On the microphone

If nothing else, Sacramento’s open-mic scene is always interesting to observe—particularly if you’ve been away from it for a while. For those who don’t know the drill, open-mics are evenings when literally anyone can sign up, hit the stage and take the microphone. Sign-ups usually take place ahead of time, and musical performers usually run through two or three songs each. On a good night, visitors are faced with a barrage of the very worst singer-songwriters to grace local stages, plus a few surprisingly good newcomers and an occasional veteran musician looking to debut some new material. Sometimes, there are moments of real brilliance.

A few years back, the Old Ironsides open-mic was orchestrated by local musician Grub Dog, lead singer and songwriter for the blisteringly loud Americana-leaning rock band the Amazing Sweethearts. Since Grub’s departure for Austin, Texas—a town that more closely mirrors his musical leanings—the Old Ironsides open-mic has been hosted by the venue’s regular soundman, Lare Crawley. For the most part, the mixture of good, bad and just plain weird music remains the same.

Last week, Old I’s open-mic was slow to start—at least in terms of audience and performers. There were only 10 or so onlookers at the beginning of the evening. (Most of them, interestingly enough, were well past the age of 40.) Among the best of the early-evening performers were the solo, acoustic, blues-tinged songs of Henry Robinson, who commanded the stage with a gruff, booming voice. One local performer thought his singing was akin to Joe Cocker’s (and that’s saying something). Robinson is a veteran of local blues stages, and his stage presence, song structure and vocal command certainly displayed that performing experience.

More surprising, but nonetheless impressive in his weird way, was newcomer Ryan Fabian. Quite frankly one of the strangest performers I’ve seen on the Old Ironsides stage in a good long while, Fabian hails from the East Coast and plays solo progressive slap bass to a drum machine. Lest it sound more ordinary than it is, Fabian’s live set is something like watching a man who has grabbed a live power cable try to play along with a P-Funk record on 78-rpm speed. If that wasn’t enough, Fabian sings in a weirdly off-key voice that sounds like it’s coming from the bottom of a well.

Lest the reader think my use of these unnecessary similes means I disliked Fabian’s set, I most certainly did not. It was interesting, provocative and had the effect of driving most of the patrons out the door. That’s good entertainment, as far as I’m concerned. (In fact, anytime there are more people outside the front door smoking than inside a bar, I can’t help but assume something really interesting is happening inside.) Fabian rocked out to just two or three people without mercy. Good for him.

Local singer-songwriter Jay Shaner played two new songs later in the evening, both of which were interesting, sonically complex tunes in keeping with Shaner’s slow, moody ballads. I’m looking forward to hearing those on record sometime soon.

It was about that time (pushing 11 p.m.) that Old Ironsides started filling up, and the median age of the patrons dropped significantly to the mid-20s. Apparently, the young folks can stay up later.