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.’ ”
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