Bong hits and Hollywoodbubbleheads

Checking out the local talent at Old Ironsides’ open-mike nightby Richard Ehisen

Dustin Frost at Old I.

Dustin Frost at Old I.

Photo By Larry Dalton

So you want to be a rock ’n’ roll star? It’s not out of the question, given Sacramento’s recent track record for breaking bands nationally. But before you can become Cake, Deftones or Oleander, there are dues to be paid. And, for many aspiring singers and songwriters, the process begins by dragging yourself onstage at one of the many open-mike nights around town.

Open mike nights are a pretty simple concept—you get there on time; you sign up for an open slot, and you make the most of your 10 minutes onstage.

One of the better examples is held Wednesday nights at Old Ironsides, at 10th and S streets downtown. Hosted by 7Seconds/Go National front man Kevin Seconds, it usually draws a mix of acts onstage, new performers as well as some of the area’s more seasoned and talented musicians.

A recent visit didn’t disappoint.

To really appreciate an open mike, you should get there early enough to see people sign up. The performers are easy to spot. There are, of course, the usual suspects—Jeff Prince of Roy’s Love Virus, Warren Bishop of Mojo Filter and longtime hometown favorite Anton Barbeau. They’re part of a group of regulars who show up here almost every Wednesday, and they banter back and forth as everyone draws the number that determines when they’ll play. Getting your number called early means you get your pick of slots, usually before it gets too late in the evening. The show usually runs past midnight, and early slots fill up fast. Many performers covet the early spots, especially those who have to work the next day; a late draw has convinced more than one musician to pack it in and try for next week.

Soon everyone has a slot, and Seconds gets the show rolling. This is his seventh year of hosting open mikes, and it shows. He’s a great host, quick with the jokes and always very encouraging to the people coming to the stage. This is good, as some of the performers look pretty nervous, their faces tense and serious. They sit by themselves, quietly strumming a guitar or just staring at a wall like a boxer trying to get focused before a fight.

The tension seems to get to the first guy to take the stage. He starts out off-key. It doesn’t get any better. A monotone voice and limited guitar-playing ability conspire with a morose beat and low energy to create a less-than-stellar experience. Sadly, like many new acts, he has bought into the theory that the longer you play, the better, and both of his songs drag on for what seems like an eternity. The crowd is polite, but midway through the second tune, they begin to murmur among themselves. Behind the soundboard, Seconds busies himself with other duties.

Time for a beer. The evening has definitely started with a resounding thud.

The energy makes a dramatic upswing when Jeff Prince takes the stage. Affable and funny, he’s one of the more clever songwriters in the area, and he has a solid stage presence. A few technical difficulties crop up, but he handles them with ease. The crowd starts to perk up as well, and soon Prince is tearing into one of his signature songs, an ode to Hollywood bubblehead Mira Sorvino.

Anton Barbeau follows Prince to the small stage. Another talented songwriter, Barbeau also has a penchant for doing the “storyteller’s” version of his work. The crowd seems to like it, mostly when he caps on a younger generation’s choice in music. Somewhere between all the chatter, he sings songs about checks in the mail and “bong hits for everyone.” He even manages a really good version of Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust,” one of the few covers played tonight.

Scott Schults is next. Schults is an interesting performer, a great singer with a velvety smooth voice and a look straight from the 1950s. His forte is rockabilly, a musical and sartorial style that stands out among this introspective singer/songwriter crowd like a small island in a vast sea of blue. Cuffed jeans, coiffed hair and a skinny tie make him look a little like rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Gene Vincent, and he breaks into a solid version of Vincent’s “Blue Jean Bop,” accompanying his voice with a restored Gretsch guitar. No three-chord basher, he draws a deep, full sound from the Gretsch that fills the entire room. He draws a nice reaction from the crowd as he finishes.

After Schults comes another open-mike staple: the evening’s featured performer. Usually drawn from among the regulars, this act gets a full half-hour to show off. Tonight’s guest is another solid local songwriter, David Houston.

People begin to filter in, and the bar is filling up. By this point, Houston manages to grab the crowd’s attention with his tight songs about love and loss. The crowd really begins to eat it up, and the half-hour flies by. Upon finishing, Houston mentions that his CD is on sale over by Kevin’s table. Sweet.

After a short break, the quality entertainment continues. A Bono-esque singer named Aaron comes on, his voice filled with range that Bono has never had. Warren Bishop is next, and he also draws from a polished and professional collection of songs. The night is going well—almost too well. Surely there can’t be this many really good performers at an open-mike night.

Two of them, Prince and Bishop, sidle up to the bar. Why do they bother showing up every week?

“This is a great lab for trying out new songs,” Bishop says. “I use this as a way to try out stuff on an audience before I introduce it to the band. When you write songs, they always sound good to you, but when you put [one] in front of people, it will either take on legs of its own, or it will have no legs at all.”

Prince just likes the fun of it all.

“I don’t like to use this as a showcase, because I don’t like being under the microscope in front of a crowd,” he says. “To me, this is just a lot of fun and a no-pressure chance to really hone my performance skills.

“Plus,” he adds, “it’s great to hang out with other musicians and use the event as a promotional tool for getting to the people who are out on a weeknight looking for live music.”

Onstage, a duo named Julie and Raymond begins to play. Julie is the only female performer of the evening, and her sultry, bluesy voice resonates with the crowd. Paul Wells, who played keyboard for the recently disbanded Sex 66, has stopped by, and he sits right up front to check these two out. They’re pretty tight musically, and Wells falls into a finger-snapping groove with the tunes. As they finish, the audience gives them a nice response.

It’s after 11 p.m., and the players keep coming. A man named Simon Ennis comes on, and the crowd goes wild. He tells the crowd he’s having women trouble; then he lays out the details in a song. It looks and sounds as though Ennis has brought his entire family or a lot of friends, as they keep going apeshit for everything he does.

By 11:30 p.m., the crowd thins out quite a bit, with mostly musicians left sitting up front. The bar’s still hopping, and a young man named Chris takes the stage. He has the Bohemian look down, and he’s also brought a large contingent of vocal supporters. An acoustic version of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun"? Time for another beer.

Finally, the evening’s final act begins playing. Somehow, his name isn’t announced. It doesn’t matter. It’s pretty late. Nevertheless, he comes through with a pretty decent pair of likable songs, one in particular about cheap beer. His voice may not be the best, but you can’t argue with the subject matter.

Afterward, Seconds thanks the crowd and reminds everyone of what is coming up in future weeks. Sometime earlier, he’s convinced Schults to be a featured performer, which he now announces. The regulars clap and shout. It makes a lasting impression—the support the musicians give to each other as they take turns onstage, and when they gather afterward.

All in all, the night is a success. Good tunes, no cover. Not a bad way to spend a chilly Sacramento evening.