Jaime Wesley was in a deceptively cozy setting, propped up on the arm of an overstuffed couch and surrounded by friends in a dimly lit room in Common Grounds Coffee House and Café.
It was a Monday night in mid-August, less than a week before the Tates Creek High School graduate would head off for her freshman year at Belmont University in Nashville. But her impending move and new chapter in her life weren't foremost in Wesley's mind as she nervously tapped the headstock of her guitar.
She was one of about a dozen people signed up for the Lexington coffeehouse's weekly open mike night. It made Monday look like a Saturday, as patrons overflowed out of the shop's main room and congregated on the sidewalk.
Open mikes attract a motley cast of talent: high-school musicians, middle-school troubadours taking their first steps into the spotlight; experienced players getting a stage fix, accordion artists and even electric drummers in abominable snowman outfits (seriously, that has happened here).
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"You get to see the full spectrum of music in Lexington, from the very best to the very worst," said Joe Harbison, an area musician who runs the open mike.
B.J. McCreary, who bought Common Grounds at the beginning of June, said he saw open mike nights as one of the business' strengths.
"Open mike is one of the great traditions of coffeehouses," he said.
Names in a bowl
Neither McCreary nor Harbison are sure how long open mike has been going at Common Grounds, but they estimate that it has been more than five years. Harbison, a solo artist who also plays with the band Ford Theatre Reunion, started running the show a year ago after playing at it regularly. And he runs the whole show, from twisting the knobs on the soundboard to conducting the weekly 8:30 p.m. drawing for stage times.
A clear plastic bowl was set on the bar at 7 p.m., surrounded by white scraps of paper on which people wrote their names or their act's name. At 8:30, after setting up microphones and wires on the small stage at the back of the coffeehouse's long main room, Harbison took the stage and started pulling papers out of the bowl.
As the performers' names were called, they declared which 10-minute set they would like between 8:50 and 11 p.m. Harbison noted it on a list. One of the first hints that there were regulars here was when Harbison called "Alex Wimmer," and immediately added, "10."
A weekly fixture in the lineup, Wimmer, a University of Kentucky sophomore, has established a preference for the top of the last hour of prime time. Wimmer said he started playing open mike at the beginning of the year; now, "I can't get enough of it."
He got hooked when people began requesting songs from him, notably Laura by Girls, a tune that fits Wimmer's darkly cheerful style.
Also enjoying an established time slot — the earliest — was Jamie Oberst, 63, who said, "I'm too old to stay out late," after playing Hank Williams' Lovesick Blues on the well-worn Martin 12-string guitar that he named Grizelda Martin.
At 18, Wesley, the guitarist headed to Belmont, has youth on her side, which is good, because her name was the last one drawn, and she had to take the 11 p.m. slot.
"It wasn't too bad," Wesley said. "I got to hear everyone else."
And she got to hear a lot, including fellow Belmont student Jessica Adkins, who got so into her ukulele playing that she cut her finger on the strings during Johnny Cash's Jackson and bled throughout her 10-minute set.
Adkins is serious enough to have a Facebook page dedicated to her music, but she said she plays just for fun and doesn't dare tread into the open mike scene when she's at school in Nashville.
"It's too competitive down there," she said. "Everyone is judging you and hoping there are record-company scouts in the crowd."
Nary a boo is heard
Most Common Grounds open mike musicians give the venue high marks for friendliness.
"I have never seen anyone get booed here," said freestyle rapper Isaiah Young, 30, who goes by the stage name Zae.
Singer and songwriter Andy Boyette, a recent Transylvania University graduate, has played other open mikes but said Common Grounds is the best environment, in part because of the absence of alcohol.
That doesn't mean the main room can't get rockin': A festhaus feel emerged when Seth Twardy, 26, played the theme for the video game Tetris on his accordion.
"I'm bored on Mondays — what am I going to do?" Twardy said. "I'll go out and play my accordion."
OK, it wasn't that casual a start for the Toyota employee. Twardy said he has the shaking hands and shortness of breath that most musicians experience when they first play in front of an audience. But he has gotten used to it.
Waiting for her late debut to arrive, Wesley occasionally checked her phone for texts, and friends snapped photos of her with their phones, as if she were already a star.
Having some friends along the first time helped Patrick Brown, 18, of Versailles, get his courage up the first time he went on.
"I hadn't even played for my family," he said of his first open mike night. He is now a regular, notable for running his vocals through a chorus effect that makes him sound a bit like Bon Iver.
A first step
Harbison estimated that there are 15 regulars at open mike, three or four of whom are there every week.
And though it hasn't been a launching pad to stardom yet, Harbison said he has tapped Wimmer and other open-mike regulars for Friday and Saturday night performance slots at Common Grounds.
"They are people who are clearly interested in playing out and clearly interested in Common Grounds," Harbison said. "Ten minutes on stage can give you a good idea what someone can do."
Some artists have paying gigs at clubs around town, but they still like to come out to open mike.
Cameron Clark, who goes by the stage name C2 and offers free CDs when he plays, said, "If you want to make money, you really shouldn't be in this scene." For her, the rewards of feedback at Common Grounds are comparable to pay elsewhere.
Landon Hoffman, who hails from Cincinnati and attends Northern Kentucky University, said he can't find a comparable open mike venue in the Queen City.
"Here, you can feel the soul and the passion," Hoffman said. "It's like Kerouac wrote: You can feel sparks."
The guys also said they like to hear other artists, particularly newcomers, such as Wesley.
As the 11th hour arrived, she briskly swept onto the stage from the big leather couch she'd been sitting on just a few feet away.
Perched on a stool and leaning into the microphone, she delivered an acoustic version of the Rihanna and Eminem hit Love the Way You Lie and Demi Lovato's Skyscraper.
It was quick, and she missed nary a beat, receiving some of the biggest cheers of the evening — no small reward for her patience and courage.
Although she's heading off to school in Music City, she said she'll be back to Common Grounds.