As Bay Area commuters make their way toward the exit of an Oakland BART station, they are greeted with the sound of a three-piece New Orleans-style band. There, inside the station, just out of the rain, Brian Belknap performs — alone — for those who pass by.
Accompanying himself on guitar and accordion, with a garland-wrapped kick drum and a hi-hat cymbal topped with a bobbing Santa Claus, Belknap sings his own songs as well as covers. While his bolo tie and orange feather tucked into his fedora bring his ensemble together, his music is hardly a gimmick.
“I work a lot at this whole thing. I’ve added different pieces and elements,” Belknap says. “Another 10 years, I’m gonna be taking up an entire city block.”
Belknap regularly plays in cafes around the Bay Area and opened for the likes of Cake and Train before they made it big. He even recorded an album with Mike Coykendall, who plays with Matthew Ward of the band She and Him, but says there’s something special about performing on the street.
“You’re very approachable,” says Belknap. “People tell you very touching things about their lives. It’s very disarming.”
Now, Belknap is getting people into the holiday spirit with the likes of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” and his eerie, accordion-laced version of “Silver Bells.”
“Christmas can be a little bit of a dark time for some people, a lot of people,” Belknap observes. “I think if you have extra decorations and what not, it enhances that sense of wonder. It brings a smile to my face. I love seeing those little candy canes dancing around like that!”
Belknap lived on the streets of San Francisco when he started performing and now has a great kinship for those who are in a similar position. He is especially touched when those people fill his tip jar with spare change.
“Those are valuable dollars to me,” he remarks. “I’ve learned not to refuse anything that anybody gives, because that’s how they get their dignity, too. They want to give something and I don’t want to interfere with that.”
Even though he leaves a street corner with more money than he had when he arrived, Belknap says it’s not about him, but rather about giving back to those who are marginalized.
“This show that we’re playing this week is going to be a benefit for the Trans Assistance project that’s covering funeral costs for the trans women who died in the Ghost Ship fire,” Belknap explains.
The show starts at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 17, at the Lost Church in the Mission District.
Whether he’s out in the streets or playing in a crowded café, Belknap understands the importance of being immersed in a diverse population.
“It’s hard to make great art when you’re isolated, when you’re not engaged,” he notes. “Mediocre art? Maybe. But great art? No way.”