You’re up next: Western Mass open mic scene heats up post-pandemic

Matt Emmer thanks the crowd after performing at an open mic at Wurst Haus in Northampton. The Leeds singer-songwriter sometimes sometimes plays three regional open mics a week.

Matt Emmer thanks the crowd after performing at an open mic at Wurst Haus in Northampton. The Leeds singer-songwriter sometimes sometimes plays three regional open mics a week. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Host Tobey Sol LaRoche introduces the next act during open mic night at Wurst Haus in Northampton. A singer, songwriter, and drummer himself, LaRoche says he loves the variety of music that can be heard at open mics.

Host Tobey Sol LaRoche introduces the next act during open mic night at Wurst Haus in Northampton. A singer, songwriter, and drummer himself, LaRoche says he loves the variety of music that can be heard at open mics. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Louis Lamothe of West Springfield sings an orginal song during a Wednesday open mic night at Luthier's Co-op in Easthampton.

Louis Lamothe of West Springfield sings an orginal song during a Wednesday open mic night at Luthier's Co-op in Easthampton. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

The crowd applauds after a performance during a Wednesday open mic night performance at Luthier's Co-op in Easthampton.

The crowd applauds after a performance during a Wednesday open mic night performance at Luthier's Co-op in Easthampton. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Florence local Tommy Twilite listens to a performance as he waits to take the stage during a recent open mic night at JJ’s Tavern in Florence.

Florence local Tommy Twilite listens to a performance as he waits to take the stage during a recent open mic night at JJ’s Tavern in Florence. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Shawn Gundersen, left, and Kaci Ruh perform during a weekly open mic night at JJ’s Tavern in Florence.

Shawn Gundersen, left, and Kaci Ruh perform during a weekly open mic night at JJ’s Tavern in Florence. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Alex Davis performs during the weekly open mic night at Wurst Haus in Northampton.

Alex Davis performs during the weekly open mic night at Wurst Haus in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Matt Emmer performs during open mic night at Wurst Haus in Northampton. He’ll sometimes play three open mics a week in the region.

Matt Emmer performs during open mic night at Wurst Haus in Northampton. He’ll sometimes play three open mics a week in the region. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Peter Curro, left, and Bob Demers play a version of Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” at a recent open mic at Luthier's Co-op in Easthampton. Demers, known as Bobby D., also helps host open mics at Luthier’s.

Peter Curro, left, and Bob Demers play a version of Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” at a recent open mic at Luthier's Co-op in Easthampton. Demers, known as Bobby D., also helps host open mics at Luthier’s. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Louis Lamothe of West Springfield sings an orginal song during a Wenesday open mic night at Luthier's Co-op in Easthampton.

Louis Lamothe of West Springfield sings an orginal song during a Wenesday open mic night at Luthier's Co-op in Easthampton. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Nick Deysher, from left, Amy Wilkinson and Scot Lawson Pomeroy perform during a recent open mic night at JJ’s Tavern in Florence.

Nick Deysher, from left, Amy Wilkinson and Scot Lawson Pomeroy perform during a recent open mic night at JJ’s Tavern in Florence. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

By STEVE PFARRER

Staff Writer

Published: 04-12-2024 10:46 AM

Not so long ago, there was a general lament sometimes heard among Valley musicians: “There aren’t enough places to play around here.”

That might have been true for professional players who wanted to be paid — and maybe, despite the opening of new local clubs in recent years such as The Drake, the Marigold Theater, and the Bombyx Center, it still is.

But for musicians of any level who want to try out a new song or just polish their material before a live audience, there’s no shortage of open mics.

From restaurants to bars to guitar shops to VFW halls and other community spaces across the region, a wealth of open mics gives not just musicians but comedians, poets, and others a place to perform.

A popular Facebook site, Open Mic Western Massachusetts, lists sites on a daily basis for each week: over 50 across the region. On Wednesday alone there are about 19 options, mostly for music, stretching from Belchertown to Becket and from Northampton to Chicopee.

A new monthly “open stage,” starting in late April at the Lava Center in Turners Falls, has also just been announced.

And post-pandemic, there’s a sense that the scene, where almost all the performances are free, might be busier than ever.

“I think it is,” said Dan Russell, who’s been hosting a Wednesday evening open mic at Luthier’s Co-op in Easthampton for about six years. “I think a lot of people were anxious to get out and start performing again after being stuck at home for so long.”

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“I’ve had so many people tell me ‘I bought a guitar and began learning to play because I wanted something to do’” during the pandemic, said Tobey Sol LaRoche, a singer and songwriter who since fall 2021 has hosted a weekly open mic at Wurst Haus, the Northampton German-style restaurant and bar.

