Trenton Allan and the opening acts, at Aspen’s Red Onion
ASPEN – Not every musician who signs in at an open-mike night is going to be a polished performer, a sure-fingered picker, or even able to carry a tune. This is a fact that Trenton Allan knows well and, on occasion, to his regret.About four years ago, Allan left his usual Monday night post – running an open-mike event, which at the time was at the Crystal Palace Grille – to see Warren Haynes play at Belly Up Aspen. Allan, a musician himself, wanted to see Haynes’ guitar wizardry, but was even more eager to see if he could escort Haynes over to the Crystal Palace for a turn at the microphone. Allan succeeded in getting Haynes’ attention and, after some begging, steering him toward the bar. And then things went awry.”This young kid happened to be playing one of Warren’s songs, ‘Soulshine,’ and he was butchering it,” Allan recalled. “And Warren said, ‘Unh-unh, I ain’t going in there.’ He wouldn’t do it.”For the most part, Allan has been more successful in getting musicians to take part in open-mike action. Since launching Aspen’s version of open-mike, and moving it from venue to venue as circumstances dictate, the characteristically encouraging Allan has guided nervous beginners, seasoned players, entire bands, even the occasional celebrity – to his makeshift stages.The next phase of open-mike kicked off recently as Allan and his followers entered their 10th season by debuting a new venue, the Red Onion. Allan is optimistic that the Onion, reopened this past summer by Jennifer and Thomas Colosi, will be a long-term home. He is also pleased to carry on a tradition of music at the restaurant that runs back more than 110 years – even if the amateur singers at open-mike night don’t match such past Red Onion performers as John Denver and Billie Holiday.”We bring music back to a bar that in the ’40s and ’50s, I understand, was a big-time music scene,” the 37-year-old Allan said. “And I’m excited about the future, because open-mike has finally found a home. We’ll bring great music back into that bar, and we’ll prepare the next generation of songwriters and musicians, and develop that talent.”••••Aspen’s open-mike has indeed been a springboard for local talent. Allan can count a small handful of bands – Hurricane Carter, Stevie Lizard & the Rumors Are True – that have grown out of open-mike happenings. Allan himself, at the center of the open-mike events, has found himself forming most of his bands, including the Butchers and the Good-Timey Groove Gang, out of open-mike gatherings. But developing talent – or even drawing crowds on the typically slow night – was not on his mind when he started what has become a Monday night tradition.A decade ago Allan was a bartender at the Whiskey Rocks, a club inside the fancy St. Regis Aspen hotel. The bar manager was, like Allan, a musician, and was agreeable to the idea that, on a dead-quiet Monday night, nobody would object to the two of them pulling out their guitars.”It was just the two of us in the bar. So I’d tend bar while he played for 20 minutes, then we’d switch,” Allan said. “We figured, there’s nobody there; we might as well work on our songs.”The next Monday, they persuaded two friends to take a turn at the mike. What they didn’t plan on was that those two would bring some friends who wanted to listen. As they reached out to more musicians, the audience grew. It helped that several well-known musicians who happened to be staying at the St. Regis happened upon the open-mike events. Jackson Browne sang a few tunes, including “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” Ben Harper was trailed by a flock of young women, one of whom sat on the armchair and made sexual advances while Harper was trying to sing. When Bill Clinton appeared at Whiskey Rocks, Allan scrambled to find a saxophone, but the former president declined to perform. “He didn’t have the nerve to play, I guess. But he did hang out the whole night and listened,” Allan said.”And it became quite the scene,” he continued. “We made it a local’s night. With nothing going on to compete with on Monday nights, all the locals started to congress there. Eventually it became so busy that we’d start at 10 o’clock, let everybody play just two songs, and there would almost not be enough time to squeeze everyone in by 2 o’clock.”When Whiskey Rocks closed, in 2004, Allan shut down open-mike for a while before moving operations to Club Chelsea. With no hotel attached, Allan could think a little bigger. He started bringing in amps and electric guitars, and asked friends to bring in additional equipment. “It was more like open jams than open mike,” said Allan, who recruited the club’s bouncer and some regular open-mike participants to form a band, the Butchers.But the concept struggled at Chelsea – “Tough room,” Allan said – and he moved to the Crystal Palace Grille, where it enjoyed a surge in popularity. When that venue went out of business, Allan shifted to the Hunter Bar, where the events took on a character of their own.”It was more eclectic,” he said. “We didn’t just have acoustic guitars; we had hip-hop guys coming in with iPods and they’d freestyle over their tracks. We had an Argentinean band, a full band, come in and rock it. Apparently they were playing popular Argentinean songs, because everyone sang along.”Allan began attending open-mike nights in Tennessee, when he was a grad student in an arts and theology program. “It was such a good way to improve your playing, learn how to be different, sound different, do something unique,” he said. Seeing other people develop continues to be his biggest thrill. He has seen 12-year-old kids brought in by their parents, making their first appearance before an audience, and open-mike regulars who have made enormous strides in their songs and stagecraft.”It’s become a community of encouragement,” said Allan, a pizza chef and snowmaker. “People are there to build each other up. You sing flat, mess up a chord – no one boos.” Allan generally does not get paid for running open-mike, but he has learned a few tricks – like the art of using the sign-up sheet as a tool to keep people in the bar. But his greatest asset, he thinks, is patience.”It takes a lot to produce a stage for 30 different people in one night, all with different requirements,” Allan, who generally opens and closes each show with a set of his own, said. “But I’m genuinely interested in hearing other people play their music. This is one thing I’ve done to make my community a more colorful place. I’m proud of that.”firstname.lastname@example.org
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