If you’ve been in the Strip District on a spring or summer day, chances are you’ve seen the 4th River Collective.
“People are out getting fish at Wholey’s, and there we are singing songs at them,” says band member Joey Schuller.
In the olden days of rock ’n’ roll, we used to call this kind of band a “supergroup,” since it melds two distinct bands into one larger entity. But it seems a little off to use traditional phrases to describe a band as quirky as 4th River. And they’re kind of OK with that.
“We grew up together in the music scene, playing shows together and swapping members,” says Schuller, who heads up Cousin Boneless, one of the two member bands, along with The Hills and The Rivers. “But when we would go out to busk as this huge group, people would ask us, ‘What’s your group called?’” So, the members came up with the umbrella name.
Cousin Boneless’ ensemble includes, among others, a trombone, a washboard, a singing saw, a washtub bass, Schuller on banjo, a squeezebox, a couple of singers and a mandolin. They describe their sound as “spooky street folk.”
The bands are like-minded, Schuller says, and not just in terms of music.
“We’re deliberately not associated with the ‘music business,’” he says. “We book our own tours and sell our own merch. The aesthetic goes further than music. We’re trying to create pockets of community outside of capitalism.” That includes, for some members of the bands, growing their own food.
Partner band The Hills and The Rivers describe themselves as a “post-apocalyptic DIY folk family band.” They’re in the same kind of folk-punk vein as Cousin Boneless, with a djembe, a flute, a trumpet and a mandoletto among their instruments. Frontperson Isaac Hill says the large group dynamic definitely draws a crowd, especially at an outdoor event like the Three Rivers Arts Festival.
“When we perform as a large group, usually people give more money,” he says. “It’s more of a spectacle than just one guy singing by himself.”
DIY musicians often don’t have formal musical training, which is true in Schuller’s case. He was going to school for writing and studied anthropology, but it was when he first encountered punk music that he started on his current path. “It really helped form some of my ideas about society,” he says.
He was given an acoustic guitar as a gift and taught himself to play. “For me at that point, it was about figuring out how songs worked.”
4th River’s member bands have built a network among buskers in other cities, Schuller adds. “Once you enter that world of DIY touring, once you know a few people, there’s someone who knows everyone,” he says.
Hill says his musical experience began with open-mic nights. But when he was in college, he says “I didn’t really do music at all.” It was after college when he went to Occupy Pittsburgh and a friend initiated him into the world of busking. “I had never really seen it done like that before,” Hill adds. He says street culture has been a big influence on him personally, but his biggest musical influence is the DIY band, Rail Yard Ghosts, his first encounter with a street band.
There’s definitely a sense of community among Pittsburgh’s DIY musicians, Hill says. And when he met Tom Coleman, whom he called the Pittsburgh “busker dad,” he was hooked. Coleman is a busker who refurbishes old instruments from flea markets and found objects for fellow buskers to use. Hill, now 28, has become an experienced busker and ranks Pittsburgh’s street-music scene a solid B-plus compared to other cities.
“Some cities like Burlington [Vermont] and New Orleans are pretty good,” he says. “The nice thing about Burlington is there’s a part where there’s no car traffic, and people just walk through.” Buskers need a license to perform in Burlington, however, which is not the case in Pittsburgh.
His favorite place to busk is the Strip District because of the diversity of the audience. “People come from all over, from the suburbs and outside the area to spend money,” he says. “A lot of people come through with their kids.”
The 4th River Collective will hold its third annual festival from June 16-18, at Owl Hollow in Hazelwood. Dozens of local and national (and some international) bands are scheduled to perform. The fest will also have poetry readings, workshops on permaculture and herbal medicine, a clothing swap, a book drive and an open-mic session.
“The first year it was one day,” Schuller says, “but it’s grown every year.”
Hill says he likes performing with a band as well as busking solo, which he says can be meditative for him. And he acknowledges that as The Hills and The Rivers gets more gigs, the band will probably busk less.
But busking will never lose its appeal for him, Hill adds.
“What I love about busking is that any kind of person on the street can hear you,” he says. “It’s both intimate and anonymous. Concerts tend to draw one kind of person depending on the music, but with busking, you can connect with anyone who happens to be walking by.”