Hidden somewhere in the Cleveland National Forest, there is an E-Z UP with a tie-dyed tapestry marking the entrance to the Shadow Creek Open Mic. Under a sky unspoiled by streetlights and concealed by old oak trees and rustling sage brush, four fire pits are placed thoughtfully around a little cabin. On a particularly windy night, visitors outside wear scarves and winter coats, and inside they sweat from dancing and close quarters-the dull roar from the crowd of more than 120 is accented by the sound of a band playing in the tiny living room.
Shadow Creek began as a very intimate get-together in 2010 at Elroy McCoy's home. [Note: The source's name and the location of the open mic have been changed to protect the secrecy of this underground event.] "There wasn't any audience except for a couple of friends," McCoy explains. "We'd make dinner and just kind of jam." Yet each time McCoy and his roommates decided to hold their DIY open mic it grew, and the cozy evenings became full-blown events. "We just got a PA system that we borrowed from the community and started making flyers," McCoy says.
Originally, Shadow Creek was held once a month, but due to the size, it's now quarterly. The event is quietly introduced on Facebook a week beforehand and the bands are announced, ranging from friends who play as a hobby to popular local acts. The crowd is a melting pot with ages spanning 21 to 70. And it's always a potluck with a big pot of chili and art on display. Tonight's gallery features the vibrant and psychedelic work of M. Reinhart who paints masks onto palm-tree bark and hellish looking creatures with ever-blooming genitalia onto canvas.
McCoy believes the most appealing part of this show "is the fact that there's not a bouncer or management trying to get money from every one. And when everything works right the acoustics of the tiny room are way better than you'd think."
Of course, not being a licensed venue does pose its downside. Between dealing with noise complaints, live music permits, restrictions on what's plugged in and what's not, and alcohol, keeping a venue like this from getting shut down is a constant struggle, even though most people at Shadow Creek have always been pretty respectful. But even for the avid warehouse-show fanatic or the DIY band looking for gigs, Shadow Creek's success and survival are a bit of an anomaly.
These thoughts are always on McCoy's mind as he plans an event. But being in a tight-knit, backwoods neighborhood does result in a natural sense of community and crowd control. Because Shadow Creek is so deep in the National Forest there is no cell reception, so you must know how to find it ahead of time. McCoy also invites all of his neighbors, making the noise-complaint issue virtually nonexistent. Besides, the crowd rarely gets out-of-hand because the music tends to be mellow and of the indie variety.
"I do wish that I could go back to what it was for a while," McCoy confesses. "It seems like it changed so quickly. Sixty to 80 people used to be a lot for us." It's not that McCoy doesn't enjoy the events, but the responsibility and planning grow with each show. "There will be like 15 bands and 10 solo artists who want to get on the list, and then my friends who I keep a residency for will show up late," he says.
But making the open mic invite-only is the last thing that McCoy wants to do; the spontaneity is everything. "One night we had this R&B set–it was these really talented singers who just saw the sign and pulled in," he says. "It's hard to imagine changing anything about it, but if it gets bigger, we'll have to find another place." Hopefully, he says, that won't have to happen. "I'm sure that not all DIY shows are created equal, but I think our place here is really cool."