Artist on the Grind

Jason Lin/HIGHLANDER
Jason Lin/HIGHLANDER

You never know what you might discover at Back to the Grind.

Back to the Grind is a coffee shop situated in downtown Riverside right off the main stretch of University Avenue. Within this community-established coffee shop are eclectically covered walls of art that showcase the local talent. Sporadically placed chandeliers hang from the ceiling with an array of colorfully intertwined string lights. One of the large wall paintings states, “Back to the Grind is a place for all to come together leaving all labels outside,” a concise encapsulation of this Riverside institution.

As barista Talene Salmaszadeh juiced beverages behind the bar, she remarked, “If it wasn’t for this place, I still wouldn’t be in Riverside.” It’s easy to see why Back to the Grind is a place that keeps people coming back for more. It houses a welcoming convergence for various groups to come together, creating a space that allows for all who enter to feel accepted in whatever state they arrive. The venue’s weekly Tuesday open mic, geared toward showcasing local musicians, is just one example. Sign-ups begin promptly at 6:30 p.m., the open mic begins at 7 p.m. and for the next two hours, a slew of familiar faces and newcomers perform two songs per set. They bare their souls and their musical skills for all of the coffee shop patrons to hear.

Bill Odien and Dave Call are the co-coordinators for the open mic, an event that has been going on for years. As Call commented, “We think we have the oldest open mic night in Riverside.”

Back to the Grind is a safe haven for the small, but immensely prevalent bohemian art culture in Riverside. Its doors remain wide open for everyone who enters; the space houses the misfits, the houseless, the writers, the singers, the yogis, the professionals, the youngsters, the college students and more. This was no exception on a warm evening last Tuesday. The open mic commenced with the emcee of the night, Odien, setting the energy at an enthusiastic welcome to every artist that graced the stage. By stage, I mean a blocked-off area where amp cords sprawled over the scratched and faded wood floors, connected to the guitars and mics around the performers. The audience of about 20 patrons were seated at tables facing this intimate setup while the rest of the Back to the Grind customers went along with their business, keeping the lively pace of the backdrop going.

It was hard not to sense the immense familiarity that many of the attendees held toward each other. To create a welcoming environment, the audience contained a contagious, enthusiastic rapport throughout the show, whether through clapping or vocal affirmation. It was a prime environment for any artist to want to perform.

As local Riverside resident and regular open mic performer Faust commented, “Every time I come here I get inspired.” This inspiration was easily felt in the rawness of the singer-songwriter’s voice. His brand of vulnerable energy, rarely expressed in such a public setting, was felt by the audience through the reverberation of the their toes tapping against the ground and the supportive clapping to Faust’s set. It was hard not to feel an easy-going, feel-good nature from his performance.

It takes a certain kind of courage to put yourself on the line. The potential of the public crash-and-burn lingers, but more often than not this open mic really highlights the immense talent and passion that resides in Riverside. The open mic is comparable to a weekly sermon for the community to come together, searching for answers, affirmations, acknowledgment. The sacred space created by this weekly event, with the responsive nature of the audience to the performers, is something worth acknowledging.

Some expected technical difficulties occurred, which tested some artists’ ability to shift with the sometimes tumultuous environment of malfunctioning mics and amps. However, it was endearing to watch various regulars help whoever was performing. They fixed performers’ mics, adjusted the volume and made sure things could be controlled and manipulated in the most agreeable circumstance for the musician.

The acoustics of Back to the Grind are conducive for an open mic night. Even though there was a consistent murmur of voices and laughter, in a nondescript way it did not take the focus away from the performers. It added to the performance, as the liveliness within the coffee shop kept the energy of the show at a consistent pace.

For some performers, it feels as if this is their therapy — a place they can grasp some kind of acknowledgment that is hard to find in this fast-paced world. Nate the Hay started his set by exclaiming, “Everybody seems to be playing happy songs. That ain’t me.” He was not exaggerating. As he began playing his first original song, “Fool For Me”, it quickly became apparent the performer, in front of this attentive audience, was going through a sense of anxiety and sadness — a lingering and universal feeling amongst aimlessly energetic youth. Nate’s music seemed to be an outlet that allowed him to articulate himself in a way that other forms of communication could not.

Back to the Grind attracts everyday people. Seen from a semi-outsider such as myself, their lives are deeply intertwined in its communal environment; this is not just a place where people can get caffeine, but converge as individuals to make up an enduring community of misfits.

 In a world that seems obsessed with perfection, the imperfections of the open mic series are beautiful. The majority of musicians had parts of their set that didn’t have perfect pitch, flubbed guitar picking, missed words or competition with noisy coffee shop patrons — things that, on the surface, may seem to diminish the talent of the performance. But to me, these elements made it an authentic and tangible presentation of the beauty of the human experience. Back to the Grind’s open mic is a true depiction of what it means to be human, searching for connection and affirmation of the emotions shared between people.

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