Feature by Manchester Evening News‘ Paul Taylor on BUSK – the monthly acoustic night hosted by Optional Wallace.
THERE is only one rule for the have-a-go musicians who take the stage at Manchester’s Busk night… play something familiar.
It’s a common sense ethic which has sustained the monthly event for almost two years at the Garratt pub, in Princess Street, Manchester.
Organisers Danny Foster and Neil Meehan, of local band Optional Wallace – formerly known as Groucho – wanted to do something which gave a different twist to the usual acoustic night, and took inspiration from Foster’s travels around Europe with a guitar.
“We play a lot of other open mic nights and there are some really intimate ones which are great, where people are listening to every word intently,” says Meehan, aged 23, from Withington.
“The crowd sit and listen and are not allowed to talk. We wanted the total opposite, where people could get up and sing along and join in.”
Entry is free, no-one gets paid for performing, and sets are restricted to three songs a piece, with an emphasis on covers – songs the crowd will know off by heart.
The performers may not necessarily have had experience of singing for their suppers on the streets of Manchester, but they are nevertheless celebrating the art of busking.
“A lot of people do seem precious about their own songs – which is fine, and we are exactly the same about our songs – you put all your time and effort into it,” says Meehan, who still holds down a day job in a call centre.
“But the way we see it is that music is entertainment for people, and playing covers is what entertains the crowd a lot of the time, especially at this sort of venue.”
Song selections often draw from the songbooks of The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, The Clash, The Smiths and Oasis, though no-one has yet deployed that buskers’ fave Wonderwall yet. But variety is the spice of life.
“We have an act who have been coming down recently which is just a guy and a girl with a backing track on a minidisc player, and they sing along Mark E Smith style. They did a cover of Madonna – I think it was Like A Virgin – which was really great. Totally different,” says Meehan.
“We’ve had another guy who comes along with just a mouth organ and stamps his foot. We have had folk acts down, people with violins and double basses, and we encourage variety, but mostly it’s singer-songwriters with a guitar.
“We’ve also had people who have had a few too many drinks and just want to get up and play, and they don’t look like they are going to add anything to the night but noise.”
ONE graduate of the Busk night is Liam Frost, a Mancunian singer-songwriter touted to follow Badly Drawn Boy and Stephen Fretwell to acclaim.
Despite his devotion to Busk, Meehan is not enormously impressed with some of the buskers he has seen so far on the streets of Manchester.
“I like to hear buskers in the Underground in London,” he says. “You can hear a flute playing from miles away. The people who play there always seem to fit the mood of the Underground, with the trains in the background.”
Busk is held at The Garratt, 127 Princess Street, Manchester, on the final Wednesday of every month. Last year’s Best of Busk CD raised over é300 for the Tsunami appeal, and this year, a CD of the Busk “family” greatest hits is being sold at the venue to raise money for the British Epilepsy Foundation.