It is seldom the case that relatively new and unknown performers at local open mics have honed their performances to a degree necessary to keep the attention of their audience beyond the patronage of those in attendance as part of a higher, moral compulsion to encourage new artistic expression. Often open mics serve as a chance for new and upcoming performers to get a feel for live performance, in order to build up the monumental confidence necessary to sing or play an instrument before a live audience.
It is certainly true that professional musicians will sometimes play at open mics to enjoy the camaraderie offered in smaller, more intimate environs, and for the ambiance found in a smaller audience — or the multitude of other viable reasons for avoiding large performing spaces. The fact still remains that a significant contingent of the performers at local open mics are the up-and-comers. And it is for this reason that there seems to be an inherent tempering of one’s expectations when attending an open mic.
For many years this was my understanding of the open mic as a construct, well… until recently, when a trip to an open mic in Kingston utterly shattered my preconceived notions of what an open mic can be and what they can mean to young musicians in a small community like Kingston.
Kingston’s Downpour Brewing, as its name would suggest, is a brewery nestled right along Highway 104. It offers a welcoming environment for all ages with games like cornhole and foosball out back to keep the youngsters busy and plenty of tap handles to keep mom and dad busy as well. Also on Thursdays, the brewery offers an all-ages open mic, and as luck would have it, I found myself in the audience during one such occasion.
What followed was an evening interspersed with wildly talented musicians enchanting an intimate crowd with renditions of famous songs and their own originals as well. The support offered by the audience for newer performers was encouraging to the degree that even novice musicians could take to the stage with the confidence of a seasoned veteran. For the initiated though, it was a moment to shine bright.
Some of the more notable performances included a father-daughter duo, playing tunes by David Bowie and Phil Ochs, set to guitar and violin accompaniment. Also on the stage was Paul Depew, from whom came the raspy but unmistakably full voice of a seasoned vocalist. Depew’s voice seemed to simultaneously belong in a full church choir, yet at the same time also wouldn’t be out of place coming from the bed of a career coal miner’s pickup truck, as he strummed on a beat up, old acoustic after working a double shift down in the mine.
In chatting with Depew, it became clear that he had not always had such a hoarse voice. He explained that following a stint with a punk band, his voice had been left hoarse from overuse. No longer possessing his previous tone, Depew said he became disheartened and was nearly broken by the loss of his old voice. Depew said he eventually regained the courage to take to the stage again and in doing so he has once again found the thing he loves.
“My whole focus has been that you leave it all on stage,” Depew said of performing in the small space. “Because that is the only way people can understand what you’re doing. If I don’t put my entire soul into the performance, whether it’s a big audience or a small audience, then who really cares about the artistry or music that I’m performing?”
Speaking to what it means for young people to play music for a live audience, Depew recalled his own experiences as a young musician.
“I used to go travel and I would play in bars because that’s the only place that you could play as a child,” he said. “I would be forced to sit in my car or freezing in the rain. I would try to be a part of the artistic community and as a young person I would find myself being frozen out, not necessarily because of my ability, but because I wasn’t 21.”
Depew praised local breweries like Downpour Brewing for allowing younger folks to come and share their music, and therein provide an early avenue for fostering their creativity.
In listening to Depew’s praise of the open mic, both for the catharsis that it has offered him, and what it means to young folks, it’s hard not to agree there is something truly unique being offered each Thursday at Downpour Brewing. One need only look to the smiling faces of the musicians and the mesmerized gaze of the audience as they all share a few moments of their collective lives, all in the name of music and supporting artists.