The Joy of the Open Mic

My sister once vowed that any extra money she had in life was going to be spent on live music. She didn’t care what kind of music; it just had to be live. And while all live music has an energy and vitality that may be worth breaking the piggy bank for, there’s a special kind of magic reserved solely for the Open Mic. And the good news is that you don’t have to break the bank. The price of admission is usually a coffee, beer or sandwich.

Open Mic events happen year round, but they stand out a little bit more against the musical landscape when summer season playbills have hit the recycling bins. When Door County heaves a collective “we made it through another season” sigh of relief, it’s a good time to take in an Open Mic night with fellow survivors.

Open Mic events are typically casual affairs held at coffee shops, bars or restaurants, anywhere there’s enough room for a musician or two to have the “stage.” Each event has a host who makes sure the equipment works, welcomes the crowd, and introduces the first performer. From then on, no one knows exactly what to expect, and therein lies the charm.

Elliot Goettelman, a musician based in Sturgeon Bay, has hosted and participated in many an Open Mic night.

“It’s how I got my start. When I was growing up, the staple Open Mic night in Door County was Thursday at the Bayside Tavern in Fish Creek. It was hosted by a guy called the Groove King. I don’t know his real name, but he was a phenomenal blues player and the Open Mic nights were a lot of fun.” Goettelman recalls being nervous, but says he learned by watching others. “Open Mic nights are a chance to hone your performance in a pretty comfortable way.”

Jenny Highland, performer, recording engineer and owner of Red’s Pub and Grill in Algoma, agrees. Red’s hosts an Open Mic Night every Wednesday evening.

“We’ve had people check it out before bringing their instruments, but the atmosphere is so welcoming and nonthreatening that we see people come out of their shells pretty quickly.” Red’s draws musicians from Kewaunee County, Sturgeon Bay, Sheboygan, Manitowoc and Two Rivers. “We have a performer who used to be on the television show Hee Haw. She comes every week and gives the most energized show of the night, and she’s in her 80s!”

Steve Van Dreese owns the Frozen Spoon in Sturgeon Bay and hosts an Open Mic night for teenage musicians. Tom Hauser, a high school senior and guitar player, is one of the participants.

“It encourages you to move your boundaries as a musician. No one’s expecting a concert or a perfect performance; that’s not the point of it. Sometimes people show up who aren’t expecting to play, but it’s so comfortable that they get inspired. They might even borrow someone else’s equipment.” He notes that with smartphones, lyrics are readily available and a couple of musicians might throw a piece together on the spot. “You can go off in a corner and work on something for 20 minutes and give it a try. It moves you forward as a musician.”

Goettelman’s goal as an Open Mic host is to make the venue as comfortable as possible.

“Performing is intimidating. I walk musicians through everything from how to plug into the sound system to how to start thinking of themselves as entertainers. I’ve gotten a lot of help over the years and I want to pass that on.”

Goettelman acknowledges that Open Mic nights are often “thrown together” events, but says that there are a few tricks of the trade to improve the quality of the evening.

“If you add some lighting and pay a little more attention to the sound quality, you can really increase the ambiance for the performers and the audience.”

While most Open Mic events feature performers playing covers or songs written by others, one weekly venue focuses on and encourages original work. Every Thursday night, the Holiday Music Motel in Sturgeon Bay hosts Writers’ Night where performers play pieces they’ve created themselves and get feedback from other songwriters and performers.

Red’s Pub and Grill has hosted Open Mic nights for six to seven years and Highland notes that the musicians become family.

“Because of the friendships that have formed, many of the musicians who started out playing by themselves are often joined on stage by others. They feel that comfortable with each other.”

When asked if she has tips for performers, Highland says, “No matter what age or how busy you are in your everyday life, keep music in it! It’s never too late to learn an instrument or to take up any musical hobby. Open Mic is a fun and supportive way to get some practice.”

Check out our event calendar for Open Mic opportunities. If your business hosts an Open Mic night, add it to our event calendar by emailing [email protected].

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