There is always music in Harvard Square. I started seeing concerts there in my teens, mostly at Passim, and noticed there were lots of musicians playing on the streets. These weren't untalented, poor bastards who couldn't get a gig elsewhere; often they were people that I'd seen at venues in the area, sometimes people I'd already paid to see. And they simply set up on a sidewalk or in a subway station, with a jar or opened guitar case for tips. Sometimes the music on the streets is better than what is in the clubs. And sometimes the music in the streets is organized, as it was on June 17th, the date of the tenth annual Make Music Harvard Square festival.
No stages were set up, and it seemed each artist was responsible for his or her own amplification, but there were spots reserved throughout the area for bands and singer/songwriters to set up, and there was a schedule which was (for the most part) adhered to. I wasn't familiar with anyone on the list, so I figured to just wander about and catch what I happened to catch. Sometimes you stumble into magic. But we needed to start somewhere, and my girlfriend saw that there was a ukulele player doing 1980s pop songs at 4 p.m. A perfect start to the afternoon, we figured. But when the guy playing before Chelsea Girl (the ukulele artist) left, taking the microphone and speaker with him, no one arrived to take his place. The only thing remaining to indicate that music would happen there was a sign. We waited for fifteen minutes, but no ukulele. Not a great start. By then, there were eight of us in our party, and we went off in search of music.
Playing just behind the entrance to the subway was a group calling itself Boston Area Brigade Of Activist Musicians, a group made of horns and percussion. They were kind of fun, but so loose as to seem to be not really paying attention to each other at times. Somewhat out of tune, somewhat messy, but still kind of enjoyable. At moments, I wondered if they were having us on. And some weird guy started dancing next to the band, waving around a sign that read, "I Love Orrin Under These Constitutional Circumstances."
The kids (we had three children in the party - my niece and nephew, and some stray they'd picked up along the way) were hungry, so we went to a pizza place whose name escapes me at the moment. On the way, we caught just a bit of a blues rock set by Erie Blue, just a song or two. We might have stayed longer had there not been a need for food.The pizza place was nice, with good people, and a delicious sandwich with homemade hummus. The beer selection was really its only weak factor. None of the kids ate much, but whatever. It was a nice break after so little music.
After lunch (or was that dinner?), we split up, as the kids wanted to see a pop band, and I felt a need to see something that had a chance of being good. According to the schedule, a bluegrass band was playing back at the subway entrance. Called The New Englanders, they certainly had bluegrass instruments - fiddle, banjo, stand-up bass - but were not, in fact, a bluegrass band. They did some folk and pop songs - both covers and originals. They were good, but their sound was set up in such a manner that they were impossible to really hear. They had two speakers, and the guitar, vocals and bass were coming out of the stage left speaker, while the fiddle and banjo (or mandolin or dobro, depending on which instrument the banjo player chose for a particular song) came out of the stage right speaker. We were close to the stage left speaker, and so could barely hear the fiddle or banjo. But they had a sense of humor, and did some good tunes. They ended their set with a cover of "Friend Of The Devil," which made me happy, though they didn't repeat those last two verses as the Grateful Dead did.
We decided to meet up again, though at this point we lost one member of our party to fatigue. The rest were watching a rock band. Well, the kids weren't really paying attention to the band, but my brother and his wife were. My brother said there was another bluegrass band set up by the Coop, so, as I was still itching for some bluegrass, that's where we headed. But soon it was clear that the people who organized this festival just have no clue what bluegrass music is, because this bluegrass band turned out to be a folk singer. He was good (when we got there, he was singing "I've Been All Around This World," a song I first heard on an old Grateful Dead tape), but was not bluegrass. As that stage was just across the street from the subway stop, we once again went to that area, where we caught a jazz band, The Sultans Of Sax.
The Sultans Of Sax were for me the best band of the day. And as far as I can recall, this was the first time I'd heard an all-sax rendition of "Tequila." As we'd managed to get a table, we decided to stay put for the next band, a pop/punk band called Lily Black. They were teenagers, except for the bass player, who (I'm guessing) must be the dad of one of the other members. The kids' parents helped them set up, and though their set-up took longer than any other band, it was kind of adorable watching them get ready. And these kids weren't fucking around. They had a merchandise table and everything (several people in the audience sported Lily Black T-shirts). The lead singer wore a David Bowie T-shirt, and I wondered if my niece ever listened to the Bowie CD I got for her earlier this year. And you know what? They were not bad. Not bad at all. And perhaps my favorite bit of the entire day was watching one of the dads rocking out just stage right of the band.
We didn't stay for their whole set, however, as some people were smoking near us, and we all started getting a bit queasy. On the bus ride back to Davis Square, the stray child (who was still with us) told me she loved punk music. "Oh yeah? What's your favorite punk band?" I asked her. "Lily Black," she said. So there you have it.