DeKALB – Monday night in DeKalb for Michael Simon means musicians, comedians and others like him with a mixture of talent and nerve descending on The House Café for open mic night.
“It gives me an outlet to play,” Simon said. “I like that, for the most part, people are humble. We’re all on the same playing field.”
The House Cafe hosted its first open mic night in June since reopening under new ownership a few weeks before. Although dozens of performers converge on the House, business owners agree the reappearance of its open mic night has done little to diminish the popularity of open mic night at Fatty’s Pub and Grille. The latter started holding its own come-as-you-are performance time while the music scene in DeKalb was at a standstill while the House Cafe and Otto's were shuttered.
Instead of seeing their dueling open-mic events as competing for local musicians, operators of the venues say they have expanded the field for performers to showcase their craft in DeKalb.
Simon, a Sycamore resident better known by his nickname, Paco, brought an electric guitar and his voice Monday night to The House Cafe, 263 E. Lincoln Highway, which is the only open mic night in DeKalb on the mind of the 26-year-old musician who sports long hair and a nose ring.
All open mic performances at the House start with an introduction from emcee Matthew "Jolly Baba" Clark. Clark, who had been involved with the House for years, came back to help new owners Brian and Alex Fausett, a couple from Cortland.
For Clark, hosting open mic is as much of a performance as signing up to sing a song or tell a joke. Before introducing Simon, Clark bounced around on stage in his overalls, rain boots and a large hat he wears on his job as a farmer.
“It’s an opportunity for us to exercise our freedom of speech,” Clark said. “We get to share our minds and hearts. I keep the vibe alive.”
The vibe at the House during open mic night is informal. People mill about and chat while performers use their 12 minutes on stage. Seeing people putting themselves on display for a group of strangers gives co-owner Alex Fausett a sense of the business she revived.
“Now I feel like we’re really starting to come back,” she said.
Open mic night also is about the vibe at Fatty’s, owner Jeff Dobie said.
“It’s never been a packed thing,” Dobie said. “It’s been an ambiance thing.”
Musicians, mostly acoustic, he said, have come to open mic night at the establishment at 1312 W. Lincoln Highway since January. That’s when musician and host Marc Hanson finally convinced Dobie to start one because of the void left by The House Cafe and Otto’s both being out of commission made for perfect timing.
Otto’s, a music venue at 118 E. Lincoln Highway, has been closed since January, when a pipe burst and flooded the building.
But even with The House Cafe going head to head with Fatty’s on Mondays, about 10 musicians still come to Fatty’s to scratch their performance itch, by Dobie’s observations.
“It seems to be steady,” Dobie said.
Back at the House, Fausett thinks there’s a reason Fatty’s wouldn’t have noticed a decline in performers.
“I think it’s a different crowd of people,” she said.
Hanson agreed the classic rock, contemporary country and singer songwriter performers at Fatty's likely aren't going to jump ship for the House. So rather than creating a competition, the two businesses have given artists a bigger stage, he said.
"I think it makes the community artistry more colorful," Hanson said. "It expands the community's genres."
While the House hasn’t seemed to steal any performers from Fatty’s or the other way around, Dobie said if it ever did, he would consider changing nights to keep giving musicians a means to perform.
And for those who haven’t worked up the nerve to grab the microphone at either venue, Simon said the main piece of wisdom he’s taken away from seven years at open mic nights.
“Go up even if you don’t feel prepared,” Simon said. “Go up anyway.”
If you go
• Open mic 7:30 p.m. Mondays at The House Cafe, 263 E. Lincoln Highway
• Open mic 7 p.m. Mondays at Fatty's Pub and Grille, 1312 W. Lincoln Highway
• Open blues jam 8:30 p.m. Thursdays at O'Leary's Restaurant and Pub, 260 E. Lincoln Highway