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Big Issue North’s INSP award-winning Street Noise project hits the road for the Big Busk

The north of England is not exactly famed for its good weather, which provides a stumbling block when organising a five-day outdoor mini-festival across five of the region’s major cities. However, the team at Big Issue North’s Street Noise are familiar with daunting tasks like this. In 2017, as part of the Global Street Paper Summit hosted in Manchester, they organised their first fundraising concert, headlined by singer-songwriter Frank Turner. It was an unqualified success – all 1,500 tickets to the show were sold within a week, raising £35,000, while merchandise sales and additional donations brought in a further £3,000. George Wright, Big Issue North’s communications manager heading up Street Noise, vowed to turn the project into an ongoing series of gigs.

After another successful concert organised earlier this year (with indie rockers Puppet Rebellion at the top of the bill) and the 2018 INSP Award for Best Project in the bag by the end of August, Street Noise turned their attention to perhaps their biggest challenge yet. Last week (9-13 October, which also happened to be World Homelessness Week), Street Noise hit the road for the Big Busk, a five-day fundraising tour, bringing in money for the Big Issue North Trust, with the help of over 30 diverse bands, singers, DJs and other performers.

With members of the public familiar with the usual faces busking in their city’s streets, the Big Busk was a chance to meet local and big name acts, all while raising money and awareness for the work the street paper does in these places for, and with, their vendors. There were no tickets or entry fees; those who came along to enjoy the tunes were simply asked for a pay-what-you-feel donation.

The Big Issue North stand where donations were made, raffle tickets were purchased, merchandise was bought and information was learned throughout the Big Busk.

At each stop, Street Noise had a stand where punters could learn more about that work from Big Issue North employees, give a little extra via cash or contactless payment donations, buy Street Noise merchandise, or even purchase a raffle ticket with the chance to win some pretty outstanding prizes, from signed music memorabilia to free gig tickets.

Most touring musicians need some kind of vehicle to transport them from venue to venue, and this was no different. Thanks to a partnership with ticketing outlet and events guide Skiddle, Street Noise took over a specially designed bus kitted out with all the right equipment and facilities to make the Big Busk possible. Especially important was an extendable roof for the pull-out stage – vital when trying to fend off the usual British showers that would inevitably hit at some point.

The Big Busk bus, provided by ticketing outlet and events guide Skiddle, all set up for a day of music in Leeds

After an opening day in Manchester’s Piccadilly Gardens, where an audience made up of tourists, shoppers, and people who call the streets home, came out, and five hours of live music in Sheffield, and before moving on to Liverpool and Preston, the Big Busk bus rolled into Leeds at the halfway point of its journey. INSP was lucky enough to meet up with the Street Noise team at the prime location of Victoria Square in central Leeds to see how it was all going.

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With the bus securely parked in front of Leeds Central Library, the Street Noise team exude a sense of calm. Like most festivals, or indeed bus services, it is expected that not everything will run quite to time, and with just 15 minutes until the first performers are due to open the day’s music, and with some preparation still to get through, it looks like that cliché is coming true at the Big Busk. But the seeming lack of panic is even more impressive when you realise that it isn’t just scheduling issues causing a fuss on the third day of the whistle-stop tour of northern England – a generator, needed to power all the gadgets and gizmos that mean the show will go on without a hitch, has decided to break down without warning.

In the end, it’s a brief problem. After some timetable tinkering and the seemingly on-demand delivery of a brand new, and working, generator, the small but gifted Street Noise team have everything back on track.

The eyes of passers-by begin to be turned when the soulful Lara Rose breaks into song with her powerhouse voice. Flanked by Big Issue North vendors Ray and Stephen, selling the latest issue of the street paper, she explains her hopeful vision for the future: “Recently I coined a new word – maybe we need to stop using the word ‘homelessness’, because it just seems to have negative connotations. The word ‘homefulness’ is what I actually believe we should say and that way maybe, with a positive vibe, spreading a message in that way, we can actually really truly help people.”

People begin to take notice as opening act Lara Rose performs

There’s plenty of live music to get through so, after Rose’s short but sweet set, she is followed by the saxophone wielding trio Scratch, who belt out quirky covers of some of the most well-known tracks you are likely to hear on the radio, and the delicate songs of genuine northerner Louie James, backed only by his guitar. “It’s a great privilege to be playing music and raising money and awareness of Big Issue North and homelessness,” says James. “It’s something that’s quite dear to myself. I do a lot of work raising money for food banks in my hometown and overall this has been a good day, with great performers, and hopefully we’ve made it a success.”

