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Open arms

For glory, community, fun or cash, Atlanta's open-mic nights can bring out the singer/songwriter in just about anyone


It's a Monday night at Eddie's Attic. If the nervous energy in the room could be tapped somehow, California would never have to worry about another rolling blackout. Acoustic singer/songwriter Sean Smith is trying to engage in conversation, but his attention keeps wandering. He's distracted by what's happening on stage, where the first finalist of the night's open-mic competition already has been announced. They're about to announce the second finalist, and Smith is hoping his name will be called.

More than half the crowd here tonight are musicians, all hoping for the same thing. Smith rocks back and forth with anticipation. His name isn't called.

Both finalists, so far, have been young, pretty, white females. "I don't have a chance," Smith, a black man, muses. This is, after all, Decatur, Ga. -- known to some as Dyke-catur or Dick-hater, home of Agnes Scott women's college and the Indigo Girls.

But while Smith may be among the few black males to compete in Eddie's weekly open-mic competition, he's just one of the many contributing to the overwhelming sense of tension and anticipation in the room.

Welcome to the world of the Open-Mic Night.

For club owners, having an open-mic night is a no-brainer: Sundays through Wednesdays are always slow and musicians are always looking for a place to play, so why not open the stage to a wide variety of acts willing to perform without the guarantee of getting paid?

Various Atlanta establishments have experimented with the open-mic idea over the years, with varying degrees of success. Neighbors Pub in Virginia-Highland used to simply pull a table out of the corner and unplug the jukebox. Until, that is, the Sunday night beer swillers complained and the jukebox got plugged back in (sometimes, even, in the middle of an open-mic performance, where patrons needing their fix of "You Can't Always Get What You Want" overpowered some poor soul strumming monotonous minor chords and singing of his broken heart). Marco's Pita on Ponce has started doing a cool and vastly underattended jazz/poetry open-mic Tuesday nights (could be falafels and poetry lack marketing appeal).

In two local clubs, however, the open-mic night has become an institution: Eddie's Attic and Midtown's Red Light Café. Their events draw a plethora of diverse talent who show up week after week. It has become a scene, of sorts -- musicians who are increasingly frustrated with the music business the more they dabble in it, but who have, along the way, stumbled onto a community of like-minded souls. There are players who have been doing it for years -- initially with stars in their eyes, now reduced to fading glimmers of hope. And then there are the newcomers -- each week they show up, often cocky as hell and ready to leave the room smoking. They usually leave with their tail between their legs, carrying with them their first lesson in the harsh realities of life in the biz: that they might not be as good as their relatives tell them they are.

Rich Healy is a seasoned veteran of Atlanta's open-mic scene. He's played them all, from Starbucks to Eddie's Attic. For him, the open-mic is not quite as nerve-racking anymore. "It's just a good time for me," he says, adjusting the harmonica rack around his neck in preparation for his performance at Eddie's Attic. Healy works for a software company by day and looks forward to his nights at the open mic. "It's a chance to catch up with old friends and try out some new material. I've made some of my best friends at these things."

Mark Spence, decades younger than Healy, is not so effusive in his praise. Spence used to be a regular at both the Red Light Café and Eddie's Attic, but now only rarely makes the effort to play. "It just becomes tiresome after a while," he says. "You have to show up so early to sign up and then stay so late because you didn't get a good time slot ... and most of the people playing just really aren't worth hearing, honestly."

Still, while the talent indeed can be marginal, the numbers remain strong for both clubs. At one point, the Red Light considered moving the event to a weekend night because it was drawing so many people. At Eddie's Attic, the semi-annual Open Mic Shootout -- a competition that pits weekly open-mic winners against each other for a $1,000 cash prize -- are the two biggest nights in the clubs' year.

John Madden, who has steered the Red Light's open-mic night for the last four-and-a-half years, scans the dark environs of the Red Light on a recent Wednesday night. "It's completely different from week to week," he says. "You never know when it's going to be good or bad ... but I love doing this. It's a nice oasis in the middle of the week."

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