Story and photos by JOSH SOUTAS
It’s a Tuesday night. You make your way through the maze of empty guitar cases to sit down in one of the low, comfy armchairs, with a latte or café mocha in hand, and a scone or muffin on the way. The strong smell of coffee fills the air. The walls are lined with vibrant local art and photography for sale. In the back room you hear the tuning of guitars, while a poet quietly recites one of his newest poems to himself, bouncing his knee nervously.
Next to you, an older man swiftly hand rolls himself a cigarette and tucks it into his pocket for later. Nearby, college students are busy talking about a group project they have just been assigned. All this commotion stops, however, when Bob Bland reaches for the mic.
Welcome to open mic night at Alchemy Coffee, he says.
Alchemy Coffee, located on 390 E. 1700 South in Salt Lake City, is host to open mic night every Tuesday.
Amateurs are drawn to this opportunity to perform original songs or poetry. No “covers” of songs are allowed, which means audiences never know what to expect on any given Tuesday.
“Some of the performances are awful, some are terrific,” said host Bland, who also is a folk artist. “Regardless we encourage everybody the same.”
Bland, who has been playing folk music for as long as he can remember in private or for friends, said he finally started playing in public after being continuously encouraged by those who had heard him play around the campfire.
“The first few times I played in public I was a nervous wreck,” Bland said.
It is because of this experience that Bland tries to create a warm, welcoming atmosphere. Whether it’s the tradition of holding one finger in the air during the first few seconds of a newcomer’s song or poem to signify that person’s inaugural appearance at Alchemy Coffee, or excessively cheering them on during and after their performance, Bland said it is important to let them know the audience is on the their side.
“The people here at Alchemy Coffee in the audience want you to succeed,” Bland said. “In most cases, like my own, you are your own worst enemy.”
This was the case for Desirae Sizemore, who took the stage for the first time on the night of March 8, 2016. Sizemore, a poet from Salt Lake City, uses poetry as an outlet for her emotions. She said her friends talked her into performing at Alchemy Coffee.
“I was anxious and afraid of judgment. But decided to take the risk,” Sizemore said after performing. “The worst that can happen is to be rejected. We have all survived worse, I know I have.”
After her performance she said she was very pleased with how warm and welcoming the atmosphere and audience were, and added that she would definitely return.
Calzone, a folk artist who goes by that one name, frequents open-mic nights in Salt Lake City. He said the audience at Alchemy Coffee is one of the best he plays for.
“The audience is laid back, the people are respectful and it is always busy,” he said. He has appeared at the coffee shop numerous times over the past year.
Open mic host Bob Bland, who also participates in many different open mic nights as a performer, said the audience at Alchemy Coffee is there to listen. And that is what sets them apart.
“At open mics at bars, or other coffee shops many times people are talking, there are televisions on, people are drinking and you are playing in the background,” Bland said at the end of the evening. “Where here people come to listen, the open mic is the center of attention. As a performer you want to go somewhere where people are listening to the music you worked hard on writing.”
Bland compares performing to rock climbing, another hobby that he is passionate about.
“You can’t improve unless you go for it,” he said. “You fall and the rope catches you. When you perform if you fall the audience will catch you. The anticipation of failing is worse than actually failing.”
Bland encourages performers to remember that even if you think you have failed, you wake up in the morning and are still surrounded by friends and family who love you, and those few minutes in front of the audience don’t matter anymore.
Bland also invites individuals who may be unsure about performing to come to Alchemy Coffee on a Tuesday night.
“Come out, take a deep breath. It isn’t a big deal,” Bland said. “Keep things in perspective and play for yourself, be happy with how you performed. And just go for it.”
Sign ups for open mic start at 6:15 p.m. every Tuesday and fill up quickly, so performers are encouraged to come early. Performances start at 7 p.m. and end at 9 p.m. The limit is 15 minutes per performance or three songs or poems.