The concept of open mic isn't new, and zillions of bars across America do it. Even in Milwaukee, you have several options to stand on a stage by yourself and wow a crowd ... or send them scattering with your own homegrown tunes.
But put a professional band behind you, and suddenly your own songs can take on a new life. Your chord progressions and lyrics, amateur as they may be, sound like finished pieces with guitar, bass and drum solos.
The Up and Under Pub on the East Side has been offering live band open mic for a while now. But their new bar, The Down and Over, 2535 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., recently added it on Wednesdays, and it's cool to watch.
It's even cooler to participate in it.
"To be able to play your own songs, that you normally only hear yourself playing, fleshed out by a whole band is an opportunity like no other," says Eron Laber, a area photographer who had tried his hand at open mic – solo – when the bar was The Bay View Brew Haus.
Now, The Down and Over, has brought over a house band, Silky Beef, to the new bar, and this talented group of musicians has a knack for making people sound good, even if they've never played their music with a group.
Says Laber, "The house band at The Down and Over is really great at picking up what you're laying down and making it come together, even if it's a song they've never heard before. It doesn't hurt that they are all really down to earth guys who are just excited to jam. No pretension here at all."
Silky Beef's lead guitarist, Caleb Milestone, says he fell into this gig by playing open jams, himself, at the Up and Under in 2010.
"We've all been playing for a lot of years," says Milestone, and he and his bass player formed the band and caught management's attention. "I approached him to run open mic, and here we are."
Is it hard, though, for a musician to pick up a song he's never heard and immediately start playing along?
"Because I've played for so long, and a lot of music is the same, based around progressions with a little twist, I can just hear a musician and watch his hands," says Milestone.
"I can pick it up like this," he says, snapping his fingers.
Milestone says new musicians are intimidated at first, because they don't know what to expect.
"But as soon as we get up there and make them feel as comfortable as we can, it's just pure excitement. You can tell that they're generally enjoying themselves, and we are, too."
Owner Tim Brodersen says he's excited to bring the concept to his new bar.
"Bay View has a lot of great musicians with both traditional and eclectic styles," he says. "It's good to see musicians come out and display their talents,and this way they can do it without having to organize a band or a whole show."
"Plus," says Brodersen, "They get to stretch their limits by playing with styles and people they haven't played with before."
Depending on how busy the night is, a musician can play up to about 20 minutes or three songs.
Laber says the new addition to open mic night has reinvigorated the Bay View amateur music scene.
"The scene at this bar when it was The Bay View Brew Haus was sparse, at best," he says. "There were 10 people there kind of listening to you on a really good night. The crowd now is consistently at least double that."
"Right now is a great chance to get in on a bourgeoning open mic scene and have a great time doing it," he says.
Andy is the founder and co-owner of OnMilwaukee.com. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.
Before launching OnMilwaukee.com in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.
Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.