Thursday, September 24, 2009

Reggaebilly & Buskers For Peace

I am in varying stages of preparing 3 interviews for upcoming posts, so, here are a couple of items to tide you over ‘til next week.

What do you get when you cross the sounds of the Caribbean with backwoods country-blues music? Reggaebilly, of course. This new musical genre made its debut on the causeway back in the summer of 2007, when longtime street musician Dave Harris began doing some sets with steel drum player Swan Walker. Since then, Dave and Swan have gotten together numerous times to play their entertaining mix of country-blues, reggae, calypsos, old ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s pop, rock and soul tunes. (More on Swan in a future post)

I will leave you with a link to a really cool video that was e-mailed to me. It was produced by an organization called Playing For Change, whose goal is to "inspire, connect, and bring peace to the world through music". The producers took their mobile recording studio and film crew to Santa Monica, where they recorded a street musician performing the foundation track. They then traveled to New Orleans, Amsterdam, New Mexico, France, Rio de Janeiro, Moscow, Venezuela, The Congo, South Africa, Barcelona and Italy, where they had local musicians add their voices and instruments to the same song. All the tracks were then mixed together for the video.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Julian Walker & Dylan Driscoll

A week ago Saturday, I was on my way down to play on the causeway, when I ran into two of the newer street musicians that have been making their presence known on Government Street the last few years. Julian Walker and Dylan Driscoll were playing Led Zeppelin’s Going To California, when I stopped to tip them, before continuing down to the harbour. Finding it too windy for busking, I hung out for a while and then decided to head back uptown to catch up with Julian and Dylan. I found them playing at Murchies and sat and listened to them for a while. It was a casual performance in which they did a couple of songs together including the traditional Reuben’s Train, then Dylan took a break and wandered off and chatted while Julian did, Neil Young’s Tell Me Why, and a song by Portland band the Decemberists. Then Dylan was back playing Bob Dylan’s It Takes A Train To Cry while Julian took a break.

After they finished their set, we headed down to Market Square where the guys could get something to eat at Green Cuisine, and we got down to the interview.

Originally from Peterborough ON, Dylan, 23, came out to Vancouver in 2006 and bounced around between Vancouver and Victoria. Julian, 20, grew up in Fort St. James and a few other communities in the interior of BC, before coming to Victoria. They’ve been hanging out, playing their guitars and singing together, along Government Street since the summer of 2008.

CD – I saw you this morning playing at Eddie Bauer, and then later at Murchies. Are these your favorite spots?
Dylan – I think my favorite spot in the morning is definitely outside of Eddie Bauer just ‘cause it’s kinda quiet and it’s a nice place to sit in the morning. In my experience, Murchies has been more lucrative in the afternoon times and there’s more people walking by. Really, my favorite spot to play is definitely down on the harbour. I had some really good times there.
CD – And probably more people.
Dylan – Yeah, a lot more people for sure.
Julian – As far as busking goes, I like Murchies and Bastion Square, and I do like Eddie Bauer if it’s raining ‘cause it’s got that overhang. But as far as acoustics go, I really like playing in the courtyard at the library. It sounds really good.
CD – Great acoustics in there. I’m too loud for in there myself.
Julian – (laughs) Oh yeah?

