Open arms

For glory, community, fun or cash, Atlanta’s open-mic nights can bring out the singer/songwriter in just about anyone

It’s a Monday night at Eddie’s Attic. If the nervous energy in the room could be tapped somehow, California would never have to worry about another rolling blackout. Acoustic singer/songwriter Sean Smith is trying to engage in conversation, but his attention keeps wandering. He’s distracted by what’s happening on stage, where the first finalist of the night’s open-mic competition already has been announced. They’re about to announce the second finalist, and Smith is hoping his name will be called.

More than half the crowd here tonight are musicians, all hoping for the same thing. Smith rocks back and forth with anticipation. His name isn’t called.

Both finalists, so far, have been young, pretty, white females. “I don’t have a chance,” Smith, a black man, muses. This is, after all, Decatur, Ga. — known to some as Dyke-catur or Dick-hater, home of Agnes Scott women’s college and the Indigo Girls.

But while Smith may be among the few black males to compete in Eddie’s weekly open-mic competition, he’s just one of the many contributing to the overwhelming sense of tension and anticipation in the room.

Welcome to the world of the Open-Mic Night.

For club owners, having an open-mic night is a no-brainer: Sundays through Wednesdays are always slow and musicians are always looking for a place to play, so why not open the stage to a wide variety of acts willing to perform without the guarantee of getting paid?

Various Atlanta establishments have experimented with the open-mic idea over the years, with varying degrees of success. Neighbors Pub in Virginia-Highland used to simply pull a table out of the corner and unplug the jukebox. Until, that is, the Sunday night beer swillers complained and the jukebox got plugged back in (sometimes, even, in the middle of an open-mic performance, where patrons needing their fix of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” overpowered some poor soul strumming monotonous minor chords and singing of his broken heart). Marco’s Pita on Ponce has started doing a cool and vastly underattended jazz/poetry open-mic Tuesday nights (could be falafels and poetry lack marketing appeal).

In two local clubs, however, the open-mic night has become an institution: Eddie’s Attic and Midtown’s Red Light Café. Their events draw a plethora of diverse talent who show up week after week. It has become a scene, of sorts — musicians who are increasingly frustrated with the music business the more they dabble in it, but who have, along the way, stumbled onto a community of like-minded souls. There are players who have been doing it for years — initially with stars in their eyes, now reduced to fading glimmers of hope. And then there are the newcomers — each week they show up, often cocky as hell and ready to leave the room smoking. They usually leave with their tail between their legs, carrying with them their first lesson in the harsh realities of life in the biz: that they might not be as good as their relatives tell them they are.

Rich Healy is a seasoned veteran of Atlanta’s open-mic scene. He’s played them all, from Starbucks to Eddie’s Attic. For him, the open-mic is not quite as nerve-racking anymore. “It’s just a good time for me,” he says, adjusting the harmonica rack around his neck in preparation for his performance at Eddie’s Attic. Healy works for a software company by day and looks forward to his nights at the open mic. “It’s a chance to catch up with old friends and try out some new material. I’ve made some of my best friends at these things.”

Mark Spence, decades younger than Healy, is not so effusive in his praise. Spence used to be a regular at both the Red Light Café and Eddie’s Attic, but now only rarely makes the effort to play. “It just becomes tiresome after a while,” he says. “You have to show up so early to sign up and then stay so late because you didn’t get a good time slot ... and most of the people playing just really aren’t worth hearing, honestly.”

Still, while the talent indeed can be marginal, the numbers remain strong for both clubs. At one point, the Red Light considered moving the event to a weekend night because it was drawing so many people. At Eddie’s Attic, the semi-annual Open Mic Shootout — a competition that pits weekly open-mic winners against each other for a $1,000 cash prize — are the two biggest nights in the clubs’ year.

John Madden, who has steered the Red Light’s open-mic night for the last four-and-a-half years, scans the dark environs of the Red Light on a recent Wednesday night. “It’s completely different from week to week,” he says. “You never know when it’s going to be good or bad ... but I love doing this. It’s a nice oasis in the middle of the week.”

Madden is not an owner or employee of the Red Light. He works in real estate, but undertakes what is admittedly an often torturous gig every Wednesday night because, more than anything, Madden is a musician. He would much rather talk about the guitars he owns than the houses he’s trying to sell. With Madden at the helm, the open-mics at the Red Light have become more of a musical gathering than just another amateurs’ night.

