Whenever the final word is written about this great American experiment, let’s hope the open-mic night will be somewhere remembered as an example of the mixed blessing that was democracy.
While totalitarianism means that only the best are chosen to sing beautiful and terrified paeans to some Great Leader, democracy means that everyone has a voice, no matter how uncontaminated by talent.
So the terrible secret at the heart of any democratic audience is that, at some point in the open-mic night, everyone will prefer totalitarianism.
Luckily this is Kansas City, a city as rich in musical talent as it is in smoked meats. And so an exploration of those sonic gumbos — the singer/songwriter nights, the blues and jazz jams, the orgy that is live-band karaoke — may reveal more shine than stink.
Sitting under a Jolly Roger flag with the message “Surrender Your Booty,” I watch a guy with an American flag T-shirt and a rhinestoned hat sing “Spirit in the Sky.” This is Wednesday night at the beach-bum-themed Jerry’s Bait Shop in Lenexa, where emcee Craig Summy and musicians Bret Boule and Scotty McBee create a “check-your-morals-at-the-door” kind of party atmosphere.
What they’re doing here is live-band karaoke, or as they call it, Jerryoke. There are two books of songs and a sign-up sheet, and that’s how it comes to pass that a woman sacrifices herself onstage to remind us all what damage the 4 Non Blondes song “What’s Up?” did to western civilization.
But working musicians and fledgling bands get up there, too, which means any night’s lineup offers a range of talents.
“That is, I think, the most organic thing, as stressful and chaotic as it is for us, no night is the same,” Summy says.
This is a common sentiment, as Bobby Gardner learns during his first Thursday night blues jam at Mike Kelly’s Westsider.
Gardner, 25, is playing some excellent slide guitar but between songs apologizes for using his amp for such a light crowd. A woman, clearly a veteran of the scene, hollers encouragement: “Don’t count on anything here, babe. It’s different every time.”
Gardner has been playing a lot of these jam nights; they’re the reason he’s here. He and his wife recently moved to Kansas City from Springfield for the music scene.
“Really, I was just unhappy with the crowds and the reactions in Springfield,” he says. “They don’t want to come out and hear new music.” He has seen the enthusiasm of KC firsthand: at Eclipse, at Trouser Mouse, at Harleys & Horses, at the newly opened Point Loco Cantina in Waldo.
“So far, it seems pretty cool. Every bar I’ve been in has been packed, and everybody has been pretty appreciative,” Gardner says. He’s also impressed by the talent on display.
“If they’ve never played together before, they can throw something together pretty easily.”
Mike Kelly’s Westsider may be a good place to hunt for musical kinship: One gregarious drinker tells me that he knows of six complete bands that have formed out of this weekly jam.
For Gardner, on his way to becoming another veteran of the scene, one other player will be a good start.
“I honestly just want to find a drummer,” he says. “Then I’ll go from there.”
Others prefer to play alone. Thursday nights at the Indie on Main feature a singer/songwriter jam. A single voice, a single guitar, playing a room of big windows, wood ceilings, leatherette nooks and a long bar, behind which liquor bottles sit in illuminated hexagonal chambers like a booze hive.
It’s a great space, in other words, though Samantha Clemons, the organizer of the open mic, says the artist turnout is not huge — eight or nine, at most.
“Open mics are tough in this town,” she says. “There aren’t as many starving artists here as in some places.”
Or it may just be that this is a town for the communal musical experience. Certainly there are solos at the Phoenix Jazz Club during its Tuesday night jazz jam; they’re just tucked into the Everette DeVan Trio’s acrobatics.
Same with the Mutual Musicians Foundation’s Saturday all-nighters. Perhaps more than any other genre, jazz may be what accounts for Kansas City’s culture of musician-swapping, of trying out different arrangements of voice and instrumentation, of playing around with what is expressed, and how.
Perhaps it was jazz that established open-mic nights as an essential part of the local music ecosystem. These jams, after all, are the primordial soup out of which bands congeal and evolve and go wailing and booming across the landscape.
And no soup is soupier than that which bubbles out of Knuckleheads Saloon every Saturday afternoon. (Knucklehead’s, in the East Bottoms, is itself a product of weird adaptation: a motorcycle shop whose interest in live music eventually consumed and converted the whole business.) The Knuckleheads open jam is nearly a decade old, with the added distinction of being the only jam I found that is commemorated on a T-shirt bearing a naked lady holding a guitar, strategically.
On a plush-carpeted stage (think ’70s make-out room) in a sprawling room, at any given time you might find as many as eight musicians, playing harmonica, washboard, accordion or even washtub bass. All the players start out as names on a whiteboard, which organizers Billy Ebeling and Dwane Goldston throw onstage as the spirit moves them.
“It’s pretty diverse,” says Ebeling, who admits that for the first year he was organizing hardly anyone. But it picked up.
“It’s country, it’s blues, it’s rock ’n’ roll. It’s whatever people know,” Goldston says. “We just put a band around them.”
Ebeling attests to the range of talents and motivations settling into that thick carpeting.
“Some are people who want to be in a band, some are known, some are amateur,” he says. “It’s a good place to come in and, I hate to say it, network.”
There’s no way to predict how good any jam at any place is going to be.
It’s all encoded in the names on the all-important sign-up sheet, but even if you know the players behind those names, how they’re going to play together is still a bit of musical alchemy. The effect of sitting through a jam is similar to those mix and match books in which you flip the panels to create different kinds of creatures out of heads, bodies, legs.
Here it’s guitar, bass, drums; there it’s trombone, guitar, keyboard; somewhere it’s probably even accordion, accordion, accordion. You can make just all kinds of monsters.
Ebeling, father of the jam that lives everyday on naked lady T-shirts, echoes the sentiments of his fellow veterans of the open mic.
“I think that’s why I like coming out here, because you never know what you’re gonna get,” he says. The important thing is to keep moving people around, “so everybody shines.”