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Open Mic Philly: A Slice of Humanity.

September 19, 2016

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Text by Tyler Horst. Images by Rachel Del Sordo.

It’s 11:48 at night, and there are still about 10 performers left to go at Connie’s Ric Rac in South Philadelphia. Their names are written on an orange list that at this point is covered in spilled beer.

Kelvin Cochrane, the host for the evening, bounds on stage.

“This is where the Connie’s Ric Rac Open Mic gets real,” he says to the assembled crowd of musicians and friends. “Up next is none other than the Reverend TJ McGlinchey, a certified Connie’s Ric Racketeer!”

McGlinchey, blond hair pulled back in a ponytail, walks on stage with a guitar.  Just before he starts playing, he catches the eye of a tall bald guy in a sleeveless basketball shirt that had played earlier that night. Barry Dwyer—another open mic regular—nods back to McGlinchey and climbs on stage with a harmonica.

“I’m going to play in C. You play something in C.” That’s all the instruction McGlinchey gives before they launch into a version of “Dark Hollow” by the Grateful Dead that feels like it was rehearsed, but wasn’t.

That’s just part of the magic of open mic.

   

On a different afternoon, during the daylight, McGlinchey sits in the tiny backyard of his South Philly home sipping coffee.

“Open mics are pretty much how I learned to play,” he says.

Though he doesn’t have to grind away at open mics looking for exposure like he did in the past, the 35-year-old singer-songwriter and Philly Folk Festival favorite can’t shake his love for those grab-bag weekday nights that he credits with giving him the confidence to play and bringing him into the city’s music scene.

The democracy of the open sign-up sheet means everybody gets a chance to prove themselves, and through years of seizing that opportunity at open mics across town, McGlinchey was able to build his base amongst the other musicians looking for an open stage or just a place to hang out on a weeknight.

When McGlinchey released his first album, Tell Me To Stay, in 2012, he used the network of the open mic world to get the word out for the release show at World Cafe Live.

“The only promotion I did for that album release was Facebook posts and promoting the show at open mics,” he says. “We had over 200 people downstairs at World Café Live.”

For McGlinchey, and for others, open mics aren’t about sharing a half-assed cover of “Wonderwall.” They’re about building community.

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It’s a Monday night on the other side of town. The door hangs open at The Fire on 4th and Girard as the sounds of an acoustic guitar float out to mingle with a few scruffy guys taking a smoke break.

Inside, it’s dark and somewhat dingy. The only lights are on the stage. The wooden floor sinks just slightly beneath people’s footsteps. The host throws on some music while Mike James Patrick Robinson, who performs under the name Big Cuz, hands off the beats he’s going to rap over. Robinson takes the mic.

“Welcome to the greatest shitshow on Earth,” Robinson says from the stage.

According to Derek Dorsey, who’s been booking The Fire since 2003, Open Mic Night has been a staple since, well, before he really knows. It started long before his career at the venue and it’s gone through many different stages. If someone had come back in the early 2000s for instance, Dorsey says you were almost guaranteed to see someone who was destined to be your favorite artist.

“It was a scene,” he says. “You wanted to be there.”

Dorsey says open mics are integral to providing a space for acts with real talent to first discover themselves as artists, even if they don’t realize it yet.

Scott McMicken and Toby Leaman started performing at Open Mic as a duo that they would later fill out with other members and call Dr. Dog. Kurt Vile used to perform here. John Legend was so popular at Open Mic Night that he got a residency at The Fire. Amos Lee signed his first record contract here.

The list goes on.

When Birdie Busch – who now has five albums to her name and a captivating voice – first stepped on to a stage at The Fire’s Open Mic Night, she was noticeably green.

“She was nervous, fragile, her voice was cracking,” Dorsey says. “But even in her imperfection, she was perfection.”

All scenes come and go, and though Dorsey says the halcyon days of the singer-songwriter are over since most of the big names outgrew their need for open mics and The Fire now attracts a more diverse set of genres, Open Mic Night has remained a home for musicians in the city.

“This is our living room,” says Robinson after his set.

The redhead rapper says he has been coming to the open mic since 2002 to try out new material and hang out with other musicians. At this point, he guesses that about 70 percent of the weekly crowd is made up of regulars, some of whom are content not to play anywhere else.

“Open mics are the first frontier and the last frontier,” Dorsey says.

