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Stage Flight

Cindi Felde
Christopher Gardner

Local Vocals: Cindi Felde lets loose on the mic, backed by Mark Felde on guitar.

Bye-bye karaoke. The imperfections and adrenalin rush of open-mic performing has taken amateur hour to passionate new heights.

By Andrew X. Pham

A VOICE torches the night, quivering with the vulnerability of a new talent, passion aflame. Like a trout, I am reeled into the cafe. It's open-mic night at Mountain View's Cuppa Joe.

Wild applause reverberates off the walls. The mystery singer ducks her head--a bow of sorts--and flees out the door, white knuckles on the neck of her naked guitar. A scent of sandalwood swirls in her wake.

I scan the cafe. In one corner, professional musician Steven Pierson of San Jose clutches his guitar, murmuring the performer's prayer: "The best part of the song is the applause."

The house is jammed with a mixed crowd. Lying on the floor, leaning against the wall, resting under tables and cradled on laps are acoustic guitars, African drums, saxophones, keyboards, synthesizers, flutes, violins, banjos, cellos, electric guitars and reams of sheet music--enough to stock a music shop. Some performers come alone; others rouse a clan for support. A number of regular coffeehouse dwellers show up for the free entertainment.

Between herding nervous musical hopefuls to the mic and dispensing encouragement, open-mic host P.J. (who prefers to go by his initials alone) tries to puzzle out why people put themselves through it.

"There are a lot of administrators and technical people here--engineers, software engineers and managers," he says. "There's no room for real self-expression in their day-to-day work ... so they [amateur musicians] come here. I love the mix, the diversity."


Where to savour the thrill of the open mic performance in the south bay.

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PIERSON'S RENDITION of a Rodrigo concerto ends. Applause ruptures the air. All teeth, cheeks and squinty eyes, Steven pumps congratulating hands enthusiastically. He is the musician's musician, with his all-consuming passion for every type of music and instrument.

Next, Charlie Comstock of Cupertino picks away at his guitar, a virtuoso coaxing his lover to climax. The crowd--old-timers, new-timers and teenage garage-rock jammers--watches slack-jawed, covetous of the magic in those dancing fingers.

In walks Barnes Jurand (B.J.) of Mountain View, six feet of raw muscle in a taut baseball jersey and tight blue jeans, a guitar slung over one shoulder like a scimitar. An earful of master Charlie, and B.J. goes back out for another beer to fortify himself.

Here lies the study in contrast that epitomizes both the diversity and the unifying significance of the open-mic phenomenon. Charlie, white, married with children, R&D engineer with Synopsys, says: "I come here as often as my wife lets me ... that's about once a week."

B.J., a black, single bodybuilder who teaches at the Children's Center in Mountain View, says: "I dig open mic. I come whenever there's one--as often as I want."

Charlie plays the guitar like a master, but his vocals can't keep up. B.J. has a voice to envy, but his best bet with the guitar is to use it like a drum. Starkly different. Even so, they've got one thing in common: the promise of the open mic. The beckoning microphone binds this hodgepodge of eccentrics, classicists, mavericks, cool housewives and ordinary Joes, each willing to risk rejection in order to achieve connection.


Tribal Urges

ONE AND ALL, they gravitate to the irresistible invitation. From every part of the South Bay, they come for that ephemeral moment when, after months of practice and sweat, their own mettle is tested.

"Open mic is a form of communication," says psychologist Alex E. Klein. "People need to communicate. Everyone has a natural desire for self-expression. For some, the means of self-expression is music, poetry, dance or painting. One of my former patients who suffered from chronic depression is a brilliant poet. Open mic seemed to be one of the few things that helped her with her depressions."

But open mic is more than just a place for self-expression. As Klein points out, it is also a creative community, a place where people can feel like they belong and see aspects of their creative self reflected in others. Anthropologists have postulated that performance spaces--open mic included--serve some of the functions that tribal campfires and storytelling served for earlier cultures.

Klein says it has something to do with an "innate compulsion for self-expression in a public performance space." Some term this an atavistic urge; others call it vanity.

Those who brave the mic are endearing in their performing moment. With their desire to be heard and their need for approval--even adulation--bared for all to see, they are entirely vulnerable. Yet the most any performer really takes home is applause and secret fantasies of fame, delectable morsels to be savored fleetingly in solitude. For these intangibles, they are willing to endure their own hell: the stage fright, the nightmares about botched performances, the fear of rejection and all their personal phobias.

The worst, all performers agree, are the jitters: a sort of weevil everyone contracts right before going on. It makes them sweat, it makes their stomachs jump like bagged frogs. If you've been on the scene a while, you can catch the tell-tale signs: doodling, crossword puzzles, forced humor, nervous smoking (the cigarettes snubbed half through), fidgeting and, sometimes, beads of sweat trickling down foreheads, particularly those of newcomers. However they sublimate their fears, it is difficult not to feel and cheer for them.

Maybe this is why a Beatles song delivered at an open mic by a shaky singer who is even less of a guitarist sounds better than a CD. And so, often in the blur of guitar strings, on the arc of voices, it's not hard to find a nerdy musician or a homely singer compelling, perhaps even beautiful. In their finest moments, they touch the audience with their individuality. Sometimes it isn't so much their grace or their excellence as entertainers; it's their courage.

Always, the person that the audience thinks it sees approaching the mic is not the same person the audience sees leaving the stage. Here, performing is, in part, the unveiling of layers of anonymity.

Inside Out

A YOUNG MAN takes the stage. With sad eyes intent on a woman sitting by herself, he dedicates a number to her (evidently a recent ex-girlfriend by the lyrics of his ballad. "Forgive me. ... My mistake hurts you. ... Please come back." Tears well up in her eyes. When the song is over, she gives him a smile that may be promising and sweeps out of the cafe. The applause doesn't matter to him. Eyes on the door, he says, "I just need a place to play, man. And this is it."