CD – Have you busked anywhere other than Victoria?
Dylan – I’ve done some busking in Vancouver, Peterborough, Toronto and Calgary.
CD – Okay, so how do Peterborough and Toronto, say, compare with Victoria?
Dylan – Well in Peterborough, most people know you, and you play music with them, which is not so much different than here, but yeah, Peterborough’s a lot smaller so you’ll see everyone that you see everyday, and in that way it can be good but then it can also be “Oh, there’s so-and-so doing that,” and they’re not really interested as much as they would be in bigger places.
CD – How big is Peterborough, would there be a lot of buskers?
Dylan – Uh, no. There’s like a couple here and there, but no, the music scene in Peterborough’s definitely more in the bars, not on the street so much. And Toronto, people are definitely a lot more receptive and warm in Victoria. I haven’t really experienced much in the subways, but I’ve played around Queen Street West and the downtown area, and it might’ve been the days I went out, but people were in their own bubble and just kind of set on where they were going and didn’t really seem to stop too much and listen to music, but I think in the subway is where it happens.
CD – What about Calgary?
Dylan – I actually had a pretty good experience there, ‘cause I just started playing on the street and then this girl asked me if I had a licence and I said “No," and she said “Oh come, I’ll buy you a permit that lasts for ten days,” or something like that, it was twenty dollars. I didn’t really make any money, but then I ran into my friend who was passing through Calgary at the time and we made a little bit of money. He had a mandolin, I had a guitar.
CD – And you mentioned Vancouver?
Dylan – Yeah, Vancouver. I’ve had some pretty good luck on Commercial Drive playing around there.
CD – I used to do the liquor store there back around ’87.
Dylan – Yeah, that’s a good place, and the Skytrain stop right on Commercial & Broadway was usually a really good place as long as there’s not some drunk person threatening you unless you move out of their spot.
CD – How ‘bout you, Julian?
Julian – Um, I busked in Vanderhoof. (laughs)
CD – Oh wow! I’d bet you were the only busker there.
Julian – Yeah, for sure. There’s like a little co-op kind of grocery store strip mall and in the winter I’d busk in there, but I didn’t know any Rolling Stones at the time. I hadn’t been playing guitar for that long and most of the cats up there like the Stones, and most of them are half-cut and I didn’t make too much, but I made enough to eat and I don’t know, $10 now and then, but not like down here. And I busked in Vancouver, I don’t even know what street it is, I think it’s Robson, by the art gallery and then you go down towards the water? That was pretty good, except I broke strings to the point where I couldn’t fix them anymore, ‘cause the silver was past the nut into the first fret, and so I only had four strings but still managed to make like $48 or something.

CD – Okay, what kind of music do you play?
Dylan – I like playing the old traditional folk songs, the old blues songs and stuff like that, but really, I think we like a lot of different stuff, so whatever we can think to play, whatever we feel like playing, sometimes that can be more modern, some of the bands we like that are around now.
CD – So, a bit of a mix
Dylan – Yeah, definitely a mix.
Julian – Like folk, pop, rock, to melodic, like, rockabilly or Billie Holiday…
CD – Billie Holiday, really!
Julian – Like old school stuff, or just straight-up s---kicking wasted country, old-time songs or whatever.

CD – And, who are your musical influences?
Dylan – Everybody, definitely the Beatles, all the classics like Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, and CCR, Zeppelin, I think pretty much all the greats.
Julian – I don’t know, I like a lot of newer stuff.

CD – Do you write your own songs at all?
Dylan – Yeah, we both do.
CD – A lot?
Dylan – It comes in waves, sometimes you’d write a good handful of songs and sometimes you might not think to write a song for a month or so, then spend a week and get a few songs. So I like to try to always be writing.
CD – And do you do any of your original stuff on the street?
Dylan – Sometimes, yeah, I’ve played a couple of original songs.
Julian – Yeah, I usually do that when my set is running thin or I want something that’s more upbeat, that kind of snaps people out of their day to day walk.

CD – What do you enjoy most about busking?
Julian – Eating. (laughs)
Dylan – Eating and drinking afterwards.
CD – (laughs) That’s a good one.
Dylan – What I think about busking specifically, it’s seeing the people that actually appreciate it ‘cause there’s so many people that just walk by and really couldn’t care less, but then the people that do, you see actually appreciate the music and they give you money, and even if they don’t give you money, they at least nod at you or smile. And I think that just the fact there are certain people, a fair amount of people around Victoria that recognize what you’re doing as like an actual performance and not just as like asking for money on the street. And I think that’s what I enjoy about it.
Julian – I like it when girls come and give me their phone numbers. (laughs)
Dylan – Yeah, I like that too and it tends to happen from time to time.
Julian – It does actually and it’s always nice.

CD – Do you have a memorable busking experience?
Dylan – I think I’m fortunate enough to have a few. There was one day where Mack (Jonsson) and I were playing down at the harbour on the lower part of the causeway, and we weren’t really paying attention, we were just playing the songs and just kinda playing amongst ourselves and we both looked up and there was just like a complete crowd congregated, you know, and there were people up on top. At that point we got kind of nervous and we were just like “Oh, we actually have to entertain now,” and then suddenly there was like a whole bunch of people watching, and big smiles, kids dancing and stuff, that sort of gave us a boost, and we had a lot of fun with that, but things like that, that happen are really nice you know.
Julian – There’s been a couple of times where people have come and approached me and offered me projects, like this one guy came up and he makes independent short films and asked me if I’d do a soundtrack on part of it. Or people who wanted me to come to Vancouver and do opening shows at the Railhouse, or just like, you know small stuff, but it’s always really nice.

