Host Make A Difference At Open Mic Nights

Step up to the microphone, plug in your guitar or keyboard — and you have the power. You're amplified. Bigger than life. Both voice and instrument booming. If you're good, you're really good. If you're bad, you're really bad. Like 90 decibels of bad. And, there's this: Everyone knows it. In real time. While you're still up there under the spotlight. In an instant, you could be basking in the applause or, more than anything on earth, wanting to crawl into a deep, dark hole and never come out.

So it's no wonder playing an open mic night — often after months or even years of anticipation and fevered imaginings — performers require a special kind of open mic host or emcee to make them feel ready and at home. Someone to get the instrument and vocal sound levels right, to have the audience primed and ready to receive performances that range from the sublime to, well, the not-ready-for-prime-time. Someone who may even play along with you to help you pace and propel your performance to new levels.

A variety of men and women in and around Jacksonville specialize as open mic hosts, even as they pursue their own careers and gigs. Many consider what they do a minor art form, and each comes with his or her own attitude and bag of tricks - tricks often adapted from their own open mic experiences. Almost without exception, each host says the open mic is a unique, rewarding experience, often memorable and enjoyable far beyond the routine gig. That doesn't mean it's a breeze. Besides the special musical and people skills it takes to pull it off, it also requires heavy lifting. Like, heavy lifting for real, as in hauling pounds and pounds of bulky sound equipment, uncoiling a dozen cables, setting it all up, checking it out, tweaking it constantly, breaking it down and hauling it all home. It's worth it, they say, because you never know when lightning will strike, when a moment of music magic will connect everyone in the room. And that, they say, is just too much fun to pass up. Here's how one local open mic host views their craft.

Mike Shackelford

Shackelford could easily lord over the Beaches music scene like the godfather of acoustic rock. But he's just way too unassuming for that, cool as an early morning sea breeze. He does deliver his own songs and covers in a distinctive style that's been washing over Atlantic, Neptune and Jacksonville Beach for many a moon. He has a smooth and funky touch on guitar and blues harp, a soulful voice — and he brings that same crowd-pleasing approach to the open mic nights he hosts at the beach. One is Songwriter Night and begins at 6 p.m. the first Sunday of each month at the Adele Grage Cultural Center in Atlantic Beach. The other is a general open mic called Acoustic Night that begins at 6 p.m. the third or fourth Sunday of each month (March through October) in Bull Run Park outside the Adele Grage Cultural Center (and moves inside during bad weather). They are two of the most respected and successful open mics in North Florida.

Shackelford said he thinks the secret of his success is pretty straightforward. "I just try to treat everyone with the same respect that I would appreciate," he said. "I try to set up the PA and mix the sound just as perfectly as I would hope someone would do for me. I want them to be and sound their best." And when they do? "It's goosebump time. It's a thrill to help someone share their music with others. It never gets old. You can't knock the smile off my face."

Shackelford's also discovered a couple of incidental perks in hosting both the general and songwriters open mic nights. It helps him stay in touch with the music community, see and hear budding talent and, through a network of online and real-world contacts he uses to organize and promote the open mics, he gets to mention his upcoming gigs, and those of others he doesn't want people to miss. "It helps me maintain my 'friend base.' That's flourishing. And really, in the end, that's what it's all about. We're good friends who love and share our time and music."