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Brief Flings With Fame : Open-mike nights at a handful of Valley coffeehouses offer performances from the sublime to the ridiculous.

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; <i> Steve Appleford writes regularly about music for The Times</i>

The man with the guitar is apologizing already, before strumming a single chord. Don McIntyre has come to resurrect a musical career he put aside in 1976. Now he’s worried that the song he’s about to sing, with the lyric “There ain’t nothing so grand as the average man” may sound chauvinistic to this mostly young coffeehouse crowd.

He wrote the tune back when he was a hard-line fundamentalist, a Reagan man, McIntyre explains later. Now he’s just one of at least a dozen acts set to play this open-mike night at Common Grounds in Northridge, where struggling musicians come each week to enjoy a precious 10 minutes on stage and where self-doubt and brief show-biz glory are never in short supply.

The only thing keeping McIntyre from his big moment is the terrible rattle from across the room. “Can I wait until the grinder stops?”

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It’s only a brief interruption on a local coffeehouse scene where audiences and musicians have discovered a warm alternative to the usual clubs, bars and other venues across the San Fernando Valley. At a handful of these coffeehouses, weekly open-mike nights have created a growing scene of players and listeners. They come to play and hear a crush of folk, rock, jazz and classical in its pure form, whether performed by baby players taking their first steps on stage or veterans testing new material. For McIntyre, 37, the experience would ultimately prove “pretty gratifying.”

The music itself on open-mike night ranges from the mundane to the experimental, pleasant to confrontational, a cappella to instrumental solo. Recent nights have included singer-songwriters, pop trios and rock duos, a band of ceramic drum players called Plaster Pie, a flute soloist, pianists, conga players and an endless line of guitarists.

In between, there have been the occasional tone-deaf vocalists, the comedians who have yet to master the art of humor, the magician whose dove escaped into the rafters, and the performer who told jokes and stories to the severed head of a pig he carried with him. (“What do you think of that, Piggy?”)

“Yeah, some things can be pretty awful,” says Tom Ianniello, owner of the Iguana Cafe in North Hollywood. “But some things are really, really good. That’s open-mike night. Anybody can come in, and they do.”

Performers are not paid, so there is usually no cover charge to the audience, though some coffeehouses require a minimum drink purchase.

For the performers at Common Grounds, open-mike night begins a half-hour before the 8:30 p.m. show time, as musicians crowd around host Don Edwards, all looking for a spot on the evening’s lineup. Names are drawn from a jar, and each act is allotted two songs.

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During the three-hour show, Edwards marches the players on and off the small stage, adjusts the sound level and drifts out the door to coach untested musicians or smoke a cigarette, taking his long gray hair in and out of a ponytail. A session guitarist with 32 years of experience, Edwards also regularly admonishes his audience in a good-natured, if somewhat curmudgeonly drawl.

“If you’re too good to clap, you’re too good to be here!” is one of his regular themes. Or, “I run this open mike. The buck stops here.”

He also says he makes a point of encouraging young musicians still in school, who might be intimidated by the older talent, to make that first appearance in front of an audience. “Playing a recital with your parents and other students is a whole lot different from standing out there on top of that stage with God-only-knows in the room,” Edwards says. “You’re walking into the real world there.”

Sitting outside among players and singers warming up, acoustic guitarist Michael Cramer laughs. “He’s just like a counselor at camp,” Cramer says of Edwards, soon after his own performance as part of the duo Great Scott. “It’s a lot of fun.”

Cramer and his partner, Scott Kail, are regulars at the Wednesday open mike. As they talk, a harmonica player in cowboy boots and a ponytail blows alongside some slide guitar, and a young woman singer absently paces with an Elton John songbook. The Great Scott duo comes for their 10 minutes on stage, in part to promote their full-length performances on other nights at Common Grounds and elsewhere and to keep the music of Great Scott in the air.

“We do it for a lack of a record playing on the radio all the time,” Kail says.

Another regular on Wednesday nights is singer-guitarist Rustle Davidson. “When you’re not playing somewhere,” he insists, “it just wells up inside you.”

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At the Iguana, guitarist Fred Davis says, “I play out around the open mikes when I can.” He’s also a regular volunteer on the soundboard at the coffeehouse. “An open-mike night is like a sampler CD; you’re going to see a lot of different kinds of acts.

“We had one woman here who had a slide show and recorded music, and she started doing this weird interpretive dance thing,” adds Davis, 30, of Burbank. “Then she started throwing condoms at the audience, and there were skulls flashing on the wall. It was wild.”

