Note: Throughout this week, we will be posting photos, videos and accounts of some of the local open mic nights in and around Frederick. Today, we are sharing an introduction to the series along with a recent experience at Cafe Nola’s open mic. Why is Cafe Nola first? Because, creatively enough, Cafe Nola’s open mic nights typically run on Mondays and today is Monday. Tomorrow, we will profile The Cellar Door and The Frederick Coffee Company, who typically hold their open mic nights on Tuesdays. Get it? Got it? Good. Now, let’s dive in.
It was at the Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale, Mississippi. I was in town because I wanted to visit the Devil’s Crossroads, where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil for the ability to play the blues. The time was the dead of summer. Temperatures reached triple digits but felt as though they were actually closer to four numbers. You couldn’t take a step outside without feeling the drip of sweat creep from the last hair on your head to the bottom of your back.
Morgan Freeman owned the place, but I had no real interest in that. Instead, I was determined to eat the barbecue and listen to the blues. Turned out, I was in luck: Not only did these guys have amazing sauce, but I also happened to walk in as musicians from around town were gathering for an open mic night. The blues was born in the heart of the Mississippi Delta. The crossroads in Clarksdale are as iconic as it gets in the genre’s history. And now, serendipitously, I was about to spend an evening listening to the best of the best when it came to the town’s local talent.
His name was Razorblade. An old African-American man in a suit — a suit that looked like a prison sentence if worn in the weather from which he just came. A black derby was on his head. It hardly looked like he was tall enough to be a horse jockey, yet once he stepped foot on stage, there stood a stature so large that everyone around him shrunk six inches.
A showman to the core, the guy blew my mind.
So much so, actually, that it hardly felt like an open mic night. Yeah, other people got up and played here and there. And sure, if memory serves, his name was nowhere near the event listing as a host or performer or anything of the sort. But each time he would disappear from the stage, you couldn’t wait for the next schmuck to take his guitar and get out of the way. You knew Razorblade would be back eventually. And you wanted eventually to hurry up. I was convinced that I would never find a more invigorating open mic night for as long as I live. Almost seven years removed now, and that assumption wasn’t wrong.
Still, having moved to Maryland only a handful of years ago, I couldn’t help but notice the deluge of open mics in and around town. When I started compiling Frederick Playlist’s Weekend Playlist, a weekly feature that lists everything happening in the music scene for the next three days, I would skim the plethora of open mics that various places offered and wonder what they were like.
Was there a Razorblade lurking somewhere in Frederick’s shadows? How many talented musicians existed without the help of a proper band? And even more so, how many of them actually take the time to write their own songs? Is it a vibrant scene? Or is it just a smattering of pathetic gatherings that are oftentimes dominated by some squeaky microphone and a guy who can’t get enough of his own James Taylor covers?
Thus my plan: Pick a week. Look up as many open mics as I could find. And embark on a journey to embed myself in the local open mic community, all the while taking notes, snapping pictures, filming smartphone videos and embracing as much local talent as I could find. It takes guts to get in front of a roomful of strangers and offer up such a personal expression of artistic confession, all the while wondering how much your audience might be annoyed as they sip away on their beers or coffees, appearing uninterested and unimpressed.
So, hey. Got a guitar? Got a voice? Got some songs you feel like sharing to a loud bar for no good reason at 11:38 on a weeknight? You might want to consider a few of the following places as you psyche yourself up for an evening of wayward collaborations, (mostly) cheap booze and some guy who does a Charlie Chaplin dance while staring into an abyss of bar patrons with the face of a man who has no problem slitting your neck and drinking your blood.
Really. That dude was scary.
Anyway, let’s go.
Cafe Nola, 4 E. Patrick St., Frederick
When: 8 p.m. each Monday
Best moment: Some fabulous young lady covered Bill Withers’ “Use Me.” Did I ever tell you that by my highly scientific calculations, Bill Withers’ “Use Me” is the single greatest pop song ever written? Well, it is.
Synopsis: Want to run an open mic night? Local venues will throw you a couple hundred bucks to play ringmaster for a night. Goodbye, FNP. Hello, new career. Anyway, I learned this from Dave Bernet and Good Lee Buron, who run Nola’s open mic. Or, maybe I should say, ran. See, as they told it, the higher-ups at Cafe Nola were looking to save money, so they decided to have someone in-house eventually begin to run its open mic night. This night would be one of the pair’s final installments at Nola. Which is a shame, because while Bushwaller’s might have a ton of people come in and out the door through the night, Cafe Nola, by far, has the highest number of musicians sign up to play. The only problem was that by 11:30, they were playing to no more than seven people, most of whom were other artists still waiting to get up there. Still, the talent at Nola was truly unparalleled. A bunch of originals were mixed in with just as many neat cover choices (like “Use Me,” as I already referenced), and that Cafe Nola dim-room vibe is ideal for those who might be a little apprehensive while getting up in front of people. Two locals who aren’t apprehensive? Joe Jalette and Jon Phelps of two great local bands, Seaknuckle and Chainsaws. The duo performed as part of the latter, Phelps on drums and Jalette on guitar, and … holy moly did they melt everyone’s faces. Actually, not only did they melt faces, but they are also two of about, say, two people in the state of Maryland who try to provide entertaining and witty onstage banter between songs … and can actually provide entertaining and witty onstage banter between songs. Local bands, take note. Those dudes should be the honorary hosts of every open mic ever assembled anywhere in the universe. And that’s only a slight exaggeration.
Quote Of The Night: “Hey, we’re Heavy Lights,” Jalette subversively noted between songs. “You can find us on Tinder.” That joke works on approximately 3,496 levels.
Rated On A Scale Of Justin Bieber To Razorblade: Sleater-Kinney covering a Jay-Z song that samples something Jeff Tweedy wrote when he was 14 years old and can only be heard on the Deep Web.