Thursday, October 29, 2009

Interview with Dale Manason

About a month and a half ago, I did a post where I wrote about some of the fun times that I’ve had busking with some of my musician friends. One of the friends that I have played with on a number of occasions is guitarist and singer-songwriter Dale Manason. I first met Dale in the fall of 1997 at the Mustard Seed Street Church, where he’d been doing some volunteer work. Not long after that, he got into the coffee business and did a ten year stint as a barista at a cart at Capital Iron and then at his own shop on Oak Bay Avenue. It was at these two locations, that I would often spend my between sets time hanging out and “philosophising” with Dale and a few other regulars.

Dale, 56, is a versatile musician who as well as playing acoustic and electric guitar, is working on blues slide, and has been known to fiddle around with the banjo. Over the years he has played several genres of music including rhythm & blues, country, bluegrass and gospel. In the last decade he has performed as a solo act, and in his own band that featured his daughter Melissa (vocals/flute). At the turn of the century, Dale and I did a handful of pub, coffee shop, and church event gigs together, and last year he did some guitar picking and vocals on a couple of songs on my recent CD. He currently juggles being a handyman carpenter with singing and playing lead guitar in a 7-piece R&B/Blues combo called the Boulevard Blues Band. And, as if that wasn’t keeping him busy enough, Dale still occasionally finds the time to come out and join me busking on the harbour.

In mid-September, we got together on the causeway, and over coffee, talked about his music, busking and a favorite music experience.

CD – So, you had done some busking before we met?
Dale – In ’97, I left my full-time job and for the next four or five months, April ‘til the end of the summer I think, I was down here almost every day. Sometimes I was down here by myself, sometimes I came down with my friend Greg Vaughan, and whenever I had the duo it was always better money, of course. But it was basically groceries, ‘cause I left a fulltime job and just had to kinda get my head straightened out.
CD – And you did some busking in the library courtyard, didn’t you?
Dale – Yeah, I did that one too. And down in front of Torrefazzione (now Starbucks next to Eddie Bauer).

CD – How did you decide to get into busking?
Dale – Actually I saw Marty (Field), when I first moved here, I would notice Marty down on Government Street, usually in front of Murchies, and on Sundays, I’d always come down with my family and have a wander around downtown. It was cheap or free for little kids, and we would usually stop at Murchies and get hot chocolate for the kids and coffee and sit there and watch Marty, and you probably were there for all I know, at that time. And I thought “Hey, I’ve always wanted to try something like that,” and being a musician, and adventurous, I wasn’t working anymore, I thought I’d go give it a whirl, and my wife said “Yeah, go ahead, whatever”. So I grabbed the bus, came downtown in a few minutes. It was cheap because I didn’t have to park a vehicle, and I would usually go home with thirty, forty bucks maybe. It helped to buy groceries at the time, ‘cause I wasn’t working full-time and my wife was. I figured for a $10 investment, I couldn’t go wrong.

CD – Did you have a favorite spot out of the spots that you did play?
Dale – Actually, I never did work the Murchies spot, but I always did quite well on the causeway, I think it was either down by Milestone’s or over here by the Wax Museum. The spot right below the statue wasn’t too bad. I always watched where the successful guys were doing their stuff, like Marty always worked at the bottom of Milestone’s, Dave Harris was always down there too, although Dave did do the center spot and managed it quite well. I always found we did okay until the jugglers came out, and then it seemed like nobody wanted to hear music anymore.
CD – (laughs) Yeah, we know all about that.

CD – What did you enjoy most about busking?
Dale – I suppose it was the freedom to just get out and bellow out the songs as best I could. It was limiting as a solo artist, which you probably know, you’re limited to what you can do, but there was that sense of freedom of just doing whatever you like, and if people stopped and listened, that was great, if they didn’t, well I’d sing anyway.
The downside to it though was that I got the impression that some people walking by considered busking as just a slightly elevated form of panhandling, so there were days where I’d go home feeling like I needed a shower, ‘cause people were giving me the evil eye. The ones that stopped to listen, I think they were pleasantly surprised, but there were others that I think just sort of thought “Oh, you know, there’s another dirty bum,” kinda thing. I tried to look better and present myself better than the average panhandler, but I think you still get smeared with that same brush. That was kind of discouraging.

CD – What would you call the style of music that you play?
Dale – I’m very eclectic, I think probably as time has gone on and I’m getting older, I find I like blues a lot more. I’ve always liked blues and I think most of my music has been blues influenced even from way back at the beginning, because even old ‘50s and ‘60s rock ’n’ roll was bluesy, coming out of the rockabilly stuff, so it’s always been blues influenced. But I did a stint in sort of country, country-rock, I play a lot of bluegrass, I’ve done acoustic music, you know America style, Neil Young and people like that, so I think I’ve dabbled in a lot of styles and I’ve never mastered any one particular one. I just like a little bit of everything.

CD – Who are your musical influences?
Dale – Carlos Santana, I think you probably would tell, Eric Clapton, Chet Atkins, although I’ve never been able to figure out the finger-style, but I love his music. Mark Knopfler from Dire Straits, and then of course B.B.King, Albert King and Robert Cray, and some of those guys. But I guess the biggest influences have been Santana and Clapton.

