Monday, July 25, 2011

The Copper Cowgirl

Throughout the cities of the world, there are probably many hundreds if not thousands of talented people who gather the tools of their craft and head out into the streets and public spaces to make their living by entertaining, and hopefully brightening the day of some of the people who pass by. Collectively called buskers or street entertainers, they come in a variety of artistic categories. There are musicians, jugglers, mimes, human statues, poets, dancers, clowns, balloon artists, and the list could go on.

Up to this point, mainly because I myself am a street musician, my posts have been stories about the musical aspect of busking, relating a few of my busking experiences, and those of some of my fellow musicians. While I will no doubt continue to have more stories about street musicians, in this, and I hope future posts, I will interview other buskers that fall into some of the aforementioned categories.

Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down and do an interview with Claire Bezuidenhout (pronounced bĕ-zādĕn-hōt), who makes her living as a “human statue”. Claire was born in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, and moved to Canada when she was a teenager, and has been living in Victoria BC, ever since. She began busking in 2007, and as the Copper Cowgirl, she has become a very popular attraction for visitors to the inner harbour causeway.

At first sight, as she stands silent and motionless atop her copper pedestal, one might think that the Copper Cowgirl was one of the local art installations, but then she’ll make an unexpected movement and elicit shrieks of surprise and laughter from her audience. Sometimes when someone takes the opportunity to stand next to the Cowgirl for a photo-op, they might suddenly be caught off guard when she places her hand on their shoulder. With each tip that is deposited in her copper coffee pot, she comes to life and commences into a “wild-west ballet” of robotic movements and friendly gestures, before drawing her copper pistol from her holster for an imaginary shoot-out, after which she slowly winds down to her original statue-like position.

Over the past four years, Claire has spent her “northern hemisphere summers” busking in Victoria, and in the off-season, has taken her act overseas where she has also busked in Melbourne & Perth [Australia], Auckland & Wellington [New Zealand], London [United Kingdom], Malaga [Spain], Paris [France] and Berlin [Germany].

In fact, it was her interest in traveling that inspired Claire to give busking a try in the first place. She explained, “I wanted to find something that could help me earn money while I was traveling, so I thought I would become a human statue, because I can’t play an instrument. I think it’s a really great way to travel, I feel like you really get a feel for the city [that] you’re traveling into, as opposed to just visiting it for a week and doing touristy things. You really are on the streets meeting real people and seeing the day to day activities. So, I feel like I get a really great perspective of each place I travel to.”

I asked where the inspiration for the Copper Cowgirl’s character came from and Claire said “I’ve been around horses all my life and I’ve grown up riding horses, so I guess I always felt like I had the cowgirl spirit. And I have a lot of the clothes already, so that helps.”

On the topic of the Copper Cowgirl’s outfit, Claire said “I have a lot of fun making my costume, as much as I have performing. I did paint my outfit, and I’ve made my chaps and several other articles of [the] clothing as well. That’s one of the fun things, to make the outfit and try different things. I have a few different outfits now, different chaps, a different jacket. and a few different versions of the cowgirl, so it’s as much [about] creating the character as it is performing the character. I have a Viking outfit as well, which is what I use in Europe, ‘cause they’re not as in tune to cowgirls there.”

Claire told me that what she enjoyed most about busking was making people laugh. “I really enjoy playing with people, having fun with them, getting them to play along with me and surprising them. And I love having fun with the kids as well. It often kind scares them, but [it] excites them at the same time.”

Out of all the places that she has busked, Claire said that Melbourne was her favorite. “I don’t know what it is about that city, it feels kind of like Vancouver, and kind of like Victoria I guess, but, yeah, I love Melbourne. I always have fun with the people there [and] I always meet really friendly people there. There’s a big arts scene there as well, so I like going to the theatre shows and stuff after, or going to the beach right before I busk, and then I’ll go to a theatre show.”
“In Melbourne, I busked around the South Bank area, everyone called the strip along the [Yarra] River, the South Bank. Apparently, the Bourke Street Mall is really good to busk at, but you have to busk at least six months along the South Bank before they let you audition for the Mall, so I was never there long enough to audition for that.”

