Music News

Meet Your Host: Denver Open-Mic Hosts Adapt to Growing Scene

Herman Gauche (center) has been an open-mic host at the Merc for nearly twenty years.
Herman Gauche (center) has been an open-mic host at the Merc for nearly twenty years. Joel Bridger
The urge to share music has rocketed after pandemic-induced solitude, and as a result, the Mile High City's open-mic scene is growing rapidly. With increasing interest and a widening variety of acts, the performers who host the city's open-mic nights are playing a greater role in shaping Denver's musical future.

Herman Gauche has been one of several rotating hosts at the Mercury Cafe’s Wednesday night open stage for nearly twenty years. It's where he met his wife, Jewell Sapari, who frequently plays piano for the dinner crowd in the Merc’s Rose Room.

“I’m an open mic-er to the core,” Gauche emphasizes.

There are still some nights when performers are just playing to the jungle animals painted on the walls. But more often, upwards of twenty people put their names on the list to play, and some performers have to wait an extra week because of the event’s cutoff time. The Merc’s sign-up process is a raffle with a quirk: Your ticket might be a number, a Harry Potter spell or maybe even a Microsoft Wingding, depending on who's hosting that week.

According to Gauche, former owner Marilyn Megenity, who bought the Merc’s building for $157,000 in 1990, hosted open mics at her various restaurant ventures for over forty years. “Wednesday is the day of the week that’s associated with Mercury, astrologically, so it was important to her,” he says.

Although Megenity sold the Merc last year, the open mic has maintained the same schedule, hosts and all-around vibe that visitors have come to expect.

On a slow night in 2006, Gauche called up one of the two performers still waiting their turn. His name was Isaac Slade, and he sat down and played his song “How to Save a Life.” If that title sounds familiar, it’s because Slade was the lead singer of the Fray, and the song would soon reach the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

“He just seemed like somebody that was really poised and confident and had a great musical expressive ability,” Gauche says. “But it was just three people at the end of the night at the Mercury Cafe.”

Down in south Denver, Megan Rice has been encouraging and entertaining crowds of performers at the Roxy on Broadway's open mic since February 2021. While the event was sparsely attended in its early months, the performance slots have recently been cut down from three songs to two.

“I’ve had 1.5 sugar-free Red Bulls and I am ready to fucking party!” Rice announced to performers on a Tuesday in May.

The Roxy was one of the first open mics to come back after the early COVID shutdowns, and at its first few post-shutdown iterations, Rice recalls, her family made up half of the crowd.

“I feel like I actually really cherish those nights," she muses now. "The folks who were there just really wanted to be there, and it was a good listening space."

But a dearth in listeners isn't the case anymore. The Roxy open mic’s burgeoning following has meant that, even without a limit on the number of people signing up, some performers can’t stay out late enough to get their stage time. But Rice says the increasing popularity of the event — which is advertised as a singer-songwriter mic — is a net positive.

“Last night was amazing with variety: We had a poet, we had hip-hop, we had goth vampire music, singer-songwriter stuff,” she says. “It’s been sweet seeing nights where it’s not just a bunch of dudes with acoustic guitars.”

Singer-songwriter and open-mic host Gio Bard Zero was basking in the commotion of the Corner Beet open mic’s sign-up on a recent Thursday. Bard Zero has been hosting the open mic since 2016, and says he now drops the sign-up list with little fanfare and has to practically run away before it gets swarmed by eager performers.

A chance encounter led Bard Zero to his hosting gig. He was working at Waffle Brothers when an older woman in a tie-dye shirt looked him dead in the eye and asked him what his “take on life” was. He took some time to think about it, then played her his answer with a guitar that was conveniently hanging on a wall nearby.

The woman turned out to be the Corner Beet’s landlord, and she invited Bard Zero to drop in at the open mic. He walked into a state of chaos: The host was three hours late, and the PA system wasn’t set up. Over the course of a few weeks, Bard Zero took control, and through fliers and word of mouth, the open mic quickly flourished, packing performers and spectators alike into the cafe.

These days, the event is a far cry from the disorganized scene Bard Zero describes walking into some six years ago. In fact, it's known for being a streamlined, respectful listening room that never fails to fill the cafe with musicians and listeners.

“That was the most exciting thing, that we were in the middle of this bustling neighborhood, and a lot of people would hear us and just come in,” he says. “And these would be people that are just young professionals or whatever, just living in the neighborhood, that became a part of the scene and weren’t even musicians.”

Bard Zero wants this to become the norm, and dreams of a day when listeners from outside the music community are drawn to attend more shows put on by local artists at smaller venues. With the upswing in attendance, it would appear that open mics are quickly becoming the solution.

“They need to be the kind of places that if you’re going on a Tinder date and you want to impress your date, you’re like, 'Hey, we’re gonna go to the Corner Beet, and we’re gonna catch this show, and it’s gonna be awesome, and I know it’s gonna be awesome because they have a reputation for being awesome,'” he says.

Bard Zero ended the night's nearly eight-month COVID-induced hiatus in May, and saw for the first time just how explosive the open mic scene had become. The sign-up list’s eighteen slots were full within minutes.

With so many interested performers, hosts are having to cut down on banter between sets, skip their own performances at times and lay down the law when necessary. “I’m very comfortable kicking people off the stage,” Bard Zero says.

While they might not say it to your face, there are a few etiquette guidelines that all three hosts agree musicians should abide by, such as always having your guitar at the ready and tuned before going on stage. The more the merrier, but timeliness is key. For example, you’re welcome to bring your giant DJ rig, but don’t be surprised if the ten minutes you take to set up the light-show components are deducted from your stage time.

Additionally, the hosts' consensus is that the open mic only works if it’s treated as a team sport, and not just a free gig.

“[You] can’t just sit there with your gob open like you’re watching the TV,” Gauche says. “You gotta participate.”

Recently, a performer told Rice that he was planning on coming early and leaving right after his turn so that he could double up on mics that night. “And I literally told him, 'Don’t bother, then,'” she says. “Open mics are like this great collision of vulnerability and encouragement. I love being able to be part of holding that space.”

While it can be intimidating to walk into a room full of strangers and bare your soul, these seasoned hosts hope the upward trajectory of open mics will continue to draw new faces out of the woodwork.

“If you think that you might want to play an open mic someday, or read at an open mic someday, or try a comedy open mic someday, that means that you should,” Gauche says. “There’s no reason to have that thought unless you’re supposed to be doing it.”

Mercury Cafe open mic, 9 p.m. Wednesdays, 2199 California Street; Roxy on Broadway open mic, 7p.m. Tuesdays, 554 South Broadway; Corner Beet open mic, 6:30 p.m. Thursdays, 1401 Ogden Street.
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