Open Stage @ Sidewalk Cafe

NEW YORK, NY—This Lower East Side bar and eatery has been hosting an open mic night every Monday since time immemorial. I have been dropping in from time to time since the mid-’90s when it was Ground Zero of the NYC amateur music scene. Since 2008, anti-folk icon Lach has been replaced by impresario Ben, who continues the tradition of signing up all comers to what he terms the “open stage” for brief performances of eight minutes or two entries, whichever is shorter. This night, I witnessed a lineup of no less than 40 performers line up for randomly assigned slots in the night’s agenda, which commenced a little after 8 p.m. and ran into the wee hours of the morning.

The dinner fare runs to Mediterranean/Middle Eastern, but I was content to have the traditional American burger—dubbed the “Lower East Side Burger”—with all the customary optional toppings on the menu. This I washed down with a couple of Brooklyn Lagers. Service was provided by an affable, dreadlocked cutie named Babs.

In the several hours for which I had stamina, an eclectic lineup of performers did their schtick with widely divergent talent and variant levels of success. An incredibly capable human beat box entertainer provided his own rhythmic accompaniment as he rapped out two fascinating and mesmerizing scat-laden songs. An eccentric male vocalist performed an almost falsetto parody of Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer.”

A Rick Moranis look-alike performed excerpts from his idiosyncratic project as he kept changing his position among three different microphones and the piano keyboard. A young woman opened with a morose number accompanied by discordant chords on the guitar, but followed with a display of her quite decent voice and a style reminiscent of Edie Brickell.

An adorable, petite woman sang and played piano, and although she lost her place, was eminently forgivable because of the overall excellence of her act. A couple of painfully uninteresting and unfunny standup clowns got up and ranted unprepared, unrehearsed egotistical and snide gibberish, fortunately separated by more talented, more accomplished performers. A young woman performed spoken word to her “sisters” in the form of a feminist rant against cosmetics, perfumes and feminine social roles that revived issues long ago resolved and stale by the 1960s, as if she were just discovering them in the not-so-new millennium.

An amiable senior in his 70s got up and tried to squeeze some laughs out of an unrehearsed treatise on old age. A glamorous and talented platinum blond belted out real torchy songs, accompanying herself con brio on the piano. A couple of well-rehearsed, tight, but very different Eminem-style rappers performed, and a mellifluous folk singer skillfully accompanied himself on guitar. There were many, many more acts, some impressive, some forgettable, and a few that one might hope would end the ambitions of the would-be stars.

A hollow mandolin was passed around to serve as a tip jar, but the richly entertaining night was otherwise free with a two-drink minimum from the bar or an order from the kitchen.