Photo by Sara Bernard

A West Seattle Gem Fine-Tunes an Old Tradition

Best Open Mic: Skylark Cafe and Club

Open-mic nights get a bad rap. Often they conjure images of a tinny microphone set in the corner as a distracted audience half-listens, then half-heartedly applauds. They don’t as often suggest “professional sound engineer” and “16-track mixable recording” and “two amps and a drum set.”

But that’s the deal at the Skylark Cafe and Club (3803 Delridge Way SW, 935-2111), a tucked-away venue in West Seattle. For musicians, “It’s like heaven,” says Coreena Brown, a solo artist who recently joined the two-man electronic band Noisegasm for a tour this fall; last Wednesday’s open mic was the trio’s first public performance. Brown has been to a lot of open mics that are “not very artist-friendly in a lot of ways,” but she is thrilled with the setup at Skylark. “A place that actually has a good sound system, and that gives musicians more than one song, and records it, too? Like, hello! That’s what musicians need!”

Owner Matt Larson has run the club for a while now—“three years in September,” he says. And while the Skylark has been around for about 10 years—as has its free weekly open-mic night—polishing and professionalizing the current version has been a more recent development. “We redid the stage, put in the curtains and the sound panels,” says Larson, and hired an attentive sound engineer who runs the board, making sure every act sounds as legit as possible. Just like at a show that people pay money to see, the engineer “dials you in on the monitors,” he says; as a result, “bands can really hear themselves, which I think is good for people coming out for the first time.”

Because of the pro setup, the Skylark can also offer high-quality recordings for any open-mic performer in exchange for a bit of cash. A $10 recording of a 15-minute set—$20 for a full band—can be priceless for an up-and-coming act. “We’ve had bands that have come in, and that’s their demo,” Larson says. “I’ve heard the records from that—they’re really solid.”

Plenty of performers take the recording home and use it to perfect their arrangements, adds sound engineer Ezekiel Lords. (Also a local musician, he played one of his first shows at Skylark’s open mic.) At the venue, Lords offers audio advice and gives every performer a memorable intro. “I try to make them feel like, hey, you’re about to play a show,” he says. “And this is what it’s like to be on a stage where people care.”

On a recent Wednesday night, the lineup included a 12-year-old ukulele prodigy playing sweet, sad classics; Brown’s rollicking, three-person electronic band; a solo hip-hop artist in a white T-shirt and dark shades; and a stunning slide-guitar/bluegrass-jam rendition of Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus.” Some performances were truly jaw-dropping, and the audience at the 100-plus-capacity venue was raucously supportive. While some are just there for a beer and a sandwich (performer and West Seattle resident Sam Tsohonis says he thinks Skylark’s sandwiches should win awards, too), all applaud and cheer on the acts.

Larson and his wife are both artists; they’ve also purchased a gallery next door, where Larson’s own photography hangs. He knows as well as anyone, therefore, how hard it is to make it professionally. His hope is that Skylark and its gallery, which currently doubles as a photo studio, could turn into a sort of one-stop shop for new musicians: perform at open-mic night; get a demo tape; rent the photo studio to get professional band shots; then record your first album in the basement, once that too becomes a rentable studio.

Brown, for one, is totally enthusiastic about all this. Having a drink before her set, she says, she pulled Larson aside to thank him. “I was like, ‘Excuse me, I gotta tell you, what you’re doing is awesome and it is wayyyyy appreciated by musicians!’ I’m sure somebody has said that to him before,” but, as she told him, “ ‘You need to hear it over and over again because we don’t want you to change.’ ”

sbernard@seattleweekly.com

Read about the rest of the Best of Seattle Reader Poll winners here. If you didn’t get a chance to vote this go-round, make sure your voice is heard next year. Email us at bestofseattle@seattleweekly.com and we will let you know when nominations open for BoS 2017.

More in Music

TacocaT got you a new song for Valentine’s Day. Photo by Helen Moga
TacocaT Returns to Dance With Its Seattle Drag Pals in the “Grains of Salt” Video

The Seattle rock quartet’s new album ‘This Mess Is a Place’ comes out May 3 on Sub Pop.

Brandi Carlile needs more mantel space after taking winning three Grammys on Sunday night.
Seattle Cleans Up at the Grammys

Brandi Carlile, the Seattle Symphony, and Chris Cornell combine to take home six awards.

Pickwick’s Galen Disston stars as Drew in 5th Ave’s ‘Rock of Ages.’ Photo by Mark Kitaoka
Pickwick’s Galen Disston Takes the Stage in ‘Rock of Ages’

The local rocker steps outside his comfort zone for 5th Avenue Theatre’s ’80s hair metal jukebox musical.

Caroline Shaw. Photo by Kait Moreno
Caroline Shaw’s Classical Music Fan Fiction

Seattle Symphony premieres the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer’s postmodern take on Beethoven.

Quadrant and Iris performing at Le Bikini nightclub in France. Photo by Thomas Feugas
Seattle’s First Family of Drum and Bass

Leigh and Karen Caplan (Quadrant and Iris) are key producers in Seattle thriving underground electronic music scene.

On Being Trans: J Mase III Creates a Space to Feel Welcome

The Seattle artist hosts a three-day event at Gay City.

All Star Opera. Photo by Rachel Koll
All Star Opera Embarks on a World Tour of Seattle

The hip-hop/soul band’s second annual tour of the city’s venues with local artists raises money for homeless women and children.

Top 10 Albums of 2018

The best music of the year.

Travis Thompson’s Ride From Burien to the “Corner Store” and Beyond

The local hip-hop up-and-comer and Macklemore protege readies to headline The Showbox.

Top 10 Seattle Albums of 2018

The best the local music scene had to offer.

Minus the Bear is Ready to Hibernate

After 17 years of influential innovation, the Seattle rock band prepares to say goodbye.

Brandi Carlile Notches Six Grammy Nominations

Fellow Seattleites Alice in Chains, the late Chris Cornell, and the Seattle Symphony also are up for awards.