Lessons learned from open mic nights

Just because you have the desire and ability to publicly express yourself, does that necessarily mean you should? What, if anything, do you owe an audience?

With these questions in mind I slipped off to a pair of weekly open mic gigs last week to report on behaviors exhibited by the Rogue Valley's creative types when they are given a microphone, a stage and 10 minutes of my time.

The good news: There is some interesting talent in our corner of the United States.

The bad news: Open mics often lead to poetry.

Thursday night found me at Jackson Creek Pizza Co. in downtown Medford. Their weekly open mic is hosted by one Frankie Hernandez, a.k.a the "Latino Stevie Wonder."

Hernandez is among the hardest working musicians in the valley. He's everywhere. Rarely a week goes by without seeing his face or the name of a band he's playing in plastered on a telephone pole or public board.

He keeps the show rolling at Jackson Creek Pizza and makes the best of a tight situation.

The stage sits near the front door and faces a long, thin bar/restaurant area. The place is jammed during the popular open mic, which turns simple errands such as hitting the bathroom or ordering a drink akin to scaling the Hillary Step near the summit of Mount Everest.

The event is thick with high schoolers — this situation is not as torturous as you'd think. It did my tired heart good to see the kiddies so excited about playing a guitar that isn't attached to an Xbox.

Andy Casad — Medford born and raised, by God — led off with an acoustic guitar set that set the bar high. Casad knows his way around a six string, mixing slap guitar with smooth, Cat Stevens-like chord progressions.

The kids then took the stage in the form of Rise Against, an earnest mixture of high schoolers. They ran acoustic with what looked to be an African Djembe drum.

For the most part the song choices throughout the evening drifted between soft reggae to instrumental folk. Among the highlights were an acoustic guitar/ukulele duo called Steel Monk and progressive funk provided by DeLonde Bell and Russ Rodriguez.

Anyone who might have read this column knows my love for metal is strong and unconquerable. So when Satan's Ballsack took the stage packing Gibson Flying V axes and Gwar T-shirts I giggled and did a demented leprechaun dance in anticipation.

The one thing I can say for Satan's Ballsack: They tried like heck. The singer was an adept headbanger and came close to achieving Dead of Mayhem's awful shriek, but the pair vibed hesitant. My advice to future metal acts: Treat the open mic like a garage show. Loosen up and rock out.

I had hoped the metal would carve the guts out of the reggae, post-funk atmosphere and leave it dying on the slab. Not to be. However, I look forward to tracking Satan's Ballsack's progress from open mic to Germany's Wacken Open Air metal festival. Keep working and hail Satan, kids.

Frankie Hernandez capped the night with his guitar and trumpet wizardy. Without question, Hernandez was the star of the evening, pulling most in the bar out of their seats and on their feet.

I bolted when the dancing started.

The only thing I hate more than dancing is poetry. Scratch that, bad poetry. And dear Odin, is there a lot of that going around. Like the flu. Or cholera.

Sunday night I slunk down to the Wild Goose in Ashland for its open mic extravaganza. Despite the unfortunate missteps into poetry, there are good times to be had at the Goose.

For one thing, the setup is a bit more user friendly, with the performance area staked in the back of the room a good distance from the bar.

Again, Hernandez was active in the night's ceremony, though he did not seem quite as hands-on at the Goose.

The musicians trended folk, with a few unexpected bright spots, one — I can't believe I'm saying this — political MC freestylist managed to win my friend and me over. Admittedly, we became a captive audience when the bartender told us to quit making fun of him midway through his first song.

And then came the poetry. For the record, I'm not against poetry, per se. I decry the current state of political verse, which finds it necessary to cast George W. Bush and/or Dick Cheney as the primary villains in narratives.

I get it. Oil is bad. War is terrible. The government lies. But let's think of a more creative way to express it that isn't so on the nose. The modern beatniks that have ravaged poetry are enough to inspire Allen Ginsberg to spring from his grave and embark on a brain-eating rampage.

The Goose's seedy atmosphere sets it apart from other open mics. The darkness that holds sway in that place allows the listener more focus on what's truly important when people find it in themselves to lay it out before judgemental rock-n-roll fascists like me.

The questions remain. Should you express yourself artistically just because you are given an opportunity? What is your debt to an audience?

Perhaps the meaning of open mics lies in the delivery of the music and not so much the message. Each time you play before a crowd, owe it to them, and yourself, to be better, tighter and smarter than the previous week.

We'll be watching.

Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 776-4471; or e-mail cconrad@mailtribune.com.

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