Open Mic at Linneman’s Riverwest Inn

Linnemans.jpg by Brian Kalish

“Does anyone have a watch in here? Anyone know what time it is?” asks Ricky Ganiere, craning his neck to survey the front room of Linneman’s Riverwest Inn. It’s Wednesday evening, nearing the 9 p.m. sign-up for the acoustic open stage. Roughly 15 musicians toting beat up guitar cases jockey for position near the head of the bar. Only 12 will get the chance to play. Ganiere crushes his cigarette and excuses himself — “Two weeks ago I was the first one here and I didn’t even get signed up. All the spots were taken, like, two minutes after the sheet came out.” He shuffles to the head of the crowd and, minutes later, returns smiling. Mission accomplished. For neophytes wandering into Linneman’s at the corner of Locust and Weil on a Wednesday evening, it doesn’t take long to figure out what local musicians have known for some time: Linneman’s hosts the most highly revered open mic in the city of Milwaukee. Novices and established artists alike salivate over the opportunity to play each week. “This place just has a real cool atmosphere. It isn’t so much about competition here, it’s about growing as a musician,” says Ganiere, a 22-year-old singer/guitarist who has traveled from Franklin to test some new material on a live audience. “You don’t get mean looks here like you would at some of the coffee houses. Everyone is very encouraging, whether you’re incredible or terrible. Plus, Jim is a just great guy.” Credit the success of the open stage to owner Jim Linneman, whose sole motivation is to foster the local music scene. He is intimately involved with every aspect of the show, personally introducing each performer, adjusting microphones between performances, and manning the soundboard. These personal touches, not to mention the concert quality sounds produced by Linneman’s spanking-new stage, have elevated the status of the open mic to something of an acoustic nirvana. Linneman speaks with zealous passion about the phenomenon. “It’s all about letting the musicians improve and hone their craft. It’s truly my favorite night of the week,” he says. “There’s nothing like watching someone who has signed up and is nervous about playing, then when the moment comes and they’ve made it through the song… they’re euphoric. It’s a really great feeling. With seasoned [bands], it’s just not the same.” The open stage is not only a great venue for musicians, but also provides an opportunity for people to hear some extraordinary live music for free — there is no cover charge. Linneman shrugs off the claim that open mics offer a mediocre brand of music. “I think the perception of any open mic is that it’s ‘amateur hour.’ But we’ve had guys play the open stage week after week, really working on their craft, guys who have graduated to bigger things… like Lil’ Rev and Chris Voss of Freshwater Collins.” And the list goes on. Members of now-established bands such as Salt Creek, Westfall, Frogwater, The Violent Femmes, and The BoDeans have all previously graced Linneman’s open stage. The event has been drawing musicians and live music fanatics for more than 10 years, which distinguishes it as the longest continuously running open mic in Milwaukee. With the new stage and hoards of musicians clamoring over the sign up sheet, it is perhaps more popular than ever. But you get the feeling Linneman would hold open mics even if the current enthusiasm faded. “Music is always the most important thing to me. It’s even more important than the business,” he says. “I’d rather see 20 smiling faces [at the open stage] than 100 people in the bar not having any fun.”