PROVINCETOWN — A walk down Commercial Street is a bit like traversing the paths of Coachella these days. Fashionable, semi-clad young people wander down the middle of the street in search of beaches, food, and shopping — accompanied by a rotating band of musicians.
Chris Wilcox and Erik Hamilton play their own style of bluegrass that they call “dunegrass.” Or sometimes “garage-rock bluegrass,” Hamilton says.
“Oh, that’s good,” Wilcox says as he and Hamilton take a break in front of Soft as a Grape on a Sunday afternoon. “Write that down.”
The duo have been playing together for almost a year, Wilcox says. They met last August when Wilcox, looking for a musical partner, drove past Hamilton playing his banjo on Commercial Street and screeched to a halt.
With a no-cost license from the police dept., any street performer can claim a public spot on the street for two hours. After that, anyone else can ask to take the spot.
“But everyone knows each other,” Wilcox adds.
From true bluegrass, such as Billy Strings, to the genre’s younger sounds, like Tyler Childers and Trampled by Turtles, Wilcox and Hamilton have a song binder five inches thick.
“It’s more about the energy than playing technically perfectly,” Hamilton says. He started on guitar but realized he was playing too many notes for bluegrass. Now, he says, he gets to play all the notes on the banjo.
The traditional bluegrass arrangement is designed to replicate a drum set, Hamilton adds. The mandolin evokes a snare drum, the bass a bass drum, and the banjo the hi-hat.
Among those who walk by their improvised bandstand are dogs who like to sniff the tips tourists have left. Wilcox says: “Lots of smells on money.”
Wilcox and Hamilton both live in Provincetown full-time, and though they love playing live music they’re also busy with the responsibilities of everyday life. Wilcox owns the East End framing shop Framed, and Hamilton has a six-month-old baby at home.
They also know the realities of housing struggles in Provincetown.
The evolving financial landscape has changed the music scene, Wilcox says. Other buskers live on boats during the summer, he adds, saying he was once a “dirty kid” the town’s arts community welcomed. “It wasn’t like this 10 years ago.”
While they enjoy the passing crowds, they also hope to find their way off the street and into new venues. Wilcox also has lyrics he’s trying to put to his own original melodies.
“Luckily, you only need three chords to play these songs,” Hamilton jokes as he turns his banjo’s pegs — tuning for the photo shoot.
Singing Magician, Street Star
Peter O’Malley, the stovepipe-hatted man who sings along to karaoke tracks in front of town hall, got his Provincetown start 35 years ago blowing up balloon figures for children.
“I have adults now who tell me, ‘You made me a balloon when I was five years old,’ ” he says, sitting in his usual spot.
O’Malley knows the current town, too, and he recognizes a child passing by.
“Someday, I’ll make you a balloon,” he calls out.
“Eventually,” the child responds. “Probably.”
While he specializes in magic and can make up to 20 different balloon figures (“some of them variations,” he admits), he jokes that he now also “sings for his supper.”
Today’s act combines both talents.
“I can’t believe how much it turns me on, just to be your man,” O’Malley sings from Josh Turner’s Your Man, as he makes a Spiderman balloon for a seven-year-old.
Marcia Mello has been playing in Provincetown for 20 summers. Over the winters, she spends time in London, where producer Youth (Martin Glover) first met her playing on Portobello Road.
She’s put out 16 CDs with Youth and on her own label.
Singing into a microphone on the corner of Ryder Street and Commercial Street, Mello accompanies her bluesy guitar and folksy vocals with a tambourine on her right foot.
Mello fondly remembers gigging with Ketch Secore (of Old Crow Medicine Show fame) at the Squealing Pig.
As for her own fame, “I’m all over YouTube,” she says. “I don’t know if I’m on Wikipedia yet.”