A Honky-Tonk Duo Takes The Piano Outdoors

Aug 19, 2012
Originally published on August 19, 2012 2:41 pm

Weekend Edition continues its series on the sounds of music al fresco with a musical act founded on a very inconvenient choice. You'd think a street musician would want to travel light when selecting an instrument — say, a ukulele, a violin, maybe a guitar. But a piano?

"It's about 300 pounds," says Kirby Lee Hammel. "Only one pulled muscle in the last year and a half, I think."

Hammel is one half of Clangin' & Bangin', a dynamic and muscular duo that works the streets of San Francisco and the Bay Area. Hammel's counterpart in the band is drummer Jake Alexander.

"It kind of started as a joke in a way, dragging out a huge piano, and I think the first time we did it we made, like $200 in two hours," Alexander says. "We thought, 'Man, we should keep doing this.' We got a lot of pity tips."

"You've got to have a real piano; it just gets that authentic sound," Hammel says. "We want it to ring out, so we take all the top off, we take the bottom front board off, and we also put it up on a 2-by-4 so it kind of bounces off that concrete below us." He adds, "It actually helps us get gigs because we don't need any amps."

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If you were a street musician, don't you think it would be important to travel light? A ukulele would fit the bill. Or maybe a violin, or a guitar...


WERTHEIMER: ...but a piano? Really?

KIRBY LEE HAMMEL: It's about 300 pounds. Only one pulled muscle in the last year and a half I think.

JAKE ALEXANDER: It kind of started as a joke in a way, like dragging out a huge piano. And I think the first time we did it we made like $200 in, like, two hours. And, like, oh man, we should keep doing this. And we got a lot of pity tips.

WERTHEIMER: That's drummer Jake Alexander and pianist Kirby Lee Hammel. Together they call themselves Clangin' & Bangin'. The dynamic and muscular duo works the streets of San Francisco and the Bay Area. Today, as part of our summer series on music alfresco, we hear them play at the farmer's market in Oakland.


HAMMEL: You've got to have a real piano. I mean, it just gets that authentic sound, you know, with the drums. Jake got this new little cocktail kit, and it just sounds great, you know. And a lot of our heroes, some of the early blues guys and the country guys, they played on the street and they got really good. You just play and you play and we like kind of spreading this good old-school type of music to these kids and all these people. So, it's fun.


ALEXANDER: People ask us a lot if it gets out of tune, moving it, and it definitely does, but it also kind of adds to the sound of the music that we're playing. So, it's a good thing.


HAMMEL: We play the blues, and that includes boogie-woogie, New Orleans music, which we both really love and are diving into, and honky-tonk music, like old-school kind of honkytonk, some Hank Williams. It's all kind of under the blues umbrella, and we kind of push that however far we can go and whatever way we can go, you know?


HAMMEL: You know, I know a lot of kids take piano lessons and it's generally classical, which classical music is great, but I've always thought it would be great to start them on something easier and American. You know, this is our music. So, I'm giving some lessons to 5th graders in Oakland and it's, like, it's fun. They really want to learn this type of piano music. We really like spreading this type of joyful music, you know.

WERTHEIMER: That's pianist Kirby Lee Hammel from the Bay Area group Clangin' & Bangin', recorded in Oakland by Nina Thorsen of member station KQED.


WERTHEIMER: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.