CD – And I know you write your own stuff?
Dale – I do, I have and I haven’t recently. Okay, so there’s sort of a threefold thing. I’ve written, I wrote a lot of stuff when I was younger, by myself or with my brother. My younger brother and I played together professionally for five years and traveled all over southern Alberta and into BC, and at the time we recorded an album of original material called “Money”, and of course it didn’t make any of that aforementioned money, we basically paid off the recording costs and broke up the act, but it served a purpose at its time. I’ve been seriously thinking of re-recording some of it different from the way it was originally done, it’s very ‘80s in its sound. It’s dated, but it has a smattering of everything from pop to country on it. One of the tunes that I wrote, “Boxcar Blues” that’s probably my favorite song off the entire album.
CD – I really like that one too.
Dale – I’d like to redo that one in its original form which was a whole lot slower and a lot bluesier, not as poppy or pop-country as it turned out. I don’t know how it transformed but it happens.
I’ve also written with my wife, who is an excellent lyricist. The gospel album that I did in ’96 is all original material, and she co-wrote probably about half that album. Two or three for sure, there was “Psalm 61’. Then there’s one that I’ve just recently recorded at home, that was written about the same time, Sharon wrote half the lyric on that one, it’s called “Midnight.” So, I finally got down to recording that, it needs to be tweaked a little bit, but it sounds pretty decent. The most recent thing I wrote, maybe about 5, 6 years ago, was a song called “A Hundred Dollars Closer To Mexico,” you’ve heard that one.
CD – Oh yeah! That’s another great song. You wrote that when you were working the coffee cart at Capital Iron. That was the sign on your tip jar. (laughs)
Dale – That’s right. Yeah, so that’s probably the most recent thing I’ve written. So either I’m too happy or too contented with my life or I’m just running out of ideas.

CD – What’s your most memorable busking experience?
Dale – During the period of time that I’d sort of been on the fringes you know, coming out with you or some of the other guys, I think out of it all, I’ve met a lot of really nice people, like yourself, Larry Stevens and Eric Adams, Mike Kraft.
CD – So, the friendships.
Dale – Oh, there’s been a lot of friendships that were musical, or the music was the common ground, that have gone beyond that. I think probably one of the most memorable things that have come out of busking, in kind of a convoluted way, was that through you, I met Larry Stevens, and through Larry, I met Mike Kraft and I met Mike Brooks, and because of Greg Vaughan, we ended up in the Patsy Cline tribute band doing the thing for Lesley Baker, the gal from Courtenay. So the most memorable thing as we come around through the whole convoluted thing, was the trip to play at the first ever rockabilly festival held in Jackson Tennessee, where they did the groundbreaking for the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. That whole thing, April 2000, was probably the highlight of my musical career. We did eleven theatres on the mainland and the island, and that trip to Tennessee just blew my mind.
And to be able to like namedrop, for instance having breakfast every morning for three days with Elvis Presley’s old drummer D.J.Fontana, and have the line-up, you’re talking about Johnny Cash’s drummer and bass player (W.S.Holland & Marshall Grant) who were with the Tennessee Three. And I met Carl Perkins’ son Stan, and Marty Stuart, Wanda Jackson and Brenda Lee that weekend. And I met Rocky and Billy Burnette, and Paul Burlison who was with the Rock and Roll Trio with the Burnette Brothers, that was Rocky’s dad (Johnny) and Billy’s dad (Dorsey).
So it was amazing, to be able to get up and do the stuff we did, and have that old guard of groundbreaking musicians in the backstage area listening to us. It was nerve wracking at the best of times, when we looked over and they’re giving us the thumbs up, and they came up to us afterwards and said “We remember Patsy”. One of the Jordanaires came up to Lesley after we did our first set on the Saturday and he was in tears. So that was the high point of my entire musical life, I think. I could beat that one to death.
CD – Yeah, no doubt.

CD – So, just in closing, I mentioned in a recent post, that occasionally I’ll get a phone call from you, asking if I wanted some company busking, so, obviously you must still enjoy it?
Dale – Yeah, it’s fun, I like to get down and keep my hand in it. One of the things I’ve found about music as I am getting older, and so are you…
CD – Thanks for reminding me. (laughs)
Dale – And a lot of us are, (laughs) it keeps me young thinking, and I can sort of forget the aches and pains and stuff for that period of time. So, it never hurts, as I said, ‘cause it keeps my hand in it and keeps my voice in good shape. And I don’t know, I like performing at the best of times.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Scene Changes: 1989-2004

After many years living in Vancouver, I had decided that I needed a change of scenery from the big city, and thought I’d see what life was like on the other side of the Georgia Strait, so, in February of 1989, I moved over to Victoria. I had been on the island a few months, when the spring-like weather finally arrived, and I started venturing out along Government Street and the causeway to scout out the potential busking spots. At that time, there weren’t a lot of buskers, so it wasn’t too hard to find a location where I could set up and play.

