If you mosey into A to Zen looking for something you might need, you might end up with something you didn’t expect. The front of the store looks like an ordinary shop, but the back is lively with music when it hosts Open Mic Night every Friday and other shows. The store on North Carson Street has hosted an Open Mic Night for about 13 years and it has evolved over time, especially recently, owner Mike Epps said. It’s a place where musicians and entertainers come together and take an opportunity to show their talents or hone their skills. Many times, it’s a place for beginners to get started. Epps describes the place as a “musical island of misfit toys.” “We’ll have anything from 60-year-old pros to people shaking in their shoes and performing for the first time in front of people,” he said.
Chris Harris performs with A to Zen owner Mike Epps (right)
THE VENUE The room where the music takes place is the Zen Den. The stage is large, with a house drum kit, a grand piano and other instruments for use. Local business KD Sound helped put together the sound system and Epps is thankful for the crisp, clean and professional audio. There are three cameras used for livestreaming the concerts on Facebook. For the audience, the room is open and comfortable. There are several couches for lounging among other seats. And there is room for dancing if you feel like moving your feet. The store has its liquor license and serves alcohol and if you need a snack there’s fresh pizza. Epps said it’s completely family friendly because it is not a bar. “Kids are welcome,” he said. “We’ve had 7-year-olds up there singing songs. That’s been one of the upsides for some folks.” MUSIC ENVIRONMENT The vibe at A to Zen is musicians supporting other musicians. When people are in the Zen Den, they are attentive and listening to the music. Canyon White said that’s what makes their Open Mic Night special. She started hosting the Open Mic Night shortly after Epps started it. “People go there to listen to the music, and that’s it,” she said. If you need to step outside of the room to have a conversation, there’s speakers throughout the store, and there is a video feed. “They won’t miss anything because of how well it’s wired up,” White said. Epps said the place is meaningful to many of the players because it’s not the usual bar atmosphere with extra noise. “When you play at a bar or coffee shop, people are half paying attention,” he said. “It’s not like that here. When the music is going on in the back room — that’s what’s going on.”
Canyon White plays her guitar at Open Mic Night at A to Zen in Carson City on March 25.
MUSICIANS Epps said many people come to Open Mic from beginners to professionals. “I really like the people shaking in their boots for the first time,” Epps said. He said many professionals use the space to practice new songs. “It gives them a chance to test the waters, to try something out to see how it works,” Epps said. On a Friday night in March, Keith Alan Barnett put his name on the sign-up sheet. He’s a professional, playing many gigs in the area with a few of his bands. Before he was in those bands, he played Open Mic Nights. “When I came in here, I was shaking like a leaf,” he said. “Trying to get up there by myself was hard.” He eventually started playing with other musicians because people saw him and liked what he was doing. Now he performs regularly around the area with three groups: The Lonesome Polecat Band, MiXed Company and Southbound Train. He stepped on stage and played a few songs. He had one instrumentation during a song that looked difficult, and he tried to play it the best he could. With a few slow notes and a little work, he made it through the song. He said he’d been practicing that part, so that was his chance to try it in front of people. Deanta Saunders came from out of town to visit her father, Jeffrey, and she sang a few songs in front of the crowd. The college student from Wisconsin said she was just visiting for a week, and it was her first time singing at A to Zen. “I heard about it; I tuned in, and I’d seen the live show on Facebook before,” she said. She said she had sung in choirs before, but this was something different. She said she’d like to sing again if she has the chance. “I would love to come back,” she said.
LIVESTREAM The store upgraded its technology and now livestreams the show on Facebook. If you go to the A to Zen page on Friday night, the show will be available to watch in real time, or you can watch replays later. The store has help from John Rodriguez who helps take care of audio and video. It’s a hobby of his, and he also uses the space to record his podcast @TheBigJohnShow. “I took the chance as soon as he showed me the equipment,” Rodriquez said. “I couldn’t stop playing with it.” He said he’s been doing this for about a year now. “It’s a constant evolution and I keep learning more,” he said. Rodriguez enjoys the live music and he’s learning how to play guitar. He hasn’t performed on stage yet, but he said he will when he is ready.
John Rodriguez helps with the audio and video at A to Zen Open Mic.
THE FUTURE Epps said the A to Zen has come a long way with their Open Mic Night and they’ll keep going. He wants to keep building on what they have, and that includes offering more to bands through audio and video. He wants to have a recording studio with the capability of recording a music video too. Epps said he wants to offer that to bands to help them get on their feet, so they have professional audio and video to promote themselves. Epps said A to Zen has helped give the community an amateur place to perform in front of an audience and wants to keep helping beginners grow. He has Saturday night shows at A to Zen and he says many of the good acts from Open Mic can get invited to perform longer shows. 'MISFIT TOYS' Epps says you never know what you’ll find at A to Zen. He said they might have someone come in they’ve never seen, and they look homeless, and they’ll blow everyone out the window. “There’s nowhere like this; I’ve never seen anything like what is going on here,” he said. “We’re the musical island of misfit toys.” IF YOU GO A to Zen is located at 1803 N. Carson St., Carson City. Open Mics begin at 6 p.m. every Friday. Follow their Facebook page at facebook.com/a.tozen.9 or visit online at www.atozenonline.com