Tonight: Open mic night at Club Cafe

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Testing, one, two. Testing. Is this thing on? Can you hear me in back?

Oh, yeah, it's on. Every Monday night is open mic as Club Cafe on the South Side presents "AcoustiCafe."

"It started with Mark Willson and a couple other people about 12 years ago," said Jesse Prentiss, 41, of Squirrel Hill. "And then for a time it moved to The Rex, In its current form, it's been Mondays at Club Cafe for about four years."

"It's current form" is fairly straightforward. Musicians sign up for two-song blocks -- about 10 minutes of stage time -- beginning at 7 p.m. and going right on through 11 p.m. Much like open mic nights you'd find all over the city.

But the Club Cafe space is special, said Mr. Prentiss, a network administrator at Pitt who plays upright bass on the side.

"The club is a really great listening room," he said. "Great sound, great environment for people who want to listen to music. The room makes things better. It draws talented people to it.

"There are a lot of open stages and a lot of very talented songwriters in the Pittsburgh area. But some places that you go, the quality of the sound system may not be what you'd like and people don't sound good. Or it doesn't look as professional, and people are a little less excited.

"At the AcoustiCafe, you can feel like 'OK, this is my time,' and you can focus on the performance."

One of the unique elements is the use of local musicians as rotating hosts. (OK, it would be funny to see hosts spinning around, but we're talking about having different hosts each week, smart guy.)

"The hosts introduce the artists, they'll play their own songs, and they'll invite some of their friends or maybe someone who's touring through to perform," Mr. Prentiss said. "So I guess it's a hybrid-open stage. It's not just people who sign up, but also some invited guests are featured."

Such a lineup might raise the bar a little bit, but not to the point where others should be intimidated, Mr. Prentiss said.

"A lot of the regular performers are professional or farm-team professionals. Maybe it's not their full-time job, but they do it regularly enough and they do get paid for it. They consider themselves musicians first."

Enter Mike Strasser, 64, of Ambridge, who works at the Home Depot on Camp Horne Road. He's pretty much one of the regulars, showing up each Monday night, signing up early with guitar in hand.

"I'm just a child of my generation," he said. "The '60s happened and I got a Bob Dylan songbook when I was young. I taught myself."

During the 1970s, Mr. Strasser moved to San Francisco "with a dream of getting my picture on the cover of Rolling Stone."

"I'm more of a cafe/???coffee shop kind of guy than a bar guy," he said. "I never quit my day job."

A few years back, he returned to Western Pennsylvania. He went looking for open mics and found Club Cafe.

"This is the best open mic I've ever been to, in terms of the talent," he said. "Sometime, of course, someone gets up who is just painful from beginning to end. But, by and large, some nights are just absolutely magical down there.

"And it's not competitive. Most of the people I see there are supportive of each other, helping each other out."

"We have more or less a house band," said Mr. Prentiss. "There are musicians who are there regularly and will sit in and fill out the songs a little bit with percussion, some piano, maybe even a horn, a saxophone. Other people might sing harmonies. People are encouraged to collaborate."

With all that, you might expect to find a sort of exclusive club that a newcomer might have trouble getting into.

"We were concerned that it become a clique," Mr. Prentiss said, "and then one of the performers called it the biggest clique he'd ever seen. Everyone here is much more interested in music than in self-promotion."

What if you stink?

"Nobody gets booed off the stage. Nobody gets a big hook," Mr. Prentiss said. "But it is an open stage, and we want to make sure everybody who is willing to wait in the line is going to have a chance to perform. If they don't go over well, they're encouraged to do better the next time. You can't help it if somebody just doesn't have it.

"But the point of an open stage is to give people enough opportunities to improve themselves. And we'll even have established performers who are awesome come down to try out new material that they're playing with, and that can be a total train wreck. But people will give it a fair listen."

From 10 to 11 p.m., the performers are limited to a song apiece, so you can expect to hear between 25 and 30 performers an evening.

The audience breaks down to about half aspiring performers and half those who just come to listen. You can join either group at 7 p.m. at Club Cafe, 56 S. 12th St. Tonight's guest host is Gene Stovall. There's no cover.

Check out AcoustiCafe on Facebook:

Dan Majors:

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