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Local man makes videos of open mic performers

January 18, 2009
By RICHARD NILSEN The Leader-Herald

James Frederick of Johnstown is a musician and songwriter, but these days he's spending his time making other musicians known.

In May, Frederick began recording open mic singers at Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs with his Sony Cyber Shot camera. He had been coming to the cafe for five years and decided to start taping one performer a week of the core group of regulars.

"It's a hobby for me," Frederick said. "I don't make any money at it."

Article Photos

The Leader-Herald/Bill Ackerbauer
James Frederick of Johnstown stands at the landing on the staircase leading up to Caffe Lena. Frederick officially hosted the open mic for the first time Thursday (he is one of several who rotate week to week). He is the creator of “Inside the Open Mic,” a series of video profiles on Capital Region songwriters who often perform at Lena’s.

The segments are called "Inside the Open Mic," and start with the camera view going up the steps to the performance room with the sound of the featured performer in the background. What follows are parts of performances, musicians' comments and Frederick's questions, which he admits may be awkward at times, but reflect the reality of the situation.

"Basically, I decided to do this project because I had been hearing so many wonderfully written songs at the open mic - songs that you just don't expect to hear from local or amateur songwriters," Frederick said. "Being an amateur songwriter myself, I was impressed that these guys and girls were getting together every week and playing for each other, but I always thought that these great songs deserved a larger audience. So, I thought if I could come up with something that was monthly and had a name, then it might grab some attention and give these great songs an extra chance at being heard."

Frederick said he had been performing for the past six years doing venues like the State University of New York at Albany's Live Lunch. He said he also has played at the Gloversville Farmer's Market a few times this past summer and "had a blast doing it."

"I'm also a part of the emerging artist series at the cafe," he said.

Frederick said manager Sarah Craig normally hires performers at a nominal fee for the cafe. But the open mic venue and his recording of them help expose new artists to a wider audience.

"I do 10-minute segments," he said. "I cover the interaction with the musicians and use Windows Movie Maker to edit the material."

Frederick said it was all being done on nearly no budget.

"I try to get a good angle on the performer with the camera and go," he said. "The performance is recorded with the camera hand held."

He said the result may look a bit amateurish, but he isn't sure that is so bad. It reflects the actual performance and the reality and honesty of the performers' interaction with the audience at the Saratoga Springs night spot.

Sarah Craig is general manager of the cafe and said she appreciates Frederick's work tremendously.

[Frederick's] project is "very cool," she said.

"Caffe Lena is [an] anchor for the regional music scene. It's much more than a room for concerts, it's a room that inspires art and, very important to us, builds community."

Craig said the open mic evenings have been running non-stop since the 1960s.

"[Frederick's] videos show the comradeship, the sense of fun, the nervousness, the vibrancy, the dedication to craft, the love of being on the historic stage," Craig said. "For me it's like watching really well done home videos. For others, I hope they feel inspired by seeing such an eclectic group of people gathering together to support each others' art."

Craig said Frederick captured a microcosm of "the way the world is supposed to be: work hard at the things you love, aim high, and leave your ego on the back burner. That's what I see at open mic."

She also said the open mic is important to Caffe Lena in a number of ways. Financially, there have been many occasions when the Caffe scraped through a tight spot by living off the open mic revenue. Lena would collect the covers at the door, and turn right around and spend it on buying food for the weekend shows. And after she died, the open mic community stepped forward to raise money to pay off debt and keep the doors open by running a Folk-A-Thon - a 50-hour marathon of musical performance by open mic regulars. That went on annually for several years. In terms of fostering art, the open mic was a launch pad for Camille West, G. Love, Hal Ketchum, Eric Lowen of Lowen & Navarro, and others yet to come, she said.

"Open mic keeps Caffe Lena connected to the local music scene, rather than being a stage exclusively for touring artists," Craig said. "Just a couple weeks ago we had a weekend show with one of our open mic regulars, The Varriales, and they sold out."

Craig has been managing Caffe Lena since 1995 and booking the shows since 2000. She said the cafe is "doing well" these days.

"The shows are incredible-it's a great time for independent, Americana-style music," she said. "Our resident theater company is very active so our little Black Box Theater is in constant use. We're home to a wonderful community of poets as a result of our monthly poetry open mic. The volunteer staff is brimming over. Money is tight, as always, but we're rich and successful in every other way."

Frederick admits he would like to put more time into his own song writing and performing as well.

"As far as 'why' I write songs - it pretty much helps me express my thoughts and feelings in a more organized poetic way than just talking does," he said. "I tend to stutter at times and pause when I talk, which often bores people who are listening to me. With a song, I have their attention for three or four minutes and the potential for a round of applause when I'm finished. You just don't get that kind of attention when you are just talking."

Willie Moak, aka "Willie the Moak" has been helping out with the open mic sessions at Caffe Lena since 1997. He said a good thing about "Inside the open mic" is that people can check out some of the talent that makes it's way through Caffe Lena without being there in person via the Internet. It encourages performers as well as people looking for a night out to come to the famous folk venue and see what all the fuss is about. Another good thing about "Inside the open mic" is that it gives performers some experience at being interviewed.

"The more you are interviewed the better you get at the whole process," Moak said. "As for me, running the open mic at Lena's since 1997 has been a blessing. I love the talent and energy that comes from young performers as well as the experience and encouragement the veterans provide. It inspires me and feeds the passion I have for being a singer/songwriter."

Moak said he continues to perform at coffee house venues in the area and is working on recording his fourth CD.

"Last year I also made my first music video - 'I'm a Janitor Man' [on You Tube], which my son, Bryan, filmed and edited," he said.

Frederick said he wasn't sure how long he could keep up the weekly trek to Caffe Lena and edit the recordings and post them on You Tube or his own Web site,

"I suspect I will burn out after a couple of years," he said. "I hope to pass on the torch to someone else then."

His interviews include parts of a performance and interviews with the performers on their music, inspiration and experiences.

Open mic nights take place Thursdays.

Richard Nilsen is a general assignment reporter and can be reached at



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