When I asked Claire what her most memorable busking experience was, she mentioned performing in downtown Vancouver during the 2010 Olympics. “It was a really, really wonderful experience for me, because everyone was ridiculously happy the whole time. Everyone was there to have a good time, so it was fun, tons of people every day and it was one of the greatest ten days of busking I’ve ever had.”

As the decision to be a busker would probably not be very high on most people’s list of career choices, I was curious to know what Claire might’ve said when she was 8 or 9 years old, if someone had suggested that one day she would be making a living being the Copper Cowgirl. “I would have said they were crazy,” she said, and then laughed. “I wanted to be a real cowgirl when I was a little girl, not a pretend cowgirl. I would’ve said ‘Close, but not quite what I was looking for’.”

And for anyone who might be thinking about trying their hand at busking, what has Claire learned in her four years as a street entertainer, that she would pass on as helpful advice? She said “I think that it’s important that you enjoy what you’re doing, because if you don’t enjoy it, you can’t expect other people to enjoy it.”
“Don’t take things personally. There’s always gonna be one or two people that aren’t very nice to you, and you can’t take that personally, you just have to brush it off and keep on going, and don’t let those little things get you down.”
“What else? Just be open to explore with your audience, don’t just present things, but always be open to do more and see more with them too, if that makes sense. Play with it, ’cause you’re on the street and unexpected things happen, and you just have to go with it.”

Friday, July 8, 2011

The Waiting Game: Part 2

In last week’s post, longtime busker Dave Harris, shared his memories from the old days when the causeway buskers had to put in a lot of “butt-time” in order to play at the more popular spots in downtown Victoria.
This week I will continue with some more recollections, this time from fellow buskers Jaime Nolan and Swan Walker.

* * * * * * * * * *
Jaime Nolan has spent the past 18 summers busking on the inner harbour causeway, where he plays guitar and sings a mix of 60's to 90's folk/rock. In the off-season Jaime is a biology and chemistry teacher.

"Right now, you look back on it as fond memories," he said. "But I’m sure at the time it was pretty painful at times when you’d be sitting there for like six hours, so you could do your two hour set. I remember many times, you never knew how many buskers were gonna be there before you, it was a gamble every day. You’d be walking and you’d see one of the other buskers a block ahead of you, and they’re just walking, taking their time and you’re like ‘Oh, if I run and get past them, that’s two hours I don’t have to wait,’ so you find some back alley way, and run real fast, to [try to] make it there before them, and if it was a tie, you’d do a little paper-rock-scissors."

"We’d get down here at 10 o’clock, so you could have the noon [slot], and of course if they beat you by five minutes, that was an extra two hours you’d have to wait. And then there was the time where we couldn’t leave the causeway, if you left, you forfeited your spot, so you were really glued to the causeway when you waited your time. If you left and someone showed up, there’d [sometimes] be like fisticuffs, you know, ‘You left, the spot’s not yours anymore,’ and you’d be like ’But, I went to get a coffee’. So then we started [to] make sure that the other buskers watched each other’s stuff, you know, so that’s when the community started to develop, ‘cause you needed to get off here every once in a while, to get something to eat."

Jaime said "It was definitely way more interesting, and I do miss the sitting [around] all day ‘cause you got to talk to the tourists, it was more of a community when you sat here all day, and you just felt like more a part of the scene. Now that we’re on our [scheduled] time slots, you show up like five minutes before your slot and leave ten minutes after, and we kind of don’t have the community that we used to have."
"The change came at the right time for my life, ‘cause my son was born and there’s no way I could sit here eight hours all day with a baby, so it coincidentally worked out for me, ‘cause I could then budget my time slots around my son’s schedule, but there is a big part of me that does miss sitting here all day like that."

I asked Jaime if he had the ability to turn back the clocks, would he want to go back to the old system.
"No, no, I wouldn’t, ‘cause things come at a price, like not having to wait all day and you can have a life outside of the harbour. But then of course, you’ve lost the community. I made way more friends, sitting down here all day, [talking] to the tourists, and [making] many connections, and I feel like that’s lost now with the time slots, but times change. Maybe I just gotta come down here and sit all day anyways, just for the hell of it [laughs], no reason why we can’t do it anyways."

