South rises again
The area’s best open-mic night, the Reno Music Project, is resurrected. Hallelujah!
Passing through the gauntlet of practice rooms in the long corridor of closed doors on the way to the loft at Maytan Music, one hears the sounds of practice, practice, practice. Nervous, nickel-plated complaints of electric guitar strings strain and screech up and down the octave as they’re re-tuned and bent mid-shred. Fingers dance and skip across the bass notes of a piano, finally settling on a blues chord and hammering it repeatedly, exploring some simple melodic embellishments and finally building into a riff until the rhythm sputters out into a symphony of frustration. Then, back to the tedium of practicing scales.
The performance room at Maytan is a huge space with an academic feel. It probably seats close to 300, a great increase from the series’ former venue at Walden’s Coffeehouse.
Like any new home, the place could use a bit of furniture—some comfy armchairs and a few tables. Except for the hundred or so metal folding chairs set up in rows in front of the stage, it’s practically furnished with instruments. A huge black bass drum sits against a far wall. Guitar cases clutter the floor. Music stands hold notes, bags and bottles of water. Cables run in every direction across the blue-gray industrial carpet. The lights flash on and off. Off and on. Decisions are being made quickly here. The man making them is Todd South.
“We’re still working the kinks out,” he says, smiling from behind a huge soundboard, tweaking the knobs and pacing like a nervous father in the delivery waiting room. The Reno Music Project is his baby. Dressed in a purple, almost wine-colored button-down shirt and black pants, South is sweating from the brow of his shaved head. He’s the guy charged with pulling it off.
For seven years, Reno’s most award-winning weekly open mic was a standard at Walden’s in the Mayberry shopping area. For the last five of those years, South ran the series himself, lending his equipment, time and sound expertise to local musicians wanting precious performance time. Then, Walden’s changed ownership, and the new owners decided they no longer wanted to play host.
South was shocked. The weekly performance had grown into a valuable rite-of-passage for local musicians and had even begun drawing national acts touring the area. Though often standing-room only, the crowds were generally well-behaved and bought a lot of drinks.
“We weren’t exactly moshing,” he says.
Still, South isn’t sore. “It was a great venue to play, and now, it’s a great place to go and drink coffee. No hard feelings. Absolutely not.
“It is what it is,” he says conclusively. “We’ve moved on.”
Three guys in Hawaiian shirts arrive a half-hour before the open mic is scheduled to start. They sit in a group and banter. Between the shirts and the metal folding chairs, they look like they could be giving testimonials at a “no money down” real estate seminar. But they’re not here to sell dreams. They’re Reno’s own Mighty Surf Lords—guitarist Billy Woods, bassist Mike Warner, and drummer Jeff Campaigne. The group plays Dick Dale-style instrumental surf rock, jokingly, they say, so they don’t have to sing. They haven’t played live in a while. “You can practice all day long, but there’s no substitute for playing live in front of monitors with a quality P.A. [system],” says Woods.
Once they get their sea legs back, the group plans to perform around the area.
“We are,” South says as though reading off a note card, “one of the few open mics in the entire country with full backline support, full P.A. support, guitar and bass rigs and a grand piano.”
Taking advantage of the grand piano, 24-year-old Echo Olsen is ready to kick off the series in its new home. The musical theater major at TMCC hasn’t done too many open mics, despite the wealth and quality of her original material. “Most coffee shops don’t have room for a grand piano,” she says.
“I don’t think a lot of people know that Walden’s open mic has even moved,” she adds.
Her voice rises smoothly while the chords sink below as Olsen wows the crowd, emoting with her voice and dark piano work.
South seems happy with tonight’s turnout. Somebody walks by with a can of soda. It cracks open and sucks at the air. For the $5 admission, it’s all-you-can drink soda and water. Alcohol is not allowed.
“We obviously don’t get a lot of walk-in traffic,” he says. “That’s our biggest challenge now. We’re not a bar. We’re not a club. We’re completely dependant on word-of-mouth.”
There are 50 to 60 people in attendance tonight.
“I had been thinking of doing something bigger and better [than Walden’s] for years,” he says. “But it just wasn’t the right time and, frankly, there was no reason to get up and leave a situation like that. We had a good thing going there. Things change. Now, the timing is right.”
He fiddles with a knob on the soundboard, damping down the distortion until it’s just right, like a gourmet cooking a steak.
A change of climate
South says the Internet has democratized the music industry and challenged the omnipotence of the greasy, big-handed power labels. If indie music has indeed created a local musical renaissance, then South is a one-man Medici family. His support of live, original, local music is unyielding, to the point where he has actually taken time off from playing in his own band, Burning Peace, in order to get the Reno Music Project off the ground.
The guys from a new band called Red Mercury practice a few last-minute changes in the hall, while a sober bluesman takes the stage and starts picking his troubles away, sliding up and down the fretboard.
South likes to put things into proper perspective. “We’re a casino town,” he says. “That totally influences the kind of performances we get. The culture as a whole hasn’t changed in the past decade, but there are pockets of change. When I was a kid growing up, playing in bands and performing at casinos, we had to play covers. Maybe we’d sneak one or two of our own songs into a set, but that’s not what gamblers want to hear. They want the familiar.”
People want to hear favorites like “Freebird” while they wipe out their retirement accounts.
“I’m trying to give the kids a chance that we never had,” says South.
“Musicians are very good at bitching about the scene. The scene sucks. It’s not this, or it’s not that. But, honestly, the scene is what you make it. There’s big potential here.
“When Walden’s fell through, I thought about opening a restaurant or going into a partnership with another coffee shop but then realized that Maytan was the perfect fit. We’re not going to get kicked out because the owners all of a sudden change their mind and decide that they don’t like music. We don’t have to build the set up and then tear it down every week. Plus, the sound is so good. A lot of acts use the recordings we make of their open-mic performances as demos.”
South says he hopes to expand that aspect and open a small recording studio at Maytan.
In addition to the Friday open-mic performance, South has added “The Musician’s Showcase” series on Saturday nights, drawing original, independent talent from all over the country.
“I’ve already started booking some of those shows, so it should get pretty exciting around here soon,” he says.
South watches a bit of the performance silently, then observes, “The Reno Music Project is about one thing,” he says. “Music.”