Thursday, July 31, 2014

The CL Intern Issue: Step up to the (open) mic

CL intern Jackie Braje looks into the wide-open culture of Tampa Bay’s open mic nights.

Posted By on Thu, Jul 31, 2014 at 10:40 AM

click to enlarge Performances at Boba House's open mic night range from acoustic guitar to stand-up comedy to solo slide trombone. - CHIP WEINER
  • Chip Weiner
  • Performances at Boba House's open mic night range from acoustic guitar to stand-up comedy to solo slide trombone.

"For my performance tonight, I will pantomime a porn star making a pizza delivery to someone’s home. Here we go, folks.”

The Rathskeller, located in the basement of the University of Tampa’s Plant Hall, was scattered with tables full of writing professors and anxious young students prudently reading and re-reading to themselves the poems their classmates had goaded them into presenting in front of everyone. The vibe was laid-back, and a muted orchestra of snaps followed every reading. This was UT’s open mic night, sponsored by the student literary journal NEON — the one night a month when antisocial groups of undergrad writing students all leave their caves.

Tampa has built up a culture of open mic nights, each attracting a unique demographic. You can find anything from a singer-songwriter to a balloon animal artist at these gatherings, and things are inclined to get slightly weird. But after carousing through a few different places, it became easy to distinguish some of the traits — and distinctive characters — that are specific to each venue.


Eduardo was a hit at Café Hey. An older man in camouflage cargo pants with a harmonica strap secured around his head, he idled around the room, entirely not amused by the college kid reading off one-liners from his iPhone on stage. Eduardo’s been here a few times before, methinks.

There seem to be two kinds of people who head over to Café Hey on Thursday nights: those who do stand-up comedy, and those who sing acoustic covers of oldies rock 'n’ roll while sporting Grateful Dead t-shirts. Both are equally entertaining and equally committed to what they do, which is something I find impossible not to appreciate.

Another popular venue is The Boba House by USF. A chillaxed tapioca-ball-serving, study-date hotspot by day, Boba is a sanctuary for talented young folk every Friday evening.

People begin signing up around 8 p.m., tuning their guitars, polishing the dust off their saxophones and… practicing their Spanish?
“There’s this one guy who always does stand-up comedy when he comes in here, and one time, he put on the television to the Spanish channel and ad-libbed a whole show. It was crazy,” said Boba House employee Emily Baldwin.

The usual crowd is a lively bunch. My very first encounter here was about a year ago and frankly, everything that happened after a memorable (for lack of a better word) solo a capella Justin Bieber cover was a total blur.

I’ve witnessed spoken word, interpretive dances set to Bible verses, harmonica junkies, more a cappella solos and rappers out the wazoo. And as far as the “regulars” go, there’s a quirky violin-shredder, Jose the burly saxophone player, and “that one guy who does opera sometimes…”

And of course, we can’t neglect the ever-so-stereotypically charming college dudes who woo all the impressionable females with their acoustic covers of Imagine Dragons and the Lumineers. Try to hold the rolling of the eyes, please.

But whether you’re a critic or not, there’s one undeniable truth I stumbled upon here: communities where talented and artistic youth can root for one another can be difficult to find if you don’t know where to look, and that’s precisely what these little shindigs represent.

“Sometimes I like to live vicariously through the all the younger college kids in here. I just love the atmosphere and I love the people. The people especially,” Baldwin said.

With Tampa’s hefty harvest of comedy clubs and coffee shops, it’s possible for just about anyone to find their artistic niche here. From the stand-up acts and oldies rock gurus of Café Hey, to the literary nerds of UT, to the eclectic bunch at Boba, I was pleasantly surprised to find that so many people utilize these outlets for their art, whatever it may be. These are also places for people to come out and support their peers and local performers, because let’s face it: a city that doesn’t take pride in its porn star pizza delivery pantomime is truly no city at all.

Jackie Braje is a senior English and writing major at UT and a longtime Tampa native. She’s passionate about music and hopes to someday become a music journalist, instead of living vicariously through Almost Famous. Jackie is currently the Arts & Entertainment editor of The Minaret and assistant editor of NEON. She enjoys traveling, literature, and long, romantic walks to her coffee machine.

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