* * * * * * * * * *
Swan Walker started busking on the inner harbour in 1997, and he plays the steel drums, guitar and sings. His repertoire consists of reggae, calypso and other popular tunes.

Swan said "There were a lot of good things about [‘the waiting game’]. You used to wait, but, I think the time went by so fast. It used to be fun, you know, people hanging out here, it become like a little community, there was so much that used to go on. You [would] have a lot of people who weren’t playing but they wanted to hang around. Now it’s a bit more cold, you know, everybody comes and they do their thing and they split. Before there was more warmth, I think."

In regard to the times when he’d come down to the harbour, and there’d be no spot for him because it was all backed up, Swan said, "Yeah, I remember those, you know there was nothing. Well, I never had a problem with that, because I know that’s how it goes. It never bothered me, I’d just go, and come back earlier [the next] time. [Sometimes] there were people who used to come, and I would [already] be here too, so, I had no problem with that, it didn’t make me feel bad at all."

The earliest that Swan ever arrived at the harbour was 7:00 in the morning. He said "I waited all day for the night spot. I suppose back then, when the moment lingers, you’re kind of ‘Oh, I had to sit here all day,’ but after it passes, you don’t remember it. I only remember the good things about that period, the time when you get to talk to [other] people who hung around you."

* * * * * * * * * *
As you have read this post, you may have noticed that the two words that Dave, Jaime and Swan mentioned more than a few times were “camaraderie” and “community”. It was these aspects of the ‘waiting game’ that made the whole process more bearable.
A large portion of our time was spent sitting around in our fold up chairs, on top of the concrete receptacle by the stairs on the north side of the centre of the causeway where the garbage bins used to be stored. We began to call it the “Buskers Dressing Room”. Most days we would be camped out there, shooting the breeze and joking around among ourselves and some of the other buskers that would occasionally join us.

I remember one time when when Dave and I were sitting around joking with another busker Chris Trygg, about how it would be neat to making a video movie parody of our lives as buskers. One of the ideas was a humourous poke at the competitiveness of trying to beat the other buskers to the spot. At that time, a number of the buskers had dollies that we used to transport our gear to the causeway. I had envisioned this skit of us all racing down to the harbour in a take-off on the chariot scene in the movie Spartacus. We’d all be racing down trying to get ahead of the next guy, cutting each other off, and having blades popping out of our wheels in order to try and pop the tires of the next guy, and so on.
Between the three of us, we kept bouncing the ideas back and forth and laughing hysterically. It was pretty silly stuff, but it did inspire Dave to show up a few days later with his newly purchased video camera with which, over the summer, that we thought might be our last, he started documenting the busking scene on the harbour and uptown. This all resulted in a couple of videos that both give a good sense of the Victoria busking scene at that time.
If you are interested in purchasing a copy of either of these DVDs, you can contact Dave Harris at his website.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Waiting Game: Part 1

In early 2005, there were fears among many of the causeway buskers, that the transfer of the management and oversight of the inner harbour causeway, from the City of Victoria to the Greater Victoria Harbour Authority would bring about the end of the busking scene as we knew it.
As it turned out, there were changes, but not all of them were as dire as we had feared. One in particular was a very welcome change.
The causeway buskers were now able to pick our time slots at weekly scheduling meetings. This meant that we no longer had to get up at ridiculous hours in the morning just to try and beat other buskers to the spot, so that we could have first pick on a time slot that we would then have to spend a considerable amount of “butt-time” waiting on, before we could finally set up and play our two hour set.

From a historical perspective, I thought that this would be an interesting topic for a blog post, so I called on three of my fellow causeway buskers Dave Harris, Jaime Nolan, and Swan Walker so I might be able to include some of their recollections of that era, in the post. I will be posting the article in two installments, today will include Dave’s memories, and next week I’ll post those of Jaime and Swan.