Dave Hayes of Mountain View, guitar in one hand and a tattered binder in the other, shuffles up to the mic and changes the mood with his specialty: political satires and folksy humor. He belches out weird and absolutely politically incorrect ballads about honest Nixon and raunchy Reagan, and suggests that terrorists ought to be nuked. As he shakes hands and receives accolades after his act, he croons, "Compliments, that's what I like to hear." And he gets plenty.

A quartet called Catdogma takes the stage. They're one of those bizarre string ensembles that will turn heads--and keep them turned. Gary, lead guitarist and cool bohemian, calls Catdogma's sound "organic pop." Vivacious Brianna plays the cello, and mysterious Melorra plays violin and bass. Joan, lead violinist, performs most of the vocals.

Next, Joan of Catdogma goes solo. Guitar in hand, this language instructor and Mountain View resident edges around the tangle of amp wires. Doing little more than swaying before the mic, she whispers, howls and teases out her original lyrics, leaping from smoky seduction to anger to moody reflection. Captivated, the crowd tries to reconcile the sexy agile voice with the pretty-girl-next-door image.

When she lays down the last note, the room explodes with applause, a cowboy drops his crossword puzzle and starts whooping, a Latin man in a Hawaiian shirt claps ferociously, trying to drown out his neighbor. Then scores of people rush to congratulate her, some with phone numbers scrawled on napkins.

In the usual pell-mell after a favorite performance, a young male trio from San Jose State University--a violinist and two acoustic guitarists, all nearing 20, who call themselves Beggar's Cry--promptly rip into a repertoire of Christian songs. Later, the band leader confesses, "We pray for [divine] inspiration; then we write whatever song comes to us."

Forest-beige suit, matching Fedora, neon-pink tie, two-tone wingtip shoes and shades, T-Bone Walter of Willow Glen remakes himself in the spitting image of his idol, T-Bone Walker, a guitarist of the '30s and '40s who laid the groundwork for folks like B.B. King and Eric Clapton.

With 40 years of music behind him, including gigs with big names and playing in cover bands, T-Bone now shares his music at open mics. "It's the first time I picked up the guitar in 10 years," he tells me. "I like the open-mic scene in the valley. ... I don't feel like I need to get high before I go up [on stage] and play. I just come here and have fun."

Karen Stern, a Los Gatos poet and songwriter who describes herself as "a nonsmoking, vegetarian, holistical female," tickles the crowd with her satirical thrusts. Delivering salvos of biting, clipping indirect social commentary, she pokes fun at her big feet, her thriftiness, her dating fiascoes and her theory on pantyhose.

If there is a "golden kid" of the South Bay open-mic scene, it is Emmah T. Smith of Scotts Valley, a guitarist and singer of dusty, simmering blues. Within only two years of picking up the guitar, she is in front of the mic, wooing the crowd with jazz and blues. After a long career as an environmental chemist, she has decided she wants to be a chef and a musician. Now she is both.

"Like everybody," Emmah says, "I took piano lessons as a kid," but music took a back seat to school, adulthood and work. It stayed there until she bought some tapes as a Christmas gift to herself. The tapes stirred something in her that she felt should be a part of her life again.

Not everyone is a pro like T-Bone or a natural like Emmah. Dave Metzgar plays at open mics because "it is a good way to make yourself memorize songs." Former corporate administrator and now professional entertainer Lisa Ratto, a crystal-quality soprano, says, "open mic gives support to all performers."

Friendly cowboy, cookbook collector and semiconductor man Christopher Stanton of Sunnyvale admits what open mic means to him: "The first time I played at an open mic, someone was kind enough to give me a tape of my performance. I listened to it and went AAAHH! That night, I went home and threw away 90 percent of my material. I started writing new stuff, working on new songs, playing as many open mics as I could."

Open-mic veteran Dave Metzgar agrees: "It isn't about learning music, it's about playing music to an audience."


David Perasso, long-time advocate and volunteer open-mic host at Intermission Cafe in Willow Glen, says, "It's where people come to play and to practice. ... Unless you have a place to perform and get some applause or encouragement from somebody, you're gonna give up. And so the open mic is that outlet, and without it people would never get good enough to go out and perform."

It is a very important outlet for Barnes Jurand. With a bachelor's degree in music from San Francisco State University, a few stints with symphonies, and gigs with bands down in L.A., B.J. is out doing some outlandish stuff. "Brand-new, leading-edge, personal style," he calls it, and he needs the open-mic venues to test it out.

"See, I'm getting it together," he rumbles in a gravelly bass. "I'm working out at the gym, and I got my song and my voice. When you go on stage, if you got a body, right away, you got stage presence. And if you got the rest of the stuff together, sooner or later, you'll get picked up."

If not by a record label, then perhaps by one of the women--as I have seen and overheard after his performances at several open mics--who titter at him: "Oh, I really like your stuff. That was great! Do you have any shows coming up ... blah ... blah ... blah."

Open-mic nights have it all: some self-expression, some confession, a bit of courting, a sense of bonding among strangers and plenty of fun.

The experience amounts to what might best be described as is a "communication space." That it flourishes in an ever-atomizing society is a symptom of how fragmented our culture has become, and how much we seek to reassemble the fragments at the most intimate of levels.

Open mics foster a sense of community that, while superficially similar, differs markedly from those espoused by TV talk shows, radio call-in programs and even Internet chat-rooms. Open mic is not one-way communication but an interactive experience without the false security of anonymity. So, maybe open-mic venues really have become the tribal campfires of the '90s.

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From the October 10-16, 1996 issue of Metro

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