Welcome mat down at Escape's open mike
By Ben Broeren
Special to The Capital Times
"I'm a lizard," Stephen Lee Rich shouts at the mike with a grin. "People say I should get a job, that I should make something of myself, like my cousin who made a fortune selling auto insurance," he continues with a swaggering, Creole accent.
Of course, Rich isn't really a lizard, but his poem mixes the personalities of a talking lizard and a 1950s beatnik poet in a parody mocking Geico commercials.
The self-described "friendly, neighborhood, yodeling cowboy" co-hosts, with Ron Dennis, an open microphone event whose history goes back to January 2002.
Dennis says Rich's humor and dedication throughout the years have allowed the open mike to thrive and find a good home at Escape Java Joint.
Their open mike originated at the Speed Jump Java Joint in 2002. After a little more than a year, Rich took over as main host, and carried the tradition to its current home despite the closing of two of its previous venues.
"We're excited about being back on Williamson Street," says Dennis. "It's sort of a music hub."
Rich says the open mike maintains its eclectic aura that allows for everything from autoharps to accordions to aboriginal didgeridoos. He invites the budding artist in "nonprofessionals" to develop stagecraft and experiment. "Anything goes with us," Rich says with a chuckle. "Just keep it family friendly."
Nancy Rost, a regular, says it's "a scene that's really organic, where artists perform not for money, but for themselves and for each other." The line between audience and performer is blurred, as they take turns applauding each other after their time onstage, regardless of skill level. Rich sums up the mentality when he says with a chuckle, "To quote Peter Schickele, 'There are no bad songs. Occasionally, there are bad sets of ears listening to them.' "
Venue and tradition
Rich says he and Dennis had no trouble establishing at the Escape after the previous venue shut down. In December 2005, they contacted owners Duane Erickson and Greg Bosonetta at the suggestion of several in the Madison music community. The two agree that the encouragement of Bosonetta and Erickson has helped the open mike stay afloat by providing a spacious location.
The immense coffeehouse is made up of nine rooms connected by a winding hallway that begins with a welcoming feng shui rock garden and palm tree.
Avant-garde oil paintings, splashed with lime green, crimson, violet and gold, adorn the hallway from the living room to the art gallery in the back. Rich and other hosts usually hold the open mike in the gallery, where the rotating displays of photography and paintings match the diverse quality of the performers who take the stage every Saturday.
At the open mike, the host guarantees newcomers and regulars alike they will have their time to perform. When Rich hosts, he welcomes performers by opening with classic country-folk songs. He plays Roger Miller's "Walking in the Sunshine," strumming delicately on his guitar and yodeling after the refrain.
The intimate crowd of eight to 15 smiles as Rich sings, "Think about a good time had a long time ago; think about forgetting about your worries and your woes." Rich lightens any initial performance anxiety as the audience whistles along and nods their heads.
As people perform, a silent attentiveness greets them. This helps performers come out of their shell, says Rost. She agrees with Rich that the open mike has helped her gain courage in front of a crowd. Had she not gotten involved with Rich and Dennis' open mike, she says she probably wouldn't have started recording her songs and playing her own gigs. "They'll help bring out the best in you," she says.
Dennis, when he hosts, promotes artists in whom he sees talent, pushing artists like Rost to do their own gigs outside the coffeehouse setting. A member of the Madison Folk Music Society, he promotes artists via e-mail lists and connects artists with local venues. "The Internet has made it much easier for the public to hear more independent artists," Dennis says.
Rost also takes advantage of Internet networks, posting original topical and political satire on Web sites such as myspace.com. One of the staples she plays at the open mike is "Welcome to Boscobel," performed to an original melody on her keyboard. She says the song depicts the tension inherent in the rural Wisconsin town, where the population is hoping to profit from the construction of the maximum security prison while trying not to think about what goes on inside.
Since getting involved, Rost has also gotten in touch with the local performers' group the Madison Songwriters Guild and recorded "Welcome to Boscobel" for the guild's latest anthology. "Nancy is someone we're really proud of," Rich explains. "In the beginning she was really shy." Rost has guest-hosted the open mike numerous times.
A culture of artists
The cultivation of homegrown talent and experimentation is one of Rich's main reasons for sticking with the open mike through the years.
"We get bombarded by television and radio; there tends to be a sort of group-think," Rich says. "Musicians are by definition iconoclastic."