As Dylan mentioned, he has also done some playing with Mack Jonsson (fiddle/vocals), who I am hoping to catch up with in the near future for an interview. Julian’s brother Micah (guitar/vocals) also busks in a duo with Tristan Teal (guitar/vocals). I sat down with them on Tuesday, and will post the interview in October.

You can check out some of Dylan’s music at his website.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Making Music With My Friends

If you were to ask many street musicians, they would probably tell you that some of the most fun times that they’ve had busking were when they were joined by other musicians. That has certainly been the case for me. There are times when I’ve been busking when I have found myself “playing to the wall” as longtime busker Dave Harris puts it in one of his songs. If this happens when you’re alone, it is very hard to find the energy to continue. The great thing about playing with someone else is that even if there is no connection with passersby, you have the person you are playing with to interact with and that extra boost of energy flowing back and forth between each other makes the music more fun. It is also a great opportunity to expand one’s repertoire and learn some new songs from other genres.

My first experience busking with another musician occurred back in the spring of 1987 after I had moved from the westend of Vancouver over to the eastside’s Little Italy neighborhood. I’d managed to find an apartment on Commercial Drive, where I got free rent in exchange for doing caretaking work around the building. Between the painting, cleaning and fixing-up, I also managed to find some time to try out the busking on the drive. Across the street and down a couple of blocks was a liquor store where I began playing weekday afternoons and Friday evenings.
Earlier in the year I had met a banjo player named Kempton Dexter at one of the local guitar circles I’d been attending, and when we found that I had moved into his neighborhood, we started jamming together at his place. It wasn’t long before we decided that we would try busking together on Friday evenings at the liquor store. Our repertoire was an eclectic mix of traditional folk tunes that Kempton was familiar with, along with the rock and pop tunes that I was used to doing. Kempton was an energetic banjo player with some flamboyant Eddie Van Halen like moves which made for some pretty rockin’ sets. Most of our tips were from people who were usually on their way out of the store after purchasing their beverages, but we also did draw some small intermittent groups of passersby who’d listen for a few songs, maybe tip and then move on. Calling ourselves the Fölked-up Fellöws, we also played a few gigs around town as a trio with Nathen Hohn on bass.

One of the memorable highlights of my years busking occurred in 1999. I was playing on the causeway one day, when a guy who’d been sitting and listening to me for most of my set, came up after I was done and introduced himself to me. Larry Stevens told me that he’d really enjoyed my music, and that he played dobro and was wondering if he could come down the next day and play with me. I said “Sure.” The next day came and we took turns picking the tunes and had a great time playing together, and I got my first taste of playing some uptempo bluegrass tunes. It was so much fun that we continued busking all that summer calling ourselves Mile Zero. We usually did a lunchtime set on the harbour and then we’d go uptown to play at Murchies or Bastion Square for an hour or so, and then back down to the harbour where we’d wait to do an early evenng set below the wax museum.

Prior to playing with Larry, I was pretty low-key about my performance, mostly just playing the songs and not talking much other than to introduce the song or thank people for their applause or tips. This changed as we began having some fun and I started loosening up and getting a little banter and joking going between Larry, myself and our audience. I learned that this actually helped to break the ice with the listeners so they might feel that they were a part of what was going on.

