Buskers provide an ever-changing outdoor musical showcase with blink-and-you’ll-miss-it performances, and it comes with the friendliest of admission prices ($0!). On your next trip to San Francisco, why not get off the beaten path and go discover some great street music for yourself. Go with a date, or make a detour and check out these six locales, which are sure to be serving up some tasty musical delights. Remember, if you dig what you hear, then dig a little deeper and drop a buck in their jug for the memory, the photo, the YouTube video, because this is an experience you can’t buy at Walmart.
1) The Castro:
In one of San Francisco’s most vibrant and colorful communities, The Castro District, you will find everything from great bars, with robust and scantily clad bartenders, The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a queer order of drag nuns, every sort of sex toy imaginable (and some that aren’t), and great buskers.
On weekend evenings, you can take in the sounds of The Cello String Quartet, who gather in front of Cliff’s Variety to tickle the ears of passersby. This ensemble, of classically trained professional cellists, varies in size, depending on who shows up, but the core is a group of four. They describe themselves as “Bridging the Classical and Pop music for a community that never knew how much it liked chamber music.”
During the day, you will find a rotating array of street musicians performing in front of the Wells Fargo Bank on Castro. From Roots to Rap, Country to Acapella, this is a great corner to cop a squat and grab some sweet street vibes.
2) The Mission:
There is so much going on in The Mission; from the best Burrito in the country—(scientifically proven!), to tequila bars, great thrift stores and of course, the famous murals. The music scene has always been rich in The Mission. During the seventies, The Mission was home to a lively punk music scene. Bands like The Dead Kennedy’s, The Offs and The Avengers, brought their own brand of angst to The Mission. Carlos Santana graduated from Mission HS, Jerry Garcia wrote a song about the neighborhood and reggae/hip-hop/rap and dub have all found roots here. It should come as no surprise that some of the best street music is being played here today. Wander along any mural painted alley, such as Clarion or Dore, and you will find buskers, creating magic. Along with the fantastic Mariachi Bands that perform on the color drenched streets, a recent discovery was Banda Sin Nombre, a five-piece street band from San Francisco's Mission District dedicated to performing folk music from around the world and Rin Tin Tiger, a psychedelic/punk band.
Haight Street, or ‘Shakedown Street’, as the Dead called it, is well known for its musical history and culture. Janis, Jimi, The Dead, Starship, Flipper and Graham Nash are but a few who have called this funky, hippie nabe, home. It is a unique neighborhood that defines the culture of our city. People are drawn to The Haight, because they hope to catch a glimpse of some remnant of the past Summer of Love; that psychedelic era of yesterday. Indeed times have changed on The Haight, but, there are still funky vibes to be found here. The Haight is unpredictable, at best, temperamental at worst, and a little rough around the edges; which is the perfect backdrop for some of the best street sounds our city offers. As there are no defined spots that buskers perform here, you have to be willing to walk the street, peer down an alley, gawk around a corner, and stop at a stoop. You never know who you will find.
Straight from the Hardly, Strictly Bluegrass Festival, this blues musician, went straight up incognito on Haight Street:
Another great musical discovery on Haight, are The Jugtown Pirates, a psychedelic rock/bluegrass band, who define their sound as "DIRTY GRASS".
4) Hayes Valley at the Foot of the Burning Man Sculpture:
What happens to a no name, unknown neighborhood in San Francisco, after an earthquake? Well, sometimes, it gets a name and becomes one of the most desirable places to live. Such is the case of Hayes Valley. Overlooked twenty years ago, but when the Central Freeway was damaged in the 1989 earthquake and moved to ground level, Hayes Valley came into its own. There’s so much cool stuff going on here, it’s impossible to mention it all; but, a few highlights include shipping containers being converted into a rotating food, art, retail installations, Two Sisters Bar & Books, which has a monthly Books and Booze Club, where great literature meets signature cocktails, Smuggler’s Cove, a speakeasy crossed with a tiki bar, which celebrates all things rum and a most recent addition of a 37 foot tall Burning Man Sculpture erected at The Temple at Patricia’s Green. At the base of this creation, buskers gather to celebrate all things music.
