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Joe Putrock

For Paddy Kilrain hosting the BUMrock open-mike night has brought her back in touch with the local music community—and with a more mature and humble sense of her place in it
By Kathryn Lurie

Melanie King has never played her guitar in front of an audience before. The 15-year-old signs up on the list at the open mike and waits anxiously for hostess Paddy Kilrain to call her name. As King takes the stage, it’s evident that she’s extremely nervous. The audience can see her hands trembling as she starts shuffling her sheet music, and her voice is shaky as she speaks softly into the microphone. Realizing that the girl’s terror might keep her from getting started, Kilrain starts running around the room vigorously, her arms waving high in the air, exhorting the audience to offer lots of “hoopla” (Kilrain’s favorite word for excitement and wild cheering). As King starts to play, Kilrain takes a seat right up front and watches intently, giving hoots and hollers of encouragement every time King starts to get a bit shaky. When King finishes her two-song set, Kilrain promptly jumps up and cheers earnestly, and the rest of the room cheers with her. “I was incredibly nervous,” admits King, now a loyal enthusiast of the Thursday night open mike at the Larkin Lounge in Albany’s Center Square. “Paddy was always a huge musical influence for me, and it was because she was hosting the open mike that I got up to play at all. She was awesome—she was so supportive.”

This is the BUMrock open mike night at the Larkin, and you can detect the comfort and familiarity the participants feel just by looking at their faces. The weekly gathering draws heavily from local musicians and artists, and the atmosphere is thick with an intense feeling of community, and loyalty—to each other, and especially to Kilrain.

When asked to host the Larkin’s Thursday open-mike night, local folk legend Paddy Kilrain almost said no.

Dan Goodspeed, the facilitator of the online local-music resource and the booking agent for the upstairs listening room at the Larkin, wanted to start an open mike but was having trouble thinking of an appropriate host. Then he thought of Kilrain. “It kind of struck me like, ‘Why didn’t I think of her sooner?’” he says. “I knew Paddy really well and [I knew] she had just about everything needed to make for a great open-mike host. One thing I remember specifically is how she always stopped in the middle of her songs to tell random stories, and the audience loved [her] ability to connect so openly.”

Kilrain remembers the day Goodspeed presented the idea to her. “Dan asked me to host and I was like, ‘Ugh, god, what a blow to my ego,’ ” she laughs, explaining that hosting an open mike initially seemed like a plunge for someone who once considered herself a promising rock star. “I thought about it and—I’ve been on this kind of journey in my life in the last couple of years, with a lot of ego deflation, and all of it’s been good—I feel that I’m a more mature person every time I do one of those things that I think doesn’t fit with the image of what I think I should be. So I called [Dan] back and said, ‘Yeah, I’ll totally do it.’ ”

The first night Kilrain stepped into her new role as open-mike hostess, she was taken aback by the number of people who came out to play.

“It started in January, and we showed up and there were all these people there already—we had a lot of young people that night, and it was probably the best experience I’ve had in years,” she recalls. “And they keep coming back every week, and they stay the whole night and listen to everybody.”

Step up to the mike: Paddy Kilrain and her posse at the BUMrock open mike.Photo: Joe Putrock

A native of Binghamton who spent most of her childhood in Schenectady, Kilrain, 27, has been playing around the Capital Region and beyond for about 10 years, beginning at age 18 at Schenectady’s Caffé Dolce, at an open-mike night that she eventually hosted. She went on to become well-known on the local music scene, garnering a steadfast following and considerable critical acclaim, putting out 3 albums and touring, including opening slots for national acts such as Jewel, Michelle Malone and Pamela Means.

But Kilrain went into a self-imposed retirement in 2001. She says that the surface reason why she checked out of the music world was that she wanted to go back to school to get her degree (“I know some people are able to do both, but I’m not one of them,” she admits). However, her withdrawal involved deeper motives. She had become wrapped up in the scene, she says, and she felt as though her success had created expectations that she wasn’t sure she could live up to—and she didn’t want that pressure anymore.

“When I used to drink, I had a lot of illusions about myself and this idea that my identity was to be somebody that I thought other people thought I was,” she explains. “I really wanted to live up to this image of myself that I thought I had created, and be that after I quit drinking—I think I wanted to find out who I was, without what I did.”

Kilrain took a couple years off from the scene to concentrate on getting her associate’s degree in liberal arts. “I had a lot of jealousies of old friends of mine who were getting together in bands and doing really well, and I was like, ‘Oh, they’re better than I am, I’ll never be able to do that.’ You know, I think that jealousy and insecurity are buddies. I was so insecure that I’m really not good [at music] that I didn’t want to find out. So now, after having some success at school, finding that out for myself, and doing this open mike and seeing what other people are doing, and what I’m doing—being a part if a community—I’ve gotten a lot less insecure.”

Kilrain attributes a lot of her personal growth in recent months to the people and the experience of the open mike. She conveys how impressed she was with the audience’s acceptance and openness in the beginning months, how their approval of what she was doing meant so much to her. “I remember thinking that these people have a lot more humility than I could ever hope to have. When I was playing music a lot and touring and being a rock star, I didn’t listen to other people play. I used to compare myself to them, but here [at the open mike] I just started looking around the room, and everybody else is comfortable in what they do, and they might be thinking they want to improve this or that, but their attitude is like, ‘Oh wow, this person is really good—and so am I.’

“So I started to get plugged back in [to the scene] from the open mike. I love it, because I used to hate it,” Kilrain comments, explaining her transition back into the music world. “I wasn’t in the moment, I wasn’t able to play a song and just feel the song—I was getting so caught up in how it looked and what other people thought, [but] today I’m like, ‘I love this song, and that’s why I’m playing it.’ I only learned that from the people at the open mike. They get up there and play stuff and it’s because they sat in their house and thought about something and it was important to them and I’m like, ‘Wow, I’m the same as they are. I’m not any more of a rock star.’ So I started playing more and more again and I’m realizing it’s just what I do, it’s like my gift, and it’s wrong for me to sabotage that.”

