The Music Makers
Memoir of an Open-Mic Night
When The Beat Coffeehouse asked if we wanted to host a new open mic, Diego Cano and I approached it as a way to force us out of the house and play music for people. Neither of us had played a show in some time. I’d only moved to Vegas not so long ago, and after playing in a series of local funk and rock groups, Diego had decided it was time to start following his own, more unconventional muse. We had recently run a songwriting workshop for middle schoolers at The Writer’s Block, though, which had gone well, and so we decided to model it after that.
There would be no poetry, no comedy, just music. It wouldn’t be a place to indiscriminately celebrate artistic expression, although neither would it be like the ones you often find in big cities, open mics only in name where you have to audition and book your spot months in advance. Our idea was that it would be called “Songwriters Anonymous,” a safe place for musicians to come and share what they’ve been working on, to get feedback and to meet their peers. We’d bring amplifiers, guitars, drums and keyboards, with the idea that anyone who wanted could have us as their backup band or use our instruments to collaborate with each other. The Beat nixed the name—they didn’t like the AA connotations—but everything else we got to keep.
We Are the Music Makers
So we showed up that first Monday, now calling ourselves “We Are the Music Makers,” and waited. For the first few weeks, it was desolate. A few stragglers would come by from the previous open mic, which had moved to another venue. More often than not they would be armed with straightforward poems expressing their feelings, looking for emotional validation. We’d let them read, but Diego—a natural emcee—made sure to gently remind everyone that this was a music event. I’d stay in the background, making sure everything went smoothly, playing drums for anyone who asked and trying to encourage anyone who seemed inspired by the collaborative atmosphere.
Even at this early stage, though, the lone constant of the open mic became clear: No matter what, at least one magical, unforeseen thing would happen, framed by the neon lights and beautiful unpredictability of Downtown Vegas. Even if no one came except for comedians and poets (and open mic trolls singing offensive, clichéd Tenacious D rip-offs, listlessly insulting the other performers), some musical connection would be made. Some spoken word artists would let me and Diego work out beats behind their poems, turning them into hip-hop. A sixty-something comedian named Big Rod improvised a powerful blues song over our vamping. Our intentions were getting through, somehow. Eventually, people looking to heckle or read stopped coming by, having been politely but firmly encouraged to go somewhere else.
We still had trouble filling a whole night with the handful of musicians who began to come, even with everyone playing four or five songs and Diego interviewing performers about their thoughts on a given theme (influences, songwriting, background, and so on). An early attempt at encouraging everyone to play original songs proved unrealistic. Diego and I would fill time by playing whole sets of his rough-hewn psychedelic songs and have the other musicians join us for freeform jams at the end. I worked out a reasonable “Hotline Bling” on guitar over a few successive weeks.
The night was dominated by anyone unusual who showed up. During one of those every-six-months Vegas thunderstorms, only an older woman with a voice like Nina Simone came, and the open mic became a showcase for her talents, with a crowd coming inside to avoid the rain, but staying to hear her. Another time, Maryland’s governor Martin O’Malley stopped by during his presidential campaign and sang Irish sea shanties, the packed house peppered with cameras from the local news and the Huffington Post.
As time went on, we acquired regulars, people who liked our commitment to a collaborative and explorative music scene in Las Vegas. Instead of a showcase for a few brave people trying out an unknown open mic, there accumulated a dependable group of local players, augmented by a rotating cast of touring bands, street musicians and performers in Vegas shows with nights off. Some had larger ambitions, others just wanted a place to play. Anthony DiVincenzo, a onetime staple of local rock bands, had developed into a traditional street corner folk singer, and would bring his act inside, leading Woody Guthrie sing-alongs. Madison Devine, just graduated from high school and new to Vegas, already had a unique, downbeat style, with unconventional and intense originals crooned in her impressionistic alto. Mindset, a gentle and endearing young stoner, could clear the front row with his proudly abrasive rapping.
Young men in their late teens and early twenties turned out in force, their worldviews shaped by the YouTube-friendly optimism of Ed Sheeran and Chance the Rapper, whose “Cocoa Butter Kisses” became the one cover we had to ban, after it started getting played at least once every night. Lasting friendships were forged, including Indie Florentino and Josh Kidd, an ambitious pair of singer-songwriters who had never met, but who both happened to know every word to Sheeran’s “You Need Me, I Don’t Need You.” Each night, Ray, a retiree who would play white blues songs for as long as you let him, would harangue the crowd about their unfamiliarity with the classics, an accusation I thought unwarranted until David Bowie died and it turned out that almost none of our younger regulars had ever listened to him.
And still, every night, something wild and amazing would happen. A gang of nomadic hippies with their own fife and drum corps, who roped in our regulars on guitar. An Iranian saxophone player who had gone straight to Vegas on his first trip to America and quieted the crowd with a riveting solo performance. A local female rapper with a posse so big they took up the first four rows of seats. Any number of aging street musicians, specializing in trumpet or bass guitar or harmonica, who would slink in like beaten dogs after Diego found them in the Fremont Street Experience and encouraged them to play with us. To a man—and they were all men—they would be fantastically talented, unable to make eye contact, and leave muttering about the tips they missed from playing indoors.
Eventually, too many people started to come, far too many for the three hours we had to use. Latecomers would find themselves too deep on the list to be able to play and get angry with Diego. Word had gotten out and the tide of new people made the night more of a matter of organization and bureaucracy than discovery and interaction. Even with simultaneous, competing open mics at The Bunkhouse and Hop Nuts (where we would point anyone turned away), there was never enough room. Monday—usually a slow time for bars and coffee shops and so the natural place for all these open mics—had become an unmanageable flood, taking over my and Diego’s entire day.
The plan had always been to stop hosting “We Are the Music Makers” at some point, to pivot to doing our own shows instead. At first, with such a wide-open opportunity to discover new artists and play our own music, that dream had receded. Now we weren’t getting any chance at all to play, deferring to the dozens of people who had made the drive out, most of whom wouldn’t get to play anyway, who often got pushy and mean about a free opportunity run by two volunteers paid in food and beer. As I prepared to leave the city to go to grad school, we decided to bequeath it to the next generation.
We Are the Music Makers
“We Are the Music Makers” still happens every Monday, although it’s in flux. Diego has begun teaching Madison how The Beat’s antiquated PA system works and is looking into making the night a nonprofit organization, able to buy its own equipment. My impulse, however, is to let our brood fully take it over for themselves, to come up with a new name and invent an open mic in their own image. To me, the best memories were when we had to convince people to join us, when the excitement was in depending on anyone good to step up, and using the freedom of time to invent something new, to forge real relationships.
That said, at the last one I went to, Diego had developed a new tactic: making everyone play with the person before and after them. He hardly needed to emcee anymore, letting everyone’s introductions to each other speak for themselves. It’s not as organic as before, but getting to see Vegas’ premier soul man Cameron Calloway duet on an off-the-cuff “Ain’t No Sunshine” with an awed fan was one of the magical moments that always happens there somehow, no matter what.
Chris Molnar came to downtown Las Vegas to help found The Writer’s Block. He recently moved to New York City to pursue an MFA in fiction at Columbia University.