After some rockabilly and Elvis covers from Conrad Ashton, the weather takes a turn for the worse, but the Skiddle bus and Street Noise have come prepared. By this point, it’s a well-oiled operation, and the roll-out roof hidden in the walls of the double-decker mean the show can go on. Alt-rap-rockers Y.O.U.N.G, who performed every day of the Big Busk, deliver a raucous set, proving that not even rain showers can dampen spirits. They’re such high energy that, instead of heading off for some shelter, the hoods and umbrellas of onlookers go up so they can stick around.

A turn in the weather doesn't dampen the spiritis of performers Y.O.U.N.G, who were present at every day of the Big Busk

Later on, back in the dry safety of the bus, three of the band’s members – drummer Graeme, bassist Tom and guitarist Jamie – explain what they’ve learned while on tour with the Big Busk: “We don’t go into the town in Manchester much, but on the first day of the Big Busk we played there, and I just couldn’t believe how bad the situation has got there. I’ve read news stories and stuff on Facebook and other social media but I hadn’t witnessed it for myself, all this stuff that was going on, and it was quite shocking.

“It’s obvious that homelessness is a huge problem, and it’s great to be able to add some help to the cause. Everyone deserves shelter, especially now that it’s getting colder. Today it’s been raining a little and even then the first thing you think is ‘let’s go inside’ and you take it for granted that you can, while others don’t have that opportunity. To be able to do something that we love – play music – while also raising awareness and some cash to help people is a great thing to be a part of.”

Before the headline acts take to the Big Busk stage, keyboard assisted folk musician Miranda Arieh is due to perform. She knows all too well what it’s like to be homeless, and so the reason she and her fellow musicians are performing at the Big Busk resonates specially with her. “I ran away from home when I was about 14 years old, and got put in foster care,” she says. “I was self-harming quite a lot, and on my own, with no real parental responsibility over me or anything like that. Shortly after that I did end up homeless. I had sort of settled in to that unsettled way of life and ended up sleeping on cold wooden floorboards with my three-year-old daughter for four months before the council sorted me out. I had to sleep rough on a few occasions – in the doorway of a Pizza Hut, and on a bench in Hyde Park. I was in some really difficult situations.”

Arieh is pleased to be able to show up for the Big Busk in a better place, and feels the knowledge she has of what it’s like to experience homelessness is driving her to urge people to make a change. “I’m happy to say now that I have really secure housing, and that was really important for me so that my daughter would never have to be in or deal with the same situations that I was,” she says. “To be here today means a lot to me – it’s a cause that I’d like to help out with and, really, just break down the stigma attached to homelessness. A lot of people still pass judgement on those who are without somewhere to live. But these are people, and it’s important to stay connected to others as people, and to ensure that we help each other out as people, whether they’re sat on the street with a duvet or not.”

People begin to turn out in numbers as Shed Seven's Rick Witter, a local favourite, DJs classic indie tunes at the Big Busk

At this point, the sprinkling of shoppers and commuters on their way home from work has become a throng of people. That’s because Rick Witter, singer of Shed Seven, a big name in the Britpop scene of the 1990s from nearby York, is about to take to his decks to deliver a crowd-pleasing DJ set of indie hits. He said: “It’s 2018 and I think it’s time homelessness was completely eradicated. It’s not necessary anymore – winter is coming and people need places to go and stay and be healthy and happy.”

Witter’s set would be enough to cap off what has been a successful day in normal circumstances. However, the Leeds stop of the Big Busk is a special one. To close out, Tom Grennan, a 23-year-old London singer-songwriter with a top ten charting debut album, who has racked up tens of millions of listens on Spotify, has come along ahead of his show at Leeds’s O2 Academy later that night.

People appear in their droves from headline act, singer-songwriter Tom Grennan

People appear in their droves from headline act, singer-songwriter Tom Grennan

People appear in their droves from headline act, singer-songwriter Tom Grennan

Grennan told INSP: “For me, it’s important to make people aware and take notice of homelessness and those who sell Big Issue North. It’s hard to pay attention to everything going on around you, but sometimes, and I’m one of the people, you just walk past because you’re in a rush, or you’re just not thinking about what’s going on. Homeless people are selling Big Issue North for a reason, and that’s to try and get some money. They’re not just sitting about, but earning for things they need like shelter, water and food. It’s so important to recognise that.

“Christmas is coming; the cold weather is upon us. To raise a little bit of money, anything, for people who are homeless, most of whom are not homeless because they want to be, but because something has happened in their life, where they’ve been dealt a bad hand. For me to do this is very humbling and if I can help just a little bit then that would be amazing.”

Taking to the stage, Grennan casually breaks into his biggest hit, ‘Found What I’ve Been looking For’, and leads the biggest audience of the day in a sing-a-long. The scene is a triumphant and moving moment for the Street Noise team, seeing all their hard work come to fruition in this moment. When it’s all over, taking stock of the money raised and the people they spoke to about their work, they can be happy knowing that they pulled off another fantastic event.

INSP members can download this story from the News Service here.

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