Rost, for example, will sometimes improvise songs by playing Mad Libs with the audience, asking for a noun, verb, adjectives and a premise. After collecting responses, she'll sing a melody about a "magnanimous plum tree," for instance, while hammering out blues riffs on her keyboard. The laughter in the crowd is contagious, as everyone's thoughts are mixed in a tart, though refreshing, concoction of high witticisms and ardent applause.
Rich's wife, Ingrid Frances Stark, plays some original Irish-style tunes on a variety of pennywhistles. Sometimes dressed in medieval attire, she reads original ballads and iambic pentameter poetry on topics ranging from passionate love to medieval mysticism from two notebooks that she carries to every performance. Onstage before performing, she quips, "I've spent the entire day in the Middle Ages. And I have to say, time travel is hell."
The open mike, with humor and improvisation, allows aspiring artists to express themselves in a weekly cultural communion. Bosonetta and Erickson are glad to provide a place for this culture, to keep its tradition going and attract a more regular crowd of customers. "It's great entertainment value," Erickson says.
As with most shows, Rich invites all to come back by doing a sing-along to Utah Phillips' "The Hymn Song." Phillips once said, "Songs are not written but assembled out of what you hear and see in the world around you."
Published: September 19, 2006
Stephen Lee Rich: Press
Andina and Rich - Because We Can
Before Stephen Lee Rich came to Madison, he spent a couple of decades on
Chicago folk scene, where he often collaborated with singer-songwriter
Andina. Because We Can!, their first full-length recording as a duo, is a
fast-moving tour of highlights from their joint repertoire. Andina and
heart and humor into this colorful array of folk, old-time pop and
Andina and Rich are both accomplished songwriters and musicians - Rich's
guitar style and Andina's way with melody are especially strong - but
take themselves too seriously. There are parodies of old folk chestnuts,
doo-wop harmonies, and even a couple of kazoo solos. The title track,
which has made
waves on the Dr. Demento radio show, is a model of political songwriting
that's thoroughly entertaining. It's one of many songs on the record that
the duo's wonderfully off-kilter timing.
An inclusive folk aesthetic permeates this album, with live recordings
jug-band jam keeping things loose and lively. You get the sense that this
music is meant to be passed around and shared, especially on the
You Can't Do It All On Your Own and the yellow-ribbon-reclaiming ballad
Home, with its pretty, singalong chorus. The many guest musicians include
Amy Curl on piano and Doug Hamilton on upright bass.
A few narrative and introspective folk songs bring depth to the project.
Orange and Pink Prairie Sky distills the feeling of freedom on a country
trip, and has an interesting combination of pop and bluegrass textures.
dramatic Time Has No Mercy evokes America's move west.
I was surprised to see Christmas songs on the album this early in the
Fortunately, one of them grouses at the whole long season. If you feel
differently, you might like the well-crafted, sentimental
Mike Wiegmann engineered Because We Can!, which he produced with Stephen
Rich. The production is inspired and true to the spirit of the artists'
Facing Monday - Stephen Lee Rich
Stephen Lee Rich is a local treasure. Any musician can learn a lot from watching this yodeling cowboy live: He keeps the show rolling with high-energy songs, expressive delivery and a balance of emotion and humor. He presents music as entertainment, without a trace of ego or pretense.
This album is full of fine-crafted original old-style country songs, delivered with a twangless folk sensibility. Never Gonna Live That Way Again revs things up; Porchlight Blues brings things way down; you can practically see a fly hovering around the lightbulb. The human-condition-themed shuffle I've Had That Happen to Me is one of my favorites, with some great vocal harmonies, and the insightful line "The miracle of life is that we all endure."
The album is a defiant look at personal tragedy, laughing in the face of death. The song Facing Monday has a line that just breaks your heart: "Love just died on Sunday, facing Monday on my own."
A few of his live gems are great here. He covers Sandy Andina's Caffiene, a hora that explores the need for liquid speed; and his signature tune, Ray Baas Sawyer's The Yodel Song, gives the album an intense and lighthearted finish.
Rich is the regular host of the Urban Market Open Mic. That open mic, which goes back to its days at the Speed Jump (and before that, Mother Fool's), has cultivated a scene of its own. Rich is more than a musician, he cultivates music as community. He's a good man to get to know.
"... a vetran folkie.."
"...a great Madison folk musician.'