Streets of San Francisco: Catch the beat (and brass, and buckets, and accordions) of SF's iconic street musicians -- our exclusive interviews
STREETS OF SAN FRANCISCO Do you have a favorite musician who plays outside in San Francisco? I'd name many, if I knew their names. There's the kid no older than 10 who led a two-piece rock band (himself on voice-guitar) through a great show to a growing crowd at Dolores Park, then played soccer immediately after. There's the guy at 24th Street BART who sounds like Johnny Cash. There's the man with the white guitar by San Francisco Center, and the guy who used to sing opera by Macy's. It's all too easy to miss the sound of life when your ears are plugged by little headphones. With that in mind, and with Heddy Honigmann's great 1998 documentary The Underground Orchestra as one inspiration, it seemed right to talk to some of the people who make music for those who listen. Thanks to Elise-Marie Brown, Nicole Gluckstern, D. Scot Miller and Amber Schadewald for their contributions to this piece. (Johnny Ray Huston)
Name: Antone Lee
What styles of music do you play? I play a mix of folk and modern country on my guitar. Most of my music is original.
Where are your favorite places to play? I usually like to play down here (Civic Center BART station) because of the great sound and acoustics in the hallway.
How long have you been gigging on the streets or underground? I've been playing on the streets since I quit my job 3 years ago. This is what I do for a living. It's pure joy.
What do you like about it and why do you do it? I like vibing off of people as they come and go. It's nice to play whatever I'm feeling at the moment.
What don't you like about it? Sometimes the people walking by can be sort of distracting. I usually just close my eyes and sink into the song.
Do you have recordings or a Web site? I have a MySpace (www.myspace.com/antoneleemusic) where some of my songs are, but I have about thirty songs that I'm waiting to record.
What street musicians and other musicians do you admire? I really like Fiddle Dave. He's got a great original bluegrass sound. I also like Federico who plays more gypsy-styled café music.(Elise-Marie Brown)
Name: Ilya Kreymer
What styles of music do you play? I play eastern European music. A lot of Klezmer, Russian and Balkan music.
Where are your favorite sites to play? My favorite places to busk are the BART stations in the Mission, and also farmers' markets. I usually like to busk two or three times a week.
How long have you been playing on the streets or underground? For five months.
What do you like about it, and why do you do it? I like the fact that it gives me a chance to practice and I get to see how people react to the music. The acoustics in the 16th and 24th BART stations are especially good. It's also a good way to meet other musicians.
What don't you like about it? Obviously there's a lot of outside noise. You never know when you might be interrupted. Sometimes I might be doing really well and no one will be there to listen, but when I mess up more people might be around.
Do you have recordings or a Web site? I've actually got some recordings on reverbnation (www.reverbnation.com ). But I'm hoping to update it soon with more songs. I'm also working on having a band that plays Russian music, too.
What street musicians or other musicians do you admire? There's an accordion player that plays down at Civic Center. I think during morning rush hour. He also does magic tricks and wears outfits that match his accordion. He's a longtime busker who I really admire.
What's been your best experience playing? I had a really good experience at the Alemany market recently. A friend of mine was working at the farmers' market. I was busking next to her booth while she danced. People were stopping by and taking notice, so that was really nice. (Brown)
Names: The Haight Street Vagabonds: Peter, Bucky, Crisp and Jack
Where do you play? Fisherman's Wharf, on the sidewalk next to Cold Stone Creamery.
What styles of music do you play? Gypsy music, folk, Russian Folk. We jam. That's like asking what kind of music the Grateful Dead play.
What are your usual instruments? Broken mandolin, harmonica, pots and pans, guitar, hand drums, children's toys, hands, feet.
Why do you play? For fun, to entertain, and to keep our spirits up. I don't want the money — then I feel like I'm whoring myself out to capitalism. I want food, beer, weed, cigarettes, and the best thing — instruments!
When do you play? Everyday. Sometimes the members change. Sometimes people walking by will join for a few minutes, hours or days.
How many years have you been playing on the street? Crisp has been playing for a year, Bucky since he left home four years ago at age 14.
What's your philosophy about music? The best music has never been recorded. The best music is played for family and friends, at night, around a campfire. Or when you're alone. (Amber Schadewald)
Name: Benjamin Barnes
What styles of music do you play? I play guitar and viola, but violin projects better and I know a lot of repertory. I've got maybe 3 hours of Bach memorized. It's a meditative thing. There are six sonatas and six cello suites, and I play the cello suites on viola and violin. They're nice profound pieces and sometimes people will stop and listen. I was playing Bach's Chaconne and this guy stopped and listened to the whole piece and tipped me afterward.
