But it's not about the looks. If you close your eyes and lose yourself in the rollicking chords of "Cleopatra Rag," it may as well be a century ago. It may as well be sunny and warm. And, if only for a few fleeting moments, the world slows down and worries temporarily cease.

"I'm so happy music like this exists, and I get to play it," says Ventresco. "It really is my whole life." J.E.


Jordan Wilson

Just about everything

Powell Street, Fisherman's Wharf

Close your eyes in the vicinity of the Powell Street cable car turnaround or Fisherman's Wharf, and you'll hear a full band, playing away. Open them, though, and you'll see Jordan Wilson, twitching away.

Wilson's series of subtle, twitchy movements reveal that he's playing as many as four instruments at once. He built his first musical apparatus straight out of high school, a hodgepodge of drums and guitar that straps to his back — reminiscent of Dick Van Dyke's one-man band in Mary Poppins.

Wilson says he started building one-man-band machines out of a "lack of social skills and a natural skill for music."

"Musicians can just be way too cool sometimes," he says of his need to play every instrument himself, simultaneously. Despite the difficulty of their task, Wilson says it was harder to put together a band than it was to just figure it all out alone.

His second apparatus, built when he was 20 years old, is nicknamed The Squid. A pedal board lets him play drums with his feet. "I play bass guitar with my thumb," he says. "The neck is flipped upside-down, next to the guitar neck." The Squid also incorporates a keyboard, and Wilson sings.

Playing four instruments and singing at the same time seems damn near impossible — until you've seen Wilson do it. "People think it's so impressive, what I do," he says. "As far as the big machine goes, nobody's seen it before. ... But if you're playing guitar, you're not just doing one thing. You have to move your elbow, your shoulder, all the different positions with your fingers, timing, all of that." The Squid, he explains, is "like a more complicated guitar part."

This May, after several Union Square businesses complained about performance volumes, the Board of Supervisors passed new legislation making it easier to cite street performers in the area for noise ordinance violations. Wilson's act uses drums and amplification, two things singled out by the board. "I use a 15-watt amplifier so you can hear the guitars and vocals," Wilson says. "It's probably better for them in the buildings if they can hear all the music, not just the drums."

Wilson was cited under the new ordinance, but was able to get his fine reduced in court. After receiving the ticket, he moved his performance to Fisherman's Wharf. There, the Port of San Francisco issues permits that restrict the decibel level and length of street performances, and performers like Wilson don't have to worry about being ticketed — unless they play without a permit. However, after the initial furor over the board's legislation, Wilson says enforcement dropped off in the Union Square area and he was able to return.

"There's street performers, and we're gonna be out there regardless of whatever law they try to enforce," Wilson says. "We're gonna be out there, and we're gonna be using amplification. The businesses are gonna be there, regardless of us being there or not. Unless we sit down together and talk about it, and maybe make some permit system like they have on the Wharf — the only way to have peace of mind is to communicate."

He says some street performers have discussed suing the city over the legislation, which they say violates their First Amendment rights to free expression.

"I certainly can't successfully do my act out there without amplification," Wilson says. "If we can sit down and create a system together and work on it not as enemies but as companions, Market Street is going to have a lot of cool acts. If this city is welcoming to street performers and supports them, you're going to see a lot of stuff on the street that you would see in a theater." Kate Conger


Kenny Chung

Guitar, Harmonica

Underground train stations

Eric Fournier

Guitar

Underground train stations

Kenny Chung used to have terrible stage fright. It started in fifth grade: He was cast in Schoolhouse Rock! as The Bill. "I'm just a bill, sitting on Capitol Hill," he sings as a reminder. On opening night, he forgot all the words and just froze, staring out at the audience.

"Someone pulled me off and they played the fucking song over the speakers," he remembers. "After that, I had horrible stage fright, horrible anxiety when it came to just talking in front of people."

But now here he is, with a steel guitar and a fistful of harmonicas, playing covers — and some original songs, too — in the Montgomery BART station, and making a living at it. His secret to conquering his anxiety? He just closes his eyes.

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8 comments
Samantha Hill
Samantha Hill

I already read this in print last week, Joey, you're late, get on a plane already.

Ruth Gottstein
Ruth Gottstein

I sure wish someone would come and play the accordion for me.

lorenzogempy75
lorenzogempy75

Craig Ventresco is widely regarded as one of the best guitarists in the world.  I used to hear him in the Haight 20 years ago...  He was just a kid; he blew everyone's mind.  Then he showed up in the New York music scene, years later.  He's famous; he plays all over the place.  You make him sound like a loser.

sfdavidkaye2
sfdavidkaye2

You don't know ANYTHING about being a musician, do you, Joe?  Your article is INSULTING.  But then you're working for, what, pennies a word as an indie hack writer?  

mike3k
mike3k

I enjoy most street musicians, but I really *HATE* that guy who plays the drums in front of Old Navy, as well as the guy who drums on buckets in front of the ferry building. They're just plain loud & obnoxious and drown out the other musicians that I actually want to hear. I would be very happy to see them gone.

 
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