Name that tune

A roundup of Sacramento-area open-mic nights

A scene from one of Mondo Bizzarro’s open-mic night, featuring Matt the Bastard.

A scene from one of Mondo Bizzarro’s open-mic night, featuring Matt the Bastard.


Long before The Voice, American Idol and other TV sing-along cheesefests, unsigned and amateur musicians had but few places to get started. Such as open-mic nights, which often are relegated to slow evenings at local bars, but lately are thriving all over Sacramento. They’re free, fun to watch—and can be fun or terrifying if you’re a performer.

During a visit to Nashville, Tennessee, I once wandered into the granddaddy of all open-mics: The Bluebird Café. At Bluebird, aspiring singer-songwriters wait for hours on Mondays just for chance to get on the list. And, even if you make the list, this means you only get to do one song for the owner, who judges whether you get to do a quick 10-minute set later that night, onstage, in front of both industry veterans and also tourists. Country artists such as Kevin Welch and Steve Earle got discovered at Bluebird, and Alan Jackson was bartender there before he hit it big.

Here in Sacramento, it’s not as hard to get stage time. There are lots of open-mics, where audiences typically are supportive—and forgiving—especially if you are new to baring your soul to total strangers.

There are of course rules to performing at open-mics, whether it be at Shine coffeehouse (1400 E Street), Coffee Garden (2904 Franklin Boulevard) or Luna’s Café & Juice Bar (1414 16th Street). Some quick notes:

1. Tune your damn guitar before you go on. Please, I’m begging.

2. Buy something to drink, and tip the bartender.

3. Stick around for other performers after you play.

4. Original songs are better than covers—unless the original song is horrible and you forget the words.

The Fox & Goose (1001 R Street; Monday nights, sign-ups at 7:30 p.m.) has been the Bluebird of the local open-mic scene going on 20 years. Host Dave West drops a ticket with your name on it in a bucket at 7:30 p.m. and starts drawing names at random at 8.

When your time’s up, you’ll be standing on the wood floor in a corner of this rustic pub and get three songs or 10 minutes. There is a good PA and West is a great soundman. Sometimes, local bands do stripped-down acoustic sets, but usually it’s singer-songwriters with guitars. There’s draft Guinness, good vibes and always a big crowd to play your songs to. Underage is OK here up till 9 p.m., so expect a lively younger crowd early and everyone from hipsters to Grizzly Adams look-alikes later.

Venerable blues haven the Torch Club (904 15th Street; Wednesday nights, sign-ups at 5:30 p.m.) rocks with local and touring acts seven nights a week. But on Wednesdays at 5:30 p.m., Sandra Dolores—a talented singer-songwriter in her own right—hosts one of the coolest open-mics in town. First, you get to play on a real stage, just like all the big bands, with lights and a killer PA. Second, if you are lucky, Dolores might sing backup vocals, or local harmonica virtuoso John Malcolm might join your band.

This early-evening venue is great if you’re not into waiting till midnight to go on somewhere. Dolores also invites someone to do an extended 30-minute set every week. The Torch’s dive-bar atmosphere, with locals who have been glued to the bar since 6 a.m., is the real deal. The audience isn’t as big as the Goose, but there are lots of songwriters in attendance, so they actually listen. The fun ends at 8 p.m., when the Wednesday-night band comes on.

Mondo Bizzarro Cafe (1827 I Street; Tuesday nights, sign-ups at 6:30 p.m.) is the new kid on the open-mic block—but still has lots of history. Namely, Matt the Bastard, who we haven’t seen since the demise of the legendary True Love Coffeehouse, where he was open-mic-night ringleader for years.

You’ll see familiar faces such as Dark Lord David Houston, Jackson Griffith and even Kepi Ghoulie—and that’s on a slow night. There’s a patio, too, where you can chill and get your guitar in tune, plus cheap beer and eats. I suggest having your chops down and bringing your best material here, though. Some of these people are real musicians, for God’s sake!

Pangea Two Brews Cafe (2743 Franklin Boulevard, Wednesday nights, sign-ups at 7:30 p.m.) gets the award for the coolest, most-open-to-every-kind-of-music—even hip-hop—open-mic. Host Raj takes signups, and then there is a free-form jazz jam before the first act. After, Raj does sound through his laptop rig, and you might even hear a young Bob Dylan-esque singer, followed by incredible hip-hop poetry, and then possibly a good old boy playing Johnny Cash songs.

The audience here cheers for every act, and there is even a drum kit if you want rhythm on that new song you wrote for your girlfriend. They have an outrageous amount of microbrews on tap—regional craft beers, Belgians—that admittedly are a little pricier than other places, but so worth it.

In short, this place oozes what music is all about. It may be the closest thing the West Coast has to a club in Greenwich Village.

Old Ironsides (1901 10th Street; sign-ups at 8:30 p.m.) fixture Lare Crawley has been around a long time. So, in a sense, he’s the draw at this open-mic—but there are bonus points for getting to play on a real stage. Crawley will even lay down some sweet electric guitar on your song if you want, and the audience at Ironsides can be very respectful—or they might just walk out to the bar in the other room if you suck. The best part is that Ironsides puts three kinds of beer on sale for two bucks when the open-mic starts.

This story has been corrected from its original print version.