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