Thursday, August 27, 2009

Memorable Busking Experiences: Part 2

In last week's post, I shared some of my memorable busking experiences. This week I thought that I would ask a few of the other street musicians that perform along Government Street and down on the inner harbour causeway about some of their memorable busking moments.

Marty Field (guitar/vocals) is a longtime causeway and uptown busker: “Well, I guess one of the most memorable moments for me busking was a few summers ago I had an Elvis impersonator join me for a few songs and he was awesome, it was great, and it was the closest I ever got to the King. So that was a great day for me.”

Sarah Tradewell (celtic fiddle) has been busking on the causeway for two summers and was pretty excited about sharing her experience:
“One day I was busking and a photographer came and took my picture and he said he was from the Victoria Daily Photo blog and he was going to use my picture for photo of the day. So, he put the photo up, and coincidentally that day there had been a writer who had come on the harbour and had seen me play and she was writing a book about a fiddler and when she had seen me, she said ‘Oh my goodness, that is the main character of my book in person,’ and so she walked away never expecting to ever see me again or hear me play again. She found the photo blog of this photographer, Benjamin, and found my picture and she said “Well, that’s the girl, how do I get in contact with her?” And so she asked him for my contact information and she found me, and we’re actually going to Gabriola (Island) to visit her and to take some photos for her book trailer, ‘cause her book’s going to be coming out in May of 2010 and its called ‘Restoring Harmony’. And we’re also doing some recording for her for publicity and stuff so I’ll be singing and playing with her husband. Isn’t that cool, I thought that was pretty sweet.”

Jean Bedard (guitar/vocals) performs mostly at Fisherman’s Wharf, but also plays on the causeway, where this story took place: “Just recently I’m playing down here and there’s a choir from London. Anyway, seven of them gathered around me and asked me if I knew how to play a certain song and I didn’t, but we finally settled on Stand By Me and so I found out the key that they do it in and I sang it with them and it was like right away a crowd of people just gathered and the vocals were just super so that was fine and then they left. About half an hour later, the rest show up and I said ‘Do you guys want to do the song Stand By Me? So we started doing it again, now the crowd of people builds and what happened is, the (first) seven were down around the corner, so they all come running over. Now I’ve got twenty of them… and we’re singing this song and I got a bit of it on video and all the harmonies and the different things that they did vocally, it was just incredible. It just sounded so neat. That was a highlight.”

Dave Harris (one-man-band) has busked on the streets of Victoria for the past 33 yearss: “The obvious one about the little kids, I mean when little kids come along and it’s probably the first time they’ve ever seen a live musician, and they just kind of gawk up at you sort of unbelievable, they can’t believe it, they’ve never seen something like that before, and you can see this amazement in their face, and then they start moving their head and moving their body and then the crowd will start getting into it ‘cause you know there’s nothin’ like a kid right? So that’s kind of a good one.”

Tristan Teal & Micah Walker (guitars/vocals) are two of the newer buskers along Government:
Tristan – “Well, there was one time that I was busking with Micah, here I think, and a woman whose job it was to go out for record labels and kind of do scouting for musicians on stage and stuff, she listened to two or three of our songs and she was pretty cold, like she wasn’t super warm about it all, but she said really if we believe in ourselves, and we have what it takes to really do that and to really spread the word with that, so that was pretty cool ‘cause it really seemed like she knew what she was talking about.”
Micah – “There’s thousands of people doing what we’re doing and you gotta make sure that you separate yourself from them, you know, you gotta explain through your music why you’re doing it, why it’s real for you. It’s good to hear positive feedback like that.”
Tristan – “So, that was probably one of the better busking moments was having that encouragement and just inspiration from someone who’s around that all the time.”

