A safari through one of the hottest spots in Clifton's arty night life.
by: Zeke Haskell
According to Google there are over ten different colleges in the Cincinnati area. However, none have grown a college town environment quite like the University of Cincinnati. It’s sprawling campus has become the acropolis of Clifton, a neighborhood so densely populated for its small size it might be in danger of violating a city evacuation code or something to the effect. Made up primarily of students, arty types, drug dealers, and frat-boy alumni who aren’t ready to cut their greek umbilical cords; Clifton is the embodiment of college-town living in Cincinnati.
Appropriately, Clifton is an exciting center of creativity. Despite the closing of many of Clifton’s iconic venues (R.I.P. Top Cats and Sudsy Malone’s) the neighborhood has a lot to offer. Bogart’s on Short Vine still draws big name acts both underground and mainstream, The Mad Frog consistently books great local bands, and coffee houses like Taza, Aquarius Star, and Sitwells all offer local talent the chance to showcase their art. However, one open mic night has grown into a Frankenstein-like monster of a show: Thursdays at Baba Budan’s.
Nati Sound sent me up to Baba’s to candidly observe and report on this watering hole gathering of performing artists. I struggled up and down the cramped side-streets searching for anything resembling a parking space; eventually I succumbed to parking in a lot that charged a quarter for every ten minutes. I had just parked and already I felt like I’d been mugged.
I causally sauntered into the crowded coffee house/bar. Baba’s boasts “Clifton’s longest running open mic night” and their experience shows in the efficiency with which the night is run. I took a seat by the wall, sipping a $1.50 PBR and scribbling notes. The artists came in like refugees, hauling arm-fulls of equipment and instrument cases. They are immediately greeted by the master of ceremonies, John Funcheon; a bearded mid-20s chap who is, on occasion, known to appear in a scottish kilt. He holds in his power a clipboard that determines the order of playing for all the open mic attendees. Mr. Funcheon inherited the open mic night from the M.C.s Rome and Skandal in April of 2010 when they left for greener pastures. John enthusiastically took up the torch, refusing to let the bastion of free expression die out.
This open mic night is not just a guy-and-a-guitar type affair. The bar is packed with comedians, rappers, R&B/Soul singers, full-band blues groups, solo-bass guitar virtuosos, poets, techno-electronic DJs, and ukulele songstresses. There is really no telling what you will see next, and the range of talent makes for an incredibly entertaining evening. Each performer plays two or three songs, providing a delicious bite-size morsel of their style without allowing it to go stale to the ears. If there is ever an act you dislike, a cigarette smoke later there will be a new artist on stage doing something completely different. The acts that aren’t very good only go to show how good the talented ones really are, making the overall show even better in my opinion.
The people that attend the open mic are as varied as the acts. Girls with dreadlocks and long skirts mix with mohawked punks, Cinci-fitted University bros, indie hipsters, and rappers. Throughout the crowd, the atmosphere is friendly and supportive. Roaring applause is awarded to every act as they finish, putting a blush on each performer’s face. Strangers approached me and struck up idle conversation; I enjoyed getting to know people almost as much I did watching the show. The dim yellow lighting and the scents of beer, coffee, and patchouli set the perfect scene in which to imbibe these budding artists as they poured their souls, one after another, into their ten minutes of stage time.
Over the course of the night, I started to catch on to the cast of characters that frequent Baba’s open mic. An acoustic/soul artist Thom Foolery, can be found playing multiple sets every Thursday. Another singer-songwriter that goes by the name of White Rabbit is also a routine performer. The Heffron Bros, Oh, Valiance!, Kevin Behm, and countless others will often appear to give the congregation a sample of their newest material. For others, it is their very first time performing at Baba’s, or anywhere ever; like the funk/blues band Clear that features a standing drummer who is also the lead vocalist.
A poet, who’s name I failed to catch, received a standing ovation after delivering a particularly striking speech. I clapped and cheered with the rest of the room, touched to my core by the young Cliftonite’s impassioned words. Another performer, dressed entirely in marijuana related apparel, sang two R&B/Raggae songs about how much he loves smoking pot and listening to Bob Marley. The night grew late and the list of artists dwindled to the end. As the crowds sifted out into the bright intersections of Clifton and McMillan, the atmosphere became more intimate and the performances just as intense. My beer and coffee had both worn off but I continued starring on in a swirling haze of awe until the final chord was struck and John wished us all a good night.
Baba Budan’s open mic night is an experience unrivaled in its variety and entertainment value. A modern vaudevillian speakeasy show with a college-town charm. In a city where the bland and boring choke our weekdays, Baba’s open mic is an oasis of interest and excitement on a Thursday night in lively, lovely Clifton Heights. As I walked toward my car, watching cigarette smoke curl up toward the moon, I smiled in pleasant fulfillment. Perhaps Cincinnati’s art scene is not as dead as everyone would make it out to be. Just when I thought my night was complete I realized my car was no longer in the parking lot where I had left it. I was so caught up in the show that I had forgotten to pay the meter. Oh, Clifton...you are a cruel mistresss...