Feedback, part three

Terry Valko, an accordion player from my old stomping ground of Pennsylvania, emailed me the following accordion-related questions and was kind enough to let me answer them here on the blog.

Are you making money at it?

Enough to cover my “going-out” costs for the night. I generally only busk — that is, play on the street for money — on the weekends, and then only after the bars have closed. My favourite spot is outside a late-night pizza place called Amato, which is conveniently located near more than a half dozen bars and clubs. After last call (2 a.m. in the province of Ontario — clubs can remain open, but they can’t serve alcohol), the clubgoers make a bee-line for Amato’s, who have at least a dozen varieties of pizza. They have a large storefront and a large bench out front where people gather and hang out until about 4 a.m.. Walter, the manager, likes having the crowd out front and believes that the busking is good for his business, so he’s more than happy to have me there and always has a free chicken-and-pesto slice for me. In this two-hour window, I can make anywhere from 50 to 150 bucks, depending on the night.

Sometimes there’s a street kid who’s been panhandling all night nearby. I realize that the busking tends to take money away from them, and unlike them, I have a day job to fall back on. I usually give them a cut — $5 to $20 depending on how much I’ve made.

There’s almost always someone who makes a bet — sometimes as much as $20 — that I can’t play a certain song. For some reason, the song is almost always Iron Butterfly’s In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, which is actually pretty easy. It’s as if they expect the accordion to self-destruct if you play that combination of notes. Every now and again, a guy will toss me a large bill to play Happy Birthday for his girlfriend.

Is it possible to make more, perhaps if I decided to busk during the day, and for longer periods of time? It’s possible. The best way I can think of would be to busk in the suway system. The Toronto Transit Commission allows only authorized buskers — less than 100 in total — to play in designated areas inside the subway stations. To be authorized, you have to pass the annual audition, typically held in the late summer. I don’t know what the daily average take of a subway busker is, but during the Christmas season at one of the busiest stations, my harp-playing friend John Lavers collected about $1000 in a six-hour shift.

Photo: Me at Burning Man 1999

is your playing well-received or more of a novelty?

When I’m playing on the street, I’m usually singing as well. I’m not terribly good at playing complex lines and singing at the same time, so for the most part I’m comping or taking a more stripped-down punkish approach. I’m relying on the novelty to get them hooked — nobody expects to hear Nine Inch Nails or Avril Lavigne on accordion — but the playing and singing to keep them around for a least a few songs.

I always get a great crowd reaction when I play accordion at Kickass Karaoke, and I’ve been doing that for over three years, so they haven’t tired of me yet.

When I back up other people — for example, my housemate Paul or my friend Lindi — I usually don’t sing and can play more complex stuff. I’m told that my playing’s quite good, and I’ve been invited to do session work with a number of bands.

Do you work with a band or mostly solo?

On the street, it’s mostly solo, but I’ve done performances with Jamie Lawless, a guy who plays guitar almost every day on Queen Street. My friend Will McLean wants to do some busking with me this summer, and I’m sure my housemate Paul would like to give it a try as well.

Paul and I do open mike nights, and we’ll probably help our friend Dave Ellul, who hosts an open mike night on Fridays.

For a while, I was playing with Lindi’s band, and I back up any performer who needs an accordion player, even if it’s for only one number.

In the summer of 2000, I had some pretty strange gigs arranged for me by a booking agent named Joa (pronounced Joe-ah). She’d book me to play at these incredibly expensive dance clubs — the kind that charge $20 per person at the door. Sometimes I’d be there to entertain the outside lineup, either playing on the sidewalk or the fire escape overhead. Once, they had me play an “intermission set” while a club switched from mellow lounge music to dance music once the place got crowded. The weirdest gig she ever arrnaged for me was at a club called Money — I was suspended 20 feet above the crowd from a bungee harness, playing I Will Survive along the with DJ.

Oh yeah, and then there was the go-go dancing thing.

How do you handle the bass? With a single-note bass line? Tough to avoid the oom-pah-pah, if you know what i mean.

For the most part, yes. My bass-playing technique is derived from my pedal-playing technique — my first instrument was the organ.

I sometimes do the I-V alternating bass, but not with an oom-pah-pah rhythm. It works well for the bassline during the verses for the Violent Femmes’ Add It Up.

Photo: Me at Kickass Karaoke, circa 2000

Are you mainly a vocalist?

No, I’m really a keyboard player. I sing passably. I fell into it — on the day when my friend Karl and I first took our accordions out onto the street, he made me sing because he didn’t know the lyrics to any pop tunes. People say that I’ve got a great speaking voice and should go into radio, though.

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