Sunday, June 01, 2008

The gig guide: Open mike nights in Roanoke

Whatever side of the microphone you like, you'll find energy and eclectic talent at many Roanoke nightspots' open-mike nights.

Marc Silva, bassist for Little Rodger and the Cheap Thrills, is seen on open-mike night at Blue 5 in downtown Roanoke.

Sam Dean | The Roanoke Times

Marc Silva, bassist for Little Rodger and the Cheap Thrills, is seen on open-mike night at Blue 5 in downtown Roanoke.

Marcus Purcell of Zulu Watu performs at The Mix on Campbell Avenue.

Jared Soares | The Roanoke Times

Marcus Purcell of Zulu Watu performs at The Mix on Campbell Avenue.

Bassist Justin Tolley (left) and guitarist Aaron Oberg play during Wide Open Jam, held Tuesdays at Martin's Downtown Bar & Grill.

Jeanna Duerscherl | The Roanoke Times

Bassist Justin Tolley (left) and guitarist Aaron Oberg play during Wide Open Jam, held Tuesdays at Martin's Downtown Bar & Grill.

You know who you are -- working all week, wishing you could just be playing your guitar, or your drums, or singing.

Or maybe you're looking for some cheap but quality music to set your ears on?

Roanoke seems to have an answer to your problem, with at least eight open-microphone nights -- most of them free -- at several nightspots, catering to a variety of sounds several nights a week.

Wayne "Range Da Messenga" Hancock II, who hosts the Sunday night open-mike at the Mix (formerly the Mix One6), a nightspot at 16 Campbell Ave., laid out the idea in lyrical form. On a recent Sunday, his band, Duality, played a midtempo, acid-jazz groove behind him.

"Feel like you can take a load off," Hancock sang. "Let your creative juices flow."

A good open-mike night has both energy and talent. And for listeners, it's about being interested in the music, even if it's not exactly your favorite style.

There are far too many open-mikes going on, some of them with overlapping schedules, for us to hit them all. But we chose a few around downtown Roanoke in May, featuring a diversity of musical styles, to chronicle the music and the people who bring it alive for their few minutes of local fame.

Martin's, Wide Open Jam

It was well past 10 p.m. May 13 at Martin's, where Shane Draper and Adam Sowder were having a musical reunion. The guitar and drums duo call themselves Thick As Thieves, and they play in a style that sounds like the Black Keys, if the Black Keys dressed like frat guys and had more of a progressive-rock bent.

Their songs were long, full of jamming, and when they were done, they were still full of energy.

"We've played since we were in the third grade, on and off," said Sowder, 24, the drummer. But now, they aim to be a band. "That's the goal. We both love music. That's all we've ever felt passionate about."

Not everyone at an open-mike night is looking for a band.

Justin Tolley, who plays in the Worx, just likes to play. He had the night off, and Wide Open Jam host Aaron Oberg needed a bass player. So Tolley filled in. On other nights, you can find him at 202 Market and Blue 5, playing blues, soul, jazz and more.

"The Worx gig stays busy, but I still enjoy meeting different players around town," Tolley said. "I can come out to network and listen to players, and if they need me to sit in, it's fun."

He finds himself onstage with drummer Carlos Aranguren and guitarist Peter Fitzgibbon. They straighten out Dave Brubeck's "Take Five," putting it in 4/4 time and funking it up. Sounds smooth.

Later, smooth is far from the equation when drummer Adam Morse joins host/guitarist Oberg and bassist Sean Matuk (of Heevahava) for a wicked-sounding punk-metal bashfest.

"It's the one escape you get from the real world," said Morse, 23, a drummer whose "real job" is sous chef at The Landing, a Smith Mountain Lake restaurant. "Music is the ultimate outlet to express yourself. I can't wait to get up there and play!"

Blue 5 Restaurant, Blues Jam

It was a pretty quiet night on May 14 at the monthly blues jam, with maybe 25 people in the room.

The playing was based on the typical 12-bar blues progression, chords that everyone knows. But a young man with a red, hollow-body guitar was speaking nicely with his instrument.

Turns out Daniel Ibarra had been waiting for quite a while to play his ax. A new job required training, and that meant travel.

"I haven't even so much as picked up a guitar in five months," Ibarra said. But the travel is over, and "fortunately, I was able to come down here and play."

Ibarra, 37, grew up playing gospel music at Bible Way Apostolic Pentecostal Church, where his uncle preached and encouraged musicianship -- music was the ministry to get folks in the door. Blues chords are similar to the chords he played in church, he said, and he became an aficionado. Now he's a member of the Blue Ridge Blues Society, and shows up at Blue 5 to play every chance he gets.

"It's an opportunity to meet other people into blues and preservation," he said. "It's a pure American art form."

202 Market, Electric jam

Old-school funk was happening, courtesy of a new-school player, on May 14 at 202 Market. This was the second stop of the night.

