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Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?
BluesinLondon writer takes underground music where it belongs: The Underground!
By David Atkinson. Pics by Andy Hall
Nowadays playing an instrument anywhere other than at a venue or in the privacy of your home is regarded as a sign of madness. But Blues music is intimate music and I think it should creep out of venues, homes and myspace pages and illicitly rub up against people in public places. It is good for the soul.
Several years ago Carling sponsored the first licensed busking scheme of its kind in the world; aiming to do away with the more unsavoury and criminal aspects (hang on a minute, I used to busk! - Ed.) while preserving the quality of musicianship. It was enough of a success with London Underground, tourists, commuters and buskers that it was soon expanded and new pitches popped up at stations across the network. I know no one wants to hear another version of Wonderwall but hearing something unexpected or beautiful (or both) on the Underground has always been about the only highlight of travelling in London; I don't know about you but whenever I hear the great Brixtonian Bluesman Errol Linton he always causes me to ride up and down the escalators a few times just to hear more of his harp playing.
If you are one of the hundred billion or so tube users each day, you will see new sponsors Capital FM & The London Paper promoting gen-u-wine musicians at more pitches than ever. Perhaps you have given them some money. Perhaps not. As someone who grew a bit tired of exploiting friends just to earn enough to cover expenses at barely promoted gigs around town, I decided I would let the public decide my worth and applied for a license.
The audition itself was a strange experience. It was kind of like X-Factor except it was held on a disused tube platform, which meant more health and safety precautions, fewer egos, and roughly the same number of adverts. I'm pleased to say I passed though; I thought I would but my confidence wavered when the guy auditioning before me proceeded to fill the labyrinthine tunnels with the most awesome techno keyboard workout. I felt most old-fashioned.
People often say things along the lines of "I didn't think I liked Blues until I heard this!" at gigs so I was hoping at least a few people would respond positively. Perhaps I'll cause a station closure due to overcrowding? Maybe all the women will start doing the Jitterbug Swing? Or I maybe I'll not even earn enough for my tube fare home? After all, I will be up against the greatest adversary of any performer - complete and utter indifference. So be it, it will at least be good practice for me.
Having been thoroughly briefed on the do's and mostly don't do's of LU regulations, I booked my first pitch, lay down my hat and started banging out some slide guitar. Since then, I've been in the tunnels as often as possible plying my trade. No amps, no mics - just a resonator, my voice and a repertoire of old blues and gospel songs...
The pros and cons of a transient audience quickly became clear. People aren't around long enough to hear a whole song so you can play around with it as you see fit, which is nice for ironing out rough spots but without a hook or something to grab the attention then people will simply walk past, change in pockets. Any romantic illusions evaporated quickly as well - Hell, this ain't Beal Street way back when, it's a huge hole in the ground designed to get people somewhere else as quickly as possible. I am perhaps as far removed form the source as it is possible to get and in an age where music has increasingly less value. It would appear then that - as Sisyphus might say - I am up against it. In fact there are times when competing with the noise of escalators, announcements and general hurly-burly mean I can barely hear myself think let alone play. These are the bad times.
The good times are when a person stops in his or her tracks to listen and/or say how much they enjoy it. In the time I've been dwelling underground this has happened just often enough to be genuinely encouraging and makes up for the stretches of time spent looking at a few dismal coppers, euros, and florins. From the start, I was only hoping to illicit enough of a response from those who heard and liked what I did for me to consider it a success. My first impressions are that a) they exist; and b) they are willing to show support, which is good to know.
Of course, not all interaction is welcome but then one must take the rough with the smooth. Playing a shiny metal guitar can generate a number of responses from passers-by: shouting, dancing or loitering (with intent to enjoy but not to give change). "Nice Dobro!" is perhaps the commonest yell, closely followed by "Brothers in Arms!". The nerd in me would like to stop and point out the numerous shouted inaccuracies but the stoical performer in me has won out thus far. (But it is a National. And Knopfler's is a 14-fret model with a 'chicken foot' cover plate... but not that it's important)
I usually warm up with an instrumental or two before trying out songs by Blind Willie Johnson, Blind Willie McTell, Charley Patton, Furry Lewis, The Mississippi Sheiks, Robert Johnson and Memphis Minnie, and occasionally one of my own. I've not discerned any trends or identified and one song that earns more cash than the others - although Bukka White stuff usually does alright. I've toyed around with Little Walter's Blues With a Feeling, which is one of my favourite tunes but it tends to come out sounding a bit lame. I am tempted to do some Blind Boy Fuller - Piccolo Rag or something - but that east coast stuff doesn't always work for me.
I've always considered that having a desk job is a state of mind, which is possibly a result of having a desk job for so damn long. I guess I secretly hoped I would one day earn enough of a crust from music to be - dare I say it - happy. I don't mean material wealth, just that heretofore unknown feeling of enjoying what I did for a living. You know, like doctors, movie stars, footballers and pirates must do. It certainly feels like a step in the right direction, if at least because it affords some indication as to who enjoys blues up close and personal. The connection with an audience might be spread out into intermittent pockets over a few pitches a week, and outside the pub or bar setting, but it is there and it is good to feel. Testify!
From now on I will be beneath your feet 3-4 times per week at a number of locations. If my experiences prove interesting enough, and I don't lose my license in the meantime, then I might be tempted to write some more about playing the tubes. If you are travelling through the Underground and happen to see me, say hello or make a drop, or both. No foreign coins please.
David is playing, along with Bluesmix and The Velours on Saturday 23rd February at the new Monthly 'Blues & Grooves' night at The Troubadour Club 263-7 Old Brompton Road SW5 9JA 8pm to 2am Tickets £7 on the door, £6 in advance from: www.wegotickets.com/event/26070
Find out more about David:
More info on the scheme and its buskers (including David) can be found at: