Chummy cabaret

Here’s the reason the sign-up list for the open mic at Walden’s Coffeehouse fills up in minutes every Saturday night

Performers take the stage at Walden’s weekly open mic event.

Performers take the stage at Walden’s weekly open mic event.

Photo by David Robert

<div align="right">“Where there is music, there can be no evil.”
—Miguel de Cervantes,
Don Quixote </div>

I found open mics quite by accident.

When I was going to school in Berkeley, I had dreams of being a comedian. I went to my first open mic at a place called Bison Brewery one Sunday evening. I went in wearing a heavy, brown, leather bomber jacket with “fuck you” written all over my face. I asked the host, a long, silver-haired guy, if I could do my act. He said it was a music open mic, but sure, why not?

I sat there waiting my turn as a guy played nasty blues on a National steel acoustic guitar. He belted it out pretty well. I sat and listened in reverence.

I was next. I started my set. Nobody liked it, so I cut straight to a joke about being one-sixteenth Italian. A guy started heckling me, so I yelled some obscenities and quickly got off stage. I asked him what his problem was, and he told me to stop making fun of Italians because he was one.

For what this story’s worth, it made me realize a music open mic is no place for budding comics. But, I kept coming back as an audience member because the music was good. It was always good.

Well, fate eventually swept me to Reno. After getting settled, I tired of my CDs and apartment walls, so I set out. There were some open mics, but they were wedged in dark, dingy holes. Then, members of a local band told me about the open mic at Walden’s Coffeehouse. I was legitimately surprised and impressed.

Walden’s appears to be a throwback to cozy, hand-assembled wooden cabins. The owner, Jeff Wilson, greets you with a smile and a handshake, and the women working the counter are as charming as the snug environment is.

On a Saturday night, the front center of the room is energized by stage lights, and if you’re sitting there around 7 p.m., a big bald guy with a mild goatee will ask you—in a polite, gentle voice—to move. Then he’ll set up amps, microphones and a central sound system. This is Todd South, and he’s the host.

Then, the musicians set up.

“Could I have a glass of water? My guitar player’s fingers are fried,” a blond, 20-something woman asks the girl at the counter. Then, she and her four-piece band take their equipment on stage.

A lot of fingers fry at Walden’s. There are 12 spots available on the sign-up list, and the venue has become so popular that if you want to play you have to sign up over the phone or in person at 5 p.m. The list is full by 5:10. There are twice as many musicians in the audience than those who are able to play on any given night.

As I wait for the first band to set up, I’m eager. It’s always fun to watch this quiet coffeehouse transform into a dynamic live music showcase. On this Saturday night, the place isn’t quite as packed as usual, but the music is as good as ever.

Beverly Matthews, 23, plays a passionate set. She has wandering vocals accompanied by an introspective guitar. When she’s done, I pull her aside and ask her what she thinks about the environment Wilson has created.

“I think [it has] a nice vibe, and everybody is really friendly with each other.” Her interview is interrupted several times, as friends come by and say hi.

“People aren’t anonymous here, they’re friendly,” says Gregory Cladwell, a 37-year-old physics student who can cover nearly any song ever written. He usually takes the No. 1 spot in order to warm up the crowd. “This is a great audience. They listen to everything; they give you a chance.”

Some of the rawest, most powerful and heartfelt music I’ve ever heard comes out of this homey little coffee shop. But I think as many people come to experience the sense of community as they do for the music—and that community and ambiance begin with owner Jeff Wilson. He pops with enthusiasm for every face that walks in the door.

“He’s everyone’s biggest fan here,” says South. “And that’s really rare.”

Wilson started the open mic two years ago as a way to bring in customers. He’s a 60 Minutes Mike Wallace look-alike in an apron who used to work for a major mining company. He had offices in Honduras, Mexico and the United States. When the price of gold dropped, he was laid off.

“I’ve done all the Indiana Jones stuff,” Wilson says, “but this is the most fun I’ve had in my whole life. When I’m washing dishes in the back room, I’m dancing when I hear the music … and I’m the owner. I wash more dishes than anyone here.”

The walls at Walden’s are adorned with pictures of the hundreds who’ve performed during the last two years. South has developed a Web site, performers-@FullList.shtml, which gives in-depth profiles of all past performers. But the most extensive records on Reno’s budding musicians exist in Wilson’s head. He’s an encyclopedia. He can readily volunteer information on every musician who walks through the door.

“Hey Chris,” he shouts to a man in a cowboy hat, shirt and jeans. Then, to me: “He plays country-western; he’s a soloist. He’s been coming here for two years.”

I haven’t performed any comedy at an open mic in a long time, and I do miss it—well, actually, not that much. My routine was no good that night at Bison’s, and I didn’t like being responsible for ruining everyone’s high. So, I have taken up the harmonica instead.

I decide to play some blues at Walden’s for the first time. I’m a little shaky, but I manage not to puncture the good vibe. Wilson takes my picture, and I fill out a form to be on the Web site. I’ll know I’ve made it, though, when Wilson can recite my stats as I walk through his door.

Musicians of all kinds and from all over come to Walden’s. Some from the University of Nevada, Reno, and from their houses down the street. Some from Nashville, San Francisco and New York. Some of them have rock ‘n’ roll dreams; others have traded those dreams in for families and steady jobs but come to Walden’s every Saturday to forget their bosses and to remember old licks and riffs.

“Basically, you end up doing music because you love it,” says Rich Campbell, a dental ceramist who spent 10 years in Nashville trying to become famous.

Wilson has created a magnet that attracts anyone who has something to offer. He has a CD rack against the wall that holds the original work of a dozen Reno bands and solo artists. He introduces musicians to one another. Connections are made, bands are formed and informal recording agreements forged in this small café every Saturday as evening turns to night.

“I mean, it’s just exploding," Wilson says.