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No Cover, No Minimum
Deborah Crooks

Photo: Deborah Crooks
San Francisco has long boasted a vibrant music scene representing jazz, bluegrass, punk, goth and good ole fashion rock n’ roll on the national radar. While more commonly thought of as a band town—think Green Day, Santana & Counting Crows—San Francisco also fosters a thriving songwriter community in the tradition of Nashville, Boston and Austin. On almost any given night, you can catch a songbird strumming original tunes on an acoustic in one of the ubiquitous coffee shops that have a presence in most neighborhoods. These are the places artists get their start. Catch ‘em now so you can say “back in the day, before the Grammy, I saw so and
so at....” Better yet, if you know where to go, you don’t have to pay a cover charge to see original music. Save that door money for the artist’s tip jar and a latte to sip while you listen.

The Richmond District’s Bazaar Cafe has carved out a niche in the city as a songwriter’s haven since 1998. Pretty much every songwriter who performs with any regularity in the Bay Area has played the Bazaar at least once. On all but one or two nights of the week, two to three artists are featured. Run by owner and music fan Les Wisner, the low-key storefront at California and 22nd boasts progressive politics and an “originals only” policy for performers. As such, it’s become a destination for seasoned and novice songwriters alike who are eager to debut new tunes to their peers. A popular Thursday night open mic is more like a class recital, since 90 percent of the patrons are performers. Many writers have been coming for years to perform their latest new songs, compare guitars, talk shop and simply schmooze. It’s common for people to spontaneously sit in with each other. The rest of the week’s featured artists are often hand-picked by Les from the best of Thursday’s lot. Look for a couple of house favorites—Mario Speedwagon or Lisa Mandelstein—on the calendar. Check the back garden on late afternoons and you might catch someone rehearsing. A bit of wall space is devoted to a listening station of indie cds, and on a semiannual basis, Les produces a Bazaar Cafe compilation disc of his favorite artists. Each year to celebrate the Bazaar’s anniversary, he also devotes a weekend to all hours music when you can find someone in the front of the cafe strumming and singing from 8 am till closing. With a menu boasting pastries and coffee and soup, rice bowls, sake and a house red, it’s easy to spend a day there, listening... and getting inspired.

Not so far from the Bazaar is Simple Pleasures, a cozy cafe that feels like a living room. Replete with couches, board games and a piano, most weeknights see local and touring songwriters such as deadpan rambler Abel Mouton or Rob Modica setting up a mic stand in the back end of the cafe. Laid back is the key word here. Grab a beer, relax on the couch and groove.

The Haight Ashbury district of SF is of course fabled for the 60s rock scene it birthed. While many a store offers shrines to Janis, Jimi and the Dead, Cafe International, in the Lower Haight, is a destination for those seeking a country hootenanny, poetry jam or songwriter showcase. The monthly Hootenanny on the second Saturday of each month offers up another free night of acoustic music. Songwriters and jug bands often share the bill, which usually ends with a pick fest. The long hall-like room and larger stage space more easily accommodates acts with multiple members. Cafe International has hosted such now-popular performers as the bluesy, political Mokai and the poetic Sean Hayes. The latter is now selling out larger venues such as the Great American Music Hall—and poised to make a national breakthrough after having played with the Be Good Tanyas and another local breakout artist Jolie Holland—so you can trust the quality control meter of the booker.

Sacred Grounds Cafe and Coffeehouse is another low-key place to catch touring and local artists. Technically part of the Upper Haight, at 2095 Hayes St., you can catch songwriters about half of the week. (The cafe also hosts the longest running open-mic for poetry in San Francisco on Wednesdays if you take your words without music.) Not far from Cafe International is ultra-cool Cafe Waziema in the Western Addition. Not many Ethiopian restaurants can boast having hosted Billie Holiday and Tina Turner but somehow, this tasty restaurant has made the combination of eating with your hands and listening to live music work. The monthly “City Sessions” showcase in the two-tiered back room of the restaurant is always top-notch. For the price of some injera bread and veggies, you can get up close and personal with artists such as Jeffrey Luck Lucas, Mica Lee Williams and Sonya Greta.

The Rite Spot Cafe is a venerable dive bar in the Mission that hosts jazz musicians, songwriters and jug bands on a regular basis. It has the feeling of an old speakeasy; the bartenders are ornery but it’s a favorite place to grab a drink after a show. A small kitchen offers Italian food at round, candlelit tables. For the price of a drink, you might catch the truly one of a kind Uni and her Ukulele, Francesa Lee or country crooner Toshio Harani. Sit close to the performers so you don’t miss a word: the aforementioned bartenders generally control the volume on the PA so that they don’t miss a drink order.

The San Francisco chapter of SongsAlive!, an international songwriting organization has found a new home for its monthly showcase at Cafe Infusion, South of Market. Likewise, the Starbucks on Bryant St., plays host to a monthly West Coast Songwriters Open Mic and competition, also on Thursdays. The recently opened Mama Art Cafe is a very homey cafe out in the Excelsior District that has hosted SondsAlive! showcases and features live music each Thursday. Kick back on the couch and enjoy their great chicken soup while listening to neighborhood talent.

Out in the East Bay, the Nomad Cafe straddles the Oakland-Berkeley border. It’s wired, earth-friendly, and committed to fostering the arts. Founded by longtime traveler Chris Waters, the Nomad, a pillar of the Ashby Arts District, has become a favorite gig for songwriters happy to play in a smoke-free environment. Culled from artist referrals and those who have dropped their CDs off for review, the community-minded owner books his Friday and Saturday shows six months out. Plus he even sticks around to listen and take photos, which he will later post on the webstie. Buy an organic beer or some fair trade coffee, eat some bruschetta and kick back at Nomad ‘til 9, then make your way down to the Starry Plough for more live music if you’re so inclined. You’ll have to pay a cover there, so come back on Tuesday for the Plough’s raucous open mic—it is a bar, after all.

A’Cuppa Tea is another dependable listening room in the East Bay. Keep an eye on their calendar for the bluesy Jared Karol, Steve Taylor and his Cowpokes for Peace and Damond Moodie.

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