If you haven’t heard a honky-tonk version of “Silent Night” or a rockabilly take on “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” than you haven’t attended the “Annual Open Mike Christmas Party” at FitzGerald’s.
There was a whole lot of strumming going on the night of Dec. 11, as approximately 30 performers took turns on the club’s venerable big stage. Many sang original songs that had nothing to do with Christmas, with one performer making an empty threat to sing “The 12 Days of Christmas.”
Others got into the spirit of the season with “All Alone for Christmas” and that perennial favorite, John Lennon’s “So This is Christmas.” For many of the performers, it wasn’t just a Christmas celebration; it was their chance to shine on a stage that exudes star power.
Open Mike participants are allowed to play only two songs-or one song if the title happens to be “Stairway to Heaven,” “Free Bird” or if it’s about the aforementioned dozen days of Christmas. Many have been coming to this free-for-all for years.
Jack Swain, who lives right in Berwyn, started coming to Open Mike four years ago to give his daughter Rachel a chance to sing to an audience. “I just love it,” Swain said, “This place has the best original songwriters.”
Swain debuted his own original song that night, “Heartbreakin’ Kind,” and hoped to have accompaniment from a bass and drums. Fortunately FitzGerald’s has an all-purpose percussionist, Miguel, to sit in on drums when needed. Swain has been playing guitar since he was 8 years old. Like many of the singer-songwriters that night, he practiced alone at a table before taking the stage.
Kent from Willowbrook was a relative newcomer to Open Mike Night. “I’ve been playing guitar for 20 years,” Kent said, “but this is the first year I’ve played in front of an audience.” He found the experience more daunting than his daily practice sessions in the living room.
“Standing on the same stage where a lot of great music stars have stood is a little intimidating,” Kent admitted, “but I’m too old to be embarrassed. I’ve met people, learned a lot, and I’ve hooked up with a musical partner. This is a neat little community of outstanding musicians.”
Like many of the performers, Bernie from Chicago prefers playing music to “watching stupid TV shows.”
“I pick up my guitar,” said Bernie, “and it transports me to a place where my troubles melt away.” Being a real estate broker, Bernie knows something about troubles.
He has played at hundreds of Open Mike nights. “It’s my thing, my release. It’s a bunch of people sharing their love of music. I love watching everyone try to shine for 10 minutes.” Bernie started playing guitar at 13 and practices 5-6 hours per week. “I take cover songs and make them my own,” he said. Bernie currently “owns” about 300 covers, along with 20 original tunes.
The actual singing began at 9 p.m., with a table of loud talkers adding a realistic nightclub cacophony to the proceedings. First up was Kent.
“My name is Kent and this is not a Christmas song,” he cautioned. Instead, he played a love song “for all the ladies here,” followed by another original called “Little Man in the Boat.”
A blues guitarist played “Walking the Dog” and was joined by Miguel spontaneously shaking the tambourine. “Miguel on random percussion.” Then in honor of Christmas, he performed “Eyes of a Child.”
A quartet with a female singer next took the spotlight. You don’t usually hear scat singing on Christmas carols, but they rocked the house. Bernie followed with a quiet Carole King song and then tried to win over the loud talkers with “Hey There, Delilah.”
Club owner Kate FitzGerald said Open Mike Night attracts a solid 30 performers every week. Three times a month it’s held in the cozy confines of the Sidebar (next door), so it’s a treat for the “open-mikers” to play the big room once a month. “We have 10-15 regulars who have been coming for 10 years,” Fitzgerald said, “They play together, form bands together, it’s wonderful.”
For some, Open Mike Night can be a stepping-stone to the professional ranks. Naomi Ashley, for instance, who sang at the Christmas Party, is having a CD release party at FitzGerald’s, where she’ll be joined by 10-15 of her closest Tuesday night friends.