The musicians performing at Brainwash Cafe have a lot to compete with. The roar of the espresso machine, the chatter of other patrons, the dinging of pinball machines, and, surprisingly for a venue, the opening and closing of washing machines.
For more than 20 years Brainwash has been providing food, coffee, beer, and a laundromat to SOMA patrons. It also provides a venue for several different open mics: Mondays are spoken word, Tuesdays are music, and Thursdays are comedy.
On a Tuesday night in July, the cafe is bustling. There are about 20 people watching the young woman at the microphone, who is singing, “"Magic mushrooms at Lands End in the spring/ These are a few of my favorite things."
The total audience for the open mic is about 40, if you include all the patrons waiting on their laundry. The floor is cluttered with an assortment of instrument cases, making navigation to and from tables a challenge. As the young woman finishes up her set, onlookers call out with positive feedback. “Oh my goodness!” shouts another performer.
Some Gentle People
On a Thursday afternoon Dean Leto sits against the window at Brainwash, glancing back and forth from his iPad to me. “I'm one of those people who came here because of that song ‘San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Flowers in Your Hair)’" he tells me.
Leto, who is originally from New York, has been emceeing on Tuesday nights for a year and a half, a comparatively short run for a musician with a history as extensive as his. Thanks to John Phillips’ iconic song, he’s been a performer in the city for over 30 years, performing ballet, hip-hop, and playing in a punk band at Mabuhay Gardens among other projects.
Leto found the ad for the emcee position on Craigslist and came in soon after for an interview. “I sold them on the idea that I’d stick around,” he says. So far he seems happy with the commitment, despite the mic’s inconsistencies. “On good days, I love it...It runs from hot to cold and back and in between for no reason,” he says. “I have no inkling as to why it happens.”
Danielle Ate The Sandwich at Brainwash but not at an open mic night.
At its worst, the open mic has been a venue for petty crime -- earlier this year one of the performers’ laptops was taken during his performance. But the best nights, in Leto’s opinion, are the ones in which the youngest musicians set the bar highest.
“The highlights for me really are when I see the young, talented performers come down and strut their stuff,” says Leto. “I don't care if their skills are developed or not. Here we're all about the positivity.” Since it’s one of the few open mic venues that’s all-ages, Brainwash attracts a younger group of musicians than most open mic spots.
This youth demographic is one of the primary reasons that Leto continues to take pride in his role at Brainwash. During the day, Leto is a math teacher at Oakland High School. “I generally have a nurturing relationship with people who are under 18,” says Leto. He enjoys giving teens the opportunity to share their music and gain performance experience, especially since this is a rare opportunity for youths in the bar-heavy Bay Area.
Dean has formed friendships with many of the the regular performers and is eager to discuss their strengths and promote their groups “We have a nurturing attitude [at Brainwash]; it's not about competition,” he says. “We encourage a lot of collaboration. We've introduced people that became acts.”
Part of the open mic’s friendly environment stems from the fact that the cafe closes at 10pm, keeping out the rowdier late-night crowd. “This is a very mellow, low-key open mic,” Leto explains. “It's not high powered like the Utah or the Red Devil Lounge. You don't have to take a number or be part of a lottery, and I'm able to offer everyone 15 minutes.” This is a significant time slot; most open mics offer 2 songs or ten minutes.
According to Leto, open mic nights serve an important function because it gives performers a place to develop their skills without the pressure of selling enough tickets and because there is nowhere else young people can go to participate in the local music scene. “[The open mic] creates a place where people can connect and interface and meet and perform together that doesn't involve Facebook,” he says. “It’s somewhere we can meet and have a community.”
Open mics can also have a darker impact on the music community. Because no one (including Leto) gets paid for their services, open mic artists are sometimes exploited as a way for venues to make money off of free entertainment. “I don’t see that at Brainwash,” says Leto. “There’s no pressure for me to fulfill any sort of quota.”
Though Leto makes no money from his nights at Brainwash, he feels that having a place to hang out, meet people, and support local artists is worthy compensation. Through his open mic, Leto has even found a few people to join his own band My Blue Soul.
In addition to teaching statistics and hosting an open mic, Leto and his band perform weekly at the Condor Club in North Beach. “If you are a jack of all trades for a long time,” he says, “You become pretty good at some of those things.”