Ian & Jonathan Bennetts (guitars/vocals) are veteran buskers who have performed in Paris and New York City’s Greenwich Village, and the last 4 years in Victoria. Here, they share a couple of their Parisian tales:
Ian – “Around the late ‘50s, ’58 or something like that, what happened is that my brother and I would sing outside of a cafĂ© somewhere in the Latin Quarter of Paris and we’d do two songs, and then my brother would go around with the hat and while he did that I would sing ‘Summertime’ and at that time back then a long time ago I had a very sweet soft voice and I would sing ‘Summertime’ and I’d usually aim my eyes towards a pretty young woman and sing the song as if I was singing it to her, I learned that trick as a busker early on, and so I did very well in the romance department by singing romantic songs.and that was like a really good experience for me.”
Jonathan – “I was on the Boulevard Saint-Germain and we’d always had competitions to see who made the most money in an evening or in a session and I was singing away and this individual came up to me and he said 'Do you know 'Don’t Fence Me In?’', and I don’t really know it but I knew the tune so I said ‘Yeah, sure.’ So, I sang 'Don’t Fence Me In' and chucked a few French words in there and it turned out he was a Cuban sugar millionaire, so he gave me a hundred dollars for that. Then he said ‘Do you know 'The Yellow Rose Of Texas?’' and I said ‘Absolutely!’ He gave me two hundred dollars for that and I ended up getting, I think it was $550 from him which was a huge amount of money in those days, it must be worth about three or four thousand dollars in today’s money. I had a photograph taken of me holding all these huge notes up and I won the competition. it was pretty amazing and especially ‘cause I didn’t know the bloody songs. I knew the tunes and I was making up the words, so, I got away with it. So, yeah that was a pretty memorable experience”

Hank Engel (guitar/vocals) has busked in Edmonton, Toronto and this summer on the causeway in Victoria: “The first memorable busking experience that leaps to my mind is one time I was playing on the streets of Edmonton and an elderly couple stopped and they were celebrating their anniversary. It was probably a momentous (one), probably their 50th or something like that, and they asked me to play a waltz for them and I did, and they danced and a big crowd gathered round to watch them dance. That was the first one I could think of. I mean I’ve probably had other ones, but that’s the first one.”

Ginger Jam – Curtis (guitar/vocals) & Daniel (trumpet) are new to the Government Street scene:
Curtis - “Our interesting busking experience performing on the street, we were accompanied by a man that I would like to call ‘Spoons’. (He) came out of nowhere with some spoons strapped to his backpack and he had a seat next to us and well, yeah, played the spoons with us and accompanied us and I think that was pretty interesting. He was rather intoxicated and it made the show even more entertaining and yeah, overall it was a really great experience.”

Shanna Dance just started busking on the causeway this summer:
“I think some of the most memorable experiences that I’ve had down here have just been seeing all the smiles on people’s faces when me and Aurora were dressed as lobsters. All the little kids coming down and coming up to us with big smiles on their faces, either that or being afraid and running away. We had a lot of people who actually danced the other night when I was here people actually started ballroom dancing in front of me which was a really good experience and just the whole atmosphere on the inner harbour all of the other buskers all the people here really encourage me to come down and busk. And make me feel very welcome and very warm here.”

This has just been a sampling of what are undoubtedly hundreds of stories that Victoria’s street musicians could tell about the stuff that makes what we do a little bit more fun. As this blog progresses, you can count on this question being asked as I interview other street musicians for future posts.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Memorable Busking Experiences: Part 1

When I first became a street musician, my main motivation was just to make some money, but over the years, I began to discover that there was more to busking than just the money, that there were also moments of spontaneous interactions with passersby, that made what I do a lot more fun. I thought that this week I’d share a few of these stories.

All buskers will have stories involving kids. The kids are always the most spontaneous and uninhibited in their responses to live music. Just last week I was in the middle of a song when a young boy (about 4 years old) came up and started dancing to the song that I was playing. It was really amusing watching him doing his energetic version of the twist, and it wasn’t too long before passersby were stopping to watch and take photos of the boy, while I continued to play. After about six songs he and his family were off to the rest of their vacationing, and I had chalked up another fun episode.

Another time a mother and her young daughter (I’d guess about 8 years old) were walking by as I was playing Peter, Paul & Mary’s 500 Miles Away From Home. The girl stopped while her mother was pulling her hand saying “We’ve got to go.” It was apparent the mother was in a hurry to get somewhere, but the girl was intent on hearing the song. She tugged back a few times on her mother’s hand and said “I want to listen to the song. It sounds so sad.” Finally, the mother relented and waited until the song was over, at which time the girl said “Thankyou for the song,” and then they were off.

