“I think open mic nights are the best thing in the world,” says singer/songwriter Doug Collins, sitting at a table in front of the stage at Plum’s Neighborhood Bar and Grill in St. Paul last Sunday night. “How else are you supposed to get your stuff out there?”
Collins, a recently divorced dad from Eldridge, Iowa, works as “a receptionist” at the University of Minnesota during the day, and at night, he’s found something of a church in the myriad singer/songwriter open mic nights that burble underground all across the Twin Cities. Whether it’s performing to a full room of other songwriters and careful listeners at the highly regarded and well-organized Plum’s open mic in St. Paul, or singing to an audience of, exactly, two other songwriters on a Monday night at O’Donovan’s Irish Pub in downtown Minneapolis, Collins believes in the power of song and in his worth as an up-and coming tunesmith.
His look and voice suggest Buddy Holly and Marshall Crenshaw’s long-lost brother, and while he’s too much of a wide-eyed wise guy to come out and say it, he’s living the dream. His dream.
“Stephen Sondheim said, ‘Dreams don’t die, so keep an eye on your dreams,’ ” says the 47-year-old Collins, who received a degree in English from the University of Minnesota in 1996 and spent most of the past two decades working as a stay-at-home dad and published and produced playwright. He quit making music to raise his son, but got back into it after he and his wife divorced in 2011. He also plays out a couple nights a month with his band, The Receptionists.
“To me, that quote means that if you think if you stop [playing and pursuing music], that creative impulse will go away. It doesn’t. It stays in there, and I’ve tried writing, but I’m a ten times better songwriter than I am a writer. I love Hank Williams, the Beatles, the Replacements, Dylan and Springsteen, and I keep going back to them for inspiration. These guys took themselves seriously, and worked as hard as they could, and that’s all you can do.”
Part of Collins’ hard work ethic means hitting the open mic nights. He’s been doing so on a regular basis for the past two years, and he agreed to take me on a tour of the area’s best open mics, the schedules for which are neatly compiled and updated at Open Mic Minneapolis and OpenMikes.org. From the looks of it, songwriter-themed nights are becoming more popular across the state and country, in part because the overhead for presenting bars and coffee shops is low and the passion within the so-called “amateur” songwriter community is high.
No question, the singer/songwriter model never seems to fade, as illustrated by the ongoing fascination with the mythical Laurel Canyon, Calif., scene of the ‘70s and the anticipation for The Coen Brothers’ forthcoming (Dec. 20) film “Inside Llewyn Davis,” set in the storied Greenwich Village folk scene of the ‘60s.
“Songs hit in an emotional place that I don’t think anything else gets to,” gushes Collins. “I love great works of literature and all other works of art, but songs hit you like a kick in the heart, in the best possible way.”
These days, the Americana singer/songwriter scene has never been healthier, though the open mic night is no place for impatient listeners accustomed to spoon-fed hits or polished entertainment. Instead, it’s equal parts fishing expedition and high-wire act. Performers only play a couple tunes each, but for listeners, you never know when you might be blindsided by a great song or singer, or be driven out of the joint by a skin-crawling folk balladeer. Luckily, Collins is one of the good ones, and his tour of five gigs in four nights occasionally recalled Billy Joel’s immortal words, “Man, what are you doing here?”
Sunday: Plum’s Neighborhood Bar and Grill, St. Paul (9 p.m. to 1 a.m.). The Minnesota Songwriter Showcase is the piece de resistance of the area’s open mic nights, as hosted by songwriters/musicians Nick Hensley and Nick Salisbury and backed by a two- and sometimes three-piece band. The talent level is always solid, tonight highlighted by sets from Collins, honey-voiced roots-rocker Peter Lochner, and acoustic roots crooner Ananda Bates, all of whom captivate the room and stop conversation in its tracks.
“James Loney’s [now defunct] open mic at Bullwinkle’s saved my life,” says Collins, nursing a Surly Furious after packing up his guitar, his short work done for the night. “If you would’ve told me two and a half years ago that I’d be playing as much as I am now and part of a community like this … . It’s all I’ve ever wanted. I think it’s all anyone wants: To have like-minded people like your stuff and you like their stuff.”
With proven songwriter-wrangling skills and attention to keeping the five-hour showcase moving, Hensley introduces the next act, a fresh-faced songstress making her Plum’s debut. She timidly straps on her guitar and approaches the microphone to the sound of exactly one man clapping: Collins.
“First-timers always need more love,” says Collins, who listens to one meandering love song, then heads home to rest up for his 7 a.m. wake-up call and bike ride to work.
Monday: O’Donovan’s Irish Pub (9 p.m. to 2 a.m.) and Morrissey’s Irish Pub (9 p.m. to 1 a.m.), Minneapolis. Across the street from O’Donovan’s, a sold-out show at First Avenue by one of the most popular bands in the land, MGMT, is winding down. I get to O’Donovan’s at 8:30 and find Collins sitting alone at the main bar, drinking a beer and checking his cell phone. His guitar sits tuned and ready on stage, his name the only one to appear on the night’s sign-up sheet.
We’ve got some time to kill before he takes the stage, so I turn on my digital recorder and, as Monday Night Football glares from above the bar and Death Cab For Cutie’s “Into the Dark” plays overhead, Collins cheerfully talks about his life and love of music with the unmistakable veneer of the well-rehearsed performer who has sung to his share of empty rooms. What does he get out of it?
