Massive ‘Woodstalk’ Boston Common Busking Blow-Out (Boston Globe, 8.02.12)

Posted on February 10, 2013

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Busker Buddies brings the fringe out of the basements

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Whitehaus members (from left) Conrad Benjamin, Adam Kohl, Al and Theresa Polk, and Kate Lee on Boston Common, site of the Busker Buddies event. ARAM BOGHOSIAN

Truly weird music — and the community that accompanies it — isn’t all that easy to come by. Online enclaves of electronic knob twisters and proto-folk tunes abound, but real life tends to relegate fringe music to fringe locations. Fans are lucky to find things happening in small record stores, unassuming basement shows, and the occasional dive bar or coffee shop performance on very particular nights of the month. It’s not the kind of thing that just pops up on the street corner, belting out free jazz or tape loops with a horn case laid out for spare change.

A horde of unlikely buskers is preparing to change that, a sprawling group of over 200 musicians and artists under the official banner “Busker Buddies” will be led onto Boston Common by Jamaica Plain’s Arkm Foam (the grizzle-bearded Adam Kohl) throughout the weekend of Aug. 18 and 19. The decentralized event will have four staged performance areas throughout the park, but the key for Kohl is connecting the performers with the time-honored tradition of street performance.

The long list includes artists from the East Coast, Canada, the Midwest, and even a group on tour from Peru — everyone from Rick Berlin, Harry and the Potters, and Gracious Calamity to spastic noise-rock like Guerilla Toss and Arvid Noe. There’s a planned Leonard Cohen covers marathon (“the first five albums,” says Kohl) and a performance art piece that involves someone simply learning guitar riffs from a CD player.

“It’s taking all these people that play in house shows and basements and stuff and bringing them out into the public sphere,” says Kohl, speaking from a couch in Jamaica Plain’s ramshackle “Whitehaus,” the communal arts house where he’s the longest remaining member in residence. “There’s so much art in this city that’s driven underground for the reasons of commercial culture. I think it’s good to supersede that.”

It’s the latest in Kohl’s long-running annual “Weirdstalk” events (he’s already publicly changed the name a handful of times, from “Woodstock 4” to just plain “Woodstalks”), which have taken place alternately at houses and other DIY locations around the city. A relevant offshoot has been the couple of performances he organized after dusk at an abandoned set of bear cages near the Franklin Park Zoo.

In the middle of the Common could be another story. The event has been through its share of compromises with the city on the semantics — can artists bring battery-powered amps? Can a schedule be made ahead of time? Will pedestrians toss change to folks performing silent John Cage pieces? Kohl has no precise answers. “Do these things take it outside of the realm of busking? I’m not sure. But I’m happy to ask the question.”

Kohl says he’s had a helpful interaction with the city’s Parks and Recreation team so far, though the city has had a testy relationship toward buskers for years. A 2004 court battle led to the repeal of century-old regulations and ensured buskers a number of new rights. At the center of that debate was longtime busking advocate Stephen Baird. A neighbor in JP, he proved a useful resource in both assisting Kohl in setting up the event, but also for providing context for its ambitious scope. Baird maintains that the main concern in an event like this is to be sure the space is coordinated well. “I’m a park advocate and believe in everyone’s right to use it,” he says. “While any one person can go busk whenever they want, you don’t want groups competing for space. You might have a political demonstration here, a religious group helping the homeless there — and they all have a right to the space.”

Following Baird’s advice, Kohl has been working with park officials since February to ensure an orderly and fair usage. Baird believes a lot of the most forward-thinking art happens in public long before it reaches mainstream acceptance. “Street performing is about performers experimenting.”

And yet the most telling part of the event is that it’s not curated with really any artistic agenda at all. “The diversity of people playing is something I’m really proud of,” says Kohl. “We have people like Xiphoid Dementia and Vehement Caress, who are into noisy power electronics. Then there are people who it’s their first time performing.”

Maybe the best-case scenario is opening up a new world of possibilities for performers of all styles, all taking a major step out of their comfort zone. “That’s the beauty of it,” says Kohl. “There’s nothing stopping them from going to another place after their set or whatever and keeping on busking.”

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