“There’s definitely a larger demand for open mics,” added LaRoche, who previously hosted ones at Bishop’s Lounge in Northampton and at Gateway City Arts in Holyoke. “I think it’s great. I’m happy to plug other open mics at my own. There’s so much talent and creativity in this region — let’s have lots of places people can express that.”

Luthier’s might be the busiest place around, with open mics very Tuesday and Wednesday, led by different hosts and generally drawing different types of performers.

“Tuesday night tends to bring in a younger crowd,” said Lawrence, who’s a singer-songwriter himself and also hosts a podcast on Easthampton Media featuring performances and interviews with area acoustic musicians.

“But both nights, it’s a very welcoming place,” he added. “You don’t have to be a brilliant musician … We don’t exclude anyone.”

On a recent Wednesday at Luthier’s, performers seemed to range from their late teens/early 20s up to their 60s and 70s, such as Louis Lamothe of West Springfield, an older gentleman who brought his guitar and cowboy hat on stage and sang an original song about growing old, with a recurring line of “Who will remember me?”

“I hope you enjoyed that,” Lamothe said after he’d gotten a nice round of applause from the crowd.

And Russell, a retired college professor of history and social science, took a moment to tell people that this day, March 20, had some significant dates in American history: The landmark book “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was published March 20, 1852, and the first meeting of what would become the Republican Party took place March 20, 1854.

“Open mics can also be educational,” he joked.

Take that, stage fright

Some open mics are only held monthly and as such can attract a pretty big crowd of performers and audience members, like the long-running Song & Story Swap in Amherst that’s organized by the Pioneer Valley Folklore Society; that event also hosts a featured performer each month. (The next one is April 6.)

In Northampton, The Parlor Room started a monthly open mic when it became a collective last year, and it’s since become a popular draw, said Pete Nelson, a veteran songwriter (and book author and journalist) who hosts the event and also leads songwriting workshops in the space.

“The Parlor Room is a listening room,” he said. “We’re not selling beer or food. Everyone’s there to hear the music or to perform.”

By contrast, at some open mics in bars and restaurants, Nelson said, “You can play, but it’s a question of how many people are actually listening.”

At The Palor Room’s March open mic, a range of performers showed up, along with a crowd of 35 to 40 people, with Nelson kicking off the session with a couple of acoustic songs on guitar; he was joined on one of them by saxophonist Dan Freeman.

Then David Clark Carroll, an experienced bluegrass player and multi-instrumentalist, displayed some fine chops on mandolin on a couple of tunes; he mentioned a couple other places he’d be playing.

And Dan Zukergood and Julie Schwager, an acoustic folk duo called The Meanies who have played a number of paying gigs in recent years, took the stage to offer some crisp covers of songs by Steve Earle and Australian country singer Kasey Chambers.

Open mics, Zukergood said afterward, are a great opportunity to stay sharp for other gigs and to try out new songs for an audience.

Open mics are also a good place to try and get a grip on stage fright. Gary DeMichele, who’s been writing songs for several years, has more recently begun to play them for audiences, and he came to The Parlor Room all the way from West Hartford, Connecticut, to do two originals on acoustic guitar: “It’s Complicated” and “16.”

DeMichele said he’d been in Northampton in the last month to attend a series of songwriting workshops, led by singer-songwriter Heather Maloney, at The Parlor Room, so it made sense to try out some of his other songs at the open mic.

“This is as good a place to do it as anywhere,” he noted. “People really listen, they’re supportive. It helps you deal with your nerves … this was nice.”

“When I was first playing out, my knees would be knocking,” Russell noted.

Experience can deal with that problem. Matt Emmer, a singer-songwriter from Leeds, recently brought his guitar, harmonica and original folk songs to The Parlor Room open mic and, the next night, to the one at Wurst Haus. He’s been playing out for about two years, he said, and sometimes hits three open mics a week.

“I just love to play music, and I like to hear what other people are doing,” he said at the Wurst Haus. “And this is a great way to try out a song to see how it sits with an audience.”

LaRoche, the Wurst Haus host, notes that open mics can feature a variety of sounds. JJ’s Tavern in Florence, for instance, has the space and general ambiance to host a rock and roll band, as one example, while the Wurst Haus, where performers do their thing in a small space near the front door, is mostly limited to acoustic solo acts or duos.

But that’s the beauty of the region’s open mic scene, LaRoche said.

“There are so many options, and people are willing to come from pretty far away to perform here,” he said, noting that he’s had rappers, a lute player, and a capella singers come to Wurst Haus.

On a recent open mic night, a saxophone player named Martin popped into the restaurant and played a brief but soulful tune on saxophone before heading back outside.

“I’d really love to see more people come out [to open mics] just to listen,” LaRoche said. “You’ll hear some great music, and it’s a free experience.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.