Anybody who has seen me play often enough, might have figured out by now, that my preferred spot is the north corner of the lower causeway, but over the years I have played at many other locations around town. From 1996 until 2005, I did a lot of my off-season busking up on Government Street, mostly at Murchies, or if the weather wasn’t so good, at Torrefaziones (now Starbucks/Eddie Bauer). I have also played at the top of Bastion Square on what is now the entrance to the Irish Times Pub, as well as further down the Square, on the steps of the Maritime Museum, and at the top of the steps leading down to Wharf Street. Other places I’ve played at one time or another are next door to what was then Scott’s Restaurant on Yates Street, and outside the old Carnegie Library at Yates & Blanshard.

In my first couple of months of busking in Victoria, I began to meet some of the street musicians that were playing around that time. Tony & Jerry were a guitar/vocal duo, whose repertoire consisted of folk-rock from the ‘60s & ‘70s. They usually could be found in the library courtyard, or on the center spot of the causeway. Les Vaughan, was another guitarist/singer who did a lot of country-folky type stuff down on the causeway. Teo Mance (guitar/vocals) had his own amplification, and performed a selection of popular folk-rock tunes. He now lives and busks in Chemainus. I have seen him a couple of times recently playing at the Ships Point Night Market.

One evening, I was playing on the center causeway spot, when I looked up to the street level to see some guys with instruments looking down at where I was playing. As they made the motions of going to look for another spot, I called up to them and told them that I’d already been playing a while and that they could have the spot if they wanted it. They immediately came down and that was when I first met Dave Harris, Mike Kraft, Jimmy Sinclair & Jeremy Rogers. Collectively called Special Delivery, they were more affectionately known by their causeway fan-base as the Four Shmoes. Since 1983, theirs had been THE causeway show to catch, and they had the audience to prove it. After I packed up my guitar case, I stuck around to watch a while. As well as performing their repertoire of country, bluegrass, folk and song parodies, the guys were the most visually entertaining act that I have ever seen on the causeway. For the next two years I’d become one of their regular audience members. (more on the Shmoes in a future post)

During my second year of busking in 1990, four kids began showing up on a daily basis in their matching cowboy hats and western apparel, to perform their versions of old Hank Williams and other classic country tunes on the causeway. Scott Moffatt, 7 (guitar/vocals), and his triplet brothers Bob, Clint & Dave, 6 (vocals), had been wanting to go to Disneyland, and having decided among themselves that they could earn the money busking on the harbour, they told their Dad they were going out to busk whether he came or not, so, Daddy Frank was along in support. After a couple of summers doing their lunch time sets on the centre spot, and attracting large groups of passing tourists, their dad got them some gigs at a some local festivals and events, and next thing you know we were reading about them in the papers. It was 1993, and they’d made it to Nashville and were making regular appearances on TNN’s Nashville Now with famed DJ/host Ralph Emery. It wasn’t too many years later that they changed their musical direction, and from 1999 to 2001, the Moffatts were the #1 teen pop-rock band in Asia, and #2 in North America behind Hanson.

1994 brought some significant changes to the Victoria busking scene, when City Hall initiated a $10 licence requirement along with some new regulations. Prior to that year, there was no restriction on how long that buskers could play in one spot, and needless to say, that had been abused by a few. A three hour time limit was imposed, and that was shortened to two hours a couple of years later. Another change was the ban on amplification or taped music. For the most part, this was a good change, as it put everyone on a fairly level sonic playing field, however, it unfortunately put the kibosh on some, like the clarinet player who played along with taped musical accompaniment, or the classical guitar player who needed that little extra boost to be heard over the sounds of traffic, etc.

At this point, I was feeling kind of ambivalent about the whole licensing thing, so, I decided to take a break from busking. It wasn’t until two years later in 1996, when I realized how much I missed playing, that I ended my busking exile, and went over to City Hall and filled out my license application. After receiving my busker badge, I picked up my guitar, and I headed down Government to the harbour, and found a whole new much more vibrant scene along the way.

With the expected increase of visitors during the Commonwealth Games which were held in Victoria in 1994, it was not surprising that there would have been a corresponding increase in the number of buskers hoping for a little bit of the economic trickle-down, and then deciding to continue on with their newly-found livelihood.

Also, I think, that the 2 year old licensing and regulations, might have lent a perceived air of legitimacy to the scene, possibly encouraging a number of people who may not have thought to try busking before, to take their talents to the streets. Over the next few years, dozens of kids began appearing along Government and on the causeway, and some like brother and sister acts Tyler & Kendel Carson (fiddles), and Quinn & Qristina Bachand (guitar & fiddle) have since parlayed their busking experiences into wider exposure.

Through the rest of the ‘90s and into the new century, there were so many buskers, that it became very competitive at the most popular spots. It was not uncommon to see musicians lining up early in the mornings at Murchies on Government Street, and at the north and center spots on the causeway, to put in several hours of "butt-time", waiting for their turn to play. (more about this in a future post)

During this time period, there were numerous guitarist/singers whose chosen styles ranged from maritime music, to folk, to blues, to rock, to country, etc. These included Marty Field, Jay Garnett, Clay George, Jim Meighen, Jaime Nolan, G Willy, Jordan Gordon, Wayne Lukas, Dylan Davis, Fred Robertson, Chris Trygg, Belanos Crusoe, Freddie Bear, Trevor Holmes, Steve Lestrange, myself and many others.

