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Electric Avenue

Busking brings public music and a skull mask to Richmond's streets.

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Four months ago, Jon Ramsey was laid off from his job as a furniture maker. Since then he's been regularly performing with his acoustic guitar as a busker outside of an empty storefront in Carytown. The most money he's ever brought home is $30, but most of the time it's more like $10, if anything.

“It's nice to go home with something,” Ramsey says, showing a grin as he tunes his weathered guitar. “I started coming out here because I didn't want to sit at home and be depressed. But I would love to do this for a living.”

Times are tough for local musicians and many are rediscovering the art of street busking, Ramsey says, even though it's more difficult in Richmond than most cities. “It's just not as accepted here,” he says. “It's a little more conservative than bigger cities like Philly or Austin. … there aren't many places to go.”

Although Ramsey sometimes performs near Virginia Commonwealth University, he says that Carytown is the liveliest spot for busking in Richmond. A sunny day there draws all kinds of street musicians, some looking to make money, others performing just for fun. Buskers might be said to represent a microcosm of the local music scene, where smaller bands often still have problems finding a place to play and most musicians need to work at least one other job to make ends meet.

Some musicians have busked Carytown for years. Harry Gore plays with an electric guitar and microphone, even on days when it's so hot that the direct sunlight wreaks havoc on his strings. Gore was known in the '80s for the local rock group the Good Guys, and says he began playing Carytown years ago because he was broke. He still plays in several different local bands and works a day job at a Christian bookstore.

“The idea is to not be obnoxious,” Gore says — “not turn up too loud, and be respectful.” Even in today's worsening economy, passersby are still willing to give “a buck or two” to street musicians, he says. But he's found that Charlottesville tends to treat its buskers a little better, especially along the downtown mall.

Which raises an issue here: Musicians don't have many places to go in Richmond. They once thrived in Shockoe Bottom, but Gore acknowledges that area's not the bustling place it used to be. “A lot of the clubs and buildings are boarded up and it seems to be drawing the wrong element,” he says.

There is no loitering law in Richmond, but if the musicians' noise levels get too high, police move in and tell them to turn it down. Tom Suddeth, president of the Carytown Merchants' Association and owner of Carytown Bicycle Company and Roadrunner Running Store, says the organization has never even discussed buskers to his knowledge.

“The panhandlers are the ones that drive us nuts,” he says. “But at least the musicians are giving something in return ... they don't harass people like panhandlers, most are very friendly.”

A fairly new star on what we'll call the busking circuit — working Carytown as well as First Fridays — is the one-man-band known as Gull, aka Nathaniel Rappole.

Usually set up outside of Plan 9 Music, where he used to work, or Chop Suey Tuey, Rappole is difficult to miss: He wears a homemade skull mask rigged with an old telephone microphone, and bangs away on a small drum set while simultaneously hammering distorted, bluesy riffs on electric guitar. The ambidextrous Rappole, 28, lives in Jackson Ward and tours regularly with punk bands Ultra Dolphins and Snack Truck.

Rappole used to be a puppeteer in West Philadelphia and moved to Richmond two years ago. He says there have been complaints about his noise level as a busker, so he learned to adapt by playing drums only with his bare hands and sometimes muting the cymbals with T-shirts. He's held a myriad of wide-ranging jobs since coming to Richmond — working on a farm and being a caretaker for a woman whose husband had Alzheimer's disease — but he's always relied on the extra income from busking.

“Busking is becoming more prominent on Broad for First Fridays,” he says, adding that he sometimes gets crowds between 100 and 200 people on Broad Street. “So far, the response has been mostly positive.”

Rappole is working on a 7-inch solo record and DVD featuring years' worth of footage of his former travels as a puppeteer and musician. But he just wants to reach the people. “Profiting off my music has never been the primary goal,” he says, “more like just be able to do what I love and get by.”

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