Maybe they've forgotten to bring their guitars with them. Maybe they've had too much to drink. Maybe they just don't feel up to it. Whatever the reason, the last scheduled performer of this open-mike Wednesday night at Cactus Cantina has stepped away from the microphone, leaving five minutes to kill before midnight, and host John Soler is vainly imploring selected members of the audience to come up and play. For all Soler's raspy, weather-beaten, Nineties-beatnik charm, there are no takers.
In from the street walks a wiry, rough-looking guy wearing a lime green baseball cap and clutching a large trophy in one hand. Sheepishly, he inquires whether it's too late for him to sing a song. Soler vaguely recognizes him -- he's been here once before -- then introduces him to the Cantina crowd. His name's Chuck Hamilton, and with no further ado he places the baseball cap and the trophy on a nearby table and begins to sing in a timbre every bit as wiry and rough-sounding as he looks.
His voice isn't half-bad. The song he's singing sounds vaguely familiar. It finally becomes fully recognizable at the chorus: Bad Company's "Ready for Love." Not exactly the kind of number one might have expected to hear an a cappella rendition of in a Tex-Mex watering hole in South Beach, but that's what open-mike night is all about -- the unexpected.
Unexpected as in the explosive, impromptu jam that erupts during Paul Roub's set, when Rich Lyles kicks in on guitar and Steve Kornicks propels it into another gear with slapping percussion. In contrast to Hamilton, Roub's well-known to anyone who's been following the local music scene for the past year -- his octave-vaulting, Richard Marx-with-balls voice and his crackling, quicksilver picking have graced every venue from Churchill's to Stephen Talkhouse, and he's a regular on Monday nights at the Square -- but there's no way to predict the kind of joyful noise that will come out of spur-of-the-moment collaborations such as this, nor is there any way for Roub to guarantee he'll be able to recapture the lightning in the future.
"Now I remember why I wrote the song that way," says Roub, glistening with sweat and smiling broadly as he leaves the stage to zealous applause, happily accepting the accolades of musicians around the bar.
Of course, not every performer at the Wednesday night sessions is as lucky (or as talented) as Roub. But the audience is always appreciative, if not quite so demonstrative. "It's a great atmosphere to perform in," opines Soler. "Very nonjudgmental. By the end of the night, sometimes it feels like a sing-along at a friend's house. You get all different levels of accomplishment. Some are really good, like Paul. Others are just there to have fun. Either way, the audiences are very receptive, even on original ballads."
It doesn't hurt that better than half the audience members are musicians, or that Soler's soothing voice, Maynard G. Krebs wardrobe and posture, and unassuming, serene demeanor set the tone. Inevitably, one thinks of smoky coffeehouses and Peter, Paul, and Mary. Dylan, Buffett, or Beatles-haters are advised to keep their distance. It's a safe bet that several of their songs will be performed on any given Wednesday: Soler is an accomplished Buffett interpreter. George Felton (a winner of that other Miami newspaper's "Great South Florida Sound Search" in the country music category) and Janet Bratter have been known to offer up a Dylan cover, and Zac occasionally delves into his Fab Four repertoire. Other performers range in talent from shy Sue Embler, who showed up unannounced one night and out-Joplin'd Janis on "Me and Bobby McGee," to the two hapless souls who once rendered a Beatles medley unrecognizable. To the uninitiated, it may seem impossible to sing a Dylan song badly. Veterans of Wednesday nights at the Cantina know better.
Soler usually jump-starts the evening's festivities with a short set at eight o'clock. Depending on his take of the audience's complexion, he'll play anything from a complete set of original songs to one peppered with crowd pleasers like "Margaritaville." Soler's calling card is a laid-back, world-weary voice that he often employs in the service of wry lyrics: "I've been rearranged a little/Put some weight around my middle/I sure don't claim to be a perfect ten," he demurs in "Time Is My Friend." "But though time goes right on ticking/I still give and take a licking/And I rise to the occasion now and then." A little thinly veiled sexual braggadocio never hurt anyone.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Other performers sign up as they arrive, and play on a first-come, first-served basis. Some, regulars such as Felton, Roub, Zac, Lyles, and Lou Jurika, sit in on each other's sets, as does Kornicks when he has his congas in tow, and Homer Wills when he brings his harmonica. SoFlo singer-songwriters Steve Glickstein, Jonelle, Phil T. Rich, David Bricker, Suzy Blaine, Marie Nofsinger, Marianne Flemming, Valerie Caracappa, and Bob Bonnen have all appeared, as have Soler pals such as Pete Seeger protege Jay Mankita, Englishman Isaac Guillory, and bandora virtuoso Yarko Antonevych. "Musicians from New York frequently stop by. Friends of mine from the Village. Word has spread," says Soler.
Of course, they'd all be hard-pressed to top madcap locals the Funyons, a three-piece satirical revue featuring a vocalist, a guitarist, and a percussionist who literally plays a kitchen sink, not to mention a flashing road barricade light and a host of other unlikely gizmos.
Soler, who claims that years of substance abuse once rendered him so completely disabled that he was incapable of functioning in society, which qualified him perfectly for a job as a New York City cab driver (pahrump-bump), insists that fun is the overriding imperative governing the open-mike night. "The important thing," he explains, "is to enjoy yourself."
A sentiment any good parrot head could relate to.