Oh, the sweet desperation of open mic night, where guitar strumming novices chase dreams and unfamiliar melodies catch the ears of drunkards and casual critics. Whether it’s a marketable pop rock band with tall boots and attitude, or an aged folk singer bellowing abstract poetry in the foreground of a soft guitar, open mic nights are sure to bring raw performances with heart. These people are pursuing dreams, or just have something important to say. It’s a long shot or a cry in the dark; it’s signing with a record label or going home with peace of mind after sharing something sensitive or affecting with curious strangers.
Of course, the audience doesn’t get a bum deal either. To be in the presence of an artist’s vulnerability is somehow sweeter when they’re not getting paid for it – when they perform for the love of their art or for the possibility of a new life. After all, the most intimate rock star is undiscovered, telling her secrets to a small crowd in a haggard, beat down bar.
Surprisingly, South Florida does occasionally kick the DJ off center stage to make room for guys with guitars and sweaty palms. Throughout our search of venues hosting local musicians and poets we found some favorites we hope you’ll enjoy:
The Miami Elks Lodge
Ignore the sign on the door that reads “members only” and walk right into this musty, folksy bar with bearded, outdoorsy-looking patrons. A disco ball hangs from the ceiling; it’s a fantastic scene – unlike any other place in the area. To start a tab, all you need to give the trusting bartender is your name. Drinks are insanely cheap – quality beer is $2 a pop. The bar counter is even cushioned, so it’s easy on the elbows and possibly the face if you’ve had too many.
The lodge boasts more than 1,000 members who give generously to charities promoting drug awareness, youth activities, scholarships and more. But on Thursday nights, the group opens its doors to the masses of friendly flannel-wearing weirdoes, some of whom look like they belong in a Creedence Clearwater Revival cover band.
One recent Thursday night, the Hash House Harriers were partying after a good jog. They’re motto: “We’re a drinking group with a running problem.” The group derived its name from the British soldiers in Malaysia during the late 1930s. The soldiers would run and reward themselves with beer afterwards, said “Hasher” and open mic performer Melanie Stewart.
The sound of a guitar and a grizzly voice catch my attention. It’s South Miami psychologist Sandy Mintz performing songs like “Little Beggar Man” and “Grizzly Bear” with a couple of buddies – one jamming out on a harmonica. It’s a sound you won’t find in many Miami spots, and it’s pretty refreshing.
Thursday nights; 6304 SW 78th St., Miami – (305) 270-8283
Monday nights in Churchills won’t disappoint art junkies in need of a fix. An impressive jazz band jams inside before an intimate crowd. The band plays on a filthy piece of carpet in the middle of the ratty building – one light shining down on the sax player.
Meanwhile host and poet Benjamin Shahoulian sets up the open mic stage outside in a hip, graffiti covered patio where a cool crowd smokes funny cigarettes. He calls the show “Theater Underground.”
“Let’s do the old school, Beatnick bass thing in the background,” he tells the members of local alternative rock band Dropping Jupiter. The bass player gives him an intense beat and Shahoulian, with a shaved head and bushy beard, didactically recites his entertaining rhymes with titles like “Starving rabbits f— and eat each other’s young.”
In one of his poems, Shahoulian describes himself as a “nonconformist,” as I would imagine much of the Churchill’s crowd does – or at least the two ladies who were dancing in skin-tight cat suits near the audience during Shahoulian’s reading. Another poet, Dan Serro, 75, performed readings of his poems with titles like “A Dabbler in Universes.” The band set up their instruments while the artists discussed the heavy hand of evil government.
Frank Padron sang happy folk songs in Spanish. He plays metal, Cuban, Latin rock, and world music. As he played a catchy new song to the amiable crowd, he makes a mistake and curses himself, explaining that he recently wrote the song. The crowd erupts in raucous applause and Padrón starts it up again with renewed energy and the audience on his side, clapping to the melody.
The artsy party continued until 3 a.m.
Monday nights; 5501 NE 2nd Ave., Miami, 33127; (305) 757-1807
David Packouz, bald with a leather jacket and goatee, is a friendly masseuse and a former arms dealer who is awaits sentencing for crimes he allegedly committed while vice president of an arms dealing company. But, as a free man at the moment, he covers Pink Floyd pretty well at Jazid’s “Open Minds” night on Mondays.
Packouz is like many performers at open mic nights; he wants his original music to take off. His album, Microcosm, actually sounds a bit like Pink Floyd.
Art enthusiast Sophie Moon hosts the show at the Washington Avenue spot, and describes some impressive ambitions.
“I want to change the world,” she says, wide-eyed, “which I know is crazy. We are starting a movement to bring Miami to the next level.”
Moon also hosts open mic nights Thursdays at the Uva Lounge in Coral Gables, and on Tuesdays at Automatic Slims on the Beach.
Jazid entertains an interesting, artsy crowd ranging from young men in dreadlocks to worldly poets with snow white hair. You’ll find a DJ spinning, another bar, and a small dance floor on the second story of the funky venue. Downstairs is intimate and candlelit. The show starts up at around 11:30 p.m. or midnight.
