Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Chelsea Spear, who performs as Travels With Brindle, in a video she made for NPR’s “Tiny Desk Concert” contest.

The new year will probably see an end to the $40 fee Cambridge imposes on street performers, which has helped drain the life out of public spaces such as Harvard Square. With neither Boston nor Somerville charging buskers, and the MBTA and popular tourist spots such as Boston’s Faneuil Hall having their own hassles to navigate, it’s become rarer to see musicians, puppeteers, magicians and circus artists make the effort in Cambridge.


All too often, a street performer thinking about setting up here will just say, “the foot traffic isn’t so great in Cambridge, I’m just going to stay at Faneuil Hall for two hours and make my money,” said Cate Flaherty, a juggler and acrobat who performs as Cate Great – who actually likes Cambridge for having a system that allows less aggressive artists to secure a space on the sidewalk.

But ukulele-strumming Cambridge musician and busker Chelsea Spear, who agrees busking should be free in Cambridge, says there are also less tangible reasons a performer would stick it out here despite the fee.

“Cambridge is this place where free expression is very important. I like that people in Cambridge recognize the hard work buskers do,” says Spear, who performs as Travels With Brindle. But also:

“The Kendall audience in particular is very receptive. I like that when I play some of the more obscure stuff I do, people get excited. In Boston and places like that, I’m playing more Top 40; in Cambridge I can do The Pixies – who are not very obscure, but let’s go with that – or Game Theory or the stuff you wouldn’t necessarily think of as busking material and people get excited and sing along. If I’m in Cambridge on the street, they dance. At one point last year I was playing ‘Melt With You’ by Modern English and there were these two teenagers who were dancing. It’s really exciting to see, for such an ephemeral art form, how people respond to it, and that people are really happy about what you do.”