Finding their voice, at The Inspired Word open mic | East Villager & Lower East Sider

Finding their voice, at The Inspired Word open mic

Pop-folk musicians Orlando and Elia, at Bareburger.   PHOTO BY MICHAEL LYDON
Pop-folk musicians Orlando and Elia, at Bareburger. PHOTO BY MICHAEL LYDON

BY MICHAEL LYDON |  To open mic or not to open mic? That’s a question that rookie (and even veteran) performers often ponder.

The pros: a chance to grab five priceless minutes of stage time, if you’re gig-less Tuesday night. The cons: riding two subways to a half-empty bar, waiting for an eternity for those few minutes, then trekking home — well aware that you haven’t earned a penny for your efforts. Never again, you vow: “You want me to play, sing or tell jokes in your blankety-blank dive? You blankety-blank better pay me!”

Then another gig-less Tuesday rolls around, you’ve got a new song or routine you’re dying to try out, and you think, “Hmm, Jerry Seinfeld open-miked at the Comic Strip, Lady Gaga open-miked at the Bitter End.” So you swallow your pride, trek the trek, sign up and make one more bid for the big time.

‘Poppa Mike’ Geffner gives stage time to hopes and dreams

Many open mic venues have come and gone over the years — Folk City and Catch a Rising Star are among the best remembered — but open miking will never die. Why? Because, as George Burns said, “Performers need a place to be bad.” You can study at school and rehearse in your living room — but you’ve got to get up on stage and bomb, and keep getting up there and bombing, until the blessed night somebody says, “Hey, you’re good!” and you go home on a cloud.

Inspired Word founder Mike Geffner and poet Melissa McGuire.  PHOTOS BY MICHAEL LYDON
Inspired Word founder Mike Geffner and poet Melissa McGuire. PHOTOS BY MICHAEL LYDON

In the past few years Mike Geffner’s The Inspired Word series (inspiredwordnyc.com), held at a variety of Village and Midtown clubs, has been a hopeful new presence on the city’s open mic scene. Geffner, a buff and chunky former Village Voice sports columnist, began presenting poets at a vegan restaurant in Forest Hills in 2009. The first night a snowstorm blanketed the city, and only a dozen or so people showed up. Soon, the restaurant went out of business.

Failure only made Geffner more eager to succeed. After months scouting for new stages, he lined up two nights a month at (Le) Poisson Rouge on Bleecker Street, site of the old Village Gate. At first he only booked featured performers. But when he added six open mic slots, they filled up instantly. He expanded to twelve, then fifteen open slots — and he still had no trouble filling his bill.

In 2011, Geffner moved the Inspired Word to the Nexus Lounge on First Ave. near Houston, then to MacDougal Street’s old folk club, the Gaslight. The series recently closed its run at Bareburger (Second Ave. at Fifth St.), but has a regular presence at The Gallery at (Le) Poisson Rouge and Funkadelic Studios (209 W. 40th St., at Seventh Ave., 5th floor).

Back in the fall, at one of those Bareburger shows, singer and keyboard player Sylvana Joyce, MC for the night, kicked things off with a song, “Just Hold On,” that she dedicated to the open mikers waiting in the audience: “So you want to make your break? Well, you just gotta hold on, hold on.”

Singer Eric Lee cracks the whip — and some jokes.
Singer Eric Lee cracks the whip — and some jokes.

“I love Sylvana,” said Geffner, watching from the back of the room. “She was my first musician. She came in one snowy night to a poetry show and asked if she could play a song. I said sure, and she got a standing ovation. Now she has her own band, The Moment, and she’s starting to take off in the alt rock circuit.”

Next up, five middle school girls from the Renaissance Charter School in Jackson Heights, accompanied by their English teacher and a mother or two. They read original poems espousing peace on earth and kindness to animals in clear, strong voices, and the crowd cheered them to the rafters. The girls went offstage blushing and giggling but proud of their accomplishment. “They’ve been preparing for this for weeks,” said one mother. “I can see how much my daughter has grown with the experience.”

The girls stayed to see the next act, poet Verandah Maureen Shepard, who recited her poem “Mirror, Mirror on the Wall” that slams the commercial standards of female beauty that can make women insecure about their looks:

…some corporations are completely driven on self-loathing and low self-esteem.

