Posts Tagged ‘busking’

In addition to doing live gigs, I have been playing on the streets of towns and cities for years, and I have had some interesting experiences and opportunities come my way as a result.

Recently I was approached to contribute a track to an album featuring music by some of the world’s finest buskers. The Busking Project is an initiative set up with the aim of giving buskers the chance to sell their original music online in a similar way to how they earn a living on the street.

TBP release one ten-track album a month on their website, featuring music of many styles.  They currently have four albums available, all of which you can freely download once you donate $5 to the project.

How You Contribute and What You Get – The public are invited to donate an amount as little as $1 to the project and 60% of this goes directly to the artists featured on the site; the other 40% going to maintaining the project. This 60% is a vastly better deal for the artists than any conventional record deal, so you can be sure that you are supporting the producers of the music.

For a $1 donation you are kept informed of the progress of the project, $3 gives you access to videos and blogs but it all gets more exiting if  you donate $5, which gives you a downloads of this month’s album ‘Keep Streets Live’ – FEATURING ME!

VISIT https://www.patreon.com/busk to get involved.

If you don’t want to be kept informed about the project, you can simply sign up for one month and download all the albums (for $5, come on!) then delete your subscription.

This seems like a pretty good deal for the artists and you. How’s that possible? There is no record company involved.

But in case you need further convincing to support my involvement in this project, have a listen here to the track I have contributed, ‘Love’s on Fire’:

 

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Rooftopping In Toronto...***EXCLUSIVE***  TORONTO, CANADA - OCT 2012: A slow exposure of the streets of Toronto, Canada.  WHATEVER you do  dont look down. Daring photographer Tom Ryaboi snaps the Toronto skyline from the top of skyscrapers. The 28-year-old is one of the pioneers of rooftopping, which sees members scale tall buildings to take pictures of the streets below. To achieve these breathtaking photographs, he often has to evade security guards, dogs - and even urban falcons defending their nests.  PHOTOGRAPH BY Tom Ryaboi/Barcroft Media  UK Office, London. T +44 845 370 2233 W www.barcroftmedia.com  USA Office, New York City. T +1 212 796 2458 W www.barcroftusa.com  Indian Office, Delhi. T +91 11 4053 2429 W www.barcroftindia.com

To all members of the soiled siblinghood who cling to the city streets, that feral fraternity bequeathed to us by Madame Thatcher, for whom the park bench is a couch and the church steps a social club, who live alongside our absurd society and happen to be addicted to the wrong things…

To these homeless souls I offer no pity. I offer congratulations. Because simply by surviving they deserve my admiration.

Survival is the thrilling feeling I have craved at different times; like the climber on the rock face, fighting the living rock with fingertips and toes, the unconditional lust of gravity begging him down to the boulder-field below. He KNOWS he is alive. Do you?

The further we get from the rock face, the essentials of survival, the less alive we are.

I look back to a time in Barcelona, living in a cold water flat, no amenities, busking on the streets, wild and hazy. It was a beautiful brand of poverty. At night in my room I always had company, but not of the species I would have chosen.

As soon as I put out the light I would hear scuttling, an ominous pitter-pattering, haunting me like an instant nightmare ‘cos I knew what it was. Cockroaches sweeping the floor, fanning out like an insect army in search of supplies.

My revulsion was such that I chose the only missile available – hurling unopened beer cans into their ranks, to quell the tide.  I didn’t like doing it cos it shook the beer up, and I had to wipe bits of cockroach off the cans before drinking them.

The Buddhist in me was appalled at my behaviour. Cockroaches are remarkable creatures; they can live off anything, live anywhere. Like rats, they’re survivors, and some say that they’d be one of the few life forms to survive a global catastrophe.  The pragmatist in me suggested better tactics – maybe I should call the landlord, put some poison down or move to a better flat. The realist in me told the other two to forget it. When faced with a strange problem I always find a strange solution…

An average city street might have  1000 people on it. 1000 minds in 1000 heads all containing lifetimes of experience and regret and fear and hope and love. Each head containing the world, the universe even, from one particular perspective. 1000 different yet individually definitive versions of everything there is. And each one of them is climbing a personal mountain path to some kind of ultimate reconciliation with the fact that at some point the journey is over. Or not.

