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The many strange battles of an open-mic emcee
By Thomas Crone - Photo by Jonathan Swegle
Posted On: 01/01/2006   


Every Monday night, Heather Barth readies an old-fashioned chalkboard at the corner of the Magee’s stage, as she slots musicians for the next four hours of open-mic acoustic music. On a so-so evening, the board stays mostly empty, and musicians play a little – even a lot – longer than the usual 15-minute time allowance. On a good night, the board fills up, and people wind up jamming until last call. In fact, there are nights when so many players are in the house that Barth can’t even get them all on without cutting them down to a song apiece.

From week to week, these Mondays at Magee’s can be a very different animal. “We have a lot of surprises here and that’s fun,” said Barth. “That’s really important.”

Magee’s – a small, midcity tavern at 4500 Clayton Ave. – is generally given over to jam bands, groups that would please the ear of Grateful Dead, Phish and even bluegrass fans, during the course of the week. And Barth looks the part of an open-mic emcee, with her strikingly long dreadlocks and super-casual stage manner. She insists, though, that Magee’s is open to anyone with something to sing or say. She’ll even take time to make moments happen by flitting through the crowd and pairing up musicians.

“I get to play musical matchmaker,” she enthused. “When I can, I pull people up and have them play off of one another and that’s fun. That happens a lot here; people do talk to one another.” Barth sees that as part of a larger goal of open mics: to give musicians an opportunity to feed off an appreciative, if small, crowd while working out some low-key networking opportunities.

“This is more of a family in the way old-school sense,” said Barth. “Everybody here’s appreciating the music scene, supporting one another locally and are in the same boat together.” When there is competition, it’s most likely a special event Barth has cooked up, something she believes is unique to Magee’s open mic. “One I did previously was songwriters’ showcase – they could play three songs that they’d written and we had a contest,” she said. In the coming weeks Barth will be promoting “a new idea I’ve just come up with. I’m going to put a challenge out there to area songwriters.”

In addition to Magee’s, Barth has hosted other mics around town, most notably the one at The Shanti in Soulard where she filled in for Kim “Kimmy V” Vrooman during her pregnancy; the two regularly stand in for one another around town. She’s also hosted open mics at Schwagstock, the popular campground affair built every summer by the Grateful Dead cover band The Schwag. Surprisingly, that’s also the one place where she had to calm a near-brawl between a heckler and a guitarist.

On a recent chilly Monday evening, there were no fisticuffs at Magee’s. Instead, Barth, just getting over “the worst cold I’ve had since I was a kid,” played a trio of songs before turning over the mic to a succession of quirky acts.

First there was Barry, a weekly regular who prefers the singer-songwriters of the 1970s and featured cuts by Kansas and John Denver. There was Dave, a veteran bassist and guitarist of area rock and jam bands, who cranked out a half-hour set of pleasing blues appropriate for the evening. There was Mr. Charlie, another regular, who boasted more of an outsider-artist vibe by scatting and crooning both a cappella and over an accompanying guitar. Then there was Fred, an unassuming Realtor who hadn’t played out in a while, preferring the country-rock of Robbie Earl Keen and the Old 97s.

In all, it was a mixed batch, “ a mellow night” – just the way Barth likes it. Although Barth has been able to keep her attitude up, not all open-mic hosts are able to keep the flame alive.

Local bandleader Bob Reuter rotated in as host of the open mic “Thursday Night Hootenanny” at Frederick’s Music Lounge in South City for nearly four years. Like other open mics, the one at Frederick’s went through cycles, and for a time, the night was as hot as any in town.

The same acts, though, eventually took a toll on Reuter’s enthusiasm. “Jeez, nothing seems weirder than the other thing, you know,” Reuter said when asked about odd sights and sounds. “I guess there was a big guy with thick glasses who came in with a cardboard box shaped like a guitar. He pulled out a dimestore guitar, with a little amplifier and rhythm machine. He took the rhythm machine up to the PA, then just screamed and banged on the guitar, which wasn’t tuned or anything. He wasn’t doing any fingering, he’d just scream and everybody loved it ... not true – he did drive some people out.”

Asked whether he’d do the emcee duties again, Reuter said, “I would rather not. You know, you get into that singer-songwriter hell. For the number of entertaining acts that come through, it just isn’t worth it. It takes a lot out of you. There were some acts that the crowd wasn’t wild about, but I could tell there was something real there that I liked. What’d go over big is somebody going up and screaming a bunch of dirty words, that’d be over like gangbusters. There was a pregnant woman that got up and sang a cappella lullabies that she made up at that moment. That’s four hours of your life you won’t get back.”

But what makes a successful open-mic night? “Number one, that I lived through it,” said Reuter. “Having it be crowded and getting to everybody on the list. And they did a booming business at the bar.”

On that Barth concurred, saying, “We do try to generate business for a bar. This is a night when they might not be open otherwise. It’s tough enough for a bar to make money. And it’s another gathering spot for local musicians. Hang out, have a drink, make music.”

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