“This is where everyone gets their start, sure,” he says, “but I think people have a real misconception about these things. I’ve had a 3-year-old girl sing her first ABC song and a 75-year-old playing violin. I’m just continuing something I learned in the ’60s. I’m not doing anything different. You need a user-friendly place where nobody gets uptight ... and that’s what we’re doing here.”

Mark Smith (no relation to Sean Smith) drives from L.A. — that is, Lower Alabama — every other week just for the chance to play three songs on the Red Light’s stage. “I’m just looking for that big break, ya know?” Smith says with a shrug.

That big break, though, is unlikely to come at an open-mic night. Legend has it Garth Brooks was discovered at an open-mic in Nashville, but it’s just a myth that talent scouts and A&R people are scoping out unknowns at random in their spare time. Those days are over (if they ever existed before). At best, playing an open-mic can only serve as a stepping stone to a mid-week gig at that particular club. And that’s only if you’re really good.

While stardom may be far off for open-mic performers, a little cash may not be. Unlike Wednesdays at the Red Light Café, Mondays at Eddie’s Attic are a competition with judges and a cash prize for the winner. And country-folk artist Marlin Brackett, an Eddie’s Attic regular, has won many gigs at the club due to his persistence with the open-mic. “I used to go home saying to myself, ‘Man, those judges are nothing but a bunch of drunk firemen’ whenever I wasn’t chosen,” he says. “Then one night, I was picked to win. So I was driving home that night thinking to myself, ‘God, what if those judges are a bunch of drunk firemen?’”

To be a judge at Eddie’s Attic Open-Mic, you must meet the following criteria: First, you must be a sentient life form and, second, you must like to eat and drink for free. There is a score sheet involved, but the bottom line for judges, as with performers, is just to follow their heart. While the competitive aspect makes for a slightly different scene at Eddie’s, you’re likely to spot many of the same people from Wednesdays at the Red Light. Madden himself was a recent Monday night finalist at Eddie’s, which landed him a Wednesday night gig at the club — a gig he had to turn down to go back and host open-mic night at the Red Light.

Cover charge for the open-mic night at both clubs is $3, whether you’ll be performing or just listening. At the Red Light, the policy is loosely enforced, with an empty beer pitcher often left at the door, alongside the sign-up sheet, for patrons to stuff money in. At Eddie’s, newcomers invariably show up demanding free entry as one of the evening’s performers, only to be lectured by the doorman on where the prize money and payroll for club employees come from. (Full disclosure: I’ve been both a naive freebie seeker and, later, an Eddie’s doorman.)

Eddie’s Attic owner Eddie Owen, who still religiously hosts the weekly open-mic night, says, “When we started this thing, we had to beg people to play, now we’re turning them away. It’s become my most consistent night.” While he says making the event a competition “gets more media attention, which is good for everyone involved,” he also points to other benefits of having regular open-mic nights. “Probably the most rewarding thing is the networking musicians can do here. It leads to so many good things, from knowing where to get a good steak biscuit when you’re on the road, to getting good gigs. I encourage touring acts to do the open-mics for this reason.”

With its cash prizes, Eddie’s does tend to draw more established touring acts. Last year, when national touring act Don Conoscenti won the $1,000 Shootout, there was some grumbling among the rank-and-file that a bully had invaded the kiddie pool, grabbing the spotlight (and the money). But, in the end, “open-mic” means open-mic. It’s not just for amateurs, it’s for anyone who bothers showing up.

Owens certainly is not about to apologize. He’s more apt to quote what’s printed at the bottom of the information sheet he gives to every player when they sign up: “If you don’t win, it doesn’t mean you suck!”

Sean Smith knows he doesn’t suck, but as the second finalist at this week’s Eddie’s open-mic competition torches on about her long lost love, he does start to vent some of his frustration with the open-mic game. Week after week of driving from Chattanooga and playing his heart out, he gripes, only to get voted out in the finals.

“I love the competition aspect here at Eddie’s,” he says, “because it forces you to improve yourself. Yes, it can be frustrating, but that’s why I started volunteering to be a judge — so I could see things from the other side and better understand my own frustration.”

While Smith vents, the third finalist is announced. It’s Sean Smith. Surprised to hear his name, Smith offers a coy look — as if to say “forget everything I just said” — and runs off to fetch his guitar. Tonight, he’ll get to do one more song.

Eddie’s Attic holds its open-mic night every Monday, starting at 8 p.m. Call 404-377-4976 for more information. The Red Light Café’s open-mic night is every Wednesday, starting at 8 p.m. Call 404-874-7828 for more information.??