Song of myself

Tuesday: The Grey Eagle

It’s cold in here. Several folks have told me that this place was once an old barn, and tonight, you don’t need much imagination to believe it. In this big, drafty hall, the eight or so people lounging in the shady corners seem more like two or three. But if you include my support system — I’ll call them “T” and “J” — and myself, the total feel weighs in around five.

It’s open-mic night, and three young men play Grateful Dead covers, trying to keep a consistent beat (though I don’t think they’re aware of the struggle). I’ve heard these guys before — last week at Be Here Now’s open-mic night, to be exact, where they had to be dragged from the stage after gratuitously overstaying their allotted 15 minutes. I wonder whether that will happen this time. But it doesn’t, and as soon as the boys step offstage, they bolt — and don’t reappear for the rest of the evening.

Next up is the white-guy bluesman. He’s doing some fun-sounding stuff — although I have to admit I don’t soak much of it in, as I make my way to the quietest place in the house to prepare for my own set. I usually find this to be the night’s most trying moment, as I’m torn between wanting to listen to the current performer and attempting to settle into myself and calculate the evening’s agenda. In the midst of my solitude, two young women make use of the facilities and unintentionally share a private conversation with me. I’ve never been good at blocking out my environment, so my head begins to coast along with their dialogue. Several minutes after they leave, a woman throws open the rest-room door and heads straight for the sink. As she splashes water across her blurry eyes and swollen face, I figure she needs the quiet more than I do, so I head out into the great wide open.

I take my beer onstage with me — a gesture I’ve sworn to avoid as unprofessional. But tonight I’ve changed my mind. My set progresses well, with two originals and then a Tori Amos cover. I’m trying to work on “embracing the crowd” and making ample eye contact, though that gesture seems somewhat futile tonight. After my third tune, I get hit with a tough moment as I try to make the leap from standard tuning to open “G”. The top string is just no good to me — at least not right now — and the more I fidget with its tension, the more it shifts into one hell of a moody temperament. After struggling with it far too long, I realize that I have to let go –as the New Agers would put it — and gracefully head offstage. Encouraging me in this decision is one of the chicks from the bathroom, who happens to be sitting in the front row and yells out (in a half-sympathetic, half-sarcastic tone): “Yeah, it’s time to leave now.”

So I exit, head held high, and the master of ceremonies makes a pretty cool joke about my pulling the whole thing off as some sort of performance piece.

Wednesday: Cafe Raven Moon

Just crossing the planks of the long porch, I’m immediately soothed. This place feels so much like home it isn’t even funny. Each person I pass makes friendly eye contact and gives away their greetings and smiles for free. While wearing the boots of a stranger in this town, this fortuitous warmth makes me want to spend more of my free time in the present company.

With a little less than an hour until the show begins, my companion, “K,” and I split an uncannily rich slice of cake, work on our cups of coffee, and chatter with the locals. John Paul runs the open mic. He’s also a co-owner of the cafe, a truly mild-mannered man who stands tall and skinny and sweet. Anyway, John Paul soon introduces the first act, a redheaded woman named Squirrel. I recognize her as one of the folks who thought to ask “How y’all doing?” on our way in the door. Before her set, Squirrel explains her unusual name: “When my husband introduced me to his kids, he wasn’t sure what to say. Calling me ‘Mrs. Blank’ wasn’t gonna work, and ‘mama’ wasn’t right, either. So he said, ‘This here is Squirrel,’ on account of my being squirrelly –which is a good thing, I do believe.”

The next performer sings an a cappella version of a bittersweet French love song. Toward the end of her set, she invites anyone with a guitar to jump onstage and join her in John Prine’s “Angel from Montgomery.” Damn, I think to myself, I was gonna cover that one, too. Then, before I know it, I’m by her side, trying to keep pace with her chord changes and vocal range. Another sweaty moment — but what solid practice, for both life and stage! I can’t think of a more direct approach than simply thrusting oneself into the nucleus of the dream.

After the tune’s over, I remain onstage for the remainder of my 15 minutes of fame, pumping out two originals. This time, I’m focusing on really trying to get myself “into” the songs, to feel like I live there, for the several minutes that they exist. It’s a challenge finding a comfortable balance; sometimes, I enter too deeply and stumble into uncharted emotional territory — a place too raw and guarded to share publicly. Other times, I feel as if I’m just skimming the surface of a tune and not retrieving any meat from its bones. The venue’is intimate enough that I can read all the faces: Some stare out into galaxies. Some nod or sway their bodies gently. And some give out satisfying, treasured eye contact and a smile. That’s what I love best: sharing something with an audience member, without sharing words.

We stick around for a couple more performers. K has taken control of the sound board by now — and, because of this, our cake and coffees are on the house. Later on, the woman who yelled at me last night at the Grey Eagle gets up and plays. She must get compared to Victoria Williams an awful lot — same physical build, mannerisms, style and vocal inflections. K and I decide it’s time to slip away into Weaverville’s desolate evening light.

Thursday: Beanstreets

At 8 p.m., the joint’s already packed. The word on the street says this place is the open-mic hot spot, and now I believe it. One thing that has always impressed me about Beanstreets is its ability to pull in a healthily diverse crowd: Classy middle-agers, scruffy hippie kids, working-class folk, artists-in-training, and even Britney Spears-esque teens appear at tonight’s soiree. But almost as soon as I’ve ‘sessed out the crowd, chaos ensues. Like most open-mic protocols, this one involves a sign-up sheet: 10-minute slots, starting at the stroke of 8 p.m. I courageously sign up for the 8:50 position — making myself the opening act, so far. (After that, the sheet is flooded with names — apparently competing to be fashionably late, it seems.)

Eventually, more performers stumble in, and the sheet fills up — including, curiously enough, earlier slots than mine, for times that have already passed. Meanwhile, I’m waiting eagerly for someone to announce the evening’s festivities, but nothing happens. Finally, an unwarm man jumps onstage and proclaims that the first five scheduled performers have all missed their opportunities (including me). Pandemonium sets in, and voices are raised when two random guys suddenly bust a move onto the stage and stake their claims. After I significantly harass the emcee for skipping me, he abruptly informs me that I’m next.

Unquestionably, this is not the ideal open-mic environment. The first performers do some gentle wailing while beating their guitars, and then leave us in peace. But as I start to make my way stageward, an angry young man jumps up in front of me, lamenting his lost turn. Mr. Emcee points out that no, my name actually precedes this guy’s — and, with a shocked look, the would-be crooner seems to realize his lameness, mumbling a “sorry” as goodbye.

All this drama mere seconds before singing: I’m discouraged by the all-around bad vibe, and vow to focus on surviging my two brief tunes.

In retrospect, I have no idea what I played. I just remember picking out strangers at total random and trying to shoot the song straight into their eyes. There’s a deep power in this gesture — when I can pull it off. Two teenage girls jam along, and radiate warm smiles. An adult couple in the back of the house ignores me, smothering each other in kisses. People filter in and out the room, while the performers get lost in thoughts about themselves. I can’t help but wonder who was honestly listening, and whether I had touched anyone, anyone at all.

[Kyle Norris is a quintessential Libra, balancing her love of singing/songwriting with a free-lance writing career. She recently left Asheville, and now lives in a Zen monastery in Carmel Valley, Calif.]

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