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End Of An Era

By Gary Wien

originally published: 09/05/2005

He's not quite sure what he's going to do on Tuesday nights from now on, but one thing is certain - Tuesday nights just won't be the same in New Brunswick without the Spook Handy Show. The longest running open mic night in Hub City has a staple for musicians and music fans for the last twenty years. But on September 13th, the Spook Handy Show will celebrate its 1,000 night and conclude an era with a final go around at the Corner Tavern.

"It's just been a great experience," said Spook Handy. "But as I was getting close to the 1,000th show someone said, =iI wonder what you're gonna do for a 2,000th show.' And I started thinking about it. I've put a lot of my heart into this, but it's time to move on."

New Brunswick has always had a thriving music scene, but when the Spook Handy Show first started there was only one other open mic in Middlesex County (in Kingston). It was one of the rare periods in the city's history without a plethora of open mics as the 60s and 70s had plenty and there are open mics all over the city today.

Spook pretty much revolutionized the local open mic. In fact, he never really liked calling the Spook Handy Show an open mic, it was more of a talent showcase. Artists would sign up in advance and get a 20-minute slot. They would know exactly when they were scheduled to play and could tell their fans to come around that time rather than make people wait all night at an open mic where they might not even get a chance to play.

"If you go back 20 years, before we started doing this, nobody would understand what it was all about," explained Handy. "What do you mean you sign up in advance? That's not an open mic. Nowadays it's hard to tell people it's not an open mic because they do that in lots of places in New Jersey. But traditionally the way an open mic works is that people show up at 7:30pm and they sign up and the show starts at 8pm. You get to do one, two or sometimes three songs and it's on a first come, first served basis.

"When you do it where people get to sign up in advance you get to feature artists. You can also accomodate somebody's work schedule and the big thing is that people get to invite their friends down. So we would have a band come down and play and they'd tell their fans they were going on at 12:30. Around 12 o'clock, 40 or 50 people would walk in the doors to see the band."

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Plenty of talented people took their turns on stage during the Spook Handy Show. Thinking back, Spook rattles off names like Gregg Cagno, Jonathan Tristram, Jack Stock as some of his favorites. Some artists, like Carrie Newcomer, have gone on to very successful careers in the music business. Carrie has shared the stage with a variety of other performers, including Alison Krauss and Union Station, BonnieRaitt, Rosanne Cash and Mary Chapin Carpenter. In addition, the band Nickel Creek covered her song, "I Should've Known Better" on its 2003 Grammy Award-winning and Gold CD This Side, produced by Alison Krauss, with whom Carrie toured in Europe.

One of Spook's favorite stories is of a couple who actually met at the open mic on a blind date. "Both of them asked each other what did they want to do with their life and they both said they wanted to move to Nashville and write country songs," said Handy. "And that's what they did. They actually wrote a couple of number one country hits and were asked to write music for the Broadway musical Urban Cowboy. And they were nominated for a Tony Award for that!"

Although the Spook Handy Show will be ending, Spook will still be running an open mic at the Red Lion Cafe at the Rutgers University Student Center. That open mic takes place on Wednesday nights during the school year (about 25 shows per year), which isn't quite as stressful as running one all year long. The performers range from seasoned veterans to undergrads just learning how to perform publically. The setup takes advantage of Spook's natural ability to teach people about music.

Spook will also be taking his own work to a new level by watching, learning and playing more with masters of his craft like Pete Seeger. He plans on playing more festivals and concentrating on learning the stories and old songs that will be added to his act alongside his originals.

The final Corner Tavern shows in September will both be special for Spook as the September 6th show will be the long-awaited celebration of the 900th show. For some reason they never got around to celebrating the 900th show, so they'll be doing it on that night. And then on the 13th, he'll celebrate the 1,000 show with a very special night. It'll be just the second time in 20 years that the show will be conducted on two stages (upstairs and downstairs in the basement). The music will be started two hours earlier than usual (7:30pm) in order to fit as many performers as possible into the night. And the list of performers for the final night will read like a who's who of the last 20 years. The event will be documented by a local film crew to be aired on cable television.

"It's time to move on," said Handy. "It's kind of like you're running along the side of a cliff and after a while you say =iwhen am I going to jump off and see if I can fly?'"

Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at gary@newjerseystage.com.



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