In the past, you “made it” as a musician by playing open mics, hoping to get noticed and signed by a record label. Today, people don't pay for songs, local shows pay a pittance, often in the form of booze, and labels are rapidly going the way of the fax machine. Playing shows remains a way to distinguish yourself from everyone else, but in this city, that isn't as easy as it sounds.
Bands looking for live gigs in San Francisco face an acceptance rate similar to the country's most prestigious private universities. About 900 acts a month contact Hemlock Tavern to play one of 90 slots. The booking agent at Amnesia says thousands of unread messages clog his inbox.
So, how can a new band make it in San Francisco without starving to death (or having a healthy allowance from mom and dad)? Photographer Gúndi Vigfússon and I set out to find some musicians who are doing it the old-fashioned way: taking their acts directly onto the street.
Some ideas suck. Like going to Fisherman's Wharf. Gúndi and I spend the whole afternoon baking in tourist hell, searching for young street musicians in the so-called “Gold Coast” for buskers. At the end, all we have to show for our efforts are matching sunburns.
As we drive home dejected through North Beach, we hear the first, raw, chest-rattling chords of the story we have been looking for. Gúndi parks the car and we follow the electrifying music.
We find ourselves in the middle of a dancing mass of people that has closed down the intersection of Columbus and Filbert, where a band called Melvoy is playing. Cars honk, a shirtless bassist has paint smeared on his face, a drummer pounds on a set in a doorway of a local shop, and everyone does their best to ignore the police officer who has ambled over from Washington Square Park. “Sure, play one more song,” the cop grumbles, “but make it quick.” The guitarist doesn't miss a beat, jumping over the curb into the crowd and hitting a chord that reverberates down the street.
In the back room of the garden shop that supplied the band with power for the impromptu show, the bassist explains that they aren't playing for tips or to sell albums – they are playing the street to connect directly with listeners. Lead man, Emmanuel Castro, aka Chipper, says they were inspired to hit the street by the Ferocious Few, a two-man band who started on the street, played regular local gigs, and then snagged a label (more on them later). "It's like a form of guerilla music," the bassist says. "We just go out and play until someone tells us to stop." Everyone in Melvoy still has a second source of income. The musicians who actually make a living on the street set up around Union Square.
John Thatcher Boomer III and John Steven Morgan have rolled their piano directly outside of the Skechers store on O'Farrell and Powell. With no introduction, Thatcher launches into a blues composition, and the street erupts in old-timey piano music. The flow of tourists comes to a grinding halt as they gather 'round with mouths agape and iPhones out.
As Thatcher pounds the keys of the metal-lacquered, 1940s Wurlitzer, Morgan works the crowd, making connections, taking numbers, setting up possible gigs. At the conclusion of the last run, he bellows out to the street: “We are The John Brothers Piano Company from Oakland, California. We play all original compositions. And we play on the street for a living.”
Five days a week, The John Brothers (related only by a first name) dress up in period costume – replete with colored vests, dress coats, and hats from the ’40s – stuff a Wurlitzer piano into their Jeep Cherokee, and head out onto the street. The Johns graduated from UC Berkeley a year and a half ago, when they couldn't find jobs, they decided to haul their piano out onto the pavement.
On a good day, they make several hundred dollars in a four-hour session. And what's more, they've been noticed. Street contacts have led to gigs in bars, parties, and a millionaire's vineyard. In March, the Monterey Jazz Festival invited the street performers to play at a stage on the West Lawn.
The man they have to thank for helping them turn raw piano talent into a successful street show is right down the block at Powell and Market: Jordan Peck, one-man-band extraordinaire from Wichita, Kansas.
Jordan has somehow managed to traverse his cubicle-sized practice space without stepping on any of his homemade instruments, and hoist his thin, jittery frame onto a seat that balances precariously over a mess of pedals and wires hooked up to drums and cymbals. His latest contraption, best described as a giant percussion octopus, allows him to play an entire drum set with only his foot.
Jordan has an ingenious act. Even as he begins setting up at the Powell BART station, people start gathering around, enticed by the strange apparatus on his back. To engage the crowd, Jordan does a few party tricks: balances his guitar on his head, blows notes on the harmonica, jumps around percussively. He sprays a line of water and encourages the crowd to circle around. The largest barrier, he says, is fear – people are afraid to get close, take his card, even give him money. Once he has made them comfortable, he launches into the routine.
Like The John Brothers, Jordan plays a mini-show designed to build a crowd to a pay-off point. His set consists of three songs: “Like a Rolling Stone,” “My Generation,” and “Folsom Prison” – all familiar and non-offensive tidbits of Americana. He sings into a mic that feeds into a cordless amp and the apparatus on his back includes a crash cymbal, high hat, kick drum, and snare. Ropes connect the drums to his four appendages, and to reach his climax he hops around like a rabbit on some serious drugs. When he hits the last frenzied note, the crowd, revved up by the show, goes wild and swarms in to take a card and load his bucket with tips.
Unlike The John Brothers or Melvoy, Jordan says he doesn't have any grand musical ambitions. He's content to keep tinkering with his instruments and watch the ogling crowd fill his bucket each day to the brim.
At Bottom of the Hill, I find Francisco Fernandez sitting on an amp next to a Pathfinder Jeep. Burning man dust covers the vehicle and musical equipment crowds the windows. Francisco leans his guitar against the jeep. Half the strings are broken, splaying out from the neck. He looks tired, dressed in all black with a bolo tie and trim beard. As he tosses a handful of fresh guitar string packs onto the sidewalk, two girls walk by and whisper, “That's the guy, the guy from the Ferocious Few.”
Francisco takes out a cigarette as we talk, fiddling with it as he rails against authority, laments ever signing with a label, and ruminates over the loss of his longtime drummer and friend Daniel Aguilar.
In 2004, at 20 years old, Francisco moved to the Bay Area from Southern California, taught himself to play guitar, and convinced Daniel to busk with him on the streets. Their raw, electric show was loved by listeners and routinely shut down by cops. They burned so many CD-Rs their CD drives blew out. Booking agents set them up with shows at bars. At their height, they were making up to a thousand dollars a day between street shows, CD sales, and night gigs. Then they signed with a small label, and that's when things started to fall apart. The pressure of touring (and the appearance of a girl) caused Daniel to drop out of the band. Francisco has since left the label and gone solo.
Later, I tell Gúndi the story at the bar. Here's a band that made it in the traditional sense. They busked until they got gigs, they played shows until they got a label, and when they achieved what used to be the standard of success in the industry, they crumbled to pieces. Gúndi takes a sip of beer and shrugs: “I guess we are going to be watching the Ferocious Fewer.”
In the end, Francisco puts on an intense and entertaining show. His temporary drummer, who normally plays with Jugtown Pirates, could even be seen as an improvement to Daniel. And where did the gifted percussionist come from? Where else? Out on the street.