Winter provokes a desire for weekly rituals and gatherings of friends. Such rituals coax us out of the coziness of our homes and into the public square, whatever that may be. We seek a leisure activity that can prod us out of the doldrums and into society — something to make us take a shower, dress like a human being, and escape our Netflix comfort zone. Something, besides work, to get us off the couch.
For many Leelanau denizens, the answer is team trivia at a favorite tavern. Studies show that joining a trivia team reduces seasonal affective disorder by 87%. (OK - I made that up, but it’s probably true!)
While I adore and rely upon team trivia during the winter, there are other weekly opportunities to be social. One example is the joyous indoor cornhole league at the Little Traverse Inn on Wednesday nights. But for the purposes of this blog about art, I would draw your attention to the wonderful Open Mic Night at Fischer’s Happy Hour Tavern on Thursdays, hosted by smokey-voiced singer-songwriter Elizabeth Landry, one of the most prominent and accomplished musicians in Northern Michigan.
The Happy Hour is a historic destination restaurant in a rather random location. Its woodwork facade and heraldic sign greet you halfway between Leland and Northport, on M-22. You’re reminded of a quaint roadside gastropub in, say, Bavaria. A friend of mine from Empire says she wishes the Happy Hour were closer to her, because she’d go there all the time. That feeling is widespread among everyone who doesn’t live near the Happy Hour. Everyone who knows it loves it. Many have fond memories of it from childhood. And everyone craves the famous broasted chicken dinner.
(By the way, they also have the best martinis; ask for pickled Brussels sprouts as a garnish, and your life will be changed.)
The Happy Hour is on its third generation of family ownership. I was once told “You can count on one hand the number of things that have changed since the ‘70s.” The candy machine in the entrance way is still there. So is the colorful lamp with the three balloon-like bulbs, softly glowing.
During peak season, the Happy Hour is slammed. But during the winter, it becomes the ideal setting for a Thursday evening of intimate music, poetry, comedy, and storytelling, in the form of an open mic night. The Thursday I went there was uncharacteristically quiet, thanks to a treacherous “wintry mix” that made the roads dicey. But I was still treated to a lovely evening of music, companionship, and laughter. And I even summoned the courage to recite a poem: Emily Dickinson’s snow poem, “It sifts from Leaden Sieves.” You might think that at a country tavern, such fancy poetry would be met with cocked eyebrows. But in the country, I was roundly congratulated on my recitation, including by a big man known as Meat Pie who plays a mean harmonica. Open mic night is…open. There’s no judgment, no snickering. Just a bunch of folks who are grateful for each other’s company and talents on a winter evening.
During a break, I was able to catch up with Elizabeth Landry and ask her some questions about her experience hosting the open mic night.
I’ll start with a fun question I ask every artist for this blog. What is your spirit animal, and why?
I’ve been told that my sea animal is a dolphin and my land animal is a hummingbird. And I don’t know why, but that’s what I’ve been told by multiple people.
What are the moments from open mic night that have made you smile the most and been the most rewarding?
I just love doing open mic because where it stems from is my career started with doing open mics. I was a very nervous, quiet singer and almost would never sing in front of people. And I started doing open mics and the ball started rolling, and I started getting hired and all that stuff. So the reason why I do open mic is because I love to encourage other people who are shy to sing or tell their story.
You call it the “traveling open mic.” Do you do open mics elsewhere as well?
Yeah, so my open mic started at the Taproot Cider House. I hosted that for four years in Traverse City, and it just blew up. It would be wall-to-wall musicians, people coming out of the woodwork. I met so many musicians doing that, and I loved it so much. But I do not live in Traverse anymore. And so, I missed doing that – I missed the network of the musicians that come in for open mic. So I started last winter doing this one at the Happy Hour. And they can only do open mic in the winter, because in the summer they’re so busy. I had so many emails coming in saying “Do you want to do open mic here, do you want to do open mic there,” so I turned it into the traveling open mic. And so basically when I do it at other venues, it’s always for a month, it’s always on Thursday nights. Last summer I did Hop Lot Brewing Company, I did Big Cat Brewing Company – I can’t even remember them all.
Thursdays are the days that work for me, because I’m a working musician as well. Weekends are my time to work.
If it’s a slow night, like tonight, you’ll just play?
Yeah, as the host, if no one shows up, I’ll just the play the whole time. But it’s really cool because if I just say “Hey, this mic is open! We can do songs, we can do poetry, we can do jokes,” then almost always someone will come up and do something. It’s just really special, you know? It’s fun! It puts people out of their element to put out there what they want to say. I even had one guy who did real estate ads. It was really weird, and I had to cut him off.
He was literally just pitching himself and his business for the open mic?
Wow, you gotta give him points for chutzpah. That’s hilarious. Do you get some stand up comedy? Like really weird stand up?
Yeah, we do! Really weird, really raunchy. We’ve even had somebody come up and tell her life story. There’s a woman in the county who lost her son, and she got up and talked about that. And it was really amazing, because everyone was really supportive.
So that wasn’t even stand up comedy, that was just storytelling.
Yeah. And it was really amazing for the community, knowing her story just from the news and what they were hearing, to hear this woman speak and talk about her experience. It becomes a really sacred place for people.
Another question I ask everyone for this blog is “Why do you think Leelanau is such a great home for artists? It’s obviously the beauty of the area, but what’s the je ne sais quoi? What’s the thing?
In my experience it is a lot of people that are not part of the corporate world. It’s just we all – whether we’ve been to college and have a degree, whatever it is – you hold a job that will support your family, whether you’re a server, or a hostess, or you know, what you’re doing…We all just do what we can to live here, because it’s such an amazing community. And it really is that. We all know each other’s kids, we’re there for each other when there’s loss and gain, and we just really are there for each other. And that’s why we’re here.
Where can we see you perform on your own?
I play all over the place is Michigan. I have a website. elandrysings.com. I have my schedule on there, and all my albums and my music.
P.S. See Elizabeth Landry perform with Blake Elliott at 6:00pm on Valentine’s Day at Fischer’s Happy Hour Tavern!