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January 30, 2014
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Aspen Times Weekly: The highs (and lows) of open-mic night

E very Monday at around 10 p.m., you’ll spot longtime Aspen musician Trenton Allan at The Red Onion, at his usual corner between the bar and the front window, tinkering with the controls on a soundboard and managing the musicians and singers who have signed up for open-mic night.

He’s doing a lot more than balancing the highs and lows of the vocals and guitars to get the right mix. He’s juggling the highs and lows of the overall show, making sure the people who are on the list start on time and in tune, and pacing the show so that the weakest performances are followed by strong ones. Open-mic night in Aspen won’t survive unless the event continues to maintain its crowd, keeping customers from leaving the bar in favor of other local nightspots.

Since Allan restarted open-mic night at The Red Onion after the restaurant reopened back in 2010, it has been largely successful. Decembers, Januarys and Februarys are especially busy, as are most of the Mondays during high-season summer months. The fall and spring offseasons draw a light crowd, albeit one that is usually more attentive.

On a recent Monday in January, the crowd is a bit lighter than usual. And to the delight of some of the musicians, the patrons are not as noisy. In fact, most are affiliated with the Aspen Camp of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, which recently had its Women’s Retreat. And while many of them may not actually be hearing what’s going on, some are feeling the rhythm, smiling, communicating with their friends and tapping their feet to the beat.

One never knows what the vibe will be like at open-mic night. It changes from hour to hour, week to week, month to month. Performers with a solid set one week might wreck the train, so to speak, one week later. A big, enthusiastic crowd might be the norm for several consecutive Mondays, only to be followed by a belligerent or disinterested audience.

That’s just how it goes and the unpredictable nature of the event just adds to the charm.

Allan keeps the show alive at the Onion, just as he did at other local clubs going back more than a decade. It’s important to him to help sustain the live-music scene in Aspen, and to do it the right way.

“A while back, I was out East in grad school in Tennessee, and there were places where you had to pay to get on the list,” he said. “I remember one place in particular, if your song in the first 30 seconds wasn’t good enough, they kind of buzzed you, and turned up their music, and you were off the stage. You didn’t get to finish your song.

“There were so many people competing for their songs to be heard. They were trying to sell songs in Nashville. It’s really discouraging when you’re trying to write a new song, and you think it’s good, but you’re going right after Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls. You’ve got to follow that amazing performance — you’ve paid 10 bucks to get your chance — and they give you 30 seconds before they zap you.”

When Allan travels, he tries to find a local open-mic night wherever he is and he studies how the show is produced.

“I just like playing music,” he said. “But I decided if I was going to do one in my community, in Aspen, I wanted it to be an encouraging, uplifting event. I didn’t want it to be a ‘Gong Show.’”

TO GROW OR NOT GROW

To Allan and many others, open-mic night gives fledgling musicians and singers an opportunity for positive growth. “Music is essential to a healthy community,” he said.

The shows typically offer an eclectic mix of performers. Many recent shows have kicked off with a 12-year-old boy named Arthur who projects as much angst in his performances as any of the veterans of the scene.

Most of the players are guys in their 20s and 30s, but there’s also Paul Rossi, a bearded RFTA bus driver in his 50s, whose mood is lighter than many of the artists who always deem it necessary to sing about how much they are suffering. The Denver native also likes to tell jokes — or anyone within earshot. “I was so glad I had Monday off in my (bus-driving) schedule,” Rossi said. “That means open-mic. I like strumming and singing. I’ve played guitar all my life and I know a bunch of songs. I’m best around the campfire.”

He believes that vocals are most important.

“The guitar is only to accompany your voice,” Rossi said. “That’s the way I look at it. You know, I’m in my 50s. Fifty is the new 20.”

Dennis Jung, a real-estate agent and professional bass player who occasionally shows up for a few songs, believes open-mic night carries on a musical tradition at The Red Onion that goes back 120 years. Billie Holiday and John Denver are just two of the many musical legends who have performed in the restaurant’s building, constructed in 1892.

“I enjoy the opportunity to meet Aspen’s young up-and-coming musicians,” he said. “I like the ability to play bass with several different acts that I haven’t played with before. It’s good ear training and keeps you on your toes.”

Of course, open-mic night has its share of imperfections. A lot of players take too long to make their way onto the stage, or they spend several minutes tuning an instrument, or they talk at length without actually entertaining anyone.

“My pet peeve is also part of the fun: like the time Trenton and I were playing a mellow tune together and a guy gets up and starts wailing on the djembe like it’s supposed to be a drum solo,” Jung said. “How were we to know he was going to go all Ricky Ricardo on us?”

Flaws in the show are to be expected, Allan said.

“I’m giving people an opportunity to work on their music,” he said. “That’s my motivation. I’m watching people get better over a period of several years. That’s really encouraging to me.”

However, Allan also has a few pet peeves. He thinks a few players are “mailing it in” — they sing the same three songs every week, always performed the same way. It’s easy to fall into an open-mic rut.

“I’m not naming names, but several guys have been playing four or five years, and never play anything but the same four songs,” he said. “And one or two of those guys still can’t get the lyrics right, or in the right order. Some guys use open-mic as a way of increasing their popularity, or to meet women.

“That’s fine; I don’t care. But you can tell they aren’t taking it seriously. Their music doesn’t grow.”

EXPORTING THE PRODUCT

Travis Blair, a country boy from Florida who lives in the Basalt area, is one of the musicians Allan singles out as having grown musically. He started out at Allan’s open-mic night that was held more than a decade ago at Whiskey Rocks, a former bar at the St. Regis Aspen Resort.

Today, Blair manages a similar event at a midvalley bowling alley: the bar inside El JeBowl. He started it about a year ago, with help from Allan and others. Blair also performs regularly at The Red Onion, not just on Mondays.

