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Maternal Flame

CA mom on-stage and off, Caroline Isachsen—better known as singer-songwriter Mother Judge—puts passion into her open-mike night and creates a nurturing home for local musicians

By Kate Sipher

Leif Zurmuhlen

Punk-rock youths Rory Breaker take the Larkin Lounge stage, which is already set up for them with drums, amps, mikes and whatnot. They proceed to make music of the quasi-deafening, raucous variety—a surprising event, since this is an open-mike night. Onlookers make a seamless transition from polite to rowdy, and the band members have a blast entertaining the hell out of an unsuspecting audience. They also offer a musical trailer for a paying gig at Valentine’s.

“We had a noise complaint that night,” laughs MotherJudge, the hostess of the Larkin’s weekly Wednesday open mike. “But that was so much fun.”

“Her open mikes are fun from beginning to end,” Day Jobs front man Rich Baldes declares. “Which is a rare thing. It’s very unusual to go to an open mike and want to stay the whole night.”

Local music celeb Michael Eck concurs. “A lot of times, an open mike is just about getting your number and waiting to do your songs. . . . At this one, people go and they’re willing to hang out the whole night. They’re there to see the whole spectacle, not to just do their thing.”

MotherJudge, aka Caroline Isachsen, is busy on those nights, even if she doesn’t seem it, making connections as she mingles with fellow music makers and aficionados at the Lark Street club. She finds out about upcoming gigs and various band member migrations, and just plain old catches up. Even though the open mike is a weekly affair, the cast of characters varies, so she’s got a lot of folks to keep up on. And she only has a few minutes to run downstairs to the bar, grab a drink and catch a chat. She has to keep one eye on the stage so she can hop on and introduce the next act. She provides witty repartee (“She’s got stage banter for miles,” says fellow musician Amy Abdou), imparts information about performers’ upcoming shows, shares in long-running jokes, offers practical advice for the novice, and the like.

It’s a lot of information to keep in her head, but retention is made easier due to the fact that Isachsen doesn’t just gather it to deliver to the crowd. It’s information that she cares about, that she wants to know about: where people are playing, who’s planning what tribute show. She’s recites a list of other open mikes in the area. For Isachsen, it’s not about competition—it’s about community. It’s about getting your sea legs, learning the ropes, sharing with others, and collaboration. It’s the mother in her.

Leif Zurmuhlen

Ed Gorch often heads to the Larkin on Wednesday nights. His band, knotworking, an alt-country, roots-rock ensemble, have gained momentum since Gorch and bandmate Mike Hotter arrived in Albany as a duo a little more than a year ago. The band expanded upon their two guitars to include drums, bass, cello and violin—an evolution that was helped along by Isachsen. “Everybody we play with now, we found through connections with the open mike,” Gorch says. And while knotworking as a whole (or in parts) play the open mike often—many times to try out a new tune, many times just for fun—there are times when Gorch heads to the club sans band. “Rarely do I go there by myself and wind up playing by myself, because there’s always somebody there to sit in,” he observes.

Hosting an open mike is effortless only if you’re lazy, according to Eck, a fellow open-mike host. He compares the job, at its simplest—showing up at the club, providing a sign-up sheet, introducing performers—to falling off a log. “But if you do one that easily,” he warns, “chances are that it’s probably going to suck.”

“I think there’s a lot of talent in Albany but there’s not a lot of places to play,” says Abdou on one of the night’s selling points. “People drive, like, two hours to come to this open mike. It’s that good. Just to be a part of the energy.

“Caroline has an enthusiasm for other people’s music which is really selfless,” she continues. “Caroline will take anybody and prop them up and make them feel good and supported and loved, just because they’re doing something that requires taking a risk.”

“The success of an open mike as an event comes down to the host,” says Eck. “She’s fostered it into a living entity of its own, and that’s very cool.”

“I’m glad to be steering it—through murky waters from time to time,” Isachsen says of the open mike. “But I just think it’s a very spontaneous, real thing that is happening. I’m really proud of humanity when I leave there because of that vibe.”

