by Anthony Harrison
Open mics and karaoke share many characteristics. Covers prevail. The talent fluctuates widely between incompetence and flashing brilliance. Booze tends to fuel both.
However, perhaps the most identifiable common factor between them, yet maybe the most intangible, remains the enthusiasm of the audience.
Kohinoor Hookah Palace in downtown Greensboro has hosted an open mic for the past three Sunday nights. But, while the hookah bar has yet to define itself as an institution, the enthusiasm for live, amateur performance asserts itself as fully as anywhere else in the Triad.
After all, the venue has a storied history in open-mic nights.
Kohinoor Hookah Palace, established in August 2014, took over the space formerly occupied by the Flatiron. The Flatiron notably had a long-running open mic night, for many years featuring infamous emcee Matty Sheets, inviting performers to share their talent from 2002 until closing in 2013.
Kohinoor hopes to re-instill the tradition.
“It has kind of the same feel, and a lot of the same people,” Kohinoor owner Shazia Khan said. “A lot of Matty’s crowd comes, and they’re familiar with the place.”
On Sunday, one of the old fixtures of the Flatiron days, “Whisky” Christy Hopkins, filled in for Sheets, who attended the South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas.
“When we first came back in here, it was like, ‘We’re home!’” Hopkins said. “For the new owners to be so welcoming is a dream come true.”
However, despite the unseasonably mild weather, few people filed in that night.
“Come on, people,” Hopkins said, addressing the seldom-opened door at 10 p.m. “We’re a late crowd, but damn.”
Ten o’ clock normally kicks off the festivities, but by that point, only three of the 15 performance slots open on the chalkboard marquee had been filled — including one for Whisky Christy.
Unaffected, Hopkins started the night at about 10:30 p.m.
“I’ve never hosted an open mic, so if I do anything wrong, just let me know, and I won’t do it again,” Hopkins said.
She then sang an a cappella theme song she’d recently written in the tune of an Irish folk ditty. The lilting chorus went, “Whisky, whisky/ Drink your wine or your beer/ Whisky, whisky/ Just raise your glass for a cheer.”
Hopkins sang a few other covers, including Randy Weeks’ “Can’t Let Go” in the style of Lucinda Williams, complete with a kazoo solo in lieu of guitar.
Her highlight was “a silly one” called “Rock All the Babies to Sleep,” an old country tune as interpreted by New Zealand’s Topp Twins. While Hopkins drawled well through her opening set, she showed off her classical vocal training in the purity of her rich vibrato while performing the yodeling hook.
However, aside from Hopkins, there wasn’t much music at that particular open mic night. The majority performed poetry, spoken word or stand-up routines.
Three comedians gave somewhat shaky performances, whether nervous or hacky.
A young man known only as Lavar delivered a spoken-word monologue about the perceptions of poets towards romantic interests, making statements such as, “Little boys whisper sweet nothings in your ear when, ultimately, f***ing you is their only care,” and, “I have to starve your ego to feed your soul.”
Poet Brandi Adair recited two poems, one of her own titled “Flock,” inspired by the community of the open mic, and a cover of Andrea Gibson’s “Photograph.”
The only other musician performing that night was an old Flatiron familiar, Ed Whitfield.
Whitfield first played during the middle of the mic night.
“Has everyone here heard me sing?” he asked the crowd.
A few muttered, “No.”
“Oh, goodness, I’m so sorry,” Whitfield said.
Whitfield then explained his first song, one about his dog, Billy.
“One of the things he did was help me write a blues album,” Whitfield said. “He was a really smart dog, and a lot of the songs were his idea. He had an incredible sense for lyrics.”
Whitfield played a Chicago-style city blues, with bawdy lines like, “Don’t look at me like I’m some kind of freak/ I itch, I scratch, but that don’t mean I’m meek/ If you could, you’d lick yours too,” to the most modest uproar the tiny crowd could muster.
Whitfield then performed a bossa-nova instrumental inspired by his time in Brazil, “Bahia Night,” featuring open drones and jazzy, suspended chords.
The final listed performer was another regular from the Flatiron days, Taylor Bays. However, he could not play guitar, due to an arm injury incurred following a medical procedure.
Instead, he regaled the crowd with a story about an apparent childhood mentor, Schizoid Al, who would scream to the sky, whether at God, his grandmother or the voices in his head.
Most importantly, Bays made a point about the freedom of an open mic.
Bays recalled that a guy from Melbourne, Australia had witnessed the open mic while the Flatiron still existed, and said he “was amazed that a group of people were allowing this to happen, and have people not be judged by it or anything.”
Bays then asked, “Are we not lucky that we can get onstage and do this here?”
Affirmation from the miniscule crowd.
While the audience was small, something that may inspire cocked eyebrows to the viability of Kohinoor Hookah Palace’s open mic night, even recognized fixtures of a community have their slow nights. Kohinoor has big shoes to fill, but once people realize it’s the same approachable scene, the lounge won’t be so vacant. And with the developments popping up in the immediate vicinity, the little palace may not have to try so hard.