I was playing an early set when a group of kids (about 6 or 7 years old) on a day-camp outing stopped by to eat their lunches while listening to some tunes. One of the boys sat himself down on the pavement in front of my guitar case and proceeded to separate all the coins into piles by denomination. He was having a great time giving me between song updates on how much was in the case. I commented that he must be wanting to be an accountant when he grew up.

Sometimes an audience member may become an active participant in the music making. A number of years ago I was playing on the harbour when a Scottish soccer team stopped by. They were on the island for an International High School Soccer Tournament that was being held that year in the Cowichan Valley. Taking a break between games they decided to check out the causeway and found themselves sitting and listening to me play. One of the guys asked me if I knew 500 Miles” by the Proclaimers. After I said that I didn’t, another voice said “Let Fraser play it, he knows it.” Then a few more voices urged their teammate on. I handed my guitar to their friend and went to sit down with the rest of the team. With encouragement from all of us, Fraser started strumming the guitar and singing, and all his teammates and I started singing along with him.

Another time a guy about seventeen came up and asked if I knew Country Roads and if he could sing along. I started the song and he joined in with some incredible high lonesome bluegrass harmony. That was a lot of fun. When I noted that it sounded like he’d been singing for a while, he told me that he’d learned to sing harmonies with his mother since he was small.

Sometimes there’ll be a day where nothing is happening, and I’m thinking of calling it a day, and out of the blue something happens that energizes me. On one such day I was playing and try as I might, I just could not seem to make a connection with anyone. No eye contact. No smiles. It seemed I was invisible. I was in the middle of a song near the end of a physically draining set, when a lady and a golden retriever were walking past. The dog which had been leading on its leash stopped in front of me and yanked the lady back as she kept walking by. The dog sat there at my feet staring intently up at me while I sang my song. I said to the dog “I like you!” It turns out, as the lady told me, that the dog’s previous owner just happened to be a guitar player. That momentary connection with the dog brightened what otherwise was a slow day.

My most memorable experience happened one afternoon in the summer of 1999 when fellow busker and mandolin player Earl Purvis and I got together to do a set in Victoria’s Bastion Square. We were playing the classic 1940’s country song Ashes Of Love when a young couple, maybe late teens or early 20s stopped to listen. I noticed that the girl was singing along, which I thought was pretty cool considering the age of the song. I then noticed that she was also writing. When we finished the song, the girl tossed something into the case, and then walked off with her friend. At the end of our set when Earl and I were divvying up the take I found a folded up piece of paper. When I opened it up, a toonie dropped into the case, and written on the paper was the following note:

“dear mandolin & guitar men, thanks for your music!
my dad played in a bluegrass band before he died and they used to play ‘ashes of love’ too. thanks for reminding me. keep up your awesome spirit and tunes! from someone with an appreciative ear.”

It was hard not to tear up while reading the note, and when I showed it to Earl, I said “Man, this is what it’s all about.”

Next week: Part 2, when I’ll ask some of my fellow street musicians about their most memorable busking experiences.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

It Just Might Be Worth Something: interview with Devon Floyd

After the peak busker years of the 1990s and early 2000s when Dave Harris, Shillelagh, Jay Garnett, KC Kelly, Marty Field, Jim Meighen, Julian Vitek, myself and others were vying for the prime spots on Government Street, it seemed that for a few years there was a bit of a lull in the uptown busking scene. Occasionally, you’d see someone playing at Murchies, but for the most part, the regular buskers had moved on down to the inner harbour or just moved on.

The last couple of years, however, as I walk to and from the causeway, I have noticed a bit of a resurgence with some new faces filling in the old spaces. This is the first of what I hope will be a series of interviews with some of these new buskers.

The first thing that set 24 year old singer/songwriter Devon Floyd apart was that he was probably the sharpest dressed busker on Government. The second was that every time I walked by and nodded or stopped to tip, he always had a friendly spontaneous smile, a valued but sometimes rare trait among buskers (myself included). What really drew my attention though, was hearing Devon singing Bob Dylan's Visions of Johanna. While it has been much speculated that every street musician does at least one Dylan song (in particular Don’t Think Twice, It's Alright), I had never heard anyone do Visions before.

Devon grew up near Melfort, Saskatchewan, where he learned to play piano and guitar. He currently lives in Regina.

