Volume 74, Number 15 | August 11 - 17 , 2004

At positively open mic, looking for the next Dylan

By Erica Stein

Chris Van Cott, one of the artists on the “The 14 Best Singer / Songwriters of Greenwich Village 2004” CD.
While the music charts are topped by teenage would-be divas and retro rockers, lesser known talents are being quietly nurtured in Greenwich Village. For the past two years, the best out of a pool of 1,000 of these aspiring musicians have been recorded live and the performances preserved on CDs called “The 14 Best Singer / Songwriters of Greenwich Village.” The recordings are the result of a weekly open mic held at the Baggot Inn.

Every Sunday afternoon from November through April, the Baggot, located at 82 W. Third St., hosts the UMO Open Mic. UMO, or Underground Music Online, was founded in 1995 by Ernest “Joe” Budnick, who has worked as both a producer and artist. “I was meeting a lot of people who had no place to play,” said Budnick. “The Baggot Inn turned out to be great. The owner was very good to us, fixed it up, put up a sound system. He gave us Sunday afternoon from 2 to 6 with no cover.”

Budnick founded the Web site a few months after he started hosting the open mic, around the same time he changed the organization’s name. “I’ve had the Web site since ’95. It’s really important to have a simple URL because no one could remember the name. So we ended up calling it just UMO [pronounced ‘oomo’]. It’s really hard to get any kind of exposure if you’re just starting out and have no money for advertising, and the Web site and the open mic kind of helps.”

Although there are dozens of open mics throughout the city, Budnick had a specific vision for his, which he said is part of the reason it has been successful. “When I used to go to open mics, it was just waiting forever to get on and then playing while everyone after you was waiting for you to get off,” Budnick remembered. “But this was just really, really supportive. So by the second year, we had 50 people every week, which for Sundays in winter is pretty good. And the people coming in were just unbelievably professional. In 2002, I got the idea to start recording.”

Budnick recorded every performance that year, which totaled 1,287. Then he had to decide what to do with them. “It became a situation where everyone hanging around kind of knew who the really great ones were, but there was no formal acknowledgement. And I didn’t want to give awards, because it’s discouraging for those who don’t get them.”

Budnick said he chose to use the recordings to make the “Best of” CDs because he thought they could be used as a low-cost way to give exposure to both the best artists and the singer/songwriter scene at large and were fairly easy to produce. The challenge, according to Budnick, wasn’t making the album so much as deciding who appeared on it.

The selection of the artists was made by Budnick and five to seven guest judges from the mainstream music industry, who volunteered their time. After Budnick removed all cover songs, as well as those performances containing technical malfunctions or faulty vocals, from contention, he was left with a pool of around 800 songs. He then created “raw CDs” of all the songs, which were given to the judges along with a score sheet. “On a scale of one to 10, I ask them to rate sound quality, vocals, lyrics. There’s a big space at the bottom for comments — which is great because I can use those to give the artists indirect feedback, which they love to have. The songs with the highest scores go on the album.”

Budnick said that, while he does have some friends who object to not being on the CDs (“I have to explain to them it’s not me as an artist and my friends, it’s me as a producer.”) his biggest problem has been ordering the tracks on the CD and coming up with categories.

A look at either of Budnick’s two CDs reveals awards much more unusual and specific than the general “Best Artist” or “Best Song” categories. There are only five categories that appear on both “Best ofs,” such as “Best Soul Male Vocal.” Other categories include “Best Song Structure,” “Best Waltz” and “Best Urban Tap Duet.”

“That’s a young husband and wife,” said Budnick of Sour Grapes, the band that describes themselves as an Urban Tap group and appears on the 2004 edition. “It’s so different. They wear tap shoes and use drums and a harmonica.” The categories are determined after the artists are chosen because the genre should not dictate which artists can be chosen, Budnick said. “Sometimes I use the comments the judges write. It gives me a description, something I can use to let the listener know what they’re getting into. Also, each song stands out for a different reason. There’s one called ‘Stay Awhile’ where Addison, the singer, her voice can make you cry, and there’s another that just works narratively, it tells an interesting story.”

Only three artists or groups — Jeff Jacobson, Nick Priessnitz and Mike and Greg Trenouth — appear on both the 2003 and 2004 edition. Both Jacobson and Prissnitz play frequently at The Bitter End on Bleecker St. and other clubs, while the Trenouth brothers are planning to record their first full-length album. All of them said that the UMO weekly events gave them the confidence and practice needed to play larger venues.

“Really, it just opened things up for me in so many ways,” said Priessnitz. “I was on my way home from the Baggot and I saw an ad for the Apollo. I auditioned. I made it. I played and got booed off, but it was amazing and I never could have done that without the open mic. It’s really helped me out a lot.”

Mike Trenouth, who has played UMO “nearly every Sunday for three years,” said that he has been disappointed in most of the city’s open mics. “The sound quality isn’t good and the emcee just doesn’t care. But the Inn has great sound and the level of talent is all over the map, from people just starting out to people who are professional. And everyone is supportive of everyone.” Trenouth said that he has sold about 20 of the “Best of” CDs. “I’d really like to see UMO take off. It’s by far the best open mic I’ve ever been to,” he said.

Jacobson, who had not played in 10 years before he began frequenting UMO in April 2003, also said he found the atmosphere at the Baggot “incredibly supportive.” “I’m back into it now, playing a lot more gigs, and that CD kind of gives me something to show people, to help them remember me,” Jacobson said. “I’ve played CBGB now. I’d never be this far along if not for Joe. And he wants you to do well. He’s such a great guy. And in this business that is really, really rare.”

To purchase the CDs visit www.umo.com or look for Joe Budnick in Washington Sq. Park, where he can frequently be found wearing a UMO hat and playing music and selling the CD.

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