Billy Goats Gruff and Kin Fo’ were just two of the combos that were busking in Victoria at the turn of the century.
Another was Shillelagh, a 6-piece celtic/Irish folk group that included Bryan Skinner (guitar/bodhran/vocals), Josh Neelands (guitar/mandolin/vocals), Aaron Ellingson (fiddle), Jasper de Groot (accordion), Nathan Gage (bass), and Jon Crellin (drums). (more on Shillelagh in a future post)

Other musicians who added a little bit of variety to the busking scene were Nick Coulter & Graham Hargrove (marimba duo), K.C.Kelly (slide steel guitar), Swan Walker (steel drums), Julian Vitek (classical violin), Caleb Kelly (fiddle), Angela Basombrio & Peter Richards (jazz & blues vocals with drum accompaniment), David & Mary Lowther (klezmer with guitar & clarinet), Irene Bird (piano/vocals), Bill Miller (piano), Andy Kreischer (percussion/didgeridoo), Sandra Ritter (harpist) and Aaron Watson (accordion/saw).

When the summer of 2004 rolled around, things were looking a bit ominous for the causeway buskers, and some of us feared that the end of the busking scene as we knew it might be just around the corner, when the management and oversight of the inner harbour causeway would be officially transferred from the City of Victoria to the Greater Victoria Harbour Authority. (more on the causeway buskers in a future post)

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Victoria Busking Scene: 1977-1980

About a month ago, I sat down with longtime Victoria street musician Dave Harris, to find out about the early days of the busking scene in Victoria, specifically some of the old busking locations which have disappeared along with some of the city’s architecture, and some of the musicians that were playing then. (photo of Dave circa 1979 - courtesy Dave Harris)

DH – Okay so well, when I started busking in 1977, there were quite a few different spots. I used to play mostly on the other side of Government Street (across) from Murchies, which wasn’t there at that time, it was Spencer’s Hardware store, and there was no doorway for you to play in there like there is now. But, the doorway that you could play in, was across the street at the old Eaton’s building, it wasn’t the Eaton’s (Bay) centre yet.
The (old) Eaton’s building was in two parts with a big gap in between where Broad Street used to go through. Trucks would come in the one end off of Fort Street to do deliveries, so there was a little bit of a driveway in there (but) you couldn’t drive through. You could walk through there, it was a big walk in mall. A lot of people used to busk in there, (it had) good acoustics. There was actually a covered walkway that went across from one building to the other on the second floor, so you could play underneath there, even if it was raining. So, that was another good spot to play, not as busy as Government Street or Douglas Street, but still a pretty good spot.

I used to play out on Douglas Street a lot too. I did that again later as well which is probably what you’d remember, but in those early years before you came, in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s, I played there a lot. There was an overhang, so you could play in bad weather there too, and then in front of Woolworth’s which is now Chapters, right at the bus stop, I used to play there quite a bit too. But bus stops are kind of funny, because you get the same people day after day getting on and off buses, so, it might be good for a couple of days, but then you’ve got to give it a break for a while, ‘cause you’re just gonna get the same people. And especially back then, the city wasn’t nearly as busy as it is now.

The Nootka Court liquor store (on Courtney Street), was another interesting spot. People used to busk in there, (and) it was sheltered, so it was a place you could go when the weather wasn’t good. And, as you know from your own experience, liquor stores can quite often be quite lucrative, that one wasn’t a particularly busy one, but none the less, it was sheltered. I played there once or twice.

Market Square was another place that people used to like to play, up on the top level in front of what then was Griffin’s Books, near where you used to be able to have the postings there, I don’t know if they still have that, Market Square’s changed quite a bit. And they didn’t pipe their canned music in, or at least they’d turn it off, and let people busk.

Bastion Square, right at Government Street was quite different. There used to be a big anchor there, and a bench, so there was seating, and it was a good busking spot. People used to busk there a lot, and of course that went on really up until the Irish Times (Pub) took over and started piping their music out and that killed that spot.

Other spots that used to be quite popular or used quite a bit anyway, were where the Christmas Store used to be, which is now the Bard & Banker (Pub), but of course that spot was killed when they moved in because, again they piped their music out, so, while they’re hiring live entertainment seven nights a week, in both the Irish Times and the Bard & Banker, they haven’t done a good service to the busking community at all by piping music out on the streets, and I personally, this is my own little personal bias, but I think they shouldn’t be allowed to pipe music out onto the streets. I don’t think that’s right, you know, if you own a store, you’re not allowed to play your music out onto the street. Why do they have special privileges, but anyway, that’s my own little personal bias. But that’s another spot that’s no good any more.

And then, another spot was across from Sam’s Deli, where Darth Fiddler still plays sometimes. Sometimes people would actually play right next to Sam’s Deli, where the art shop is, that wasn’t there at the time, (but) I remember there was a phenomenal steel drum player playing a single tenor steel drum, playing Bach on a steel drum. He was really amazing, this was way, way back when.

