John Brothers Piano Company play S.F. streets
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Market Street is their concert hall. The clanging streetcars their backup singers.
Several times a week, self-taught musicians John "Thatcher" Boomer and John Morgan hoist their upright Craigslist freebie piano into the back of their 20-year-old Jeep, and drive from the West Oakland brick warehouse where they split the rent on an unheated room to play for tips on Market Street and Union Square.
Taking turns, the 23-year-old Cal grads bend and sweat over the keys, hair flying and mouths agape, banging out original ragtime, jazz and burlesque tunes until their hands blur and the veins pop from their temples. Having painted the exposed hammers of their Wurlitzer spinet piano with lacquer to make their sound even louder, they fill the air with a throwback sound that evokes the honky-tonk ghosts of Barbary Coast.
To their parents' chagrin, they have ditched their day jobs and are going for broke in their quest to become full-time piano virtuosos.
"We've given up everything for the piano," Boomer said.
It only takes a song or two to draw a crowd, incredulous that street musicians are playing a piano on the sidewalk. The upturned top hat on their piano quickly fills with bills - each month they earn enough to cover their $550 rent with a little left over. They are saving to take their gig on the road, either cross-country or Europe, depending on their take. So far, the beat cops have given them the go-ahead to play as long as no one complains.
So far, all they've drawn is applause.
"I mostly listen to heavy metal, but there's something about this, it's so fast, and his hands are so big, it reminds me of Rachmaninoff," said Micah Johnson, who stopped to buy a John Brothers Piano Company CD for $10.
"We're the John Brothers Piano Company!" Morgan says between songs by way of introduction.
"We're only going to play a couple more songs, so stick around because this next one is sure to make the dollars fly out of your pockets!"
Self-taught players and composers, the John Brothers don't talk much during their performances, preferring to get lost in the drama of their musical passion.
Boomer is a former math major who finds an outlet for his counting mind in mad-dash jazz fingering a la Fats Waller. Morgan, a former football player and drummer in a metal band, likes to play by extending his enormous right paw in a stride technique that conjures more of a burlesque, saloon sound.
They met in college, where they discovered a mutual love for the dorm piano. Jam sessions ensued, and then to their great delight, they learned how to play the Yans Tiersen movie soundtrack to "Amelie." This was good because it guaranteed attention from lovelorn females at fraternity parties.
Now, they have five hand-me-down pianos scattered throughout the former creamery-turned art collective where they live in West Oakland called Ghosttown Gallery. Their small room is dominated by an upright grand piano, and the walls are covered with pictures of their heroes Dostoyevsky and Thomas Pynchon. They have a collection of jazz and blues records, and a DVD collection that leans toward art films - movies about Edith Piaf and Truman Capote. They rely on candles, wool coats and whiskey to stay warm.
"I love the piano," Morgan said, exhaling and surveying the wanderers on San Pablo Avenue below his cracked window. "It can never say no to me. It stands there, always looking at me, challenging me."
They don't have day jobs. When they discovered 11 months ago that they could make more by playing piano in the MacArthur BART Station than they could making deli sandwiches or waiting tables, they became fulltime performers.
As often as good weather allows, they drive to San Francisco, being careful to leave before the evening rush hour so they can save a dollar on the bridge toll.
At first, they were so excited they were making a little money as artists that they spent it all on Champagne and cigars. Now they are being more frugal with an eye toward their future tour. Already their outdoor shows have led to a handful of gigs and private and company parties.
"My parents still consider me unemployed," Boomer said.
"Mine kept asking me when I was going to get a real job, but they stopped once I showed them our CD," said Morgan, who majored in English.
Produced and designed with help from fellow artists in Ghosttown Gallery, their CD packaging features their secret handshake: a thumb and forefinger grabbing another's pinky. The song list includes their original compositions: "Computer Duster," "Terra Damnata," "Rocketship" and "Mint Julep." They sell the CDs from a box whenever they play.
One frigid evening in January, they performed for an hour at Fourth and Market streets. They were joined by a hula hooper, a strolling violinist, a 2-year-old who saddled onto the bench to plunk, an Internet video crew and dozens of iPhone photographers. One man who has ties to The Warfield two blocks down the street offered to let them store their piano in the concert hall.
Andi Plantenberg was on her way home from her Market Street creative agency, Singlebound, when she was inspired to drop a few dollars in the John Brothers' hat.
"It's a freakin' piano on Market Street!" she said. "But then when you get over that and listen, the music is good. Really good."
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