Each Tuesday night, beginning at 6:30 p.m. sharp, a brass spittoon is passed around South Slope’s , a crowd of local musicians, songwriters and entertainers each drawing a number, determining that night’s lineup for the bar’s famous open mic night.
The intimate corner bar, located at Seventh Avenue and 15th street, hosts not just any open mic night—it has been a neighborhood for the past seven years. It’s a tradition that has launched bands like Wakey! Wakey! and musicians like Steve Waitt and Tarrah Reynolds into the New York City music scene, each band at one point taking their own turn to draw from the spittoon.
Bar 4’s sound engineer (and founder of Open Mic Night) Niko Kaparos calls every number, one by one, until everyone has chosen a slot for that night. Each performer gets two songs and 10 minutes. Show starts at 8 p.m., and often crawl into the wee hours of the night.
It’s a long night, sure. Tuesdays see an average of 40 artists. But it’s filled with a community of artists who are dedicated to their art and dedicated to their fellow musicians.
“It’s a big time commitment,” says Bucky Hayes, a Georgia transplant who has been playing at this open mic night almost every Tuesday since 2005. “If you get number 42 and you’re here at 7 p.m. you won’t play until 3 a.m.—that’s longer than a day at work and a lot of beers.”
The diversity of talented musicians and artists is another trait of this cash only bar, which has a lounge-y feel with three old, but comfortable couches.
“We have a plethora of ridiculously good musicians come in every week. At least half of them are new every time and at least half of them are great,” said Kaparos, who says he has no tolerance for open mics—except at Bar 4. “We have singer/songwriters, rappers, comedians. One guy came in and read us his book. It took him seven months, 10 minutes at a time.”
The audience is another draw at this local watering hole. It’s a surefire spot to find will fans; the bar becomes entranced by the talent playing on the small, the evening lineup as much a draw for the audience as artists.
“It’s an accepting environment, you don’t have to adhere to one’s sound. It’s country one time, punk the next, and then indie folk, but they’re all accepted,” said Hayes. “It’s a songwriter’s environment and no matter what kind of genre, people here listen. It’s not a lonesome open mic, but rather a great open-minded environment.”
On one particularly wet night last month, the first act saw a duo of two brothers, Michael and Robert Wagner. Michael plays the guitar and ukulele and Robert plays the curved soprano saxophone.
Michael claimed that he invented a genre he describes as “a mix of crazy Flamenco with a tinge of swing.” His sound is frantic and aggressive.
“It’s intense, beautiful, a little angry, but full of heart,” he said before the brothers hit the stage.
Debbie Miller, the second musician to hit the stage that night, is a 28-year-old who is studying medicine in Washington State, but makes frequent trips back to Bar 4, to give homage to the venue that inspired her record “Fake Love.”
“Bar 4 is my home,” she said. “It’s a lot of people’s home base.”
Her indie folk songs revolve around topics like the F train, Bar 4 and of course heartache induced by “fake love.”
Peter Salvato, another regular, comes nearly every week to pound away on his Cajon, a Peruvian percussion box.
“It’s a nice-to-meet-ya, a nice-to-hear-ya-play type of crowd,” he said.
He said that Bar 4 is a place for real artists, meaning not judgmental and competitive ones. “This has been an incubator for really, really good musicians over the past seven years.”
“At the end of the day you’re not going to get famous,” said Hayes said. “But it’s a way to get into the songwriting community and to have those people know about you, and to drink in your neighborhood, with friends.”