“Buckets of rain, Buckets of tears, Got all them buckets comin’ out of my ears”
So said Bob Dylan back in 1975 on his classic album Blood on the Tracks. But for anyone wandering down Bourbon Street these days, those lyrics take on much more than a nostalgic romp through the treasured canon of Americana music. Bourbon Street today is a literal cacophony of buckets.
If you’ve been there lately, you’ve likely seen them. Or certainly heard them. The bucket brigades are the new kings on the Boulevard of Broken Dreams. Little kids sitting on buckets, beating drum sticks on buckets, with buckets out in front of them for tips. That’s a lot of buckets.
These bucket drummers are not a singularly new and novel phenomenon here in New Orleans; kids have been beating buckets on the streets of Treme forever, marching in their pretend second lines until they grow up big enough to play in a real one. But, in the same way that street corner cardboard-sign-holding panhandlers seemed to explode out of nowhere all at one time in the last couple years, to become more of an infestation than an isolated instance, so too have the bucket boys – and girls – of New Orleans sprung into a full-fledged movement.
Tap dancing? That is so 2010. Buckets is where it’s at.
Walk down Bourbon Street on any afternoon. While the preponderance of fake Mardi Gras Indians, costumed superheroes and cartoon characters – and that guy in a Saints jersey who paints himself gold and sits on a trashcan and gives tourists the finger for tips – are all still there, it’s the bucket brigades that now dominate the street scene. And sound.
Street musicians are a vital element of the New Orleans identity. They provide, particularly to the visitor, the soundtrack of what they thought New Orleans was going to sound like when they got here, off their planes or out of their cabs and Ubers. Music falling from the sky like rain.
Well, now it’s more of an earthquake than a gentle storm. On any day, there can be dozens of kids – adolescents to teens – beating the crap out of plastic. Once someone started doing it and making money at it, many others followed. It went from a couple of kids to a lot of kids to swarms of kids, gathering at each end of every block and also in between, each trying to out-percussion each other. And they’re loud. Really loud.
Now, there is an unmistakably great Congo Square element to what these kids are doing. A great vibe of Trinidad, where they play steel barrels instead of plastic buckets. There is a drumline cachet to the sound. Syncopated, rhythmic, marching band chic. A lot of these kids, they can really play.
Are they the future drummers of New Orleans great bands? Who knows, but there is undeniably a lot of talent and showmanship among these brigades as they smack the plastic and twist drumsticks around their fingers and make the beat on the street.
Some of these kids really have the knack. They know how to entertain. Some look like they are really into it. Then again, some look bored and fidgety and then, some look, at worst, like they don’t want to be there.
Of course, there are always dark forces at work on Bourbon Street. Just like with a lot of the child tap dancing kids in the Quarter, just over their shoulders you will see parents leaning against a wall, hovering over them, urging them to play on and every now and then walking over to fish a handful of bills out of the tip bucket.
A crime? I don’t know. Wrong? Yes.
The truth is, I really like these kids, but their omnipresent noise, embattlement and don’t-give-a-shitness sometimes grinds. Their syncopated, percussive, rhythmic, tribal, lively, joyous at times wall of sound can be a New Orleans act of beauty.
But it’s really freaking loud.
I made the mistake of walking up to a kid playing in the street recently and putting on a full force old fart white guy routine: I leaned over to drop a few bucks in his bucket and, in a moment’s pause, told him in the most patronizing tone I could summon: “Son, it’s not about playing loud. It’s about playing good.”
He regarded me with cool aplomb. And as I was still bent over his bucket ensemble, he started beating the crap out of those containers so hard that my ears still ring.