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Ari's Take

Why I Chose This Winner for the Open Mic


Vanessa Wheeler at El Cid | Photo by Hannah Verbeuren

Last Monday I judged an open mic contest at El Cid in Silverlake. There were 22 acts who signed up in advance of the night (many curated by El Cid's booker Michael McCarthy). I'd never been to El Cid before and was pleasantly surprised at how warm the room felt. Great setup with chairs and table. Sizable stage with appropriate lighting and phenomenal sound system.

This open mic was put on by Wholly Guacamole as part of their #LiveWhollyTour. The winner of our night got $500 and moved on to compete (online) against the 5 other winners from other cities. The winner of the whole thing gets $10,000 (!!!) and an opening slot for the headliner at the Live Wholly festival in September. They told me who the headliner is and it's a big deal. I'm not allowed to say who it is yet though. And full disclosure, they paid me to be a judge and tell you about this.

Even though there were 22 acts, the night didn't actually take that long. Each act got just one song and everyone performed acoustically - for better or worse. It was hard to judge full rock bands stripping down their set to an acoustic format against a singer with tracks and a singer/songwriter with an acoustic guitar. But we did our best.

My fellow judge is Echosmith's manager extraordinaire Jeffery David of Cranberry Management. Echosmith you know from the song "Cool Kids" (236 million Spotify plays, 100+ million YouTube views). It was interesting chatting with him about the competing acts on the night. We look at music through very different lenses. As a manager of a teen-pop/rock band signed to Warner, he was interested in who had pop appeal and could get a deal. And, as you very well know, as someone who abhors the major labels and wants nothing to do with them (and who urges everyone to run away fast and far if you have any hopes of a long-lasting career in the new music business) I was more interested in who put on a great performance and had a great song. But, Jeffery is a musician and producer as well (he produces Echosmith records) and in the end, we both agreed on the top acts - purely based on musical merit. We were equally floored by the best performers of the night. More on this in a bit.

Jeffery David and me | Photo by Hannah Verbeuren

There was a lot of great talent on the lineup. And some talent that needed a bit of work.

We were handed judging sheets that had 5 categories we were each to give a 1-5 rating:
Quality of Music Ability and Technique
Songwriting Ability
Originality and Creativity of Song Submitted
Quality of Stage Presence and Performance
Ability to Engage Audience and Public Appeal

These guidelines were somewhat helpful, but in the end, it came down to who we both agreed was just, frankly, the best. But, just so you know, 9 of the acts got a score of 20 or above in my ranking. And 3 acts got a 24 or 25.

We didn't agree 100% though. My top 5 was different than Jeffery's top 5. But we both had the same artist at the top of our lists.

And that was Vanessa Wheeler (who is 1/2 of the band LeoLeo)

What's interesting about Vanessa, is she wasn't the obvious choice. If you had different judges, I guarantee you'd have a different winner. Sure, the top 10 may be similar, but the organizers of the event (Wholly Guacamole and Fast Horse PR) definitely didn't have the same top 5 as me and Jeffery when we discussed and evaluated out back after the competition. But they didn't pick the winner. We did.

Music is subjective. But what really stood out to us, was musicianship and songwriting prowess.

Vanessa had, by far, the most sophisticated songwriting of anyone on the night. And she was the best guitar player in the room - performing on a custom built S.S. Zaftig guitar by Bilt Guitars. It had a beautiful tone with just enough grit which poked through when she really dug in. She also had great command over her voice.

She cites Radiohead, Prince, ABBA, Otis Redding, Dionne Warwick, Burt Bacharach and Brazilian artists Egberto Gismonti, Hermeto Pascoal as influences, but I didn't hear much of them in her solo performance. Her band, LeoLeo has a very current sound and has a bit more of that twisted Radiohead edge. Their 2014 EP, Side One, is a guitar nut's dream record. Tone city. Beautiful vocals atop ballsy guitar driven lush soundscapes and smart songwriting. Unexpected and very interesting chord changes. The musicality of this duo, comprised of Vanessa Wheeler (vocals, guitar, bass, songwriter) and Sarah Hope (drums, synth, electronics), can't be overstated.