1000 worldviews on one street, multiplied across a city, a country, a continent. How can we possibly understand ourselves as a species?

Well, we could try…the combined wisdom of 1000 can either be 1000 times wiser or 1000 times more stupid. We have to learn from insect culture.

The wise among us don’t walk down streets these days. We scuttle. Those carrying their heads too high will have them knocked off by the winds. The weather is not being kind. But we have the logistics, the nouse to survive. We have no pretentions to status. We live the low life, scuttling from one safe haven to the next, where it’s warm and interesting and we don’t feel as if we’re on the wrong side of history.

This is the only way to survive. This is the cockroach culture, low to the ground, resourceful, collective, living as best we can, dodging the governmental missiles raining down on us from above. Reconnecting with our invertebrate instincts, scuttling together under cover of darkness, we will fan out and take the floor…

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Ten years ago this summer, I embarked upon a musical journey through Western Europe, equipped with little more than six strings and a sense of misadventure. It was a memorable trip, and three years later I wrote up the escapade for an issue of The Korovian, the in-house journal of Liverpool music venue Korova (now defunct but rumoured to be making a return).

What better time then, to revisit that sun-kissed summer once again…

Tour of Beauty (Pt.1)                                                                                       

June 2003. I was a part-time muso dolebag facing another summer with a whole lot of nothing going on.  “Got to get me some kicks!” I thought. So I logged on and booked a flight to Barcelona, out of my self-imposed oblivion.

There was a plan, of sorts. I knew I could make money with a guitar on the streets, and a dreadlocked busking veteran had once told me that there were rich pickings to be had anywhere in Spain.  Now I don’t mind living on my wits, indeed it gives me a great sense of freedom, but the airfare for this little venture had damn near cleaned me out, and I got on the plane with just 300 Euros to last me seven weeks.

Hey, instinct told me to do it. And instinct was right…

As soon as I left the plane, I was hit by an all-over body massage of 30 degree heat. Truly, I’d made the right leap. I was EUPHORIC. So euphoric that I walked straight into Alanis Morrisette’s more beautiful twin sister, who told me her name was Alison, and whisked me through Barcelona’s Metro system, in the spirit of traveller solidarity, to the cheapest, cushiest hostel in the city.

The Kabul hostel has 4 floors of dorms and is a snip at 15 Euros a night. More importantly, it looks out onto Placa Reial, a massive square with fifty-foot pine trees and a fountain – a perfect chill-out zone. That evening I walked out to find hundreds of people sitting around in groups, drinking, smoking and swapping stories. I only had to sit down to make friends, and everyone wants to meet The Guy With The Guitar…

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Next day I went scouting for the best busking pitches, and I didn’t have to look far. Las Ramblas is a wide street that runs between the beach and the town centre, and like Princess Avenue in Toxteth, it has a raised walkway down the middle. This teems with tourists day and night, and cafes have their tables set out on the walkway.  My technique was to work my way up Las Ramblas, playing 3 songs every twenty feet or so, and passing my hat round the tables.

Maintaining people’s attention like this gets exhausting after 3 hours, but it’s worth it for the interaction, and the big tippers.

There were several others working the same circuit as me; a tall smackhead with a penny whistle, a sexy green-haired juggler girl, and countless ‘human statues’ dressed as biblical characters or celebrities, who would move when you made a donation – easy money, if you ask me.

At night in Placa Reial, business inevitably merged with pleasure. I’d do a bit of Beatles, Dylan or whatever came to mind, pass the guitar round and meet new characters from every continent. Often, it felt so cheeky to soil the encounter with a sheepish “…any contributions, then?” but I was doing it to survive, and got respect for that.

