Folk My Life.

When I registered for the Folk Alliance International Conference, I wasn’t sure what to expect.  Between 2000-3000 artists, enthusiasts, and industry professionals arrived in Kansas City at the Westin Crown Center on Feburary 18th for 5 days of networking, workshops, performances, and generally folking around.

As I wandered the soon-to-be-very crowded halls, I noticed something. A visible happiness had taken over the Westin.  Everyone I came in contact with was eagerly anticipating the week’s events, and who wouldn’t?  The keynote speaker is none other than Graham Nash.  Even Al Gore will be on hand to discuss environmental issues, and explain to everyone how he invented the internet.  All jokes aside, this is a great event to held in my hometown.  There were many worldwide locations that could have been chosen, someone must have slipped some Jack Stack Burnt Ends to the selection committee.  

Down to business.  Each day there are open mic sessions, my element.  On the eve of the conference opening, a crowd began gathering around free food and free beer (see my previous blog) a list was planted, and the musical side of the conference was underway.  My goal, as always, is to learn the stories of the other songwriters.  Something tells me that this week will provide a campfire’s worth.  

While settling into my seat, a Boulevard Pale Ale in hand, Ben Bochner of Eugene, Oregon played the first two songs on the week. A classic folk vibe, reminiscent of an acoustic Springstein set.  His goal is to “Create a community with acoustic music.”  He’s the first musician I’ve ever met that does “house calls,” where he could be playing “next to a hospital bed, or simply a lonely person.”  This grassroots effort toward musical therapy takes a lot of leg work, but is his “favorite way to enjoy people.”  His search for “An alternative to the screen culture” continues…welcome to Kansas City, Ben.  

The next group of artists I catch up with were an alternative bluegrass group named The Matchsellers.  Andrew and Julie first met while teaching English in Germany (Andrew mentioned he also taught History.)  When their contract expired in June of 2013, it only marked the beginning of their musical journey.  Splitting time between Indiana and Kansas City, they’ve not only developed a unique blend of guitar, fiddle, and tight harmonies, but also blossomed a love interest in each other.  I’ll certainly be stopping by their showcase set later this week.

Next we were treated to the professionalism of Rusty Nelson, who’s tunes had lyrical wit clearly driven from Austin, Tx.  “Lord I feel a comeback coming on, and it’ll be here before too long.”  We briefly spoke prior to his set, he had just finished a 12 hour drive, and it seemed the open mic was exactly what he needed.

Finally, Alyse Black took the stage, and took over the room.  Her soulful, Adele-ish vocals immediately turned heads, and immediately entered my schedule for the week.  She’s a veteran of traveling, but hails from Seattle.  I’m sure she’ll be mentioned in further detail as the week progresses.  

As I said, I had no idea what to expect, but I know one thing about the Folk Alliance International Conference:  It’s a folking great time.  Image



Always Trust Free Booze.

I guess the title worked.

Yeah, it was sunny that day.

Yeah, it was sunny that day.

For years, I’ve been a fan of the Open Mic.  It’s about the moment, persistence, aspirations, and an open mind.  At the root of it, I believe that all musicians should be able to captivate an audience in the art’s purest form.  As an independent musician, I’m always on the lookout for an opportunity to perform and always looking for a new spot to hang out.    Thanks to these often uncelebrated events, I’ve met a number of friends, heard some amazing stories, and witnessed what astounding entertainment our phone-staring, instantaneous-status-update society has to offer.  This is my log of Open Mic Nights, and why they are important.

The Operation:  Visit local Open Mic Nights throughout Kansas City, or wherever I am (unannounced) and take notes of the overall environment, performers, reception, etc. and tell the stories of performers and observers.

I’m going to start with my favorite Open Mic Event of the past year…it’s not a Kansas City location (I moved back to KC in November), but truly displays the positive environment a weekly open mic can become, and how it can impact a person.  For this, let’s travel to Arlington, Virginia.

