Brendan Getzell, by Robert Alleyne

The first time I went to the Hotel Utah open mic night was to see a friend perform. In the bar area, the Warriors were taking on the Thunder in game seven of the 2016 Western Conference finals. In the performance area, friends were casually enjoying beers, huddled around someone clutching a guitar. Others I took for regulars.

Then, the call for the next musician and the warning for whoever was “on deck” and “double deck” came. The charismatic man delivering this news was Brendan Getzell, the host of one of the most popular open mic nights in San Francisco.

When I meet Getzell later, I am immediately struck by his enthusiasm. He is bursting with passion and his voice booms as he speaks about his history with Hotel Utah’s open mic night. “I used to go, I’d say, about 40 times a year,” he says of his early days at the Monday night event, back when it was run by singer-songwriter, J. J. Shultz. Getzell praises Shultz for building an environment that allowed him to flourish as a musician. “He really did a lot to foster a collaborative spirit,” says Brenden of Shultz. This spirit drew Getzell further into the musical community, and he’d often find himself backing other artists with a variety of instruments. Guitar, mandolin, bass, piano, backing vocals — whatever they needed, he found himself contributing.

Then one day, Getzell remembers, Shultz gave him a call. “I’m out of ideas, can you take over for me, man?” It was a simple message, but it passed the torch from one enthusiastic singer-songwriter to another. “I took over in June 2011…and I’ve been having just a wild, amazing time doing it,” he says.

Brendan Getzell, by Robert Alleyne

Taking over the open mic night was an opportunity to nurture the community Shultz had built, and it was an opportunity Getzell relished. “I love the cross-mingling from different backgrounds, whether they be cultural, social, or economic,” he shares. “There is a mutual understanding and a love of art, expression, and building that art,” he continues. “This is a community that is not greedy, avaricious, or anything like that. It’s a community that’s built first on the ground floor. It’s

[about] creativity, and everything else comes from that.” He pauses for a moment before launching in to his next point. “I like that [it’s an] ideal that runs a little bit counter to how society is in San Francisco right now.”

We talk about open mic nights and their place in a local music scene. To Getzell, it’s a no-brainer: Open mic nights are fundamental to the success of an area’s music scene. “It’s really important to have that ground-floor, entry-level element in San Francisco, completely ready to go,” he says. “The open mic gives people an environment to hone themselves, and to meet other people, and [to] collaborate and join bands…It’s the most organic experience (especially in the music and singer-songwriter genre),” he says. “All of the big changes in the city with all of the luxury-glass condo pyramid fortresses coming up and everything like that…raising rents for everything. It’s important that we preserve these things,” he expresses.

Getzell is a political guy, and during our conversation, talk of the changes in the city creep in. Whenever we mention San Francisco, he speaks with a passion that’s hard to replicate — his voice grows a little louder, his movements are stronger and more pronounced. “The open mic music scene…in San Francisco has been a place where we see…the front lines of artistic activism coming out,” he offers. “Definitely my open mic has been a place where I’ve seen plenty of that ranging from everything from our national situation to our housing in San Francisco to rights for LGBT [community],” he recalls. He points out that the Hotel Utah is close to a few homeless shelters and shares how, from time to time, homeless musicians come by to share their stories. “It’s this amazing cross-section,” he says as we talk about the role musicians play in the political discourse. “Music is a place, figuratively I suppose, [a] place where people can interact and see an experience bigger than their own,” he offers.

Brendan Getzell, by Robert Alleyne

One way Getzell fosters the open mic community is through “cover your friends” nights. “I give people three, four weeks notice and [then they] learn a song by one of their friends — preferably someone who comes out to our open mic — then they play it for us,” he explains. “You get this wonderful…experience; [some musicians] never get to hear their song played by someone else — and there have been so many wonderful surprises coming out of that,” he recalls. His mind starts visibly racing, and you feel he is excitedly recounting some of his favorite moments. “I could have my songs in one night performed by a singer-songwriter, a drag queen clown, in death metal…there are so many surprises that come out of that,” he shares.

The open mic has also opened doors for Getzell in the San Francisco music community, including his current work with Kat Robichaud’s Misfit Cabaret. Robichaud came to the open mic one night and absolutely “wowed” everyone with her voice, he recalls. After “overcompensating” in an audition, Getzell soon became a member of her Darling Misfits right as she was starting the Cabaret, which is held at San Francisco’s historic Great Star Theater. “I cannot be who Kat is, but it just inspires me to want to be better and better and better.”

Being around Getzell, it is clear how much he cares not just about the grassroots music community in San Francisco; he deeply cares about the city itself. “Musically, we [musicians] have a unique opportunity,” he says. “Songwriters have the ability to generate empathy on some level, to tell a story and also to give people something that is out of the world [they] can like and connect with,” he shares. “[Musicians can then] create… a voice to be a positive impact or change.” While he appreciates this may be a “flowery” ideal, it is one he believes in, and through the open mic night, one he hopes can be realized.

Hotel Utah open mic night, hosted by Brendan Getzell
Hotel Utah
Every Monday
8pm, Free