One night a crowd of us stumbled off to the beach where, rumour had it, there was much partying to be had. I gatecrashed a campfire drum-party, introducing a little Bob Marley to the mix, while rappers took turns. Having played myself to exhaustion, I finally crashed out hugging my guitar, ‘cos it had taken me this far…

Next morning I awoke in searing sunshine, to a total absence of partying, no new ‘friends’ and no guitar either. I had 50 Euros to my name and a mission – to find the cheapest instrument in the city and get back to work.

In the hostel I had met Gali, an Israeli with a voice like Grace Slick. We teamed up and honed a crowd-pleasing set of covers – California Dreamin’ and the like – and worked the café tables with ‘Serena’, my new acoustic guitar which I’d managed to buy for just 30 Euros. (Gali had advised me to name it this one, otherwise it might leave me too)

We were a great team. I’ve often found that a boy/girl combo can become more than the sum of its parts, as audiences can speculate on the precise nature of the chemistry between you. There was no sexual spark between Gali and me, but for some reason we constantly tried to outdo each other with obscene jokes.

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Exploring the back alleys one day, I came across a tiny bar which had just opened; a  bohemian cubbyhole with red spotlights and cushions. I got talking to the owners, two English guys who had decided to move to Barcelona on the spur of the moment. I had just moved into a big apartment that I shared with four others, and I too was starting to think “Fuck! I could just live here, full-time!” The new place was 25 Euros a night, but I was making twice that every day and having a ball.

But as perfect an existence as all this seemed, it was soon to become clear just how precarious a street musician’s life can be.  One night, I was involved in an amazing jam session in the square. One lad had a huge Djembe drum, and a charismatic French rapper was instigating call-and-response chants with a fifty-strong crowd who danced around us. We were really hitting a peak when a police van zoomed into the square. Two cops got out and started waving their hands and pointing at their watches; it was 2AM, so reluctantly, we wound things down.

Of course, once they had gone, we resumed our party. The cops soon returned, and dragged the drum into the back of the van, driving off with the poor owner of the instrument in hot pursuit. As far as the authorities were concerned, cultural vitality has its limits.

It was August and Gali told me she was moving on, heading for Paris. Not only that, I had just been stood up on a date by a girl from the English bar. But I didn’t care – 175 Kms South there was a ticket waiting for me at Benecassim, Spain’s biggest music festival, where in various ways, my trip would get even hotter.

To be continued…

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Last month me and my part-time minion Jodie Schofield went out onto the streets of Liverpool to do film a video for my song ‘Like a Wave’.

After half an hour of me playing in the street, a cop and a municipal whelk turned up and asked me for my name and address, as part of the local (and possibly national) War on Spontaneity. They also told me my guitar case was causing an obstruction (on a thirty foot wide pedestrianised street!!)

Despite their interest, I declined their offer to be my official stalkers and let them go on their way. Despite appearing on camera, they weren’t quite sexy enough to be included in our little film. However we did encounter our mate Alan Barton, and a busking trumpeter, who also made it into the film.

 

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I probably don’t have to tell you this, but NASA’s latest probe ‘Curiosity’ which is currently trundling around the surface of Mars is not expected to find any living organisms. Millions of years ago, so the story goes, the red planet possessed oceans, a rich atmosphere and all the elements needed for life to develop. It may indeed have done so at a simple level, but before advanced life got a chance to evolve, the atmosphere was stripped away, the seas evaporated and Mars became a sterile, dead world.

Pessimists staring into our city’s future might well imagine a time when Liverpool has become similarly barren, a musical and cultural desert with only faint traces of long-dead scenes buried deep in the landscape. If this is the plan, our council is certainly going the right way about achieving it.