There were some stellar musicians on the night. And some great songwriters. Some voices absolutely floored us. And, to be honest, it's hard to get the full representation of an act based on just one song - especially if the song is acoustic (when you normally perform as a plugged in rock act), and especially when your sound is mixed on the fly and isn't really dialed in until about a minute into the song. The sound guy actually got on stage with a few of the bands to bang on the electronic drum pad. I didn't think that was cool. He had the extremely important job of mixing so many acts and working changeovers quickly. Performing on top of those responsibilities was frankly irresponsible - especially when so much money was on the line.

Photo by Hannah Verbeuren

One of the biggest disappointments of the night was the fact that I couldn't understand the lyrics for the majority of the acts. This had little to with the performers and more to do with the sound engineer. The FOH seemed more interested in dialing in the ever so powerful subs (when tracks, kick or bass was used) than dialing in the vocals. For acoustic performances, vocals are first, second and third priority. Everything else should take a backseat. Especially when there's just one song for the act to show their stuff, the amount of subs (and, yes it was impressive how bumping the room could get) ain't gonna win us over. I wanted to hear the vocals. I wanted to listen to the lyrics.

This could have been remedied (in part) by the performer had they spent a few seconds doing a quick little sound check to get the vocals and guitar dialed in. Mercy Collazo was the best at this. She spent the first few seconds instructing the sound guy on her best monitor mix and chunked out a few chords and sang some riffs so the sound guy had a feel for what to expect and could set some levels before she started. Mercy put on one of the best performances of the night. Vanessa, also, clearly an experienced performer, after the first line of her 2nd song (the winner played one more song at the end) when she noticed the vocals were completely dry, just said "reverb" loud and proud into the mic. Good move. Reverb was promptly added.

I wrote little notes for every performer and would have loved to give each of them an honest critique of their performance with helpful suggestions (that's the teacher in me), but there wasn't the time or place for that.

One of the best parts about the night was seeing how many of the musicians knew each other and danced, sang, clapped or bobbed along to their fellow performers. And, of course, they all got there at the start and stayed to the end (an open mic MUST). Maybe, they stayed because $500 was on the line and they wanted to see if they won, but I'd like to think they got there early and stayed late because they respect all the other musicians and wanted to get to know their community a bit better.

If you're performing in a battle of the bands or (competitive) open mic, it's best to keep a few things in mind:

1) Look Beyond The Competition

Sure, even though everyone is there to win, this is a place to begin relationships. Meet the other performers - or at least the ones you dug - exchange info and stay in touch. This is a great place to meet future collaborators, co-writers, tour mates and acts to share future bills with.

2) Thank The Judges and Give Them Your Sh*t

Another one of our favorite acts of the night was the rock band, The Absolute. Even though they didn't win, they came up to us after the competition, shook our hands and handed us a CD. I listened to their (excellent) album on my drive home and the CD is residing in my car. Jeffery and I also went up to a few other acts who we really dug and told them as much. Another standout act of the night was Liv Slingerland. Liv performed with a trio and reminded me a bit of The Runaways. Great rock energy and a cool song. We all exchanged info.

The judges of your competition are most likely important people in the industry who could help you out further down the line. Go up and meet them and hand them your card or CD. If they give you their card, that's a big deal (they don't give out cards to just anyone), make sure you email them the next day and say how nice it was to meet.

3) Be Respectful

This should go without saying, but listen to the other acts on the bill. Don't scoff, point and laugh from the corner. The judges will notice. It looks much better on you if you're respectful of the performers, getting into their performance and look like you are enjoying being there. Don't talk with your friends in the room while others are performing. You are being judged while you are on stage and off stage.

El Cid hosts an open mic every Monday night and I encourage you to check it out.

You can check out the other 5 winners from the other Open Mic contests from around the country here. Voting for the $10,000 winner begins August 21st.

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Ari Herstand (pronounced Ar*ee Her*stand) is a Los Angeles based singer/songwriter. Follow him on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

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