Six Years In, Buskerfest Gets Back to its Roots

Crowd at Buskerfest 2014
Crowd at Buskerfest 2014
Lonnie Nguyen

Buskerfest East Village Arts District Saturday, September 6, 2014

For the last five iterations of Long Beach's annual summer-ending music festival Buskerfest, the free event featuring local musicians duking it out for the most wooden nickels has strayed farther and farther from the actual acoustic busking that incited its founding.

Though the concept started as an authentic ode to musicians who provide impromptu street performances in exchange for money thrown into a hat/guitar case/etc., it only took a few years before bands started lugging big, electrified amps onto the truck-bed stages in an attempt to be heard over the growing crowds, and the massive main stage at the end of 1st Street (where non-competing headlining bands performed) to become the decidedly un-DIY focal point at the end of the night.

But something felt refreshingly different about his year's fest. The winning band was comprised of two women who make a portion of their income actually performing music on the streets. The closing act featured Josh Fishel, one of Long Beach's most outspoken advocates of free public performance and there was no main stage and headliners played on the same truck beds as the competitors. It seems that Buskerfest has driven the city's music scene to revisit the busking conversation that was launched along with the Summer and Music series six years ago.

Ray Barbee
Ray Barbee
Lonnie Nguyen

That's not to say that the stellar lineup of nine local bands didn't also--as it has for every year since it started--paint a perfect contemporary cross-section of Long Beach's diverse music scene, buskers or otherwise. There were Americana (blues, folk and bluegrass-loving) acts like Classic, Jesse Daniel Edwards, and Hamlin Jones and Ricky IV; ethereal surf rock from So Many Wizards. We also witnessed some elevated jazzy thrash from a seven-piece version of Thy Squid; radio-ready pop-punk jams from clean-cut The Moderates; electronic hip-hip trio Ghetto Blaster$ (the closest thing to a rap act Buskerfest has booked). Then there was Ray Barbee, the incomparable skater-turned-instrumental-surf-guitar genius, who sat on a Village Grind patio chair and built loops out of his Telecaster until a layer of warm tones enveloped the crowd like a warm summer day.

Eventual winners Bearcoon, though, stole the night with an infectious stage dynamic and improvised set of Southern-inspired songs that made the most out of their stage's technical difficulties and reflected the duo's real life support for one another. Guitarist Andrea Walker and singer Solange Igoa met two years ago, started dating and then began performing together at open mic nights across Long Beach. Their musical chemistry was undeniable--Walker's freshly minted songs about sadness and loss paired perfectly with Igoa's powerful vocals.   At Buskerfest, the two grinned ear to ear and bantered sweetly with the crowd, getting only a few songs in before realizing that one of the microphones was broken. "Don't worry, we can share," Walker said, and the two huddled around a single mic stand, harmonizing (and pecking each other on the cheek) to a growing crowd.

Bearcoon going acoustic
Bearcoon going acoustic
Lonnie Nguyen

About halfway through the set, Walker put the mic stand aside and called out Igoa's talent as a busker who doesn't need any electronics to amplify her soulful voice (Igoa often plays in front of the Rite-Aid on 2nd St. in Belmont Shore). The two then crept to the edge of the stage and launched into a raucous acoustic version of Janis Joplin's "Mercedes Benz," with Igoa turning Joplin's gritty vocals into buttery goodness that without a microphone still carried across the East Village. At the end of the song, attendees flooded to the front and dropped nickels in their bag.

After the competing bands were finished, the headliners began, including L.A.-based indie rock band Eastern Conference Champions and perpetually lighthearted cowpunksurfabilly band The Ziggens, whose mere existence in the early '90s inspired bands like Sublime and Reel Big Fish (Skunk Records co-founder and Sublime producer Miguel Happolt played bass for the night).

2013's Buskerfest winners Fathers & Suns closed out the night with a somewhat clunky performance with RIOTstage, Long Beach's rock 'n' roll theatre company, launched by local musician (and frequent busker) Fischel. The band blended with members of RIOTStage and performed covers of hits by Van Morrison, They Might Be Giants, Pharrel and--for the finale--The Band.

While the headliners helped finish the evening with laughter, familiar songs and high-energy performances, the highlight of Buskerfest was and will always be the handful of local acts who each year compete for the most wooden nickels in an attempt to win the coveted $2500 grand prize. Whether actual buskers win or not is besides the point of the event (though Bearcoon's victory was a beautiful hark back to its roots).

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All that matters is that the community continues to come out and support local music in all its multi-genre splendor, and that local musicians keep writing and playing the music that reflects this city in all its epic weirdness.

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