It’s a lively, warm night at Der Rathskeller in Memorial Union. Friends gather in groups as the last assignments of midterm season are vanquished. The line for food winds around the corner and the dining room begins to fill with people eating, studying and relaxing.
And in the back of the room, behind a modest sound system, Gunnar Schmitz* is preparing for another open mic night.
Schmitz started hosting this particular open mic night in the fall, when the unions resumed putting on shows. “Open mic night is something I always wanted to do, but I never really found the motivation to put my foot in,” Schmitz said, adding “I’ve always occasionally done random performances here and there.”
When the possibility of bringing open mic night back to the public arose, Schmitz did just that. “I thought it would be a good kick-in-the-pants kind of deal, for me to really commit to it.”
Tonight, the Rathskeller is abuzz regardless of open mic night. It’s almost spring break, although it’s not exactly warm. Up until about 15 minutes before the prescribed start time of 7 p.m., a projector screen hung over the stage playing CNN News.
The immediate feel of open mic night is laid-back. The stage initially consists of four mics and two speakers. People sign up with a chart on a clipboard, which is bare a few minutes out from 7. “I know you guys are probably figuring out where in Miami you’re gonna stay right now,” Schmitz told the crowd in his introduction.
Schmitz told me he usually goes on first to get the night started, and tonight is no different. He takes an acoustic guitar on stage and opens with a song by the bluegrass band The Dillards. Playing with great dynamics and confidence, he’s the perfect act to get an open mic night started. At the onset, the audience is sizable with the Rathskeller dinner crowd. It’s a promising start, despite the absence of some of Schmitz’s regulars.
Maria and Otto came on next, toting a guitar and a laptop. They’re part of a larger band, the rest of whom couldn’t make it tonight. They make up a great vocal duo, playing original songs and hitting nice harmonies. Their cover of “Everybody Talks” by Neon Trees got a warm welcome from the audience. As Will and Evan took the stage next, playing a soulful rendition of the country song “That’s How I Got to Memphis” by Tom T. Hall, a theme began to develop. The setup of the open mic night, a few microphones and an acoustic guitar certainly contributes to a folky, country feel.
If you’re playing music, your voice is going to be featured prominently. Up on that stage, it’s just you and whatever you bring with you.
Evan, a regular, looks completely in his element on stage. The crowd cheers as he forgets the words to a song he wrote last Saturday. He’s performing, but his demeanor suggests he could be playing alone in his bedroom.
So what gets people to go up on that stage? “A lot of people are looking for an outlet,” Schmitz said. “A lot of people aren’t trying to get themselves out there as an artist, but just to do something, to present themselves.”
Indeed, open mic night serves as an important outlet. Musicians can practice and practice, but performing is ingrained into their DNA. It’s also vital for building camaraderie within the local music scene. “A lot of people are coming out for the community aspect of it, to interact with other artists,” Schmitz explained.
Delilah and Ben put their names down next, and they continue the trend of well-coordinated vocals. The two can really sing, and Delilah’s background vocals remind me of a lot of 90s indie rock. Playing from a book of Beatles songs, they performed a haunting version of “Eleanor Rigby”. They then took it across the English Channel to play the French song “Je Ne Veux Pas Travailler,” which Delilah prefaced perfectly: “This next one is in French. The gist is I don’t want to go to work, I don’t want to eat lunch, I just want to smoke and forget.” Known to perform at open mic night, Delilah and Ben would return to the stage later, individually, to serenade the crowd and keep the show going.
“Those are my homies,” Schmitz explained.
The audience later thins out as the Rathskeller dinner crowd subsides, but now they’re much more attentive to the performance. With barely anyone eating dinner, the main lights can give way to the dimmer stage lights, illuminating the performer.
Wyatt comes on stage empty handed and gives the crowd a few disclaimers, like how his performance is mostly improvised. No one seems to have any idea what he is going to do, but his indifferent demeanor paired perfectly with his performance — a few lines of slam poetry that quickly morphed into some of the best live beatboxing I’ve ever seen. It wasn’t just your typical, laid-back hip-hop beatboxing. It was beatboxing on molly, the rave and techno kind. The audience is captivated by the short, brilliant performance.
Schmitz addresses the audience afterwards, raving “I’m fighting for my life trying to sing up here and he’s hitting like seven different tambours with his voice.”
Wyatt didn’t just go up there and shred by accident. He was part of an a cappella group and has years of beatboxing under his belt. Open mic night simply gives him a chance to perform his craft. “I’m an extrovert to a fault, that’s really what it is,” he said.
The list of people on the clipboard ended about an hour in. Schmitz called it a slower night, and he went back on stage to continue the country trend, playing “Big Iron” by Marty Robbins. Some of the regulars present like Evan, Ben and Delilah returned to perform, playing songs off the top of their head. Just as it looked like no one else wanted to perform, a shy but talented woman connects her phone to an auxiliary cord so she can sing along with an audio file.
“There’s always someone new,” Schmitz said.
Another potential performer, Jonathan, walks into the Rathskeller, and immediately finds Schmitz to ask when he can perform. He waits his turn, and then fearlessly begins to sing a-ha’s “Take On Me” over the instrumental track. As the chorus approaches, so does the moment of truth — will he hit the insanely high notes? Headstrong, he sings the high seventh interval perfectly of the last line of the chorus, “In a day or two,” and the crowd showers him with cheers.
“I’ve always loved singing, but there’s no time now,” Jonathan said. The recent UW-Madison grad was in a boys choir, and both his parents sang. He now lives in Minnesota but dropped in on open mic night while visiting for spring break. “I’ve always been a bit of a performer,” Jonathan added. He remembers the first time he did an open mic night, performing the same song in the same place when he was an undergrad several years ago.
The open mic night has been going strong. Now almost two hours in, Casey takes the stage to play acoustic guitar and sing just as Schmitz is about to shut it down for the night.
“It’s definitely the people,” Schmitz responds when asked what his favorite part of open mic night is. It’s all about getting to know people, especially other local artists, and “putting names to personalities,” as Schmitz puts it. “It’s been nice getting to know new people that I’ve never really gotten the opportunity to converse with. As the host, they kind of have to talk to me.”
To close out the show, Ben comes back on stage for one last performance and plays the long, ridiculous Car Seat Headrest ballad “(Joe gets kicked out of school for using) Drugs With Friends.” It’s a goofy song but a passionate performance, and it serves as the perfect end to an eclectic night.
On the stage at the Rathskeller, it’s just you and whatever you bring with you, be that a beautiful voice, songwriting prowess or an inexplicable ability to make techno sounds with your mouth. But whatever it is, it’s perfect for this open mic night.
*Gunnar Schmitz is a staff writer at The Daily Cardinal.