Them Travelin’ Birds
WHERE: Moon & River Cafe, 115 S. Ferry St, Schenectady
WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesday
HOW MUCH: Free
MORE INFO: Moon & River Cafe
Cassandra O’Connor and Tracy Hui have been on the road for months. As the folk duo Them Travelin’ Birds, they’ve been traveling troubadours, touring the country and looking for places to perform.
The Northern California-based Birds will land at the Moon & River Cafe in Schenectady on Tuesday, playing from 8 until 10 p.m. They’ll sing their traditional numbers, as well as songs they picked up during visits around the USA.
The couple — they met two years ago at an Oakland party — have sacrificed for their art.
“We live in a minivan,” O’Connor said of the 1997 gray Dodge Caravan that is a mobile headquarters. “It’s kind of like a soccer mom van with mostly tinted windows. We have a nice bed back there.”
O’Connor, 29, said traveling has always been part of her life. “When I was in California, I was waiting tables, I was dreaming about traveling again,” she said, talking by cell phone from a coffee shop in Westborough, Massachusetts. “I wrote a song about where I wanted to go and I wanted to do it and Tracy wrote a really cute song back to me and said, ‘Let’s go.’”
The musicians — O’Connor plays acoustic guitar and Hui is on four-string banjo and tambourine — are not making big money at this stage in their careers. And it can take a lot of time lining up gigs.
“For every one gig we get, we probably email 30 places,” O’Connor said.
The frugal musicians have learned how to stretch dollars. “We live really cheaply,” O’Connor said. “We just don’t stay in hotels. Even camping is kind of a luxury because it costs $30 a night to get a campground with a shower. We play at a lot of farmer’s markets and a lot of times the vendors give us produce and that helps out a lot.”
O’Connor doesn’t want to sleep in a van and eat lettuce and tomatoes for the next five years. But it’s fun for now, and self-taught banjo man Hui is fine with life on the road. There have been some great moments.
“When we started, it was a leap of faith,” he said. “I had been playing jazz guitar and experimental guitar in groups in Oakland and San Francisco. I had my own after-school music program for ‘at risk youth’ for almost seven years. I was laid off before I decided to hit the road with Cass — I just started singing again with her a month or two beforehand.”
Wandering pays off
The wandering lifestyle is paying dividends. O’Connor and Hui have gathering stories and songs.
“We have met the most amazing people,” O’Connor said. “A lot of people have helped us; when we’re out playing, they’ve invited us into their homes.”
In New England, the singers stayed with new friends who told them about sea chanties, songs sung on merchant sailing vessels.
“We researched sea chanties and added sea chanties to our set,” O’Connor said.
Another adventure came in Lafayette, Louisiana, Cajun country.
“We were playing at a farmer’s market and this 71-year-old man named Bert, he came up to us while we were playing and he was so happy,” O’Connor said.
“He said, ‘Look at the smile on that boy’s heart.’ Then he proceeded to drive us to different local jam sessions with Cajun musicians we wouldn’t have known about if he hadn’t taken us there.
“We stayed with him for a week,” O’Connor added. “He was an amazing host. He made us gumbo, he took us dancing."
In March, Hui and O’Connor were adventuring in Appalachia.
“We started through Appalachia in Dahlonega, Georgia,” he said. “We didn’t have a show. It was St. Patrick’s Day, rainy and cold. Cass asked the local oyster bar and restaurant if we could play. They said ‘Yes’ and they fed us some of the best food, we earned handsomely in tips and they then proceeded to buy us a hotel room.”
Making more friends
The rest of Appalachia was also Bird-friendly.
“We wandered out to Nashville, busked and met someone on the street who offered to interview us for a radio show,” Hui said. “We met folks at the Honeyfolk Jam in Burnsville, North Carolina, who were amazing. They took care of us and drove all the way out to Johnson City, Tennessee, to see our show.”
Hui has other favorite folks — like the family of musicians that caught the Westborough farmer’s market sets and gave the Birds a roost for the night.
“Their son had a classical recital, their daughter was getting ready for fiddle camp, Dad kept me busy talking about and listening to the jazz saxophonist Phil Woods,” he said. “And Mom made waffles.”