Photographed by Luisa Porter.

Sound Check

One two, one two, it’s open mic in the Triangle

Story Slim Smith | Photographs Luisa Porter

“You get a shiver in the dark
It’s raining in the park but meantime
South of the river you stop and you hold everything
A band is blowing Dixie double four time
You feel alright when you hear that music ring”
                               —From “Sultans of Swing” by Dire Straits

It’s a little after 9 o’clock on an August Wednesday night as Alex Hinton steps up to the microphone, shades his eyes with his left hand, scanning the audience of the appropriately named Elbow Room Lounge in downtown Columbus.

“I’m gonna start with an original,” says Hinton, who works across the street at Zachary’s when he’s not working on his music.

The song is called “Nervous,” which appears appropriate to the event: Open Mic Night.

Almost from the time Rob Swindoll and his mother, Barbara, reopened the iconic little neighborhood bar on Second Avenue North three years ago, Wednesday has been Open Mic Night, and while longtime performers such as Hinton show no trace of nerves, the few first-timers who show up to play or sing have their share of musical hiccups, do-overs and the occasional furtive search for the elusive proper key.

A similar scene unfolds a half-hour’s drive west in Starkville at Dave’s Dark Horse Tavern. Monday nights are Singer/Songwriter Night at the funky just-off-downtown nightclub and restaurant opened by Dave Hood in 1995. Like the Swindolls, Hood started his club’s version of open mic almost as soon as he opened for business.

Dave’s features regular events almost every night of the week and Singer/Songwriter Night, now sponsored by WMSV 91.1, has proven to be consistently popular.

While performers do their thing, the regular Monday night darts tournament proceeds at the back of the Tavern.

“Monday nights bring out a great crowd,” Hood says. “Between the darts tournament and the musicians, it’s always a lot of fun.”

You check out Guitar George, he knows all the chords
Mind he’s strictly rhythm, he doesn’t want to make it cry or sing
Left-handed old guitar is all he can afford
When he gets up under the lights to play his thing

Whether it’s a Wednesday night at Elbow Room or a Monday at Dave’s, open mic nights seem to create their own fraternity of sorts where every night is pledge night. Each week it seems, a new member takes his or her place and is quickly embraced.

“We really wanted to create a nurturing, supportive environment for up-and-coming musicians and for people who just love to sing or play,” says Barbara Swindoll. “Rob was very much in the music scene in Boston, and one of the great things about Boston was that there were so many places where you could go and perform, places you could play before a live audience and learn and improve. That’s what we’ve tried to create here and it’s really been popular.”

Open-mic night is a low-stress atmosphere, something that is particularly important for novice musicians who often need a boost in confidence.

Photographed by Luisa Porter.

Photographed by Luisa Porter.

“There’s definitely a sense of camaraderie among the musicians,” Hood says. “The regulars are very welcoming of newcomers, and so is the crowd. There is always applause following each performance.”

Those who perform are quickly on a first-name basis with others. More skilled performers often accompany the less-skilled musicians, which can be a source of encouragement. Some even come together to form bands.

After 21 years, Hood says he’s given up trying to define or characterize the music or musicians.

“I’m always amazed by what shows up,” he says. “It runs the gamut of a girl in boots on an electric cello to an operatic performance by a German duo. You never know. But I think that’s part of the fun of it, too.”

And Harry doesn’t mind if he doesn’t make the scene
He’s got a daytime job, he’s doing alright
He can play the honky tonk like anything
Saving it up for Friday night

While there may no be “typical” open mic performers, some are less typical than others — perhaps none more so than Steve Marlow.

At 63, the retired steelworker has the sort of gruff exterior that would seem to set him apart from the younger, more free-spirited musicians who gravitate to Open Mic Night at the Elbow Room.

Yet there he is, playing his acoustic guitar and singing, as the dread-locked A.J. Love lays down the beat on the drums.

With each performance, he becomes more confident, Marlow says.

“Every time I play, I learn something new.”

He learned to play guitar as a teen growing up in Indiana.

“Then, sometime in my 30s, the guitar got shoved under the bed and stayed there,” he says.

Two events changed that. He retired, and his wife passed away within a year. Marlow turned to music as a diversion and a distraction.

“The first time I ever played before an audience was here at the Elbow Room about a year-and-a-half ago,” he says. “I’ve been coming and playing ever since.”

Those first few performances were pretty stressful, he admits.

“Once you’ve done it, it seems to get a little easier,” he says. “Now, it’s fun every time. For somebody who has never been in front of an audience, this is the place to do it. It’s friendly, safe.”

And a crowd of young boys, they’re fooling around in the corner
Drunk and dressed in their best brown baggies and their platform soles
They don’t give a damn about any trumpet playing band
It ain’t what they call rock and roll
And the Sultans, yeah, the Sultans, they play Creole, Creole

At 29, Jhirre Bush is no stranger to performing before an audience. At 19, she competed in the “Star Search” TV show. The Columbus native is minister of music at her church, where she is the pianist and choir director and soloist.

Photographed by Luisa Porter.

Photographed by Luisa Porter.

Open mic night represents a chance to expand her repertoire and share the popular music she enjoys.

“It’s different,” she says. “Not only the type of music, but the way the audience responds. In church, the reaction is predictable. But here, it’s fresh and unexpected. I really feed off that. I think it’s made me a better singer and a better musician because it has allowed me to really branch out.”

Bush says she also loves comparing notes with other performers and encouraging some of those who are just learning to perform.

“You look around, and you might not think most of us have much in common,” she says. “But when the music starts, it draws us together, and there’s some real bonding going on over music. That’s exactly what I love about music, whether it’s working with my church choir or with the people here. It’s my ministry, not only at church but here, too.”

And then the man, he steps right up to the microphone
And says at last just as the time bell rings,
‘Goodnight, now it’s time to go home.’
And he makes it fast with one more thing

For many of the performers, Dave’s and the Elbow Room represent places to hone their skills as professionals. Others simply view it as a place to pursue their hobby.

Some aren’t sure where it will lead, if anywhere, and don’t seem really to mind.

“Hey, if I can get to the point where I could maybe join a little band and get compensated for playing, that would be fine,” Marlow says. “And if that doesn’t happen, that will be fine, too.”