Few encounters I’ve had with busking musicians have been as memorable, high-energy and fun as the night I met Charlie, Kris and Eris. Although there were many buskers and their friends hanging out on the corner that evening, it quickly became obvious that these three were people to watch. But they were far more interested in performing for each other than getting cash in their guitar cases.
I try not to overstay my welcome when I record buskers, usually only recording a song or two before moving on. While there are performers who shine when a camera is pointed at them, most buskers become self-conscious as soon as the lens cap comes off and the little red light comes on. When you’re playing for tips and artistic validation from passing strangers, every bit of emotional reserve is needed, and the last thing I want to be a drain on the very people I’m trying to document. But, in this case, I spent nearly an hour recording them, and I didn’t feel awkward about it because none of the three seemed particularly interested in trying to get tips.
It was a very warm April night, almost summer-like, but it was also a Monday. Even in the height of the busking season, Monday nights are dead in downtown Asheville. I’d just bought a new camera (a relatively fancy Canon T3i), which I had in my backpack, but I wasn’t actually planning on recording with it that night. In fact, the most exciting plan I had for the evening was to go home and pay my taxes, which I’d been putting off. The last thing I was expecting was to hear a swell of riotous music coming from around the corner as I walked out of downtown towards my apartment.
And yet, here was this crowd of young traveling types, playing on the corner of Haywood and College, just out of reach of the Pritchard Park warden. You can’t smoke at all in Pritchard Park, and they’ll kick you out for loitering after 10 p.m., You’d certainly get busted for drinking on the sly there as well, which most of these folks were, but on the other side of the street, things are easier. And in the center of the throng were Charlie, Kris and Eris.
Although I met him as Charlie, the raspy-voiced guy with the long hair and the devious smile asked me if I would credit him as “Charles Clyde Toney II,” mostly because he didn’t like Charlie Toney as a performing name. Within moments of talking to him, it became clear that he was one of those rare natural leader types, quieting down his inebriated friends if their boisterous talking started to overwhelm the music. Even in this video, you can see him calling out the chord changes to a never-seen guitarist who appeared mid-song, much to the irritation of the other three.
Charlie told me that he’d just written the song, and the change in the middle of the song is actually a transition to the song the three had been playing before. If the song had a name at the time, I didn’t get it, but I suspect it didn’t and still doesn’t. (Another song in the session, which Charlie had written for his ex-fiance, still didn’t have a name after months of playing and refinement.)
Kris Wahl, the ukulele player, is a more quiet, introspective guy. He was crashing with Toney at the time, and I’m not sure how well the two knew each other, but I got the impression they’d only been friends for a matter of weeks, if not days. Their musical chemistry, however, is clear. I recorded a few of Wahl’s original tunes, “The Polar Bear Song” and “Waltz,” and he’s a truly capable songwriter and musician in his own right.
And then there’s Eris Valentine, a busker I’d actually heard about her from another busker-tracking videographer a few weeks before. Seeing her perform her own material, it’s easy to see why she seems out of synch with the other two on this track. She’s of that “heartbroken woman on a keyboard” school of young female singer/songwriters, and the further she got from this style, the less comfortable (and competent) she was. Toney’s rollicking, down-in-the-dirt style is about as far removed from that genre as you can get, and you can see her struggle to find her place several times in this video. And yet, for all that, she’s clearly having fun, and playing off the other two, and her contribution works far more than it doesn’t.
One interesting side note to this is that there were other buskers out that evening, and at least two of them were irritated that these three were hogging all the attention. One started playing loudly during the middle of a take, prompting a head-shaking, half-amused response from Toney and boos from others in the crowd. Another, waiting until I was packing up my equipment, got in Charlie’s face and started angrily yelling at him for not letting other people play. That natural leader quality came out, and Charlie pulled the guy off to the side, and calmly cooled the guy off like a parent with a tantruming child. I would have stuck around, but my camera’s batteries were dead, I had taxes to pay, and I didn’t really want to record any of the other buskers, even out of pity.
But this one session provided many fun videos. They may not be the most technically perfect performances, but most of them get at the heart of what I find so fascinating about live music in general, and busking in particular. None of these three know each other’s music all that well. They aren’t a band. They are friends playing music together for fun, and it shows.