Hancock, who hosts open-mikes in both Roanoke and Blacksburg, was onstage, singing Stevie Wonder's "Superstition." He was nailing the high notes, the low notes and sliding around in between.

Behind him, the night's host, Hoppie Vaughan, was playing angular, chorus-drenched lines on guitar. Vaughan's son, Rob, on drums, laid down a thick beat, locked in tight with bassist Jeff Hofmann.

On a break, Rob Vaughan talked about his father -- who plays guitar for The Fat Daddy Band and fronts his own group, the Ministers of Soul.

"Playing with my father is the pinnacle," the younger Vaughan said. "This gig lets me play with different blues artists, hip-hop artists, what have you. It's really advanced my playing."

Every Wednesday at 202 is loaded with gigging musicians. Rob Vaughan also plays with Jimmie Landry's Gumbo Band. Hofmann plays bass with My Radio. Hancock performs with the groups True Sound and The Remnant Project, as well as his own outfit, Duality. Guitarist Reid Doughten, who often shows up, plays with Little Rodger and the Cheap Thrills.

In other words, you'd better be confident if you're going to sit in at this one.

202 Market, Acoustic jam

It felt like a good vibes kind of night on May 20 at 202. Percussionist Jeff Maiden, 37, whose best-known gig is with Bebop Hoedown, was working the conga while Ben Hurt played guitar and sang. They worked through one of Hurt's tunes, something that sounded inspired by Crazy Horse, with fits and starts on the beat and lyrics of unconditional love.

"I'm Ben, and this is my friend Jeff," Hurt said when the song was over. "This is the first time we've played together. What a treat for me!"

People milled in and out on what turned out to be a slow night. Then a man in clown makeup took the stage.

It was Tommy Edwards. Except for the makeup -- an occasional schtick he employs -- he looked pretty much the same as he had a couple of hours earlier, when he was hosting the open-mike night -- clown-free -- at High Point Coffee, on Brambleton Avenue.

He led the way on a folk-funk jam, singing big, soulful vocals. Maiden grooved away, and the night's host, Adam Markham, was blowing some bluesy harmonica. After Maiden took a percussion solo, Edwards handed him his big, red clown nose.

Edwards, 34, was known as "Touchdown" Tommy in his days as a running back for Radford High School, and he later played college football. But songwriting was always a passion, and he said he's written at least 200 tunes.

Later, another songwriter took the stage. Jordan Rivers, who leads a rockabilly band called the Rotgut Revival, played stripped-down versions of his originals. Themes weren't unusual -- dealing with police, women and motorcycles -- but he had an idiosyncratic take on the subjects.

For instance, he didn't want to argue about his arrest in one song, he sang, "because I know that I'm guilty all the time."

The Mix, featuring Duality

This night, May 25, was different from the other nights.

First, there were women. A lot of them, clearly outnumbering the men. Second, most of the audience had just come to be entertained -- it wasn't just a bunch of musicians squirming to get onstage. Third, the night was also open to poets. There weren't as many poets as there were singers, rappers and instrumentalists, but there were quite a few.

Hancock, the host, had an important instruction to start the night.

"We only have one house rule, and that house rule is: We show love," he said. "No hate. No ignorance. None of that. ... If you like it, show 'em a whole lot of love. And if you don't like it, show 'em love anyway."

There was plenty of love to go around. Duality is a fantastically funky group, with three good singers, ready to back up anyone's song choice. The crowd of at least 100 responded in kind.

Early on, Taheerah Al-Amin, 57, took the stage to read a sweet set of couplets about unrequited love. Later, with the band backing her, she performed a sexed-up poem with lyrics we can't put in the paper. The crowd loved it.

What is it about this particular open-mike that draws so many women?

"We can come down here and enjoy ourselves without being harassed," Al-Amin said. "And we do have a lot of fun."

In some ways, it was a family affair. Rhiana Roper, 27, who used her honeyed vocals to sing India.Arie's "Brown Skin," had told her brother, Kenny, 23, about the open-mike. Kenny brought his djembe drum and played a nice, laid-back groove.

The Ropers grew up with Hancock. They and other members of Duality grew up playing in the Roper family basement, Kenny and Rhiana Roper said.

"When I heard they were doing this, I said, I need to come and support them," Kenny Roper said. "I knew it was going to be positive. That's the biggest thing."

A man calling himself Lord Silverback Omega made the night even more eclectic, using an apocalyptic tone as he called himself "the prophet of rage, the god of thunder," and lamented that "the good surely die too soon."

The night's biggest response came when singer Tommie Fleshman took the floor. The band smoked behind him as he sang Anthony Hamilton's "Charlene." People were falling out, screaming and hollering.

Fleshman, who sings in the Roanoke-based party band Second Impressions, said it was his first time at this open-mike. It won't be his last, he said.

"Man, it's good. It's real good," he said. "I'm glad that everybody enjoyed it.

"I had a hard time picking a song" to perform. "I wanted something that fit the crowd. This one felt true."

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