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Music driven by passion for Southwick Inn open mic host

Date: 10/31/2014

SOUTHWICK – Steve Piper of Springfield is the first to admit he is not the second coming of Jimi Hendrix when he picks up his guitar, but that does not seem to bother him.

He is just getting better every chance he gets, a favorite phrase of his that suits almost any scenario from, “How are you doing tonight, Steve?” to his philosophy on music.

“I’m getting better every chance I get,” he said.

In fact, he even turned it into a song, a process he said has to come from something he has experienced personally.

“Every song that I sing has to mean something to me or I won’t sing it,” Piper said.

Though he’s been playing guitar since he was 18, performing live was not his main objective when he took it up. Now, at 62, his mentality is different and his need for music more crucial.

“I never thought about going out in front of anybody, you know,” Piper said. “It actually became a more and more important part of my life as I got older to the point where I can’t live without it now.”

Piper got over the natural fear of live performance and became a regular at the Southwick Inn’s open mic nights. On Thursday nights, the wooden floor that typically is a dart’s path from a hand to the bull’s eye becomes a stage and the bar becomes home to a laid-back acoustic haven.

For Piper, this was a chance for him to grow musically.

“The open mic was a way that really got me to the point where my confidence and my ability increased,” Piper said. “The more you do it, the easier something gets. For musicians, and I find this true of most musicians, you’re kind of baring your soul.”

The Southwick Inn has a strong number of resident regulars, among them Piper. When the previous host left the open mic night, Piper was the natural fit for the job. Nearly 10 years later, it is still his reign.

Despite almost a decade of welcoming musicians from around the area, Piper still finds excitement in the turnout, one that fluctuates weekly from a handful of performs to 15 or 20.

“That’s what I love about this kind of stuff because you just don’t know what you’re going to hear,” Piper said. “It gives you a chance to really listen to the different nuances of how someone approaches their music.”

Through the years, this appreciation has brought a cast of characters through Piper’s life that have taught him, learned from him and shared a special bond.

“There’s a certain spiritual connection between musicians who are down to Earth and real people,” Piper said.

One such musician is Jerry Moss. Originally from the area, Moss spent much of his life traveling and touring with other musicians and eventually taking up residence in Texas. He has recently returned to Chicopee, and though Moss had not performed much when he first came back to Massachusetts, things changed when he met Piper.

“I really stayed close to home and didn’t go anywhere until I met this outlaw here,” Moss said of Piper. “I mean it in all the best ways … He commands a lot of respect. A lot of good players come out to these jams.”

For Vinnie Pagano, 22, and Jeff Fortier, 27, this respect came in form of mentorship. Their band, Cold Shot, hosts the Sunday Night Blues Jam at the Southwick Inn, but Pagano has been playing open mic since he was 14.

“Steve was a great teacher for me,” Pagano said.

Though if you ask Piper, Pagano is a “far better guitar player [than he is].” According to Pagano and Fortier, that type of attitude and passion is what sets Piper apart. They even joked that they would play Piper’s songs and add their own twist, and Piper would be the first to tell them he loved what they did with it.

Aside from open mic performances, Piper has a band of his own. The Roadhouse Band falls into a genre Piper calls “rhythm and groove” and performs both original songs, as well as covers. Though for Piper, the song selection process boils down to one important facet.

 “Sometimes the most important thing is, ‘How do I feel when I listen to it?’” Piper said.

Piper credits this, the way he listens and responds to music, to his mother, who would play piano while Piper’s younger siblings were sleeping. Though she only knew how to play four songs, Piper was entranced because they were songs his mother loved.

He mimics this passion in his own way, accepting that he may never make millions from his music alone.

“At 62 years old, it’s kind of late to figure I’m going to take the music world by storm … I would rather not make money and have someone say they really like my music than to be making money and people not really caring about it,” Piper said.

It is a simple quest that is more difficult than it appears for any musician: create something that people like. It is one that can strain a musician’s enthusiasm for his or her art.

For Piper, however, it is getting better, and so is he – every chance he gets.

The Acoustic Open Mic Night is every Thursday at 8:30 p.m. at the Southwick Inn, 479 College Highway, Southwick.