Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Dusty Buskers: Foot-stomping folk at just the right time

Photo: Jim Whitesell

Combining frantic, foot-stomping energy and a deep well of old Irish and bluegrass songs, The Dusty Buskers seem duty-bound to draw folk music out of the past - out from scratchy records and forgotten bookshelves. They place the music squarely on the sidewalk, where an ear accompanies every foot that walks by. And these revved up, modernized folk songs gather plenty of notice, because the first thing any good busker learns is how to turn a head.

With fiddle, mandolin, guitar, harmonica and occasionally a washboard or upright bass, The Dusty Buskers create a folk music that's the perfect fit for its time and place. The eclectic and artsy Fourth Avenue where the Buskers usually play is an everyman's zone, with families and tattooed freaks equally at ease. Out of several folk veins, the Buskers pull songs both chaste and raunchy, adding verses as they please along the way. I'm particuarly partial to their versions of the Dead Milkmen classic "Punk Rock Girl" and Woody Guthrie's "Hard Travelin'".

The Buskers owe their start to a chance New Year's Eve encounter, and what might be a preposterous backstory in the hands of another band is a perfect fit for souls who live at the intersection of Ireland, Tucson, punk rock and old-timey mountain tunes. That the band's core is two dudes who are skinny, scruffy, go by the names of Fiddlin Phoenix and Dusty Squirrelfisher and have billed themselves as "the band that fits on a bike" is all part of the charm.

The Dusty Buskers have just completed their debut album, The Life & Times Of..., which captures the energy and clever song choice of their live show. The band performs a CD release show this Thursday, Dec. 18, at Plush, with the Silver Thread Trio and Nancy McCallion & The Wild Irish Revue. Fiddlin' Phoenix was kind enough to join in a Q&A:

Catfish Vegas: With busking as the very core of the band, how did you approach the transition to more formal (on-stage) performances and the recording studio?

Fiddlin Phoenix: We worked our way up to clubs and stages by polishing our street act like Grandpa's best set of church shoes. As street musicians, we were hungry for love and money. Uncle Dusty took my raw street skills and trained me to work a mic. Our act was designed to stop people dead in their tracks as they went about their day on 4th Ave. We brought the same attention-grabbing energy to the taverns and saloons. For the album, we didn't use a traditional recording studio. As a D.I.Y. band, we recorded "The Life & Times Of..." in a woodshed in the historic Menlo Park neighborhood. Our producer, Dusty Squirrelfisher (Stuart Oliver), is a core band member and so he was easily able to capture the frisky anarchic Buskers spirit on the record.

CV: What sort of things do you look for in cover songs? How do you select the songs that become part of the Dusty Buskers' repertoire?

Fiddlin Phoenix: Obviously we didn't write the songs on "The Life & Times Of...", but the words and melodies seem to resonate in our souls. We only perform songs which feel meaningful to us. There are so many wonderful ballads and story songs of yesteryear, and many of the themes in those works mirror the struggles and joys we Buskers also live with. We figure if a song has been around for hundreds of years, it must be pretty good. We learned a lot of our songs from fellow street performers on 4th Ave. and others from songbooks and public library CDs. We enjoy a challenging hook and a raucous chorus. Many of our songs are about pretty gals, other intoxicating temptations, furry critters and the afterlife.

CV: How do you see the folk tradition playing out in your combination of American mountain music and Celtic songs?

Fiddlin Phoenix: For us, it's really all the same music. The U.S. is a nation of immigrants. American mountain music has its roots in the settlers and pilgrims from other lands. We see ourselves as adding another footnote to the story of folk music. We often write additional verses to traditional songs. Our goal is to keep the old songs not only alive, but revitalized.

CV: How do you approach these songs in a way that adds a special Dusty Buskers' touch?

Fiddlin Phoenix: We bring our unique backgrounds to the picture. Dusty Squirrelfisher is a jazz man. I grew up listening to Lookout! Records punk albums and Public Enemy. I slept on the couches of Berkeley's 924 Gilman St. after shows. I saw Gwar and Fugazi. We're not your parent's folk music. We channel our biological hypo manic personalities into the music and play like our lives depend on it. Because they do.

CV: You're the TAMMIES Up-And-Coming Artist of the Year for 2008, and now you're releasing the debut album. What's next for the Buskers?

Fiddlin Phoenix: We intend to tour to California and New Mexico to support "The Life & Times Of..." and we're already planning our second album, "Buskin'". We'd like to break into the national bluegrass festival circuit. And we have our eyes focused on Europe as a friendly market for our enthusiastic up-tempo twist on classic Americana and Celtic tunes.

CV: The CD release show has a stacked bill. What can we expect Thursday?

Fiddlin Phoenix: We Buskers are going in with both barrels blazing. We'll be performing with our full band, featuring Mighty Joel Ford on washboard and Cousin Dylan Charles on mandolin, plus special guest Gary Mackender of the Carnivaleros. We're proud to be sharing the stage with the talented ladies of Silver Thread Trio, who are also releasing their debut album that night on Old Bisbee Records. And opening act Nancy McCallion is a Tucson gem. Expect to be entertained!

The Dusty Buskers - The Irish Rover (from The Life & Times Of...)

More Dusty Buskers videos at YouTube

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