A Major League Show

The “Lizard Lounge Open Mic Challenge” is only slightly different from “The Mothership” which it was named after- Atlanta’s ‘Eddie’s Attic Open Mic Contest’ – and in my mind it was important for me to differentiate. I’ve never been to Eddie’s for an open mic, so I don’t know what his show is like, but I knew right off the bat what I wanted Monday to be; a killer open mic, in a killer room, in a killer bar that did not become a drunken and apathetic song beat-down half way through the night.

From day one, this Monday Night Stage had to be a place where musicians would feel warmly welcomed to come work on their crafts, try out new songs, perfect older ones, and take their first steps in the sometimes terrifying realm of live performance, as well as come back to humble roots after their careers have taken off. The objective of the LLOM”C” “Challenge” is not to win the contest, the objective is to push an artist to the best of  his or her abilities.

That being said, if an artist is invested in the contest aspect of our show, the REAL challenge can often be making it to midnight on a Monday night ready to rock a third song. My challenge? Finding a volunteer judge, weekly, to accomplish such a task as well.

Backing up a pretty nice streak of judges, this week I double scored… literally. Two members of the 4 piece folk-rock group Pesky J. Nixon were our judges on this fine evening.

The beginning of our show was great, but for the sake of the contest it was obvious that some folks were not in it for the long haul. Artists early on, like Ellen DeGenova and Sonny Barbato, rarely stay for the whole night- which is fine. Ellen and Sonny have been huge supporters of our LLOMC since the very beginning, and even though I know they’re not staying for the midnight hour, I know they never disappoint either. Backed by Sonny Barbato, a multi-talented accordion player and pianist who’s musicianship and deep groove is undeniable, Ellen sings the songs that she has written and charted with the passion of a proud author. Her songs are often stories of wisdom and inspiration that could only be penned from the honesty of living, and the will of prevailing goodness. Musically, the arrangements are well put together, melodic and entertaining, which is why Sonny always seems like he loves digging into them, and spiritually, Ellen and Sonny are always moving.

The early part of the evening saw a young newcomer named Veronica Isabel, an up and coming artist from Cape Cod, who used a jazzy sound (with real jazz chords!), very smooth vocals, and a stage image that was a funky combination of 80’s and 90’s fashion that backed up her performance with a unique rock star presence. Veronica has real raw talent, and she was pushing her ‘debut’ record that was self produced on ‘Garage Band’- a telling sign that a good artist could very well be on their way to emerging into an amazing pro. I hope to see her again for sure!

Cathy Schumer was in attendance tonight, and even though she was not eligible for our door prize she put on an amazing two song set. (Rules state that if you have won a Monday Night Door Prize, you are no longer eligible until you perform in the Semi-Annual Main Event show which happens every Spring and Fall.) It never fails with Cathy. Sure, our room is a listening room, but there’s always a little bit of chatter going on. Cathy always brings our room to a pin-drop silence half way through her first song, and rides that level of focus right on to her very last chord. With a gentle finger picking style that is somehow a perfect combination of warmth, and soul, yet cutting enough so one can precisely hear every note played, Cathy entrances the listener with melody and song.  she performs with a confidence that enables you to trust her completely, and gives you no choice but to submit to the journey.

We had a great night.  Jake Bush and Ethan Baird of Pesky J. Nixon had their work cut out for them. Going back and forth with these gentlemen all night was a ton of fun! These guys are certainly a team, and they mentally connect to some degree. The few times I’ve had a two person judge panel the decision had always been tougher. I recall one situation in particular; to pick the final three, two judges had to pick one artist each and then flip a coin for the third… seriously! But not Jake and Ethan! Although their choices differed a bit, they compromised quickly, and their decision was made with out to much tribulation. The final three for 8/22/11 would be Rob Lytle, Sarah Fard and Paul Wilmet.

