The Emory Wheel, February 4th, 2003
All I need is one mic
|By Sarah Murphy
February 04, 2003
The first time Dwight Raby performed at an open mic night, he lost to John Mayer.
"Of course, he was a little better than me," said Raby, laughing at the memory. "Nobody knew who this guy was. He was spectacular, playing all this kind of jazzy stuff on the guitar, doing all these little weird things with his hands. And of course I'm sitting back there like 'God, this guy's just in a completely different league!'"
Raby's own performance that night was a little different.
"I totally screwed my one song up completely," he said. "I forgot the words to my own song. I just made them up as I went along."
Lyrical problems aside, the small, local open mic session at Eddie's Attic in Decatur may have seemed unfairly daunting five years ago. After all, no one could have predicted that the mysterious and talented winner Mayer would go on to be nominated for a Grammy, not to mention bear the title "hottest sensitive songwriter" by Teen People magazine.
But Raby, facilities manager of the new Math and Science Center, was not deterred. He returned regularly to the open mic nights at Eddie's Attic with his acoustic guitar, improving his performances while building a repertoire of songs.
"To me it was just something to have fun with and bring my friends to," he said. "I just kept going back."
It was this same fun and laid back attitude that Raby said he wanted to emphasize when he started the open mic series at Dooley's Den a year and a half ago.
Since arriving at Emory as a sociology graduate student six years ago, Raby has held various positions at the University, including men's cross country coach and house director to Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity.
At the same time, his involvement in the Atlanta music scene has steadily increased. He joined the blues band Totally Savage four years ago and last year moved on to the more acoustic band kool'haus, for which he continues to sing and play guitar.
Through his involvement in various positions at Emory, Raby said he noticed that despite the large number of talented students, there was no opportunity for those musicians to showcase their skills on campus. To fill this void, Raby decided to create a musical outlet on campus in the same form that inspired his own entrance into the music scene: open mic nights.
In the fall of 2001, with the assistance of former Assistant Director for Student Activities Lee Kramer, Raby put on the first in a series of regular open mic nights at Dooley's Den. The open mics began as a small operation within the larger Hummingbird Music Series, which focuses on bringing professional performers to campus once or twice a month.
"Dooley's Den was just rocking!" Raby said of that first open mic night.
The events at Dooley's proved to be incredibly successful and were soon expanded from their originally small role within the Hummingbird series to become a permanent occurrence at Dooley's once or twice a month. Plus, open mic winners often open for the professional performers Hummingbird brings in.
The open mic nights have become a major part of the Emory music community as a whole, allowing students to mingle with faculty and staff who drop by for performances. In particular, Raby's lighthearted and youthful disposition has allowed him to befriend many students, earning him a reputation as generous, often comical and immensely supportive of Emory musicians, said College sophomore Stephanie Spangler.
Although the open mic series is now in its fourth semester, the formula has stayed essentially the same. There is a varying panel of judges made up of faculty, staff and students, with usually nine or 10 spots for performers. In addition to providing and setting up the sound system, Raby performs a couple songs to start the night off and one or two more while the judges make their ruling. Raby said the simple formula works well, and the fact that it is on campus also factors into its popularity.
"Plus, it's free," Raby said with laugh. "Students like that, generally."
In addition to inspiring many student musicians to improve or to begin performing, Spangler said the open mic nights have also encouraged collaboration among student musicians and helped many groups pursue performance opportunities outside Emory.
Spangler, who continues to perform at the open mics and has gone on to perform at other venues and work with other bands, said that the open mic nights have helped her performance and networking.
"Being able to play these open mics helped me to find where my comfort level was with my music and what I was trying to do and what I wanted to perform," Spangler said. "It has definitely created a community of musicians, because there are always the regular kids who come out and play, but there are always new people who come in every time. So you get to meet all these people that you'd never get to meet otherwise."
College sophomore Sam Thacker, of the band Something for the Fall, said he thinks the series is a success because of the relaxed environment.
"Open mics give people a pressure-free way to get up there and have fun," he said. "It gives kids an opportunity that they wouldn't necessarily have sought out themselves. They might be in there just getting a cup of coffee and think 'Hey, I can do that.'"
While the series has initiated numerous connections among students, it has also established Raby himself as a popular member of the Emory music community. Students recognize the effort he puts into it and the love he has for the open mics, Spangler said, citing plenty of instances of his generosity and support for their musical endeavors.
Raby is also respected musically for his unique fusion of jazz, blues and rock, and his original, sometimes quite humorous songwriting, although he won't reveal the words to his infamous song about his hermaphroditic cat.
Raby, however, said he is concerned about maintaining a peer-to-peer attitude toward everyone he works with. Hummingbird Music Series coordinator Chris Rodriguez described him as "half college student, half adult," and Spangler called him "really goofy," but also very open to ideas and suggestions. Thacker, on the other hand, described Raby simply as "a great friend."
Raby said although the open mic nights have been a great success, he would like to see Dooley's get its own sound system in the future. He said he also hopes students will move beyond Dooley's to find gigs around the city, and he sometimes uses his knowledge of Atlanta's music scene to assist them in their endeavors. But whatever direction students or the open mic nights take, Raby said he has succeeded so far in his original goal.
"I just wanted to give people a place to play," he said.