It’s been one of those dog-days of August filled with random spurts of torrential rain and sunshine, but always accompanied by heat and humidity. I left for the gig without an umbrella was happy to get mostly sunshine for my 20 minute walk. The cool air-conditioning of the Lizard Lounge was as welcome on this night as the familiar deep dark red lighting in this basement club that I’ve grown accustomed to after more than four years of working here on Mondays. Time to set up the stage for the 247th LLOMC.
The Lizard Lounge sound system is one of the best in town, created step by step by engineers like Tom Dube, Dan Cardinal, Matt Malikowski and currently maintained by Joe Stewart. These guys are the best engineers out there, all with their own professional recording studio these days, and/or doing live sound for the biggest names in music. They’ve all had their hand in figuring out how to make the Lizard Lounge low ceilings and awkwardly shaped turns and cubbies sound amazing. Big and small speakers surround the parameters and even the musician’s monitors provide sound for the audience as they are pointed partially at the stage and partially into the crowd. With its speaker-specific equalizers and a “drive rack” which enables me to pre-set my settings for our Open Mic show, setting up this room for sound has become less of a science for me and more of habit. Thanks to these engineers, this room sounds great… and it’s easy.
Okay. Microphones on, mic stands and instrument cables in place…. piano ready to go… The stage is set and it’s 7:30 pm, time to open the doors. A steady line of patrons starts to filter into the lounge being greeted by a solid hello and wrist-banded one by one. Green for patrons and orange bands for musicians that are also labeled appropriately so. Many a performer when getting on our stage for the first time will say, “How great is it to have a wristband that says, “Musician” on it in bold print!” This orange wristband is the first right-of-passage at the LLOMC.
The bar starts to pour beer and serve food, the regulars catch up with each other and the newcomers, a bit wide-eyed begin to find comfortable real estate to call home for a while and it’s time to actually start the show. For more than 20 years I’ve managed to scrape out a living in the music community, mostly with instrument in hand, but not on these nights. On Monday nights the ol’ faithful 1966 Fender Jazz bass takes a night off. My gear for this show includes an Open Mic sign up book and the microphone. I’m the host. My job is very simple; do my best to make everyone feel at home and keep the show running.
8 pm hits and I share the run down of the evening, introducing our staff including Keith Foley our bartender (who also goes by Axel Foley in the DJ scene around town) and a quick breeze through some of the “rules” of the night.
Rules! Ugh! Yup.. rules. Sure it’s an open mic… but it’s more than an open mic. It’s an “Open Mic Challenge”, which is a fancy way of saying “contest”. A contest has to have some rules.
If you want to be in the contest we need two original songs and and/or a 10 minute and under performance. No pedals, no backing tracks… nothin’ but live. Those are the basics. That being said, we do often have artists such as story tellers and cover artist from time to time who are not invested in the contest aspect of our show, but the majority of folks in the room are here to share songs that they have penned.
An artist and regular face in our crowd named Dave Konyha kicks us off properly with two songs highlighting expert musicianship and a newcomer to our night named Ruby Ross follows up with a heart-ache love song about love lost and travels, and then shows off her versatility a bit by putting down the guitar and playing a gentle piano ballad for song #2. Brand new to town, Ruby is great and she is one of those musicians I encourage to please keep coming back to our show.
Sam Bayer gets up next and of course is as clever as ever. Sam is an icon in our local music community and has been supporting Open Mic shows for longer than I’ve been in town. On this night we would chat it up a bit about the revival of “The Old Vienna Kauffehous” that is happening this Thursday at The Armory For The Arts. If you don’t think Open Mic’s are important, ask some of the artists that came up through the Old Vienna scene, like Dar Williams, Martin Sexton and Don White. They’ll set you straight.
