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Madden is not an owner or employee of the Red Light. He works in real estate, but undertakes what is admittedly an often torturous gig every Wednesday night because, more than anything, Madden is a musician. He would much rather talk about the guitars he owns than the houses he's trying to sell. With Madden at the helm, the open-mics at the Red Light have become more of a musical gathering than just another amateurs' night.
"This is where everyone gets their start, sure," he says, "but I think people have a real misconception about these things. I've had a 3-year-old girl sing her first ABC song and a 75-year-old playing violin. I'm just continuing something I learned in the '60s. I'm not doing anything different. You need a user-friendly place where nobody gets uptight ... and that's what we're doing here."
Mark Smith (no relation to Sean Smith) drives from L.A. -- that is, Lower Alabama -- every other week just for the chance to play three songs on the Red Light's stage. "I'm just looking for that big break, ya know?" Smith says with a shrug.
That big break, though, is unlikely to come at an open-mic night. Legend has it Garth Brooks was discovered at an open-mic in Nashville, but it's just a myth that talent scouts and A&R people are scoping out unknowns at random in their spare time. Those days are over (if they ever existed before). At best, playing an open-mic can only serve as a stepping stone to a mid-week gig at that particular club. And that's only if you're really good.
While stardom may be far off for open-mic performers, a little cash may not be. Unlike Wednesdays at the Red Light Café, Mondays at Eddie's Attic are a competition with judges and a cash prize for the winner. And country-folk artist Marlin Brackett, an Eddie's Attic regular, has won many gigs at the club due to his persistence with the open-mic. "I used to go home saying to myself, 'Man, those judges are nothing but a bunch of drunk firemen' whenever I wasn't chosen," he says. "Then one night, I was picked to win. So I was driving home that night thinking to myself, 'God, what if those judges are a bunch of drunk firemen?'"
To be a judge at Eddie's Attic Open-Mic, you must meet the following criteria: First, you must be a sentient life form and, second, you must like to eat and drink for free. There is a score sheet involved, but the bottom line for judges, as with performers, is just to follow their heart. While the competitive aspect makes for a slightly different scene at Eddie's, you're likely to spot many of the same people from Wednesdays at the Red Light. Madden himself was a recent Monday night finalist at Eddie's, which landed him a Wednesday night gig at the club -- a gig he had to turn down to go back and host open-mic night at the Red Light.
Cover charge for the open-mic night at both clubs is $3, whether you'll be performing or just listening. At the Red Light, the policy is loosely enforced, with an empty beer pitcher often left at the door, alongside the sign-up sheet, for patrons to stuff money in. At Eddie's, newcomers invariably show up demanding free entry as one of the evening's performers, only to be lectured by the doorman on where the prize money and payroll for club employees come from. (Full disclosure: I've been both a naive freebie seeker and, later, an Eddie's doorman.)
Eddie's Attic owner Eddie Owen, who still religiously hosts the weekly open-mic night, says, "When we started this thing, we had to beg people to play, now we're turning them away. It's become my most consistent night." While he says making the event a competition "gets more media attention, which is good for everyone involved," he also points to other benefits of having regular open-mic nights. "Probably the most rewarding thing is the networking musicians can do here. It leads to so many good things, from knowing where to get a good steak biscuit when you're on the road, to getting good gigs. I encourage touring acts to do the open-mics for this reason."
With its cash prizes, Eddie's does tend to draw more established touring acts. Last year, when national touring act Don Conoscenti won the $1,000 Shootout, there was some grumbling among the rank-and-file that a bully had invaded the kiddie pool, grabbing the spotlight (and the money). But, in the end, "open-mic" means open-mic. It's not just for amateurs, it's for anyone who bothers showing up.
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