Entertainment value and social atmosphere aside, Isachsen’s open mike also serves as a virtual classroom to nurture budding performers, and she uses these nights to teach some people who aren’t savvy a thing or two. Perhaps her many years in the mommy seat—she has four kids of her own, ranging from a toddler to a 22-year-old—have helped hone her fostering abilities. Onstage at the open mike, Isachsen discusses such things as what makes a good press kit, how to tune a guitar, and how to set up gear.

“There’s a real mother-hen aspect to it,” says Eck. “She will go up and tell a new act how to make themselves better onstage.”

Baldes echoes that sentiment: “She makes a person who’s a beginner feel that they’re welcome to come and play, and that they’re appreciated.”

Back at the Larkin, another band, Nysm, take the stage. Isachsen rallies crowd support as they work to get set up. “Give ’em a hand,” she booms, demanding audience support. After the applause dies down, Nysm continue to tweak and tune, creating a silence from the stage that lasts a bit too long. “Dead air,” Isachsen hollers from the audience in an attempt to speed up the process. “Dead air.”

Isachsen (then Caroline Johnston) came to the Capital Region from Latrobe, Pa., in 1986. “Thanksgiving night,” she recalls, noting with irony, “I went to eat dinner at the Larkin.” The daughter of music-loving parents, she grew up playing piano and singing in the choir, but it was a Harry Chapin concert she attended as a young girl that first put certain stars in her eyes.

“The whole storytelling song structure appealed to me,” she says. After the show, she went home and composed her first song. “It wasn’t that great, but I wrote it out, and finished it and worked out the music for it.”

While attending a music camp in New Jersey, Isachsen further solidified her musical fate after an appearance by a female singer-songwriter-guitarist led her to an epiphany. “I was totally blown away by this performance by this young woman,” she recalls. “She was a couple years older than me.” Isachsen went home, pulled her brother’s guitar from the closet—a beautiful blueish Silvertone that hangs in her house to this day—and went to town. “I started teaching myself,” she states. “I’ve never moved away from that love for the storyteller-songwriter.”

Isachsen cut her teeth in the music business on the open mikes of Pennsylvania. “People were so generous,” she recalls. “That’s how I learned to tune my guitar. How to put my own strings on.” Sound familiar?

She came to Albany—“I live here by choice,” she says of the city she loves—with the intent of laying down her guitar for a bit. “I was trying to be more of an office person. I had two kids to raise, and I was trying to be serious about that.” But in the back of her mind was her love of music. She found herself at some open mikes here and eventually immersed herself in the music community.

“She used to play the open mike at QE2,” remembers Eck. “She was much more of what you would think of as a folkie. She sat on a stool and played an acoustic guitar and sang in a tremulous voice. She was a lot more genteel than she later revealed herself to be.”

But Isachsen was determined to rock a bit harder than that. “I really wanted to break out of the folky mold,” she says. Isachsen found herself the hard-rock, “metal tinged” group Barretta (“I got to wear really good, tight leather skirts,” she says). That grew into Stiff Kitten, who developed into the Siren Sisters. “It was never supposed to be a band,” she says of the Sisters, “but [QE2 owner Charlene Shortsleeve] kept giving us gigs, so we kept showing up. Pretty soon it was really a band.”

“Siren Sisters were cool,” remembers Eck. “Then they had sort of a roving band of minstrels. And that’s what morphed into, eventually, MotherJudge and the Urban Holiness Society. The same kind of thing, like a trashed-out country.”

Through the Urban Holiness Society, Isachsen met her partner in life and music, Sten Isachsen. “He’s the best guitar player I ever hired,” she relates, touching upon an important point. It’s out of her band-hiring process that she acquired the moniker MotherJudge, slang for a brothel proprietress. When the Siren Sisters auditioned guys for their band, the women demanded the men drop their pants “and show us the goods.” The resultant facial expression would seal the deal and entertain the gals.

