Change Is Gonna Come

Local Band the Buckwalds Shake Up Folk Music in Berkeley and Garner a New Fan Base at the BART Station

Evan Walbridge/Staff

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Buckwalds Slideshow
Justin Bolois discusses the music of the Buckwalds...

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Emerging out of what feels like the backwoods of the Appalachian Mountains, whose dark mystical forests have inspired the likes of contemporary folk artists Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, the local Berkeley band the Buckwalds have mastered the moon-lit, lazy summer night feel of Americana tradition.

Lead singer Matthew Smith cites religious songs as his foray into the folk genre. "My mom was teaching me church songs with four chords, simple standard harmonic sounds that shaped my musical consciousness," he said. "It's not brain music, but it's really simple and hits you at this gut level."

Made up of five musicians including a range of instruments that one might find at a county fair, such as the fiddle, washboard, harmonica, banjo and upright bass, the Buckwalds can thank their fortuitous beginnings to busking at the Berkeley BART station.

Busking, a nomadic form of playing commonly seen in Berkeley, derives from the Spanish word "buscar" which means to seek-and in this case for donations. It has a long lineage within several fields of music, such as medicine and traveling tent shows of the 19th century, folk music and the blues.

Smith related that he and fellow guitarist Anthony Ferraro had set up in front of the BART station off of Center and Shattuck playing "Wagon Wheel" by Old Crow Medicine Show. At that point they weren't making any money, but circumstance changed once passerby Doug Stuart joined them with his upright bass. Shortly following their playing people started flipping loose change into the tip-jar. This marked the fateful start of the Buckwalds.

At a time where DJs have replaced folk icons as cultural heroes, the Buckwalds seem to be moving in an opposite direction to embrace a stripped-down, bare-essence sound.

"[Busking] feels organic. You can play anywhere, which is why it worked for us because we're an acoustic band," said Smith.

Smith speaks of something visceral in street performance that leads to a unique type of connection with the pedestrian.

"I started busking in Orange County at post offices. It was kind of romantic in my mind, and I had this conception of people in NYC playing in subways," said Smith. "Busking makes you really aware of your audience. You're playing for tips. They're not there to see you. You're just trying to hold their attention."

Since its beginning, busking has been about performing music acoustically. And unlike amplified shows, there are certain realities of street performances that shape the way a busker plays a song. "It's how loud you play and how energetic you are," said Smith.

Their song "Suffer No Cowards," a redemptive piece about accepting change, gives proof to the fullness of Smith's voice: forceful, bellowing and slightly on the verge of cracking, there is a fierce energy underlying his phrasing. Ferraro and fiddle-player Hannah Van Loon also provide sweet, delicate harmonies that nicely contrast with Smith's voice and the jingle-jangle of the banjo.

Recently the Buckwalds won a Battle of the Bands competition on Lower Sproul, advancing to the second stage held at San Jose State University where their run fell short.

But even with this recent success, the Buckwalds value their roots and don't plan to stop busking anytime soon.

"While busking, our playing is more raucous and less refined. There's a freedom to it, and that's the beauty of it all," said bassist Doug Stuart.


Busk for your BART fare with Justin at [email protected]

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