Open Season

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

Frederick's Music Lounge, Oct. 4, 2001. Long-haired country rocker Johnny Fox is MIA. Red takes over, signs up the crowd and mounts the stage dressed in a wife-beater and beach slacks. Red's a regular, as ubiquitous at Obie's and Fred's as the performer himself, and though his Steve Earle covers pass muster, he dawdles, either preternaturally jovial or stoned as a bat, doing his hit-in-his-own-mind "(La, La, La) Sodomy," which provides ample evidence that the paranoia documented in Reefer Madness may, in fact, have scientific merit. Regardless, the performer isn't sure whether the deprivation of American penal institutions should be considered a yukety-yuk matter --at least not by anyone other than the chronically baked. The performer, however, is forgetting this is Noiseday Hootenanny, and taste -- as perhaps it should -- plays second fiddle to fiddle-faddle, craft to sweat, music to noise.

The earliest open mics in America can be traced back to two sources: the spontaneous testifying of early Protestant churches and the unscripted jamming of parlor get-togethers. The hootenannies of the folk revival made those gatherings more public and political, and they in turn evolved into beatnik poetry readings, which collapsed back into modern day sing-outs. Claude Lévi-Strauss might have traced it all back further, finding a root in the savage binaries of our ancestors, those gatherings around a totem or fire (the microphone), taking in hallucinogens (cherry bombs and Apple Pucker and PBR) and relaying the kind of stories (jokes, drippy love songs, ghetto-syncopated poems, brain-dead noodling) that hallucinogens alone inspire or make bearable. But such genuinely free zones for the savage storyteller in all of us have dwindled. We share our tales with friends or in chat rooms, but it's not the same. Talk shows are too structured or distasteful to be truly democratic, and street singers need permits. So it falls to this favorite whipping boy of critics to maintain that communally shared, unpredictable space of storytelling. You get what you pay for, however, and democracy isn't always a friend of the arts.

Cicero's, Oct. 7. Open mic at jam-band central has frightened the performer, but he's come, waiting his turn, drinking his wine, while fresh-faced Alex and Mike noodle, pretty as they please: Mike strums a cycle of five chords, and Alex tinkers along through no fewer than four time changes in the same jam, which raises an obvious problem for the noodler if not for the stickler for compositional coherence. Anna does "Dice Swinging," a personal favorite of hers about her friend's '82 Camry, "'cause I really like that car." Ani DiFranco isn't dead, but she's been reborn in the body of a 21-year-old dressed as if grunge were just taking off, beating the bejebus out of her guitar and singing about all the things disaffected middle-class Anglo virgins might sing about while joyriding in a Camry.

Obie's, Oct. 9. Chad and Brian's manager, an enthusiastic Peppermint Patty of a girl named Lauren, finds the performer, babbling and stoned, at his table, and wants to know something. "I can tell you're not a huge fan of Chad and Brian," she says, serious as a spore. "As their manager, I'd like to know why." The performer is convinced his own opinions mean as much as bathroom graffiti, but if she wants to know, she need look no further, he explains, than the words of Joe Cartoon's Frog in the Blender: "No balls."

Beatle Bob shows up once a month or so and joins the room in rapping on pickle buckets and tables. We are all small fish in the shot glass of the open mic, and though some would gladly leap over the rim to flop on the floor till death, most are content to keep circling and drifting, because there's not much else to do on a Tuesday and it beats sitting at home watching some liar on TV. Obie's resident tabby has the right idea: She scurries in, pawing a field mouse, and the performer rescues the creature, which had hidden in the crevice of the sole of some kid's Air Jordans. Songs, melodies, open-mic nights -- they're like that sometimes, field mice trembling in a shoe, waiting to be squished or saved.

Kennealy's, Oct. 10. Tonight Mike Flynn's falsetto, the definition of either ethereal or soft, sounds as if he's cooing a kitten out of tree; still, he's not so slick that he doesn't slide out of the chair -- at least not completely. "You're my validation," he repeats some 15 times, without irony. Kelly Fisher, in her cowgirl boots and chewing gum, follows with semiprofessional sunshine, or perhaps a dead-on imitation of a cheerleader auditioning for the lead in Annie Get Your Gun, which probably says more about the performer's short and sordid high-school liaisons than it does about this debutante strummer. Then Catfish (whose delay fetish makes overly long songs seem interminable), then Billy Foster (whose stand-up misogyny, the performer must admit, is often hysterical) and John Deer (who satirizes cover bands and seems to think he's written a better song than "Sweet Home Alabama"), and then Chad and Brian -- again. Perhaps the performer is merely jealous: blond borderline-legals are videotaping the folk-pop duo's set -- again. In full possession of, to quote Elvis Costello, the "Fuck Me I'm Sensitive" style of singer/songwritering, Chad and Brian mean no harm. But one can only take so much whining about girlfriends.

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