With thoughts of legendary discoveries and performancesnot to mention River Phoenix in The Thing Called Lovewe went to the world-famous Monday open-mic night at the Bluebird. We only had one real expectation: to enjoy ourselves for an hour. After all, the Bluebird is renowned as the authority on talented songwriters and songcraft. As it turned out, that expectation was too high.
We got into the Bluebird, but just barely. The room was packed, with people wedged in every corner of the overwhelmingly small space. We were stuck standing just a few steps beyond the door, where a waitress asked if we'd like anything from the bar. To be fair, the small space had its charmsespecially the signed photos of every famous country star we could think of, which lent a sense of prestige. Among the crowd were tourists dressed in lower Broadway duds complete with matching cowboy hats and vests. Much of the crowd seemed to be singer/songwriters waiting to go on.
Hostess-in-command Barbara Cloyd recited a litany of rules for the open-mic participants. Though justified somewhat by the sheer logisticsa list of more than 40 people for one three-hour stretchthe rules set an unexpected cold and orderly tone for the evening. They ranged from stern suggestions (don't perform your longest songs) to curt warnings (go elsewhere if you want to relax). We felt like we were at Star Search boot camp, or the touring version of American Idol. Except the only thing eliminated was our hope of a good time.
After almost 15 minutes of rules, the first singer/songwriter was finally allowed to sing. First up was a gentleman dressed in khakis and a flannel shirt. He mumbled something about the recent D-Day anniversary and how his song was about the war of his generation, Vietnam. He sang his song, "Homeless in My Hometown," in a drawn-out Dylanesque drawl. As he closed his eyes and sang, as if going back in time, he spun a long, bitter account of the hardships and heartbreak he felt in the 1960s. The first verse started, "Back in 1963," and the last verse began, "Back in 1966": in between felt like about three years. At the end the stone-faced crowd clapped politely and braced themselves for the next round.
Next up was a scruffy older guy. After taking a few minutes to set up, he told the audience, "I woke up in prison and had a realization. I found all the answers to my questions." Before the audience could learn more, Cloyd materialized onstage again, fervently reminding all singer/songwriters to restrain themselves from giving two-minute introductions to their songsthere simply wasn't enough time. Whether joking or simply clueless, he started again to tell his story, but when the audience laughed he just gave up and sang.
By that time, the vibe and the crowding were just too oppressive. We wondered if prison had as many regulations as the Bluebird's open-mic night. We took one step and were out the door to freedom.