An abundance of West Michigan open mics throughout the week offer performers a chance to ‘find their voice’ — from folk to hip hop to poetry — at dozens of venues which open their stages to fledgling as well as veteran performers. Get a glimpse into this thriving scene.
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It’s open-mic night at Tip Top Deluxe Bar & Grill in Grand Rapids.
Most evenings, host Sam Kenny steps to the microphone and welcomes patrons before delving into a lively acoustic tune, but not tonight.
Rather, an empty stage gives way to a recorded track that floats out into the crowded room from overhead speakers. The song is “Waiting,” a track by Mild Bill, a local musician and frequent open mic-er who recently passed away. This will be his last performance.
After the first few measures, Kenny takes to the stage, violin in hand, and accompanies the track while vocalist, Emma Loo, sings harmony along with Mild Bill’s immortalized voice. Someone from the back of the bar, glass held to the sky, yells “We’ll miss you Mild Bill!”
As the audience gathers near the stage, standing in silence while the song comes to a close, the emotion in the room is moving, and a tight-knit community between open mic troubadours and listeners is evident.
“I think the open-mic scene in Grand Rapids has become unique because of a snowballing, collective effort,” said Kenny, who in addition to the Tip Top, hosts three other open mics each week. “Some folks realized it was a fun and non-threatening way to work on performance and meet like-minded folks who might become fans.
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“I’ve been to open mics all across the country, and an open mic scene like this one is rare indeed.”
With nearly 30 open mics in Grand Rapids and surrounding areas, the options are endless for both eager first-time performers as well as professionals looking to polish a set. A vast number of artists take the opportunity to perform around the city: musicians, songwriters, poets, writers – some even playing up to seven nights a week, multiple times a night.
Songwriter Josiah Zittel seizes every opportunity he can to make the most of open mics in the area.
Most Mondays, he can be found performing his songs at Stella’s Drunken Retort, one of Grand Rapids’ most popular open mics. On Tuesday, until just recently breaking for summer, he hosted his own open mic at Eastown Sports Bar. Wednesday is a day off. Thursday is sometimes a double-header: Lantern Coffee Bar & Lounge and Mayan Buzz Cafe.
That leaves Fridays and Saturdays, when he busks on street corners downtown.
“Any days I don’t have something planned, I can just show up and play my music for people, and get more people aware of what I do, and also just be out there and aware of what others are doing,” Zittel said.
At Lantern, with his guitar strapped close to his chest and long, blonde hair falling gently over his shoulders, Zittel lets his first song filter softly into the room like a fog. His eyes are closed for most of his set, and a steadfast sincerity cuts through clear in his voice. Not a note is missed.
FROM ‘STRANGE, SELF-CONSCIOUS’ DEBUTS TO A COMFORTABLE STAGE PRESENCE
Now an experienced performer, Zittel recalls his first open-mic experience at Quinn & Tuite’s Irish Pub a few years ago.
“It was so strange. I’d been playing music and writing for a few years, but I had never really gone out and played publicly. I was very intimidated and self-conscious getting up in front of the microphone and playing my music. I remember that first time really opened up the doorway to continue playing open mics. Over time it became more natural.”
With a bevy of open mics, there’s no shortage of character (or characters) from venue to venue.
At Lantern Coffee Bar and Lounge downtown, the quaint, corner cafe offers individuals the chance to perform songs in front of an attentive audience of regulars from 8 to 10 p.m. on Thursdays, hosted by singer-songwriter Jonny Carroll. Simultaneously, a refreshing open mic takes place at 24-hour caffeine hot-spot, Mayan Buzz Cafe on Grandville Avenue.
A number of Grand Rapids bars and breweries also hold open mics: Elk Brewing, Rocky’s Bar & Grill, The Monarchs’ Club and many more, with new sessions opening up at Harmony Hall and elsewhere.
Venturing outside the city in almost any direction, a spattering of other open mics can be found at local establishments, including Cedar Springs Brewery, Rockford Brewing Company and White Flame Brewery in Hudsonville.
SPOTS FILL UP FAST AT FOUNDERS AND FOR STELLA’S ‘DRUNKEN RETORT’
The granddaddy of open mics – or one of them anyway – takes place Tuesday night at Founders Brewing Co.
Starting off the week with a bang, Founders opens up the floor on their revered stage for any and all performers at 9 p.m.
But spots fill quickly, so showing up early is recommended. A plethora of performers, including singer-songwriters, metal guitarists and even well-known local bands all sign up for a chance to grace what is probably the biggest stage in the open-mic network.
Down the road, the Drunken Retort at Stella’s is an open mic like no other, and the concept has grown, and also features satellite versions in Detroit and Kalamazoo.
Staged in the restaurant’s speakeasy-like backroom, an ornate bar and dim lighting adorn the intimate space. Stepping through the corridor from the noisy main bar, a standing-room-only crowd is packed tightly into every nook and corner of the room on a Monday night.
Hosts Fable the Poet, G. Foster II and Rachel Gleason welcome everyone by giving a rundown of how things work at the Drunken Retort, listing off the rules in place for the evening. Attendees are encouraged to get loud and make noise when they hear something they like. On the flip side, while performers – ranging from poets to acoustic guitarists – are at the mic, there is no talking allowed.
Violators are asked to stop talking (not necessarily in that phrasing), before then being asked to leave. Audience members also are able to vote off any performer they do not like in Gong Show fashion via small, toy noisemakers placed on each table.
LOUD, RAMBUNCTIOUS AND INSPIRING
The environment cultivates fertile ground for performances, allowing artists to pour out their hearts. Subject matter can be heavy. Tears are commonplace. But inspiration is inevitable.
“It’s very loud and rambunctious and people get to vote on what they like or don’t like,” said G. Foster II. “When you come here, you have to know your audience. The Drunken Retort is gonna be one of the hardest rooms to try to conquer.”
In a town abundant with excellent live music every night of the week, attending an open mic for some may seem like a step down. For the average music lover and concertgoer, what appeal does an open mic have over a concert? Why risk suffering through an inebriated singer-songwriter stumbling through a Jason Mraz cover when a few dollars can buy a ticket to see a touring act at one of the many distinguished venues in West Michigan?
But open mics offer something rare and unpredictable and charming. For many musicians, it’s an opportunity to perform in front of an unconditional crowd. For attendees, it’s a chance to witness a diverse range of performers cutting their teeth and finding their artistic identity.
With so many established musicians getting their start at open mics, the sessions offer up a peek into the future – a showcase for raw, burgeoning talent.
“Open mic is trying to find your own creation, your niche,” G. Foster II concludes, “and a lot of people come here and experiment and try it out, and they find their voice. And once you find your voice, anything can happen. The world is yours.”
PHOTO GALLERY: Open-Mic Nights
Photos by Ricky Olmos, Anna Sink, John Sinkevics