“When I started my own group, some friends of mine and I were looking for the right name,” she remembers. A friend came up with the expression MotherJudge, and Isachsen heartily agreed. “Oftentimes as a band leader you sort of have to evaluate the goods, you know. See where everyone fits in,” adding that it’s also a tribute to her maternal role. “I just can’t get away from it. I’ve been a mother so long.”

Isachsen took a break from her own music career (one that has yet to supply her adoring fans with much recorded material: “There’s a Siren Sisters tape out there that can be found at fine yard sales all over the Capital District,” she says, adding that she also has a cassette release, Wooden Bootleg, that she hopes to put on CD) prior to launching her open-mike night at the Lark Tavern in 1999. “I was feeling really uninspired and kind of exhausted,” she says of the days leading up to it. “My personal life was really satisfying, but, for whatever reason, my musical self was kind of dry,” she says. So she decided to do the open mike to get back in touch with people and to fine-tune some of her skills. “I wasn’t getting better on guitar. It was kind of a rough spot for me.”

She approached the Lark Tavern’s manager, and he gave her Mondays, which, due to the football season, became Tuesdays; eventually, she landed on Wednesdays. “That was when it really clicked,” she says. “I really knew that it was taking off when I looked out and it wasn’t my friends.” She was surprised to meet people from all over the country on those nights, people who came because they read a listing in a newspaper.

When Isachsen tossed around the idea of leaving the Lark last summer, she found out she didn’t have to go far. Adrian Cohen, then-manager for the Larkin Lounge, approached her about bringing the popular event to the Larkin. “She actually, literally, saved us,” recalls Cohen, who is now the talent booker of the club. “Things were really tough. And I went over to the open mike at the Lark Tavern, and I was like ‘This is really cool. I wish we could have this, or something like it.’ ” Isachsen migrated up Lark Street to the Larkin, and the event continued to gather steam. “It was really popular from day one,” says Cohen. “If it wasn’t for Caroline, I don’t think we would have been able to stay open the summer.”

Singer-songwriter Rosanne Raneri, visiting from her new home in Boston, takes the open-mike stage, and wows the Larkin crowd. After the former Capital Region resident plays her allotted two songs, Isachsen makes it known that she desperately wants to hear a third, then demands the audience mimic her enthusiasm. They scream, they whistle, they pound their palms together in an effort to urge Raneri to play longer. But Isachsen becomes distracted by someone in the crowd, and Raneri exits the stage, not giving in to the pressure. When Isachsen’s gaze returns to the stage, Raneri is standing directly in front of her. Her disappointment is evident. “She’s a shit,” our host says with equal parts anger and love. “Give it up for Rosanne Raneri.”

The newcomers are as important as the scenesters to Isachsen, and she works hard to make them comfortable onstage. “There’s something so poignant about when someone gets up there and says ‘I’ve never played in front of people before,’ ” she claims. “You can just feel the tightness in their throat, and you just get that little thrill with them. . . . I just think it’s really this moment in time that has a specialness to it.”

“She’s busy enough to say ‘I’ll see you Wednesday,’ but she doesn’t do that,” Gorch relates. “She makes an extra effort to go out, or to support a band that she’s heard at the open mike that she enjoys.”

“I’ve really come to learn to live in the moment, and to love where I am right then,” Isachsen says, offering some insight into her desire to commune. “Oftentimes we forget to look at what’s beautiful right in front of us. The open mike helped me develop that. I really love those two songs, and watching that person for the first time, or for the 50th time, and sharing that with them. . . . It’s given me this peace and balance I was really lacking before we went down this little road, this journey.

“Every once in a blue moon Metroland will ask about what’s the state of the scene? What’s going on? What’s up with this music community?” Isachsen notes. “I’ve always felt like it was there. It’s always been there. . . . And one of the greatest aspects is that the open mike, for whatever reason, has created this little hub, to make it visible. To give it a home, a place to settle down into. It was always there—maybe we just needed a hub.”

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