Monday night, I was lucky enough to be invited to guest judge Lizard Lounge’s famous Open Mic Challenge. Hosted by the entertaining and talented Tom Bianchi, the Open Mic Challenge attracts major talent – both local and national. Tom admits that he modeled the format of the open mic after Eddie’s Attic in Atlanta, GA, but something about the feel of the event is all Cambridge, MA.

I was warmly welcomed into the dark den under Lizard Lounge, and warned I was in for a long night. With twenty performers allotted two songs or ten minutes apiece, I could see it would be a lengthy show, but what I failed to realize was that my music criticism ability would be strongly put to the test. Sure, I had attended open mic events in the past. They were the sometimes painful shows in which new (possible) talent tested their wings, and true talent was glaringly easy to spot. Or so I thought.

Lizard Lounge is different.

First, Tom is a charismatic and charming host. He welcomes and compliments new and emerging talent, and heckles regular performers with snide, thinly-veiled compliments for the entertainment of all. His self-deprecating humor made the breaks between musicians something to look forward to, and his masterful sound mixing during performances optimized each note. “I love my job!” Tom quietly exclaimed several times through the night, and it was clear he was telling the truth. This was his 246th open mic at Lizard Lounge. He seems ready for at least that many more.

Some pretty amazing musicians have won the Lizard Lounge Open Mic Challenge in the past (hello, Low Anthem), and a bevy more have been shortlisted. The night I judged was certainly no exception. It was an open mic, and I was prepared to suffer through some hideous musicians. The first act, Crystal and Bob, blew me away. Bob’s songwriting is intricate and heartfelt, and Crystal’s performance of his lyrics was truly ethereal. Musician after musician, original song after original song, I was in awe. By the ninth performance I was silently praying that the next person up would absolutely suck. He didn’t. None of them did. By the twelfth performance I was already regretting my choice to act as judge, and by the fifteenth I was in excruciating anguish – I was both enjoying each performance massively, and inwardly crying over being able to choose only three of them.

The night drew near its end. Tom and I retired to the back of Lizard Lounge to discuss my choices. Some of the performers had left early, which, while I was sad not to have the chance to honor their talent, made my job a lot easier. Back inside, I nervously stood onstage and babbled on about everyone in that room being a talent in their own right, blah blah blah, and then I announced my shortlist: Dani Moz, an attractive blond piano player with a fiercely powerful, soulful voice, Caitlin Canty, a likeable folk singer and guitarist whose songs cut right to the listener’s heart, and Jared Salvatore, a talented musician with an indefinable star quality.

All three performed on more song. All three made me feel glad I was in attendance that night, and all three made me sorry I had to choose only one. As Tom quipped, “Amber would have flipped a coin, but those only have two sides.” After much deliberation (Tom must have hated me by the end of our time in the judge’s chamber/greenroom), I made my decision: Caitlin Canty would take home the door prize and bragging rights that night.

Check Caitlin out at Club Passim on September 1st opening for Peter Bradley Adams, and be sure to catch Jared Salvatore on September 2nd at Middle East Upstairs.

The Lizard Lounge’s Open Mic Challenge is worth checking out whether you’re a songwriter or just a music aficionado. It happens every Monday night – doors are at 7:30, and performances start at 8. Tom prefers that prospective talent signs up at one of the events, but if you’re traveling from outside of greater Boston, you may email him at [email protected]