CD – Who were some of the musicians that were busking back then?
DH – There weren’t a lot of musicians out, (but) there was Fire Truck. They were kind of long-haired redneck hippies, (and) they used to play right up in front of the Empress Hotel, on the sidewalk in front of the hotel, on the other side of the street (from the causeway), and surprisingly they didn’t get kicked out. They were a trio. They had Ron Stanley, who’s back around town, I see him occasionally, he played rhythm guitar and did most of the vocals. Terry McDonald played banjo and did harmony vocals, and Mike Proklovich, played mandolin and sang harmony, and they did redneck country-rock sort of bluegrass, not really bluegrass, more like New Riders of the Purple Sage, Commander Cody and that kind of thing.
Mike would also play down at the Yates Street liquor store, which is long gone, on lower Yates Street, across from the parkade. He was a very loud singer, and he’d play guitar as well as mandolin.

Another busker around in those days, was a guy named Don Willkie, who’s sort of gone on to a little more celebrity, he’s an accomplished slide guitar player, and was back then too. He was about my age and he played with a fiddle player named Paul Jackson and they would, Paul particularly, they’d make enough money to go get a beer and then that’s what they’d do, go have a beer, and then they’d come out and make enough to get another beer (laughs), it was that kind of a thing. They used to play at Bastion Square. But, Don was quite an accomplished guitar player and singer, he lives up in the Cowichan Valley area now. I’ve seen him at a couple of festivals and things like that.

Other buskers from that era, there was Murray Drew, he used to play banjo, he played kind of old-timey music on a banjo. There was a guy we called Mississippi Dave, his name was Dave Glover. He played Mississippi John Hurt stuff really well, and old country-blues tunes, finger-picking, he was really good. This was back probably around 1980, ’78, 79, somewhere in there.

My buddy Paul Creasey, of course, on the recorder. Dale Mitchell, who now lives in Chemainus, and I believe still busks. The three of us would team up.

Iain McIntyre, the banjo player would come out sometimes, he was the best banjo player I’ve ever heard in my life, phenomenal 5-string banjo player. This guy was absolutely phenomenal, he’s in the Earl Scruggs league, this guy, he’s that good. And Rod Thomson played mandolin, and we’d all team up sometimes and play bluegrass stuff, and I learned a lot of my bluegrass from playing with Iain actually, he taught me, not the songs so much, I went home and learned the lyrics of the songs, but he taught me a lot of instrumentals, I used to back him up.

Dale Brophy, used to be around with his wash-tub bass, he’s passed now. Rhonda Broadfoot, I think I first maybe met her singing by herself down in Market Square, and then of course, we ended up being together for three years and having Blue Sky band.

Next week: Scene Changes, when I will talk about the busking scene in Victoria from the time that I arrived in 1989 and through the '90s. As well as some of the spots and musicians, I will also touch on some of the changes including the introduction of licensing, etc.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Micah Walker & Tristan Teal

This was to have been the second installment in my series of interviews with some of the street musicians that have been active participants in the revived busking scene on Government Street. Unfortunately, things didn’t work out as I had hoped. I'd been wanting to talk with Micah Walker and Tristan Teal, and had spent a couple of weeks trying to get together with them, but other commitments and one missed connection got in the way. It was beginning to look like it just wasn’t going to happen. My persistence did pay off, though, when I eventually caught them with some spare time on their hands, and we headed over to Bean Around The World, on Fisgard Street, for some coffee and conversation. It was, as it’s been said many times before, “better late than never”.

Micah, 22, was born in Spokane, WA, and grew up in Fort St. James, Summerland, and Clearwater, BC. He came to Victoria in late 2006. Tristan, 18, was born and raised in Victoria. They met and began playing their guitars and singing together in the early winter of 2007, what Micah referred to as “Cold, cold nights busking on Government”.

CD – Have either of you ever busked separately?
Tristan – I believe Micah busked by himself quite a few times before I met him, he was already in that groove, and when I met him and his younger brother Julian, and Mack (Jonsson) and other people, it was kind of my introduction to Government Street. I came in playing with them, and then a couple of months later I decided to try playing by myself on the street, and just see how it goes, but I definitely prefer busking with other people.

CD – Have you busked anywhere other than Victoria?
Micah – In 2007, I hitchhiked to Toronto from Victoria, I didn’t have any money, busking was my sole provider. Tristan and I have busked on Salt Spring (Island) at the market.
CD – Did you need a licence to play on Salt Spring?
Tristan – I’m not sure if we actually did ever figure out whether or not they have something worked out around that, but we went for the market, and it was pretty much first come-first serve.
Micah – I went to Hornby Island just the other day, and I asked if I could play and they were all very receptive, and then they finally got the one person they thought was kind of directing the whole thing, and she was saying that unless I’m a resident of Hornby or Denman (Island), I couldn’t busk there. But when you’re hungry, it doesn’t really matter, you just keep playing. I’ve busked in numerous places depending on how hungry I am I guess.

CD – Do you have a favorite spot where you like to play?
Micah – Sure, well, mainly it seems like when tourists come to Victoria they seem to either be herded around the city or just all walk up Government Street, so we usually try to play Murchies for one.
Tristan – Murchies is definitely the prime real estate for a lot of the buskers in Victoria. Starbucks is also a really good spot, by Eddie Bauer.

