Taking it to the street: The business of busking in Truckee
TRUCKEE, Calif. — The stand-up piano could be from an old-time saloon, fitting the Old West facade of downtown Truckee. But no, the open-topped piano, pulled from the cool interior of Best Pies in Truckee's historic district for several nimble-fingered ivory ticklers, was donated by an ex-employee. "People just love it," said Best Pies co-owner Elise Pannell, of the occasional busking, or street performances. "On Saturday and Sunday, Jody's here with the kids, and it brightens up downtown, it's really cool." Jody Sweet, piano man with Cabin Fever, is all about busking and performs weekends with Truckee High School Jazz Band students in front of the pizza place. "The main reason we do this is to get the kids out playing and make money for the school, not sitting on their ass(es)," said Sweet. "It provides something to the town, what they call 'ambiance.'" Not everyone agrees, however. Pannell has not heard one negative comment; however, according to Sweet, town of Truckee police have responded several times to complaints about the sidewalk entertainers. JoAnne Pohler, owner of JoAnne's Stained Glass, a long-time storefront on commercial row said, "I'd like to see a process, so the location or the (type of) music won't be up to one person … some people might want to play five times a week, maybe once a week." Pohler, a board member of the Truckee Downtown Merchants Association off and on for the past 30 years, feels the association should be able to approve the street musicians, who they are, what they're playing, and how often, to keep players who might not be so desirable from just plopping down anywhere, any time. As a rent-paying business owner, she does not feel comfortable, nor does she like being in the position of confronting musicians directly in front of her livelihood. The town of Truckee received concerns about the piano being played on the sidewalk, related to noise impact on businesses, pedestrian access and the impact on customers in the stores, said John McLaughlin, the town's community development director. "The town does not have an official position on street performers," he said. "Downtown Truckee is becoming a more and more vibrant place for our entire community — locals and tourists alike. With this vibrancy comes a desire to participate in the excitement … Buskers have the ability to do that. In some communities, buskers have also created issues impacting local businesses. It is the town's hope that all involved with the busking scene will be respectful of each other, and the community as a whole." THEN THERE WERE THREE The piano in question is now placed in a less-obtrusive area, with fresh fingers and old names on board. Three relative newcomers to the Truckee busking scene played recently on a sunny Friday afternoon. Ryan Taylor, piano, Chris Emmington, guitar, and Conor McAlindin, drums, pumped out lively jams, with downtown patrons doing a little jig with the kids, boogying solo, and dropping coinage into an open guitar case. The threesome are "Thick Newton," a band that will groove you aprés Squaw Valley's Bluesdays at the Auld Dubliner this summer, with additional gigs at Tahoe City's Fat Cat (find them on Facebook). "We were joking about how funny it would be to actually have a band called Thick Newton," said Emmington. And there you have it. The trio has been playing high-energy tunes, funk and rock 'n roll for about five months, and very much enjoy the outdoor scene in Truckee. "It's not often you can play an acoustic piano outside," said Taylor, who teaches music lessons at Between the Notes in Truckee. "We'll keep on playin', enjoy a little sunshine." "It's a blast, just righteous," added Emmington, who doubles as the New Moon "juice guy." 'A MAGICIAN, A MIME' Sweet said he likes to "keep his chops up" with the Truckee High Jazz Band kiddos. "I've got a 16-year-old kid (Lucas Rohlf) who's playing at a pro level," he said. "One student who joins the group, Shasta Tresan, is going on with a musical scholarship." Donations from the THS busking events go back to the students who perform, and the THS Jazz Band program, about $10-15 for the kids and $60-120 a month for the band. A few high-caliber hands also have hit the Best Pies piano, including the keyboard player from Toto and a New York Philharmonic concert pianist. "He kicked my ass with Scott Joplin rags," said Sweet. "Everybody's havin' a good vibe, improving their craft … makin' money," he later said. "Busking goes back to the old days in Europe, a magician, a mime … performers for the King and Queen. If you were bad, perhaps you were banished from the kingdom." For the present, nobody's banished from busking in downtown. The Truckee Downtown Merchants Association will continue discussions, according to Pohler. They meet the first Wednesday of every month and may be contacted through http://www.historictruckee.com.