Taking The Stage In Ann Arbor & Ypsi

It's no secret that in order for a community to attract and retain a creative culture there must be some sort of outlet for those creative types to thrive. But this broad-stroking doesn't quite identify the specific needs of the creative community. Artists need access to galleries and venues (we'll be tackling that story in the future) and musicians need a stage.

"I think open mics are an essential part of any music scene," says indie folk singer-songwriter Chris Bathgate. "They provide a testing ground for writers and performers."

There are several well-known and well-respected open mic nights in the Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti area, and they range from sports bars to coffee houses to music venues to music stores. Performances can be anything from acoustic guitar and stand-up comedy to slam poetry and percussion, from folk to country to blues to jazz, from singer-songwriters to ensembles to collaborative jams. A quality open mic night helps to foster a creative community and provides an outlet for the kind of talent Michigan's new economy hopes to attract.

"We thought there was a need for it," says Mike Flore, owner of the Arena sports bar. "No [other bars were] really doing it in Ann Arbor. We had a couple of employees who were very talented and wanted a place to play so I said, ‘Why not?' A lot of these guys are trying to get their foot in the door, with us or anywhere."

One of the best places for musicians to find an audience is at The Ark, a nonprofit Ann Arbor club for acoustic music that produces nearly 250 concerts throughout the year.

Bathgate explains, "One of the selling points of Ann Arbor on my first visit years ago was the potential to perform at The Ark…specifically at their open mic. I saw Leo Kottke on that visit and was hooked."

The Ark has been around since the ‘60s and has always had an open mic night. "It's a chance for them [musicians] to put their best stuff out there in front of an audience of like-minded people and get used to being onstage," says Barb Chaffer Authier, marketing director for The Ark.

But it is also a chance to get noticed: once a year The Ark selects two of the best open mic performers of the year to do a full night's showcase, and occasionally those performers go on to develop a local reputation and even tour professionally.

"Part of our goal is to promote and support local songwriters who won't get booked for an evening at The Ark, who aren't professional, but want the opportunity to practice their skills too,"  Authier adds.

The Ark also hosts a Student Songwriter Program showcasing student talent from area colleges, ultimately leading to one student performer being booked to open a featured show.

"Having one of the premier listing rooms in the world – the Ark – makes a big difference [in the popularity of this kind of music in this area]," says folk musician Matt Watroba. "It is such an institution in Ann Arbor people have had the opportunity to learn about this music by hearing it, which is the best way to learn about it." Watroba hosted The Ark's open mic for four years and now lives in Kent, Ohio, where he hosts and produces folk music programs which include the new 24-hour Internet streaming station FolkAlley.com. He also continues to play the festival circuit.

Participating in open mic events can provide musicians with other kinds of unexpected opportunities. At Oz's Music in Ann Arbor, host Jim Novak started taping the sessions so performers could critique themselves and see how they perform.

"The tapes were pretty good," Novak says. "I had done some work on public access and figured it could be a show." That show is now on twice a week in Ann Arbor and has been running more than 720 consecutive weeks.

Open mic nights provide both the amateur and professional an opportunity to hone their craft, meet like-minded creatives, and even build a fan base. Many professional musicians, particularly in the acoustic/folk rock genre, get their start by performing on open stage – noteworthy local names like Bathgate, Matt Watroba, and Chris Buhalis have all graced the hallowed halls of The Ark and Woodruff's.

Acoustic and folk music lends itself particularly well to the open mic format because there is little set-up and tear-down time, but the genre itself seems to be picking up more mainstream momentum and places like The Ark help promote that.

Bathgate used to attend open mics "religiously" when he first came to Ann Arbor. "It was an avenue for me to perform on stage without having to fill an entire set with music," he says. "Once I developed enough material I went more to showcase new songs, specifically new ones that I had yet to try out on stage."

He credits open stages with helping him to "shake the jitters," and gain an audience. After winning The Ark's open mic showcase in 2005, he felt compelled to seriously pursue booking his own shows. He just completed a multiple series of sets at SXSW and has a single planned to appear on Starbucks' next CD compilation. Local fans can catch him on June 4 at Woodruff's.

For musicians, an open mic night is an ideal way to showcase their songs: the receptive audiences in attendance are eager music fans who want to hear original material and focus on the performer. "Open mics are a great place to reach an audience that is open to original music," says Kevin Roney, acoustic singer-songwriter-beatboxer. "Live original music isn't a jukebox to turn your back to but something to be respectful of and open to as an original art where an artist stands there opening their soul to you."

And the need for a stage and an audience goes beyond just the music. At the Ann Arbor Comedy Showcase, their popular open mic nights are akin to an audition process.

"All comedy clubs have a system of breeding new talent anywhere you go; that's the best way to foster a community that supports comedy and look for new talent," says Box Office Manager Ryan Burgeson. "For someone trying to break into the business, this helps them build rapport with whoever does the booking – kind of like an audition process to show them what you've got."

The open mic sets people who do feature and MC work, well-established comedians trying out new things, and some who are brand new to the stage. People come from as far as Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo and Windsor for one of the few precious open slots.

While a quality open mic night probably won't be the deciding factor in whether high tech and professional talent want to settle in a particular area, the need for a variety of social and creative outlets is certainly an essential ingredient. One of the defining trends for the YP demographic is its preference for downtown living, which, in theory, is rich with cultural, social and educational amenities. Venues that invite young people to express their non-working interests help to cultivate the kind of community a musician or performer or artist needs in order to thrive, while creating important opportunities for personal and professional connections.

"They give new artists a chance to perform, and veteran artists a chance to try out new material and build a music community," Watroba says. "You get to meet and hang out with a lot of people doing what you're doing, you see people from all levels – professional to semi-professional to no interest in being professional. A well-run open mic fosters all those things."


The Ann Arbor Comedy Showcase, Wednesdays at 8:00 p.m. during the school year (Thursdays in the summer) - sign-ups are Thursday and Friday the week before

The Arena Sport Bar & Grill, Wednesdays 10 p.m. to close, hosted by Eric Lawrence

The Ark, Wednesday nights (twice monthly during school, once monthly in the summer), doors 7:30 p.m., name drawings at 7:45 p.m. and 8:30 p.m.

Blue Tractor BBQ & Brewery, Wednesdays 9:00-midnight

Oz's Music Environment, first Tuesdays 7:00-9:00 p.m., hosted by Jim Novak


B-24s Espresso Bar, Fridays 7:30-10:00 p.m.

Tap Room Annex, Thursdays 9:30 p.m. to 1:30 a.m., hosted by the Martindales

Woodruff's, Tuesdays 7:00-10:00 p.m., hosted by David Boutette

Nicole Rupersburg is also a yummy Michigan-made product. A freelance writer, her main gig is writing diningindetroit.blogspot.com. She is a regular contributor to Metromode.

All photos by Doug Coombe


Chris Bathgate at The Ark

Eric Lawrence at The Arena

Brad Austin at The Ann Arbor Comedy Showcase

Darnell Anderson at The Ann Arbor Comedy Showcase

Brian Brickley jamming with The Martindales at The Tap Room Annex

Kevin Vines and Alex Savickas at Blue Tractor BBQ & Brewery busting out "Born This Way"

Apologies to KJ Robinson and Ricarlo Flanagan for running out of room for your photos from The Ann Arbor Comedy Showcase.

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