Playin’ in the Streets

Church Street: a quaint little lane where people come to meet and greet, dine and buy and to see and hear the live performances that add life to the thoroughfare.Throughout the summer, visitors catch glimpses of a delightfully vibrant world that, like the chlorophyll in Vermont’s celebrated foliage, winds down at the end of the season, only to return after the frost. The one-man-band, who has near-legendary status on Church Street, has left, venturing back on the road until next season. The tuba and violin duo from New Orleans that so many interviewees recalled fondly has gone back home. Will they, like the greenery, return next season?They have in the past and Church Street’s performance artists will again – the question is, what brings them back with the rhythm of the seasons?The reasons are numerous. To say it is simply nostalgia would be unfair (despite the ubiquity of Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie songs). Many musicians hold onto the dream of making something of the whole music thing, continuing to cut independently produced CDs and promoting them through gigs at coffee houses or on the radio.Some performers support themselves through their work on Church Street. John Holland, a 58-year old singer and staple Church Street musician, is a carpenter by trade, but is currently out of work. As a folk singer, Holland has a lot to say about social and economic issues. “I haven’t had a raise in 25 years … Age discrimination is rampant in our country,” he said. “I’m proof of it.” Church Street has produced notable musicians. K.T. Tunstall, a famous Scottish singer who visited Burlington in the `80s, “learned her chops” from performing on Church Street, according to Ron Redman of the Church Street Market Place, the organization in charge of issuing permits to street performers.Redman has worked for the Church Street Market Place for 10 years, and said that they began requiring auditions five to seven years ago. “Several years ago the quality of performance wasn’t what we would have liked it to be, so we started having auditions and the number of performers has actually gone up,” he said.After the audition, one must purchase a $5 day pass, Redman said. From there the busker (an originally British term for a public performer) must complete this four more times (bringing the total to $25 dollars), before they may purchase a year pass, at $25 dollars, bringing to total to $50.”Pan-handling is a First Amendment right, it’s a type of freedom of speech,” Redman said.Most buskers encountered along the street are musicians, so Tony Briefcase, a Renaissance man of performance who has done a juggling show for two years, is a bit of an exciting oddity.”I have a day job but for a while this is what kept me going,” Briefcase said. “I’ve been to Western Europe … I performed at Bonnaroo music festival this summer, did rope walking (and) machete juggling,” he said.”I paid my $25 for my free speech,” he said.Performance, though a supplement, no longer pays Mr. Briefcase’s bills. “I think the main thing is that I’m out here because I like to be out here and performing is what I like to do,” he said.Some buskers use performance to serve immediate goals. Trew Krew, a young five-member break-dancing troupe featuring members aged 11-13, raised money to visit a hip-hop convention in Worcester, Massachusetts, according to the group.”We dance to mostly hip-hop … we have some b-boy music, which means you dance to the break in the music, when there’s nothing but instruments going on” said Nathan Burton, an eleven year old who has performed with Trew Krew for two years, with the type of confidence one would expect from a B-boy. Nathan’s teammates echo his swagger. “I’m pretty sure we’re the youngest performers out here ever,” Luke, his older brother, said proudly.Many buskers view street performance as an opportunity to improve at their instruments. Eric LaFave, a street musician for five years with a steady nine-to-five, didn’t leave his guitar case open for any would-be donors. “Any money I get goes to charity … this is hobby for me and I’m just trying to get better at the instrument,” he said.LaFave didn’t appear comfortable accepting money next to performers who do this sort of thing as a vocation. “I see guys roll in from out of state and they have a unique act, and those guys do well; they tour the country doing street performance. It is their full-time job,” LaFave said.There is a deep undercurrent of Bob Dylan’s music among street musicians; nearly all have at least one of his in their repertoire. “Everybody bows down to Bob Dylan,” Holland said. Jae C. Steele, a Church Street blues singer, does an instrumental version of “Blowin’ in the Wind,” forgoing Dylan’s familiar poetry, for the song’s less cerebral beauty: the perfectly crafted anodic melody.Steele plays a handful of her 200-plus copy written originals, but performs mostly covers, she said. One of her proudest covers is a version of the Jimmy Buffett’s “Margarittaville,” but her version is far from the drunken, carefree anthem of the original. “It’s a blues song. If you play the song in a minor key, it changes the whole meaning of the song, all of a sudden it’s a song about a drunk … it becomes a totally different thing,” she said.Nathan Harrison, a senior at UVM who founded the Old-Time Music Club, doesn’t play any Dylan, but he does do a mean version of the old fiddle tune “Shove That Pig’s Foot a Little Further into the Fire.” For Harrison, busking is a way to hone his craft, and make a little money on the side. “[Street performing] is really fun. The more you get into it, the more money you make because it sounds better,” he said.There is an atmosphere of camaraderie among street performers. Most regulars knew each other and had a good rapport. “We have a common respect among musicians. If there are too many musicians out I’ll go home and come back later.” One musician, who wished to remain anonymous, said. “It’s like a farmer overgrowing his field, you can’t grow anymore.”Tony Briefcase sees himself as belonging to a tradition that started long before him. “It’s a very old tradition that stems from traveling performance,” he said.”It’s a community where entertainers pass the hat to the next. There is nothing new under the sun.”Briefcase said that the end of August is the end of street performance season. “As soon as the college students enter Burlington then that’s when the old pros leave, off to another pitch,” he said.But if one ventures out this weekend they’re sure to find a few more entertainers out there.