CD – Have you ever busked down on the upper causeway?
Tristan – Yeah, I played down there a few times with some other people. I’ve played there with Mack, and with Julian and Dylan (Driscoll) before. That place seems to fare well for other people as opposed to us, I think. You know mimes and more stationary acts kind of go down there, as opposed to musicians. I’ve seen a lot of people down there, but, definitely Government Street has been our favorite. We’ve also played around Chinatown a few times, it’s pretty good.
CD – Oh really, where?
Tristan – Just down the street here, from where we’re sitting.
Micah – It’s pretty good there during the market.
CD – Oh, okay, maybe if Ted (Tanner) isn’t booked in there.
Micah – Yeah.

CD – What do you enjoy most about busking?
Tristan – I think first and foremost, the people that I see when I come out to busk, are the highlight of it all. My friends are out here doing this. It’s also the easiest way to bring the music to the people without a lot of the stuff that comes in between nowadays, like just trying to book a show, or getting people to come to the show that you’ve booked. It’s pretty straightforward to deliver the sound to people’s ears, and I kinda like to think that it might brighten somebody’s day here or there. That’s just a little crazy thing I have.
Micah – Definitely we do. People come up to us all the time and tell us we’ve made their day, and then when they drop the twenty we tell them it made our day too, and it’s a happy circle.

CD – What style of music would you say you play?
Tristan – I’m always interested in learning or playing new music, I don’t have any boundaries, I’m not gonna play rap on an acoustic guitar, but anything under the sun that’s good music, really is what I like to call my style of music. Definitely, I’m driven more towards rock ’n’ roll, and sort of folk right now and some alternative bluesy sounding things.
Micah – We value good music, and it’s through our busking that we’ve actually been able to explore a lot of different kinds of music, because you know, you might get Mike, the blues man, he just plays straight blues, and watch him for a while and learn a little from him, and then learn a little bit of gypsy-jazz from this French musician that came, just learning to respect all the different styles, and how they were the roots to the music we have nowadays.
Tristan – That’s a really good point, Micah, You know, I think that’s kind of what gives us the diverse sound that people have really complimented us for, because like you said, when you walk down the street you’ll see a guy playing the blues, or you’ll see Devon (Floyd) kind of has his groove, his way of playing country. But you know, there’s only a handful of buskers in Victoria, who if you listen to for three songs, you might hear a really old blues song, and then like a new-age rock-n-roll song, and then a really mellow folk song, and not really be able to see the similarities between all those styles, there’s not the same thing happening in every song. We really try to play those songs the best we can sort of in their original state.
CD – I think that’s pretty cool, because when I was your guys’ age, rock music was the world to me, and that’s all I would listen to and all I wanted to play. Anything else, like folk, or even a bit of the blues or jazz, I just wasn’t interested in. Now, It’s just been maybe the last twenty years, that I’ve been discovering all this really great early stuff and thinking “Wow, why didn’t I get into that when I was younger”.
Tristan – Yeah, I remember when I was about 13, I refused to play in a band because they had a keyboard player and at the time I just thought “I don’t want to be in a band with a keyboard player. I like guitars and drums and that kind of stuff”. How silly I was, because piano is such a fundamental in all kinds of music, a very versatile instrument, so I mean everybody kind of grows and learns when it comes to music, and that’s why I think it’s important to not really have a bias against any music.

CD – Who are the musicians that have influenced your style?
Micah – Probably Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix, Django Reinhardt, Neil Young. I would say I’m influenced by a lot of musicians that maybe wouldn’t be coming out through my music much, like, if I’m busking in front of Eddie Bauer and getting traffic of mostly people over 40 years old, I’m gonna play a lot of Neil Young and stuff they’re gonna want to hear. I’m not gonna play Metallica or something in the morning in front of Eddie Bauer.
Tristan – My grandpa got me into bluegrass when I was about 7 years old, and that’s where I started playing guitar, and I kind of resented it ‘cause it was the first music I learned and he was kinda forcing it on me. But it always kinda stuck with me, and I’ve been playing more of that. When I started to really find music for myself, I really liked Bob Dylan, and I got into Neil Young, and my mom showed me some of the older records from the ‘60s and stuff like that, and I really liked them. But nowadays, I definitely go on Neil Young and Radiohead, and I’d say Elliott Smith is probably my biggest influence ‘cause he’s a solo singer-songwriter.

CD – Do you do any songwriting?
Tristan – Yeah absolutely. I’d say my brain is always kinda tinkering in a way that I can help convey something to myself, just trying to figure things out and make sense of them. It usually happens if I’m on the bus or walking down the street and I think of something in my head, and I kinda put it into a pretty little package of words that explains it well, and then I think of the melody, and before I know it, I‘m singing a song in my head that I’ve never played on the guitar before.

CD – Have you ever written anything together?
Tristan – We wrote a song with Micah’s brother Julian. We’d been listening to a lot of Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli, and we were just kinda trying to play some shows, and we thought it would be good to have a song that we all collaborated on. Julian was just getting into playing fiddle at the time, and it sounded pretty bad when we jammed it, we didn’t really have the timing down and the fiddle was all screechy for the most part, but since then we’ve played it a lot and it’s kind of turned into its own. But, as for sitting down and writing a song with words that we both sing and jam to, I don’t think we’ve really brought a song from the ground up, just the two of us.

