Down County Social Club

This is not your mother's open mic night

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SHEFFIELD — Open mic performances are often reduced to sideshows, their sounds only resonating between breaks in pages or conversation. At Down County Social Club's Sunday night Show n' Tell, however, all eyes — including some that aren't in the room — are on the people taking the stage.

The weekly open mic, which began on Sept. 24, deviates from the traditional form in a few ways. The first is its breadth. While open mics are generally music-centered with spoken word poetry and stand-up comedy sprinkled in, Down County Social Club invites performers to share experimental works, skills, stories and even confessions in addition to the standard options.

"Basically, this is a container for us to feel safe in — play our music, say our words, perform in any respect that we want," Show n' Tell founder Michael Lesko opened the inaugural event by saying.

The second departure is its format. Lesko, a Great Barrington resident, introduces each act and questions performers after their sets from behind a podium. He hosts the event as Kameleon Mike, a persona he developed while working in radio for 97.7 WBCR. He describes his latest gig as a talk show, his deadpanning a constant in the proceedings.

"The name allows me to be all these different characters," he said before the second show, donning an oversized suit jacket and sporting a Mohawk. (He opted for pants rather than his usual patterned shorts on this night.)

The event's third and, perhaps, most notable difference from a traditional open mic is that it spans two mediums. Attendees are welcome to fill one of the spaces on Race Brook Lodge's campus that serves as the event's setting on a particular Sunday night — performances will typically be held in the cozy confines below The Stagecoach Tavern — but spectators can also watch a live stream of the show on Down County Social Club's Facebook page. The Show n' Tells are saved on the feed for later viewing as well. Lesko said the idea is to not only promote beginning performers' work but also draw a more seasoned lineup than open mics typically feature.

"I'm trying to create more incentive for artists who are already established to come," Lesko said in a subsequent telephone interview.

He cited Dayne Herndon, the multi-instumentalist and singer known as Starseed, as an example of this phenomenon. Herndon will be performing on Thursday night in the Down County Social Club's typical downstairs concert environs following multiple appearances at the open mic.

"This is something I feel is very different," Herndon said, citing the event's "communal" environment before playing some Miles Davis and a few other tunes at the event's second edition.

Lesko stressed that the goal of the open mic is, indeed, to create an environment that fosters community. For instance, his questions often focus on where the performers live and how they got there. Down County Social Club has already cultivated this vibe in its speakeasy-style concerts beneath the Stagecoach for almost a decade. Oriental rugs and chairs and pillows are scattered about the space with low ceilings and a backroom bar, creating an intimate setting where new entrants are encouraged.

"This place in particular serves a community of weirdos," Down County Social Club founder Heather Fisch said before the second show.

That night's open mic did little to counter this notion. Blanket-toting attendees browsed an art show, "Heal Yourself," in a barn behind The Stagecoach Tavern before the show. Candles lined walls. A slab of wood bearing the words, "this is a holy moment take a look. breathe in" leaned against the stage.

The barn had played host to a wedding the previous night, and Lesko seized on this timing, drilling two ends of the wedding altar together with Fisch and Casey Rothstein-Fitzpatrick, who runs Race Brook Lodge, to form a triangular backdrop to the stage.

With an iPhone mounted on a wooden beam to record, the open mic kicked off shortly after 8 (7 is the advertised start time, but that seems to have fallen by the wayside) with a performance that was certainly experimental. Fisch read from a tablet as a man in a mask loomed behind her. He eventually began playing a theremin, the vintage electronic instrument that produces different tones of varying volumes as hands move between antennas. Many in the audience snickered as the performance grew more bizarre.

What followed was more traditional; Herndon's performance was one of many guitar-based acts, along with some poetry and comedy. Also familiar to open mic attendees was the rough-around-the-edges material, which is more of a drawback than normal when the focus is trained on the stage.

But the true appeal of this event is the camaraderie amongst the people actually attending the event, a mutual affection that is alienating for the uninitiated but is deeply enjoyed by the regulars. Becoming one, though, requires a physical presence.

"Who's more important?" Fisch asked Lesko early on when a comparison was drawn between the spectators online and those occupying the barn.

"The people who showed up," he responded.


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