Follow by Email

Google+ Badge

Google+ Followers

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Open mics are great opportunities for songwriters

By Ted Slowik

I've written songs for 30 years, but for about 28 years I never thought to perform them as a soloist. I wrote some songs that bands performed, but could count on one hand the number of times over three decades that I performed originals on an acoustic guitar in front of an audience.

All that changed in late 2011. I realized if I was ever going to get any mileage out of any of my original compositions, I'd have to be the one playing them. I spent two to five hours every day for the better part of a year practicing my guitar playing and singing, and have been pleased with the progress. (I've played bass most my life.)

I'm no virtuoso, nor am I incredibly talented vocally. But I work hard, have good rhythm, can write lyrics well and can carry a tune--especially rockers--with the best of them. I enjoy performing covers as much as originals, and have a great time when audiences show appreciation.

Still, I haven't recorded anything professionally in a long time, and while I certainly have enough material (closing in on 100 songs) to choose from to fill an evening, so far the gig offers have been manageable. I like to keep up my performance chops between gigs by playing at open mics.

Open mics don't pay, not even free drinks. Depending on the venue and the number of performers signed up that evening, you might play from two to maybe six songs, or more sometimes. I like to arrive early and sign up ahead of time, to get an early slot, so I can get out at a reasonable hour and get my beauty sleep for the day job.

It's great hanging out, meeting and getting to know other musicians while waiting to play. Open mics are communities--typically most performers know each other, and if there's a new face the group or at least the majority of individuals are generally very welcoming. If you're an introverted songwriter you might have trouble adjusting to this at first, but it's really helpful if you're comfortable talking to and performing for strangers or new friends.

When I began solo performing I checked out a few open mic-type settings I'd heard about. One was a folk song circle at a coffee house. I was the youngest person there and didn't feel like the music was a good fit. Another was at a bar in Naperville. The people were friendly, the music was good, but it was nearly all covers, and too far of a drive from home to make it a regular thing.

Then in late 2011 I found Niall Freyne's Tribes Alehouse in Mokena, where John Condron hosts acoustic open mic every Wednesday. I'm a regular--nearly every week. It's about a 20-minute drive for me, the sound is good, the company is great and originals are encouraged though not required.

In addition to John, I've gotten to know a great many talented songwriters and performers through Tribes: Tom Maslowski and Becky Smentak, Pat Otto, John Green, Bill Ryan, Ryan Olsson, Greg Woods, Greg Toombs, Joel Ahrweiler, Charlie Champene, Chris and Allison Flood, Karl Maurer, Matt Biskie, Scott McNeil, Spetrus, Eddie Bartley, Nick Domberg, Tristan Charles, Patrick and more.

I think it's the premier acoustic showcase for songwriters and performers in the towns southwest of Chicago. The experience of playing there regularly has really helped my comfort level, performance and even writing.

A few times I've trekked to Abbey Pub's Green Room in Chicago, or FitzGerald's Sidebar in Berwyn. They have great open mics on Tuesdays, but they're a long ways from home and it's tough to do back-to-back weeknights out. There's also a great room in Willow Springs called the Ashbary, but it's a younger crowd that makes me feel more like a geezer than I already am. But they have great audiences who listen in silence while you're playing and go nuts with appreciation when you're done. The William Alexander Wine Bar in Lockport also welcomes acoustic solo players on Sunday nights, though it's a hybrid acoustic showcase/electric jam with bass, drums and keys.

Open mics are a great way to test out new material. For songwriters who can perform, open mics can help you gain experience, hone your craft and pick up valuable feedback from audiences.

There's also a good selection of electric blues/rock jams in the southwest 'burbs, but that's a post for another day.