Just a bit of history; prior to 1994 when the City of Victoria started licensing street entertainers, it was not hard to find available places to busk as there wasn’t a lot of competition, but with the new licensing, there came an influx of prospective buskers, and consequently, a higher demand for the more popular locations around town, which included Murchies on Government Street, and the north and centre spots on the lower causeway. It was only natural that with this increase in competition for the same spots, that there would eventually be some disagreements.
In order to try and work things out and minimize any hostility among themselves, the buskers began to work out agreements regarding how the process for picking a time slot should work. It was agreed that it be on a “first come - first served” basis. After the first busker decided what he or she wanted to wait for, then the successive arrivals would pick their slot from what was left over. The two hour slots were booked on the even hour, ie: 10 AM, 12 noon, 2, 4, 6, and 8 PM, the most popular of which were the 12, 2, and 8 slots.
Over the next ten years, besides Dave, Jaime, Swan and myself, some of the other buskers vying for these time slots were Marty Field, Chris Trygg, KC Kelly, Jim Meighen, Julian Vitek, Shillelagh, Billy Goats Gruff, Angela Basombrio & Peter Richards, Oliver Swain, Steve LeStrange, and many others.
It should also be noted, that the upper causeway buskers and those along Government Street continue to operate under the old “first-come / first served” system, although it certainly doesn’t seem to be as competitive as it was in the past.

* * * * * * * * * *
Dave Harris is a one-man-band on the causeway, and he has spent the past 35 years busking on the streets of Victoria.
He recalls “The ‘waiting game’ was in full effect in the late ‘90s, I guess, early 2000s.” There [were] 600 licenses, I believe in ’99, or 2000, and okay, of those 600, probably fifty of them were panhandlers, and another two or three hundred were people that only came out once or twice, but there was a regular batch of at least eighty or a hundred buskers that were out on a regular basis, [so], If we wanted to get certain times at the harbour particularly, or at Murchies [on Government Street], there were a lot of people trying to get the same time slots, and it required often that people would have to get there early and wait to play sometimes quite a few hours.”

“There definitely was a nice shared energy among the people that were waiting, it was quite good and people were coming [and] seeking out the music in those spots because they knew there was going to be good acts because, only the good acts were willing to wait four to eight hours to play because they knew they were going to get a pay-off at the end. If you were just somebody that was a little bit green or a little bit rough, it wasn’t worth waiting four hours to play to make $10, so people came knowing there was going to be something good, [and] Murchies in particular was a destination for a lot of people that would wanna hear good street entertainment.”

“I’d come down, sometimes in those days I could still get away with playing on Government Street, and [still] go to the harbour and wait on the evening. I’d play at Bastion Square from 12 ‘til 2, and if Murchies came open, sometimes surprisingly it would, I’d whip down and play [there] for a couple of hours, and [then] whip down to the harbour as fast as I could and claim the night spot and sit for four hours.”

“I can remember waiting as much as twelve hours on long weekends to play at night on the causeway, getting down there at 8:00 in the morning to play at 8 at night. I did that several times on long weekends and only just beat other people that wanted the same thing, I can remember them showing up five or ten minutes after me and being quite irate that I was already there.”

“I remember Canada Day, maybe 1999 [or] 2000, 2001, somewhere in there, I can remember one guy camping out at 3:00 in the morning with his bicycle with all of his stuff. He had a little rollout mat, and went down there and slept on the buskers dressing room, thinking that he was going to beat me out for the night time of Canada Day. Well, of course, as you know, Canada Day down there at night is basically unworkable as a time slot so it backfired on him. He spent all that time waiting and none of the other buskers except for Swan showed up. He’s thinking we’re all gonna be showing up at 8:00 in the morning, 10:00 in the morning whatever, nope, nobody shows up and he’s just waiting and waiting and waiting. So, not to be mean to him, but he just didn’t know the ropes.”

“[And] yeah, the ‘waiting game’ had a certain amount of hostility associated with it too. There were a lot of people that weren’t really fans of the ‘waiting game.’ [There was one guy], his way of playing the ‘waiting game’ would be to tie his [empty] guitar case into the tree, with a note pinned on it saying ‘8:00 at night’, or whatever he would write on it. Of course that wasn’t how we were playing the ‘waiting game.’ The ‘waiting game’ was, you were there [actively] waiting, yes, you were of course allowed to run off and do an errand, or go to the bathroom, or get yourself something to eat, those kind of things, and we’d all watch each others stuff, but you couldn’t go off and just busk elsewhere. So some of the people didn’t like the ‘waiting game.’ I mean, none of us were really fans of it, but those of us who got along made it work quite well, because we got along with each other.”

