Few people are trying as hard to make it on the hard streets of Philly like your average busker. Playing for pennies or often nothing at all, these noble sound artists hammer out covers and originals alike for passersby in any part of the city you can name, from Rittenhouse Square to South Philly.
So, naturally, it's about time we show a little appreciation beyond the few coins tossed into a hat. Often the music of a street performer is raw, uninhibited and utterly real, both in content and scope of talent—which, to be sure, is no easy task when you're plucking out your track at the mercy of the weather.
Here, the coolest, most talented buskers you can possibly see in Philly. Next time you see them playing out on the street, toss some coin their way. You never know how much you'll have to pay to see them at a venue next year.
Infitain, also known as Mitchell Caldwell, birthed his entertainment company, Infitainment, in his junior year of high school. With that, he coined his hip hop alter-ego, embodying the hustler archetype that modern rap mythologizes in superstars like Jay Z. That, however, doesn’t mean he’s separating himself from the busking scene in Philly. In fact, in the summer of this year, Caldwell produced a short documentary about Rittenhouse’s most well-known performers.
Young Skurban Vintro is a freestyling hip hop street musician of the highest order, already counting himself among established Philly players like Infitain and Anthony Riley. Vintro, as is clear in Infitain’s Rittenhouse street performer short doc, is ready to throw down anytime, anywhere—from Rittenhouse to North Philly, he’s your man. And with the rhymes he displays even just on average, it’s easy to see why.
The undisputed coolest name in Philadelphia busking, Jafar Barron has a laundry list of recording accomplishments that outdoes any street musician in the city. Ever. At 41, Barron has lent his trumpet playing to mega-artists like Erykah Badu and Jill Scott, and the guy more or less is widely credited with the invention of neo-soul in Philly. Which is to say, dude’s a legend. Catch him in Rittenhouse on a warm day.
If you’ve been up by Reading Terminal Market over the last year or so, you’ve probably seen Chris Hall sitting on his stool, smiling at passersby. Ordinarily simply dressed, he bangs out jazzy tunes from his electric guitar in Center City and spots along South Street. Though if you don’t see him first, you’ll probably hear his cover of “Smoke on the Water” somewhere off in the distance.
What else could a band named Sour Mash rightly play besides good old fashioned blue grass? Snotty punk, maybe, but that’s not the way this old timey acoustic quartet has chosen to go. Instead, they went the classic folk route that’ll have you box-stepping and dosey doe-ing as quick as you’ll be tossing dollars in a hat.
Thanks to a 2007 arrest that put him on the map nationally, Philly entertainer Anthony Riley is the unrivaled king of Phily’s buskers; even five years after the fact. A smooth R&B crooner, Riley faced the wrath of the Rittenhouse cops for, of all things, singing too loud. Don’t let that throw you, though, Riley’s voice is nothing to call the cops over. Especially when that song is “A Change Is Gonna Come.”
At 70, Philip De’Genova is the granddaddy of Philly buskers, despite only being active in the local street performing hotspots in the last few years. He quickly locked down Rittenhouse with his upbeat, jazzy wooden flute stylings, performing—like and good musician—purely for the audience reaction alone. Like Jafar Barron, De’Genova is a world-class musician jamming for the love of it.
Kicking around Philly since 2005, former Crazy Man Crazy member Julian Root has established himself as the busking king of Americana in the city. These days, he’s also playing bars and venues like Fergie’s and the Boot and Saddle, but Root still makes time to bring his sound to the street around the Rittenhouse area. Acoustic folk-punk with a honky-tonk twinge doesn’t get much better.
Katie Frank & The Pheromones
Of all the shows in The Porch at 30th Street Station’s Philly Local Busker Series throughout the summer 2013, Katie Frank & The Pheromones’ was among the best. Playing moody jam county, this Temple University grad is currently recording her debut album, Counting Your Curses, which is set for a February 2014 release.
If you’ve never heard a Hang drum before, it’s essentially the sound a groovy UFO would make as it abducted you into a dimension made entirely of pleasing tonal beats. Philly musician Dante Bucci is one of the most preeminent Hang players in the world, and it isn’t unheard of to see him playing out and about. But with a YouTube account boasting more than 9 million subscribers and a debut album out now, the guy might not be around for long.