“When you get to this age, it’s like, what else are you going to do? You have to do it,” he says. “It’s how we’re wired. I tried not to do it, and I was miserable. Even if it’s only a small connection, you always want people in the audience. If you have one person in the audience, you play to that person and try to make a connection. You’ve gotta be ready. Anytime I hit that stage, I’m ready.”
He plays his first song, to an audience of me and the open mic’s host, Alex Kent, and then the MGMT fans flood the place. Amped up after the big show, they sit, drink, and chat with their backs to the stage. No one in the room listens to Collins, but some clap absent-mindedly when they hear him say, “Thank you” and he leaves the stage after his second song. He packs up his guitar and we agree to meet at Morrissey’s in Uptown, where a similarly live music-indifferent crowd holds forth for the club’s recently launched Monday night song pull.
“It’s a song pull in the tradition of the old Nashville school where people would sit around the table and share songs, and when one person wanted to play a song, they’d reach over and pull the guitar from the other person,” explains singer/songwriter/guitarist/host Dean Maser, feasting on a plate of shepherd’s pie during his break. “That’s where the guitar pull name comes from, and this has been going good. I encourage original music, and we’re all about original singer/songwriters.”
After Maser plays a couple tunes, Collins takes the stage and plays his wistful “Lesbian Wedding” and “Davenport, Iowa,” a love letter to his old stomping grounds, after which he stumps the Morrissey’s crowd with a test on the Quad Cities. Nobody bites, but someone mentions he looks like Greg Brady from “The Brady Bunch.”
Polite applause is about as much attention as Collins receives from the crowd, which could do just as well with Morrissey’s reliably killer music mixes that warm the joint from over the house sound system. No matter. He thanks the crowd, thanks Maser, packs up his guitar and heads out the door to his 2001 Toyota Camry and the 5-minute drive to his downtown Minneapolis apartment.
Tuesday: Moto I, Minneapolis (9 p.m. to 2 a.m.). “I’m twice as old as everyone here,” cracks Collins, at the boho S. Lyndale Avenue hideaway up the street from another (Wednesday nights) open mic hotbed, Galactic Pizza.
He’s exaggerating, but tonight’s crowd consists mainly of 20- and 30-somethings, most of them songwriters spread out on barstools, couches, and pillows in front of the art-festooned stage.
An air of hushed happening permeates the scene, which could be a ‘60s time warp were it not for the back room, which overflows with a bunch of rowdy bros in black leather couches doing a good imitation of “The League.” Still, it’s a genuine snapshot of a genuine underground, where live music and listening is pared down to its basics. More than most, the Moto I milieu suggests a creative ground zero of yore, where everybody involved feels part of the fertilization and birth of a scene.
“I love all of you! Why not?” chirps Collins to the crowd of 20 after he plays his well-received two-song set, to a smattering of applause. “It’s all about connection; we all want to form a community,” he says later, sitting in a downstairs booth with three other songwriters, including Peter Lochner.
“Tonight I got home from work and I almost passed out on the couch,” says Lochner. “But then I was like, ‘No, I’ve got to sing. I feel the need to sing,’ and I get down here and I get my second wind. It’s restored my faith in humanity. A while ago I got to the point where I was just like, ‘I hate everyone, I don’t ever want to talk to another person as long as I live.’ Then I come down here and everyone’s so nice, and supportive.
“I’ve been having trouble booking gigs, and I get to come here and play a couple songs. I’ve been making paintings my whole life, and I started making music and I just feel like it’s something I have to keep making. But if I just make it in my living room, nobody gets to see it.”
Too many cover songs and a deafening p.a. that makes acoustic singers sound like Motorhead blows me out the place. The room and vibe is sweet, but great listening rooms are nurtured, guided, hard to come by, and therefore memorable when you find one. Despite it’s groovy atmospherics and potential for so much more, Moto I remains just another bar that sells food, and books music as an afterthought.
Wednesday: Gingko Coffeehouse, St. Paul (first and third Wednesdays of the month, sign-up at 6:30 p.m.)
After four open mic nights in five bars, the coffee shop setting presents Collins and the other singer/songwriters with the polar opposite of a boisterous watering hole: The Gingko is pin-drop quiet, the singers backed by the sight of foot and car traffic rushing by on Snelling Avenue out the picture windows. Footsteps, rustling papers, and clinking glasses sound positively amplified in the face of the cozy-slash-somnambulant party here that recalls “A Mighty Wind” more than Greenwich Village.
Collins’ turn at the mic is stellar, highlighted by a song he sings about his son, “Jackie,” delivered with real heart to an attentive audience of 27 that includes a sleeping woman and large man who lolls on a red velvet couch and reads the obituary page of the Pioneer Press. In that moment, Collins is the epitome of the earnest gut-spilling open mic warrior, living and singing in the moment while he can, and looking forward to whatever comes next.
“You need to play in front of people,” he concludes. “You’re not going to get better sitting at home. You need to practice all the time and work on your craft, and part of the craft is you’ve got to be as good as you can be in front of an audience at all times. Every gig is as important as the next gig, and there’s nothing like playing in front of live people.
“It’s a great scene. You come off stage and people say, ‘Good job.’ There’s nothing better.”