“So they’re was a little bit of ugliness associated with the waiting game, but it was also really neat too, because with so many of us sitting around waiting to play, there was quite a bit of camaraderie happening. We were called the ‘scruffy lot’ by one of the causeway artists, Brian Henderson (slate carver), and Dwight (scroll saw artist) used to really enjoy us all sitting around behind him there on the center of the causeway.”

“You, me and Swan were the ‘three busketeers’, and we used to camp out on what we called the buskers dressing room, which was [on top of] the old garbage [bin] at the foot of the stairs on the north side of the centre of the causeway. We’d sit up on top, of the garbage [bin] with our little fold up chairs, and we called it the buskers dressing room.”

“And for me, there was an additional sort of an upside, I started sitting in with a lot of you guys. I’d be down there at noon waiting to play at 8:00 at night. Well you know, what are you gonna do for eight hours, so I started sitting in with you, and with Chris, and with Marty, Jaime sometimes, Fred Robertson. So, that was a nice upside of the waiting game was the camaraderie and the sitting in.”

Next week: The Waiting Game: Part 2

In the meantime, to read more about the local busking scene, be sure to check out the following archived posts:
October 15, 2009 - Victoria Busking Scene: 1977-1980
October 22, 2009: Scene Changes: 1989-2004

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Space Germs Have Attacked My Brain

On a couple of occasions back in March, I was walking down Government Street and came across a trio of street musicians playing in front of the Eddie Bauer store. I had interviewed a couple of them individually as solo artists, and now, here they were playing in a bouncy little combo called Spatiu Germene, which I was told is Romanian for “Space Germs”. Comprised of Levon (fiddle), Gabriel (guitar) and Blaine (accordion), they are usually accompanied by Ranger, their road manager / attorney. As well as playing at the Eddie Bauer spot, I have also seen them playing at the entrance several times at the entrance to Fan Tan Alley in Chinatown.

Gabe had somewhere else to go, but I was able to arrange an interview with Levon and Blaine [under the watchful eye of Ranger], and I tried to get a little background on the group.

I started by reminding Levon that I thought when I had interviewed him once before, he’d told me his name was ‘Mack’. “That was my clone,” he said “Yeah, his name was Mack, he was a pretty interesting character. It’s kind of a long story, and I’m really not allowed to say, but uh, let’s just say it was an experiment gone wrong and we just decided to split our losses.”
I commented that the music he was doing with the group was certainly very different from what Mack was doing. “Yeah, my clone is a kind of a rambler,” he said. “I don’t know what happened in the experiment, but he might’ve actually got [some] old mountain rambler genes.”

For his part, Blaine recalled my having done an interview with him. “Yeah, that was me,” he said "But that was a cover for…”
At this point Levon interrupted and said “This time we’re gonna tell you the truth. That was a cover, that [wasn’t] the real story. He was under witness protection for a while, and had to use that story, but now that he’s safe again, uh, he was actually raised by a pack of wolves in Siberia, in Russia, and that’s where he met Ranger, [who’s] like a brother to him.”

Levon and Blaine continued to tell me how the group had gotten together. Their convoluted story involved, among other things, futuristic fortune tellers, space aliens, crop circles, trailer parks in Quesnel, and crystals. The more they told me, and the more variations there were to their fantastic ramblings, I began to fear that maybe this was some kind of elaborate dupe on their part, to confuse me and then attack and take control of my brain.

Needless to say, editing the interview transcript into a viable blog post was quite a long frustrating process. I had given up on the task a number of times, but always felt somehow compelled to come back to it and try again. After several weeks, I think I have finally succeeded. You be the judge.

Whatever their story, the one thing that can be counted on when you come upon Spatiu Germene, is that you will probably find yourself being drawn to their repertoire of catchy, upbeat renderings of eastern European gypsy-jazz and ethnic-folk music. They also have a few tunes in their repertoire that are sure to be familiar to some of the passersby, including Hava Nagila and Bella Ciao.
Blaine said “We do a very souped up version of that [Bella Ciao],” and Levon added “It gets pretty fast [and] it’s pretty fun.”
As well the guys have got some original tunes. Levon said “We just wrote a song for our friend’s birthday party, it’s called Catherine’s Song. That’s one of our nicer songs.”

