If you’ve been in the Quarter or on Frenchmen the last couple years, you’ve seen and heard the Sweet Street Symphony. This quintessential busker band plays hard and from the heart, and the result is charming– not charming in the chintzy, harmless sense of the word, but the kind of intoxicating, enchanting charm that can lead the unwary enjoyably astray. Sweet Street’s sidewalk skiffle is dangerously fun, so fun you can’t tear yourself away. You pause, you smile, and then you’re hooked: your overplanned evening has been derailed, and it feels so good.
The band’s sound is energetic and danceable, swing rendered streetwise with a playful leer and a minor-key gypsy jangle. Their distinctive, genre-busting sets draw from big-band, bluegrass, klezmer jazz and the lustily shouted barroom sing-a-long, a mix of originals and arrangements.
While they frequently play parties, festivals and club gigs, including a regular Wednesday at the Hi-Ho that will likely resume this fall, the streets and doorways of downtown are Sweet Street’s natural environment. The group’s de facto leadership, Shameus (banjo, lead vocals, kazousaphone and desk bell) and M’issa (flute, trumpet, vocals, lately drums) have both been street performers for years, here and elsewhere.
“It’s always a gamble,” Shameus says of busking, “but usually rewarding. Having people stop whatever they are doing to watch you play is wonderful, plus you get to meet so many people. Indoor shows are great, ’cause you get to be amplified and don’t lose your voice, but I generally feel more appreciation out on the street.”
That appreciation shows, and not only in the crowds they draw on any given corner. Sweet Street are all over Youtube and Flickr courtesy of tourists who stumbled across them playing in a doorway, fell in love, and took pics or video to show their pals back home. It’s clear that for many visitors, the Sweet Street Symphony is an important and memorable piece of their New Orleans experience.
“Street music is so welcome here,” says M’issa, who’s been busking in New Orleans since 2005. “Living here and soaking my ears in the musical craftsmanship has given me plenty to aim for in terms of skill and quality. I’ve always loved Terrell Batiste of the Hot 8, and anyone who can go for 4 hours and still have enough lip left to make high notes like it’s easy.”
“Basically, every second-line trumpeter is my hero. Second lines and brass bands in general have taught me so much about that joy-provoking quality of big sound. The music all around us influenced our choice to keep adding instruments, and the joy and monetary reward for playing well makes me a more diligent musician.”
A careless car driver recently “doored” M’issa, breaking her jaw and robbing her of the ability play trumpet or flute for at least six months; a catastrophe for a professional musician. Undeterred, she’s thrown herself into percussion. The band’s tight, layered arrangements are designed to accommodate a rotating cast of dozens of different band members and instruments, depending who’s available on a given night.
“The thing I love about this band is that we’re all good friends,” Shameus says. “New Orleans makes you work hard and play harder. There’s so much talent here that it keeps you on your toes. It’s very cooperative and inclusive as a community of musicians, but also incredibly competitive. I have learned so much from everyone. New Orleans means everything to me as a musician… this city has given me so much, and I will love her forever.”
ON THE WEB:
- Out on the streets! Often Royal St. in the French Quarter daytimes, and on Frenchmen St. at night.
- “We want to play your wedding!” Shameus says. “We have an album that we’ve finished recording, it just needs mixing and mastering. We’ll have a CD release party sometime this fall.”