Our show rolls on and our judge has his hands full. Tonight’s judge is Mr. Alex Wise, one of the few Cambridgian’s who was actually born and raise right here in Cambridge. Throughout the night he tells stories of seeing music icons like Tracy Chapman in their youngest days busking Harvard Square and sharing lessons learned about performing to the best of your ability no matter what the situation (most specifically siting a historic evening in which Ellis Paul played a NYC club to only 4 patrons. Two of them were the Cohen Brothers.) Alex has been around, put on hundreds and hundreds of Boston based shows through Songstreet Productions, Folk Tree and other organizations as well. He’s quite frankly way over-qualified for this gig and it’s an honor for us to have him on this night.
Zach Robinson from Manchester, NH steps up and just slays his two songs including a rock-rap jam that has all the energy a young performer can harness, Katey O’Callaghan is better than ever with her voice that is one part angelic and one part cutting edge grunge rock, similar to the way Blondie could aggressively woo a crowd. Sarah Donnor, traveling from Princetown, NJ played Baritone Uke and Guitar. She’s been a winner here before and is always a fan favorite.
Tony Lovell, Gus Agudelo, Rune Jensen, one by one the performers entertained our crowd as our guest judge visibly became more and more distraught about picking just three. Finally, 12 string guitarist/instrumentalist Matt Pezone hit the stage and left no stone unturned with his bright, brilliant efficiency and complete control of his instrument. The list was through. Midnight. It’s now the Tuesday morning Open Mic Challenge.
Yes… part of the Open Mic “Challenge” is making it to the wee hours to see who will with the door prize. Alex Wise came back to the green room during the judge’s break with a final “8”. Sorry Alex, you can only pick three.
The drum roll…. Alex says his thank you’s, shares one last story with the crowd and announces his picks. Kristen Ford, Shawn Taylor and Laura Grill.
Kristen Ford comes out blazing. This local singer/songwriter rolled in to the LLOMC for the first time about 2 years ago with foot and a half long dreadlocks, standing on the chairs and singing from the heart. She still has the same energy, but it’s more dialed in than ever. Kristen just came in from a photo shoot, so she’s got a rock star quality show going on tonight sporting a businessman’s white button down and tie, but with sleeves rolled up, two buttons undone as if to say, “yeah, this is my work uniform. And my job is melting faces!” Her voice is filled with confidence, yet a kind of emotional desperation that takes the listener anywhere she’s like them do go.
Laura Grill is up next and she hits us with a perfect contrast to the first performance. Laura’s jazzy sweet sound and obvious knowledge of chords and arrangement are perfectly clear as she sings though compositions that only a schooled musician could write, or at least understand what they have written. Ever so gently with one word at a time Laura brings the room to a silent stand still and the crowd and the judge are captured by the beauty of the soundscape Laura creates. Wow.
It’s Shawn’s turn and he steps up and does what he does. Shawn is a singer/songwriter/folk/blues guitarist. Plain and simple, that is to say it’s easy to categorize what he does. Years ago artists may have struggled to be unique and different, inspiring the category of “alternative”, but these days that category is more of a curse, lumping an artist in with a billion others that sound like more and more generic in their quest for originality. Instead, Shawn dives directly into folk/blues with heart and soul, telling stories of real people with real hardships, all backed by a finger-picking style that can be crass, gentle, fast or simple, what ever the moment calls for, and led all the time confidently with his gruff and raspy blues voice. He’s found originality within his genre. A tough thing to do.
Shawn did not go home with our door prize, but his presence at this show further backs up Alex Wise’s lessons shared. Shawn went home with a killer booking, an opening for Boston legend and hero, Kevin So.
Alex took a break from the final three and we had one last beer. The choice of the beer (from a selection of 30 taps) was plenty easier than the choice of the artist for the evening. When all was said and done it was Laura Grill who went home with our humble door prize and our 247th LLOMC came to a close.
Thank you for making it through my first LLOMC review at www.thebackstagebeat.com Please do come down and take in a show anytime. Every Monday night at The Lizard Lounge. 1667 Mass Ave. Cambridge, MA. Doors @ 7:30, show @ 8pm. Final three at midnight. See ya!
Lizard Lounge Open Mic Challenge