Mister Gunn & The Pistol Packin’ Mamas perform “Caffeine”

Aaron Gunn and friends perform his original tune “Caffeine” in front of the Woolworth Walk.
It’s not every musician that can write an entirely new song that also manages to feel timeless. That’s doubly true when their chosen genre is the nostalgia-driven jazz, blue and old-time hybrid that has been dominating the regional busking scene for the past several years. I was absolutely certain that “Caffeine” was a cover, like some jazzed-up, long-forgotten companion b-side to Clara Smith’s “Ain’t Got Nobody To Grind My Coffee.” But it turns out that it was written by a guy I’ve known for years.

I first met Aaron Gunn a decade ago, when he was either still in, or perhaps just out of high school. He was playing with a few other musicians like Matt Lambert and George Glass (or George Martin, depending on which name he wanted to use that week), and they would occasionally busk together.

At the time, Aaron was probably the least skilled and charismatic of that group, and he never seemed quite sure of himself. His fiddle playing was still formal and stilted, and he always seemed to be struggling to keep up. I’ve always liked Aaron, but he was the last of those musicians I’d expect to blowing crowds away a few short years later, never mind writing songs like this one. He wasn’t bad, but I often felt a little sorry for him.

And yet, unlike those other guys, Aaron actually kept growing as a performer. He didn’t burn out on his own ego or fall deeply into the drug pit, as many musicians of that era did. Every once in a while, I’d catch him playing with a band, and note to myself that he was actually getting to be pretty good. Maybe not the shining star, but definitely not out of synch with the other players.

I moved away from town for a few years, and the next time I saw Aaron playing again, it was with Blind Boy Chocolate and the Milk Sheiks, a band that was definitely on the town’s cultural radar in early 2010. Far from seeming like a third wheel, he almost seemed like he was outgrowing their sound. Over the coming months, as the Busk Break project began to take form, I’d often see him playing with all manner of other performers, almost as if he was trying to collaborate with every busker in town.

By the time of this recording, that awkward, stilted violin student was long gone. The fiddle in his hand was obeying his every command, and the band was his. Mister Gunn & The Pistol Packin’ Mamas was, to be fair, an all-star group of busking performers, but he got top billing for a reason. Although he’s based in New Orleans now, Aaron still comes through town a few times a year, and he generally brings some very talented performers with him. This recording is a snapshot of a performer who is still very much at the start of his career (he’s still in in 20s, I think), and I can’t wait to see where his skills are in another decade.

It’s also worth noting that the annoying laughter you hear off to the side, and the cautiously bemused glances the band keep making off to the left, are because of some guy who is either very deep into some psychoactive drug, or very much off his meds, having an incoherent conversation with himself. Between songs, he stops them to tell them about his time-traveling problems. If you want to understand how awesome they all are as performers, imagine playing a song like this with a guy loudly and insanely tripping balls mere feet away.


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Steve Shanafelt

Steve Shanafelt used to think he was a writer. Lots of other people thought he was a very good one, and they paid him to write everything from news articles to erotic comic books. Then, a few years ago, he started to realize that writing was just one very tiny piece of the puzzle. He started recording podcasts, producing field recordings of busking musicians, making short video series and learning how to make websites. Along the way, he learned lots of ways not to manage businesses and how to promote those businesses online. Now, people pay him surprisingly large sums of money to show them some of the things he's picked up.