Vaudevillian Sideshow

Coming soon to a sidewalk near you: the Dusty Buskers

The history of audio recording only goes about 100 years back. Before that, the only time you would hear music is when it was being performed live, in real time, and usually in close proximity to where you were.

This is the magical interaction from which the Dusty Buskers draw, playing a rumpus-rousing, acoustic blend of bluegrass, Celtic, Americana and old-timey music.

That infectious combination has earned the Dusty Buskers the 2008 award for Up-and-Coming Artist of the Year from the TAMMIES.

A busker, which is chiefly of British origin, is defined by Webster's as " a person who entertains in a public place for donations."

Playing on the street is where the Dusty Buskers got their start and is "really the best stage in the world," says mandolin, harmonica and guitar player Dusty Squirrelfisher (aka Stuart Oliver).

"And the best place for busking in Tucson is the sidewalk outside the Food Conspiracy Co-op (on Fourth Avenue). It's got the best acoustics, by far."

Phoenix Michael, the group's fiddler and lead singer, also goes by the name Fiddlin' Uncle Phoenix. He agrees that the Co-op is best place to catch the Buskers, even though the act has played many an indoor venue in their 2 1/2 years of existence.

"The street audience is really unique; it goes from little kids to old people, people with no money to people who have lots of money. Sometimes, you're not singing to anybody. Sometimes, it has been just Stuart and me. I've always thought that playing outside makes music sound better. And you're not beholden to some club owner for $100."

Yes, the Dusty Buskers often have done well with tips from their curbside audiences.

"You get the weirdest stuff sometimes. People have given us cereal or a couple of beers. We got a $50 bill once," Michael says. "It sort of helps that we have honed our act. I don't think we do it in a really commercial way, but we have put into our performances a lot of entertainment value. It's sort of a vaudevillian sideshow."

And playing on the street has become a necessity for the guys.

"Back in the day, it was like eating or drinking water. We had to play, to cut loose on the streets, to feel complete and nourished," Michael says.

The Dusty Buskers were born on New Year's Eve 2005, when Squirrelfisher literally stumbled across the Ramblin' Ales, a group with which Michael was playing at the time.

As Squirrelfisher recalls the encounter, "They had a mandolin sitting right there, and I picked it up sat in with the guys. They all eventually took off, and it was only Phoenix and me left sitting there. So we always consider New Year's Eve as the anniversary of the band, and it'll be three years this New Year's Eve."

Although the Dusty Buskers started as a duo, the group has grown in the last couple of years to include Mighty Joel Ford on washboard and stompbox, "Cousin" Dylan Charles on mandolin and, in a recent arrival, upright bass player Andrew See from the psychobilly band The Dead Tones.

The Dusty Buskers are looking toward the release of their first CD, an eight-song collection of Irish folk tunes titled Paddy O'Fraggle, on the independent label Crystal Records Bisbee, which is owned and operated by Squirrelfisher, who also runs a studio in Bisbee.

Crystal Records Bisbee also plans releases by Southern Arizona bands such as Silver Thread Trio, Cadillac Mountain and Family of Light, as well as another Dusty Buskers CD, this one a bluegrass collection, sometime next year.

The songs on Paddy O'Fraggle were recorded in the shed at Michael's Menlo Park house. They include such traditional tunes as "Whiskey in the Jar," "All For Me Grog," "Three Drunken Maidens" and "Poor Man's Heaven" and can be heard in working versions on the band's MySpace page.

Part of the appeal of the Dusty Buskers is that, although they play traditional music, they do so in an unorthodox manner. That's partly because neither Squirrelfisher nor Michael grew up playing folk or traditional material.

Michael says he cut his teeth on violin lessons as child, but as a teenager and young adult became enamored of punk-rock acts.

At the same time, Squirrelfisher never really knew bluegrass or traditional music as a younger player. "I was always a jazz guy," he says.

While Michael introduced Squirrelfisher to traditional music, he developed his musical chops under his pal's tutelage, he says.

Squirrelfisher is "more a technically adept musician. He's a multi-instrumentalist. He understands music theory. ... He's like the Rick Rubin-style producer. He has polished me like Grandma's silver." Michael says.

Michael brings creativity and looseness to the Dusty Buskers, his partner says.

"We are going by the traditional songs as we learned them, and then Uncle Phoenix changes all the words around. That's what makes folk music, isn't it?" Squirrelfisher says.

The secret ingredient in the Dusty Buskers' performances is a palpable energy and momentum. It's not as if they place traditional music as a static museum piece.

"It feels like we attack these songs with ferocity," Michael says. "Stuart and I have a very close friendship. I am totally naive about the music business. I like to think that's why we can't have rock-star attitudes. We wouldn't know how. I'd just say we are lucky we've some this far. Stuart and I are in touch with our inner children when we play. That spirit of fun and playfulness is what comes across in our sets."

Look for the Dusty Buskers passing the hat outside whenever people gather on the street. Upcoming indoor gigs on the books include Aug. 22 at The Hut, Sept. 20 at the Bisbee Blues Festival and Nov. 8 at Che's Lounge.

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