It was an unexpected and wonderful open mic night in Portland.
Brendan and I were in town finishing up some gigs he had secured in the local area when we decided that we wanted to experience more music before we left for Eastern Oregon the next day. After a false start at a dive bar named after a potato, we decided we would try this other open mic instead. With a name like The Nest Lounge, how could you go wrong?
We arrived later than the posted start time and followed some other late-arriving musicians up the stairs to our right. The upstairs branched off from the upper level of pool and Ms. Pac-man and we found ourselves in a low-ceiling lounge that contained black vinyl seats and an assortment of flat surfaces to place your drink, one of which looked like a giant boomerang turned coffee table.
“Hey… those guys!” a familiar voice called out as we ducked into the entrance. The voice belonged to a familiar face that we had become friendly with two nights before at the Goodfoot open mic on Monday night.
“Oh hey, Tim!” I replied with surprise. He was a fellow songwriter from upstate New York that juggled being a high school English teacher with songwriting. Open mics were his way of trying out new material. We settled into the couch next to him and started chatting while one of the musicians we had followed in the door and up the stairs started setting up a modest sound system in the lounge.
Our host was Mark and after setting out the sign-up sheet that filled quickly he opened up the evening with some of his songs. The unusual combination of an acoustic bass, a loop pedal, and his voice brought everyone in the room to hush and listen. It set the tone for the evening. I realized that this might be one of the first open mic nights that I had been to where everyone in the room was present to listen, not just wait their turn.
A few more musicians went, then Tim, and then Brendan and I as the Strangest Ways got up to play. “A band!” someone exclaimed as we were setting up. Most of the musicians were there as solo performers so the violin and vocal harmonies got a little bit of extra attention.
We stayed to listen as the night went on. Everyone who got up there was well worth listening to. I remember Derek with his heartfelt lyrics, wistful falsetto, and songs that he owned as he played. Or there was also Eric with his steel guitar and slide that got everyone in the room stomping and clapping. Later, Brendan would confess to me that it was humbling to be in a room with so much talent. “It’s a good reminder that you can’t just walk in anywhere and be the best one there.”
It’s work being a musician. It’s work to stay on top of your game. It’s work to listen to the next note and to play a song you’ve played a million times as if it was the first time you’ve ever performed it. It’s work to promote yourself at every show and hope someone really hears the music. It’s work to scour through dozens or non-answers or rejections to find the gig that pays you enough money for gas to get to the next gig. It’s work to load up everything all over again to spend most of the day driving to then play songs for another 3-4 hours.
It’s also rewarding to be able to feel like I’m on the right path. To be able to park next to a river for a few days to hear the birds and the lapping water and call that place home for a little while. To be able to step into new towns and experience the songs and the siren calls of other people as they are discovering new expressions of themselves. Just as I am.
It’s been just about a week since we set off on this staRVing Artist Tour and it feels as though I have passed through several lifetimes already. Portland was great and we are continuing our trek east into Pendleton, then Boise and onward. Brendan is saying that we are on tour “indefinitely.” I laugh and say, “Let’s just make it to Buffalo.” And so it goes.