By Vriti Jain
Photo by Jason Smith

The entertainment can be unpredictable at the Festival of the Arts’ bi-quarterly Open Mic nights at the Hallowed Grounds coffee shop. But anyone who drops by can nestle into a cozy chair and expect to see and hear a diverse array of acts, from musicians playing original acoustic compositions to tunes written on a Game Boy.

After all, the invitation notes: “Bring your instruments, voices, poems, and ears. The mic is open to all performers.”

‘Chill atmosphere’

As Molly FitzMaurice, FOTA Open Mic coordinator, set up a makeshift stage on a recent November night, the atmosphere was relaxed, with an even mix of students studying and quietly socializing. Some, toting guitar cases and seemingly biding their time, sipped coffee and mingled with friends.

FitzMaurice was unfazed, noting that Open Mic nights tend to start slowly and maintain the “chill atmosphere” of Hallowed Grounds throughout the evening. “I didn’t know about [Open Mics] until I started running them,” she said, but a respectable turnout of performers and audience members is typical.

Although FOTA’s main event is their festival in the spring, the Open Mics serve to remind students of that tradition and encourage them to get involved and share their talent.

On Thursday, Nov. 12, second-year Michael Lipkowitz kicked off the night with original poetry, which he read from a laptop. Charlie Vidal, a third-year in the College, followed with a comedy routine. Vidal referenced the “that kid” phenomenon and used the Troubled Asset Relief Program as a metaphor for life. But it was music that dominated the night, including many original compositions in addition to covers. Each performer kept the mood informal, commenting about songs and shouting out to friends in the audience.

Live performance experience

Alumnus David Nagel’s band, Saturday Realism, debuted at a FOTA event while he was an undergraduate and has since played at the festival and the Open Mics. This time, Nagel, AB’08, was performing solo.

One act in particular had more entrepreneurial goals. Third-year Megan Frestedt and Sam McAllister, a second-year at Columbia College, knew each other while attending high school in Minnesota and got involved with FOTA when they started their record label, Tandem Shop Records, and their band, Project Film. The two singer-songwriters are in the process of putting out their first album, which has a sound McAllister describes as “kind of male/female poppy.”

Project Film’s first album consists entirely of original music, including the tune “Cut Outs,” which they performed at the Open Mic. Inspired by the transition from Minnesota to Chicago, McAllister says, “Most of the songs deal with that change and the people I’ve met along the way.” The duo also paid tribute to notable Chicago musicians from the band Wilco and Ben Gibbard, performing Wilco’s “Sky Blue Sky” and Gibbard’s “These Roads Don’t Move.”

The Open Mic nights provide an opportunity to get more experience playing live together before potentially touring, and the two musicians add that they “like the supportive atmosphere” at Hallowed Grounds.

Whether students are supporting friends in the talent line-up for an Open Mic night or just settling in for a night of studying and a caffeine jolt at Hallowed Grounds, FOTA organizers welcome everyone to show off their talent, or just enjoy the show.

Originally published on December 7, 2009.