Maybe it means we pay people to convince us that we’re ugly…

“I had to do that piece after seeing those young girls,” Verandah said as she came off. “I’d hate them to start worrying if they were pretty enough, when they’re so lovely being themselves.”

The teacher and mothers ushered the little girls out before the next act, luckily perhaps, because after asking, “Are we all adults here now?” and getting a resounding yes from the crowd, the next performer, “Miss Represent,” a shorthaired young woman with a mock innocent grin, launched into a raunchy song with the sing-along refrain, “I’m a dirty princess, bitch, bitch! I’m a dirty princess, bitch, bitch!”

I’ve been an eager open miker for years and did two songs that night in the middle of the lineup. The seven-minute slot, as usual, flew by, but the crowd seemed to like my mellow love ballads. So I hit my last big note, bowed and grinned through the cheers, then sat down again, sweating but happy. From then on the parade of acts went by, becoming something of a blur as 8:30, then 9:30, came and went.

Guitarist Orlando and vocalist Elia charmed the audience with their mellow pop-folk. Eric Lee, a skinny kid with a lively face and mischievous eyes, sang, mugged and snapped a long black whip to pre-recorded hip-hop tracks. His outfit: a black top hat, white shirt, black bow tie, a bright red tail coat and high-heeled lace-up boots. A short, nerdy comedian got laughs mocking his own small stature: “Well, at least I can tell myself I have the potential to be tall.” A lumpy teenager played an ethereal version of Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” on guitar, and the whole crowd hummed along with him. “I met my hubby in a bar in Las Vegas,” cracked a comedienne. “He thought I was a whore, but hell no — I just like to drink a lot.”

One young musician, who called himself Vlad, wore 60s-hippie clothes — rainbow-striped pants, purple shirt, and furry vest — and asked the audience who he looked like. “Sonny Bono,” a dozen voices shouted in unison. “Far out,” he said, then he played screaming Led Zeppelin guitar solos, all the while looking approvingly at his reflection in the room’s big windows. He got deafening applause as he went off flashing the V-sign and shouting, “Love and peace, peace and love.”

Blonde singer-songwriter Valerie Reaper finished her two songs on the dot of 10 o’clock. “Anybody else?” asked Sylvana. No, nodded Geffner.

“Okay,” said Sylvana, “it’s been a great night, thanks, everybody, for coming out!” That got a rousing final round of applause. The dozen performers who had stuck it out to the end gathered for a gleeful mass selfie then melted away into the night.

“I love Mike’s open mic,” said Valerie as she packed up her guitar. “At other open mic clubs, you feel nobody knows you, nobody cares. But Mike always has an encouraging word. He puts our photos and videos up in Facebook. Here we’re family. We hang out together, support and learn from each other. It’s beautiful.”

“I never dreamed I’d end up presenting young performers,” Geffner said as he and his assistant Marvin Mendlinger straightened up the room’s chairs and tables. “But look, I’m a New York kid myself, Far Rockaway high school, Queens College. My father wanted me to be a lawyer, but I wanted to be a writer like Hemingway. So I understand these kids’ hopes and dreams. Where’s it all headed? Who knows, but when they call me Poppa Mike, I know I love that.”

THE INSPIRED WORD VENUES

The Gallery at (Le) Poisson Rouge (158 Bleecker St., btw. Sullivan &Thompson Sts.) | Every third Fri. of the month, 7-9:30pm: Titillating Tongues: NYC Erotica in Poetry & Prose (open mic, 21+). Every fourth Friday of the month, 7-9:30pm: The LOL! Comedy Slam ($50 prize for best set, 21+).

Funkadelic Studios (209 W. 40th St., at Seventh Ave., 5th floor) | First two Fridays of the month, 6:30-11pm: The Open Mic Joint (poets, comedians, singers/musicians, storytellers). 18 + unless accompanied by an adult.

 

SPECIAL EVENTS

Tammany Hall (152 Orchard St., btw. Stanton & Rivington Sts.)

The Cafe at Broadway, 310-318 W. 53rd Street (btw. Eighth & Ninth Aves.)

One and One’s Nexus Lounge (76 E. First St., corner of First Ave.)

 

FOR MORE INFO, VISIT inspiredwordnyc.com