The Open Mic: Puke is just nerves leaving the body…well nerves and dinner

Query anyone as to their top five fears and you will get some combination of snakes, spiders, small spaces, heights, and then the other. It’s the fear that strikes the voice from your throat leaving you cotton mouthed while your palms get clammy and hands quiver as the moment approaches. No amount of mental preparation or practice alleviates the racing heart and shallow, ragged breaths that come nearing zero hour. Even the most even mannered and mild tempered individual has been reduced to a huddled mass of jangled nerves playing out every doomsday scenario surrounding most everyone’s number one fear; public speaking. But there is one step beyond public speaking that could smote the fire from the bellies of even mythical men given half a chance; the equivalent of stripping yourself naked in a room full of Beverly Hills plastic surgeons…the open mic.

(Photo by Lestat Jan Mehlich: Creative Commons)
I have no problem with public speaking. You could ask me to give a two day symposium at the local Marriott in front of 500 people at $200 a head (price does include two nights hotel stay at the fabulous Marriott hotel in beautiful Ventura, California; a continental breakfast served from 6am-11am; lunch vouchers in the dining hall both days, and complimentary tote bag and laniard!) titled “17th Century French Playwrights: Interpretation and Influence on Society Both Then and Now,” and given enough Wikipedia, bourbon, and a few superfluous Tony Robbins riffs, I could make those people believers. But the open mic is another beast where the singer/songwriter lays their talent out, sure, but more importantly they perform a song that might as well be a looking glass in to the inner workings of their very existence on this ethereal plain; like mainlining the human condition.

             Bullshit is easy, vulnerability is hard.

At Zoey’s Cafe, a Ventura institution, every 1st and 3rd Wednesday of the month through November you can watch this very tragedy play out like Tite et Bérénice written by Pierre Corneille in 1670 (see?). Every other week, you can see some of the farm league’s best come to perform on the same stage despite skill level. There are those you know were drafted and are just gracing this stage until they get called up to the majors. Others are refining their skill and you can tell that once they find their voice and get a good Slider then they won’t be long for Zoey’s either. And still there are others who are just cutting their teeth and focusing more on playing and singing at the same time with their hearts racing at 160/120 trying not to forget the words. I guess Zoey’s isn’t helping with their competition for a $1000 dollar purse and recording time to the eventual winner of the showcase in November; no pressure 15-year-old Milee Crystobal who picked up a guitar 7 months ago, it’s just Brandon Salzer, Shane Alexander, and the incorrigible Chris Jay. Jesus.

I don’t know what it is with Zoey’s, whether it is a conscious effort or some morbid dedication, but they seem to be fixated on finding the most cramped, poorly lit, and poorly ventilated music venues in Ventura. The former Zoey’s location on Main Street was wedged at the end of a small storefront alley where the stage was in what seemed to be a remodeled attic that sat maybe 25 people. It was lit on par with a Coleman lantern and emergency candles; the stage could not have been lit by more than the headlights from a ’82 Datsun. As a photographer, it was hell getting any kind of angle while praying for sharp shots I could push in Photoshop. Their newest location, formerly Hush, seems to be no better. I was at this venue under the former management for a Burlesque By The Sea show and the light was worse then, than now. It has not improved though. As far as I could tell the performers were light by strip of LED lights in the ceiling, which left me with nothing in the way of photos from the event. The room is a narrow rectangle, stage on one end, seating a cramped thirty people uncomfortably; try navigating that gauntlet of knees in total darkness without disturbing the show. It’s like Zoey’s wants no possible documentation of what happens there with the lights like that. Without an improvement in the lighting for my purposes, this venue will continue to remain our little secret, Ventura.

You can find talent and style of any stripe at your local open mic. From the painful train wreck of the newcomer that might want to find another hobby to the quintessential diamond in the rough, they all show up. As one man put it, “there are some that get up there that you just think, ‘wow, how have you not been discovered.’” Some of those talents were on display at Zoey’s singer/songwriter competition. With singer/songwriters as a genre, their guitars are strung with their heart strings and pianos are compiled of wood and ivory from burned down buildings where their love used to live. The question of what to do with a two song set was answered 10 different ways with some going with polar opposites of tempo and content while others strayed little from the familiar S/S waters with the likes of a “bouncy” sad song and a “heavy” sad song. It is a visceral and emotional journey they tend to take you on; I took a ride from high school cliques provided by 15-year-old Milee, Craig Huston sang a funny ditty about a woman sitting on his face, and Joe Hamilton wowed with an amazing song…about his dead dog.

