Tuesday, November 13, 2007 ... 7:36 AM

Eilen Jewell on Venice Beach busking

On Friday I interviewed Boston-based singer-songwriter Eilen Jewell, and wrote a feature on her for HickoryWind.org, which you can read here:

Eilen Jewell Has Arrived

Her record Letters From Sinners and Strangers is I think my most listened-to new album this year. Although in my story I sort of decry this exact facile comparison, fans of Gillian Welch (readers of this blog, in other words) will take much pleasure in Eilen's sepia-toned phrasing, either on the new record or last year's impressive, mournfully toned debut Boundary County, which with its sleepy tempos and whispered regrets and wide-open-spaciness compares, I think, to early Cowboy Junkies.

Betsy and I attended Eilen's show late Friday night. She opened for the Two Dollar Pistols, of Raleigh, whom we did not stick around to see because I'd been up since 5:30am and had a 100-degree fever. Still, I wish Eilen had headlined, and I was not the only one in the sizable crowd who did. The set flashed by, finished far too quickly. The tension between Eilen's energetic rockabilly band and her wry smoky vocals makes for a really compelling live sound. Her guitar-picker Jerry Miller lights up his orange Gretsch Round-Up like a lightning rod.

(Note: a few weeks ago I e-mailed Miller to ask whether he's the same Jerry Miller guitarist from 1960s psychadelic rock band Moby Grape. He isn't. When I met him on Friday I learned that not only am I not the first person to ask, but that at least one journalist has gone to print with an incorrect assumption.)

Anyway, it's probably not nice to say so, but I can't help suggesting that another up'n'coming young-woman-led alt-country act whom I reviewed here not too long ago could take a few or twenty lessons from Eilen Jewell and her ensemble.

I detained Jewell for longer than we'd planned, but she was focused and attentive, and very nice. Some of my favorite parts of the discussion -- specifically, an account of her summer spent busking at Venice Beach, CA -- just didn't work into the already long HickoryWind.org story, so I am going to post them here, informally:

Since doing that [Venice Beach], I haven't really been able to busk anyplace else. I got spoiled.

You do have to vie a bit [for a spot to busk]. It's a cool scene, because it's one of the few places in the country where there are just tons of street performers doing ... anything under the sun -- you name it: juggling chainsaws, playing their guitar ... but yet you don't have to get a permit and there's just no restrictions on it. I think that's just the coolest thing, that they still have that some place.

The trick is you'd have to get there bright and early, like almost ridiculously early on the weekends. Crack of dawn sometimes. To get a good spot. 'Cause it was all about the good spot. And then if you got that, you were pretty much set. Unless someone came and set up right next to you with a much louder amp or something.

The good spots were the ones where ... There were some people that were in the same places every day. Like certain people. I remember one guy was selling incense, and he was always at that corner, and another guy had an "atheist awareness" stand he had set up, or something along those lines. And you wanted to be next to the people who were friendly to musicians. That was key, 'cause some of them weren't into it, they didn't want to hear your music all day long. ... Generally the crossroads of the bike path and some other main street was a good way to go.

It was a lot of rolling with the punches, 'cause the first time you got there, you don't know what you're doing. Maybe you don't even have an amp 'cause you don't even know you're supposed to have one or that you're gonna need one, you know? It's just a learning process. You find out what makes you the most money, what doesn't work, who yells at you, who kicks you out of their spot 'cause you're just supposed to know it's their spot all the time. And it's full of characters too. Venice Beach is just ... it's just like ... I don't know if you've ever seen The Doors movie ... It's all like a big trip basically.

Well there's the chainsaw juggler. He always kind of kept things interesting. You know, when you say, "Oh yeah, there was a person just right down the street juggling chainsaws," you get kind of an idea about, "O.K., that's the kind of place it was."

I made friends with a lot of people who essentially just lived on the beach, and slept in the sand. And one of them was this great guy named Rollin [/Rowlin/Roland]. And I don't know if that was his real name, or if they called him that because he was always on a bicycle. Every day he would wake up, it must have been in the middle of the night practically, and he would go around the neighborhood and pick all the flowers he could, and he would cover his bike with flowers, and cover his head with flowers. He was just like a walking flower garden. And he would ride around on his bike, just the sweetest person ever.

One of my most vivid memories is standing there with my guitar in the middle of some song, and there's a small crowd kind of watching me, and Rollin rode by on his bicycle, and right as he rode by me he threw this huge basket of flower petals up in the air, and they all came raining down on me. It was one of the coolest things ever. I saved a lot of the flower petals, 'cause for some reason they dried really well. So for the longest time I had them in my guitar case as like a good luck thing.

Eilen plays Atlanta tonight, and then she's on to Florida, and finishes the year out west. Catch her when you can.



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Making Notes: Music of the Carolinas
(Novello Festival Press, April 2008)
includes my essay, "Link Wray"


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