Open-mic nights rule
It’s not a purely Summit County phenomenon, but it’s definitely a tradition right up there with après ski and even surpasses the popularity of karaoke. In the High Country, open mike nights rule the club circuit. At the Moose Jaw in Frisco, their open mike night has been a tradition for more than 12 years, running year-round on Thursday nights going from 10 p.m. until closing.While most of the performers are locals, tourists come in as well and are happy to play for a sympathetic – even enthusiastic – audience. Over the years, the open mike night has featured everything from horn, mandolin and guitar players and husband-and-wife duos to harmonica and washboard artists.According to Willie, famed Moose Jaw bartender, it’s not unheard of for an entire ensemble to show up. A couple of Thursdays ago, a six-piece band came in for their chance in the spotlight.”We get good crowds,” he said. “People come in to hear their friends, so a lot of it is word-of-mouth.”Over at The Sanctuary in La Cima Mall, co-owner Adam Rush has been running an open mike night for the last two months, on Fridays from 7 p.m. until closing. Rush said that performers typically go on for a half hour to 45 minutes, playing everything from hip-hop to electronic and avant-garde music. The mike is open for amateur DJs as well, who come in and spin their own selections.
“We get bassists and guitarists, and even some experimental electronic musicians working with computer music programs,” he said. “And most of them have been pretty good – no one’s been bad yet,” he added.So far, the audiences have been made up primarily of the performers themselves, who encourage the others while waiting their turn. But Rush said that word is spreading, The Sanctuary is getting more people in every week for the free drinks, snacks – and of course, the music.”People like it, and we’ll definitely keep doing it,” he said. For Keith Synnestvedt, open mike night is part of his livelihood. For 23 years, the singer/guitarist/songwriter has pursued a career as a full-time musician, performing in clubs throughout the High Country. Five and a half years ago, Synnestvedt added the job of hosting open mike nights to his regular gig at Ullr’s Sports Grille in Breckenridge. Until last November, when the microphone plug was pulled on the weekly event, Synnestvedt saw performers from all over the world try out their skills for the price of a free beer.Synnestvedt said that it’s not surprising that open mike nights are so popular in the High County, given the wealth of diversity and talent here – and the commitment to a mountain resort lifestyle.”It’s too expensive and the environment is too rugged to stay up here by accident,” he said. “People who live here have to work hard to be here – they really, really want to be here – and you’ll hear that in the music. There are some phenomenally talented people here who are lift operators and line cooks and store clerks.”
According to Synnestvedt, after 9/11, paid entertainment throughout the High Country took an 80-85 percent drop due to the industry recession that followed – compared to open mike venues, which took only a 40-50 percent drop. “After 9/11, all the club owners expected things to go bad, so the first thing they cut out was the entertainment,” he said. “And in resorts, entertainment sits on the knife edge between being a luxury and a customer service. But if you’re disrespecting the tourists by trying to save money, it’s a false economy.”Around this time, Ullr’s decided to put entertainment back in, and Synnestvedt became the house act. In addition to his own solo gig there, he worked out a weekly, “no excuses” open mike night, which became a local tradition. “A bunch of people performing in Summit County now got their start at my open mikes,” he said. “I’ve done them elsewhere and the average percentage of good players is higher here than anywhere I’ve ever played. It’s because of that positive attitude – because people love it here.”Synnestvedt said he tried to make it as easy as possible for anyone to get up and perform, even offering his guitar to those caught off guard who weren’t expecting to sing for their supper that night.Synnestvedt said that, typically, open mike nights attract a handful of regular performers who bring in their own fan clubs, sing three or four songs, and then hang out for the rest of the night while the others perform. During ski season, tourists often come in to make up the audience, and end up by becoming the act as well.Some of his guest performers have included a guitarist and folk singer from Russia, members of a Nashville songwriter’s convention, and even a violinist from the National Repertory Orchestra, who jammed on “The Devil Went Down To Georgia.”
As a musician who performs, in addition to his own songs, everything from Johnny Cash to Dire Straits, Synnestvedt appreciates the cross-generational culture of open mike nights, where the audience may be treated to a couple of Patsy Cline songs, followed by the music of Nirvana or Beyonce unplugged. “You get the house drunks performing too, but the percentage is biased toward people with serious professional ability,” Synnestvedt said. “The tail end of the evening often ends up being a group cross-fire jam, with everyone playing licks.”So, with the available paying gigs out there, why do good performers get up and perform for free?”There are a lot of people who do music because they love it – but they don’t do it as a career,” Synnestvedt said. “They’re not driven by trying to achieve a professional goal. They’re doing it to share something with a group of friends – it’s a living room concert with bar service. It’s about hanging out with your bros after a good day of skiing.”Today, Synnestvedt performs regularly at the Motherloded Tavern Valdoro Mountain Lodge in Breckenridge. He also continues to host open mike nights throughout the area – a sideline which, for him, has become something of a mission.”I started playing since I was 9 years old, and I’m 53,” he said. “A lot of people helped me when I was starting out, so I just feel that it’s karma, passing the baton to the next generation.”
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