Guitar-drone introverts, Johnny Lang revivalists, and bossa nova duos might never wind up touring the country together, but if there's one place they can all call home, it's the open-mic night. This tradition is so far under the radar of press releases and blog playlists that it's easy to forget how many musicians are making first-time crash landings every night. I devoted a week to hitting up some of Boston's open-mic hot spots.
First stop: Lizard Lounge, between Harvard and Porter Squares in Cambridge. In the deep red shadows of this neon, womb-like subterranean pad sits host Tom Bianchi, a former subway busker who's evolved into a Louie-Anderson-on-Family-Feud-type figure for the singer-songwriter set. "Oh my God, where has this girl been!" he asks as an old regular makes a surprise appearance. Then he scolds her for taking too long to tune.
The Lizard Lounge open mic (held every Monday) is run as a contest where each person is given 10 minutes of mic time to plead his or her case. As we work through the night, there's a lot of Ani DiFranco–style pop folk and '90s radio-rock soul searching. A Phish song is covered. Manny Cardoso, a barber from Dorchester in sparkly Nikes, sings a slow-dance R&B jam over a glittery backing track.
It's an entirely different scene at Central Square's Cantab Lounge, a Rust Belt hang with 40-year-old beer logo mirrors and grungy Tiffany lamps. A leathery aftershave man takes a chill turn playing rugged blues; a greaser punk from Manchester, Massachusetts, does Shane MacGowan booze croons. Cantab regular Charlie Lew, with neat gray hair in a plush green velvet sportscoat with brass buttons, lays into the theme from High Noon with a rich, frowny-mouthed baritone and some serious Leonard Nimoy acting chops.
Geoff Bartley, a long-time folkie who spent the '80s on tour across the country, has run this Monday-night open mic since 1991. He calls up the performers on his list slowly, with a cozy, grumpy-old-man reluctance. "I'm a benevolent dictator. It's my job to entertain, so I'll always make sure I have people who know what they're doing to set a strong tone for the night, but it's also a time to get people up on stage for the first time."
Wednesday night at King's, the upscale bowling alley/club just off Boylston Street near the Prudential Center, I find a far younger operation. Maarten Reijnierse, a tall ex-pat from Holland, has just taken charge of this expansive room that brings to mind an out-of-the-way Vegas hotel lounge. "We're working on getting people from all over the city into this," he says, but for now the participation is skewed toward a certain music school down the street. "Okay, Berklee had midterms last week and it was dead in here."
A studious Mellencamp-esque four-piece follow a performance from a girl with a husky soul voice as Reijnierse gallops from the stageside soundboard to the back of the room trying to monitor the sound, weaving through tables opposite the black-short-skirted waitress. He thanks the band and calls up the next duo, who've gigglingly signed up as "Dirk Diggler and the Dude."