The American music industry, as it once was, has all but dissolved. It waved its blood-soaked white flag centuries ago or so it seems in this hi-speed/information-clotted/Facebook era.
The story goes: Poor record sales and the floundering of major labels resulting in bloated ticket prices, combined with one of the worst recessions in US history, all of which has more or less leveled a once vast and thriving landscape to a mere modern-day Wild West scenario where even Clint Eastwood might have trouble lining his pockets.
But now, as the dust settles and these artists have to step down onto the ground from their once comfortable saddles to confront new realities, we begin to see a new era taking shape where only the most spirited, clever and devoted will be heard.
One particular development, yet hardly novel, has been the recent resurgence of the “Open Mic Night.” It appears the people and their music just won’t go away. The urgency to connect is even stronger than before and it’s as if everyone has collectively (and politely) raised their invisible middle finger to all the corporate naysayers and cynics.
And Long Island is hardly allergic to this current trend as we see open mics cropping up everywhere: Coffee shops, bars, people’s houses and even bowling alleys. It’s in these various venues that we find some of the finest local music talent around—ageless troubadours threading their instruments to have their songs heard and felt.
Here are a few of LI’s local hotspots:
NJ Grunts Bar, Inside South Levittown Lanes Bowling Alley
You don’t have to wear your bowling shoes when you sign up for this open mic night. I actually asked. However, one gentleman, one of the founders of this event, “Big John,” said with a warm smile, “Dress in any shoes you’d like…just make sure you’re ready to have a good time.” Not only did everyone have a good time, rollicking to the evening’s mix of songs, but this open mic night provides a monthly community service by collecting food for Island Harvest, an organization established in 1992 that has set out “to end hunger and reduce food waste on Long Island.”
Stockpiled at the back of the bar, upon a pool table, are soup cans, boxes of pasta, chips, etc. as three men across the room passionately play along to an original song, while in the distance you can hear the soft percussive fall of bowling pins. The astute lyrical content of this particular tune showcases the perpetual horrors of modern war, as the singer’s voice appropriately evokes the shadowy tones of Roy Orbison with the cadence of Bob Dylan.
His name his Casey and he’s been writing original material for the last thirty years with the guidance of his longtime soulful backing band members Richie and Big John. “I’ve penned a few songs in my day. I’m not sure how many,” he admits with a dispassionate confidence from behind his dark shades. “I don’t know anything else. If I did then I’d do that, I guess.”
The rest of the night brims evenly with all sorts of talent, young and old, rifling through an eclectic mix of both original and covers that range from Buddy Holly to Radiohead. The crowd is locked in and lapping it up; one man baring a white-walrus mustache picks up a stray tambourine and starts to hammer the beat on the stool in front of him; it’s as if it’s his last chance to do so—maybe Casey’s warfare-ache got into his psyche and this is his last throw at a good time!
NJ Grunts Bar
56 Tanners Lane, Levittown
Phone: (516) 426-9617 or (516) 731-5700
Event: 1st Sunday of each month
Time: 6pm, Sign up: 5:30pm
Cost: FREE—donations of non perishable food for Island Harvest gladly accepted
Quogue East Pub, East Quogue
It’s been said by some that the farther out east you go on LI, the more light you’ll see. Whether or not that’s a three-dollar tale is up for debate but what requires no discussion is the level of playability found at Johnny B’s Open Mic night.
In a cozy bar with great acoustics found along the quaint shopping strip on Montauk Highway you can hear Johnny B, the host of the night, tear into his guitar with the grace and murder of a Jimmy Page. He can play Jimi Hendrix, BB King, Cyndi Lauper and David Bowie—just about anything. And the crowd reacts to it, as one very placid man named Bruce, who once tended bar at this very establishment thirty years ago, strikes up a conversation over a pint about Mr. B’s adept finger-work, “He could’ve been a contender. Not many people can play like him.”
The room is filled with about fifty people, 20 to 80-somethings, and everyone, including Loretta the bartender, is shaking to the music. Johnny B commands the stage as a rotating cast of players—many of whom are professionals and play at venues across the island—join him for a blues, jazz, funk or folk jam. And the jams are endless, feeding off each other, one and to the next.
“Uncle Bill,” who might as well be “the house” keyboardist, as he effortlessly rips through the night’s blend of jams, said that a successful night at the Quogue East Pub is when “everyone leaves with a smile on their faces.”
Well, tie on another winning night!
Quogue East Pub
530 Montauk Highway, East Quogue
Phone: (631) 653-6677 or Johnny B (631) 375-1131
Event: Wednesday every week
Acoustic Long Island (Deepwell’s Mansion), St. James
We’re in the 19th century Deepwell’s mansion on the North Shore about to watch some of the most expert songwriters in the country. It’s the first Wednesday of the month and tonight’s performances (like every other event) will be recorded for an international audience—by the founder Dave Dircks—which has now become the #1 recorded acoustic podcast on iTunes.
A red curtain is drawn at the backdrop of this amber-lit room. It’s tight with cheery-eyed onlookers as the show is just about to jump when, yes, a fluffy white dog suddenly dips about the crowd’s feet, zigzagging every baroquely fashioned room as its master coolly calls out her name, “Shelly, Shelly. Oh Shelly where are you? Has anyone seen my dog?”
The audience is hardly unnerved; if anything it encourages the jovial atmosphere that occupies this unique concert space. When the master finally scoops up her pup, almost simultaneously, the first notes are being plucked. It’s Tim Ryan, doffing a baseball cap over his silvering hair, introducing the evening with his fingers drumming on the fretboard, his voice scrapes with sincerity, recalling a sound that pre-dates all modern music—before any commercial trappings existed.
The first song entrances the audience with an identifiable narrative spun about his relationship to his parents, and with the progression’s final resolve the crowd lights up the room with smiles and a thundering applause. Mr. Ryan humbly accepts their enthusiasm and goes on to push out two more equally engaging numbers.
Following Mr. Ryan, the young songwriter Rachel Griffin immediately pulls in the room with a few playful jazz-infused pop gems, lined with insightful rhymes and heartfelt imagery. She seems like a veteran of the trade as she is completely at ease with her audience, punctuating each song with a lighthearted anecdote, one of which details the age-old hardships of life on the road. Oh, but life in this room couldn’t be sweeter!
497 Route 25A, Saint James
Event: 1st Wednesday of every month
Signup: Invite (Must send material 6 months in advance)
South Levittown Lanes
Brickhouse Brewery, Patchogue
Sundays, Wednesdays, 8pm
Sun: Blues; Wed: All performing arts.
The Village Lanterne, Lindenhurst
The Vibe Lounge, Rockville Centre
Mondays, Tuesdays, 8:30pm
Mon: All performing arts, Tues: Comedy.
Martha Clara Vineyards, Riverhead
Music, comedy, poetry.
Jessie’s Roadhouse, Merrick
Acoustic Long Island, Deepwells Mansion, St. James
The Cup Café, Wantagh
Music, poetry, comedy.
Regulars Music Café, Southampton
Wednesdays, 8:30pm?(631) 287-2900
Gunther’s Tap Room, Northport
Harvey’s Lounge, Cedarhurst
The Inn, Long Beach
The Poolhouse, Bellmore
Every other Wednesday, 9pm
Mr. Beery’s, Bethpage
Custer Institute and Observatory, Southold
First Friday of the month, 7-10pm
All performing arts. Donations appreciated.
Borders Books, Syosset
First Friday of the month, 8pm
Music, comedy, poetry.
Wizards, East Northport
Music, comedy, poetry