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Amateur Hour at the Night Owl

Amateur Hour at the Night Owl
Fifteen minutes is all the fame you get – if your're lucky, or good.

It's 10:30 on a Wednesday night in April and Alex Carey comes bounding down the aisle of the Night Owl Café, performing elaborate but obviously fake ballet steps. He leaps onto the stage and shouts into the microphone the question Keene State students have asked each April since the beginning of time.

Alex Carey photo by Mark Corliss"Where's the sun?" he screams with the same intensity that T.S. Eliot used a century before when he wrote about the year's cruelest month in "The Waste Land."

Then there is a pregnant pause as he stares out the windows behind him, looking for the elusive orb that every Keene Stater comes to realize is rarely seen at that time of year.

"I haven't seen the sun in a month," he shouts again, now looking at the audience with his mouth wide open. "People are starting to get really ugly. It's getting more and more depressing. Keene, New Hampshire. Why does anyone go to school here? There's snow on the ground and it's April! Before I came here I looked like Dan Marino. I was tanned and groomed. Now I look like a Fraggle. I look like a Muppet!"

Carey, an incredibly tall and lanky guy with a tousle of light brown hair, gives it a vigorous shake and becomes, for just a moment, a genuine Keene State winter-wired muppet. The audience roars its agreement and approval.

photo by Mark CorlissIt's Open Mic Night, Keene State's own weekly vaudeville variety show that features guitarists, a cappella girl groups, bongo players, comedians, jugglers, and mandolin pickers, all provided weekly free of charge to an appreciative audience who cheers their favorites during their 15 minutes of fame.

That's the maximum performing time, for the lucky ones. For those not so lucky there is "the hook," the dreaded index finger across the neck of the attentive student MC, which means "off the stage now!"

"It started back in the fall of 1991," said Patrice Strifert, assistant director of programs for the Student Center. "Back in the old Student Center, the idea was that we could have our own students warm up for the main acts that used to perform there. Then, when we moved into the new Student Center, about 1995, it took on a life of its own. Now it's two hours every Wednesday and the kids all love it."

photo by Mark CorlissIt's so popular, in fact, that they have to turn performers away. The sign-up list is posted early Thursday morning when the café opens, and there are usually students already waiting to put their names on the list. There are only 10 spots and two alternates. After that, they're out of luck.

For some Keene Staters, Open Mic Night has been the stairway to fame. Adam Wade '98, a comedian who first took the stage at Open Mic Nights, now performs regularly at clubs in New York City. A band named Paint it Blue went on to play in local clubs for real money. For most, however, it's a chance for students to show off their talents for other students.

"The idea was to have an alternative to alcohol, to do something fun and that's what it is," said Strifert. "It's an intimate little setting that's perfect for students."

photo by Mark Corliss"I really had no idea what I was in for when I signed up," said Carey, a theater major from Cape Cod, who's done routines for Open Mic Night several times. "But now that I've been up there a few times it's worth all the nerves. I go up with a list of things I want to talk about but then I end up not doing anything I have on the list. When I structure it, that's when I get poor reactions. I find it's best to just let it go. I really love it."

A future in the world of stand-up comedy, like the one Adam Wade chose, is not entirely out of the picture, he says, even though he knows it's a career that many aspire to and few succeed in. Still, there's no doubt that he has a knack for it. His pacing is impeccable and the audience hangs on his every word.

photo by Mark CorlissHe finishes up his 15-minute act by read-ing from a children's book by Taro Gomi called Everyone Poops. It's a deadpan delivery with Carey simply reading the words about different animals and their various forms of scat. He shows the audience the pictures. The laughter becomes a roar that fills the room.

"It was one of my favorite books when I was a kid," he says later. "Then I saw it again recently in a book store and figured it was perfect."

Only a few comedians have managed to make a go of it at Open Mic, but Carey thinks he might stay awhile.

Open mic quote"It's something different than the one kid with a guitar that tends to be the norm," he said.

Taking the stage in another direction entirely is Baconhead, a four-piece band that relies mostly on audience suggestions for tunes and usually performs at least one song composed on the spot from words suggested by members of the audience. They play covers of everything from Weezer to Britney Spears, but the one thing they will absolutely not play, under any circumstances, is anything by the Dave Matthews Band.

"Every time we let you guys talk, someone asks for Dave Matthews," complains the singer, Steve Gravelle, to the audience. When he begins singing, however, he does some excellent scat singing and makes his voice sound like a wow-wow trombone. Later he breaks into a tune called "I'll bring home the turkey if you bring home the bacon."

photo by Mark CorlissThe highlight of the Baconhead show, however, is the impromptu tune competition. The audience shouts out topics that include dead puppies, monkeys, beer and the KSC Office of Residential Life. Obviously it was going to be an unusual song, and Gravelle lets his imagination run wild while the other musicians improvise behind him. It turns out not to be a memorable song, but it rhymes and manages to hit all the topics, and the fact that they are able to pull this off at all is enough for the audience.

All four members of the band are from Merrimack, N.H., where they formed an earlier band and then went their separate ways. But each of them found their way back to Keene from colleges as far away as Arizona and Idaho.

"All really good bands eventually get to Keene," said Peter Fernandez, who plays the bongos. "Being sexy is the key to success. It doesn't really matter how well you play."

"Neither I nor Chris (Chouiniere) knows how to play the guitar," said Shaun Roe, the group's other guitarist. "It's all in the appearance. It has nothing to do with musical talent."

"The best part of being in a band is the girls," said Fernandez. "All you have to do is be in a band and there will be girls."

The audience, however, said the group members were being much too modest when describing their musical abilities.

"I think they are just so funny. Everyone is always laughing at their songs," said sophomore Elizabeth Vachon, an Open Mic Night regular. The impromptu composing is just the frosting on the cake, she said, and none of it would work if they weren't excellent musicians as well.

Roe said the goal of Baconhead was to "continue to entertain the audience as much as possible without sacrificing our musical integrity,"

"Yeah," added Fernandez "and to sell out."

Craig Brandon teaches journalism at Keene State and serves on the editorial board of Keene State Today. Journalism student Anna Super assisted with some of the interviews for this article.