Where are your favorite places to play? The Mission BART stations. The acoustics aren't bad — you get a little reverb like you would in a hall. The first place I played was Powell Street station. It was 1989. I put my can down and basically practiced and made 15 dollars. I packed it all up and went home and threw the money on my bed and laughed. I was working at a coffee shop and putting myself through school.
I had a string quartet (the Rilke String Quartet) and we used to play at Montgomery and Embarcadero. We called it guerrilla musicianship.
What do you like about it, and why do you do it? It's fulfilling to play these great pieces. I've been working on memorizing all these pieces and finding new ways to interpret them.
I was just in NY and saw people busking in Central Park and Greenwich Village. There's a famous violinist, Joshua Bell, who played in the NY subway for a couple hours, and no one recognized him or that he was playing on a Stradivarius. Most people walked by or gave him a dollar, and one kid played air violin. He made 26 dollars.
Do you have recordings or a Web site? I have a lot of songs and string quartet and solo viola stuff that I've written and played on my website (www.benjaminbarnes.com ). You can download it for free. There's a spot where you can make a donation. I've gotten about 26 dollars. (Laughs)
I'm playing a free show at Caffeinated Comics on May 16th. We're going to play an acoustic show, with songs I wrote and Bowie covers, Beatles covers, Led Zep and "The Devil Went Down to Georgia." (Huston)
Where are your favorite places to play? Montgomery Bart Station, sometimes Fisherman's Wharf.
What styles of music do you play? Love songs.
What are your favorite songs? "All The Woman I Need" by Luther Vandross, and anything Barry White.
How many years have you been playing on the street? 10.
What are your necessary accessories? Sparkly blue nail polish, mini Bible, Newports.
How long do you play? I stay until my dick gets hard and then probably longer.
Why do you do it? To entertain people and make some money. I don't play for my health. (Schadewald)
Name: Brass Liberation Orchestra
When was the BLO founded? 2002-ish
How many members are there? Probably about 20 at the moment. 50 or more for the life of the band.
Where are your favorite spots to play? How do you get the word out? We play for change: picket lines, street marches, demonstrations. Wherever people want to dance in the street. We mostly play at events that other people are publicizing, (but) when we do our own shows, we use email and word of mouth.
What's been your most memorable performance? Depends on who you ask! Demos at the start of the Iraq War where the band was arrested en masse? Oakland Oscar Grant marches? Whole Foods "Hey Mackey" pro-healthcare protest?
Are there other street bands you admire? There are many street bands whose music we admire. Some bands with similar political orientation include Rude Mechanical Orchestra (NYC), Chaotic Insurrection Ensemble (Montreal), Cackalack Thunder (Greensboro, NC). We also respect the youth work of Loco Bloco in the Mission, who are currently facing a budget crisis and could use some fundraising support.
What's your favorite song to play together? A lot of us love New Orleans Second Line, and also Balkan brass music. One song we play at almost every gig is "Roma Rama," a simplified Balkan-style tune written for us by Axel Hererra. (Nicole Gluckstern)
Name: Federico Petrozzino
What styles of music do you play? I play mostly folk and Beatles covers.
Where are your favorite places to play? I've played at Mills College and Ireland's 32. But I make my living as a street musician playing around here (Powell BART station).
How long have you been playing on the streets or underground? I've been out here for about 3 months since I got in to town from Argentina.
What do you like about it, and why do you do it? It's nice when you feeling like you're doing good and people will walk by and smile or give you a wink.
What don't you like about it? To be honest, I love the bums. But sometimes they can be crazy, which can turn some people away. It's a distraction, but we try to be respectful.
Do you have recordings or a Web site? I have some of my stuff at purevolume (www.purevolume.com/fefon ). The next step is to play at more places in the area.
What street musicians and other musicians do you admire? Frank Lynn. He's been down here for over 30 years and is kind of a father to all of us street musicians. He's an amazing musician and only plays on two strings. He has such a deep voice and everyone respects him.
What's been your best experience playing? Just watching parents teach their children to appreciate music and give money. It's great to see them learn how to be humble and respectful of the arts. (Brown)
Name: Larry "Bucketman" Hunt
How long have you been playing music? I've playing drums for 49 years. My first kit was a set of buckets when I was three years old.
I'm not from here. I'm from Kansas and I've had the chance to play with some of the greats all across the United States — Jimmy Smith, Pearl Bailey, The Drifters. I played with John Lee Hooker when he opened up the Boom Boom Room. This is what I do.
Where are your favorite places to play? 4th and Market, Powell and Geary (with New Funk Generation).
What don't you like about playing music on the streets or underground? Old Navy, the Flood Building, their security is chasing me off now. I've been out here for fourteen years, was in Pursuit Of Happyness with Will Smith, and now they're trying to get rid of me. They call the cops. The cops don't want to do it, but they have to. (D. Scot Miller)