Some open mic fans simply can’t get enough

Since 2005, Jeffrey Thomas Russell, left, has made a point of going to just about every open mic nig
Heather Hewitt, left, and Deborah Titus perform at the Thursday night open mic at The Happy Cappuccino in Schenectady. (Brian McElhiney/Gazette Reporter)
Heather Hewitt, left, and Deborah Titus perform at the Thursday night open mic at The Happy Cappuccino in Schenectady. (Brian McElhiney/Gazette Reporter)

If you’ve been to an open mic night in the Capital Region in the past six years, there’s a good chance you’ve heard the story of Shadow’s neutering.

Shadow is Jeffrey Thomas Russell’s 8-year-old dog and the subject of one of Russell’s original songs, “Shadow’s Blues.” It’s a song that Russell — better known to open mic audiences by his stage handle, Jeffrey T. — performs often, eliciting laughs with lines such as, “See, I used to have a big bass bark, but I sing soprano now.”

“It seems to be everybody’s favorite,” Russell said shortly after performing on a recent Wednesday night at the Best Damn Open Mic Night Ever! at McGeary’s in Albany. “It’s everybody’s favorite except Shadow’s.”

He didn’t play the song on this particular night — “I’m never sure in a bar about doing my own stuff,” he said. Instead, he focused on covers, including a rendition of an old Hank Williams song. The same goes for other bar-based open mics, like Trick Shot Billiards and Sports Pub in Clifton Park on Thursday nights, or Gaffney’s in Saratoga Springs on Tuesdays. But catch him at Caffe Lena’s open mic on a Thursday night, or the Open Mic at Moon & River Café in Schenectady on Sunday nights, and the focus is more on Russell’s original material.

Frequent participant

Since 2005, Russell has made a point of going to just about every open mic night he can in the region. He averages at least three or four per week, but sometimes will play that many in a single night.

“Sometimes I go to Trick Shot on Thursday nights, if Lena’s gets out early,” Russell said. “I go up to Gaffney’s sometime on Tuesday nights. I’ve done three open mics on a Tuesday night — there’s one at the Coffee Planet, there’s one at the Brickyard [both in Ballston Spa] and there’s one at Gaffney’s, and I just went, boom, boom, boom. I think I did like 14 songs in one night.”

With the exception of Fridays and Saturdays — big concert nights — there is generally at least one open mic night every night of the week somewhere in the Capital Region. New ones pop up all the time — in the past month, Pauly’s Hotel in Albany began an open mic Wednesday nights with singer-songwriter Olivia Quillio hosting, and a new cafe on Jay Street in Schenectady, The Happy Cappuccino, is now holding open mics on Thursdays with country songwriter Rick Sacchetti as host.

And Russell, 61, has the time to hit nearly all of them every week, since retiring.

“I’m retired from my day job, so I have the time — so I can stay home and practice all day,” he said. “I don’t have to worry about getting up at 6, 7 o’clock in the morning to go to my job. And I just decided, I like doing it, it’s a lot of fun. And really, if you want to improve your skills as a performer, just going to Caffe Lena once every other week wasn’t enough. This [way], I’m getting 15, sometimes 20 songs a week in front of a live audience.”

Hoping for a break

He’s not the only Capital Region musician taking advantage of the abundant open mic nights. Many musicians become regulars at just a single open mic, but others take to Russell’s philosophy, playing as much as they can before a live audience every week.

“I try to do about three a week,” said multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Matt Girtler, after finishing a set at Moon & River on a recent Sunday night. “I’m kind of just being a singer-songwriter, trying to find my niche, one nook and cranny at a time.”

Girtler, who moved to the area from Rochester about two years ago, hit the open mic circuit hard when he arrived, hoping to meet other musicians, land gigs and possibly form a band. For a while, he was in an acoustic duo called the Definite Articles with Pete Avitable, who has since moved to Rhode Island.

These days, Girtler averages three open mics a week, playing his funk- and soul-infused tunes at Moon & River, Tierra Coffee Roasters (formerly the Muddy Cup) in Albany on Monday nights, and Trick Shot on Thursday nights. He was an open mic regular in Rochester as well.