The El JeBowl scene has a markedly different atmosphere from the Monday night event. The room is smaller; people relax on couches. There’s an outdoor patio for smoking and horseshoe playing. A portrait of Richard Nixon in bowling attire looms above the stage. A lot of people show up not only for the music but the $15 ribeye-and-veggies special. It’s cozier, with fewer groups of people moving in and out.

“You get to get up there and work through all your adrenaline,” Blair says of open-mic. “You get past your stage fright.”

Blair loves the music but he also enjoys the company. The people who play at open-mic night are a subset of the community, to a large extent.

“It’s good to have a peer group,” he said. “Everybody is crazy around here; you might as well be around people who are crazy in the same way you are.”

Midvalley resident Dennis Browning performs often at the El JeBowl. To him, open-mic night brings together “a lot of talented people with real jobs.”

“It’s near my house, and it’s a chance to get out and meet new people playing live music,” he said. “There are some very talented people writing good music. I started going in August and first played the ukulele in hopes of finding other uke players. I’m still searching for them.”

Browning said singing for a live crowd gives him the chance to figure out how he can improve.

A regular at the El JeBowl shows is Blair’s 12-year-old pet, “Corndog.” He lays on the nearby couch or on the floor at the foot of the stage as others play and sing, barking only when his owner prods him.

“If I couldn’t have Corndog there, that would be a deal-breaker,” Blair said.

Reasons to quit, Andre-style

For the better part of the last two years, I’ve been performing at The Red Onion’s open-mic night on Mondays. For the most part, it’s been a blast — live music stirs my soul like few other things in life — but it’s time to move on.

I’m taking a break, at least from doing my own set. I want to occasionally show up to cheer on my friends and strangers. I might even pick up a bass and back them up from time to time. But as far as being part of the regular lineup, I’m out. Call me semi-retired.

I will certainly miss it. Playing in front of a crowd has helped me to grow in several ways. I think I’ve improved a bit over the last couple of years, and I no longer get nervous upon approaching the stage. No one will mourn my absence, really, and there are a lot of regular players around the valley who will continue to carry the torch.

I should give a shout-out to Trenton Allan, who has been carrying on the open-mic tradition in Aspen for several years. Even though I’ve been in many bands, from South Louisiana to South Carolina to the Western Slope, he has helped to nurture me (and countless others) along in terms of being a front man and paying attention to dynamics and timing.

The reasons for stepping down are many, and some of them are a little on the ridiculous side:

I need to devote more time to housework. Monday nights are perfect for doing laundry. I prefer not to do chores on the weekends, on my days off, because I feel that’s a waste of good private time. By playing music nearly every Monday, my apartment’s tidiness has suffered. It’s time to start getting down — not to some cool tunes with my redneck friends — but to some deep cleaning. And some more reading time wouldn’t hurt either: There’s a riveting National Geographic article on “Shangri-La” I need to make time for.

I’m burned out on “Up Against the Wall (Redneck Mother).” I started singing this Ray Wylie Hubbard composition because it’s a crowd-pleaser. I’ve always liked it and I would estimate I’ve performed it live at least 100 times in the last 18 months. People know it and they sing along with it. When I’m having a bad set, “Redneck Mother” saves the day and gets me back on track. But like fried oysters and chocolate ice cream, it’s a sinful indulgence from which I need to step away. Besides, Jerry Jeff Walker performs it way better than me and you can hear him at the Wheeler Opera House on Feb. 15.

I was only really in it for the chicks. Well, that’s not entirely true; it’s the music I love. But I thought that playing open-mic night would improve my standing with the opposite sex, and I can’t say in the long run that it has. Sure, on a few occasions, I made definite progress in that department, thanks to meeting more people, especially locals, on open-mic night. But as is the case everywhere in Aspen, the demographics don’t favor the dudes. And, let me put it this way: If I were a Thoroughbred jockey, my odds of crossing the finish line would be something like 35-1. Every once in a while I can best the competition with a good stretch run from the back of the pack, but Calvin Borel I am not.

I don’t have the “pretty” voice required of frequent performing. That’s why I sing 90 percent of everything in the key of E. That’s why I choose songs that don’t require much range. I’ve learned to sidestep my lack of vocal talent by getting twangy with a method that’s fitted to my North Louisiana roots. It’s worked to an extent, but it won’t carry me in the long run. Plus, my voice has been hoarse since the start of the current winter season, and it needs recuperation.

When I’m on a roll, I don’t like to leave the stage. When the audience is in step with you, it’s addictive. But sometimes there are a lot of people waiting to play and you can’t get more than three songs. I can see two sides to this dilemma. One is, leave while you are ahead of the game, with the crowd wanting more. The other is, it’s all about me. (Yes Trenton, I am “one of those people” — sometimes. Hey, it takes a bit of ego just to get up there and sing and play without crashing and burning.)

There you have it. Those are my “Reasons to Quit,” so to speak (apologies to Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson). There are plenty of people around who will continue in my absence. Call them the open-mic stalwarts: Trenton Allan, Travis Blair, Hank Richey III, Andy Curtis, Julie Wiig, Franklin Mercer, Dennis Browning, Paul Rossi, Hugh and “Tigey” — sorry, I can’t mention everybody and there are a lot of last names I’m fuzzy on.

As Robert Earl Keen put it, “the road goes on forever, and the party never ends.” But I need to pull in at the rest stop and stay there awhile. At least until the offseason or the summer when I might return with a whole new set of songs and a fresher sound. Who knows?

— Andre Salvail

asalvail@aspentimes.com


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The Aspen Times Updated Jan 30, 2014 12:20PM Published Feb 1, 2014 06:24AM Copyright 2014 The Aspen Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.