When we think about street musicians, visions of half-starved shabbily dressed troubadours with beat up open guitar cases cross our minds. Or maybe a self-proclaimed drummer beating on empty five-gallon paint cans, or a sax player blowing sweet jazz on a sidewalk at a busy intersection.
To set the long-standing record straight, the largest majority of street-players aren’t searching for their next meal or hoping they don’t have to bunk under a bridge for another night. And they are not begging.
Playing the street is competitive. Certain musicians have certain corners they claim as their own. They perform there day after day and the other players know who has claimed which spot. Respect and camaraderie is the unwritten law of the streets.
While sitting in a bar in Nashville I met a street musician named Frank who had ducked inside to rest and have a cold one. After a couple years of trying to unsuccessfully break into the music business, he was short of money one day and took his guitar downtown. It went so well he has been doing it for 15 years now. He put his daughter through college with the tips he earned and he lives in one of the better parts of town.
To pass these folks by as they are pouring out their hearts in a song is a downright shame. Some of these musicians are better than what the music industry feels we should be listening to. Many times the difference between hitting the big time and playing on a sidewalk has nothing to do with talent. It has more to do with image and how the public will accept the way a person looks. If their voice is a little flat, no problem. Modern technology can doctor that up in a recording studio.
Street musicians are well aware of the best cities in the U.S. to perform, so if you want to hear these dedicated and talented singers and players, here are a few of the places you will find them.
Royal Street – New Orleans
Royal Street offers a smorgasbord of live music from jazz to country to rock to unclassified. Parties are known to break out in the street when these musicians turn things up a notch, which they do quite often.
The style of music changes depending on which part of the street you are on. Around the 200 block, you’ll hear a capella groups reminiscent of Jersey groups in the early 1960’s. “Under the Boardwalk” is a favorite classic as well as the Temptations, “My Girl.” Look for Mr. B’s Bistro and you’ll find what you are looking for.
A little further down, in the Quarter, the genre changes to Blues. Here you find solo guitarists knocking out three-chord progressions and singing about lost love or something equally as depressing.
Between the 300 and 800 blocks are where the largest consolidation of street music can be found, and here you’ll hear whatever kind of music it takes to make tourists reach deep into their pockets.
Look for Tanya & Dorise in the 500 block. This soulful duo performs year-round with a violin and an acoustic guitar. At the corner of Royal & St. Peter a jazz ensemble called Buku Broux has been performing for years. The group is nothing short of amazing.
Frenchman Street and Jackson Square are also huge areas for musicians. Prepare to hear lots of brass in the Square.
Fisherman’s Wharf – San Francisco
Fisherman’s Wharf is so into their street music, the Port Authority not only encourages it, they accept applications from would be performers. And the place is such a popular spot for street performers, there is never a shortage of them.
There are 12 designated areas where the chosen performers are scheduled at different times. This keeps things under control so pedestrians out to enjoy their day don’t get hassled for tips. At one time, the Wharf area was so overcrowded with musicians all fighting for the same dollars, they became annoying. Such is no longer the case.
To keep things interesting, one-third of the available time slots are kept open for unlicensed performers on a supervised first come, first serve, basis.
From personal experience, the Wharf was where I first heard an unusual instrument called the Chapman Stick. For a real treat, have a listen. This is what you can expect to hear. There is always a mixture of traditional soloist’s and groups along with the new and unusual. Whatever you happen to hear, count on it being very good.
Some visitors come to Fisherman’s Wharf solely for the music. With the twelve spots changing entertainers frequently, it’s easy to make an entire day of it. There’s a bonus. When you get hungry there is always plenty of crabmeat available. Don’t forget about dessert at Ghiradelli Chocolate.
Be careful where you park. Walk a few extra blocks if you must. I didn’t. I got towed. It was expensive.
Nashville should be an expected choice for hearing hordes of guitar and mandolin players hawking their tunes. This is exactly what any visitor should expect to find.
The biggest difference between Nashville and other street music hot-spots is the distance between one and the next one. Lower Broadway and on Second Avenue in downtown Nashville is where you will find them. All of them.
Don’t misunderstand, you’re going to hear some incredibly talented people biding their time while waiting for their big break. Unfortunately, seldom does anyone get discovered playing on a sidewalk, but if they’re good enough their instrument will no longer fit in its case at the end of the day for the dollar bills.
Things got more interesting in Nashville with the invention of the battery-powered guitar amplifier. It isn’t too unusual to see full bands complete with a drummer shoved as close to a brick wall as they can get.
Not every musician has a quest for fame and glory. It’s enough for them just to know what they do is appreciated. And, it is. It most certainly is.