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March 3, 2011 | 12:00 a.m. CST
Front and center inside a theater at Ragtag Cinema with only his unamplified guitar, Dustin Hamman
sang as people jockeyed for seats and filtered in and out. That’s when the music feels most pure, he says, but the audience members weren’t there for him. That was last year; they came to see a film, but he still managed to stay in their minds.
“Playing for True/False is a different kind of experience,” says Leah Cheaney, the festival’s music director. “The crowd is coming to see a movie, not a concert.”
Bramble is a four-piece from Salt Lake City coming back for its second year at True/False. Bramble was a favorite last year, says Music Director Kim Sherman. “Their songs are made for street performance and getting crowds involved,” she says. The band is known for its homemade instruments and tours on bicycles.
Justin Theodore Young, an acoustic-indie folk performer from Portland, Ore., joins True/False for the first time this year. Describing the band as Buddy Holly-esque, Sherman says he has a boisterous stage presence.
DubB NubB is made up of St. Louis twins Hannah and Deliah Rainey, 18. Sherman says the duo has great harmony. “I think that people will be blown away when they see people with such a mastery of their craft,” she says.
Free Agents Brass Band, a 10-piece out of New Orleans, got its start in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina. Formed to try to bring back the ruined city’s culture, the band came to True/False in 2010 to share its sound, a mix of old jazz and new hip-hop. “It was absolutely wonderful,” True/False volunteer LeeLee Shewmaker says. “It really did make you want to dance.”
The David Wax Museum has a traditional background in music but plays to a more boisterous audience. Sherman says the band has mastered the key to being a good busker, capturing attention and getting the audience involved.
The Toughcats bring physicality to the busker mix. “Their original songs really move people,” Sherman says. True/False fan Lisa Eastman wrote in an e-mail that she likes the high energy The Toughcats have while performing because it makes them fun to watch as well as listen to.
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Music and True/False have always gone hand-in-hand, says Music Director Kim Sherman. The first year of the fest, Jordan Wax, who played accordion before films at Ragtag even before True/False, was hired along with other local bands to perform before the docs. Audiences enjoyed the music, and the program grew every year. “Now it’s an entire program all by itself,” Sherman says.
The music works well at True/False because it ties it all together and makes the event feel like a festival and not just a group of screenings, Sherman says. The musicians who play before each film are called buskers, which by definition means anyone who performs in public for donations. She says event staff has gravitated toward mostly Americana bands, but it has also used some electronic psychedelic groups.
“We really think about the audiences and try to think what kind of music would complement not only the style visually of the film and the subject matter but would be appreciated by the audience coming in to see the film,” Sherman says. “We try to curate music in a way that warms the audience up for the film they’re about to watch.”
It’s not just the film junkies with a soft spot in their hearts for the buskers: The buskers love the fans and the fest as well. Hamman, of the indie-folk band Run On Sentence, says he is pleasantly surprised every time a festivalgoer compliments his playing after a show. “There is no competing with the good folks who come out for the festival,” he says.
Hamman is returning for his third year at the festival. Usually he comes alone, but this year his band is making the trip from Portland, Ore., with him. He says it can be different and a bit awkward because there is no plan and total playing time is never certain. However, that’s not necessarily bad. “It’s a unique thing to go sit down and see a movie and have someone playing music beforehand,” he says. “It can be weird at worst but really awesome at best. Weird in a good way.”
Another repeat busker, The Toughcats, back from Maine for their fourth festival, can’t get enough of the Columbia crowds either. Colin Gulley, who plays banjo for the band, says the members are treated like rock stars and are given passes to all the movies and parties. “So often as a touring band, you don’t get treated like that,” Gulley says.
Hamman says with so much going on, most of the festival is a whirlwind. One thing he does remember is staying in the same hotel as Josh Fox, director of the film Gasland, last year. After coming back from one of True/False’s many parties, there were nearly 20 people sitting in the hotel lobby passing around a guitar and bottle of whiskey at 3 a.m. Some were strangers, and others they had just met. Hamman says those kinds of fun moments bring him back year after year.