Founders Open Mic gives platform to rising artists

By David Specht | 3/27/14 12:01am


Nicholas James Thomasma, who hosts Open Mic Night at Founder’s every Tuesday, kicks off the evening with some folk and acoustic music, warming up the crowd for the rest of the musicians. GVL / Hannah Mico

Compared to a typical Friday night, a Tuesday evening in downtown Grand Rapids can seem quite uneventful. And while on this weeknight the more prominent venues may not be hosting any acts worth writing home about, one simply has to follow the unmistakable scent of grain and hops straight into the taproom of Founders Brewing Co. for a dose of local talent.

Each Tuesday beginning at 9 p.m., Founders holds an open mic in its spacious taproom. The show is free, and open only to those 21 years-of-age and older. And for prospective performers, host Nicholas James Thomasma has just three steps in order to perform:

Step 1. Sign up.
Step 2: Get a beer.
Step 3: Rock out!

Aside from the straightforward instruction mentioned above, Thomasma also asks that artists limit their sets to three songs or a total of fifteen minutes.

Thomasma, who aside from hosting the event is also a guitarist and vocalist, has been attending the open mic night at Founders since it began hosting them about 10 years ago.

“From the very first time I came and played I loved it,” he said.“I kept showing up every week until eventually they gave me a job in the taproom.”

According to Thomasma, he was asked to co-host, and eventually to host, the open mic.

On March 25, close to 300 souls braved the bitter cold to enjoy a few hours of the musical talent that Founders had to offer. At 9 p.m. sharp, guitarist Thomasma, joined by violinist Miranda Elliot, a.k.a. Clouds, took to the stage. The duo performed just a few pieces to kick off the evening, including a well-received cover of Steve Miller Band’s “Dance, Dance, Dance.”

After the crowd had been warmed up a bit, first-timer Bismarck Sequeira, an acoustic guitarist and native of Nicaragua, shared his versions of tracks from notable acts such as Old Crow Medicine Show and Violent Femmes. And since the official language of Nicaragua is Spanish, it came as no surprise that Sequeira’s performance of Ritchie Valens’ “La Bamba” was on point.

“We get a lot of solo acoustic artists on any given Tuesday,” Thomasma said. “But there is almost always at least one, if not several, full bands. Everything from folk to punk to bluegrass to shoe gazer to gypsy party music- the variety of music always amazes me.”

Later in the evening, guitarist Joe Duimstra performed a collection of tracks taken from progressive country artist Jason Isbell’s most recent album, “Southeastern,” which recounts the experiences had by Isbell as a recovering alcoholic. Duimstra’s abilities as both a guitarist and vocalist were evident, and the songs that he chose to share were heartfelt.

Just the talent that Duimstra demonstrated on Monday could easily land him gigs at larger venues, Thomasma explained that plenty of esteemed West Michigan musicians have gotten their start at the Founders Open Mic.

“Just about every week there is someone onstage who has made a name for themselves here in town,” he said.“Most notably, The Crane Wives – a Grand Valley band- claim to have gotten their start at Founders Open Mic. Alexis, Devin and the Dead Frets, Lindsay Lou and the Flatbellies, Badenya, The Carboys, Josh Rose, Nathan Kalish, Chain of Lakes, Michael Riley, Benjamin Riley, and many, many more were all regulars at one time.”

And though schoolwork tends to dominate any Laker’s Tuesday evening, some students, such as Michael Spencer, have been known to sneak away from the textbooks and pluck a few strings at the open mic. While Spencer typically performed acoustic covers of bands such as Queens of the Stone Age and Cake, he gave testament to the wide variety of genres experienced each week.

“I heard everything from individuals and duets playing acoustic guitar covers of their favorite bands to aspiring solo artists playing their own original tunes,” Spencer said. “And local bands playing rock, punk, folk, electronic; there was even a solo artist who played heavy metal guitar riffs.”

Perhaps the radical disparity of performers at Founders Open Mic is what makes it appealing enough to draw the large crowds that it does each Tuesday night. According to host and performer Thomasma, the variety is what’s kept him coming back the last 10 years.

“I cannot imagine a more diverse evening of entertainment than what I have experienced on some nights at Founders Open Mic,” Thomasma said.

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