Open Mic Night
Even in September, one of the slowest the year for the service months of ththt e entertainment industry and entertrtrtaia here, opope open mic nights draw all cococ m comers: the young, old, hopeless, brave, brilliant open hopepele and am amusingly odd. All nights of them have at least one thing in thththing come t common: They to be heard.
A mus musician or songwriter writerer with without an audience is incomplete equation. And it’s an incomplp ete ononononlylyly satatatisisisfyfyfyinining totototo prarararactctctct only satisfying to practice by oneselffor so long before the experience becomes uncomfortably self-conscious, like looking into a mirror for too long. Open mic and open jam nights offer musicians a chance to look outward, whether they’re a fledgling songwriter whose experience is limited to strumming quietly in a bedroom or a seasoned sax player in between gigs.
Bars or coffee shops able to dedicate a regular, weekly evening to the occasion tend to develop their own musical community. You might find a place where acoustic offerings are the norm, for example, or somewhere else, an evening drenched in electric blues riffs. Some venues offer musicians the chance to jam with a house band, while others keep a sign-up list, allowing each act a few songs before moving on to the next. It’s a place to test new material in front of an audience and hone performance skills.
Here are some of the best places in Southwest Florida to listen and play.
Thursdays in the Park
Gilchrist Park begins to fill up with cars around 6 p.m. for Thursdays in the Park. Soon different groups of players, depending on their style of music, set up “circles” under shelters or on the grass.
On busy nights there can be up to nine circles going, said Michael Haymans, an attorney who created Thursdays in the Park about 20 years ago with his friends.
“I’m about the only one that still goes over there from the earliest days,” he added. “It’s grown into something bigger than what some people are comfortable with. It’s sort of like the river that flows. It’s always the river, but it’s always different water, a swirl and mix of people.”
Taken together, all the people who come to the park to play are known by regulars as “The Guitar Army.” The music usually lasts until about 11 p.m.
One group of musicians on Thursday, Sept. 17, set up under a shelter by the seawall and kept a sign-up list of players on a dry-erase board. There was a steel guitarist, an older man named “Bam- Bam” on drums, 82-year-old Carol Dunn on accordion, and others. The players attracted a large crowd, mostly middleaged to seniors, who sat at picnic tables under the shelter or in folding chairs out on the lawn. Many of the songs were classic country offerings from the era of Merle Haggard or Hank Williams Sr.
Travis Evett also took a turn. A strapping, 20-year-old country and blues musician, he was easily the youngest performer there. He plays in The Southern Fury Band and Signal 20, and sells welding supplies during the day. “Ah hell, I’ve been coming here (to Thursdays in the Park) since I was 10 years old,” he said. “I started playing when I was 9. Jim right here” — he pointed to a senior gentleman in a hat playing a country blues riff — “he taught me a lot on the guitar.”
A Port Charlotte man named Barry, who preferred not to give his last name, sat out on the grass in a lawn chair and listened to the music as the harbor turned soft, poignant colors at dusk. “It doesn’t get a whole lot better than this,” he said. “I mean, sometimes you can sit on the couch and just get burnt out with the TV, you know?”
Across the park in the main gazebo, another group with acoustic instruments formed an actual circle and took turns. “It’s one persons turn then the next then the next,” Mr. Haymans explained about the rules of play in the main gazebo. “Somebody may tell a story, read a poem, sing a cappella. There’s a hammered dulcimer there. There’s sort of a core group that passes the knowledge of how this works.”
Bruce Judson Eddy, a songwriter for more than four decades, stood in the darkness next to the stairs that lead up to the main gazebo, as other musicians tuned their guitars.
“You get different levels of players,” he said. “Sometimes things work, and sometimes you get people that should’ve stayed in their living rooms a little longer. But that’s the idea (of an open mic).”
>> GILCHRIST PARK,
400 W. RETTA ESPLANADE
Wednesday at The Indigo Room The River District, Fort Myers
David Welsh of Lehigh Acres came out to play at The Indigo’s open mic on Wednesday, Sept. 16. Musicians can sign up starting around 9 p.m. (ask for Rob).
Mr. Welsh said he usually plays “bluesy stuff,” like a version of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” But on this night he tried a Sublime song. And he wasn’t happy with it.
“It was just one of those nights,” he said. “As a musician, when you play something on the couch you don’t know what it’s going to sound like over the speakers.”
It was a slow night at The Indigo. The house band, a rockabilly group called Memphis 56, took over the stage by about 10 p.m. in lieu of open mic performers. The dark, cavernous bar was filled with a hazy fog generated by a smoke machine. Colorful lights poured over the stage. A couple nuzzled at a table. Two boys danced together in the wide-open space in front of the stage.
Beth Workman was there listening to Memphis 56 (her husband plays drums for the group), hoping that someone would get up and play some original tunes.
