Open Mic Series – part 1
(future installments on Dogfish and Bull Feeney’s)
By Timothy Gillis
John Nels has been running the Sunday night open mic at the Empire on Congress Street for the last two years, so in terms of local music acts, that makes him the new kid on the block.
Compared with Dogfish Bar and Grille on Free Street (seven years) and Bull Feeney’s on Fore Street (ten years), Nels has run “The Couch,” as it is affectionately known, for two of the three years it’s been jamming. But it’s quickly gaining ground.
Dominic Lavoie (from Dominic and the Lucid) came to Portland from Madawaska ten years ago, and started the open mic series at Empire in 2009. Nels took over after the first year, and has been handling the sound ever since. The upstart music series has quickly become popular, and Nels attributes its quick success to its present-tense approach. Empire doesn’t record unless you bring your own equipment.
“We haven’t gotten that much interest in recording, and we would need releases,” Nels said. “In some ways, it interferes with spontaneity. We try to live in the moment.”
Often the result is a hidden gem of a jam between far-flung musical friends.
“Sometimes it’s planned, but a lot of times musicians get together after awhile, sometimes you hear a song you haven’t heard in ten years,” he said.
The Sunday night open mic is called “The Couch” because they used to haul up the couch from the venue’s “green room,” but that became a task too far. Although an open mic neophyte, Nels is still willing to experiment.
“We’re trying out new things,” he said. “We used to have featured artists, but sort of fizzled that out, mostly because it used to be a paying function (i.e. a guarantee for features).”
A lot of local stars get their start at open mics. Nels cited several area artists who began by covering known hits so they could fund their original work.
“Eric Bettencourt from Velourosaurus, Jason Spooner, Zach Jones from As Fast As – he’s riding high on a great album (“Things were better”) that’s got so much soul. It’s the sound of Motown. Every one of those songs could be on the radio. John Nolan was producer and engineer, and he did a great job putting that together,” said Nels. “Zach plays guitar, mainly vocals, comes by after a practice, he’ll randomly play an ELO song.”
While the crowd at The Couch doesn’t discourage covers, a lot of the performers there have come by to try out originals. And the musicians often mix company.
“A lot of people are in other people’s projects, but no one is grandiose,” Nels said, adding that the ultimate goal for most musicians is to make some money. “There is a lack of practice places, that’s my main concern now. So there’s a lot of stepping up to learn skills you would otherwise trust to other people.”
Nels plays guitar and sings. “I played euphonium, a low brass instrument that looks like a small tuba but sounds like a French horn. I played that for twelve years in numerous large ensembles. Nowadays, I do more work for rock music,” said Nels, who is in two groups, including one called “The Desires” that recently covered The Monkeys at the Big Easy.
He is also in a band called “Forget Forget” – a large band with seven pieces – strings, (a cellist and a violin player), a violinist also plays keys and sings, three guitars and a banjo.
“It’s a big sound,” he said.
If he had his druthers, Nels would turn to a pro for recording his own music. But it often comes down to a matter of money.
“Jon Wyman, he’s Maine’s number one producer, possibly the best in New England,” Nels said. “If I had the money to go to him, I absolutely would.”
In the meantime, musicians have to travel the route of self-production and self-promotion.
Dan Knudsen is a distinct example of this type of open mic regular. He boasts forty-one original songs on nine CDs, and on his website, he describes himself as “Songwriter. Performer. Recording Artist. Visual Artist. Local Legend.” Lofty self-praise but it’s hard to dispute.
Fans expect to hear “Rainfalls outside my window” each Sunday night when Knudsen plays.
“I’ve been coming to Empire for three years,” said Knudsen (the K is not silent). “I’ve also played Rira a few times, and now more regular. I’ve got five studio albums, two compilations (greatest hits), “Live at Strange Maine” and a tribute album.
When asked whom the tribute album is for, he didn’t hesitate: “For me. A bunch of other local Maine bands that cover my songs. There’s another one due for release this fall, a bunch more musicians playing a bunch more of my songs.”
Regular open mic fan Nick Marquis confirmed Knudsen’s local legendary status as Dan was finishing up his set.
“I’ve watched him for three years. He comes in to the open mic, sets up his merch(andise), and plays three songs,” Marquis said. This night, Knudsen added “I won’t hurt you” and “Go north little child” to “Rainfalls.”
“I picked up the guitar when I was twelve,” Knudsen says. “I started taking lessons, started songwriting when I was fourteen. At twenty-five, I moved from my hometown of Wheaton, Illinois. Moved to Portland in 1998 and started recording.”
He says his latest favorite place to play is Rira’s. “They seem to love me there. They go crazy when I play.”
He doesn’t just play favorites, however, but completes the open mic circuit. He goes to Dogfish and then Slainte on Wednesday’s. “I do double duty,” he says, and signs a cocktail napkin for a fan.
A new duo is in tonight, calling themselves Coldwater Cure. Abraham Lorrain, of South Portland, and Meagan Toussaint, of Madawaska, first met at the Deer Run Tavern in Yarmouth.
“A couple of other musicians put us together,” Lorrain said. They started collaborating on songwriting. When asked which comes first – the lyric or the melody, they hedged and said, “the melody comes first, but you already know what the words are.”
When pressed to pick one, they said, “it’s like a fish trying to describe the water. “
They each play guitar, and Lorrain adds a Dylanesque harmonica on a neckbrace holder. They also play at Run of the Mill in Saco, and were looking to start a band.
Someone somewhere in between Knudsen’s experience and Coldwater Cure’s novelty sits Pat Maguire, from Lincolnville, waiting his turn at the mic. He’s nervous as this is his first time at Empire, a venue that – despite its own newness – strikes Maguire as the real deal. He’s been to Colorado and back to Maine, and this stage is a place for real musicians, he says. He was a singer first, and then self-taught guitar. He was planning to play a cover of City and Color’s song “The girl,” and maybe “Feel the tide” by Mumford and Sons.
Nels likes the variety the Empire offers, from seasoned vets to nervous newcomers. And with several other venues offering free, live music weekly, it’s hard to lack for lyrical options.
“With all the different venues, from Commercial Street to Congress Street, within a mile radius, you can find something that caters to your musical taste – jazz, folk, hard rock, metal – they all happen at different venues, and that’s what makes Portland unique,” he said. “There’s no way someone can say ‘I can’t find a band to see.’”