Kilrain’s open mike has attracted a plethora of musical (and poetic, and comedic) newcomers, but it has also drawn practically as many of the old hands of the local music scene. Don’t be surprised if on any given night, you see the likes of Mitch Elrod, John Brodeur (of the Suggestions), or Ed Gorch (of knotworking) in the audience at the Larkin. Even entire bands such as the Kamikaze Hearts have been spotted checking out the new talent.

However, Kilrain is adamant about keeping the night from becoming an exclusive club for established local musicians. The deal is, you sign up on the list, and Kilrain calls you when it’s your turn. Every artist gets to perform two songs or poems, or perform for 10 minutes, whichever comes first. “You could be the most famous or the newest person in the world—you get to go where you signed up,” she says. “I try to not make it a popularity contest or [a situation where] if you know the host you get special treatment, which I think promotes more honesty. I feel like it forces those of us who have been playing longer to really hear a new person play, instead of [thinking,] ‘Oh, they suck, they don’t know what they’re doing.’

“What I also love about [our] open mike is that it is an artists’ venue. It’s not like a look-how-good-I-am show-and-tell. There seems to be equality to it, and I hope that I have something to do with creating that.”

“The economy and fairness with which Paddy runs the show is unparalleled,” confirms John Brodeur, fellow longtime player and constant on the Albany music scene. “She keeps things moving, doesn’t let people overstay their welcome, and makes people pay attention.” Brodeur, who frequents the open mike, enjoys the show just as much when he’s not part of it as when he is. “Some nights I don’t even play; I just take in all the music. Plus, any opportunity to see Paddy play is worth it.”

Although the performers and attendees usually observe the unwritten rules of mutual respect, sometimes the whispering and talking can build to a level of distraction. But Kilrain—who once was embarrassed herself by a performer who scolded her for gabbing through her set—is always quick to step in and make sure the acts get the respect they deserve.

“If somebody’s ability isn’t polished, or they’re insecure, I want to nurture that,” avows Kilrain. “And that’s a challenge. This guy had the inspiration or the balls to get up there, so he gets the same chance as everyone else. One of the ways I handle that is making a joke out of the talkers and trying to be loving about that, too. If everything is given out of love, it’s OK. So with the talker thing, we’ve made it a tradition for me to go around going ‘Pssht! Pssht!’ with my little hand signal, and everyone joins in and it’s funny and it’s OK. It’s not like you’re in trouble—it’s just a reminder.”

And making sure everyone gets the same attention and courtesy is a weekly test of Kilrain’s ongoing attempt to overcome her insecurity and her fear of confrontation. “I feel that if I don’t rise to that challenge, that’s about me,” she says. “I try to really confront that, and every Thursday I get to. It’s a challenge to not get insecure. What’s always been hard for me throughout my life is to tell people ‘No,’ or to cut people off, or to say it’s inappropriate for you to be talking. . . . I would always be too afraid that they’re not going to like me. My motives have changed. I’m not as interested in making people like me as I am in why we’re really there—and we’re there to hear music. So if you want to talk, go downstairs.”

The open mike serves other purposes than just providing a venue for people to play their songs. Musicians meet each other, announce upcoming gigs, make plans to collaborate, and share ideas and information. “Any open mike—and in this town we’re lucky to have a bunch—is important,” says Kilrain. “You can’t get a gig if you don’t have a name; you can’t get a name if you don’t have gigs. To me, that’s the role of the open mike: You get out there and meet other musicians, practice with them; you get your name out there. And, if you notice, the people that come every week are the people that are playing the bigger venues, making CDs. And most importantly, it’s where the newcomers come.”

Kilrain also notes that these newcomers give her a lot of ideas and inspiration, “and you don’t get that [at] a polished show.”

These days, the room at the Larkin is packed every Thursday with musicians and nonmusicians alike, most of whom stay for the entire show. “I think it’s a testament to Paddy and her magnetism that she attracts a crowd that is very talented, and that almost everyone who plays there is good at what they’re doing,” says Brian Bassett, a regular attendee.

Acoustic performer Laura Boggs, another regular, describes the experience as “an embodiment of a mixed tape made by one of your friends, in that it introduces you to new local music. The open mike also acts as a promotional tool and music resource for us.”

Goodspeed is especially pleased with how the BUMrock open mike has taken shape. “The variety and talent that comes to the open mike is stunning,” he says. “We’ve had several national touring acts come and play the open mike and leave awestruck.”

“[Paddy] is so accepting of all the acts,” Boggs says, “and they vary from piano to beat boxing to poetry to soft acoustic guitar to loud electric guitars and everything in between. . . . Even our share of the local crazies—but she embraces that, and that eclecticness.”

And for Kilrain, who opens and closes each Thursday evening with a few of her own songs, the open mike has provided a kind of therapy she never imagined when Goodspeed first approached her about hosting. And it has made her feel part of a music community she had felt the need to abandon only two years ago.

“Once, I went to a Chicago art museum with a friend,” Kilrain says, “and I was looking at this painting that was totally black and huge and I was like, ‘This sucks. What the hell is this about?’ And my friend came over to me and said, ‘This painting isn’t about color. This painting is about texture.’ And then I looked closer. That’s what I feel like we have with the open mike. It’s about texture. It’s not about who can strum the fastest or who has the most chords in a song. It’s like a quilt, and somehow we all blend together. We’re all artists and musicians. We all fit.”

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