Tonight: The last open mic in Berkeley Cafe’s large music room

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An old poster from a familiar room: The last such jam at Berkeley Cafe, which closes this weekend, happens tonight.
  • Image by Brian Walsby
  • An old poster from a familiar room: The last such jam at Berkeley Cafe, which closes this weekend, happens tonight.

After Southern Culture on the Skids leaves the stage Saturday evening, Raleigh’s Berkeley Cafe will close its larger music room and scale back to its size of 25 years ago, adding a stage and sound system back to its smaller room while serving food nightly. To honor the Berkeley’s legacy and record some of the stories provided by the funky venue and its colorful inhabitants, we spoke with nearly 30 folks that played, worked, promoted or attended shows at the Berk for an oral history that will run in tomorrow’s issue, with an expanded version online.

Tonight, though, the Berkeley’s big room will hold its last open mic jam. Many of those we interviewed—like American Aquarium’s Bill Corbin and Chatham County Line’s John Teer—mentioned the jams for their significance in helping local musicians develop their ability to play in front of crowds, as well as for the often unusual performances the open mics attracted.

“It was such a great experience for someone in middle school and high school that was learning to play,” Corbin remembers. “You could see amazing bands, terrible bands, maybe a crazy guy with a pan flute that he had made himself or someone who might recite poetry. You never knew what you were going to get, but the best part was that you could jump up and play with any of them if you wanted.

Josh Preslar—who co-hosted the open mic with Turner Brandon for nearly a decade years between 2000 and 2010—tells of his experiences below the break. Preslar and Brandon return for tonight’s jam, which will get rolling around 8 p.m. and run until about 2 a.m. Don’t be late if you plan on signing up to play.

When [co-host Turner Brandon and I] started, it was pretty slow, but then after a year or two, it started to get really crazy packed. Around this time, there were probably 200 to 300 people coming out every Wednesday. We did headcounts, and I think the biggest one we ever had was like 350 people, but it was like that every week.

This lady—and, just to be fair, I want to say she was in her 70s but she could have been in her 80s—took a bus down from Philadelphia because she heard of our jams somehow. I don’t know how she heard about them; it couldn’t have been online because she probably didn’t use a computer. She was an old blues singer from up in that area and was probably 5’2” or something like that. She was a really small lady. She had a beautiful old ‘50s semi-hollow body archtop Gibson, a small-scale guitar, and I’d never seen one like that before.

To me, she was unheard of, but she may be famous in the blues [community]. She played and sang like the real deal. There were no Stevie Ray Vaughan licks, obviously; she played old-school blues. We were proud to have her and to be able to play with her. That’s just the kind of magnet that that place was; it was amazing how people really did know about it and it was an underground thing. So that’s one thing that really stands out to me—how this lady, who had no business doing so, came all the way down here just for that jam.

I kind of see Raleigh as a different town now than it was then. Downtown has changed so much; there’s bar strips on Fayetteville Street and Glenwood South that weren’t there at the time. It was a different thing. I don’t know how we got everybody to get out there and get so many people out there, but it was a mix of college students and hippies and blues musicians and people from God knows where. Everybody that came out just had a blast and they couldn’t believe what they were seeing; it really was an exciting time, especially in my life, but I really think it kind of ran its course. I think maybe I was losing some of my passion for it; even though I still loved it and never wanted to stop doing it, I didn’t do it the same way as when I first started doing it, when I was super excited about it and constantly promoting it.

There hasn’t been a replacement for it, though. Like I said, there was punk, rock, blues, funk, jazz and just everybody loved it, for whatever reason. I think it was maybe the stage and the room and that there was so much diversity where you didn’t feel out of place. What happened is pretty much all those different little scenes split up. Some people went to Black Flower, some people went to Zydeco, some people went to The Big Easy so no longer are those people gathering in one place anymore. I think it was just a freak thing because we allowed anything to happen [at the Berkeley]. A lot of things happened there, some of which is probably too explicit to mention.

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