This is Abbey, folks, let’s make her feel welcome.
The stage was set with a Hammond organ, a grand piano, a drum kit, and a selection fo mics and amps. Abbey looked to be in her late-twenties. Her straight brown hair caught in a ponytail, her black-rimmed glasses echoed the same kind of specs worn by a lot of the people in the room. She sat down on a chair at the foot of the stage and unfolded several sheets of notebook paper, shuffling them one under the other a few times. Paper. No iPhone or tablet. Old school. Abbey cleared her throat and leaned toward the mic.
“This is a poem called ‘Squirrel and Acorn.’ It’s about abortion.”
This is Louis D, folks, let’s make him feel welcome.
Louis D. was a middle-aged white man, dressed in jeans and a flannel, with an electric guitar slung around his shoulders. He launched into a 6-minute song about being a white guy with no rhythm. Art teetering on the brink of imitating life.
This is Aaron, folks, let’s make him feel welcome.
A young guy, maybe a college student, seeming to sweat a little as he hunted around for the cable to plug in his guitar, Aaron tried to warm up the small crowd by asking us to give our host a hand and to tip the waitstaff generously. He invited a friend of his to come on stage and play drums. The friend wedged himself behind the kit, barely looking up to acknowledge the room. Aaron incited us to clap, to jumpstart the heartbeat of the song, which we gamely did. His drummer hopped in behind us creating his own rhythm, which was not quite set to ours or Aaron’s, but was set to some metronome only he could hear. Aaron plunged head-long into his two-song set undeterred by the various syncopated happenings around him.
It’s open mic night at Club Helsinki.
A thriving arts culture hums along the series of towns that skirt New York’s Hudson Potters, painters, jewelry designers, organic farm-to-table businesses, writers, and plenty of musicians quietly ply their crafts for love and profit. Lurk around long enough and you’ll start to hear things in casual conversation like “Annie Lebowitz has a house around here” and, before his untimely passing, “Pretty sure we saw David Bowie and Iman at a café the other day.” Not a bad place to plant your creative self.
Club Helsinki is one of many, many music venues that populate this area. It used to be a tiny grotto of a place in Great Barrington Massachusetts, not far from the Berkshires, characterized by a weirdly Eastern-European vibe: dark wood, funky stained glass windows, ornate wrought iron light fixtures, and borscht on the menu. The stage was wedge-shaped with a Persian carpet that had once been red and was now some indiscriminate color between bleached wood and dirty sand. Leaning against the back wall of the stage was a beautifully carved headboard outfitted in maroon satin, maybe the remnant of a hastily dismantled brothel or other such house of ill-repute. There was magic in its walls and the musicians that played there felt it.
Several years ago the club moved to Hudson New York, a former nineteenth-century whaling town, and settled into a renovated industrial building all exposed bricks, beams, and outsized windows. What the new club lacks in the old world dust, charm, and voodoo, it makes up for by being a warm, inviting theatre-styled space with a roomier stage (sadly, sans headboard), a top-notch sound system, and a more professional attitude that gives it a fighting chance at survival in the incredibly difficult arts commerce culture also known as the music industry.
If you’ve ever been to an open mic, you know that it can be a fraught experience for performers and audience members alike. The open mic stage is the thunderdome of vulnerability. Some might consider it low stakes because you’re typically performing for a petite crowd; you’re limited to two songs or two pieces of material so if you bomb the freefall is over fairly quickly, though not without its scrapes and burns. Nothing could be further from the truth. Many that do perform fall short in talent or skill or in having anything resembling stage presence. It’s so easy to sit back and mock. To ridicule and deride someone for their literal or metaphorical tone deafness who refuses to own their lack and, instead, pushes further into their passion, into whatever it is that ignites their courage to share a piece of themselves in this intensely public and immediate way.
When you think of it this way, the stakes are pretty big.
The host for the evening sat at a desk on the side of the stage. He was a barrel-shaped man with long gray hair and a matching beard who resembled the great jazz/funk master, Dr. John. He introduced each performer with the same refrain: “This is Beth, folks, let’s make her feel welcome.” In this way he invited all of us to see what he saw—the dream chasers, the stubbornly hopeful, the ones who feel the fear and do it anyway because to not is the greater loss, the deeper regret.
It becomes an extraordinary and unexpected thing that happens in a place like this, with those that can act as stewards to these creative younglings. We get offered the chance to witness what occurs when someone steps on stage and makes the brief transition from ordinary anybody to momentary somebody all because we’ve been willing to recognize our own fragile selves, longing to be seen and heard, in the shadow of someone else’s brave.