CD – Do you ever do your originals out on the street?
Tristan – I don’t want to say it’s a waste to play your own songs on the street, but I think a huge part of busking is people recognizing the song and relating to it. If someone in their 40s or 50s walks by, and I’m singing a song about what it’s like to be an 18 year old from Victoria, they might not really relate to that, so I kind of feel like I’d love to play my music for people, but only if they really wanna hear it.
Micah – Yeah. If you’re playing a song that is personal to you and nobody’s heard it before, they kinda need to stand there and listen to it. A lot of times when we play covers and people appreciate it, they may ask us for our own stuff, “Oh I like what you did with that song. If you have any of your own material, we’d be interested”. Then they’re in a position where they’re receptive. At the same time, if I wake up in the morning and I’m feeling blue, maybe I’ll sing one of my own songs and I don’t care if anybody’s ever heard it or not. It always changes.

CD – Do you have any CDs?
Tristan – No.
Micah – Got no CDs, got no job, got no extra packs of strings, got no women, got no plans, yeah, we got nothing.
Tristan – Hopefully, we’re gonna get on it soon.

Over the last couple of weeks since our interview, I have had the opportunity to listen to Micah and Tristan do some great covers of Buffalo Springfield’s “Mr.Soul”, Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Tell It To Me”, and Neil Young’s "Everybody Knows That This Is Nowhere”.
The song that really blew me away though, was their version of Townes Van Zandt’s “White Freightliner Blues”. With a slowed down tempo, some added lyrics, heartfelt singing and harmonizing, and some excellent picking, they served up what was without a doubt, the finest interpretation of that song that I have ever heard.
I hope that whenever the guys get around to recording a CD, that whatever they decide to put on it, that this song will be in the mix.

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

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Happiness Is What You Enjoy: chat with Jean Bedard

Prior to 2005 when the Greater Victoria Harbour Authority took over the oversight and management of the inner harbour causeway, the buskers who played down there needed to get a street entertainer licence from the City of Victoria. Since that year, the GVHA has been licensing the 30 street musicians and entertainers who perform on the causeway.

Every spring before the prime busking season starts, if there are any vacancies after the previous year’s buskers have had an opportunity to sign up, then auditions are held to fill them. In the spring of 2007, guitar picker & singer Jean Bedard was one of the hopeful applicants who decided to come down and try out for a slot, which he successfully won.

A couple of weekends ago, I had just finished a set on the causeway and wandered around to the Wax Museum spot, where I found Jean packing up after his set. We found ourselves a bench, and with the tempting aroma from the adjacent waffle cart wafting through the air we sat down and chatted.

Originally from Hull, PQ, Jean moved with his family in 1964 to the Comox Valley, where his father was stationed with the RCAF. Through his adult years he has worked at many jobs including logging and driving as a courier, and he has also managed a courier business, and owned his own pizza restaurant. Finally, the day came when he decided he was at the age where he just wanted to do something that he enjoyed.

He took his first stab at performing on the streets, in Courtenay three years ago. This is his second year busking here in Victoria, where he spends most of his playing time at Barb’s Fish & Chips at Fishermans Wharf, but, also can be found on the causeway below the Wax Museum. To collect his tips, Jean’s girlfriend designed and built a miniature wooden guitar case, about a foot and a half long, that sits on a stool in front of him as he plays.

CD – What made you decide to try busking?
Jean – I started playing little bars and lounges and stuff like that and I had enough songs together that I thought “Yeah, okay, I could do that”. It was just a gorgeous day once and I thought “Why not? I’ll try it”. It really was kind of scary at first because you know you’re gonna see your friends that know you downtown, and they’ve never seen you busk before, and they’re probably thinking “What is he doing? So down-and-out that he has to busk”. (laughs) But I really enjoy music, so, I just thought “I’m gonna do it, I don’t care what people think”.
I played outside of Mudsharks, which was a little coffee shop up in Courtenay, and it was right next to a bank, which was really good because people got money when they come out of the bank. So yeah, that’s how it started, I guess.

CD – Do you have a favorite spot?
Jean – Yeah, it’s got to be the wharf. You’ve got a captive audience there because they’ve got to wait at least half an hour for their food, they’re almost half an hour in the lineup sometimes, so you’re with them for a good hour, and you get to play quite a bit of your repertoire. I have quite a variety of songs and I’m sure I’m gonna please somebody, right? And yeah, I do pretty good there. I like the atmosphere, it’s just such a quaint place where people can sit down and eat. I really like it in the evenings in the summer when the sun’s going down and there’s no wind, and there’s not that many people there, and I can play my instrumentals and people get it, they really enjoy it. The atmosphere’s just really nice and that’s when I seem to make the most tips.

