As you might know from a recent Blog, after I left New York back in the '80s I really didn't busk for many years. Mind you, I performed at renaissance faires, which is just a small step above busking---sort of like busking with a pay guarantee. (And really I prefer the costume I wear here, “anachronistic itinerant street musician,” but hey, I wear what I get paid to wear, right?). But for many years I gave up playing on public streets for tips.
There was one exception, and that was when I first began coming to New Orleans in 2001 or so.
It was early winter. I was coming from what was supposed to be an eight-month-long cruise gig, but that gig was cut short due to a bad agent and the spent budget of a laughable start-up cruise ship line (be grateful you were not on their one ship, a Greek ferry sent to the U.S. to “cruise” the Caribbean; it was a nightmare! And maybe the subject of a future Blog...). I was returning across the I-10 to Los Angeles, and decided to stop over in New Orleans. I needed money, as I'd been paid for only one month instead of the eight months I was expecting. I had heard the busking was good in NOLA. So, poor and desperate, I thought I'd see what the busking here was like for myself.
First I just stood out in the street alone and played the fiddle. I made like fourteen bucks. Rather disappointing. But then I noticed an Old Timey band setting up in front of the A&P on Royal (Now the Rouse's, still a French Quarter landmark). They had a washboard player, a guitarist, bass, mandolin, banjo...but no fiddle. I wandered over and asked if I could join them, and (as I learned will often happen here in NOLA), they happily consented. We played for two or three hours, had an amazing good time, and I made like fifty bucks. Nice, huh? I thought so.
I played with those guys every day for the following week, then left NOLA for Los Angeles, where I was living at the time.
Several years passed. I stayed in L.A., and each time I thought about returning to NOLA in the year or two after Katrina, I heard rumors that it was dangerous, there was violent crime, homelessness, etc etc... Not a very heartwarming story. I decided to wait, feeling that I would surely return here someday, hopefully as a permanent resident.
Finally a year and a half ago I came back, ostensibly to visit a girlfriend, and I remembered how much I love it here (pretty much the minute I arrived, the GF in question broke up with me; I see her as the catalyst that brought me back). I love the architecture, I love the weather, I love the mules, I love the nutria. I also love the fact that NOLA is the only place in the U.S. where I will busk!
And busk I did!
One year ago: It's Saturday night on Frenchmen street, and I'm out with Hank and Corey. I met these two in a bar just about my first week back, and we became immediate friends and band mates. They are part of a culture which I have also been part of nearly all my life, a culture of traveling buskers and performers (see my article on this culture, originally published in the Green Egg, here). Like a lot of traveling buskers, Corey and Hank play a style of music I love to play; Jugband music. Some of the songs are Jazz tunes from the twenties, thirties and forties, some are appropriated from Bluegrass and Western Swing. All are swinging, jazzy tunes with room for fiddle and guitar solos. I knew most of Corey's repertoire already before we met, and I learned the rest by playing the songs as we performed. There are no rehearsals for this style of playing; musicians know the style and either play well together or don't. Corey, Hank and I play well together.
That first night we also had Taylor playing with us on stand-up bass. The boy is a bass genius, and I played with him in several different bands throughout the season. Corey played ukulele (later she took up bass as well, and played in several other bands with me on that instrument). We did a lot of Jazz tunes that first night, as well as Country standards like Rolling In My Sweet Baby's Arms and Folsom Prison Blues. Corey has a gorgeous voice, and we sing well together, and Hank plays a good rhythm guitar and, like a lot of buskers here, drinks like a fish. (I joke that for every ten dollars the band makes, two dollars will be donated to the Pabst Blue Ribbon Brewing Company).
There is a door-frame on Frenchmen that makes a perfect busking stage: it's three steps above the street, and it's walled in, so it looks like a performance stage and accommodates four or five musicians. There plenty of sidewalk space for people to gather and listen, and it's well lit. Perfect for busking! That is where we set up shop for most of the season, playing hour long sets two to three times a night, sometimes alternating sets in the spot with another band.
Playing on Frenchman is, as Dickens put it, the best of times and the worst of times. For the most part, you have an amazing audience of people who are in town to hear good music, who want to celebrate and dance, and who have discovered you randomly simply be walking down the street. They become very attached to you for a few songs, tip generously (tens and twenties in the case are not uncommon, and we have received fifties and hundreds). They want to dance, sing along, and tell you their life story.
This is the good part (well, except sometimes for the life story).
The bad part: some are really really drunk. Drunk people tend to be obnoxious, and we get a lot of obnoxious drunks in our audience. That's never all that good. They scream. They gurgle. They fall, sometimes on you as you try to play. They want attention. They want love. They want to play your instruments. They want to touch you. They want money from your tip case. They want to clap along loudly and completely out of rhythm. Some want your first born. Some inspire you to never ever have a first born.
These are all very bad things. Some of them would actually be really funny if they were happening to other people.
Another bad thing disguised as a good thing: we get a lot of Travelers (our friends and co-buskers) who love us, and who sit right in front of us, drinking, listening and talking to each other (sometimes regrettably loudly). Great, you say, what more could you want? You could want the tourists with actual money to have a path to get to your tip jar! (Well, in this instance, your tip fiddle case). One of the small frustrations of busking on Frenchmen Street; the love and adoration (Still, I love my friends, and I'm perfectly OK with us all starving together).
Time marches on: by a couple of months before Mardi Gras, Corey and I had found some other musicians who play on Royal Street during the day. These guys are also awesome musicians, probably the best I've played with in NOLA. (NOLA, by the way, stands for New Orleans LouisianA, and is what white people call our city; black folks say Nawlins). Playing day shifts on Royal was even more lucrative than nights on Frenchmen, and I also got to meet and hear a dozen excellent bands out there playing as well. On a typical day we meet on Royal at ten AM or so (this is almost like a day job). The street is blocked off from auto traffic from 11-4, and we play throughout that time. Sometimes we take turns with another band, each band doing one hour sets. That way the spot is never “dark” on our breaks.
We jealously guard our spots! As Mardi Gras nears the competition for spots gets fiercer and fiercer, and we actually stay all night and hold our spot for the two weeks before Carnival. We had a large band alternating in the spot with us last season, many of whom were young and liked to stay out late. So each member of the two bands took a turn sitting at the spot for a couple of hours. I took the 10 to Midnight shift. I had just begun dating my awesome GF Lauren, and we would sit on Royal Street together, picnic, and play games of Scrabble with the board set up on milk crates. I think we got more attention, both positive and negative, for the Scrabble games than I'd get playing.
The competition for spots on Royal Street is higher than spots on other streets, as some of those spots are not quite as lucrative. There's a sort of hierarchy on the daytime streets: the best bands play Royal; bands that do not consider themselves to measure up to the best will gravitate toward Decatur Street. It's a self-policing system, and there is a good deal of jockeying between band members of each caste. (I have played on Decatur many times...don't tell anyone!).
By a few weeks after Mardi Gras, most of the traveling musicians have left town (I usually leave for my tour in June, though I'm already booked for some away gigs in May of 2012). It gets lonely here after the season, and I am very dependent on my friends being here to play with (remember that whole $14 solo vs. $50 with a band?). At the moment, few of my regular players are back yet (though more and more are now returning). But last night (Halloween) I found an awesome Old Timey band playing Frenchmen, and they were happy to have me play. It was so great to be back busking on Frenchmen, and that's something I spent years never thinking I'd hear myself say (or write...). I am SO ready for this season!
From NOLA, this is Kenny Klein explaining it all, and playing on Frenchmen Street.