“If you’re at home plucking a song, come out (to open mic night),” she said. “Everybody’s in the same boat — all trying to get their music out there.”
>> 2219 MAIN ST., FORT MYERS
Wednesday at The World Famous Buckingham Blues Bar Fort Myers
By some measure, The Buckingham Blues Bar has actually achieved its claim of being “World Famous,” even on Wednesday open jam nights starting around 8 p.m.
“I’ve had guitar players from Japan, Australia, Croatia — had one from Switzerland here,” owner and official “dictator” Tommy Lee Cook, a bluesman who started the open jam there eight years ago this November, said. “He couldn’t speak English, but he could sing Elvis. He sang two Elvis songs.”
How do these far-flung music enthusiasts find the Buckingham Bar, out by a cow pasture on Buckingham Road east of Fort Myers? “I guess they just Google (‘Southwest Florida blues’),” Mr. Cook said. “And we come up on the first page.”
Even as one of the best known blues clubs in Lee County, it still manages to retain the ambiance of an off-the-beatenpath, roadhouse juke joint. Among the memorabilia pinned up behind the stage, in the red glow of neon beer signs: an American flag with the silhouette of New York’s unimpeachable skyline in white — Twin Towers still included — against the blue square in the upper left hand corner. Also on the wall behind the band, a potato sack with the words “terrorist body bag” on it.
Mr. Cook, who has a ponytail and wore cowboy boots last Wednesday, is lead singer, songwriter and a guitarist in the All-Stars Blues Band. They’re the house band on jam nights, and anyone is welcome to get up with them and play.
“I do get some amateurs, but most of the people have played,” Mr. Cook said. “When amateurs do come out, I try to make them comfortable, surround them with people that can play.”
A tall, lean gentleman with a silvery, boyish haircut, “Chuck” William Charles Moyle Jr. is a veteran of open mics. He brings his trumpet to play along most Wednesdays, standing alongside the band and joining in, sometimes tentatively, other times more boldly.
Eve, a member of the audience who preferred not to give her last name, just comes to enjoy the show. “They have awesome musicians here all the time,” she said. “It’s one of the best nights of the week.”
She never cared for guitar players, though, Eve said — until she heard Rex Bongo, a guitarist with shaggy black hair to his shoulders. On this night he wore a cut-off t-shirt with a FedEx logo on it as he played blues riffs in the style of some of his influences, Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan. “I never really liked guitar until I heard him play,” Eve said.
Mr. Bongo, 42, plays for his band The Cornbread Brothers. “Blues is kind of my thing,” he said. “This is just a very, very cool jam. It’s a very cool place to meet musicians.”
>> 5641 BUCKINGHAM ROAD, FORT MYERS
Thursdays at The Loft Punta Gorda
Annette Collins and Don Northrup met playing at Thursdays in the Park three or four years ago and formed their band Harbor City Blues. Now they’re the house band at The Loft, which has its own bluesbased open jam session on Thursdays starting at about 9 p.m.
Harbor City starts things off, followed by an up-and-coming act for 45 minutes or so, and then Harbor City returns and invites other musicians to join in.
“We try to keep it for musicians who have worked at their craft a little,” Mr. Northrup said.
Vivian Timko took over the space in March. “The feel of this place is music,” she said. “It has a certain vibe to it when you walk in.” She envisions the bar and eatery as a place to “relax, enjoy music, good food, great drinks. When you leave, you can’t wait to come back.”
>> 502 KING ST., PUNTA GORDA
Fridays at Nita’s Sweet Bean Café Fort Myers
On Friday, Sept. 18, 32 musicians performed during the open mic at Nita’s Sweet Bean Café. It’s one of the bestattended open mics in the area, and the audience tends to be one of the more attentive ones. The show runs from about 7 p.m. to midnight.
“It’s a work in progress,” owner Nita Flores said. “It’s taken a couple of years to build it up… It’s what we like to call a labor of love.”
Ms. Flores started giving out “play passes” last week for performers who signed up and couldn’t play so they’d get first dibs the next week. People traditionally start showing up around 6:30 p.m. when the doors open. Often 20 acts are signed up within an hour.
“Some nights it can be a grueling task,” Ms. Flores said. “You have four or five people who come in and are a band, and you have to break them down to get one person back on the stage. It’s a constant balancing act. In a lot of ways, I’m very fortunate. I have good people running sound and good people who come out and support the venue… “We have such a wealth of talent here.
“It’s rewarding in the sense of being able to have a venue where all these people can get together and feel comfortable and feel welcome and network, because they do. They form a network between themselves. That was my vision to see them collaborate and network, and they’re doing that.”
The performers range from high-school students to seniors.
“Some nights are just magical,” Ms. Flores said. “It’s just like, where do these people come from, and why haven’t we heard them before?”
>> 1870 CLAYTON COURT FORT MYERS (239) 275-9000; WWW.FTMYERSJAVA.COM ¦