Blame it on American Idol. The ultra-popular TV show has completely redefined success in the music world. What once separated the arts from sports — the fact that there was no competition, no statistics, no judges, just listeners deciding if they liked it — is now gone. It’s surprising, actually, that it took this long; Americans love to win. The idea that everyone could be equal and enjoyed and respected for each one’s unique qualities is almost unpatriotic. We need to keep score, damn it!

That’s why what happened this past weekend, at Zoey’s in Ventura, could very well have been considered an Un-American Idol. Officially called the Ones to Watch Singer-Songwriter Finale, it was a joyous, diverse and inspiring celebration of musical talent.

Ventura was once a hotbed for open mics. It’s hard to believe now, but there was a time in the late ’90s when a quality open mic occurred nearly every night of the week. The plethora of open mics here was even mentioned in a national magazine. Like all good things, though, the boom wasn’t meant to last. While open mics still exist, usually they are sparsely attended, not well-run or just short-lived, which is depressing because they are usually the starting point and life blood of any good acoustic music scene — a welcoming place where beginners can hone their craft and seasoned veterans can try out new material without any pressure.

It’s been more than a decade since that boom, and the local singer-songwriter scene has had its ups and downs, but a resurgence has happened as Zoey’s has become the focal point of the county’s acoustic music scene. So it was with great anticipation, and some speculation, when the venue kicked off a biweekly version of an open mic last summer.

In a short time, the 10-person-a-night roster was packed with a waiting list, and word on the street was that new and exciting songwriters were making an impression. The rules were simple enough: at every event, one winner was selected by a panel of judges (everyone from former A&R man Brandon Salzer to the VCReporter’s very own Shane Cohn) to appear at the finals. The other performers were welcome to return and try again. After 10 weeks, the 10 winners would appear for a grand finale, with one ultimate winner receiving a cash prize and studio time.

So, yes, it was a competition. Yes, there were winners and judges, and yes, that is basically against what making music is all about, but here’s the blunt reality: Zoey’s has been packed to the rafters every other Wednesday (a notoriously horrible night of the week), for live music through the fall season (a notoriously tough time of year).

Friends, relatives, neighbors and others packed the house in support of loved ones who, in many cases, were performing for the first time. So, while it may not be in the truest sense of art for art’s sake, people did show up to hear mostly new and unknown artists, and if the guise of winning a competition made that possible, so be it.

To create an even more exciting atmosphere on the night of the big finale, Zoey’s book-ended the night with successful regulars like B. Willing James, Shane Alexander, Delaney Gibson, Chris Pierce and Glen Phillips of Toad the Wet Sprocket fame. While the aforementioned artists draw sizable crowds to local venues, the audience was clearly there to root for the contestants. This was made evident by one clueless spectator — most likely the grandmother of one of the young performers — who commented to a friend during the multiplatinum-selling, hit-song-penning Phillips’ performance, “I just don’t think he’ll make it that big.”

As for the contestants, there was a host of talented teenagers.  There was Thousand Oaks’ Tony Ferrari and Taylor Blaine, whose Jack Johnson-influenced acoustic pop is not too far from being radio-ready; the outstanding vocal ability of Lainey Taylor, whose soulful Norah Jones-esque vocals are almost hard to believe, coming from a girl who can’t legally drink; and the raspy-voiced Addisyon Emery, whose songwriting was inspired and heartfelt. On the other end of the spectrum, there were more veteran performers like Joe Hamilton, a long-time fixture of local open mics, whose acoustic guitar playing brought comparisons to Richard Thompson, with his ultrafriendly, super-grateful stage persona, and out-of-town touring artist Chi McClean, who kicked the evening off with a ballad as good as any song played all night.

The judges, including Mikal Blue, best known for his work with Colbie Caillat and (full disclosure) this writer, heaped nothing but praises on the somewhat nervous performers. And a beautiful thing happened along the way. As the night wore on, rather than the audience thinning out and growing restless, there seemed to be an honest appreciation of each performer’s talent. The night became more informal and different voices and different views shared the common bond of music that you could actually feel the audience resonating with.

It was the soft but hypnotizing vocals and presence of wise-beyond-her-years Mimi Gilbert, who was reminiscent of a young Ani DiFranco or Regina Spektor, that ultimately captivated the audience and the judges, giving her the top honor. As a judge, I can spill the beans and confirm that the scorecards were all within a point or two of each other.

An American Idol, however, Gilbert has no plans to be. Instead, she’s planning to use the prize money to help fund a trip to Australia, where she’ll be volunteering for an outreach program. As for the free recording time that she won’t be around to use, she was happy to pass it on to another performer, saying, “I didn’t need to win anything. I was just happy to be there with my family and make new friends.”

When the performers gathered on stage at the end of the night, it was all smiles with no sense that any competition had just taken place, just a wonderfully special night. They all seemed to know that, despite what American Idol would have us believe, when it comes to music, everyone wins.   

chris@armyoffreshmen.com