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Published February 07 2012

Open mic nights valuable opportunity for area musicians (video inside)

FARGO – In the dimly-lit Perspectives Lounge at the Radisson last Wednesday, Mike Holtz made a few final sound checks in preparation for that evening’s Songwriter’s Night.

Holtz, active in the local music scene for more than a decade, has hosted the weekly event at the Radisson for the past two years. During that time, he’s seen plenty of musicians come through to play – the old, the young, the inexperienced who perform for fun or the veterans who’ve played professionally, just to name a few.

Count Roger Gress among the ranks of the experienced musicians. Gress was a drummer for the Deb Jenkins Band in town for many years, and now has been coming to Songwriter’s Night off and on for about a year, he says.

Gress, who was getting ready to perform along with some friends, says open mic nights, like the one at the Radisson, allow musicians the opportunity to learn from each other.

Through attending Songwriter’s Night, Gress and his friends say they’ve come to know the other musicians there and the music that they play.

That, says Holtz, is what’s so valuable about any open mic night, the opportunity to do a little musical networking.

“You meet other musicians, especially if you’re new to a city,” he says.

Songwriter’s Night, especially, provides even more of an opportunity for that to happen. Unlike traditional open mic nights, participants at the Radisson sing only their own original music, as opposed to doing cover songs by popular artists.

More open mic events could make that shift away from cover songs, musicians coming to the Radisson say, because songwriters appreciate having a dedicated crowd that’s legitimately interested in listening to something new and original.

And, more than that, Gress says, the fact that everyone is performing their own music rather than someone else’s helps to create an intimate atmosphere.

“It helps that in this group everyone is a songwriter,” he says. “It levels the field.”

Indeed, the crowd at Songwriter’s Night, gathered close to the performers and was quietly focused on the music. Mostly musicians, they talked to each other only in whispers and applauded after each song to offer encouragement. Some of them were just waiting for their turn to play, but they were all there for the music.

Yet, even when playing for such a like-minded crowd as at Songwriter’s Night, musicians say it’s not always that easy to play in front of complete strangers.

“My first night I went up, it was kind of scary,” Gress says. “I went home with my tail between my legs, and I waited a while before I came back.”

To hear Holtz tell it, that feeling should be pretty normal for a musician.

“If you don’t get nervous, you don’t care,” he says. “You should have that sense of nervousness and excitement before you go on.”

Gaining exposure and building confidence

The following night at Dempsey’s Public House, Tony Lee, wearing a black stocking capand a white long-sleeved shirt, was singing the blues with his friend Carter Hinrichs accompanying him on harmonica.

Unlike the Radisson’s Songwriter’s Night, the event at Dempsey’s feels more like a traditional open mic night. Patrons come and go often, some paying attention to the music, others talking with their friends. Some cheer after songs are done; others clap politely and continue about their business as if the musicians are just an extension of the bar.

Unlike the Radisson, people don’t seem to be here just for the music – a few tables closest to the performers are empty. Those that do sit close get into the songs, tapping their feet or applauding the loudest after performers get done.

Lee, a former Fargo Star finalist, writes and plays his own music, and hopes that performing at open mic nights like the one at Dempsey’s will give him and his sound exposure.

“I like to come here and show this bar what I can do,” he says.

And rather than playing here every week, Lee tries to space out his performances in the hopes that there will be different people in the crowd the next time he plays.

“You don’t want to play to the same crowd every time,” he says.

As a performer, Hinrichs says it can sometimes take a little effort to get out on the stage to play in front of a different crowd each time.

Although, the more a musician plays at a different bar or different open mic night, the easier it gets to stand up and sing in front of those strangers, Lee adds.

For Lee, at least, being able to build his confidence and gain exposure are two of his biggest reasons for going to open mic nights.

In Gress’s case, being able to network with fellow musicians both young and old is just as much of a motivation to go every week.

But perhaps more than anything else, musicians like Lee and Gress play at these kinds of events because music is a part of who they are, no matter what they do outside of it.

“If there was no place else in the world to play, we’d still write in our basement,” Gress says. “It’s a passion.”

Be heard

Looking to show off or share your musical talents? Here’s a list of open mic nights in the Fargo-Moorhead area:

Monday:

• Pickled Parrot; 9:30 p.m.

Tuesday:

• JT Cigarro; 8 p.m.

• Jitter’s Coffee Bar; 7 p.m.

• Sidestreet Grille and Pub (open mic night); 10 p.m.

Wednesday:

• The Radisson’s Perspectives Lounge; 7 p.m.

• Sidestreet Grille and Pub (open jam night); 9:30 p.m.

• Rhombus Guys Pizza; 9:30 p.m.

Thursday:

• Dempsey’s Public House; 10 p.m.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Sam Benshoof at (701) 241-5535