Mondays; 1342 Washington Avenue, Miami Beach, 33139; (305) 673-9372
Little Hoolie’s Sports Bar and Grill
This open mic night presents about four bands every Thursday and it’s been going on for about nine years. Most of the rockers play good ol’ classic rock, and many of them look like they belong in an ACDC cover band.
Los Angeles resident Sharon Borrego of the band Pretty Little Problem, was jamming out with her Miamian sisters Kristen Borrego and Erika Coromina – all young, attractive ladies.
“We’re trying to take it all the way,” says Sharon Borrego of her L.A.-based band.
The ladies played some good tunes like Guns and Roses – “Sweet Child of Mine” and a couple of the Beatles numbers. Unfortunately, they also played Katy Perry’s atrocious track, “I Kissed a Girl.” But whatever – they were having fun.
Many of the patrons in this smoky place are beyond hammered. They puff cigarettes, blurt obscenities and claw at my camera for no apparent reason. It’s a fantastic spot for rough, sweaty rock and roll, and to watch pretty women jam out.
Thursday nights; 13135 S.W. 89th Pl., Miami, 33176; 305-252-9155
Luna Star Café
Slurp some delicious java or foreign beer and enjoy the groovy tunes at Luna Star Café’s open mic night, usually on the second and fourth Saturdays each month. The last show of this year, however, is Nov. 28, and will start about 8 p.m. Each performer may play about three songs.
The café gives off a 1960s, retro-New-York-City vibe. According to owner and creator Alexis Sanfield, the event brings out about 18 to 20 spectators of the acoustic folk music. But that’s not the only kind of performance the café hosts.
“We got some poets, writers, and comedians who perform sometimes,” said Sanfield, who’s been entertaining guests of the café for 13 years. “As far as music goes, we typically want people to play original stuff.”
The café sells 150 different flavors of beer, but none of the common, boring brews like Budweiser or Miller. Sanfield favors her selections from Belgium and Brooklyn – the top selling beer is a Belgian brew called Kwak. She also offers a variety of wines.
The most popular meal on the menu is the Mediterranean salad. Sanfield also brags about the great pastas, pizzas and sandwiches and duck wings. No television sets in this joint; when music isn’t playing, Sanfield wants the interesting patrons’ rich conversation to dominate the atmosphere. Bring cash – this café doesn’t tolerate plastic.
Second and fourth Saturday each month; 775 NE 125th St., North Miami, 33161; 305-799-7123; www.lunastarcafe.com
This Irish pub is probably the folksiest and the coziest of the bunch, with many of the Bob Dylanesque, twangy performers leaving you feeling happy and thinking deeply.
A girl and guy alternative rock duo gave it everything they had on the tiny stage nestled in the bar’s corner. Danny Edell, 26 and LaShawn Bowens, 23 met on Craigslist and formed the band Styles of Saturn. It was their first time playing to the unusually thin crowd at John Martin’s. They weren’t exactly expecting the folksy vibe, and their music didn’t quite fit in with the rest of the set, but they’re happy to play anywhere.
Pub manager Maria Perez says the action starts up a little after 8 p.m. on Sundays and can continue for as long as 12 a.m., depending on the crowd and number of performers. The show is all about folk music, but occasionally they’ll slip in some jazz artists.
Any brave soul is allowed to try out the microphone. There is even a little area where performers can practice before they go on stage. You’ll often hear covers of U2, Bob Dylan, and Johnny Cash songs. But you’ll never hear an electric guitar – it’s all acoustic. You will hear tambourines, harmonicas, guitars, bongo drums and an occasional poem.
Customer and open mic fan Alex George, 21, digs the John Martin’s scene. “You get to hear lots of different people – a good variety,” he said.
Sunday nights: 253 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables, 33134; (305) 445-3777
Every Tuesday night, about 30 performers take the stage for the Vagabond’s Stone Groove open mic event. The show starts up at about 11 p.m. and goes until about 2:30 a.m. “By three o’clock, everybody has had great night,” says host Marcus Blake. Performers can sign in throughout the night, and there is no cut-off time. “If I have space on the list then I let them on.”
Blake likens his responsibility to that of a classical music conductor, as he must keep the flow. But what happens when the performers aren’t up to snuff and the audience isn’t reacting?
“To me, it’s only three minutes, so I let them do their thing,” he said. “If they come in next week, we know where to put them on the list. At least they have confidence to get on the mic and express themselves.”
Those expressions come in the form of poetry, hip hop, and even stand-up comedy routines. Blake mixes it up with little breaks so the patrons can dance around the psychedelic-looking room. “We try to keep it different from a lot of other places where you just sit all night.”
About 150 people check out the front room of the bar – an intimate venue for the show. The crowd is varied, and so are the performers, and they’re all there to enjoy themselves.
“They’re extremely diverse,” Blake says of the performers. “Maybe it’s that its downtown, but we pull everyone, from the hipsters to the hoodsters.”
Tuesday; 30 NE 14th St., Miami, FL 33132-1311; (305) 379-0508