It was a Wednesday night in the early second decade of the new millennium. I say it that way to make it sound like a long time ago. And depending on who you ask, twelve years was a long time ago. But still, it seems like yesterday.
I know it was a Wednesday night because I was hustling along the edge of the Pappajohn Sculpture Park, guitar case in hand. I’d just left the open mic held at Ritual Cafe on 13th and was scuttling along to the next open mic of the evening, held at Gas Lamp down Grand Ave. If you timed it right, and played early at Ritual, you could get down to Gas Lamp in time to get a good (early) spot on the list there. Two three-song stands, one night. It was almost a set.
“Every single open mic there was something redeemable,” reflects former Gas Lamp open mic host, Jerry Lorenson. “There was always something that shocked me in either hearing something that was awesome, or hearing something that was new that I had never heard before.”
Jerry used to break the ice, playing a tune or two to get the ball rolling. I remember the way he would howl into the mic, crushing a cover of “Girl on Fire” by Alicia Keys. Then he would step away from the mic and turn it over to the motley gang of musicians; mostly untested, some semi-pro, and cheer them on from the sidelines.
And Jerry was a genuine cheerleader. “I think of myself as a positive community building person. I enjoy cheering on other people. I think sometimes in the music industry it's easy to poopoo your peers, but that's not really healthy. The healthiest way is to try to make them - all of us - as good as we can be. Because the better we all are, then the better the scene will be. And the more people come to shows and when more people come to shows, that means more venues and stronger venues and venues have bigger budgets. And get good gear in rooms with good equipment, so that the sound quality can be good. It's an ecosystem, where we need to get music and musicians to play in venues, and we need good venues to play in. It's a feedback loop.”
“The open mics I attended,” says Des Moines area musician and open mic regular CW Smith, “were my re-entry to live performance after being away for more than a decade. They helped me make connections, and rebuild my stage presence.”
They were valuable to so many, including myself, in building confidence and understanding how to listen to yourself on stage. I was coming up through the ranks alongside other open mic regulars such as Patresa Hartman, Dan Medeiros, Courtney Krause, and a very young Lily DeTaeye.
Lily was still in high school when I first heard her at the Ritual Cafe open mic. I recall how she blew us all away, how we in the audience of performers waiting our turns knew that we’d be seeing more of her.
“I started going to the Ritual open mic when I was fourteen or fifteen,” says Lily. “Outside of the Des Moines Farmers Market, that was pretty much my introduction to the scene. And even though I was a baby, I was welcomed into the space. Specifically, Mary McAdams really took me under her wing and helped me gain some confidence.” Mary was the host of the Ritual Cafe open mic.
“From there, I started participating in the writers’ rounds that would happen at Ritual which led me to make even more connections in the scene.” Lily continues, “That open mic was so important for me. Without it, I wouldn’t have begun to make the friends that I work with so often now. For up and coming writers and performers, open mics are the place to be.”
Or at least they were. I’m hard pressed to think of an open mic night active in the Des Moines metro right now. With the demise of Java Joe’s 4th Street Theatre (which is now a bags tourney room, just what we needed) and the Des Moines Social Club, all of the nails are firmly driven into the coffin. Gas Lamp does still have something called an “open reggae jam” on Monday nights, but I’m not really sure what that’s supposed to be. Ritual Cafe only rarely even hosts live music anymore.
Where can new musicians go now to meet other musicians new and senior to the scene? Where do projects start? Where are new talent discovered, both by themselves and others? Where does the magic happen?
I’m glad to have cut my teeth during this “golden age” of open mic nights. I managed to establish myself and establish a sound that I’m proud of. I feel sorry for the struggling new musicians out there looking for an audience in the DSM.