It’s like church. Every Sunday, people from all walks of life crowd into a West Covington bar to break bread, enjoy some spirits, and come together over a shared love of music. Like church, it’s not the building that makes the congregation a community, but the common ground found among its members. Not to contradict myself over the building not being important, but let’s clarify that I am talking about Wunderbar. It’s on the corner of 12th and Lee in Covington, with a big picture of Albert Einstein painted on the side of it. “Ohhhh, I’ve driven by that place”, say people to me all the time. “You ought to go in and try the giant pretzel”, is usually my reply.
When you listen to a band playing on Sunday night at Wunderbar you may not notice at first that the players don’t always know the songs before they started playing them. That’s because Sunday night at Wunderbar is Open Mic night, and there is a core of local musicians who play there regularly enough (or with the regulars to that open mic) that they can step on stage pretty much any time and build a band. Wunderbar refers to these musicians as “The Wunderband”, and they have come to know dozens of songs you may never hear outside of certain local bars. You can use your turn at the mic play songs alone or you can invite The Wunderband to join in on bass, drums, guitar, or whatever else they bring along that week. To me it’s like picking teams for dodgeball and all of the best players want to be on your team, and if they don’t know your song, they’ll figure it out fast enough.
You may think that an open mic on Sunday at 7pm would work against people’s schedules as Sundays are for rest and Sunday evenings are for getting ready to mentally shift away from the weekend back into the work week. At Wunderbar, Sunday evenings are for stretching the weekend out and reminding us as we start the next week what music is all about. Singers, poets, stand-up comics are all welcome, and since Wunderbar is a restaurant it is open to all ages. There are quite a few gigging musicians who go to Wunderbar for the open mic, but people of all skill and experience levels take the stage every week. Sometimes a performer is playing music in front of people for the first time, or it may be the first time someone gets to hear what they’d sound like with a band of skilled players putting their touch on your version of a song. Even those who don’t play music can find a way to be involved. Sketches of performers ranging from quick scribbles on napkins to framed pieces of artwork have been posted on the walls after shows, and the doorway between the bar and the kitchen hosts a collection of lost and broken picks left behind. There is a cabinet in the back room, built by a local musician Jeff Roades, used to house Wunderbar merchandise and local music for sale. The picture accompanying this post was drawn by Roy Jones, an artist and musician who frequents Wunderbar on Sunday evenings, and is currently featured in the bar.
The “Sunday Funday” open mic started in November 2012, when managing owner Nathan Chambers decided he wanted to have live music on Sundays. Chambers had come on as a cook shortly after Wunderbar opened in April of 2012, and by December that same year he was a co-owner. He had worked in restaurants since he was 15, doing every job he could name in a restaurant - busboy, barback, dishwasher, cook, manager of all kinds and levels. Chambers learned the best practices from mom & pop places to the large chains, so once it was his responsibility to build the bar’s staff he wanted to do it carefully and with people who would be as committed to building the restaurant as he is. At the time Chambers was the only cook, working 6 days a week with Mondays off. Some nights he would cook and also be the only bartender. With a work week like his, Chambers decided that since he was not going to get a Saturday night out anytime soon, he would bring one to him. He didn’t set out for Wunderbar to become a popular music venue. He just wanted to have a good time and ended up with the best Sunday evening party in town.
Chambers built his staff from trusted people and their referrals - what Wunderbar got as a result is a kitchen and bar full of people who love where they work and it shows. To Nathan Chambers, his staff and his patrons are all family to him, but many of the staff are actually his family. Using those same trusted references, Chambers met Aaron Hedrick, a local musician who has a long career of playing in the Cincinnati area. Hedrick began hosting an open mic in December 2012 in the interest of getting people to come by, and for a while Hedrick and Jeff “Jeffro” Roades would fill most of the time with their music. It took until late spring 2013 for Sunday business to start getting busier, and then the open mic began getting regular attendees. Those regulars would bring instruments with the plan to play along with whoever invited them to the stage, and before long a core list of songs and the people who played them became what is now called The Wunderband. These days there may be a night when the Wunderband decides to be different and alerts everyone who knows how to play a saxophone to bring one. Some nights everyone decides to bring their electric guitars or have their favorite seasonal song ready. As I was typing up my notes for this post, I got a message from a Sunday Funday regular asking me if I wanted to cover a Prince song with a bunch of other folks who planned to pay tribute. I bet you’ve never heard Darling Nikki on a banjo, have you?
This post may appear to be describing a big party where any new folks will have to break in to the clique. Not so. Just show up and you are already friends. Sit anywhere in the room and you can be a part of the scene. Don’t have a guitar with you? There is a house guitar affectionately known as “The Dex” you are welcome to use. Wunderbar has an unlikely setup for live music in the sense that there is no dedicated stage area, but the area that has become the stage is still somehow perfect. No matter where you sit at the bar or tables, everyone can see the performers. I consider that essential to the Wunderbar experience because to me, folk music is about meeting people where they are. Folk songwriters use whatever musical knowledge they have to write whatever they have to say on whatever instruments they know how to play. No rules. All of us are rooted in something and influenced by something, but there is always common ground for sharing. The interesting stuff happens when genres and talents collide, and Cincinnati is so rich with live music that when you know where to go, you can throw yourself in and let it carry you. Active open mics see the rough drafts of songs and early stages of performers and bands coming together. You can see odd combinations of musicians performing versions of songs you’ve never heard, or may know a song but you’ll never hear it played quite that way again. If you want to be a part of it, all you need to do is write in your name. Or not – just enjoy the food and drink while the best variety show in town takes shape before you.
Sunday Funday at Wunderbar Covington gets going around 7:00 every Sunday. Can’t make a Sunday? Find Wunderbar listed as a venue on CincyMusic.com for their live music schedule.
Cincinnati is brimming over with amazing places to see live music. Every pocket within our city has a number of places to check out your next favorite band. Within the month of April, CincyMusic.com will be featuring Neighborhood Venues in Cincinnati. These venues include; a past brothel, the home of the amazing open mic night (and a darn good pretzel), an old school jazz joint, a west side gem, the venue that was once underwater, where to go to worship music, and the go-to spot in OTR for breaking bands.
Stay tuned to CincyMusic.com for our Features on your favorite neighborhood venues this month!