The first time you step on a stage, behind a mic, in front of an audience- it will stay with you. You might kill it, make mistakes, forget your words, make up new ones, make a new fan, break a string, anything is game. It's your brief moment to be heard. And for that brief moment, the stage is yours.
But sometimes, in some places and to some people, it's so much more. It's a home, a community, a very special part of their world.
After 3 months of being away from San Francisco, I was craving being a part of the vibrant and radical SF music community again, and to be a part of that movement. I couldn't resist going back to the Hotel Utah Open Mic (Let's call it the HUOM for this blog, which kind of sounds like home, if you say it with a swedish enough accent).
Even though I have moved to a whole other country, I am still on the mailing list and I knew who would be the feature (it was Baird and Beluga), and what would be the theme (It was Epic Supergroup Night). Why? I don't know, I'm not very good at unsubscribing from things... Or deleting pictures, or cleaning up my contact list. Ok fine, I'm a digital hoarder, except not just digital- happy?
The SF music community doesn't stop at the HUOM- it's a nonstop phenomena and an ever growing family. But something magic happens on Monday nights at the Hotel Utah. It took me a while to really "get" the HUOM, but once I did, I was game. You have to see it and be there to understand it, to become it. If you haven't yet gone, you should. If you want to know more before you do, read on.
The HUOM is hosted by a pianist, a songwriter, drummer, and a guitarist- and those are not alternating hosts. It's just one super dude, the one and only Brendan Getzell. Brendan runs a tight ship, makes sure everyone gets their turn, mixes the sound so that you feel professhh, jumps on the stage if you want him to accompany you on a song (using any of the aforementioned instruments), AND he records the entire night and posts the songs to each musician's profile on TheUtah.org. He even comes up with creative ways to tell you to move your car when the ticketing guys start circulating the area.
This past June marked his 5th anniversary of bringing music and love on the stage of the Hotel Utah every Monday night. Cheers to several more of those.
The Mailing List
I already mentioned it in passing, but there is a Mailing List for the HUOM. Every Monday, the clipboard gets passed around, and if you haven't already done so, you can write your name and email on it.
Then, every Sunday, Brendan sends out a brief, funny, and detailed invitation to your email address, reminding you that your people are all getting together under one roof and singing the night away. The emails are always relevant to the worldly or local events, and serve as a gentle reassurance that there is light and love in hard times, and that there are people who want to come together to help you cope. The email also gives a teaser introduction to the week's feature performer- more on that later.
Even if the Open mic schedule for every single bar in the whole city is burnt into your memory, sometimes you need that extra push to get out on and lug your guitar around. This email, with its corky, personal and consistent message has helped give me that nudge many times in the past year.
The HUOM has a ton of attendees- I mean, A TON! It's beautiful! People from all over the Bay Area, and even as far out as the Central Valley make the trek to come sing 1 song on a Monday night- now that's commitment. There's no room for error! Everyone should have their chance. So none of that first-come-first-serve stuff here, you've gotta try out your luck with the draw. You write your name on a piece of paper, put it in a pitcher, and wait for the draw, which happens at 8 pm. This means either you, or a friend who knows how to spell your name, or Brendan, should get your name in that pitcher before it's too late.
Come to think of it, the Hotel Utah doesn't sell beer by the pitcher... Is it because there's been too many hands in them? hmmmm
The Open Mic
I cannot emphasize enough how many people come to the HUOM! It's kind of crazy! There's usually about at least 35 people singing, reading, slamming, playing, and just plain entertaining- and that's a slow night. Therefore, you only get 1 song or 5 minutes. But what is amazing about this open mic is that, people stay. People perform, then go and sit down or stand in a comfortable spot and hear as a revolving door of talent come through that stage. Even if your name is last on the list, and you have a 7 am phonecall with your transcontinental colleagues 9 time zones away and you know damn well you won't be staying long enough to sing, you still stay for as long as you can to show support and to enjoy the music.
At the HUOM, you're with family. You're amongst friends who all love and support one another. This is the place for you to meet your next BFF, run into someone you haven't seen in ages, find your new bassist, see a new side of your shy friend, support your gf or bf, or get with a new band. Brendan himself is a professional musician, and is willing and incredibly able to accompany you on the stage- I don't know his prerequisite for familiarity with any given song, but I'm sure you can ask him next time you go there!
So fear not. If this is your first open mic, you've come to the right place. And it won't be your last.
So you work downtown and you didn't feel like lugging your guitar to the office with you, or you play the piano and you don't have a portable keyboard. So you tell your friend: Oh no I can't go... I don't have my instrument on me.
Well nice try, because your friend can call out your crappy excuse and remind you that there is a house guitar and a piano on site. I have been both on the receiving and giving end of this argument.
Piano, guitar, the occasional drum on special theme nights, and a dope sound system. I already mentioned that the whole night is recorded and that your songs are available on www.theutah.org, right? I did... So whatever instrument you decide to play, you can have your tune immortalized on the world wide web.
There are several reasons why people attend open mics. Some just want to have a great time, others come for practice. At the HUOM, you get friendly feedback from your friends and fellow community members. Eventually, you might have enough material and stamina to take over a stage for an entire set.
Every week, Brendan and the HUOM dedicate 30 minutes to a feature performance, giving the opportunity to a solo artist or band to showcase their talent for a whole set. It's a pretty big deal to be asked to feature at the HUOM- which is why performers bring their A-game and take is very seriously. For the performers, it's like having a fully booked gig in one of SF's most renowned venues. For the audience, it's like going to a free awesome show. It's quite epic to be honest.
The feature performer usually takes the stage at 10 pm. If you're in the neighborhood, don't miss it.
Theme nights are a thing at the HUOM. There are some pretty classic themes, like the Cover Your Friend Night, or the Epic Supergroup Night. These push you to step into the community, and explore the magic arising from collaborating and learning about your friends in the scene. In tragic times, the Sunday night newsletter will announce an impromptu tribute night and with very little notice, the room finds a way to honor the beloved lost ones. This past year, there has been a Bowie night, a Prince night, a Leonard Cohen night, and I hope I'm not missing another one.... Here's hoping we don't have another tribute night this year.
To give you a taste of the magic, check out this video from the recent Epic Supergroup theme night, with PJ Bottoms, Sam Marshall and Brendan Getzall performing Electioneering, a Radiohead classic.
At the end of the day, the Hotel Utah is just a bar and the Open Mic is just a stage with a mic on it. It's because of all of the above mentioned that, week after week, a bunch of people flip off the Monday night blues, risk the parking disaster which is downtown San Francisco, commute, stay up late, and go to the HUOM. Whether you're at the bar, downstairs, upstairs, outside smoking a cigarette, in the backstage area, on the stage, or in the photobooth, you're with family. This is a place for you to express your inner weird, and be loved and accepted because of it. It's a place where you can give and receive support to friends you didn't know you needed, and a ritual that is so much more than just an Open Mic.
At the HUOM, you're home.