Open-Mics — and Minds — at Embargo
To my knowledge, I’ve played only one open-mic in my life, on a night when I was either 25 minutes or two shots away from being cross-eyed drunk. The jam ran for a long time, so it was probably like five minutes –– or infinity if you were stuck listening. Anyway, I’d heard that this dude named Bobby, who regularly plays The Where House’s Thursday-night jams, was hosting a Monday night open-mic at Embargo downtown, so that’s where I went.
Open-mics attract the bold and the beautifully gifted, but they’re also an invitation for the totally baffling. They’re a roll of the dice, where you have a one in six (or 12, depending on your dice) chance of a total shitshow, which is exactly why they interest me.
With a Lone Star in one hand and a shot of Jameson in the other, I sat at a back table while this hitchhiker-looking guy with braids in his beard got on stage and stumbled through a wonky attempt at “Livin’ After Midnight” on a battered acoustic. He didn’t really finish it as much as trail off into another chord, saying something about warming up for his originals. The first of these had a lyric about the stock market crashing and another about “bulls on parade.” I couldn’t be sure if it was a nod to Rage Against the Machine or a metaphor for Wall Street hijinks. I hoped it was the first option and downed my shot.
Even if I hadn’t been drinking, the next act still would have blown my mind a little, because it featured this short guy who looked like Wild Bill Hickok, if Wild Bill Hickok had taken a break from gunfighting to travel into the future and shop in the Stockyards.
If you can imagine that, imagine that after buying jeans and boots at Leddy’s, Wild Bill went to Guitar Center and bought a djembe –– and then played it at Embargo!
Bobby rapped (!) while Wild Bill pounded out a rhythm, and I was reminded that people who think open-mic nights are exactly how they’re depicted on television have probably never seen a real open-mic, because the actual events are way weirder than Phoebe dueting with Chris Isaak about a cat. In real life, it’s a woman who looks like Lisa Kudrow and listens to Chris Isaak, playing songs she wrote for her cat — followed by a frontier lawman playing a hippie instrument.
Anyway, I was kind of enthralled until he started beatboxing (!!); then I got interested in another beer. When I looked up at the stage again, Wild Bill had been joined by a guy playing an electric bass –– as well as Chris Hardee on acoustic guitar.
I hadn’t seen Chris Hardee or his quartet, Alan, play in years. That he was at an open-mic made the night even stranger: not in an even-Agent-Scully’s-creeped-out sort of way but more like if you found a crate of fresh lobsters mysteriously lying on the side of a country road, next to a large bag of money. A welcome, if perplexing, gift.
Even minus the heft of additional instruments and non-Bonnaroo-tent percussion, the Alan songs were a tide of gorgeous harmonies floating in the ebb and flow of shifting time signatures and clever chord changes. Alan is kind of an underappreciated, under-the-radar band, and its appearance (in drumless trio form) in this space made an odd sort of sense.
They played three songs, and then this Texas country guy named Andrew Carman took the stage. He was as good as every other Texas country guy, and I wasn’t surprised when he said he’d gotten a bit of radio play. I started to zone out until I heard a badass harmony slip into his cover of Van Morrison’s “Gypsy Soul.” Wild Bill Hand Drum was at it again, this time singing back up and keeping time on a little three-piece kit.
Whenever my attention flagged, that dude did something to grab it again. I talked to him later. His name is really Andy. He plays drums in Alan and told me that Alan was playing The Wild Rooster in the Cultural District on Friday, Nov. 2.
“Will you play a full kit?” I asked.
“Oh, yeah,” he said.
Andrew Carman turned out to be a pretty awesome picker, but compared to busker-version Judas Priest and semi-Alan, his bluegrass showmanship ended up second fiddle to the captivating wackness of the former and the off-kilter inventiveness of the latter. And why not? After all, this was an open-mic, and open-mic nights are kind of great when they’re a little off the wall. –– Steve Steward
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