Rob Lytle is two for two as far as playing 3 songs on our open mic night. Straight out of the folk scene that nurtures the classic coffee house stages, Folk Alliance, NERFA, Falcon Ridge and so many other folk venues, associations and other places of opportunity, Rob’s sound is crisp, clean and perfected. Great finger picking guitar parts, and a real nice and articulate vocal style makes taking in his songs a piece of cake. He’s totally pro and simply a great dude. For what it’s worth, Rob showed up at 7:30 for a ‘chance’ to play. I got him on second to last. That’s a rock star.

Sarah Fard was seriously rewarded for her efforts on this evening. In her few previous LLOMC appearances, Sarah has been very content playing jazz standards (and playing them very well), but she never played her originals. That was not the case tonight. Tonight the chords penned were hers, and the lyrics were straight out of her journal and not a Fake Book (hey kids… if you don’t know, a Fake Book is a giant book of jazz standards that every session musician has in their arsenal somewhere). Sarah’s performance was spot on; sultry and smooth with an elegant sex-appeal that every film director has wished to capture when shooting a scene starring a female vocalist.   All of this was backed up by champion musicianship, and chordal movement on her semi-hollow body jazz guitar. Sarah somehow took all those standards, combined them, and instead of feeling cliche, she created something all her own.

Okay… Man crush time. I’ll tell ya right out, the performer I’m about to describe won our show… and, seriously – it had nothing to do with the following:

7:30 pm
Me: “Hey Paul! Good to see you again!”
Paul: “Yeah, The Burren was fun last night.”
Me: “So, you’re in town from Nashville playing drums for Kevin So, but you also do your own singer/songwriter thing, is that right?”
Paul: “Yeah… I’m a session drummer, but writing songs has always been something I like to do”
Me: “Oh, cool! Have you done anything touristy? Park Street? Freedom Trail? Harvard Square?”
Paul: “A little bit. Are the Sox in town? I’d like to take in a baseball game”
Me: “If they’re not in town you should do a Fenway Tour, they’re pretty cool”

(Then I proceed to geek out on baseball for about 5 minutes.)

Paul: “Cool. I never made it to Fenway when I pitched for Texas, that could be cool. I did do Harvard Square today and… (insert more talk here that I could not possibly focus on….)”
Me: ??????? Did you just say ‘pitched for Texas?!?!?!?!’

Paul: “Yeah, just a little bit.”


Paul, very humbly, went on to tell me he was a professional pitcher for many years, and in his last season spent some time in the Texas Ranger bull pen. I was smitten and star struck for the rest of the night, constantly jumping up and down with excitement, asking every stupid question I could think of.

Me: “Baddest hitter you ever got out?”
Paul: “Fred McGriff”
Me: “What’s it like to strike out a Major league batter?”
Paul: “Awesome”
Me: “Gotta keep you humble – longest homer ever dinged off of ya?”
Paul: “Cecil Fielder. They say it went 500 feet, but I didn’t even turn around to look.”
Me: “Did a manager ever tell you to stare someone down and bean’em with a fastball?”
Paul: “No one ever had to tell me” (my favorite response)
Me: “Bull Durham, great movie or piece of shit?”
Paul: “Great movie!”

Paul Wilmet:  official bad ass, and a dude who got to pitch in “The Show,” has a new accolade under his belt: LLOMC Winner #249.

He’ll tell you he’s a beginner singer/songwriter, but perhaps Wilmet’s years on the mound staring down major leaguers helped him to approach any situation with confidence. His tunes are certainly cool and his articulation and delivery of each lyric was spot on. With deep groove in the guitar parts and intelligent chord progressions, you’d never guess he was a beginner, and I suppose he’s not in many ways. Like a real deal pitcher going 9 full innings, Paul rolled into our show at 7:30, played around 10 pm, and proceeded to play one last song in our final three at 12 midnight. He went the distance and surely met the Lizard Lounge Open Mic “Challenge”.

Jake and Ethan really enjoyed Paul’s performance on this evening and handed him our humble door prize. They also asked him to sit in with Pesky J. Nixon on their gig two days later at TOAD, sister venue to Lizard Lounge. Ain’t it nice how it all works out?!

Thank you for making it through another 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!


Tom Bianchi
Baker Thomas Band
Host of The Burren Sunday Night Music Series
Host of The Lizard Lounge Open Mic Challenge