The Red Devil’s Last Song
By: Eleisha Caripis
I hesitate underneath a neon sign where a fluorescent red arrow beckons me inside. For a split second I wonder if I am in the right place. A man checks my I.D and asks for a $5 cover charge. I am surprised but not annoyed. These kinds of things usually don’t require an entry cost but tonight is a special night. Musicians are jamming on the corner, practicing harmonies and working out extra guitar parts. A stamp to the wrist and I am ready to go inside.
I clamber through the dimly lit corridor amongst a sea of people all chattering excitedly amongst themselves. I feel as if I have just entered an old speakeasy, encased in rich, red walls and to my right stands a forty-foot hand carved mahogany bar. I make a beeline for the bathroom. I had gotten a little lost on my way to the Cafe Du Nord and am relieved to have finally made it, and to finally relieve myself. As I walk to the bar I look around for a familiar face. That is usually how it goes at the Red Devil open mic night. You don’t need to arrive with friends because you will run into someone you know already there, and be greeted with a friendly hug. It is packed tight as a drum and there is a general buzz amongst the crowd around the bar area, but as I walk closer to the stage I notice that most people’s attention are drawn to the musicians atop the small wooden platform, jamming away together soulfully. A guy with incredibly long locks swoons everyone with his exquisite saxophone solo as the crowd watches, gaze locked and completely immersed. It is a difficult thing to get people to notice anything when there’s alcohol around. I am amazed at the attentiveness and level of respect that is shown toward these musicians.
Usually held at the Red Devil Lounge, tonight’s open mic is at the Cafe Du Nord to celebrate its final showcase since the owners of the venue had to shut down the open mic. I had heard a lot about the Red Devil open mic from my musician friends and now I was experiencing it for the first and last time. KC Turner, one of the Bay area’s most well-known music promoters is hosting tonight, as he has done since its inception in September 2010. He talks to the crowd who consist mainly of loyal regulars as if he has grown up with them, which, in a way he has, “I’ve literally seen people grow up in front of me,” he tells me fondly. During its initial stages, the Red Devil open mic drew in about 15 or so and now it is one of the most popular open mics in the Bay area, drawing a crowd of 80-100 people every week. I ask KC what kinds of people turn up to the Red Devil open mic and he replies, “TONS of regulars and always a handful of new faces. 9 out of 10 times the new faces became regulars. It was always nice to see someone find their way into our community. Everyone fits in somehow or another.”
Though the concept of an open mic has been around for years, the Red Devil open mic offers more than just your run of the mill sign-up-and-play event. It’s not just a chance to showcase your songs, it’s a chance to forge relationships, to become part of a community that supports and encourages your musical journey. KC describes it as, “the perfect place to grow.” And he’s not just talking about the musicians. “I grew as a host, promoter and community organizer. I really feel part of something with these people and it’s special.”
Being a musician myself, I know the importance of feeling supported and encouraged to pursue your music. When you make yourself vulnerable in front of a room full of people you become incredibly impressionable by their reactions. It can mean the difference between someone eventually becoming a signed artist, and another giving up on their dreams entirely. KC Tuner genuinely believes in supporting local music which is why he puts his heart and soul into creating events like the Red Devil open mic as a way for musicians to get the support they need to believe in themselves. I talk to newcomer Justine who has only recently started playing music and has been coming to the Red Devil for a few months. I ask her how it felt to play for the first time at the Red Devil and she replies, “It felt like you were on stage for real. You took yourself seriously.”
On stage, Mario Di Sandro plays a soulful, blues tune, backed up by saxophone, piano, drums and guitar. The musicians make improvising look easy, wielding each instrument together as though they have practiced this song many times before.
I manage to catch Mario after his performance and ask him about his experience with the other performers at the Red Devil open mic. “They are very welcoming. Very warm. Like a family. Everybody’s there. It’s like thanksgiving with grandma.” I ask him how often he goes to open mic nights and he tells me that in he has gone to twenty one in the last twenty four days. I ask Mario if he is sad that the Red Devil has to end and he tells me he is a little sad but he knows it will come back better and stronger. “The community will sustain itself.”
I observe the people around me, most seem to know each other and there is nobody left by themselves. It feels some kind of tight-knit club, minus the exclusivity. “The Red Devil Open Mic is very open, it lets newcomers in easily. People are willing to help others improve. I’ve met a lot of my closest friends here. Anyone in the community will become your friend if you just have a conversation with them,” singer-songwriter Tommy P tells me candidly. Tommy is right. Throughout the night I exchange numbers with a handful of people with talks of jamming, helping out with harmonies and even the possibility of recording. I am amazed at how easy it is to fit right into this kind of community, how welcoming they are.
I ask Tommy what it is about open mics that make them so special and he replies “It’s only within this kind of intimate space that you can experience something so real. You can’t rehearse that. When someone gives their heart and soul to a room of three it’s beautiful. It’s more human, more real than a well-rehearsed stadium show.” With open mics, you never know how many people you are going to play to, but regardless there is a certain level of respect for every performer. Tonight, the crowd is one hundred and fifty, though it never gets too rowdy and there is still a good quarter left by the end of the night.
My previous experience performing at an open mic was in Sydney and had been in a dingy, little, Irish pub, playing to a very small and mostly drunk crowd. It felt like talking to somebody who is watching tv, only half listening and barely responding. Musicians showed up to play and generally left straight afterwards, not bothering to interact with the other musicians or sticking around to hear their set. The attitude toward open mics in Australia are that they are a stepping stone for beginners and once musicians start getting booked for shows, they generally disregard the open mics entirely. This attitude creates an air of pretentiousness within the music industry which is something that I often struggled to come to terms with. It made it difficult to meet other musicians and to break into the industry for newcomers. There were small pockets of community but it seemed as if you had to know someone in order to figure out the inner workings of this veiled industry. KC believes that the success of the Red Devil open mic is due largely to the fact that it is “not a competition”, but rather a place which is “welcoming and full of love.” People try to include rather than exclude, inviting other musicians to sit in on their set, giving them a pat on the back after their performance and giving feedback.
The great thing about the Red Devil open mic is that each performance is recorded and made available for download online. KC keeps all of the recordings on his website and even keeps a diary that lists all of the performers of every single Red Devil open mic night, which he treasures with his life. He describes a moment of utter despair when he thought he had lost it and thought about all the memories it contains. It is clear that the Red Devil open mic is very close to his heart, particularly the people are the heart and soul of red devil, “I have made friends for life. People that have made me a better person and who make me smile every time I see them.”
Out of everyone, KC Turner deserves to feel angry about the demolition of the musical home which he built from the ground up, but he chooses, in true KC style, to be optimistic about the change, “It’s hard to see it now, but I am excited for what is to come.” The extra time will give KC time to focus on his other projects such as his renowned house concerts, where a person can offer their house as a venue for a performance from up and coming local musicians. Though I’m sure another event will eventually take its place, it is important to reflect on how the Red Devil affected so many of the musicians who found solace in its open arms. KC muses, “you couldn’t ask for a better local hub in your club. It was spectacular.”
The night ends in a merry throng with all the musicians huddled together for a sing-along of Bob Dylan’s, ‘I Shall Be Released’, complete with harmonies, extra guitar parts and a saxophone solo. What a fitting way to say goodbye to the beloved Red Devil open mic, who rears his luminescent, red horns for the last time.