Monday is open-mic night
Guess it’s been a little while since I played an open-mic night.
As far as local open mics go, the ol’ grandaddy of them has to be the Fox & Goose on Mondays. So last night, I figured I’d hop on the bicycle with the guitar and pedal over there for a little ritual self-abuse. I used to go semi-often when back when Billy Harper hosted the open mic there, but that was a long time ago, maybe a decade even, when Jackie Greene started coming in from Placerville and then Billy and Sal Valentino, who shows up there sometimes and occasionally sings, went all nuts about the kid.
If you’re reading this from out of town, the Fox & Goose is our local version of an English public house, set in an old high-ceilinged red-brick industrial space at 10th and R Streets in downtown Sacramento. I’m guessing R Street had a rail going down its midline at one time; it’s unimproved, or as one of my buddies once put it, a flatmaker for bicycle tires, a chunky thoroughfare with little traffic and lots of potholes and old rails, with some cool warehouse spaces that have been developed with rustic urban flair, along with some high-density housing that real-estate developers euphemistically refer to as “lofts.”
The Fox & Goose has been there for a while, since the mid-1970s when the preservation and redevelopment of so-called heritage buildings came into vogue, long before the condo hipsters arrived. We used to drive up from Stockton before I moved here in 1984, because it was the closest place that offered Guinness on tap, when that particular elixir of the gods was a luxury and not the commonplace quaffage it is today.
While the pub’s atmosphere is comfortably funky, it isn’t the greatest place in the world to watch music as an audience member; its many booths, and the tall dividers in the barroom where the open mic is held (often, on other nights the music is staged in the much larger restaurant room), mark the place as having the worst feng shui of any venue in town. And as it has fashioned itself after an English pub, the Fox & Goose’s musical offerings tended and still tend toward pub music — Celtic acts, folksingers, oaty pub-rock combos and post-hippie jam bands comprise most of the acts the venue books.
Since Dave Baldwin’s been hosting the open mic at the Fox & Goose, I haven’t been as going as much. Part of that is just that I haven’t been hitting open mics with nearly the frequency or fidelity I once did. Kevin Seconds, who was my favorite open-mic host, back when the Capitol Garage was located where The Park or whatever that Hummer-limo-crowd joint is called is located now, and also at Java City and Café Paris and then, later, at the late, great True Love Coffeehouse he and his wife Allyson owned, has been busy fashioning a career on as a road-warrior troubadour, and occasionally he appears at the Fox & Goose on a weekend night. I’ve liked the open mics Kevin has hosted, because the focus was more on writers from the pop-punk and punk-rock traditions, my milieu of choice, than from the whole folk-music thing.
There are — and have been — other open mics around town, like the old Drago’s and Café Montreal (both, like Café Paris, in the building on K Street where The Golden Bear is now located; not long after I moved to Sacramento, I lived, in ’85 or ’86, above the Serbian delicatessen that Drago’s parents owned in that same space, where I didn’t need an alarm clock because his mother Pava would be screaming at his father Peter every morning like clockwork at 6 a.m. sharp).
Old Ironsides, normally one of my favorite venues in town, offers another open-mic option, still going, on Wednesday nights. I have to confess that the last time I played it, a few weeks ago, it may have been the single worst open mic I’ve ever experienced. With an open mic, it’s really important that you at least preserve the integrity of the method used to slot musicians in the order that they play, and on this night, the host seemed to let participants pick the person who would follow them. And what I observed were people opening the slips of paper that musicians had written their names on, reading them and picking their friends. I really didn’t know anyone there, so I ended up sitting through a daisy chain of blues and folk acts playing covers; I finally went on close to midnight, with only a drunken ukulele player waiting to follow me; his shtick featured screaming like a Thunderbird-fortified wino as an essential component. Not going back there for a while.
