Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Skywalk buskers get hockey fans into the mood

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'Hello out there, we're on the air; it's hockey night tonight...'

It's 5 p.m. - a full two hours before the Winnipeg Jets and Dallas Stars are scheduled to lock horns in a crucial, Western Conference showdown at the MTS Centre. Two fans in matching Andrew Ladd jerseys -- 20-somethings who presumably came downtown early for a pre-game bite and/or beer -- are clapping along to The Hockey Song as performed by Teddy Houston, a busker plying his trade in the cosy confines of the Graham Avenue skywalk, next to Millennium Library.

Seconds after Houston puts the finishing touches on the Stompin' Tom classic with a hearty, "And the best game you can name is the good 'ol hockey game!" the duo tosses a few loonies into Houston's beckoning guitar case.

The singer nods thanks then, once they are out of earshot, admits to a scribe he didn't even know there was a game tonight until 90 minutes ago.

"A friend of mine phoned and said he had tickets and I was like 'Holy s ,' I better get down there.' So I grabbed my stuff, hopped on a bus as quick as I could and here I am."

In his crisp, denim shirt, freshly-pressed jeans and white sneakers, Houston is one of the more nattily-dressed buskers who serenade passers-by prior to Jets home games. At 70, he is also one of the oldest.

"I've been playing guitar since I was 25 but I was always afraid to sing in front of people," he says, noting his sole professional experience was as a rhythm guitarist for a short-lived, western-swing band called Country Sunshine, back in the 1980s. "But after I retired, I thought 'Ah, what the hell.'"

Houston figures he knows in the neighbourhood of 200 tunes -- a number that includes the bulk of the Johnny Cash songbook. Stick around long enough and you'll be privy to Houston's Winnipeg-centric rendition of Folsom Prison Blues -- all about being "stuck in Stony Mountain, where time keeps draggin' on..."

For the moment, though, Houston has work to do. A young couple on their way to the rink has stopped to request "some Lightfoot." To appease them, Houston reaches for a spiral notepad chock-full of hand-written lyrics he jots down "just in case."

Within seconds, the grey-haired crooner finds what he is looking for. "It's so nice to meet an old friend and pass the time of day," he begins in a rich baritone. "And talk about the hometown a million miles away. Is the ice still on the river? Are the old folks still the same? And by the way, did she mention my name?"

Every Jets game night, the downtown skywalk -- officially known as the Winnipeg Walkway System -- is brimming with pedestrians. When the outside temperature dips to a bone-chilling -30C, the climate-controlled, human-Habitrail that stretches from Winnipeg Square to the Bay is a welcome respite for puckheads on their way to MTS Centre.

With foot traffic comes opportunity: Since Day 1 of the Jets' return to the city, a slew of buskers has taken to the enclosed area to entertain hockey fans and, hopefully, make a buck or three.

"The BIZ really wants people coming to cheer on the Jets to have a great experience walking through the skywalks -- and that includes a positive, musical experience," says Signy Gerrard, marketing and communications manager of the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ. "We don't want to overwhelm people with full bands or anything; what the BIZ is looking for is non-amplified, entertaining fun."

That said, not all of the buskers who play the skywalk are affiliated with the BIZ, Gerrard says.

"In the areas we control, like Portage Place, we book them in slots to make sure two people don't show up at the same place, at the same time. But the walkway areas are mainly controlled by the Winnipeg Parking Authority. That's more of a first-come, first-serve scenario."

On a night when goalie prospect Michael Hutchinson is scheduled to dress for the Jets for the first time, a 36-year-old busker named Coddy ("It's pronounced Cody, only with two Ds.") is also making his debut.

Coddy arrived downtown at 4 p.m. He and his guitar, a classical model that takes "some kind of strumming to give 'er," have laid claim to a spot just west of the Cargill Building, overlooking Garry St.

"One of my buddies plays up here from time to time and he told me I should give it a shot, too," says Coddy, noting he prepared "about 10 songs" for this evening, including Nirvana's All Apologies and Oasis's Wonderwall.

Coddy, dressed in black sweats and a white T-shirt commemorating the Flood of '97, says sure, there are some nerves involved. But it's not like he hasn't played in front of an audience before.

"We did have a band at one point but our lead guitarist committed suicide and that broke it off real fast." (Yeah, that would do it, comments a person eavesdropping on the conversation.)

Chris Crossroads is situated in what he calls a "favourable spot, most definitely." In a section of the walkway that bridges Winnipeg Square and 200 Graham Ave., Crossroads -- that's his professional name, he points out -- has a birds-eye view of what he guarantees will be a "glorious sunset."

Crossroads, 31, took up the guitar 13 years ago after his first career path -- the service industry -- didn't quite pan out.

"I used to work at the Chocolate Shoppe. One night I asked this drunk to leave and he said, 'You're the one who's leaving.' He picked me up and threw me into a table. I broke my back and decided I should probably find something else to do."

Crossroads considers himself something of a musicologist. At the drop of a hat, he can switch from Jolson to Lou Reed to Lady Gaga. Crossroads, who played trombone for the jazz band during his time at Jefferson Junior High, also has a bank of tunes he wrote himself. But on game night, he usually sticks with the tried and true, like Steve Miller's Jet Airliner or Wagon Wheel, by Old Crow Medicine Show.

Crossroads says it varies, when he is asked how lucrative busking for hockey fans can be.

"It's like any other job, really; some days are better than others. But I find it helps if you have a shtick. Occasionally I play in black and white face-paint and that seems to work pretty good. Or if you play a novelty instrument like a banjo -- that's another trick.

"One of my favourite guys up here is the accordion player who wears a rubber horse mask; people really seem to get a kick out of that."

And although Crossroads works at his craft, practicing a few hours every week, he admits being a polished performer isn't necessarily a plus.

"Busking is strange because it's not pan-handling. When people give you a tip, you don't know if it's because they like you or because they think you need the help," he says, playing a few notes of a Rihanna song he recently taught himself. "Sometimes the person who plays poorly makes more than somebody who's really good because people think, 'Man, that guy's really down on his luck.'"

Crossroads dreams of a day when he'll perform in front of people other than those rushing by on their way to a game of shinny.

"I'm trying to be world-wide. I have a YouTube channel (chriscrossroads.com) that has videos of songs I've recorded in Winnipeg, Toronto and Windsor. But for the time being busking is awesome; it's allowing me to live my dream."

 

david.sanderson@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 29, 2014 D11

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