The more open mics I go to, the more I realize how much the show’s personality is defined by the space it calls home.

Purpose-built scenes like The Venue on 35th in Norfolk or the Nuyorican are more likely to be earth-shakers. As the slam refrain goes, in a place like that the poetry is the point. Or the music. Or the stories.

Restaurants are different. Unless it’s Busboys & Poets, open mic night is usually just passive entertainment for the mid-week crowd or maybe easing into the week after Sunday brunch. Put local talent in rotation and Monday is a little less Monday-ish.

A few miles east of Lake Champlain in Richmond, VT, the Stone Corral open mic is exactly that vibe.

Recovering momentum post-pandemic

Stone Corral is a rustic, homey place bedecked with horse murals and cowboy art, kinda like the Bull Moose in Wyoming. IMO they’ve got the best food of any open mic in 37 states (and counting), and the only one so far with homemade kombucha and root beer.

Major bonus.

Before the long, dark pause that was COVID-19, their weekly show was popular with local musicians. By the summer of 2023, they were ready to rekindle that open mic love.

Our host was Gary, frontliner of a local cover band called The Fog. He kept things pretty informal — no particular structure, no intro with rules or whatever. By way of a list, the regulars just lined their guitar cases along the wall at the back of the stage. Not a bad way to track run-of-show…so long as you know which case is whose.

When Gary learned that a couple new people — including me, a no-case-carrying, empty-handed poet — were looking to perform, he pivoted to the notes app on his phone and let the show unfold.

Whatever was gonna happen, we’d all find out together. Which, as I learned a few years back at the hookah open mic in Hilo, is a solid antidote for my high-touch MO.

Restaurant-friendly set list (or not)

Open mic in a restaurant almost always comes with tables of family diners and other people who weren’t expecting to hear amateur talent — and especially not poetry.

Which is why this open mic tourist always travels with a few un-erotic, profanity-free poems that skirt the dark places in favor of the light.

I’ve known poets who do otherwise, especially when the event starts later than the average bedtime for the underaged. After, say, 9pm, some places morph into a de facto bar scene and you can credibly argue that anyone with kids out that late should know they were taking a chance.

But it’s kind of a dick move.

For my money, you can’t go wrong living by the signature house rule at New Hampshire’s Slam Free or Die: Don’t be an asshole…on purpose.

Sound setup and why it matters

Unfortunately for all involved, the configuration of amps and gear at Stone Corral wasn’t great. With amps mounted in the back corner of the stage behind the microphones, no tweaking our host did to the mixer could un-muddy the sound.

This is particularly unfortunate for amateur performers. When the audience can’t tell what you’re saying or singing, they turn to conversation and you’re left feeling like you bombed.

Which is why any open mic host should pay attention to acoustics when scouting venues and choosing gear. The whole reason an open mic exists is so that local talent can be heard. Dialing in the sound boosts all your performers at once.

Three men with gray hair play instruments on stage in the back corner of a restaurant. There are wooden picnic tables in the foreground and a table tent that says Open Mic Night Every Monday Night 7-9pm.

An extended band rehearsal

With just me, my musician friend, and members of The Fog signed up, we ran through the list pretty quickly. After that the show morphed into an extended preview of the house band’s upcoming gig.

The late-dinner crowd seemed fine with this and hey, like I said, a restaurant isn’t always down for impromptu duets or other shenanigans us open mic die-hards call magic. Some are just meant to keep the dinner crowd talking long enough to need another drink.