In May, he came out to Victoria for the summer to do some busking. Outfitted with his guitar, harmonica and foot-operated “kickdrum pedal & tambourine” gizmo, he began playing two, or sometimes three sets a day on Government Street, alternating between Roger’s Chocolates, Murchies and Eddie Bauer.

CD – How did you get into busking?
Devon – I played in a folk-rock band for about a year, and hadn’t made a dime and figured I might make more money busking, than in the bars where we’d just sit around hanging with the patrons and then end up playing for only twenty people. I started busking in 2007 off and on, then in 2008 I busked weekly mostly along the Scarth Street mall or at liquor stores. There were only a couple of buskers in Regina, so it wasn’t too competitive.

CD - What made you decide to come to Victoria?
Devon – I’d been living in Regina for about six years. It was a pretty small town. I finished my degree in political science at the University of Regina, and decided this would be the last chance for some freedom. I heard Victoria was a busking town. Didn’t know it then, but found out that just meant there were lots of them.

CD - What was your first day like busking in Victoria?
Devon – There was one busker who told me to move to another spot, that I wasn’t allowed to play where I was. I found out later that wasn’t true, and that he was just wanting to play there.

CD – Have you found a favorite spot?
Devon – Outside Roger’s Chocolates. I figured if people were going to pay $8 for a piece of chocolate, they might just toss me a loonie when they came out. It’s also a shady spot which I think is the most important part.

About a week before this interview, I was on my way home from a set on the causeway, when I ran into Devon playing at Murchies and stopped to chat. I bought one of the CDs he had on display in his case. It was a pure DIY affair. The disc was safely tucked inside the loosely stitched inside fold of some recycled cardboard, on the front of which, the eponymous title had been hand-stamped in blue paint. On the back, the song titles were hand-written. The whole thing was tied up Christmas ribbon style with a piece of twine. The seven songs were all written by Devon and recorded by in his basement, and he also played all the instruments and sang all of the vocal parts.

CD – Do you write a lot of songs?
Devon – Not as many as I’d like to. That’s what’s incredible about Dylan, He’s written thousands of songs, he’s staying true to the life of an artist. Me, I’ve written two songs in five or six months. Maybe four songs a year.

CD – I know that you’ve said that the style of music you play is folk, but in listening to your CD, I also picked up on a little bit of alternative country.
Devon – Yeah, that too.

CD – Which artists would you say have influenced your style?
Devon – Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Ryan Adams, Conor Oberst. I worked for the Regina Folk Fest for a year as Artist Services Manager and had the opportunity to chat with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott (who had also done some busking in his early years).

CD – What are the songs that you really enjoy playing?
Devon – Visions Of Johanna, not a real money maker, but most musician’s favorite songs are not necessarily the ones that the public wants to hear. Too Far Gone (Neil Young), The Weight and Night They Drove Old Dixie Down (The Band).

CD – What’s your favorite line from a song?
Devon – “There ain’t nothing like a friend, who can tell you you’re just pissin’ in the wind” (Ambulance Blues Neil Young).

CD – What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever had thrown in your case?
Devon – Flowers, someone threw a rose on Mother’s Day.

CD – And your most memorable busking experience?
Devon – In Regina, this super cute girl threw a toonie in my case and walked away. Then a couple of minutes later when I was in the middle of another song, she came back and grabbed my face and kissed me.
CD – Your reaction?
Devon – I just turned red and grinned like an idiot.

This interview was done on July 30th, two days before Devon flew back home to Regina.

CD – So, how was your busking adventure here in Victoria?
Devon – I wasn’t disappointed. It was an awesome experience. I got to meet some of the most interesting people this side of the Rocky Mountains.

Then he added as an afterthought, “This side of Douglas Street.”

While preparing this interview to be posted, I’d been listening a lot to Devon’s CD. I also did an internet search and came across the following quote that he’d made:

“…I think I play folk music. It's hard to say what folk is these days, some people seem to think it's out of tune guitars and a whiny, gutless voice, both of which whether I like it or not, I seem to possess. But beyond that, I think that folk music is something that helps people realize that it's all the same struggle. And if music, poorly tuned or not, can help people feel each other's pains, as well as good times, then it just might be worth something.” (source: www.saskrecording.ca)

It really conveys in his self-deprecating and modest manner what music is or should be about. After many listenings to his CD, I believe that Devon is indeed striving for this standard in his songwriting and performance.

