Every Thursday night for the past two years, a flock of local musicians descend upon Astoria’s Hell Gate Social. Most of them arrive with instruments in tow, some have nothing more than a song in their heads, and yet all come bearing smiles and a common appreciation for why they’re there: to make music. They sign up on a clipboard and wait their turn to perform with no concerns for time. From afar, you would think that this is an ordinary Open Mic Night. Once you’ve been there and seen it with your own eyes and ears, however, you know that this far from anything ordinary.
“It’s a musician’s open mic,” says bar manager April Lucas, who also created the event with the help of original host and guitar phenom Tommy Gallo. “[We] started this to re-establish a music presence at Hell Gate Social. [Now] it almost serves as a concert,” she adds.
The night’s current host, Jason Liles, kicks off the festivities by saying, “Welcome to Open Mic Night at Hell Gate Social. This isn’t MY Open Mic Night — this is YOUR Open Mic Night.” There’s a warm, welcoming cheer and round of applause from the relatively small but still increasing crowd at the bar. With that, Liles strums his guitar and starts singing “Dear Avery” by the Decemberists. The night has begun, peaceful and unassuming. My brain is still intact for the time being, something which would change over the next 6 hours. Yes, that’s correct. 6. Whole. Hours.
Liles, who plays bass for one of Queens’ hottest local bands, “Pie Boy’s Flat,” clearly appreciates being part of the whole experience, especially because of the spontaneity and variety the Open Mic Night provides. He explains that the night consists of “a lot of musicians of varying levels of experience who feel comfortable coming and showcasing their talents.” What makes it special, however, is the resounding feeling of support. “It’s a room where everyone listens,” adds Liles.
Not only do they listen, but they openly participate with each other…sometimes as complete strangers. With an obvious, almost parental sense of pride, April Lucas says, “I’ve seen people go up and harmonize with strangers. I’ve seen the crowd help out by singing lyrics. I’ve seen somebody grab a djembe drum and back someone up. There’s definitely a community thing here.” The proof of this lies in one of the early performers, a young man named Brandon Glasgow, who finished up his fine set of original tunes by proclaiming, “If anyone wants to jam out, just ask. I don’t bite.” The invitation is met with cheers and applause.
That very community vibe made itself more and more apparent as the night progressed. There was amazing vocalist Phil Olejack, who treated the crowd to his rousing rendition of Tom Jones’ “It’s Not Unusual,” accompanied only by his guitar…that is, until the famous horn section was filled in by the surrounding audience members. We enjoyed the stylings of first-timer Neil Poynter, who went from feeling a little nervous to playing a phenomenal set, due partially to the people around him. “Everybody was friendly and said hello when I came in,” said Poynter, who continued, “everybody is really supportive. The guy who went on before me came up and said ‘hey man, great job.’ I would definitely come back.” Then there was host Jason Liles singing an outstanding cover of The Black Crowes “Oh Josephine,” with harmonizing vocals from Laurie Lehner. Lehner, who would also have a gorgeous, powerful solo set, will be filling in for Liles as host while he tours with his band.
In a perfect summary of the community feel, Lehner says, “It’s like a Monday night on Broadway — people come when they’re not with their regular work, just to jam out with each other.”
But what truly makes this night special isn’t just the musical kinship. It’s the talent amongst them. Take, for instance, a fantastic duo known simply as “Bludik Von Kreme Dip.” As their name denotes, they’re very comedically inclined and back it up with their lyrics. To watch them play and harmonize together, however, is absolutely stunning. They had the crowd eating out of their hands and laughing all the way. On the other hand, you’ve got the insanely talented ragtime keyboardist Scott Bradlee. Although he started his set solo, he pulled Justin Gild, one half of “Bludik Von Kreme Dip,” up with him and ripped through hits from the 80’s — all with an exceptional, rapid-fire, ragtime twist. “Everybody is talented here. There’s no pretentiousness. It’s just a neighborhood jam,” explains Bradlee.
And just like that, we’re back to the community vibe.
It’s fitting, then, to wrap up the night and tie in everyone’s talents and neighborly support of each other with the pinnacle of the night: a group performance of “Hallelujah” (in the style of Jeff Buckley’s cover). On stage you had Phil Olejack on lead vocals and guitar, Justin Gild on back-up guitar, Jason Liles on back-up vocals and guitar and Scott Bradlee on the house djembe. However, also joining them were two vocalists who previously hadn’t performed that night: Aaron LaVigne and Liz O’Donnell. The addition of these two fine voices in harmony with the others made for a song so powerful, one would think Leonard Cohen had written it just for this makeshift band. The proverbial icing on the cake is the fact that LaVigne had just gotten out from a gig with his band, The DownTown Crowd, while O’Donnell had just stopped by for a drink. In a humble assessment of the scene, LaVigne not only credits the people, but the acoustics. “It’s a great vibe with good people. It just sounds good in here. It’s a good sound-system,” says LaVigne. From what we witnessed, it was simply an awe-inspiring performance.
With that, the night rounded out to a close. My brain was completely annihilated by the free-for-all concert it had just processed. My body felt a soothing rush of endorphins which only music can be the catalyst for. It was an Open Mic Night like none I’d ever witnessed before. It was a community concert; a talent showcase. It was heaven. And to all you musicians and music-lovers out there, I implore you to stop by Hell Gate Social on any given Thursday night at 10pm and take part in this surreal experience. Sing a song or just enjoy the show.
Either way, you’re going to be a part of this community…and you’re going to love it.