I haven’t seen them in recent days, so they may be out of town, but if they return, and you manage to see them in your wanderings downtown, I'm sure you'll be thoroughly entertained, although you might want to get your innoculations first.

In the meantime you can see a video of them at the following link:
Spatiu Germene busking on Government Street

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Interview with Shelley & Owen Vaags

This past April, when the Greater Victoria Harbour Authority held auditions to fill the causeway busker positions left vacant by non-returning entertainers, I decided to go down to the inner harbour and check out this year’s batch of prospective applicants. Over the period of a few hours, the hopeful candidates showed up to perform two or three songs in front of the three judges and an audience of dozens of passersby who were stopping to see what was going on. In the end, twelve acts had tried out for the five vacancies.

One of the successful acts was the mother & son duo of Shelley (guitar & vocals) and Owen Vaags (cajon aka beat box & vocals). Shelley is not new to the busking scene; she was a regular face on the harbour for about eight years from 1988 to 1996. Owen, who is 15, doesn’t remember, but his mom would sometimes also bring him in the stroller, along with his sister, down to the causeway when she went out to busk.

Shelley recalled “I was married in ’90, and it was a couple of years before then because we were saving up for our wedding, so I was out there busking to help pay for our honeymoon, I got enough money that we got two tickets to Europe. Then when I was pregnant with the kids I was still busking, but when the kids were born, it got a little harder. I brought them with me but they started getting antsy so you couldn’t keep them in one place for very long.”
“My daughter Morgan was coming down since she was a baby and when she got old enough she’d sit in the guitar case and sort my money for me, whenever I got any bills, she’d put them in the flap of the guitar case so they wouldn’t fly into the [harbour], and she took it very seriously, she sorted the quarters. This was when she was about 2, but she seemed to start figuring out the money thing really fast. She’d [also] pose whenever a Japanese tourist came by or someone with a camera, she would pose with them, she knew exactly what to do, she knew her role (laughs). We actually got on the Sally Jessy Raphael show because of what she was doing with me down in the harbour, so we went on there and told them about it too. It was probably the last show she aired, but yeah, a lot came from that.”

Shelley was part of a musical family and she got involved in music at a young age. She said “I was 7 when we started performing and all my siblings are younger than me, so we started quite young and I started playing guitar about 11, 12 years old, so, yeah, been performing since that time.”
Along with her sister, and two brothers, Shelley spent seven years playing in a band called the Timebenders, and they continue to perform as the Smiley Family Band.

A few years ago Shelley asked Owen if he was interested in getting involved in music and he jumped at the chance.
“I was like ‘Sure, why not’,” he said. “[Playing] music with the family was originally [why] I wanted to start learning how to play, but then after I started playing more and getting more confident, I wanted to do something more with it, so I suggested that we come down to the harbour and get a busking license.”
Owen plays a little bit of guitar, but he said he still doesn’t feel confident enough to play all the songs with Shelley, so in the meantime he brings down his cajon (beat box) to add to the mix, while he continues to expand his guitar skills.
As well as attending school, and busking with his mom, Owen also plays in a little combo called Four Door, who already have a couple of gigs under their belt, the biggest having been the Special Woodstock concert in the Cowichan Valley.

When it comes to the music that they perform together, Shelley and Owen do a lot of songs from the ‘60s and ‘70s.
“I like to think it’s music that helps people stay in a good mood,” said Shelley. “It’s nothing political, no downers, [I’m just] trying to keep it in the kind of mood that if I were going on holidays I would wanna hear, so just trying to keep it light, easy, and fun. I’m really lucky that my son loves that stuff as much as I do, so we have a lot of fun, ‘cause there’s always lots of harmonies.”

Owen mentioned the Beatles, the Doors, the Monkees, and the Beach Boys, when I asked who some of his favorite musicians were.
“And Herman’s Hermits, I really took a liking to them,” he said. “I just can’t seem to get too into any kind of group on the radio now [that] most of the people my age listen to. Sometimes I’ll listen to it, but I can never really say I like the group, ‘cause it’s maybe only one song. It’s never like they really produce an album that you [say] ‘Oh, did you get that album?’ It’s usually just ‘Oh, did you hear that song?’ you know, compared to the way it used to be like.”

