Playing away the winter blues.

It’s a Wednesday night in January. It’s cold out. There’s nothing on TV (for some reason, you just can’t seem to get into “CSI: Scranton.”) Around this time of year, Vermonters typically go into hibernation during the week, trudging to work in the morning and returning home in the dark to only lock themselves inside away from the cold – the prospect of leaving again too difficult to bear.

Sure, we enjoy spurts of weekend skiing, snowshoeing or sledding in an effort to keep the Shining-like madness at bay, but for the most part, we hole ourselves up inside only to emerge in the spring bloated, bearded and whiskey-eyed.

Indeed, in my circle of friends, getting people out of the house during the week is usually met with about as much enthusiasm as talking to your conservative aunt about health reform (warning: after two Chardonnays, she really lets loose on Obama). To be fair, most of them have jobs that require them wake up early whereas the flexibility of my schedule makes my daily routine resemble that of a college student on summer break.

So, friendless and bored, I’ve begun to strike out on my own during the week. This being Rutland, I naturally head to the bars. Now, I’m no stranger to the downtown Rutland bar scene – being a 20-something here pretty much requires having some degree of familiarity – but rolling solo on a weeknight in the middle of the winter is an entirely different scene. (Bloated, bearded and whiskey-eyed again comes to mind again.)

But it’s not all bad. Fortunately, Rutland has a solid live music scene. Yes, live music. (Much love to my DJ friends.) Sure, we’ve all reached that point in the night when we’ve asked DJ Mic C for a little Lady Gaga (or is that just me?), but unless Girl Talk is playing at Sidelines, I’m not all that interested.

On any given week, there is usually live music somewhere downtown. And if not, you can make your own. For the past few weeks, I’ve been hooked on the open-mic at Center Street Saloon on Wednesday nights. Hosted by local-music-man-about-town, George Nostrand, the night is a good mix of brave amateurs willing to show their stuff and professionals who turn out to work up some new tunes or just play around.

As a musician, I appreciate the forum that open-mics provide. It’s a place where new musicians can build confidence and get comfortable on stage, where experienced players can pull out their old axe and shake off the rust, and where the working guys can try new things and experiment freely.

There is something also to be said for the spontaneity an open-mic creates. The first week at the Saloon, I found myself on stage with a classmate from grade school (I didn’t even know he played guitar). We finished out the evening with George joining us for some extended jamming.

Looking back, I remember my first open-mic down at Sidelines. I was terrified; my guitar skills were uneven, my voice was worse (think, Elvis Costello on morphine).

Nonetheless, I stepped to the stage, reminding myself that this was an open-mic – the threshold for talent was pretty low.

I have no idea what I played, probably a Talking Heads song. About halfway through, I realized I was doing pretty well. People in the crowd were listening, bobbing their heads to the beat. I got a little more confident on the next song, and since then, I’ve never had a problem performing on stage.

But open-mics are an interesting species. They can be hit or miss – both in crowds and talent. You never know who’s going to show up. Sometimes the musicians who take the stage can be downright painful – that fatal mix of overconfidence and a total lack of self-awareness. Still, you’ve got to give these folks credit for putting themselves out there.

This, in turn, leads to the crowd problem. Some people are inclined to avoid bars during open-mics assuming that their night out will be destroyed by some guy fumbling through a tone-deaf version of “Wish You Were Here” that would drive Syd Barret (even more so)mad.

The Saloon’s open-mic is nothing like this. In my several visits, I’ve seen a strong crop of amateurs performing to an appreciative audience. Add to that the number of local working musicians who stop by to have some fun, and you’ve got a pretty solid bill.

Last week, the Vegas Brothers arrived with guitars, bass and keyboard in tow, treating everyone a tight mini-set of rocking covers. I showed up planning to work the kinks out a few new tunes, but abandoned that plan when, after one song, I looked out to see an almost-full bar, and decided to spare them my hastily-arranged acoustic tribute to Lady Gaga (for now). I gave them a few familiar numbers, and yielded the stage to the next eager act.

The winter doldrums have set in. But instead of retreating indoors, warm up the car and head down to the Saloon next Wednesday night around 9 p.m. Check out some great local music, and get out of the house before you and your TiVo develop an unhealthy relationship. (Seriously, people are beginning to talk.)

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