Is this thing on?

Open Mikefull celebrates 10 years of weekly series

On stage: (from left) Jim Brobeck, Susan Dobra and John-Michael Sun.

On stage: (from left) Jim Brobeck, Susan Dobra and John-Michael Sun.

“All we do is set up mikes and people come in and do the most amazing things,” said Susan Dobra, co-founder and emcee of Chico’s longstanding Open Mikefull series, now celebrating 10 years of providing a performance place for the experienced and inexperienced, the confident and trepidatious.

The Feb. 10 edition of the weekly open-mic enjoyed a beefed-up attendance, with about 100 people crossing the Café Culture threshold for its 10-year birthday party. The evening offered a microcosm of any week’s proceedings, including the smell of fresh chai and the occasional hot-beverage machine’s frothing sounds. A couple dozen musicians sat with their guitar cases loyally by their sides.

There was no headliner or big-name act on this night, but the long string of performances certainly didn’t disappoint. Jim Brobeck paid musical tribute to ailing philosopher, professor, and man-about-town Greg Tropea with a Townes Van Zandt song; John-Michael Sun offered a self-penned tribute to Dobra, his life partner; and Naomi “Vice” Ruth Eisenberg, whose music career began 40-plus years ago in San Francisco, passionately sang a bluesy number over a delightfully fuzzed-out guitar.

While it has changed venues a couple of times, one thing has remained constant: Dobra. The affable emcee, a singer-songwriter herself, has always been there to offer performers some encouraging words, a big smile and perhaps the most important ingredient, respect.

Many local musicians’ pedigrees include early performances on the Open Mikefull stage, where they found a supportive audience that helped give them the courage and encouragement to continue on. Examples include Chico-area mainstays Mike Comfort, Ali Battaglia, Aubrey Debauchery, Karen Joy Brown, John Staedler, Dee Dee Vest and MaMuse’s Karisha Longaker.

Open Mikefull sprang from Dobra’s own experiences. When she first came to town in the mid-’90s, Dobra soaked up Chico’s thriving live music scene, which included such diverse acts as Stout and Downers, Puddle Junction, the Incredible Diamonds and the Becky Sagers. But despite the cornucopia of live music venues and players to fill those clubs, Dobra found unfortunate the lack of a solid, ongoing open-mic event.

“I used to be an open-mic performer,” Dobra said. “I used to want to play, but it took a lot for me to get up on stage and play for people, and I appreciated the people who were encouraging me; it made it not so scary. I wanted to be that for other people.”

Dobra’s vision united with that of Tropea, who ran Humboldt Studios at the time. She asked, he said yes, and 10 years later the weekly open-mic show is still giving performers a chance to show their stuff for about 10 minutes. Originally called Open Mikeless, the event changed names and moved to Has Beans in 2002, and ran there for seven years until the café’s recent remodel sparked the next evolutionary step. Greg Fletcher at Café Culture quickly picked up the weekly series, making it a permanent gig every Wednesday night.

Now that Has Beans is back in operation, the small café is on the bandwagon once again as well for what will be an additional monthly version of the open-mic series (first Thursdays, including March 4 for a bonus birthday celebration).

Alongside Dobra, Dan Casamajor has acted as the event’s tech guru and archivist since 2002. Casamajor (whose father, Gordon, was the mayor of Chico in the late 1960s) can spin a folk yarn with the best of ’em, and during the birthday show, with guitar and harmonica strapped on, he took the time between clever musical illustrations to make it clear that his affinity for Open Mikefull, and its hostess, runs deep.

“Open mic revolves around Susan’s joyfulness and graciousness,” he told the gathering. “She will send you home feeling like a star even if you need to go home and practice some more. It’s a labor of love and a highlight of our week, a focal point of our lives.”