I asked Shelley if she wrote any of her own material and she said “I used to write music and now that the kids are older I’m feeling more creative again, so I’ll be writing again. Whenever I think of a great phrase, I wanna write it down for when I do write some music. I had some pretty good songs that I wrote [but] there’s not a lot of places to play originals. They want to know the lyrics and sing along.”
Owen added that he'd also written a couple of songs. "Just some cheesy stuff about old girlfriends, you know, stuff that most boys think about,” he said.

When asked what his friends at school thought about him being a busker, Owen said “I’ve told a couple of people and at first they made fun of me like ‘Oh, what do you go down there and do a little jig’ and stuff like that. I have a basketball coach that just likes to rag on me all the time and once he found out I was like ‘Yeah, coach, uh, I won’t be here for this little scrimmage’ and he goes ‘Oh, why not?’, [and I said] ‘I just can’t be here,’ [so he said] ‘No, tell me why.’ [I said] I’m going busking.’ [He said] ‘You’re what?’ So my basketball friends ragged on me, but they’re all nice guys, in the end they think it’s pretty cool, especially since the odd time you make way better than any job at McDonalds or Tim Horton’s or stuff like that. So they think it’s pretty cool.”

Does Owen see himself continuing with the busking thing beyond this summer? He replied “Oh yeah, I definitely do. Just seeing how much fun it is, I can’t imagine anything gets better than this, so it’s quick, easy, fun money, like if I get a license I can bring out the guitar whenever I want, so I definitely will.”

Most enjoyable thing about busking:
For his part Owen said “I don’t want to sound shallow or anything, but right now it’s the money, because I don’t have a job. I used to be just getting my money from weekly allowances, but that’s never enough, you know, so I wanted to make some extra money, and I love music and so what better way to do it than come out and busk.”
Shelley said “I think it’s picking the songs that I wanna do and trying them out on people, and if the people don’t like them, they keep walking. And if they do, you know it’s a winner, ‘cause they stopped and you make money on it. So you know which songs work and which ones don’t.”
“I love the sunshine [and] meeting people from all around the world. You’re part of the cultural fabric of the city, [and] an ambassador for the city. You’re in photo albums all over the world. Yeah, you’re a memory for somebody, a good memory hopefully.”
“I just love it. I’d forgotten how much fun it was. I was playing [once] up in the Empress with [the] band, and I came down here for my break and you were playing, and I missed what you were doing, so much more than what I was doing, I was thinking ‘gosh, he’s lucky to be down here’. We were traveling and I didn’t enjoy it near as much as I enjoy being down here. I think this is where I’m supposed to be.”

To see a video of Shelley & Owen, and more information on some of the other things that they're involved with, check out the following links:
Shelley & Owen on the causeway
Special Woodstock
Smiley Family Band

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Marty Field aka Encyclopedia Brucetannica

One of the major players in the Victoria busking scene, is guitarist/singer Marty Field. With 17 years experience as a street musician under his belt, he has become a familiar face playing outside of Murchies on Government Street and down on the inner harbour causeway. For the most part, Marty is a one-man-act, but back in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, he also played in various combinations with Leigh Grisewood (bass), Caleb Kelly (fiddle) and Julian Vitek (violin). In more recent years he has been regularly teaming up with longtime busker Dave Harris, and occasionally Marty and Dave have also rocked the causeway with the guitar slingin’ son of one of Marty’s friends, in the causeway supergroup Jake Quake & The Seismatics.

Whatever the musical permutations, the sound remains pretty much the same, as rock ‘n’ roll is definitely a dominant part of Marty’s DNA. When asked to describe his musical style, Marty said “I think I’m pretty much a rock and roll player, leaning somewhat towards a folky, kind of hick sound, but, certainly, I love rock and roll, and that’s mostly what I play, old ‘50s stuff, Buddy Holly, Elvis, Eddie Cochrane, [and] into the ‘60s with the Stones and Dylan, and the Beatles.”

Originally from London, ON, Marty lived in Victoria for a couple of years when he was a kid in the early 1980s, before moving back to Ontario.
He first picked up the guitar when he was about 13. “I started plucking around with some chords [that] a friend of my mother’s taught me”, he said. “I’ve always loved music so, it seemed like a natural thing for me to do then.”

