Busking & the Shower Song

busk (v.)
busked, busk·ing, busks
To play music or perform entertainment in a public place, usually while soliciting money.

I was going to work early but inspired by Daniel Barrett busking in the subway I had to come to the purple velvet basement – as if that makes it more romantic – of Starbucks and write about things far more important to me than the small business network security articles that pay my rent.

Daniel Barrett is not a Starbucks kind of guy. He said something to the effect that playing in the subway is a fall from the Rock Royalty lifestyle. I don’t know about that. In my mind, the subway musician is one of the most noble people you’ll find underground; a valiant knight among commuters, spilling his heart to the toughest crowd in town.

This morning rushed and wildly irritated, I scampered to the T with wet hair in the chilly morning, a wrinkled coat, quite a mess but needing urgently to get to my office and write about salsa and antivirus software. I had no money for coffee so I stumbled down the steps of the Davis Square T uncaffeinated at 6:43 in the morning. Just minutes before, I had tumbled from my bed, heavy with lurid, unwholesome dreams about my co-workers.

I heard the drummer first, unmistakable. I recognized the rhythm immediately, strokes on the up beat, knowing I would see him rising slightly in his seat once I turned the corner and headed down the escalator. Bells, a shaker or tiny cymbal on each moving limb, wispy brushes — a human drum kit with a big smile and a voice like October honey.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here.

My recent love affair among the Cambridge and Somerville buskers began courtesy of Brian Webb, who impaled me through the heart one morning as I dragged myself through a pit of despair to the T and heard him singing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” golden voice echoing through filthy bricks and buzzing mercury vapor lights. I’ve been trying not to cry in public so much but… He was intense, his voice simultaneously rough and delicate, wearing gnarled wool gloves with the sawed-off fingers, and the little caramel and white dog was curled up in his guitar case. It was one of the first times I’ve skipped the train to sit and listen to someone play.

I pored through the Phoenix each week looking for potential Brian gigs where I could actually sit down in a chair and order a drink. The Kendall Café it was, and I only had to wait two weeks.
But a few days before the show, I ran into another round of buskers. These two guys were playing in the Davis T, so good I had to stop and listen, toss them a buck, and jot down their name in my journal for further research. The guitar player sang this bittersweet song, his smiling drummer harmonized, and all was right with the world.

I have this “Shower Song” problem. Sometimes a particular song will grab me against my will and begin playing in my head whenever I turn on the shower first thing in the morning. It is some phenomenon that prevents me from concentrating on any other song for most of the day, and it often grasps me insidiously before I can defend myself. As annoying as it can be, it is the mark of a truly well-written tune.

Around the time of my enchantment with the Davis T buskers, I developed a new Shower Song. It began in the morning and lasted all day. I couldn’t get it out of my head, and I couldn’t remember where I knew it from. Some movie? At first I thought it was a Nickel Creek song, or maybe I heard it during the sprawling hours I spent tuned to the Emerson radio station. Its origin escaped my memory but stayed at the forefront of my mind and I sang it to myself while making shampoo horns.

Wednesday, March 27 was the Kendall show. Brian Webb was up on stage, endearingly silly with a radiant smile and ridiculously talented guitar playing. He was so aggressive and confident with the guitar – his sound is bold, honest, and passionate. I was glued to my seat, and grateful to hear an entire set without standing next to a trash can that smelled like dairy swill and decomposing copies of the Metro.

My friend and I decided to stick around for the next two acts, figuring they might be good. When the headlining band came on, I was immediately bowled over – so many of them on this tiny stage, big sound, and the lead singer saying “don’t be afraid – we’re just going to rock out here.” And the fiddle player who I fell in love with instantly, jamming out on violin in a Hustler t-shirt, finishing his solos with a dramatic sweep in perfect form (summoning visions of him at age 12 in a little tux playing classical recitals with his parents clasp-handed and breathless in the audience). I’m sitting there with the biggest smile I’ve worn in months because the music was so bright and beautiful that it wrapped me warm and happy like a yellow cotton cardigan.

As the next song began, I turned to my friend, saying, “This is a cover. Who is this?” He was drawing a blank. Then I realized all at once who the band was – and that they were playing the Shower Song I’d picked up in the subway, and it was their song, “Carter’s Tune.” I opened my notebook to the page where I write down new music, and there was the name: the Daniel Barrett Group. What a wonderfully strange coincidence! That show was so amazing I left and my face hurt from smiling all night.

So this morning to see them again playing the Davis T on my wet-hair angsty morning was a gift.
Street musicians have always fascinated me – music in general being my reason for living. Maybe it’s the urgency of the performance, immediate and organic, just a voice and a beat-up acoustic guitar. Maybe it began when I was 16 and first running around New Haven, and the boys in my favorite band would play on the sidewalk across from the café and we’d sit for hours listening to them. Even if they didn’t book a gig, they had an audience. I remembered their favorite brand of cigarettes to toss in the tambourine with a flower and a note saying thank you for brightening this little corner of my world. I’d sit and write truly awful poetry about the sad, starving eyes of the street performer which I will spare you right now. I haven’t read it in a while. Something about crying for help with bleeding fingers on silk and steel strings. *Cringe* I was a tender and volatile youth.

One of my newest project ideas is to do a piece on busking in the Cambridge/Somerville area, and find out all the things I am dying to know about it – do research and of course take tons of beautiful photographs. Which may be difficult because I believe in college in Journalism Law I learned that shooting in the MBTA is illegal. I will fight the law in the name of art.

Perhaps my biggest fascination comes in the midst of a realization that most of my favorite bands ever are accessible to me in that I can walk up and say hello that was a breathtaking set (even if that means sneaking into the dressing room to eat pizza with Rob Dickinson from Catherine Wheel — but that’s a whole other story for another time) and how lucky I am that is the case.

I know this is a crazy stretch but try and follow me here: InSync was playing on TV or something last night; I saw some commercial during my weekly hour of television that I allow myself (and yes, “Felicity” — and no, not worth it) thinking what people go through to see this music, their favorite bands, so rarely. No matter who people listen to, or how bad I think their taste is, they are just as impassioned about InSync and Britney as I am about Jump, Little Children and Josh Ritter. Except I can go see these people play, and not in a hockey arena, hearing their voices as they sound naturally. When Jump, Little Children plays “Where She Lies” completely acoustic without amps in a sold out venue, and you can hear Jay Clifford taking a breath between lines, it’s another Kristin Cries in Public moment…

I mean, they are so real, these humans giving the gift of song right before me, so casually. That satisfies me in a way that I can’t explain, the ability to approach them after the show and say “GODDAMM! You knocked my socks off.” In my mind I know their CD has held residence in my disc changer for over three years – seriously now – and I can never really make them understand that the third track on their first album was my Shower Song for five weeks running. But I can say thank you, and smile, and hope somehow it will be enough to keep them making beautiful music.
Thank you.