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Open Season

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

Why is the performer here? Why does he feel an inarticulate kinship with even those he can't abide? After so many nights in the lonesome bodies of acoustic cutaways, after so many songs no one, least of all the performer, will recall, after so much witnessing of insensate, ignored music and poetry -- for who is he to say what is and is not music and poetry -- criticism, objection, slander and praise mean far less than a voice and a guitar, endeavoring something -- what? some birth? -- to connect or to share, and yes, like the performer -- three-whiskey-oiled and, like the rest, alone -- flailing, struggling and redeemed by the poignantly pathetic fact of the attempt itself.

That is the gig. That's all. As he often does, Bryan Hoskins closes the night with "In the Pines," the ferocity channeled from Cobain's unplugged version but not alien to Leadbelly's -- takes him past his Buckley obsession into a state where he makes of his larynx a vehicle to slash, spit, burn and puke some truth through the din.

Shanti, Oct. 16. Michael O'Brien propagandizes for Dimby Productions (the titular sponsor of this gig, even though they haven't the capital for a microphone that sounds a bit better than shit): "Repeat after me. Dimby! [pause] Rocks!" At the bar, the burnouts, slate-haired drunks and sodden ex-hippies ignore him. "Come on! I want to hear you. Dimby! [Pause] Rocks! Dimby! [Pause] Rocks!" Clever. Set up a barely serviceable PA and use the performances of unpaid artists to promote the agenda of your own scene. If only the performer had thought of that -- he wouldn't be playing open mics at all!

Stagger Inn ... Again, Oct. 21. Driving home from Edwardsville, the performer sees a sign outside a church: "Does the truth witness for or against you?"

Molly's, Oct. 29. T-Bone, in fedora and Shaft shades, hosts the Monday-night sessions, laying down the tough guitar lines and slurry syllables of "The Twist" and "Mustang Sally." His band is crackerjack and misused. Exactly what sense is made by a parade of introverted white guys with acoustic guitars following a blues band? The bartender's only answer is to lift up her leg to show a tattoo and an arthritic condition. The crowd wears motorcycle chaps and scowls. A couple gets up and tackles "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out." The hoosiers in back erupt at the start of "Gold Dust Woman" -- "Yeah! Whoo! Stevie!" -- and then everybody, the performer included, sings along to "Me and Bobbie McGee." Together they put to the test the theory that nothing can ruin a good song. Should future generations wish to understand the soul of Soulard, they need look no further, grim as it may be, than this sing-along. The singer lights into Marc Cohn's "Walking in Memphis," as T-Bone yammers at the bar, but when she gets to the line "'Are you a Christian, child?' And I said, 'Ma'am, I am tonight,'" the human secrets of performance are made achingly apparent. The last sad note fades -- the singer may have been waiting all her life for that note -- and nobody much notices.

Venice Café, Oct. 29. Eric reads a chapter from his novel, barely audible, but the performer follows the protagonist -- a fat, drunk loser -- through an existential crisis that culminates in an encounter with a refrigerator and the following truth: "He found no beer." Erin and Jason, dressed to express in matching black leather coats and turtlenecks, follow Eric with poems. Erin, quiet and recondite, packs a pipe with African Queen tobacco, puffs like a philosopher uncle and then just reads -- without bellowing, berating or imitating some unearned hipster jive. Jason follows her, dodging and bouncing at the mic, reading an homage to the Monday-night drunks gathered in the junkyard cornucopia of the Venice, with bluesy syncopation and hallucinations of grace triggered by lust and liquor. Tonight he sounds like the best poet in Soulard.

Off Broadway, Oct. 30. Under the year-old ownership of Joe Telle and Connie Garcia, Off Broadway now hosts an "open jam" each Tuesday; the sign at the entrance reads "4 p.m.-12 a.m.," but things rarely get rolling till after 8. The joint is empty, but the host -- a solid, jazz-trained drummer -- keeps a stoned sense of humor. Some pickers sit in with Barb, who stabs at her keyboard through another Fleetwood Mac tune, then straps on an electric guitar for an autobiographical tale of a skank and her libido. She doesn't miss the melody so much as she curdles it. The performer ponders whether it's better to laugh or leave before she does "Landslide."

Obie's, Nov. 20. Helliphino, as they always do, end the night at 1 a.m. Finger's eyes are bugging out. Butcher lays back, like a samurai silently contemplating how he will kill, legs akimbo, never missing a string, never breaking rhythmic stride -- it's pretty, the performer thinks -- no matter that Fingers has begun freaking and gesticulating and foaming like an electrocution. The tune? "3 A.M." by Matchbox 20, a version that decimates and mocks and redeems every accursed truth the pretty-boy pop song never told -- at least until Fingers starts squealing on the floor like a stuck pig, and it's beautiful and frightening and unlike anything the performer has ever been subjected to before. Like Jerry Lee before them, Helliphino is dragging the audience to hell with them -- only this time, the crowd is laughing at the horrid pleasantness of the descent. They're shaking their butts, too.

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