Band Width

Band Width

“So, who wants to start?” somebody asks.

On the small stage are three guys, one drum kit, several microphones, a few amps, some pedals and a couple of cords snaking up to two electric guitars. Behind the band, letters spelling “Stella Blues” appear backwards in the dark window, facing the street outside. Inside, the weekly Tuesday night open mic is getting underway.

Stella Blues’s house band, Uncle Swoosh, has already warmed up the tiny crowd with a long Grateful Dead-inspired jam, appropriate for a bar that bears the name of one of the Dead’s most mournful tunes. The sign-in table, dressed up with a tablecloth and strewn with CDs, is waiting. So far, just one brave soul has signed up, a bass player named Kevin Carroll. He’s up.

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One of the cool things about Stella Blues’s open mic is that it offers more than just a microphone. Bonuses include a strong sound system manned by an engineer and a full band, Uncle Swoosh, who will back up whoever wants them to. For Carroll, this means a turn in bass player Greg Perault’s spot. Perault goes off for a beer, and with lead guitarist and vocalist Duncan Lindsay and substitute drummer Nate Lawson (Cemre Dogan usually occupies the throne), Carroll launches into a funky bass line of his own. Lindsay holds back, playing restrained chords in the background and giving Carroll his moment in the spotlight—which is mostly metaphorical, because the lighting is minimal.

The music is hesitant at first as the musicians try each other out. Carroll pours out one bass line, then another, as Lawson keeps the engine running on drums and Lindsay dips in and out of the tune. They get warmer as they play, and eventually they’re humming like a well-oiled machine, as if they’ve all played together many times before.

“Whatever they want to play, we’ll back them up,” Lawson had told me earlier. “This is pretty much the best open mic situation.”

“We’re pretty versatile,” Perault agreed, and that much is clear. Uncle Swoosh’s repertoire is revealed later in the evening when they launch into Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young, the Doors and the Allman Brothers in one long and seamless jam.

Up next is rapper Puma Simone, whose original lyrics drop local references. “All together now!” her refrain insists. Mic in hand, she leaves the stage to drill her words harder. Her rapport with the band makes it seem she must be a regular, but she reports this was her first time on Stella’s stage.

Carroll and Simone are the only takers. It’s a quiet night for open mic—too cold, maybe, suggests bartender Katie Matican, who’s worked at Stella Blues for all of its 8 years. Usually, Matican reports, the list is full. Signup begins at 8:30 and the music starts around 9 with an Uncle Swoosh opener. Open mic performers get 20 minutes, a substantial amount of time compared to some other venues. The band fills in any gaps. With no cover charge and this kind of talent, Tuesday’s the night to step in for a drink and a listen.

The bar itself doesn’t try to be fancy. Along with mostly standard liquors and mixers, it’s got a casual selection of canned beer (on special, $3 for Busch and $4 for PBR)—a few beers are on tap as well—and a single-item food menu of Hot Pockets (which weren’t available on my visit). Dappled blue light fixtures, probably a reference to the bar’s name, hang over the taps; one bulb is out. There’s seating at the bar and a few tables in front, with a pool table in the back room and a small patio for warmer times. One Yelp reviewer calls it “a step above your standard dive.” Others rave about the club’s almost nightly live music shows, ranging from rock to funk to metal to jazz.

Of course, you can hear all that in a single evening, if you hit the right open mic night.

Open Mic Night at Stella Blues
204 Crown St, New Haven (map)
Tuesdays at 9pm (8:30 signup)
(203) 752-9764

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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