It takes a brave busker to face the chilly winds and slow foot traffic of downtown Asheville on an early February evening. While the city absolutely throbs with street music during the warm months, it’s largely a ghost town from the start of the new year until the weather finally thaws around mid-March. Undaunted, singer-songwriter Hannah Rebekah took up her guitar and portable amp, facing the challenge head on.
Listening to how neatly the members of The Leather Britches fit together as performers, you’d be hard-pressed to guess that the group had only been playing together under that name for the better part of an afternoon.
Composed of four friends who came to Asheville for, as they sheepishly put it, “this fiddle gathering … like a convention.” Of course, anyone who follows the Asheville music community would instantly know what they were talking about: The Swannanoa Gathering at Warren Wilson College.
The quartet wouldn’t exactly characterize themselves as a band, although Nick DiSebastian (guitar) and Charles Muench (bass) were both members of the Lancaster, PA, group River Wheel. Bronwyn Keith-Hynes (fiddle) and Jen Starsinic (fiddle) also had a musical project together, and three of the four lived in the same town and attended the same school, and had played together under various names over the years. On this day, they had decided to call themselves The Leather Britches.
The moment I rounded the corner from Battery Park to Haywood, I knew I’d hit the jackpot. In the recessed alcove of Kim’s Wigs were three young women playing to a clutch of captivated passersby. Not just any young women, either. They were obviously talented players, and knew the idiom of traditional and old-time American folk tunes well. For the purposes of video, however, the jackpot was that they were all attractive in that tangible, earthy way folk musicians should be.
It was Busk Break gold, right from the start.
It’s safe to say that the three were still getting used to the attention of that afternoon as I approached. It was the July 4th weekend of 2011, and a great time to be a busker in downtown Asheville. The air was warm, but not yet oppressively hot. They were huge crowds of three-day-weekenders pumping through the city’s veins, happy to part with coins and small bills for a moment’s entertainment. By the time I approached, camera-in-hand, they were already receiving waves of compliments from strangers. Continue reading A Trio Of Tunes From Locust Honey
I’ve written before that F.J.K.’s “If You End Up Broke” is one of my favorite recordings from the pre-video era of Busk Break, and four years into the project, that’s still true. One reason for this is something that I wasn’t able to appreciate at the time I recorded it: It’s a terrible song for busking.
In general, if you’re going to make money playing tunes to people walking by on their way to somewhere else, it pays to go with something bright, high-energy and recognizable. F.J.K.’s “If You End Up Broke” is none of those. It’s a melancholy tune on the surface, but the lyrics are surprisingly mellow and hopeful. That’s not the kind of subtlety most passersby are likely to notice.
It’s not that most musicians I’ve met on Busk Break don’t have songs like this in their repertoire — of course they do — but few would ever decide to play them on the street. Less people stop for a melancholy tune than for an upbeat one. Less people stop for an original than for a pop hit. What makes this song so wonderful is that it’s a rare thing to find in the wild. Continue reading F.J.K. performs “If You End Up Broke”
One of the most exciting things about Busk Break is revisiting performers over the years. Some performers start off stilted and awkward, borderline terrified of playing on the streets and only agreeing to be recorded after a heavy bribe in their empty tip jars. A year later, those same musicians have often evolved into confident, charismatic, corner-owning rock stars. That doesn’t always happen, of course. In some cases, there wasn’t much that needed improvement in the first place. That was definitely true if F.J.K.
I first met F.J.K. in the pre-video days of Busk Break (the spring and summer of 2010), and his performance persona was already well established. He was confident enough, if a little awkward in casual conversation. He was seemingly ambivalent about being recorded, but perfectly happy to take my money. He played an original, “If You End Up Broke,” which is easily one of the best songs I recorded in 2010.
In many ways, the fall of 2010 was the defining year for the busking scene in downtown Asheville. While street performers were hardly unknown in the city, a number of factors combined during that season to put Asheville on the map for traveling musicians that year. One of those factors was the first Asheville MoogFest, which brought a wealth of national-level electronic musicians to an already music-crazed city during Halloween weekend. Where there’s people and foot traffic, there will be buskers.
That’s not to say that Ben Wilton planned his arrival in town around what would become one of the region’s major music festivals for the next few years. If anything, he seemed a little overwhelmed at just how many people were out on the streets on that chilly October night. Originally from New Jersey, Wilton had been “rambling” around the East Coast with his guitar for the previous three weeks, and was only planning on being in town for a few days. Continue reading Ben Wilton performs “Big Bad World”
In this archive recording from 2010, Ashton and Rama Cheromaya perform their original duet “Mayan Queen” in front of Malaprop’s cafe and bookstore in downtown Asheville. If you like powerful female voices in the acoustic folk genre, this will be well worth listening to. The duo was also known for a time (and may still be known, actually) as Sweet Water Revolver, and there are many additional recordings of them floating around the internet if you like what you hear.
What’s up with that video, though? WLike many of the very early Busk Break recordings, there is no original video to accompany the audio, and I’ve once again paid a visit to the public-domain Prelinger archive content at Archive.org to make some thing suitable for sharing. In this case, I’ve edited down a 1954 educational film called “Habit Patterns” to be more in fitting with the audio. The original is largely about the terror that comes from having lazy habits, and tells the story of a girl who no one likes because she wore a stained top to school one day.
Here’s another hidden gem from the Busk Break vaults! In 2011, I recorded two tunes by new-to-Asheville singer/songwriter Andrew Constantino. It was a busy era, however, and I already had a few dozen other busking videos in the pipeline. As a result, I only created a video for the first tune in that session, “The Sun & The Moon,” and moved on to the other waiting videos.
“This is called ‘Looking For Some Time.’ It’s my ode to North Carolina,” he said, followed by an almost embarrassed laugh.
I met Alex Williamson on a cool afternoon in late October 2010. It was just before the start of MoogFest, and the city was swarming with world-class musicians and their crews, all frantically trying to settle in before the madness of that Halloween-fueled festival. He was playing on the corner of Battery Park and Page Avenue in downtown Asheville, a good block from two of the best-established busking hotspots, and I assumed he was from out of town. But he wasn’t. He was a local guy who either hadn’t done enough busking to know where the money spots were. Continue reading Alex Williamson is just “Looking For Some Time”
When you record as many buskers as I have, it’s all too easy to fall into the trap of prejudice. Having seen a lot of skinny white girls with dreadlocks busking on the street corners of Asheville, I’d built up a certain set of assumptions. These can be summed up with the following sentence: “I’ll be gobsmacked if she can play anything other than Dave Matthews Band covers.”
It’s great to be proven wrong, and the young woman calling herself “37” was definitely not the kind of person I was expecting to record. I’d been expecting three-chord covers, and instead I was blasted away by a seamless fusion of folk, ska, punk and other influences that simply couldn’t have come together by mere accident.