oct. 1. Guitar Joe, whose guitar is literally disintegrating in front of him, fends off a request for "Pissing on the President," then plays a song about Sept. 11: "The buildings started falling and tears fell from the sky." A drunk woman, in baby T, cut-offs and make-up by tar and nicotine, hoots in the back and waves a longneck in the air. Guitar Joe dedicates "Hoosier Girl" to her, and when the hoosier girl herself bumps and grinds in front of him as he eviscerates her life's story, the audience breaks into the kind of howling laughter they perhaps haven't shared since the 11th.

Shanti, Oct. 2. "War on Terrorism" commemorative T-shirts hang at the back of the bar (only $10), as if to greet the performer on his first visit to the relatively new open mic. Host Michael O'Brien, evincing encyclopedic familiarity with poetry slams from the 48 continental states, enunciates and barks as if to convince the audience that his poems rise above platitudes. Matt Ahern borrows the performer's guitar and moans out, "I won't hold back anybody's hair, I don't care, I don't care." Then, surely, the truest lines anybody will sing that evening or the next: "My guitar was my pleasure, and my songs were my earthly treasure, but all at once they turned to nothing. And I just realized I can't sing."

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