The first, because it introduces serious performers to what may be their first platform. The last, because open mics are the last place casual musicians can be anonymous and as Dorsey explains, “feel special in [their] art.”

Bill “Bongo Billy” Clancy (pictured above) is one of the most beloved regulars on Monday nights. He doesn’t really play anywhere else.

When he takes the stage, Clancy pounds out a rhythm on a floor tom taken from the drum kit on stage and half-sings, half-recites lyrics that are either full originals or parodies of other songs. Two out of the three are all about how much the open mic means to him. He closes with these lyrics from a re-imagining of “Chim Chim Cher-ee” from Mary Poppins:

“Here at The Fire, you’re family,” Clancy sings.

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A petite singer named Kriss Mincey stands on the stage at Time and belts out “Summertime, and the livin’s easy,” the jazz standard.   Whoops and cheers come from the crowd at the bar, made up of men in jackets and loosened ties and women in nice dresses – the after-work crowd in Center City.

It’s open mic at Time but it doesn’t feel that way. A lot of the performances are acts you’d pay to see, and in fact, performers like Mincy are there to promote a show she’s doing later in the week.

Earlier in the night, Drew Breder played looping bass lines in an entrancing solo performance. The trippy style was somewhat of a departure from the heavy jazz and R&B lineup of the night, but no less polished.

Breder works from his home in Center City as a computer programmer, a job which he says pays for his open mic addiction. He’ll take time off and plan road trips with the sole purpose of hitting as many different open mics as possible.

“I’m just playing open mics but I live like a rock star!” he says.

Many come to Time’s open mic as solo singers, but collaborate with the house band for back-up. You really need to know your stuff musically if you don’t want to completely blow your spot.

“We don’t allow anyone to use backing tracks,” says Anam Owili-Eger, who runs the open mic at Time and plays keys for performers who need it.

Owili-Eger says this is not a limitation, but an intentional choice to make Time’s open mic all about live performance. Nothing pre-recorded or canned. Owili-Eger accepts submissions from performers who don’t want to go it alone, but would rather send in their track ahead of time so Owili-Eger and the Time band of seasoned musicians can devise a live arrangement.

“It’s an open mic,” he says. “A place where you should try new things, and be willing to step out of your comfort zone from time to time.”

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The line stretches all the way around the lobby of World Cafe Live. Young musicians nervously check and re-check their instrument cases to make sure they have everything they need. Inside, right in front of the red-curtained stage sit rows of chairs like the waiting room in a doctor’s office.

World Cafe Live’s “Philly Rising” event is no ordinary open mic. It’s also a competition, and it certainly plays up the intimidation factor.

“Raise your hand if you’re playing tonight,” says host Boy Wonder after a sound check.

Diligently, the front rows put their hands up.

“I’m going to be doing that a lot tonight, so you better be paying attention,” Boy Wonder continues.

He then rattles off a long list of rules that covers everything from how to hold the microphone to instructions on putting the stage back together after a performance. It feels like a parent giving their children rules to the house before going on vacation.

But the most important rule of all is, “Give yourselves a round of applause.”

First up is Joselito “Lito” Gamalinda, singer-songwriter.

“I play piano by ear, so excuse me if this goes wrong,” Gamalinda says.

Gamalinda sings with a beautiful falsetto, but his hands occasionally falter over the keys. The songs aren’t ready yet. They’re freshly written, being tried on stage for the first time.

After his performance, Gamalinda explains that he’s written more than 180 songs since 2014. It was in that year that he decided he wasn’t fully satisfied by his job as a bartender and wanted another way to express himself. Gamalinda performs these songs as often as he can, exclusively at open mics.

On a good week, he says he’ll hit seven: three on Monday, two on Tuesday, one on Wednesday and one on Thursday.

His reason for putting in all these hours just to perform for free is simple:

“It’s my outlet,” he says.

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The open mic scene is varied, says McGlinchey, but so are the people you see in the same place on one night.

Cochrane agrees.

“I’m never going to leave this place,” he says of his hosting spot at Connie’s. “It’s like a little slice of humanity.”

Whether it’s an old punk trying new songs or an introverted businessperson playing out for the first time, at an open mic anyone can try, can maybe even fail, and be welcomed into a community of artists.

“Because of open mics,” McGlinchey says, “artists and fans have a home to occupy together.”

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