It's 11 p.m. on a frigid Thursday. Highway 133 in Carbondale is quiet, mostly dark, with only one or two cars passing every 10 minutes.
But The Blend coffee house south of Main Street is packed with people jumping up and down, arms in the air, feet stomping. They are dancing to the original electronic dance beats of Karl Gunselman, one of the numerous musicians who have shown up to perform at the shop's monthly open mic night.
The Blend is among a handful of local venues hosting what has become a popular way for performing artists - many who don't otherwise grace the stage - to showcase their talents.
Musicians, poets, vocalists, comedians and dancers have been sharing the mic at Glenwood Music, The Bayou, Carbondale Beerworks, Black Nugget and Rivers restaurant.
Rivers has hosted open mic nights for three years, according to manager Anita Wan. The crowd size ranges from three to 80 people for the weekly Wednesday night event, emceed by musician Dan Rosenthal.
"All types" turn out for a moment on the stage, Wan said. Even belly dancers have performed.
"It's just something for people to showcase their talent. It's been kind of fun to see the different spectrum of people that come in," she said.
Wade Newsom, owner of The Blend, said he wants his shop to be "about community," with live performances, movie nights and events, such as open mic nights.
He had heard from musicians that the shop would be a comfortable place to share music and poetry. So he started hosting open mic nights in June 2012, with employee Adam McCabe as the host. McCabe is also a singer-songwriter who performs solo or jams with other musicians at open mics.
About 30 people regularly attend The Blend's open mic, and more than half perform. Fiddle and banjo players, flautists, cellists and bassists, poets and more have shared their original work. Others have recited the poetry of Shel Silverstein, sung covers of Corinne Bailey Rae and played traditional blues songs.
Although the experience levels range from those who've never been on stage to those who've recorded CDs and headlined their own shows, Newsom said all of the artists are serious about their work.
"I definitely have seen people come in that were really hesitant to perform at first. Then after doing it once, they show more excitement and get more comfortable. Part of that is because of the group here. It's a really supportive environment," said Newsom, who read his own poetry for the first time in the fall.
Like other business owners organizing open mic nights, Newsom said the events do not necessarily boost monetary profits.
"Staying here till 11 at night and being here at 6 the next morning for the money it brings in is not worth it," he said. "But it's become such a fun event that it makes it worth it. It's literally like I'm sitting in my living room with friends expressing themselves with music and poetry."
Glenwood Music runs an open mic-type event called "Live Thursday" each week at the shop. Owner Joe Rodgers said although there are usually no sales occurring during the shop's Live Thursdays, the free events are about more than making money.
"It's important to us for several reasons. We just love supporting local artists. This gives them a nonintimidating venue; they get to play in front of a small intimate crowd that listens," Rodgers said.
On the technical end, musicians can trouble-shoot problems with their instruments, amplifiers and other equipment. On the creative front, Rodgers said it helps artists blossom.
"It gives them confidence. I've actually seen them improve their craft because the people in our audience are so close-knit. When constructive feedback is given live, on the spot, they take that to heart and often implement it," he said.
For Glenwood Music's event, performers must register ahead of time to play the 7-8 p.m. slot. The venue is typically booked a month out, but Rodgers would like to grow the audience. He said he will be adding a calendar to the Glenwood Music website so music aficionados (both artists and listeners) can schedule the events into their calendars.
Professional percussionist Lyn Byars of Carbondale said open mic nights allow artists to test new material, practice for upcoming performances or take the stage for the first time.
Byars plays with three valleywide bands - Slidewhistle, Valle Musico and Guilty Pleasures - but he still gets value out of performing at open mic venues. He believes performers can progress by playing open mic nights and other events, such as Dos Gringos' Sunday night Old Tyme Jam.
"The most encouraging thing about it is that young musicians or new musicians, who haven't ever played, come here, they play one song and people applaud. People applaud you for just being here," Byars said.
He has performed at several different open mic nights in the area and is a staple at The Blend, where he sets up a small drum kit with a suitcase, cymbals and chimes and accompanies other musicians looking for a beat. If the audience is there solely to listen, it is especially magical, he said.
"People always ask me, 'How was open mic night?'" Byars said of The Blend's open mic. "I just say, 'You really had to be there.' They're that good."