Tonight, I’ve been invited to be a judge at the 25th Anniversary of the West Coast Songwriter’s (formerly NCSA) Open Mic Competition at The Freight in Berkeley starting at 7:30pm.
The WCS and the Freight have each had a huge influence on my own songwriting and performance. In the mid-90’s when I made the switch from being a freelance bassist to following the singer-songwriter path, I spent many an evening going down to the Freight to watch the master storytellers. Already in my thirties, I had never performed by myself on stage, though I had years of experience as a bassist in bands. I wasn’t really a “folkie”, but I took in performances at The Freight by the likes of Greg Brown, Dan Bern, and Chris Smither and saw how one person, on stage alone, could captivate an audience for hours.
When I started playing open mics, the WCS’s judged open mic’s gave me critical feedback on both my performances and my writing. I also spent time pitching song demos to publishers from NYC, LA, and Nashville at the many WCS song-pitching events. There, and at the open mics, I learned the value of song crafting. I learned that each line in a song must have a specific purpose. In three and a half minutes, there’s no time to waste on a weak line. I got feedback from people who weren’t my friends simply saying how “great I was”. Instead, I got professional critiques…and they didn’t always say I was great, but always gave me the feedback I needed. I went back to the drawing board with my songs many a time after those sessions and eventually learned to be my own critic. I learned where to set the bar for my own work.
In 1999, at the WCS Freight and Salvage Open Mic Playoffs, presenting winners from the previous 11 monthly open mic competitions, I won my first Song of the Year Award. Besides boosting my confidence as a performer, the award led to another performance at the annual WCS conference that September, which proved to be a career-changing event for me. I met Gretchen Peters there and would go on to tour with her as bassist and opening act on three European Tours.
Other doors opened for me through The Freight and Salvage as well. In March of 2001, I played a show there on my birthday. The engineer, Lou Judson, recorded that night and this show, in its entirety, became my first album “Live at the Freight and Salvage Coffee House”. From then on, I was a singer-songwriter.
Tonight I’ll sit in the judge’s chair and listen to young songwriter’s looking to get their starts. I’m very thankful to the WCS and the Freight, and I look forward to handing down some of the things I’ve learned along the way. Also, each judge gets to perform one song, so I’ll be playing my 1999 winning song “The Ways of a Woman”.
For those of you in the East Bay, come down to the Freight at 7:30 and help us celebrate what has now become a 25-year tradition!