Chris, left, and his father, Robert Pepper, perform at an open mic night Dec. 15 at Veronicas in Kenai. Chris, who picked up the guitar four years ago, has played music with his father for about three years. The Peppers perform together and separately Robert played solo at Fridays open mic night at Kenai Peninsula College, and the pair played Kaladi Brothers on Saturday.
Photos by John Hult
Near the halfway stretch of a bluesy solo, Robert Pepper pauses for a moment and leans closer to his son.
“Change,” he said.
His son Chris, playing rhythm guitar, changes chords just in time to match the next notes of his father’s solo.
Later in the evening, friends James Robert Reed and Jason Alfred Smith perform a song written that afternoon, they said about the tragic death of a pet gerbil. Reed and Smith had to look in their notebook to keep up with the lyrics, which kept the smallish crowd at Veronica’s in Kenai in stitches.
These sorts of exchanges often characterize an increasingly popular outlet on the peninsula for musicians looking for a bit of exposure and a chance to meet other musicians: the open mic night.
Veronica’s in Kenai holds open mic nights Thursdays, Kenai Peninsula College has one every third Friday and Hooligan’s Saloon holds an open jam night each Thursday.
The formula is basically the same for each musicians show up, sign in and wait their turn. The Hooligan’s jam nights involve even more spontaneity, with musicians sometimes plugging in and improvising solos to songs others are performing and they happen to know.
“It’s a good chance for people who don’t play much to play in front of people,” Chris Pepper said.
Rebecca Lambourn and her husband, Stan Coleman, bought Veronica’s the place they met about a year and a half ago and hoped to turn it into a venue for local musicians and a nice place to have dinner. In addition to open mic night, Veronica’s features live jazz every Friday.
“I moved here 18 years ago and it was unbelievable to me that a small town population could carry such a large population of talented people,” Lambourn said. “I don’t know if this place attracts talented people or if we have a great educational system that’s churning them out, but we have a lot of musical talent here.”
In the past three months, Veronica’s music nights have become so popular that Lambourn often runs out of space. Open mic night performers sometimes squeeze into corners or sit on the stairs to make room for those who want to hear them.
“That’s happening pretty regularly now,” Lambourn said.
For Chris and Robert Pepper, playing at Veronica’s means the chance to play in a building with old wooden walls and floors that are so conducive to bringing the best sound out of musical instruments they don’t even need to plug in their guitars.
It also makes for a great father-son activity.
“It’s really gratifying for me as a dad to play music with him,” Robert said.
Robert also performed solo Friday at KPC’s open mic night, but he was the only carry-over. KPC’s history of open mic events goes back two and a half years, with most events drawing a crowd of about 30 to the KPC commons.
Zach Daniels, left, and Billy Strain perform at an open mic night Friday at Kenai Peninsula College. Strain hosts an open jam night each Thursday at Hooligans Saloon in Soldotna. Strain and Daniels, performing together, are known as 150 Grit.
According to KPC Student Union Program Officer Kristina Durrerova, the biggest problem at KPC is finding time to accommodate the musicians without pushing the evening too late.
“There is actually no space for having more,” Durrerova said. “I don’t want to cut them off after one song. I think seven or eight (acts) is just about the right number.”
There is one outlet in Soldotna where time is not an issue: Hooligan’s. According to saloon manager Randy Merritt, open jam night starts each Thursday by 10 p.m. and runs until 2 a.m. or later, depending on the crowd.
Hooligan’s restarted open jam night this September after some failed attempts over the past few years. This time it works, Merritt said, because of emcee Zach Daniels, a local musician who performed at KPC’s event Friday. Daniels’ knowledge of the local music scene means he can keep musicians informed of the opportunity to play and prod them into showing up, Merritt said.
James Robert Reed, left, and Jason Alfred Smith of Kenai perform an original song at an open mic night Dec. 15 at Veronicas in Kenai.
Photo by John Hult
Though December’s numbers have chilled slightly, Thursdays at Hooligan’s are becoming popular, with about a dozen musicians taking turns entertaining.
“It’s not uncommon to have 60 people in here on a Thursday,” Merritt said.
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