Anyway, one day in August, Larry asked if he could bring a couple of friends down to join us. Again I said “Sure.” The next day Larry showed up with Alan Law (guitar/vocals) and Mike Kraft (banjo). When we all met on the causeway just before 5 pm, we ran into Dave Harris, who was camping for his 8:00 evening spot. (This was back in the days when you had to do a lot of waiting around to make sure you got a prime spot. More on this in a future post).
Anyway, it turned out that Dave had done a lot of playing with Al and Mike, so he asked if instead of us going to the wax museum, we wanted to do the empty 6:00 spot in front of him, so that he could join us. He quickly drove home with his wife Jane and brought down his upright bass.
Next thing you know, a couple visiting from Long Beach, CA, who had been spending a lot of their time listening to me and Larry, saw us getting ready to play. The gentleman, Tom Harmon mentioned that he just happened to have brought his fiddle with him to Victoria, and he asked if he could sit in with us. When we said “Sure,” off he ran to his car to get his instrument. So in the matter of not too much time we had ourselves an impromptu six-piece combo.
For the next two hours that we played, we each took turns taking the lead spot on a song. As we played, people started to gather and take photos and videos. People were clapping hands and tapping toes to the music. The case was filling up with coins and bills. At that point, it was the largest crowd of people I’d played for. It was one of the most spontaneous and fun times I’ve had, and without a doubt one of the highlights of my busking career. The next day when they saw us, the Harmons told me and Larry that Tom’s playing with us was the highlight of their visit to Victoria. (The photo at the top of this post was taken by Tom’s wife Kathi)

Through the years since this set, I have played quite a few times with other musicians. In the summer of 2000, Larry returned with T-jac Townsend (guitar/vocals) and we named ourselves the Wandering Boys after an old Carter Family tune, and spent the season playing a couple of sets a day.

The following couple of years I played on my own and then for about three summers starting in 2002, Dave Harris would bring his banjo and mandolin and join me for a set a couple of times a week Sometimes we’d be having so much fun that I’d get a little carried away with the banter and Dave would often say that I had taken my “goofy pills” again.

Larry Stevens, Alan Law and Mike Kraft went on to form their bluegrass band the Clover Point Drifters with Dan Parker and George Robinson. I have been honoured to have them occasionally come down to the harbour and join me for some fun evenings of music. (more on Larry and the Drifters in future posts).

Once in a while, I’ll still get a phone call or visit to the harbour from Larry or Dale Manason (guitar/vocals) to ask if I want some company, and I always respond with my usual “Sure,” ‘cause just like Willie Nelson sang in his song, “the life I love is making music with my friends.”

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Conversation with Dave Harris

I first met longtime Victoria busker Dave Harris in the summer of 1989, after I moved to the island and began busking on the inner harbour causeway. After a few years of crossing paths, we eventually started hanging out and we became good friends. For a few years in the early 2000s, we would occasionally do a set together, and became known as the "Daves Of Our Lives" to a few of our causeway fans. A man of many instrumental talents, Dave also produced and played on my two CDs.

A few weeks ago, after the story about how I got started busking in Vancouver in 1979, Dave posted a comment in which he mentioned that he had also done some busking in Vancouver around that same time. I thought that this would be a great starting point for a conversation with him.

DH – So, early busking days, I guess for both of us. Unfortunately we never met back then but I guess we were both sort of part of the same scene. You were more of a full timer than me, I was just coming over for a few days at a time and staying at my buddy Paul Creasey’s. He was a recorder player and we had played here (in Victoria) and then he moved to Vancouver, so I’d come over and we’d play at the Medieval Inn in Gastown in the evening and then in the afternoon we’d go out and busk, and we played quite a bit at the Orpheum, because it had such great acoustics. In those days you could go right into the entranceway and it just sounded so great and the recorder particularily, ‘cause it would just echo and it just sounded great in there.
CD – Yeah, I loved the Orpheum, until they closed it up with this gate that pulled down from above. I guess to keep guys like us out. And now recently, maybe a few years ago, they put in glass doors.
DH – Oh really! I remember the gates but I didn’t… wow! … glass doors.
CD – So that’s a lot different. The acoustics in there though, I remember I’d set my case out on the sidewalk and just go back in there and kinda wander around a bit while playing and then come back out on the street for a while. I loved the acoustics.
DH – Yeah, it really was special. We played before a Joan Armatrading concert, Paul and I, and people were going in and tipping us and enjoying it and waiting to get in and we were doing quite well and we kind of just stayed and kept playing, and then when they were all coming out after the concert we actually had a couple of ladies, maybe they liked us, I don’t know, sometimes other things are involved in people’s impressions of people and stuff, but they said they liked us better than the Joan Armatrading concert, so that was pretty nice. I took it with a couple of pounds of salt, but it was still a nice compliment.

