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Street Home Chicago

The city’s most indie musicians get an advocate—and a gig.

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Back in 2007 world-famous violinist Joshua Bell, then 39, agreed to be part of an experiment. Dressed in street casual, topped off with a baseball cap, he positioned himself in an arcade above a Washington, D.C., subway station during the morning rush hour, took out his multimillion-dollar Stradivarius, and played his Grammy-winning heart out for three-quarters of an hour—without attracting a crowd or even much notice. More than a thousand people streamed by, but only a handful paused to listen, and just one person recognized him. Even those who tossed a total of $32.17 into his open violin case mostly kept moving.

It was painful, he told Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post, which had set the situation up and subsequently published Weingarten's Pulitzer prize-winning story about it. When a Reuters reporter interviewed Bell for a follow-up, he said it was "almost hurtful" to see people walk on by "when I really did try to play my best." He didn't want to be a street musician again anytime soon.

I was thinking about Bell's experiment when (as reported here two weeks ago) the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, in the days before it was pitched into its latest leadership crisis, launched a new movement intended to ease the world's problems by bringing live music to unexpected places. Called Citizen Musician, it got a flashy January 29 launch that had superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma teaming up with the Chicago Children's Choir for a flash performance in the Millennium Park Metra station. There was a lot of talk about the virtue of spreading music freely and—I guess, for free—around the city, and a website was launched (citizenmusician.org), where the CSO is collecting inspirational stories and facilitating what it hopes will be a community of do-gooder music makers and their potential audiences. But I don't remember hearing much, if anything, about the grassroots tradition of music in public places that we already have: the buskers who play on our streets and subway platforms.

As it happens, those musicians already have a website: chicagostreetmusicians.org. Up for a year and a half, it's manned by one commuter who's actually been paying attention. Gabriel Chapman, 35, is an Atlanta native who moved here in 2003, forsaking a background in industrial engineering and foreign policy to try to make a life for himself in music. A guitarist, singer, and songwriter, with a day job in real estate marketing that he landed as a mostly self-taught graphic designer, Chapman says he was blown away by the music he began to hear as soon as he ventured into Chicago's subways.

Commuting downtown on the Blue Line, Chapman came and went through the Washington Street station. "I'd always hear musicians down there," he says, "and being a musician myself, I really enjoyed listening. There's one guy in particular, Thomas White [a vocalist and electric guitar player]. After a long day, you can just chill there, just sit and listen, and not think for a minute about looking to your right to see if the train's coming. I would think, man, I just really like this." Chapman, who started out in Chicago with his brother Ryan's band, Aya Sofia, was playing clubs like the Elbo Room and Double Door, and "I started thinking it would be really cool if these street musicians had a club gig."

By the summer of 2009 Chapman and his then fiancee Sarah Barnes—a classical percussionist who performs, teaches, and also works as a marketing executive—had a couple of specific ideas about how to get more recognition for the street musicians. Chapman wanted to create an Internet home that would "celebrate" them; Barnes envisioned a showcase video.

The pair started canvassing the subway stations and streets, introducing themselves to whoever was playing there and asking if they'd like to participate. In some cases they were met with suspicion at first, Chapman says. But they recruited a highly skilled volunteer crew from among their friends, including coproducers and editors Mark Schimmel (who directed the video) and Gary Fry (who mixed the sound), videographer Randy Riesen, soundman John Mathie, and still photographer AJ Kane, and by the end of August they had a dozen players up on the Chicago Street Musicians website and a collective "Sweet Home Chicago" video that included an unknown young blues singer named Crystal Bowersox.

Never mind that "Sweet Home Chicago" is a cliche for most anyone who lives here, the four-minute video (posted at the end of the story) is more engaging and authentic than anything I can recall from the city's gazillion-dollar Olympic and tourism efforts. Blending nine separate performances by 16 musicians (including soaring riffs by saxophonist Jerry Williams and violinist Scott Dusenberry) in a swirl of iconic downtown locations, it's an irresistible visual and aural collage that took months to edit. By the time they premiered it, at a party at Joe's Bar on Weed Street last June, it was too late to have Bowersox on hand: she'd taken American Idol by storm and was in New York that day for a national television appearance.

There are 27 musicians on the website now, and it's led to a few good, paid gigs for some of them, Chapman says. They've kept it free of formalities like registration or membership—ideas likely to meet resistance from these independent operators. But Chapman thinks Chicago could take better advantage of the buskers' rich contributions to its fabric, as is done, say, in New Orleans or New York. As things stand, Chicago musicians pay $100 for a two-year license to make music on the streets (as long as they're not too loud, not too many, and nobody complains), and $10 for a CTA permit that technically limits them to the Red and Blue Line stations at Jackson and Washington Streets. In practice, those limitations aren't strictly enforced, but "Compared to other cities," Chapman says, "it's not friendly."

Barnes and Chapman are no longer engaged, and though both are still committed to CSM, he's been finishing the paperwork to get official nonprofit status for the organization on his own. But the first goal he had for it is about to be realized. On March 3 the group will host its inaugural club concert, Street Home Chicago, at the House of Blues Back Porch Stage. Former street player and activist Nicholas Barron will emcee, and performers will include Keithen Terrell and his band; Red Line stop regulars the Real Connection (Ron Christian, Norman Smith, and Joseph Ellison); vocalist and songwriter Meisha Herron; and Chris James and his band, the Wall of Rhythm.

Chapman's own new band, Ideas for Collage, made its debut at the Whistler last Wednesday.   

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