Open-mic nights: Not just going through a stage

Open-mic nights are popular in metro area, featuring both beginners and veteran performers


Steve Smulian, 71, plucked and sang on a small stage in Littleton for an audience that barely included more people than the bartender and the host.

But even after playing guitar for 56 years — including about 10 as a professional musician — Smulian still loves playing open-mic nights because, for him, it’s about the people, whether he’s playing for a small group or a large crowd.

“Most good musicians are welcoming,” Smulian said. “It’s art, and art is not a contest.”

That’s the sentiment that aspiring musicians, comedians or writers — or casual performers looking for an outlet — will find at open-mic nights in the Denver metro area, events that offer a place to hone skills, build networks and, above all, be yourself.

‘Circuit’ of talent

With a sticker-covered guitar, Michael Thompson sat on stage at the Mercury Café, where performers appear on Wednesday nights to play to a laid-back crowd.

But the atmosphere at the eclectic Denver location shouldn’t fool anyone — the musicians can whip out some skilled, and intricate, routines.

“The thing I like the most about the Mercury is it’s a welcoming place,” said Thompson, 30, who delivered a Rolling Stones cover along with original music. “It’s a good beginner open mic.”

The café in northern Denver’s Five Points, a neighborhood with deep musical history, boasts one of the metro area’s best-known open mics, but out in the suburbs, newer venues also see strong turnout — and for 38 State Brewing Company in Littleton, that includes newcomers.

“I’ve definitely seen a whole lot of out-of-towners saying, ‘I just moved here,’” said Angie Boyle, head bartender at the brewery at 8071 S. Broadway. Amid metro-area population growth, some in 38 State’s open-mic crowd say they’re new to the area, checking out the scene and trying to get booked to play shows, Boyle said.

A few miles east in Lone Tree, Patrick DiBartolomeo sees performances from all ages at Lincoln Station Coffee/Pizza/Music, located just south of Interstate 25 and C-470 along the light-rail line.

“In any given week, you may see as young as 8 or 9 years old all the way up to performers in their 70s,” said DiBartolomeo, owner of the business. “We frequently see high-schoolers working on their craft up to seasoned performers doing what they have been doing for decades.”

And it’s not just a fleeting hobby, as Boyle sees at 38 State.

“The Denver area has a pretty good circuit of people,” Boyle said, who network and play in venues all over the region. People even come down from Boulder to perform, she added.

‘Do your thing’

On any night, an open-mic event is likely happening somewhere in the metro area, with the middle of the week — Tuesday through Thursday — especially rife with options, according to internet listings.

Across many venues, the audiences and performers alike offer a supportive environment, staff say.

“Everybody just sits and listens to the music,” said Tim Ferry, manager at The Toad Tavern near the Littleton-Englewood border.

He emphasized the lack of judgment, adding, “Go up there and do your thing.”

After artists perform, they make good audience members, which helps them support each other and the venues themselves, DiBartolomeo said.

“We have seen many new relationships and musical collaborations formed as the musicians get to know one another,” DiBartolomeo said. Arriving early to meet people and get the “lay of the land” is a good way to ease in for first-timers, he said.

Some venues feature booked music performances, too, and for Ferry, open mic is an opportunity for artists to show their skills and potentially get invited to play a scheduled show. Boyle echoed that.

“We’ve pulled a couple good bands straight from open mic” for live-music shows, Boyle said.

Comedy and poetry, too

Open mics aren’t just for music — many venues welcome comedy and poetry, too. Mercury Café has its own open-poetry night on Fridays.

Ben Duncan, a 25-year-old from Indiana, performs at local comedy open-mic nights. But, he said, sometimes it’s useful to come to a music-heavy open mic because their audiences likely haven’t heard the jokes before.

He encouraged first-time comedians to give open mics a try.

“You’re going to know right away whether (comedy) is something you want to do,” said Duncan, who moved to Denver recently to get more serious about pursuing comedy. And “get ready for a lot of late nights and beating yourself up in your car” if it turns out that you do, he laughed.

Stop on larger journeys

For Smulian, who methodically finger-picked at 38 State brewery, stopping by open mics is a pleasure he slips in after decades of playing music.

The very next night, he played at the Mercury Café, where Thompson reflected after his own set. The more people get involved in the Denver music scene, the more it can establish its musical identity like other big cities, he said.

Thompson, who has played in a band and currently records music on his own, said the best way for beginners to approach open mics is to lay their emotions out.

“Open up yourself,” Thompson said. “And do it again and again and again.”


Our Papers

Ad blocker detected

We have noticed you are using an ad blocking plugin in your browser.

The revenue we receive from our advertisers helps make this site possible. We request you whitelist our site.