It has been said that the backbone of a music community is its open mics, where musicians, comedians, poets, and others are able to try out new material or get on stage in front of a live crowd for the first time. The Omaha area has many of these events and jams to choose from where artists can perform, and for fans of the arts in Omaha, there is plenty of free entertainment.
I made an attempt to get out to a handful of current open mic nights and jams over the first couple months of 2023, and my first piece of advice is to make sure they are happening on that night before heading out. Attempting this in February and March found many weather closures, along with some of the newer nights changing from weekly to bi-weekly or monthly. Occasionally, a host may not be able to run a night and have to push it back a week. When I did get to a number of the open mic nights and jams, I found that they all had their own unique fingerprint.
Shakedown Street Tavern, Mondays at 8 p.m.
The OG open mic night in Omaha is at the Shakedown Street Tavern in downtown Benson on Monday nights starting at 8 p.m. While not continuous, the night was handed down over the years when the building housed The Barley Street Tavern and even predated regular live music nights at the venue.
The current host is Brixz Gonzaba who began hosting the night in May of 2022. Gonzaba says the open mic format at Shakedown Street is just who shows up, and they do not have people sign up in advance. Gonzaba stated that some nights have five to six performers, and some nights have as many as 15.
On the night I was there, six performers took the stage in the familiar and intimate side room of the venue, where countless live performances have happened over the years. A comedian tried out new material, and an Americana songwriter performed originals and covers by artists such as Tyler Childers.
Brixz himself performed at the keyboard with a soulful Randy Newman pop sound. Lorenzo DeCoco of the band Radio Of The World tried out some songs solo for the first time, including a song that is usually rapped, but he reformatted it for an acoustic solo performance. It was a close knit performance with lots of banter between those in the audience and those on stage.
Dry Spokes, alternating Thursdays
The newest open mic night that I visited was at Dry Spokes, a mocktail and NA bar on 19th and Leavenworth. They hold open mic nights every other Thursday. The venue is split between a bar area and a larger seated area with booths, tables, and an outdoor patio area. It is a beautiful and comfortable room and the most upscale of the open mic venues I visited.
They originally did online signups, but have moved to having people sign up on a whiteboard at the entrance of the bar so as to include those that may not be online all the time and allow them to get the slots they would like. On the night I attended, there were two performers while I was there, including Aaron Kruger, who would be the only artist that I would see perform multiple nights. He performed originals on his keyboard and a medley of funk and disco songs that revolved around the word “boogie.”
The space that Dry Spokes occupies really makes this an open mic with a lot of potential for growth.
North Omaha Music and Arts, Mondays and Tuesdays at 7 p.m.
The North Omaha Music and Arts (NOMA) organization holds open jams on Mondays and Tuesdays at their facility on 24th Street. Mondays are a more traditional Jazz jam and Tuesdays are a contemporary music session, both start at 7 p.m.
These nights encourage young people to get up and jam with experienced musicians in the community. The nights begin with a live music performance, before evolving into an open jam. I attended the Tuesday night event, and the group performing featured NOMA executive director Dana Murray on drums, Andrew Bailie on guitar and vocals, Mitch Towne on keyboards and organ, and Dale Black on bass.
There are couches and seats, and behind the band is a screen playing trippy images. Over on the side wall is another projection of classic musicians performing. It is a whole vibe. After a while, young performers began to come up and take over these spots, and horn players would come up along with MCs, poets and vocalists.
This all happened in a seamless, almost non-stop way and was magical to watch. There was a chunk of time where it was just the younger performers riffing off each other, and the music they came up with during that time was among my favorite music that I have heard in recent times. It was a special moment that was truly just in the moment and will never be repeated.
There were more of these moments as some of the elders joined in, and even organist Lloyd Buchanan from Brittany Howard’s touring band, who was in town teaching, got up and performed.
Down Under Lounge, Wednesdays at 8 p.m.
Wednesday nights at The Down Under Lounge on 35th and Leavenworth are one of the most popular open mic nights in Omaha. Currently hosted by Mad Darling, the event starts at 8 p.m., and you can visit the Mad Darling Facebook page for information on how to get spots, though it does look like there are a couple walk-in reserves every night on their packed lineups.
The Down Under Lounge open mic was where I saw the most musicians that I was already familiar with, such as Justin Lamaoureux from Midwest Dilemma and Katie Kasher. Other performers included the John Lemon Duo, Charlie Sweet, the full on heavy rock band Escape Goat, and a young artist named Liam C.
The changeovers were surprisingly quick, and Mad Darling truly hosts this event, talking about the artists and keeping those in the audience aware of what is coming up. It gives the night a bigger feel and good energy. The Down Under Lounge open mic night was the best attended and had the most engaged crowd of the open mic nights I visited.
Brokedown Palace, Tuesdays at 8 p.m.
On Tuesday nights at Brokedown Palace, there is an open mic night hosted by Sam Hatfield that starts at 8 p.m. In my exploration of open mic nights, this was the night that many musicians told me to check out, as Hatfield hosts a night they enjoy performing at.
The night I attended, Hatfield was out of town, and Craig Mustard had stepped into the hosting duties. The Brokedown Palace is a Grateful Dead and Husker bar that is very comfortable and has couches in front of the stage, a living room feel up front, and a more traditional bar feel as you move towards the back of the venue. As I walked in, a duo was working up a cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Fire On The Mountain” that had other bar patrons dancing. Other performers included Ben Tompkins, comedian Jeremy Beck, Aaron Kruger, and Scott Johnson. The night looks like a mix of online sign-ups and walk in reserves. I was told that as the weather warms up, the open mic will move to the patio area of the bar.
A few more to check out
There are many more open mic nights and jams happening in the area, including a monthly night at Maloney’s in Council Bluffs hosted by Nice Enough Entertainment and The Culxr House on Tuesday nights on North 24th Street. If you are looking to immerse yourself in upcoming talent in Omaha, or catch an intimate performance from one of Omaha’s stalwarts, these nights are a great opportunity to do so. The random nature of these events creates an anything can happen feel that is a refreshing alternative to traditional live music nights.