5) The Ferry Building:
The Ferry Building is a must stop and see in San Francisco. Herb Caen, our beloved SF Chronicle columnist, said it simply enough; “A famous city’s most famous landmark.” One very good thing that came out of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989 was the rejuvenation of the waterfront. There used to be an elevated highway running over the Embarcadero, which cut this area off from the rest of the city. The highway was damaged in the earthquake and had to be torn down, giving birth to breathtaking views and a renaissance of some of the things that make San Francisco an amazing city, case in point, The Ferry Building. This beautiful structure plays host to an amazing community of artisan food, local farmers and independently owned and operated businesses. Local wine, cheese, oils, spices, ice cream, chocolates and……buskers! There may not be a more spectacular backdrop in which to enjoy street music than here, against the salt air and sea. No matter the time of day or year, your ears will surely get tickled here.
6) Powell Street Cable Car Turnaround:
When you come to San Francisco, you definitely want to ride a cable car; you definitely do not want to ride it from the Powell Street Turnaround. Insider tip: walk a few stops up, and catch it anywhere else. However, this is the most fun place to watch cable-car operator’s leap off, grab the chassis and SLOOOOOOOWLY turn the car around on the revolving wooden platform. Cable cars can’t go in reverse, so they need to be rotated manually. There are always street musicians performing here at the turnaround. They have implemented their own honor system, rotating every two hours, so that anyone who wants a turn in this lucrative spot can. This spot definitely has the feel of a tourist hub, but above ground there are always a wide variety of street performers here; break dancers, living statues, jugglers, magicians, mimes, musicians and others. Below ground, where the BART entrance is, you will find amazing talent; ie: Melody Yan, who performs a traditional Chinese Harp. And with easy access to public transit, BART, light rail and buses, it’s an easy escape into other areas.
San Francisco is a city replete with personality, character and characters. When you visit her shores, be sure to venture out, and discover something new. You never know what might surprise you around the next corner.
About the Author
Heather Jacks was raised on Indian reservation in southeastern Oregon, until age fifteen, at which time; she was chosen to be an ‘experimental exchange student’ to Australia. She went down under, with an organization called YFU, Youth for Understanding, and spent 10.5 months turning16 in the Outback. When she returned, she attended college, and received an FCC license, followed by completing a B.A. from USF and two years of study at UC Davis.
During her twenties, she traveled extensively, worked in the music industry in various capacities; radio, production, A&R, booking and eventually, landed at a new and young company, called Starbucks, where she worked on a Star Team and opened new stores in remote markets.
Music has always been her passion and during her tenure at Starbucks, she helped launch Hear Music, which today is Starbucks Music Label. Eventually, she returned to the business side of music at a major indie label, where she had a number of roles, from concert production to glorified babysitter.
An avid TV Junkie, die-hard SF Giants fiend and unapologetic Twitter practitioner, she recently won a Book of the Year Award for her multi-media project, The Noise Beneath the Apple®; A Celebration of Busking in New York City, which was inspired by her love for street music, busking and the people who make it.
She currently hangs her hat in San Francisco and am is working on the Bay Area version of the TNBTA® busker project.
About The Noise Beneath the Apple: A Celebration of Busking in the Bay Area
The Noise Beneath the Apple® is a hardcover, Limited Edition Art-Style/Coffee Table book, presented in an elegant slipcase. It measures 12″ x 12″ and celebrates buskers and street music in New York City. It includes a history, evolution and culture of busking, photos, interviews and commentary with 35 of NYC’s prominent street musicians. A cherry red vinyl record, of 11 tracks of original music, mastered by Grammy and Academy Award winning Reuben Cohen, (Slumdog Millionaire, Frozen), is page 200. At the culmination of the project, 30 participants went to Grand Street Recording in Brooklyn, where they covered Billy Joel's hit song, New York State of Mind. A 12 minute short film and music video were created from that day and are included with the book, making this project, truly multi-media. The project won a Book of the Year Award in the category of Performing Arts & Music.