Ironically, while the 7th Day Buskers' cocky bluegrass could be described as quintessentially American, leader and banjo man Shawn Rowlf honed his sound in the pubs and streets of Western Europe.
“I was kind of a novelty 'cause I was one of, like, three banjo players in the whole country,” he says of Amsterdam, where he lived for two years, busking, or playing music, for tips on the street. “I wanted to be forced to make a living just playing music.”
Rowlf also roamed Ireland, where he picked up some of the isle's folk traditions. “I could feel [the music] in my bones,” he muses.
Apparently, busking is contagious. After moving to San Diego, Rowlf started picking his banjo at the Hillcrest Farmer's Market a few years ago and suddenly found himself with a band as other musicians asked to sit in. The ones who stuck were fiddlers Don Hickox and Dwight Wordern, mandolin/guitar player Steve Peavey, and bassist Greg Carpenter (since replaced by Ken Dow).
The relatively youthful Rowlf, who does the majority of the writing, is his band's-and his own-biggest fan. His cocky confidence in the Busker's hipster jamboree could be called egotistical. But, hell, this is acoustic music in 2002-jaded music fans won't stand for demure traditionalists.
Local blues guru Robin Henkel sat in with the band about a year after they formed, and though he wasn't a bluegrass man himself, Henkel fit.
“There was a real chemistry there when we met up,” says Rowlf. Henkel took on the Dobro, or resonator guitar, a fancy steel instrument that's been around since the mid-1920s, and is experiencing a bit of a revival as contemporary bluegrass and country artists give the instrument a whirl. Henkel, who once gave guitar lessons to Rowlf, composed two country-flavored instrumentals for the latest album, Born to Pick.
“Most people would look at us, see a banjo and a fiddle, and assume we're bluegrass,” Rowlf explains. “We play bluegrass, but we're not a bluegrass band. A true bluegrass artist would attest to that.”
The Buskers combine American musical traditions-including folk, bluegrass and country-into what they dub “American roots music.” With their laconic instruments and hipster flair, the band continues to draw crowds week after week at the Farmer's Market.
“Kids just kind of flocked to it,” says Rowlf. Soon parents of three- and four-year-olds were begging Rowlf to teach their rugrats how to play. Rowlf-who, again, has the utmost confidence in all of his undertakings, which include acting and filmmaking-says teaching “just kind of comes naturally to me.” He developed a music program for toddlers, which combines singing and percussion to introduce them to rhythm.
“I was trained young by good teachers to appreciate music,” he says, reflecting on his own childhood.“I was three or four and... I figured out how to pick up the [record player] needle and move it so that it kept playing ‘Ring of Fire' over and over.” Rowlf's parents raised him on the likes of Johnny Cash and Hank Williams in “the middle of nowhere, Minnesota.” Now, Rowlf's played and sung on radio, television-and in a raft on the Colorado River.
“I'm always trying to introduce new songs that I've written,” he says of the Buskers' creative process. “The real rehearsal takes place at the Farmer's Market. It's a real luxury to have a gig like that... Sometimes we play a song at the Market that no one's heard but me.”
Fruit and flower shoppers can witness Rowlf's innovations every Sunday morning from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m at the Hillcrest Farmers Market, located in the DMV parking lot on Normal Street.
Local instrumental wizard and part-time Casbah soundman Jimmy LaValle has said goodbye to his bandmates in Tristeza. LaValle quit the band to focus on his similarly instrumental one-man project, Album Leaf. He's become pretty good chums with the guys in Sigur Rós, and he'll be touring with the band through parts of the U.S. and Europe, playing on some dates and just hanging out on others. Lavalle will also record Album Leaf's next release with the help of Sigur Rós' frontman, Jon Thor Birgisson.
Tristeza developed a strong national underground following two years ago with their stellar second album, Dream Signals in Full Circles. Despite releasing a remix version of Dream Signals earlier this year, not much has been heard of from the band as of late. It seems the signal may indeed come full circle soon, as insiders speculate that the band will break up with the absence of Lavalle, who wrote most of the band's material.
blink-182 are currently home in San Diego writing new material for their forthcoming album, which reportedly will introduce some electronics into their music for the first time.... The rumor mill suggests that major labels are trying to woo two San Diego bands right now: the first is crunching emo rockers Noise Ratchet, which built quite the buzz with their album Till We Have Faces. The second is Reeve Oliver-an excellent new pop-rock band featuring everpresent local music guru, O. Without discounting the great work of old bands like Olivelawn and fluf, this is the best band O has been in-and he's been in a lot. Check them out when they play with Smile at the Casbah on Dec. 20. --Troy Johnson