For more on Devon and his music, check out his website.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Beginnings

The first thing many people will ask when they meet a street musician/busker is “How did you get started?” The answers, depending on the busker can vary from financial reasons ie: paying the rent, tuition, etc; to just wanting to play for the public.

So, this then is how I got my start in Vancouver back in the summer of 1979 at the age of 24.

A friend and I had been spending some time hanging out on the Granville Street Mall when we came across a group called Diamantose playing in front of the Orpheum Theatre. The three musicians Jacques St-Laurent, Remy Tremblay & Sylvie Loiseau did a nightly show of French-Canadian and popular folk songs, and we soon became regular front row audience members. (more on Diamantose in a future post)

After about a week, my friend suggested that I, being out of work, might find busking to be a good source of income, and that I should get a guitar and give it a try. I got up the next morning and went over to San Francisco Pawnbrokers on East Hastings Street and purchased the least expensive guitar I could find. When I walked out I was $65 lighter, but I was the proud owner of a 1972 Yamaki Deluxe acoustic.

I then got myself a large spiral notebook and spent a day writing the lyrics and chords to about 25 songs in large print (so that it could be read from where it would lay on the ground in front of me when I played).

The next evening I headed out to Granville Street and found myself a vacant entrance way to a small shoe store between the Capitol 6 and Orpheum Theatres. I immediately opened up my cardboard case, slung the guitar over my shoulder, laid my songbook at my feet, and nervously started into my first song. I followed that with my second, and then my third, and slowly began to relax and have some fun. As the evening progressed some of the movie goers began tossing coins into my case, and when I did my count at the end of the night I had enough to pay for a couple of night’s rent at the SRO that I was staying at. I began to believe that this busking thing just might work out.

In the early weeks I spent most of my days adding new songs to my notebook and the evenings on Granville playing into the wee hours of morning.

I continued to cross paths with Jacques, Remy & Sylvie when I was on Granville, and as I began venturing out to try new spots I met a few of the other musicians that were busking around town, including Gary Webstad, a guitarist/singer, who I shared a spot with at the Robson Street liquor store near Denman; and another fellow, I can’t remember his name , but, we’d usually play up the street from each other on Hornby Street. They were all a very friendly, supportive lot, who were more than willing to share a few pointers like how to project my voice over traffic, etc.

Eventually I figured out the spots that worked best for me and had gotten into a pretty regular routine. Mondays through Thursdays, I would usually play outside the liquor store on Alberni Street at Thurlow from about 3:30 to 5:30, and then head back to Granville where I’d play into the night. On Fridays and Saturdays, I would do the liquor store set, grab a coffee at the neighboring McDonalds and head over to Hornby Street, in what was then the nightclub district, and set up between Gary Taylor’s Rock Room and Honey’s Deli, and play another set from 8:30 to about 1 a.m.

Of all the spots I played at, outside Gary Taylor’s was my preferred location. It was pretty busy with lots of people on the town checking out the nightclub scene. Besides the money thrown into my case, I would also sometimes be the recipient of other bonuses, such as cans of beer (on several occasions), tickets to see an act at the Cave across the street, etc.

At that time, Hornby Street was the stroll for the working girls. One night I was just finishing Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through The Night” when the cameraman with a CBC News film crew doing a news segment on prostitution, came up and asked me if I could do the song again for the film. I never did see the segment. I don’t know if it become my first television exposure, or if I just wound up on the cutting room floor.

In October of that year, I fell into a job working for the City of Vancouver at The 44 Club, a downtown eastside drop-in center. I continued to busk Friday and Saturday evenings on Hornby Street until just before Christmas, when I decided that I would bring the curtain down and focus on my newly acquired job. That last night, I had an overly exuberant group of visiting Mexicans who heard me playing “Feliz Navidad”. They threw a $20 in my case and urged me on to play it about 12 more times, while they all joined in singing along. What a raucous ending!

My first taste of busking had lasted only about 7 months. It was a time that I’d come to enjoy, meeting new friends, learning new songs, getting more proficient with my playing, and making a bit of cash. But, as it turned out, it would not be the last, as I would return to this endeavor again in the late 1980’s in Vancouver’s Commercial Drive neighborhood and more recently on the waterfront in Victoria, BC.