Open mic night at the Black Sheep Deli creates community among local musicians

By John Stapleton

(Collegian file photo)
(Collegian file photo)

Each Thursday night, the Black Sheep Deli in Amherst hosts an open mic night which serves as a lively, weekly ritual which is home to many local musicians showcasing their talents, whether they’re regular performers or first-time acts.

“This is what coffee houses must have been like in the 60s,” said Josh Pearson, 22, a University of Massachusetts student and regular performer at the open mic. He described the performers as coming from “all walks of life,” which any audience member can easily see.

Hosts post a sign up board at 5:30 pm, and names usually fill the open spaces within 20 minutes. By show time, it holds the names of some talented regulars like Pearson.

“I’ve made some really good friends here,” Pearson, who has come every Thursday for the past year and a half, said. He describes it as his “trial ground” for new material because of the forgiving and friendly crowd. A bring-your-own-beverage event, most in the crowd can be seen sharing a beer in anticipation and celebration of the performances.

Co-host Ursula Elmes, who usually hosts the event with Gabe Sullivan, 36, has even seen acts form upon meeting at an open mic.

The event didn’t always have such an active community, Elmes recounted. It had a slow start after the first events in Jan. 2012 used a small stage by the window and Sullivan’s personal public address system. As any Thursday customer of the Black Sheep Deli can see now, it’s anything but slow. In fact, now the shop is packed full of eager artists and patrons every week.

The audience is always fully attentive to each performance, whether it’s a solo acoustic cover, live folk groups or someone soloing on a percussive instrument for their entire 15 minute slot. Elmes said that one returning performer that gets an interesting audience reaction is Jolty, a clown who doesn’t perform live music, but instead a 15 minute clown act accompanied by recordings he makes himself.

To finish each open mic, Elmes invites a featured artist to play in the key slot at the end of the night. Pearson, who has been a featured artist himself, said that one artist came all the way from North Carolina just to perform as the featured act.

Even though the Thursday time slot is locked, Elmes and Sullivan sometimes host the event as a small concert of several featured artists, which was how the event got its start.

This will be the format of a Nov. 20 benefit for Hannah Frilot, a local musician and University of Massachusetts student who passed away this summer, and who has had a UMass scholarship founded in her memory.

Elmes and Pearson were adamant about the positive nature and benefits of the community at open mic nights. Regular acts, first-time artists and others who have been able to play live music, read poetry, display art and more have all contributed to the sense of solidarity, love and community that the event brings each week.

If anyone wants “a place for their [work] to be heard,” Elmes invites them to come down to the Black Sheep any Thursday evening.

John Stapleton can be reached at [email protected]