The Jokers | Image by City Paper Digi-Cam
The open mic at the 8X10 has always been unique and worth checking out for its emphasis on bands, rather than solo performers. Drums and amps are set up for anyone who wants to plug in guitars and play, and frequently bands who start at the open mic ended up getting booked to play shows at the club. And the recent inception of a yearlong open-mic tournament at the Federal Hill club--with weekly, monthly, quarterly, and yearly contests in which bands compete for prizes like studio time and CD duplication--has added an extra bit of incentive to bring out quality bands. Still, an open mic is an open mic, and Tuesday night's show, the monthly competition for March, was a mixed bag.
The first band I saw, Washington's Hudson Quarter, had a bluesy sound and a female singer with a unique voice, and sounded promising at first. But the band's guitarist had the worst fuzzbox tone in the world, and he never seemed to get in sync with the drummer, even losing his place a couple times during an otherwise enjoyable cover of "Honky Tonk Woman."
The next band, a young group of kids from Parkville called Vinyl Descent that just played their first show at the same club last month, were a little more sure of themselves on their instruments, but their brooding, derivative classic rock sound could use a little work. When the singer introduced a song as "Epic Mindfuck" and left the stage for a few minutes, the meandering, energetic instrumental that ensued couldn't possibly live up to its title, but was a fun change of pace. The song's drum solo was also more entertaining in the moment, without the knowledge that it was only the first of at least three bands that featured drum solos in their sets that night.
A funky trio called Soul Case was probably the most instrumentally polished band of the evening, but all the fluid bass lines and tasty drum fills in the world couldn't make its bland, happy-go-lucky songs stick. The only band of the night that really had the tunes to go with its chops and its sound was the Jokers, a bare-bones retro-rock group who could've been characterized as power-pop if not for the lead guitarist's awesome, squealing, hair-metal solos. District North, a Washington quartet that shared a bassist with Hudson Quarter, was the last band of the night, and played an enjoyable set of fast-paced acoustic rock.
When the night seemed to be winding down, there was still one act left, the only solo performer. A guy named Chris, who kind of came off like Matthew Lillard with a few more years and many more beers in him, came onstage with a guitar and proceeded to give one of the most obnoxious, insufferable performances I've ever seem. He sang a Johnny Cash cover in a strained attempt at a tough-guy voice, and then a few insipid originals about "spreading the rhythms of life" in the same unpleasant voice.
At the end of the show, the 8x10 announced two winners: one selected by the club and one selected by the audience. The club (rightly) picked the Jokers for one prize, but when it was time for the audience to vote by applause for the other winner, bizarrely enough, the Johnny Cash-covering drunk got louder cheers than the perfectly decent bands that played before him. It's a good thing the 8x10 is willing to make its own picks to reward who it sees as best, because it's got better judgment than its customers.