“[I go] just to see different varieties — see maybe what’s hip in the scene, or maybe what’s under the radar in a way,” Girtler said. “I mean, most of these guys play out and they have gigs and everything like that. And I hear people playing, you know, Valentine’s and this and that, and I’m like, you know, I should be playing that. I got to just start talking to the right people. So I’m hoping eventually either I’ll meet the proper people or someone will approach me, that kind of thing.”

Deborah Titus is another newcomer to the Capital Region music scene, though she’s originally from the area and used to play the open mic nights at the Larkin in Albany, hosted by Paddy Kilrain. After spending a few years playing in New York City, she returned to the area in December, and has been playing at least one open mic night a week, and sometimes as many as three a week. She’s a regular at the Moon & River, and has been to the Tuesday night open mic at Emack & Bolio’s in Albany and Thursday nights at the Daily Grind in Troy.

“There are some weeks where I just want to immerse myself completely, or I have a new song and I want to play it as much as I can,” Titus said.

Making friends

For Titus, the sense of community is the biggest draw of the open mic nights.

“Probably the biggest [reason] is just to be a part of a community and make connections with other people who are inspirational to me,” Titus said. “There are so many around here that I wouldn’t know if I didn’t come out to these events, because when you just see a name in the paper, it’s hard to know what’s really gonna tickle your fancy.”

Through open mics, Titus has met people such as Heather Hewitt, who is a frequent collaborator with Titus and many others on the open mic scene. Hewitt is another returnee to the area — about five years ago, she sang with Bob Lord, currently of Emerald Dawn, in the duo Bad Drivers, and also co-hosted an open mic with him at the Flavour Cafe. Since returning to the area last August, she has been going to many more open mics.

“When I came back, I was kind of going through a tough time and I needed to get out of my house, so I started — actually, I joined a chorus right after that,” Hewitt said. “But I went to Bob’s open mic one night, and Deb came in, and I just really liked her stuff. . . . So it’s more like, I all of a sudden started hanging out with all these people by going to open mics.”

Unlike many other musicians, Russell came to open mic nights much later in his musical career. He has been playing guitar since he was a teenager, first picking up the instrument after hearing The Beatles in 1964 (“I saw how all the girls were screaming for The Beatles, and I said, ‘That’s the life for me.’ ”). He didn’t go to his first open mic at Caffe Lena until 1987, and after four times he stopped. In 2000, he began playing Lena’s every other week, and began visiting every open mic he could beginning in 2005.

Onstage, Russell cuts a confident image, always smiling, rarely shifting out of his folksy, storytelling demeanor. His unflappable nature, no matter the audience, has been built up over the years thanks to the constant performing on the open mic circuit.

“I’m much more relaxed in front of the microphone now,” Russell said. “I mean, I remember being in front of the microphone, and literally my legs were shaking, and I said, ‘Oh, gee, I should have asked for a stool, I’m so afraid up here.’ I’m afraid I’m gonna fall over because my legs feel so weak. And now I’ll be standing up there sometimes, and I’ll be playing a song, and sometimes watching a ball game on TV at the same time I’m playing a song — ‘Oh, gee, they just scored a touchdown, so the score must be such-and-such now.’ ”

Feedback and support

Maurizio, a regular of the Caffe Lena open mic for the past 15 years, has found that his reasons for continuing to go to multiple open mic nights every week have changed over time. At this point, he gigs out regularly throughout Albany and Saratoga, and these shows take precedent, but he still manages to go to three open mics in some weeks.

“When I first started, I had played in rock bands before I got into the singer-songwriter with an acoustic guitar, one-man-band thing,” Maurizio said.

“Coming out of that, writing songs on acoustic guitars in the beginning, it was just the process of getting comfortable with doing that — cutting my teeth as they say, and getting feedback from other musicians that were ahead of me, feedback and support. . . . Open mics are good for that, especially at Lena’s, where I went from showing up as an open mic person to, years later, having a CD release there on a Saturday at a sold-out show. And that was because I played open mics all the time, and Sarah Craig — who manages Lena’s to this day — saw that and gave me a break.”

Categories: Life and Arts

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