In recent years, council policies such as the criminalising of flyposting and unsympathetic attitudes towards small venues had already sent out a message that grassroots music culture is viewed as a problem in the corridors of power. But the recent threat to prosecute any busker who refuses to buy a licence, insurance and ID badge has been widely seen as a kick in the crotch for free expression. How on earth did we get here?

After the nightmarish 1980’s, which saw scousers fleeing their hometown in their thousands amid a shitstorm of unemployment, heroin and council corruption, successive administrations laboured hard to put some pride and optimism back in the city’s veins. And towards the end of the 1990’s a sense of resurgence was definitely in the air, with the city becoming a much more fun place to live.

A key factor in that resurgence was undeniably the retail sector, which was talked-up as a source of the jobs which our city so badly needed. But that was balanced with a cultural vibrancy across the arts; and at the top end of town at least, there was a buzzing, independent flavour to the streets.

Since 2005, central Liverpool has come under the aegis of the Business Improvement District, a trade association which represents 650 businesses in the area which according to its website, aims “…to create a cleaner, safer, more prosperous and vibrant city centre”

Behind all the PR spiel, the reality is that the BID exercises a powerful influence over council policies within its boundaries, taking a hostile stance towards anything that they perceive as a potential threat to profits, which now apparently includes guitars, fiddles and saxophones.

Of course, the powers that be are only too happy to celebrate music retrospectively. Once a scene has died it can enjoy an infinite afterlife as part of the local authority tourism plan. But legendary venues like The Cavern and Eric’s were not dreamed up in a council meeting room; they arose from something far more mysterious – an untameable, organic culture which always has the power to surprise us.

In any city, given the right conditions, and often despite the wishes of the authorities, grassroots culture will flourish in neglected zones where rents are cheap. Mathew Street in the late 50’s was a dingy thoroughfare with warehouses on both sides where nobody outside the mercantile trade would normally go. A disused cellar made the perfect bohemian setting for Alan Sytner’s new venture – The Cavern.

Across the city, quiet backstreets away from prowling beer monsters have proved to be the perfect places for grassroots culture to flourish. In recent years, Parr Street has been a particularly fertile ground for ‘underground’ activities, with music and art venues such as Jump Ship Rat, The Kif and Mello Mello all setting up in vacant buildings there.Image

Lately the popularity of Mello and The Kazimier on Wolstenholme Square has been having a regeneration effect on the surrounding area. With the opening of hip little bars on Slater Street and Duke Street, a new bohemian quarter has come into being, independently of any local authority masterplan, creating jobs and economic activity.

What the council, who favour high-prestige new-build projects fail to realise is that dereliction is an essential ingredient for this process to happen. The only way for art and music collectives to get a foothold is in buildings that nobody else wants, and all they really need is to be left alone.

And in the long run, this kind of cultural activity does far more for Liverpool’s reputation than another block of unsaleable luxury apartments. Liverpool Biennial, a source of prestige for the city and now a major employer, had its first Independents show at the building now known as Wolstenholme Creative Space – an unrenovated former warehouse building.

As a centrally-planned corporate vision of city life rolls out from Liverpool One all the way up the hill with Café Nero and Tesco leading the charge, the creative and imaginative minds of the Parr Street district are providing the only credible challenge to it.

And thank god they are, because once again there are big plans afoot for central Liverpool. The £160 million Central Village project will create shops, hotels, and restaurants in a twenty-storey glass and steel fantasia currently rising out of the gap between Bold Street and Renshaw Street. Exiting perhaps, for those whose idea of quality of life is the availability of a particular brand of Italian handbag, but after this high-profile venture pushes up rents in the area, how many of the vibrant yet vulnerable small shops in the area will survive?

We are now witnessing a fight for the soul of central Liverpool. We are a city with music and culture at its beating heart, but our council is endangering that by creating a sterile corporate landscape where no independent ideas can germinate.

And this is what ties the fate of a street penny whistle player to the fate of us all – a city where spontaneous things can happen is a city that is still alive.

(first published in Bido Lito! September 2012)

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