Inside Houston's Open-Mike Nights: "We're Happy to Have Anybody"

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It's 9 p.m. on a Tuesday and Andrew Hoskins is tuning his resonator guitar in AvantGarden's courtyard. His buddy, Sean Fink, is running through songs with him on the guitar resting in his own lap. They're talking music, work, kids and beer, and they're waiting.

"So, I've played so many open-mike nights that it's a bit difficult to remember my first one. I believe it was in Las Vegas at my local library when I was in high school," Hoskins recalls. "I probably played some worship song and maybe some emo song I wrote that I don't remember."

Normally Hoskins plays acoustic, folk-punk-bluegrass and gets regular gigs in town with his solo act, Radio Flyer, as well as his bands, Spilling the Beans and Stay at Home Mom. Tonight, though, he's one of two dozen local musicians waiting to take the stage at AvantGarden's open-mike night.

"The great thing about such a forum is that everyone comes to see honest expression," he says. "They know that some presenters may go over better than others, but as long as you go out there and share, then you've made a contribution."

For the uninitiated, an open-mike event is an evening set aside by coffeehouses, bars and like-minded venues that gives musicians a forum to play -- unbooked and unpaid -- for a live audience. The rule is usually first-come, first-serve. Sign your name on a list and hope the place doesn't shut down before you get to perform. The venues set the parameters, but it's usually something like three songs or 10-15 minutes, whichever comes first.

Open-mike nights are good draws, especially in a city like Houston with a thriving music community. If two dozen people come to your bar on a Tuesday night, and they bring at least a few friends/fans with them, you can sell lots of tea or beer on what's otherwise going to be a slow night.

There are so many open-mike events in town that a musician with enough gas money and motivation could play every night of the week somewhere. Several have taken to Facebook and created the "Houston Open Mic'ers" group to share approaching events.

Hoskins is a veteran of music's roadways. By the time he met his wife, Ali, at Sedition Books a few years ago and decided to call Houston home, he'd traveled and played extensively across the country. He says he's written about 50 songs that remain in his playing repertoire and "maybe that same amount that have just faded from memory." The open mikes he's played elsewhere, he adds, offer the same as Houston's -- chances to network and practice new material in front of an audience.

"I have played (AvantGarden's) open-mike night a few times; there's always a good turnout," he says scanning the courtyard, where a drum circle was forming. "The first place I played music in Houston was at AvantGarden's open-mike night, which is still run by the same guy."

That guy is Mike Perkins. This night, he's busily manning the PA for a classically trained guitarist named Roby Deaton, who was using the open mike to practice for a competition in Canada. Later, Perkins would work a crackling spotlight so it shone just right against a rap act calling itself Love Lifted. His most important job was keeping the evening taut, attending to that list of artists all waiting to perform.

"We're happy to have anybody," says Perkins. "If they have a new song, or something they want to try to play, a new song or a different style, we certainly encourage that."

He too is a singer-songwriter and figures he's played more than 1,000 times at AvantGarden alone over the last 15 years. He's guided the evening's events four years now, and says the venue's biggest open-mike success story is probably Robert Ellis. Recently, Perkins adds, talent scouts from the TV reality contest America's Got Talent stopped by to soak in Avant's musical atmosphere.

"People need a place to play," he says. "If you're a singer-songwriter and you're trying to start out, you've got to have an audience to play for. There's got to be an outlet for that and I try to encourage singer-songwriters to express themselves. If there weren't places like this, they wouldn't have a place to do it."

Across town at Bohemeo's, Kristal Cherelle is playing the open-mike night hosted by hip-hop/spoken-word artist SCEF. She's wowing a fortuitous crowd with her work, a blend of jazzy soul that draws from influences like Etta James, India.Arie and Coldplay.

"One of the coolest things about the open-mike culture is how supportive artists can be to one another. People are generally respectful and understand that artists are at different skill levels. For some, this particular open-mike may have been their first public performance," says Cherelle.

She, however, is no stranger to performing. Like Hoskins, she books regular gigs, playing guitar and piano at venues like Last Concert Café and Red Cat Jazz Café.

Although she's been performing since before grade school -- "my mother used to sing runs and I would try to echo them back or outsing her" -- Cherelle says creating a music career is challenging. She performs almost all original material and moved to Houston in 2011 in search of a support system.

"It's tough to be an artist. Most of us put our heart and soul in our music and it's a big deal to pour it out on stage for all to see," she says. "Other artists understand that. When I first moved to Houston, I had not had experience with open mikes. I was nervous about what people would think about my music. What if they don't like it?

"I can truthfully say that open mikes paved the way to me getting paid gigs on my own later," continues Cherelle. "I had to work on my stage presence and polishing my songs, and open-mikes are the best way to do so.

"My goal is to share my music with as many people as possible, in hopes that they become fans who will want to come to my shows and buy my album when it's released," she adds. "Also, I meet several musicians at open-mikes to collaborate with in different ways and it's always good to support other artists."

That's the kind of bonding that open-mike events afford musicians. No one knows that better than Wally Brannon and Joel Marlowe. These singer-songwriters are longtime friends and bandmates who have been performing together for 30 years now. Today, known as Blind Justice, they routinely host several open-mike events.

"When we first met, all those years ago, we discovered we had a mutual musical bond between us and we would spend most nights performing for our circle of friends," Marlowe says. "We eventually decided to share the music in exchange for small change, burgers and beer, which is mostly what we got paid in back in those days. These days we get a better class of food, beer and wine and a bit more money."

Blind Justice specializes in bringing open-mike out of the city and into the suburbs. They'll play from their own catalogue of more than 100 songs they've written, then welcome others to the stage at open-mike nights at The Cellar Door and Public House, both in Katy. There's such a demand for stage time, the duo is looking for a third venue to host weekly. Marlowe says other musicians, like Jerry Campbell and Gabe Montoya, are also hosting open-mike nights in far west Houston.

"The quality of some of the original music we hear is just amazing," says Marlowe. "Some folks just want the experience of singing in public, and don't necessarily write songs, so they sing some of their favorite tunes."

The dig against open-mikes, for many who aren't performing, is that when they are bad, they can be really bad. Marlowe acknowledges that, but said musicians -- especially those who host open-mike events -- have to listen for something deeper than pitch or tone when a musician is struggling onstage.

"Your job as host is to make the players who come out feel welcome and offer them encouragement, especially the younger ones, and give them a stage and a mike to do their thing," he says. "For the ones who don't sing and play well, we always offer them encouragement to keep practicing and to keep doing open-mikes, because they can only get better with practice, and sometimes audiences can be unkind."

Back at AvantGarden, Perkins considers how others benefit from what people like he and Brannon and Marlowe do, bringing musicians together regularly for these open-mike jam sessions.

"It took me about a hundred times to play in front of a crowd before I got comfortable with it," he says. "Maybe that's too many for most people, but it takes awhile for people to feel comfortable doing this. And if they didn't have a place like this to play, they would never feel that way."

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