Open up and sing ‘ah ’

Reno Music Project

Todd South, <i>sans</i> microphone.

Todd South, sans microphone.

Photo By brad bynum

Walden’s Coffeehouse

3940 Mayberry Dr.
Reno, NV 89509

(775) 787-3307

Todd South is a big man, with the personality to match. He’s jovial and gregarious, with a genuine love of people, and musicians in particular. In the past 20 years, he’s done more to nurture musical talent in this town than just about anybody.

“I’m all about trying to build a community,” he says.

South is the host, soundman, organizer, promoter and general whipping boy of the Reno Music Project, an organization that presents live, all-ages music in an open mic format. A visit to the “performers” section of the RMP website will inspire a nostalgic reverie for anyone who follows Reno music. It inevitably will prompt exclamations of “Look how young he looks there!” or “Man, I forgot about that band! They were great!” as well as the odd, “You know, I’m glad that band isn’t around anymore, they sure sucked.”

The RMP began as the open mic night at Walden’s Coffeehouse. Brothers Josh and Jake Charlebois started it in 2001 but handed the reins off to South the next year. South built it up through heavy promotion—he was into online social networking way before it was cool—and active recruitment of talent. It quickly became an institution. South has an archive of recorded performances dating back to 2003, as well as photos and bios of the performers. The open mic helped launch the careers of acts ranging from Amber Rubarth to Buster Blue.

“That was a fun time, a very creative time, like 2002 to 2005,” says South of the open mic’s heyday.

By 2007, South had rechristened the open mic night the Reno Music Project, in part to loosen the ties between event and venue. It proved to be a prescient move because Walden’s changed ownership that year, and South and the new owners didn’t gel.

For two years, the Reno Music Project was held at Maytan’s Music Center. The performance space there had great acoustics and equipment, but it was a big, ugly room and, unlike Walden’s, there was no alcohol available there, so it was a venue that appealed more to performers than patrons. South had health problems that prompted a hiatus in spring of ’09. The Walden’s open mics attracted a steady, reliable crowd, but the Maytan era fluctuated between packed houses and empty rooms. South hosted the last event there in December.

Then, this spring, Walden’s changed owners again. The new owners, Melissa Townsend and Ron Griffin, approached South about coming back.

“Everybody told me that, back in the day, Walden’s was the place for live music,” says Townsend. “It’s the perfect place for live music, and we really wanted to get back to that, so it seemed perfect to approach the person who did such a good job with it before.”

South has extensive music industry experience. He spent much of the ’90s touring with “party bands … they all had stupid names,” playing covers at parties and weddings. He currently sings and plays guitar in the songwriting-oriented pop-rock band Burning Peace.

It’s important to South that all Reno Music Project events be all-ages. He’s in his early 40s now, but he grew up in Reno and remembers all too clearly the limited possibilities for local musicians and music lovers under 21. So he insists that performers stick with family friendly lyrical content. (He’s quick to point out that there are plenty of barroom open mics to showcase bawdier material.)

So, after nearly three years, Reno Music Project is returning to the neighborhood coffee shop where it began. The parking sucks, noisy espresso machines are likely to interrupt the most delicate songs, and it has a location nobody would describe as “central,” but if it’s Saturday night, and you’ve got a song you need to sing, and you’re looking for a microphone, this is your destination.