After 2.5 years away, bouncing from one new city to the next for work, I finally returned to the city of my alma mater in January of 2019. Back in 2016 I was as eager as any to move away from Gainesville after I finished my education. With more and more time away though, I began to realize that most of the things I loved in each new city were also the things I missed about the city I left. There was a comfort and acceptance in the familiarity of Gainesville, and I was beyond excited to be back in the first city I ever made my own. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t feel a bit like a homecoming.
This comfort I felt about being back in Gainesville no doubt played a pivotal role in my willingness to put myself out there into the arena of burgeoning musicians. I was still absolutely petrified by the thought of performing in front of strangers in the unknown world of open mic nights. It feels almost silly now to think back and to try and describe the nervousness, fear, and insecurity I felt performing at open mic nights. But I know now that it isn’t silly to have felt such a breadth of daunting emotions, it is very real how intimidating it feels to open oneself up to the world with your art. And I knew that I wasn’t singing light-hearted or easy-going music, I was opening up and singing deeply intimate songs that were written in the wake of some incredibly big & sad experiences/emotions. But the promise I made to myself in Marshall, NC continued to bubble up to the surface and encourage me to do difficult things.
Sunday, January 13th, two weeks after moving back, I made my way to an open mic at a local coffee shop called Coffee Culture. And I made sure to bring some friendly company with me as a way to keep me from chickening out before my name was called (which was a very real possibility). It was, to a very new performer at least, a jam-packed open mic. There were maybe 20 people including the 4 who came with me and 2 who worked at the coffee shop. But with my nerves the way they were I might as well be performing to a Colosseum of strangers.
It’s odd, but I do not remember much about my performance that night. I know that I played Uneasy Feeling, Dear Marshall, and Snowfall only because I still have the video from the performance and the songs I played are in the title. But without watching the video, I can’t recall anything of note. I’m sure I made some mistakes on the guitar, forget a word here & there, and missed some notes on the melody. And I am all but absolutely certain that at the time of the performance, any mistakes I made were seared into my mind and felt like they’d live on in infamy in the minds of all who attended. That tends to be the way with being hard on yourself, with being the all too overdone, but all too real, over-critical musician. The mistakes and negativity feel all consuming in the moment, and it seems near impossible to focus on what went well and what felt right. But thinking back to it now, back to what I now view as my inaugural open mic night, the only thing I remember is that I did something that was terrifying to me at the time. The only feeling I feel about that day is an immense joy in facing my fears and sharing my music.
Two weeks later I was back once again at the Coffee Culture open mic with some new songs to sing. This time I performed Spare Change, Heavy Rain, and Things Will Be Alright to a smaller crowd and with a much smaller support group, just my significant other at the time. Again, I can recall next to nothing about this performance other than the aforementioned feelings of fear (pre-performance) and joy (post-performance). After I finished this night though I was hungry for more. I didn’t quite feel satiated from just this open mic for the week. After doing some research that night I happened upon an open mic the very next day at a bar downtown called The Bull.
Monday evening came around and I excitedly made my way to The Bull in downtown Gainesville. It was quite a change from the open mic at Coffee Culture: it was a good bit louder with conversation going on (it was a bar after-all), the performances were almost exclusively musicians, the sets were shorter and held pretty strictly to the 10-minute limit, the place was packed full of people waiting to perform, and it went much longer into the night. There is most certainly some nostalgia glasses being worn as I type this, but it really felt like at the time THE place for an eager musician with aspirations of gigging to cut their teeth.
The reality of what it means for an open-mic to be this bustling set in quickly though. When I went to sign up the only spots left were at the end of the list, and were from about 10:50 PM onward. It was around 8:30 PM at the time and I immediately thought that the time slot was too late to perform and I wanted to go home. Once again though, I felt the push to leave my comfort zone and do something that I maybe wasn’t accustomed to. I asked my significant other if she was okay staying that late and she (being the incredibly supportive partner she was) agreed, so I signed up and mentally prepared for the long haul. I thought it would be encouraging to get to watch so many other performers, but truthfully it was intimidating. There were so many talented musicians singing music at The Bull. And as more and more musicians performed the bar for my performance kept raising and raising.
Finally, the time approached when it was my turn to perform. I’m not sure if it was helpful or dismaying, but everyone else had left The Bull at this point. I unpacked my guitar and sat on a stool to perform for my significant other, the open mic host, and the bartender. I think at this point I was performing just so that I could go home with the satisfaction that I didn’t back-out after staying for so long. On the bright side, I was so tired and bummed that everyone left that I felt an almost insignificant amount of stage-fright. It felt like no matter how I performed, there was nothing to lose.
In hindsight though, it was probably for the best my first night at The Bull unfolded this way. It was exciting and full of applause earlier in the night, but there was an oddly comfortable silence now. There wasn’t a single distraction in the room anymore. I’ve said a couple times now how I can’t remember much about my initial performances, but this one is different. I can so vividly recall when I sang “Dear Marshall” this night. As I finished the first verse, I could see that I had the attention of the open mic host and the bartender. They were in the middle of conversation when I began but were now giving my song their undivided attention. They were at the end of the bar, almost directly to my right. I’ll never forget how intently they listened; I could genuinely feel that they were invested in my song, that they were drawn into this story with me.
When I finished, they both gave some gentle claps and told me as I left the mic that they enjoyed the song. All of the intimidation, uncertainty, and apprehension from the night melted away in an instant. I knew I found a home. For the next year I would return to the Bull almost every Monday. I would start attending open mics when I traveled back to St Pete for work. And I would eventually attend every other open mic in town and then start my own open mic because I was so hungry to perform. I caught the open mic bug, and there was no turning back.