There are those who get the wrong idea, Edwards says. Those who think that the imperfect acoustics, the typical coffeehouse mixture of mismatched chairs, board games and coffee mugs somehow mean that the music isn’t to be taken seriously.

“I had a guy get up who’d never held a guitar in his life, or maybe once in his life,” he says. “And he sat there and made noises on the instrument. I stopped him and said that’s not what this is about. And he said, ‘Yo, man, this is jazz improv.’ ”

At the Iguana Cafe, “people take it real seriously,” says owner Ianniello, a singer-songwriter himself who occasionally performs at the coffeehouse and bookstore. Open-mike night is not limited to musicians, but they tend to dominate the Sunday shows, though there is also the occasional comedian, magician, poet or performance artist.

So the Iguana has become an essential part of an emerging community of coffeehouse players and listeners. “There’s a lot of networking that goes on,” Ianniello says. “People meet each other, get together to co-write stuff, groups get formed, break up. On that level it’s very exciting.”

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Singer-songwriter Cherish Alexander, 21, of Sherman Oaks is a former dance-music artist whose current musical direction has led her to play coffeehouses. Although she plays regular gigs with her band Orange Orange, she’s still drawn to the swirl of musicians found at open-mike nights.

“It’s a great hang,” she says, standing in denim overalls outside Common Grounds. “I’ve become friends with a lot of people who play here.”

Inside, Clare Vincze and her friends have huddled around a game of Scrabble for hours as different acts have come and gone from the stage. Although the trio appears not to be paying attention to the music that’s otherwise drowning out most conversation, they insist that they come nearly every week. And they’ve never left during a performance.

“You get to see a bunch of different bands, so you get to see different tastes of music,” said her boyfriend, Shane Morrison, 21.

“We’d rather hang out and drink coffee and play games than go to a bar and get drunk,” says Vincze, also 21, of Reseda.

Without alcohol as an ingredient, musicians say they find a different reaction from audiences. They’re somehow more attentive, says singer Donna Deussen, 28, who travels from her home on the Westside with her flutist sister, Michelle, to perform in open-mike shows in the Valley.

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“People listen here more,” she says after one of her Common Grounds performances. “At a bar people are drinking and not paying attention as much. You get better feedback here.”

These open-mike evenings are also used by most coffeehouses as testing grounds for musicians hoping to win regular gigs on other nights of the week.

“It’s a lot easier to tell,” says Ron Lancaster, owner of the Storyteller Bookstore and Cafe in Canoga Park. “If they just send me a tape, they could add a full orchestra to their sound. And you really can’t tell how they’re going to be with an audience, whether they have any rapport. I want to see if they’re nice people.”

The Storyteller caters to an older crowd and is a bit less Bohemian than those that attract students and others in their 20s and 30s, Lancaster says. Audiences often include people who were part of another coffeehouse scene, back in the 1950s, such as Lancaster himself, 52, a former musician and comedian.

His open-mike show lasts only one hour a week, beginning at 4 p.m. most Sundays. And it tends to attract folk, jazz and classical musicians in their 50s and 60s, he says.

“We have some people here who haven’t played for 15 or 20 years,” Lancaster says. “A lot of them have said they wouldn’t go to a regular coffeehouse because they would feel too funny.”

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As at most open-mike coffeehouses in the Valley, the atmosphere is mostly encouraging, since a good performance is of benefit to the player, audience and venue.

As for the Iguana, Ianniello says he just hopes no one climbs onto the stage and does something that will get him into trouble. “They can get as weird as they want,” Ianniello says. “As long as nobody dies, it’s fine with me.”

Where and When Cobalt Cafe, 21622 Ventura Blvd, Woodland Hills, (818) 348-3789. Open mike 7:30 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays. Coffee Junction, 19221 Ventura Blvd., Tarzana, (818) 342-3405. Open mike 3-5 p.m. Sundays. Common Grounds, 9250 Reseda Blvd., Northridge, (818) 882-3666. Open mike 8:30 p.m. Wednesdays. The Iguana Cafe, 10943 Camarillo St., North Hollywood, (818) 763-7735. Open mike 6:30 p.m. Sundays. The Storyteller Bookstore and Cafe, 22047 Sherman Way, Canoga Park, (818) 713-2518. Open mike 4 to 5 p.m. most Sundays.

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