CD – So, how would you describe your style of music?
Jean – Eclectic. I do cover tunes, everything from Sting to James Taylor, to blues like Keb’Mo. Jack Williams, a lot of people haven’t heard of him, but he’s just my favorite singer-songwriter. I booked him here in Victoria to play and I sold tickets for his concert by actually singing his songs and it was just such a hoot having him here, and people really enjoyed it, and at the end of the night, I got to actually play with him, so that was neat. Yeah, I like so many different types of music so I just pick the songs that I like to do. I like classical guitar too, I love Bach, and playing stuff like that, but I just don’t have time to do that now.

CD – Who are your musical influences?
Jean – Chet Atkins and Tommy Emmanuel as far as the finger style picking goes. Jack Williams, Lyle Lovett, those guys were definitely influences on me. Steely Dan, I like their stuff. Elvis. When I was a kid, 6 years old, that’s the first thing I heard, was Elvis’ first gold album and I wore that sucker out.
CD – I love your version of Don’t Be Cruel, That is so cool, the way you make it sound like two guitar players.
Jean – Thanks. Yeah, I like it too. You know, it’s fun, because I start off with Old Fashioned Love Song, and it’s a drop-D tuning, so I managed to figure out how to do Don’t Be Cruel and added it on, and I think Tommy did it, I’ve never heard him do it, but I read somewhere that he did the combination, so I thought I’d try it and do it my way.

CD – Okay, tell me about one of your memorable busking experiences?
Jean – Well, I recently had a couple from Holland who were listening to my music and they really enjoyed it, and they bought me a coffee, and then we met the next day at the Moka House and they decided to go to Butchart Gardens, and they asked my girlfriend and I to come along, and they paid for everything. Then they dropped me off to do my busking and picked us up at 7:00 and took us to Spinnakers, bought our meals for us. Then on their last day here, they took us on a horse carriage ride, and to the IMAX Theatre and then they took us to Topo’s Restaurant downtown for a great meal, and they insisted on paying for everything. They were just the nicest people.
CD – This basically started with them hearing you play?
Jean – Just heard me singing, yeah, down at the wharf, and the neatest thing about it was, we had so much in common because of our age, we’re about the same age, just the nicest people, That’s great when stuff like that happens.

CD – What has been your worst busking experience?
Jean – That was just last week. I was three songs into my set, the thing that gets me about this, I did some of my best material. I did my Jack Williams, I did the Don’t Be Cruel thing, and this woman walks by and she said something to me, and I could’ve sworn I heard her right, but I was singing at the time, so I didn’t want to stop. She went to get her food at Barb’s there, and as she was coming back and I had finished my song, I could tell she was trying to avoid me and go around these people, so I stopped her and I said “Excuse me, would you mind repeating to me what you said,” and she says “Well, how much to get you to stop playing?” (laughs) I was really floored, didn’t expect it, but I thought that’s what she’d said, and I wanted to make sure. So she repeated herself, and I give her that, she’s got guts. Then I said “Well, look, I’m just down here to please people and have fun and hopefully people enjoy my music.” And she said “Well, I think people would enjoy it better if it was quiet and they could just enjoy the scenery in peace and quiet”, and blah, blah, blah. So, I said “Well, if you don’t like it, you can leave”, and she said to me “Well, you could leave.” I said “Well, that’s not going to happen.” And now I’m getting a little agitated, my voice is starting to raise a bit, right? I said “Look, there’s plenty of people here enjoying my music, I’m sure”.
So she finally walked away, and I apologized to my audience for the disruption, and the next thing I know is people who weren’t clapping before the confrontation began clapping after all my songs and were giving me tips like crazy, and the people at the table next to me just shook their heads, they just could not believe this woman. Later, she and her friend they actually went and sat far enough away from me so they couldn’t hear me of course, and when they went to leave, they were plugging their ears as they were going by. The people at the table beside me, they looked and just started laughing as she was going up the ramp.
Anyway, this girl comes up to me and says “What did that woman say to you?” and I told her, and she says “Wow, you wouldn’t believe the way she was talking about you, with your hair, and the way you look, and the way you play”. This woman just had her head so far up you-know-where, (laugh) nothing could have pleased this girl. So, yeah, that had to be one of the worst, absolute worst.
CD – But it turned into something good.
Jean – Well, it turned into something great, yeah, it was probably one of the better nights I had there and I walked out with a bit more money than I usually do. It’s funny though, because everybody said “Jean, you’ve got something going here. Get somebody to come by and criticize you every once in a while, so you can make more money”. (laughs)

CD – What was the strangest thing anyone ever threw in your case?
Jean – An avocado. (laughs)
CD – Seriously?
Jean - Oh yeah. A woman, I guess she was walking along the wharf there and somebody’s grocery bag came loose or something and an avocado fell out of it, and so she was looking for the person that lost this avocado (laughs) and she couldn’t find him, so she gave it to me.

CD – Do you have any sort of seeding practice when you start your set?
Jean – I just put in a loonie. That’s all, and I have my little sign that says “Happiness is not what you have, it’s what you enjoy”.

CD – Anything else you’d like to add?
Jean – This is just so much fun, I wish I had started busking when I was younger, like, when I was 30, ‘cause if I’d lived in a town like this I think I could have survived and really enjoyed it, and probably still be doing it. Yeah, well I’m 52 now, and I’m enjoying it now, and I’ll just have to take it from here and see where it goes. Yeah, I guess that’s it.