When you start talking to Nicholas St. James about open mic night, it takes about half a second for him to perk up and get really animated on the subject. That’s because in Lawrence, open mic night is not some boring stage where nervous songwriters try their hand at live music.
St. James, the frisky folk artist often recognized for his bubbly personality and bright yellow color palette, is a longtime fan of local music and open mic nights. It’s an experience that brings an established community together. This is particularly true with The Jazzhaus’ Open Mic Night on Wednesdays.
“Whether you’re performing or not, people know that if you go there on a Wednesday, that’s where we go on Wednesday,” St. James says. “It’s an established hangout.”
If you go
You can go find open mic nights at the following venues in Lawrence:
• The Jazzhaus, 926 1/2 Massachusetts St., Wednesdays around 10 p.m.
• The Bottleneck, 737 New Hampshire St., Mondays nights (signup is at 9 p.m., performers go on after 10 p.m.)
• The Gaslight, 317 N. Second St., 6 p.m. Wednesdays
The “we” St. James is referring to includes himself and Tyler Gregory, a musician who has possibly benefited more than any other from open mic nights. You might recognize him as the bearded busker plucking at his banjo downtown, kicking away at his suitcase, and bellowing folk tales throughout the alleys. But he also has an impressively busy career on the road, hitting up stages and festivals across the nation.
Open Mic Night is where this unmistakable Lawrence musician got his start, and where you can usually find him most Wednesday nights. Eventually, Gregory became so integrated into the event that they started letting him host it.
“It’s been almost five years that I’ve been doing it,” Gregory says. “It’s just fun, it’s a good time and people like to hang out with other people who are into the same things that they are.”
A better performer
Open mic night isn’t just a place for new musicians to get their feet wet. Both St. James and Gregory say it’s where some already established musicians will go to try out new material.
“You want to play tunes, get people’s feedback, try out new things,” Gregory says. “It’s also fun because a lot of people, if they’re new to town, can go and talk to the other folks and get information on how Lawrence works and what other venues do live music.”
St. James shares the sentiment.
“Practice is one thing; practice in front of live people makes you a better performer,” he says. “You can sit at home and go over the songs, but really how many of us at the end of the day give up on bands because they’re terrible live performers? For me, a live performance makes or breaks a band.”
Now live performers have a just recently-announced perk in Lawrence. This spring, The Bottleneck recruited the help of St. James to start hosting open mic nights on Mondays. This is a big deal because up until now, open mic nights were only available to mostly solo, acoustic performers.
“The Bottleneck allows bands and electric performers to put on a show. Slots are longer,” says St. James, who points out that normally, acoustic open mic slots run about 15 minutes. The Bottleneck’s will run 45, the length of an actual set at most local shows.
“It allows you to work on a very large stage with an actual sound man. It allows bands the opportunity to bring all of their own equipment, drums, stacks, pedalboards, to an actual venue with a large stage,” he says. “For bands who haven’t had that experience of playing with people, it allows live experience to bands who haven’t had that before.”
The Bottleneck’s open mic night is building an audience and has caught the interest of musicians beyond the acoustic acts normally associated with open mic nights — specifically rap musicians.
Working the room
But even for bands who have had all the experience possible in Lawrence, St. James says open mic nights are still essential. This is an issue where he gets worked up.
“No one is too good for open mics! When I say no one, I mean all caps, italicized and bold,” he declares before slamming his hand on the table. “The idea that you have to grow and don’t go to open mics is ludicrous. That’s infuriating. You have a very brief period of time to make an impact. You also have a brief period of time to get momentum. When you’re playing a show, it may take some time to feel out the crowd. But with open mic, it’s over before you really start. So to be able to work a room in three songs is terribly impressive.”
St. James is quick to add that, for the most part, audiences aren’t necessarily there for the performers. They go for the atmosphere. That’s one reason why he’s always been impressed with Gregory’s consistent enthusiasm at these events. “I think Tyler continues to do open mics and busking and things that aren’t necessarily a ‘gig’ because he loves it,” he says. “There aren’t people who would play as much as we do if we didn’t love it, and I know for a fact that he loves it. He made that decision a long time ago that this is what he’s going to do, and he’s doing it.”
Gregory, the social butterfly that he is, couldn’t agree more. “Essentially, it’s a gig,” he says. “Whether it’s 15 minutes or 30 minutes, you’re onstage and playing. It’s an unpaid gig, but it’s a gig.”
— Fally Afani is a freelance writer and editor of I Heart Local Music. For more local music coverage, visit iheartlocalmusic.com.