On a Monday night, musicians sit cross-legged in the vibrant lobby of World Café Live in West Philadelphia. Backpacks and guitar cases lay on the sprawling granite floor nearby. Some read the Metro, Philadelphia Weekly, CityPaper or paperback books. Others scribble lyrics or doodle in notebooks, just to pass the time.
The time is 6:29 p.m., and the performers begin to stand, ready to choose their time slots. A man in his 20s, his hair styled in cornrows, strolls into the lobby carrying a clipboard.
“Sign-ups will be starting now,” he says. “No cutting in line or anything. I’m trusting you.”
This man is Andre Coles, but on open mic nights and on any other performance night, he goes by his more renowned stage name – Boy Wonder. He hosts, and also performs at, the weekly Philly Rising Open Mic, held at Upstairs Live, one of two concert stages at World Café Live, which is also an upscale restaurant.
Boy Wonder sits at a table, hastily eating a bowl of spaghetti and looking over the schedule of performers. A young musician with long hair and glasses approaches him.
“Hey, our bass player isn’t here yet. We’re trying to get a hold of him now,” he tells the host.
“No problem man,” Boy Wonder says. “I’ll just bump the list up until you’re ready.”
With a quick fist pound, a minor problem has been averted.
As a working musician, Boy Wonder has a real understanding for the performers he meets every Monday.
“You could say I’ve been in ‘showbiz’ since I was about three,” he says. “I started out with acting, doing some commercials, and some plays.”
From 1996 to 2000, Boy Wonder attended the Philadelphia Creative and Performing Arts High School. There he focused on acting, started his first band, and became seriously engaged in music. He attended Temple as a film and media arts major, and graduated in 2004. He now works at Drexel University during the day as an audio-visual technician.
Coles took over the hosting job at the World Café Live’s open mic just this past January, after performing regularly at the event for almost three years. When former host Bruce Torres took some time off, the café called Coles to fill in. After getting positive feedback on his style from the audience, Coles was offered a full time job, and jumped on the opportunity.
Boy Wonder finishes his pre-performance meal and heads to the stage for a sound check. Once he gets the OK from the sound board, he begins strumming on an acoustic guitar and – without a word – breaks the ice with his first song. He plays through a few of his original songs, which feature his unique, creative chord progressions. His emphatic vocals fill every corner of the room, and he occasionally switches to a falsetto, adding another dimension to his sound.
“I would say my music is a blend of funk, rock, post-punk, new wave, R&B, soul,” he said, pausing after each genre to think of another. “I’ve always been into music where the lines are a little blurred.”
His songs describe relationship attempts, infatuation and the ups and downs of life and love.
“Sweatin’ bullets like a semi-automatic / I can’t get you out of my head,” he sings in one song.
After performing a few songs to start off the show, Coles assumes his position as host, providing on-spot introductions for all the performers, and encouraging the support of the usually abundant and diverse crowd.
“What I think we have that nobody else has is that people come here thinking they can really get somewhere,” Boy Wonder said of the open mic. “It’s really a kind of proving ground. It’s a good stepping stone.”
At the end of the night, Boy Wonder and the rest of the World Café Live staff choose the best performer, and that person or group moves on to the monthly “CREAM: The Best of Philly Rising” competition. Monthly winners end up in the “Cream of the Cream” showcase at the end of the year.
“It’s a competitive night, but he really tries to keep it fun and make it more about the music than the competition,” said Katie Taylor, a sophomore at Temple who also works as a hostess for the Upstairs Live restaurant.
Boy Wonder has recorded three albums’ worth of his original material and performs a few nights a week, usually around Philadelphia. While he is looking for a serious record contract, he enjoys his role at the open mic.
“Every Monday night, I get to see 20 local acts,” he said. “It’s great to see people grow as performers. This is my chance to contribute to the local scene, and if I can make the Philly music scene just a little bit better, I’m cool with that.”
Kevin Brosky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.