On this night at the Fox & Goose, however, the lineup seemed like it had a lot less potential to swerve into freak-show territory. Not that I mind freak shows; I love weirdness and unpredictability, but when I’m forced to sit several hours through music by people who came in after I did, some of them showing up during the drawing process, my state of mind tends to err on the side of contempt prior to investigation. And opening on this night was Jack Donaldson, a folksinger who’s probably got a few years on me; he tends to be one of those guys who helps to keep the open mic from veering outside of acceptable aesthetic parameters. Not that he’s any kind of folk-music sergeant at arms, mind you, like Pete Seeger was at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, throwing a massive ing-bing when Bob Dylan went electric. Jack picked ninth, but no one had grabbed slot number one, so he took it. You’re always playing to a full house that way.
I’d picked slot 14, or Dave picked it; the method at the Fox & Goose is to get a ticket from Dave and then, when he calls your number, you go forward and sign up for a three-song — or 15-minute, if your thing is writing songs that are double-album-length paeans to Yggdrasil — slot. I was one of the last ones picked, which can be a problem if your mental tendency is to venture into Pluto’s underworld when you feel like you’re gettng robbed; there’s nothing worse than shlepping your guitar and stuff down to an open mic, getting there well before the drawing starts, and then losing out to people who slipped in right under the wire, some of them appearing to be much less serious about playing than you think you are, and then leaving with your tail between your legs without getting to play. That is, as they say in France, fucked up.
So I was relieved to get my slot, and I was able to lose the creeping sourpuss attitude and enjoy what the evening had to offer. Most of the players were pretty competent, ranging from one American Idol-style bard of melisma to the more commonplace folkster or Bob Mould-influenced acoustipunk. Occasionally there were performers like Ashleigh, a blonde woman who was backed by open-mic mainstay Ken Burnett — a man always ready to offer the chivalry of his musical expertise to come to the aid an aspiring female performer — on guitar, and a mandolinist I didn’t know. If I hadn’t been able to trade my crinkly attitude in for one of open- and dewy-eyed wonder, her versions of the Beatles’ “Rocky Raccoon,” George and Ira Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess classic “Summertime” and the Patsy Cline-identified but Willie Nelson-penned “Crazy,” might have sent me reeling to belly up to the bar for several straight shots. In old-school parlance, it was clam chowder.
Now, theoretically, comedians and musicians should be able to coexist, as should poets and musicians, or comedians and poets, or clowns and mimes. In practice, there’s some kind of qualitative difference that makes that somewhat difficult if not impossible. I’m sure that the comedy act that “Homeless Mike,” as he called himself, offered in an open-mic slot made perfect sense at the fraternity house where, one would make an educated guess, he calls home. And if right-wing radio wasn’t on the decline, he might be able to catch the tailwind of fellow unfunny white guys Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. Yeah, making fun of people less fortunate than yourself is really cutting-edge comedy, pal. Indeed, if I’d been drinking, I’da heckled him to get his trust-fund ass the fuck off the stage and back to the frat house. And considering the trajectory of his comedy death onstage at the Fox & Goose, a death that culminated in him describing the act of jacking off in the kitchen to an illustration of Aunt Jemima and blowing his load onto a buttermilk pancake, perhaps I should have heckled anyway.
Here’s the deal, comedians. You can come to musical open mics, but don’t get all butthurt when we begin returning the favor and start showing up at your comedy club open mics, where we bore you to apoplexy with our tuneless and depressing versions of, oh, Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” or Townes Van Zandt’s “Marie,” or the old English ballad “John Barleycorn.” The songbook of suicide-inducing folk music is deep and wide. And so, you could consider this a warning and you would not be mistaken.
After several more players, some of which were quite good (sorry if I can’t remember names, like Kristi and Carl and the Celtic a cappella ladies), I got my shot. For the record, I did “Letters and Numbers,” and then a love song I’d written to last year’s beloved, titled “Every Time I Think of You” (which I’m still waiting for a promised chance to sing with Ricky Berger), and then a new finger-style country blues titled “Johnny Cash in Heaven.” It felt really nice to sing among friends, although Sal Valentino, who was hanging out for a while, took off before I hit the stage.
Maybe next time, eh Sal? I’ve got some new songs I’d like you to hear. Waltzes, even. —Jackson Griffith