In the basement of the Redeemer Lutheran Church in Milwaukee is a coffee house called…

Wait for it…

The Coffee House.

Been there 49 years. For many of those years—maybe all of these years (no one seemed to know exactly)—they’ve held an event they call Open Stage.

In its current incarnation, Open Stage happens the fourth Sunday of each month, except not in summer. They’ve moved upstairs from the Coffee House proper to a larger stage—faced by three pews, dozens of church-style folding chairs, and at the back of the room, church-style coffee urns on church-style folding tables.

They dim the lights and set out the oil lamps for a 7pm start, run 15 minute slots, and ask for a $3 donation at the door.

Music, Poetry, Humor, Spoken Word, or ???

MKE Coffee House sign

The welcome sign says it all

The night I went, the crowd was small but earnest…

  • A lovely gray-haired woman played piano and sang Judy Collins tunes.
  • In a moment of aesthetic whiplash she was followed by a young guy rapping about his hustle.
  • A musician introduced as Michael Angelo made trumpet sounds with his mouth, accompanying himself on a small drum head slung around his neck and braced at his shoulder not unlike a violin, drumming with clear plastic thimbles on his fingers.
  • A ukulele player delivered a dramatic reading of “Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream” before inviting us into a singalong.

A fine night of the usual crazy variety I love love love, if a bit further toward the weirdly unique end of the open mic spectrum.

When the Host Self-Identifies as a Sound Guy

When Mike, who ran the show, introduced himself not as host but as the sound guy, I had a Deep South Raleigh flashback. And sure enough, much like at Deep South, the sound equipment at the Coffee House is excellent and the performers don’t start until Mike gives the high sign from the board.

Unlike any other open mic I’ve been, to, for a $2 donation, Mike will record your performance and hand you a CD moments after you’ve stepped off stage.

I took him up on it and really appreciated the opportunity to hear how my intros went (not to self: talk less) and how the whole set came off.

Sure, the video I got from Midway or the Highway was richer, but it’s a great way

Only at an Open Mic

The most memorable moment of the night came when an older woman didn’t exactly sing a hymn she didn’t exactly know very well, in tribute to several deceased loved ones whose presence she invoked in the oil lamps and the empty chairs along the front row.

My dear friend and fellow open mic lover (who also came with me to Cory’s Grilled Cheese in Charleston a while back) accompanied her on piano, giving us all the gift of musical continuity so that her profound feelings might carry through.

It was both awkward and beautiful enough to salt the corner of my eyes, if only because there is no other event or venue where a moment like that can happen. There is no other place for the sentimental amateur to bring her one closely held song.

And outside an open mic, no other audience is programmed to be the right mix of patient, understanding, encouraging, appreciative. We know what it’s like to carry around a thing that needs to be sung or spoken.

We come to share, yes, but we also come to receive.

We’re the ones who stay to the end, the listening ones who love a strong performance and a well-crafted original but will applaud equally for a first time, an ambitious attempt, or a fervent desire to connect.