The first time Marty played guitar on the street was in his hometown of London in the late 1980s. “I played a few times, sort of cut my teeth back in London." he said. "There was a guy that used to busk there, an older guy. I’ll never forget this guy. His name was Robert James, I thought it was a really cool blues name, and I used to stop and listen to him play. Every once in a while he would have to go for a Coca-Cola or something, [and] he’d say ‘Would you watch my guitar?’ I’d ask if I could play it, and he’d say ‘Yeah, go ahead.’ He’d come back and say ‘Keep playing,’ ‘cause I was kind of making him money. So I’d play his guitar and I ended up playing a few tunes and it was like a bug, you know.”

It wasn’t until he returned to Victoria in 1994, that Marty decided to launch himself into a full time busking venture. “When I came out here, I was in desperate need of money [and] I couldn’t find a job. I saw quite a few people busking in town, and I thought to myself, ‘I could try that’. I was never really much of a singer, but I just sucked it up, and the first couple of times I tried it, and I made enough to sustain myself and my girlfriend, at the time. [That was] the first time I really did it full time, or seriously, as a job, [in] ’94 during the Commonwealth Games.”

If you were to catch Marty’s sets often enough, you would soon come to know him for his many Bruce Springsteen covers. I think it might have been former local street musician Jim Meighen who coined the nickname ‘Encyclopedia Brucetannica’ for Marty, who some believed could probably perform Springsteen’s entire catalog.

I asked Marty if he could in fact play every one of Bruce’s songs, and he responded with a laugh and said “No, contrary to popular belief, I do not know every single Bruce Springsteen song. There’s a few that I don’t play, but I could certainly play a song from every album.”

On why he likes Bruce Springsteen:
“I’m a big Springsteen fan. I’ve been to a number of his shows, and I always heard that once you saw his show, you were a Bruce fan for life, and it’s true. I saw my first show, [when] I was 13 going on 14, and it was a three and a half hour show, and it just changed my whole outlook on rock and roll. I’ve seen him in Toronto, twice in ’84 and ’85, during the Born In The USA tour. and then I’ve seen, I think four shows in Vancouver including a couple of his solo acoustic shows. I’m very moved by his music, and I really get into his lyrics, [they] really speak to me, so whether he’s doing a rock song or a folk song or a country song, he’s just a great writer, [who’s] in tune with the human spirit. I think he’s got his finger on the human condition, and he speaks to me, that way.”

I asked him what his favorite song was, I was pretty sure it would be a Springsteen song, and I was not surprised when he answered, “The River, yeah, it’s just a beautifully written song, and it’s actually one of the songs that people request from me.”

Marty has also done a bit of songwriting of his own. “Yeah, I’ve got some of my own material, I don’t really play it a lot because, well, those aren’t the money making songs. People want to hear what they know, but if someone asks me to play one of my songs, sure.”

Most enjoyable thing about busking:
“I guess the thing I enjoy most about busking is interacting with the different people. The thing that brings me most joy when I’m playing is to have little kids dancing. There’s no better praise than that, to have a little kid dancing to a song I’m playing. That makes me happy, and that’s what I enjoy most about it. And the money’s okay too.”

Most memorable busking experience:
“There’s been so many, but I guess the most memorable ones are playing with other musicians. Do you remember Leigh [Grisewood]? I used to play with Leigh, big double bass. I miss those times, man. He was great to play with, he was so fun and energetic.”

Strangest thing anybody ever threw in case:
“There’s lots of strange things, I think I told you before, a nun gave me a lunch one time. People think you want food or something when you’re busking. I’ve gotten marijuana and condoms and little notes. Sometimes girls write little notes or little poems, drawings, other people’s drawings. Lint, a lot of lint from the pockets of the masses. And of course we get a lot of international monetary coins, but I always think the weirdest thing is food.”

Advice to anyone who might be considering trying busking:
“Some very talented people will try busking for the first time and they’re not used to playing in front of others. Something I always say is ‘sing it like no one’s listening’. You really just gotta get over your nervousness, or whatever’s holding you back, and play like no one’s listening.”

Check out the check out the following videos to see Marty in action:
Marty with Dave Harris
Jake Quake & The Seismatics