In the same way that a great meal of sausage, sauerkraut and local altbier can be the focal point of a trip to Berlin, the talented guy with the sax and hat on the French Quarter sidewalk can create a powerful imprint from which the rest of a travel memory can build.
We’ve all seen the diminutive Incan flutists who, like Jehovah’s Witnesses, are sent to proselytize the reverb-filled sound of the Andes. But what about those artists who seem to have no twin, those street performers who take the man-and-guitar concept somewhere new and bizarre? Here are a few of my favorites:
London, England. My head was in a rag-y Metro paper during the busy red line Tube rush. A stubbly pair, one with a guitar, stepped onto the train. Without fanfare, they begin singing in a melodious staccato chant: “If you can’t shave in the public toilet, where can you shave?” After a second of confusion, the car’s commuters were a-grin. I was somewhat suspicious, as the duo wielded a clarity of voice and harmony you might not expect from people used to shearing in a public loo — but it was two minutes well spent either way.
Key West, Florida. Mallory Square is known for sunsets and street performers. I’ve seen your typical magicians, sword swallowers and fire-eaters — but I’ve also watched a man eating a shopping cart piece by piece (or displaying an uncanny knack for sleight of hand) and a talkative chap riding a painful-looking 30-foot-high unicycle while juggling. The most memorable performance was the Movin’ Melvin show.
Melvin appeared with a flat wooden mat for dancin’ on and one of those giant Utz pretzel drums full of dollars. Melvin started tap dancing. Then Melvin stopped, looked at the audience with a smile and said, “People say, ‘Melvin, can you move faster?!’” The crowd repeated the call. Then shouted Melvin, “Now watch me now!” And he moved faster than previously. The whole crowd got involved, and the line, delivered louder and louder in unison, became, “Melvin, can you move faster?!” The climax came when Melvin could no longer move faster.
New Orleans, Louisiana. In a town where it seems that every third resident has some sort of crazy talent, differentiation is key for street performers. Puppet master Valentino Georgievski, whose show features puppet versions of famous musicians singing and dancing, understands this well. I caught his show on a recent trip to the Big Easy. Sax-playing puppets got down on one knee while growling out that high note. A James Brown-looking puppet in a gray suit fell into a split during the break-down of “The Big Payback.” Another puppet stalked the mic in between the lines of “Low Rider,” a favorite move of more fleshy lead singers. It was all very soulful stuff, and it was just as much fun to watch the puppet master, who grooved along behind his marionettes.
Your turn: Which street performer left an indelible mark on your brain?
–written by Dan Askin