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Monday, March 23, 2015

Music Heroes: Brendan Getzell

Posted By on Mon, Mar 23, 2015 at 8:22 AM

click to enlarge Brendan Getzell - BRIDGET CANFIELD
  • Bridget Canfield
  • Brendan Getzell
If you're a musician, Tuesday is band-practice night. Thursday is the old new Friday, Sunday's to relax, weekend nights are weekend nights, and Wednesday you can just stay in. That leaves Monday, which God created for the Hotel Utah Open Mic.

Its host, Brendan Getzell, a man plaid of flannel and big of heart, has been running this thing for four fucking years. To run an open mic is unbelievably difficult; it's mainly uncompensated, and at least some of the time, zero fun. By definition, an open mic is the place where you should go to suck. Someone reminded me recently that everyone — every performer of any kind — has to suck at first. And while they're doing their horrible screeching thing, their weird mouth sounds, or the affectations they'll later wise up and edit out, they're at Getzell's place, and they should be. That's how creativity works.

In his view, "The open mic stage is a lab for someone to try out their latest composition, and a forum for a vast cross-section of performers from every background and experience level." In my view, you could say that, or you could say the people who run open mics are near saintly: patient, tortured, ecstatic in their faith, and a boon to the rest of us. We get to hear what comes out the other end (he brags about bands like Geographer, Con Brio, and Rin Tin Tiger), but Getzell hears it all, good and baaaaaad.

At 7:15 p.m. on Monday, March 16, Getzell is on the Hotel Utah stage, futzing with the sound board and talking to the night's featured artist, so I wait to talk to him. Around us, the place is steadily filling up with people near guitars. Outside, for blocks in all directions, musicians can be seen moving in our direction, toward the landmark bar and its unmissable three-story sign. Not everyone headed for the stage has a guitar — I note keyboards, sheets of paper, homemade electronic contraptions, and, I'm pretty sure, an autoharp. When it's my turn, I introduce myself to Getzell, and he smiles widely and shakes my hand. "You want to write about us? Oh, wow, that's great!" Something seems off, unfamiliar. I finally realize that unlike most people in San Francisco, Getzell seems genuinely happy. He continues to seem happy the whole time I'm there.

It's no accident, he tells me later. "Growing up, I was the least awkward and most self-assured whenever I was on the stage — I was a creative kid, thrilled to play Grateful Dead songs in his fifth grade talent show, but also very shy elsewhere — so live music has always been a very special part of my life."

The Hotel Utah Open Mic is a classic, as they go: Music is standard but nonmusical performance, which tends to be comedy or poetry, is welcome as well. Everybody gets six minutes. You put your name on a slip of paper in a beer pitcher, and Getzell pulls them out lottery-style one by one while a volunteer writes them down on a clipboard, and that's what order you go in. Performers who run overtime will be, it is repeated onstage and online, "treated harshly."

I knew a bartender once, a woman, who had the Tuesday night shift at Amnesia. The open mic was the early part of her shift, and after that it was karaoke. When I realized this, I was afraid for her health and sanity. To me a weekly dose of back-to-back open mic and karaoke sounded like hell, just hell. But when I brought it up, she looked at me funny. "No," she said. "I love this shift." When I look at Getzell onstage, I'm reminded of her, and I feel grateful that some people are just better-natured than I am. They make live music happen, night after (irritating) night.

I score a seat in the venue's cozy balcony, and find it full of people obviously planning to perform later. Oddly, they never stop talking, loudly, over the performers onstage. It seems to go against the whole "let's support each other in our fledgling moments together" vibe of the event, but what do I know? They're probably just nervous. I wish no one were verbally chronicling their social media experience, but oh well. Nerves make you do funny things. Getzell is unfazed.

Perhaps he knows exactly how small these fry are: The next day, hoodline.com will report that Café International has had its open mic effectively shut down by BMI. Someone was caught singing a copyrighted song into the microphone, and a representative of the organization threatened owner Zahra Saleh with a lawsuit. The song was, no joke, "Happy Birthday." Saleh has since decided to continue the open mic, with a more strictly enforced "original music only" policy. No birthday celebrating! Anywhere, apparently.

Onstage, Getzell reads off the names of the first three performers; it happens they're all women. I think you can learn a lot about a person by the first thing that pops into their head at such a moment, so I'm tickled when Getzell's offhand response is to yell "Who run the open mic?" Pause. No response. "Really, no Beyoncé fans here tonight?" I'm forced to do it myself: "Girls!" I yell. He's relieved, smiles that wide smile again. "Yes, thank you, up there! Girls run the open mic, awesome!" It isn't true, strictly speaking; the performers are pretty evenly split between women and men, with some nonbinary-seeming contributors as well. It's a healthy spectrum, and not all open mics are like that, so Getzell also deserves credit for maintaining an open open mic.

In reality, though, who run the open mic? A nice guy, plaid of flannel, big of heart, who does it because it makes him happy.

Contact Hiya Swanhuyser at sfmusicheroes@gmail.com.
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Hiya Swanhuyser

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