Kurt Vatland Open Mic

Andrew Olson

Reader Weekly

Professional musicians: every week I see them, I hear them, and I talk to them. If you are friends with musicians you wonder why they practice so often and miss out on so much in life. You also see things that make life worth living, and sometimes you even become a part of their dream.

One day the band breaks up and you get older, but those times are the ones you remember. The crowd was always bigger and the nights seemed to stand still. There was a family, but it slowly erodes back to the water. The greatest times were with that family that got you through your early twenties.

The band I knew was my best friend Kurt Vatland’s, Velveteen. Begun in 1998, they went through the years with interchanging members. For two years I was their unpaid manager/publicist before the band made it to Hollywood in 2002. It all ended there and things were never the same when they returned. After the breakup Kurt formed the band Black Box Found and has been playing solo shows around the midwest. He also checked himself into treatment for alcohol and substance abuse last spring and ended up living at a halfway house up here a week ago.

When I went to meet Kurt at Amazing Grace for last Monday’s open mic, I saw him outside with guitar in hand. He was strumming a Blind Melon tune; a crowd of about 20 had gathered to sing along. It was ironic that after a long absence Kurt looked so familiar with his guitar and a forming crowd. We were not seeing eye to eye for some time as he was going further into alcoholism. Eventually lying in a hospital bed at the Mayo Clinic, he was near death after suffering an alcohol/poly substance overdose upon his return from tour. His kidneys had failed and he almost lost them permanently; while both his liver and spleen were swollen excessively. He knew he needed a change.

Amazing Grace had maybe 30 people outside and five inside the venue. There were a few people playing chess looking like they owned the outdoor table, a few goth-dressed folk against the wall, and there was Kurt and his already assembled posse.

Soon it was time for Kurt to go on, so we all shuffled into the coffeehouse to get a good seat. There were about 15 of us inside and about 15 others outside. Kurt began to play originals, and it was some great stuff. I began to think about how many people here have no idea that this guy was once one of the most enigmatic and provocative lead singers to get on stage. He was playing on his same old guitar, but this time it was fresh with the signatures of some fans from Chesterton, Indiana, his way of taking them home with him.

Just as I was thinking this and Kurt had finished his second song, the young man in the back yelled out, “Hey, that’s it. Your time is done."

Kurt said, “I just got one more."

“We got others waiting," the guy replied.

“Where is he?" Kurt said.

The guy said he’d go find him (among other things under his breath), and ran outside. Kurt said, “I’ll stop when he gets here."

About three minutes into Kurt’s third song the guy emerged with the next performer. Kurt stopped and said, “thank you."

Outside the open mic employee told Kurt he’d been disrespectful to the other musicians and Kurt apologized. One angry patron said about the employee, “Let’s kick that guy’s ass!" There was a husband and wife who went to the open mic weekly and they said time had never been an issue before.

There were now about 30 people outside and more walking up. A police car circled; someone cracked a joke about the cops always watching that corner. Almost no one was inside. Outside the performers and their friends waited for their turns.

I wanted to see if there were similar problems at other open mic nights. On Thursday night Kurt and I ventured up the shore to Lakeview Castle. The venue is built like a castle, with stone walls, draw bridge and a spacious bar inside. There were maybe 20 people gathered. It was run by ET Willy, former frontman of The Black Labels.

Born in Oklahoma and raised in Texas, Willy has been in the music industry for over 30 years. He followed his heart and a woman to the North Shore where he lives today. The way he organized open mic night was to mix it with karaoke. At first I thought the idea was preposterous, but I watched and learned how great it worked.

A few other karaoke regulars got up and unleashed their pipes onto the forming crowd of 40-50 people. Then ET introduced Kurt and he took the stage. He played the same acoustic blues tunes as he did the night before. His first, “Whiskey City Sailor," had a great hook and some nice changes. He talked about losing his lady and his travels to the North Shore. It also dealt with the internal fight of the drunk, whiskey taking away the pain and easing the thoughts of lost love. The next piece, “Dead Road Avenue," was about hi recovery, getting help, and wanting to live.

When he announced that he was going through recovery the crowd seemed indifferent, other than someone blurting out a rude comment. But this was a bar and it might be expected that they not care about sobering up. Kurt finished up with an alternative version of the Steppenwolf tune about the pusher man. We stayed and watched more people go up; some of the people who had done karaoke donned a guitar and played some covers better than the machine. This time though, no one was leaving and everyone was inside. Mr. Willy said that usually there are more people from softball teams and such, but tonight it was raining.

There are bigger crowds at Lakeview Castle on a weeknight than half of the bars that have bands on weekends. With ET’s idea the audience gets to participate in the show. Singing is a gift that many out there possess, while forming a band is a bit more difficult. Letting the audience come up and be up on stage attracts good numbers of participants and a large crowd. It was nice to see the spotlight shared by so many people, professionals and amateurs.