Inside Houston's Open-Mike Nights: "We're Happy to Have Anybody"
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.
Joel Marlowe (L) and Wally Brennan are Blind Justice
"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.
Avant Garden's recent open-mike night entertainment
"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."