CD – So what years were you there?
DH – I’m thinking it was about ’79, maybe it was fall of ‘78 going into ‘79 maybe it was in that period somewhere right around there. We were sort of peripherally on the scene with Diamantose, because I remember playing a gig where I believe they were the headliners and we opened for them at the place on Fourth Avenue…
CD – Soft Rock Café?
DH – Right. I wanted to ask you if you’ve ever met or remember Harold Head? He was a banjo player.
CD – He’s the guy that that the comic book was based on.
DH – Yeah, that’s why I asked. Harold Head Comics. I have that and I believe I got that before I even moved to BC in like maybe about ‘75 or something, I’m not sure when it came out but I’m pretty sure I already had that when I moved here, so that was sort of my introduction to the whole Vancouver busking scene in a way.
CD – Yeah, I’d seen him around quite a few times but never actually spoke with him or talked but I knew him to see him. We were talking about the Orpheum and I remember I saw Long John Baldry busking out front there one time, like in the early ‘80s.
DH – Okay, probably when he first moved to Vancouver. Yeah that’s neat. I know its funny, you know for how unappreciated buskers are in a lot of ways, how many sort of famous people have actually done it, usually at the beginning of their career, but in Long John Baldry’s case, obviously, that would have been more the middle of his career. Right? After his real heyday. That’s kind of interesting.

CD - Any other locations that you played?
DH – We also played down in front of the bus stops down at the corner of Granville and Georgia, there’s a big covered area where it was bus stops there right on Granville just off of Georgia and we’d play there, does that ring a bell?
CD – Was it maybe the overhang of the Hudsons Bay store?
DH – Yeah I guess that’s what it was.
CD – Yeah I played there a few times.
DH – And we’d play there because sometimes it would be raining, which it seemed like it was quite a bit and I think this was mostly around Christmas time and in the winter months so it wasn’t summertime it was the off-season you know, but we found that that was a very busy location a lot of people and they’d be standing for a few minutes waiting for a bus so it was nice to have a little entertainment, so we found that to be a good spot and we’d play there quite a bit. We also played over in North Van at a liquor store, Lonsdale I think, and that was very good too. The other place we used to play was Granville Island. In those days it was just basically a free-for-all and it was really quite good ‘cause you could go and you could set up and you didn’t have to move. I think now they’ve got like 40 minutes or something, it’s quite regimented I believe. It was busy and the money was good and it was a fun place to play and you’d play in one location in the market for a while and you could move to another location and we were very portable ‘cause it was just guitar and recorder, and spoons too. I’d sing a few songs, but mostly we were playing Celtic fiddle tunes and things like that.

CD – So, how about a thumbnail account of your busking years since the time we’ve been talking about?
DH – After that period, that would have maybe been my second or third year busking, and mostly I was working as a solo, but I did things with Paul. And Dale Mitchell was another guy I used to play with. After that I kinda hooked up with Jimmy Sinclair, Mike Kraft and Jeremy Rogers and we played up at the Captain Cook statue actually as a really big band, nine piece at one point.
CD – Wow!
DH – But then we moved into the Shmoes period through most of the ‘80s and then in the early ‘90s that had fallen apart by then and I’d sort of gone back to being a solo, but I would play sometimes with a bass player and we were electric for a few years in there too.
CD – That’s when you had, I think he played drums for you, a guy named Jamie and I'd actually met him before in Vancouver when I was playing at the open stages at the Classical Joint in Gastown.
DH – Oh, James, he played drums and bass for me. He was very brief, maybe a month or two. Sherm Sheldon, Mike Nitchie, these are people I played with in that era. My friend Matthew Lavers, he was an acoustic country-blues guy, we did a duo for a couple of years and then I kind of got a little disgruntled about ’94 when the licensing and all the regulations came in and I hardly busked for a year or two and then ‘96 I went full tilt with the one-man-band and that has basically grown into my present show. There have been a few occasions where I’d play with other people along the way, but that’s pretty much the thumbnail.

With Dave’s 30 plus years of busking, there is so much to chat with him about. Unfortunately, I’m noticing that the posts are starting to get a little on the long side, so I will try to get together with Dave again this fall to talk about the local Victoria busking history.

In the meantime, if you’re interested in more on Dave Harris and his music, you can check out his website.