Open Mic - Velocity 5

Open Mic at Velocity 5

It starts on a web browser.  The musicians section of Craigslist to be exact.  The page is a personal favorite: always entertaining and an intriguing unknown.  It’s also a solid resource for musical opportunities.  What brought me there was simple.   I was living in Bethesda, Md, new to the area, and looking for something to spice up my weekly routine.  After a work-related relocation to the Washington D.C. metro (I’m a personal trainer when not writing songs) I really hadn’t found my groove in the local music scene.  Over the past 8 years, I’ve grown accustomed to performing, and was lacking the adrenaline that spikes at the first strum of my Taylor.

From that fabled section on Craigslist a few months earlier, I had auditioned for a popular local cover/bar band playing a variety of tunes ranging from Whitesnake to Lady Gaga.  Somewhere between a 50-something guitar player who prided himself on mirroring Kenny Powers, and the promise of “making it to the big time…like Pennsylvania” they lost my interest.  (Hard to believe, I’m sure.) My thoughts of the local scene had hit a resounding low.  That’s when I spotted an ad that simply stated: “OPEN MIC – $25 Tab for playing, with a chance for a full show!”  In my experience, few things motivate musicians like the promise of free booze.  Away I went.

As I walked in the “Velocity 5” (now renamed Social Haus) I quickly encountered the life of the party, host, and local music veteran, Nick Tierra.  In coming weeks, we’d become good friends but at this moment I was simply another guy with guitar.    After putting the finishing touches on the highly-portable, highly-homemade, plywood stage, he plants a couple barstools down, and places the sign-up sheet on the bar.  In an instant the evening’s entertainment swarms out of booths and tables to snag their preferred time slot.  All in all, I counted 12 performers, a pretty high total for an open mic. (Did I mention the free booze?)

Over the next three hours, I witnessed a variety of covers, originals, along with a few acts that seemed hell-bent on proving pitch and tonality are overrated.  All were welcomed, and all were well received.  On any given Tuesday, one could witness talent disillusionment so pure; it’s often saved for the premiere episode of American Idol.  That’s my kind of place.

All kidding aside, I was truly impressed by a few of the groups.  Song choices were tasteful and often modern, solid vocals, and solid arrangements.  After a cup of liquid courage (a.k.a. bourbon) I struck a conversation with a few of the performers prior to my slot.  It was refreshing.  Not only meeting like-minded and similarly independent musicians, but also to experience the visible doubt that accompanies meeting any musician at an open mic.  Much like meeting a pitcher in my baseball days, everyone has an idea of their talent, but it’s your game that truly speaks.  My motivation was well served.  After witnessing the likes of James Stevens and Nick Tierra rocking Toto’s “Hold the Line” in an acoustic duo, and the

Rocking Open Mic at Velocity 5 in Arlington

Nick Tierra and James Stevens…and a dude on bass.

up-and-coming Emma Daniels do Amy Winehouse justice, I thought I’d certainly seen the climax of the night.  Next was an unassuming middle-aged man who only went by Steve, who proceeded to deliver a McCartney-esque performance in both tone and Sir Paul’s “Wings” hairstyle. His refreshingly classic, confident vibe took control of the room. This place had grabbed my full attention.  My turn arrived.  I played my set, a mixture of covers and my original works.  A few minutes later I was humbled by a positive response, and was seemingly accepted to this unique community.

I continued to attend for the better part of three months; from what I’ve heard the Open Mic at Velocity 5/Social Haus continues to flourish.  There were busy weeks, slow weeks, nights full of talent and nights full of vocal diarrhea.  Never the less, it was always entertaining.  What always brought me back was the unknown variable only an Open Mic can present: there’s no way of knowing what you’ll see.  From this event, I was booked for multiple shows, and introduced to a few talent agents.  Most importantly, new friendships were forged. Which are perhaps the only things that will outlast this great weekly event.

Well done, Arlington.  While I’m no longer on the East Coast, I will always remember the people, stories, and music that came into my life via that nondescript Craigslist ad.  This event was a breathe of fresh air, much appreciated, and perfectly random.

Living in the moment and an open mind played a part in finding this place, but remember this: Always Trust Free Booze.