As darkness settles like a heavy blanket over a North End backyard, a stage lights up. Flames erupt in a fire pit and on tiki-torches, illuminating a path behind the stage. The space in front of the stage fills with people, some holding guitars and others clutching ratty notebooks. The empty stage beckons.
After some quiet chatter among the spectators, a man rises to the stage and takes a seat at a keyboard. His name is Drew Navarro. Crowd chatter ceases as all eyes turn in his direction. Scattered applause erupts as he hits the first chord. His playing is so forceful that the keyboard rocks back and forth on its wobbly stand. He sings his song loudly and passionately enough that he doesn't need a microphone. Voices in the crowd remain mostly silent throughout his performance, except for the occasional quiet "wow" between friends. When Navarro finishes, everyone wildly claps and whistles. Soon another man picks up his guitar and heads to the center of the stage as the crowd quiets to take in his performance. Most of the spectators will become performers throughout the night. This is Music and Story Night.
Music and Story Night is a place where Boise musicians, comedians, poets, thespians, artists, and any other kind of performer can go to see and be seen. This incomparably intimate version of an open mic night wasn't Navarro's idea, but he is responsible for bringing it to Boise. He attended his first Music and Story Night as a college student in Berkeley, California, in 1995. In 2004, after living in Boise for over a year, Navarro, who was in a band, brought up the idea to his band mates. "I wanted to continue my college joy," he says. His motivations, however, aren't purely self-oriented. He envisions a "creative community of amateur-type artists" in Boise and saw Music and Story Night as a "stage to work out things." His band mates, always looking for another avenue in which to perform, readily agreed to the idea. Navarro's roommate at the time--who always performs stand-up comedy at the nights--was on board, too. They held Boise's first Music and Story Night on June 24, 2004, in the back yard of their house on Eastman Street.
Since then, there have been about a dozen Music and Story nights and the event has evolved into something that adherents love and anticipate. Despite its informality, the event has grown to encompass a sophisticated mission and rules that differentiate it from Boise's other open mic nights. The most notable of these rules are the enforced lack of an emcee and the participation requirement. Navarro likes to say that "there are no spectators allowed." There is also no sign-in sheet and definitely no conversation during performances. These rules might appear just a bit militant for an open mic night. The number one rule, however, is that anything goes. Though most of what happens on stage is music, anything and everything is encouraged. This stage has hosted everything from comedians and storytellers to fire dancers and slam poets.
Despite this seeming success, Navarro's a bit disappointed with Boise's version of the event. His eyes light up as he leans in closer to tell me about the nights in Berkeley. "In Berkeley, you didn't have to say participation only. The students there are highly motivated." While Boise's nights draw a crowd in the neighborhood of 30 to 50 people, Berkeley's brought in over 100--and almost everyone performed. An ongoing complaint with Music and Story Night in Boise is how many people don't perform. He explains how in Berkeley, five people would simultaneously approach the stage and have to work out who would go first and last. With that level of enthusiastic participation, there was never a dull moment. Navarro remembers acquaintances who would take a seat next to him after performing and he could hardly hold in his astonishment at having seen them play cello with precision or craft life experiences into engaging stories--talents he never knew they possessed. This is the heart of Music and Story Night.
Navarro attributes the problems with Music and Story Night in Boise to the limited number of musicians in the Treasure Valley who aren't interested in open mic performance. Instead, he says, they'll play covers at some bar. Navarro, however, would urge those musicians to use Music and Story Night as a place to go out on a limb. "I'd rather see someone play violin not very well at Music and Story Night than play covers on a guitar very well," says Navarro. In Berkeley, nearly everyone had a secret talent--a phenomenon that Navarro credits to the large concentration of college students. In Boise, it seems that the people pursuing a musical talent are a class of performers who frequent Boise's restaurants and bars.
The ultimate idea behind Music and Story Night, however, is that you don't need to be "talented" to perform. The small collection of people who are always present at the nights believe that everyone can do something. Talent isn't a commodity few possess and others envy, but rather something anyone has the capacity for. This democratic spirit at the core of Music and Story Night is the crucial element setting it apart from other Treasure Valley venues. It's the reason Navarro thinks Boise musicians should come out of the shadows and light up the stage.
There are two more Music and Story Nights this year: July 29 and September 16. They will start around 9 p.m. and take place at a North End home. Call 510-798-5060 or visit www.myspace.com/frictionzine for directions and more information.