If you've been around the Bay Area for a few decades, you'll doubtless remember Scoop Nisker, the man-on-the-street news reporter who did stints on KFOG, the old KSAN, and just about any rock radio station worth its salt -- and you'll remember the tag line he'd use to wrap up his report: "If you don't like the news, go out and make some of your own!"
The same could be said these days about the sometimes-lagging music scene in the East Bay. If you're not hearing what you like, take your instrument(s) out to an open mic, and make some music of your own. While open mics proliferate in SF, from heavy-duty mob scenes like the Hotel Utah to small cafes in almost every district of town, there are some spots to get your music heard without having to cart your equipment and friends across the bridge. And the open mic scene over here is still small enough that you'll quickly begin to recognize the regulars at the various venues. You might become one yourself.
Freight & Salvage
1111 Addison Street, Berkeley
The granddaddy of open mics in the East Bay is held at the Freight & Salvage Coffee House, still nestled on Addison Street in Berkeley. It's run every Tuesday night for years by MC Jim Carter, a sardonic but good-natured guy who could occasionally be coaxed to get onstage and sing the song about the moose that mated with a cow.
This open mic has gotten a little more sporadic lately: The club seems loathe to donate a weekly slot to open mics when it can often line up more lucrative acts. But it's still committed to having one or two a month, sometimes hosted by Carter, sometimes by singer-songwriter Gil, the Urban Acoustic Dude. This month there will be two: March 11 and March 18.
Even though the infrequency makes the nights less accessible, they're worth making the effort for. Not only do you get the thrill of performing on a stage that has hosted some legendary musicians -- everyone from Odetta and Utah Phillips to Holly Near, Greg Brown, and Michelle Shocked -- you also get the benefit of a sound system fit for top-caliber artists. In fact, if you bring a tape and are nice to the soundperson, you can get a recording of your performance, applause and all. And perhaps most importantly, you'll find an audience dominated by more serious musicians and die-hard music aficionados than can be found at most open mics. This is one reason the sign-up line starts early; arriving before the 7:30 door opening is a wise idea, or you might end up playing to the very few, very die-hard aficionados still there at 11:30. As it has always been, the Freight is an alcohol-free venue: there is no bar, no TV, no dartboard or pool table -- in short, no one is going there for anything but the music.
A few caveats: The Freight is definitely known for traditional music, and the open mics are dominated by acoustic-based singer-songwriters. While you could certainly plug in if you choose, you won't find any full-on rock bands setting up. A grand piano is available onstage, and most musicians will be solo, duo, or trio acts. Check with the MC on song limits: it's generally two songs, regardless of whether you're performing solo or with others.
When scanning the schedule for upcoming open mics, keep an eye out for the occasional Northern California Songwriters Association open mic, often on a Monday evening. This is a whole different animal, but something serious songwriters should know about. In order to perform, you have to be a member of the NCSA (you can usually join right at the event if you've got your checkbook!), an organization that offers a variety of opportunities for songwriters: workshop groups, screenings with record company agents, and juried open mics. If you sign up, your performance will be evaluated by two judges, and you'll be mailed scores as well as written feedback for all the evening's artists, so you can see how you stacked up. The next NCSA open mic is March 31, and anyone can get in the door for a few bucks, so you might choose to check one out before deciding whether to pony up $75 for a year's membership.
The Stork Club
2330 Telegraph Avenue, Oakland
If all this sounds too intense, too sporadic, or too acoustic, take heart: You can bring your drummer, costumes, and whatever else you like to the Stork Club in downtown Oakland on any old Sunday night. Any oddball should feel comfortable in this place ... and does. While host Girl George might not do the song about the moose mating with the cow, she is apt to ask you to back her up on tunes like "Johnny Got Herpes" or "You Make Me Feel Like a Whore." The scene here is much more relaxed; it's a bar, for God's sake, with an impressive collection of Barbie dolls on display to boot. Things get going on the later side, with musicians beginning to drift in around 9:00, with the sign-up list existing primarily in Girl George's head. Expect to see some regulars here, like Salem, the earnest, lanky folksinger, or Ricky, who dons a ship captain's hat before taking the stage with guitar, drum, and hi-hats to play '70s hits (picture Gopher from The Love Boat attempting to be all of the Bee Gees at once). Depending on the night, you might need to BYOA (Bring Your Own Audience) to some extent, but with the unrelenting roar of Girl George's applause-sound machine, you can pretend you're playing a stadium show. You probably won't find a strict time limit or song limit at the Stork. And if you arrive early on the last Sunday of the month, you can join the Pinball Mafia competitions in the back room -- on these nights, there's a $5 cover.
What the Fork - December 6, 3:51 PM
Seven Days - December 6, 9:52 AM
Seven Days - December 5, 9:38 AM
Seven Days - December 4, 9:20 PM
Seven Days - December 4, 5:31 PM