The standout S/S’s you might want to put an eye on were Danielle Taylor, Lainey Taylor (no relation) who was the ultimate winner of this week’s competition, Matt Zeltzer, and finally Bryan Dixon of SoftSilence. All of these talents were young and well honed. From stage presence, musical talent, good banter, lyrics, etc. These performers at all stages of their careers were a fun listen in a relaxed, if cramped, atmosphere. The real joy in going to open mics or showcase shows is finding people like this. Speaking for myself, my best musical finds were serendipitous bordering on accidental. These hole-in-the-wall venues and weeknight shows are where you can find your next obsession. You know we all love being able to say that we were listening to them when they were nobody. How do you think people earn that badge of fandom? The open mic, of course.

I feel a very real kinship to some of these artists. Not to say that I have any lick of musical talent except a great appreciation and ability to listen to it. I can’t read music anymore or strum a G-cord, but I feel a connection to them at the baser level of a self-started honing a skill and trying to build something from nothing. There is no pleading with the mic; it wants only your best and it may become a Faustian endeavor for some: self-published EP’s, shitty paying gigs where the exposure to a few dozen more people is worth more than the pay and free beer. Those long, lonely nights thinking you are just living in the pipe that dreams go to die; even as you are practicing or mailing out press kits on the floor of your room. It takes a lot out of you to plug away for what seems like endless days to try and get a win, but when those small victories come, they are like slaying the Kraken. They say you’ve got to pay your dues, work your way up, and earn your keep. These talents know this and I say for at least one more week you can consider their ‘dues’ paid in full.

Ones to watch this week

Danielle Taylor

One woman on a piano, she has a playful voice and a melodious voice. I might want her to work on really varying her vocals a bit and punch up those choruses to really punch in the face and to keep me from getting to lulled about by her voice, but otherwise a girl with some talent and a bull market in her future. Her album titled From Scratch is available now. You can find out more about her and her music at

Matt Zeltzer

Photo: Mikola Accuardi

Well I have to say, he looks like he owns a lot of cool hats. Like myself, he is a man drawn akimbo in his life between Portland, OR (P-town!) and Ventura, CA. Shane Alexander said the kid needs a more gravelly, raspy voice suggesting he smoke a lot; Matt just quit smoking, for now. Tones of Petty, Fogerty, and some of my favorites like John Lee Hooker and Son House come together with a little Bob Dylan to create an unpolished yet interesting sound. A bit of a crooner and a little too slow for my liking I found one track that will keep me looking out for delta blues-esque tracks from him titled “Left Till Dust.” If you can listen to this and not either see scenes from Black Snake Moan or From Dusk ‘til Dawn then you’re not listening; “the death of miss mary jane” is another to hear. This makes me wanna drink bourbon in the heat of a Louisiana summer night.

Bryan Dixon of SoftSilence

Well it goes without saying, but I’d take even money these guys will be on the Warped Tour stop in Ventura, CA next year. Bryan and the boys of SoftSilence have got the chops to make it out in this rock/pop music genre that is dominating the rock sound now for young people. They were made for this music scene, but I got a taste of something more at the open mic where Bryan really got down with a rockier sound and a track titled, “No One Listens to Rock and Roll Anymore.” It wasn’t rock and roll itself, but the song was good and the kid’s got pipes. Oh, and he looks like what Bob Marley and Lenny Kravitz’s kid would look like, so he’s got that going in his frontman repertoire. Their current EP is called Innocence which is in rotation at 105.5 and can be grabbed at Salzers, Buffalo Records, and more.


Lainey Taylor

First off, the girl just turned 18 yesterday so she has got a lot of living to do and years ahead of her to only get better at everything she does, so this girl has got a lot of what it takes to make it if she really wants it. But forget all of that, her fucking voice! Holy Balls! This girl…I swear if you just listened to her sing and could not see her, you’d swear she was 15 years older. She possesses a depth and ability to go from belting out beautiful melodies with vibrato to the shivers initiating whispers and almost smirk of a note. There is a sensual nature to her voice that could really be honed and trained in to a great asset; the girl can already silence a room. She plays the guitar very well with only five years under her belt and she is going to college for musical engineering or something like that, so if you don’t know her then you should because at some point you’re gonna be begging to work with her on your way up. This kid has songwriting skills too that also lend to the trick her mature voice plays on you. Though she may not look the part at a little short and a bit curvy, she is cute as a button and talented as all get out with the world just sitting and waiting for her take. All she needs is time, that’s it. Like the best grapes she can become a great wine with life experience and simply refining and perfecting her craft. She came to Ventura from Covina, California, which explains why she is not already a favorite out here. She will surely be performing more around town and beyond as her schedule allows. Do yourself a favor:

About the Author

Wesley is a writer/photojournalist originally from Oregon who makes his home in Ventura, CA. He is currently a contributing photographer for the VCReporter and maintains an active blog ( where he writes on political and social satire regularly.

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Categories: Sound Off

1 reply

  1. Well written article. Sounds like it was tight competition which is good news for everyone who appreciates musicians not yet tainted by success or pressured to conform.

    Congrats to Lainey Taylor who won this week's open mic competition and the respect of the writer.

    Shauna Facciponti
    Spread the Word Media Group


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