Shawn Hubler

Op Image: Unexpected art presents the city in a new light

Members of the Element Brass Band perform at a Fat Tuesday celebration in front of Mulvaney's B&L in 2014.
Members of the Element Brass Band perform at a Fat Tuesday celebration in front of Mulvaney's B&L in 2014.

The difference between a merely likeable city and one you can fall in love with can be as simple as its ability to surprise.

Any town can give you the basics – safe streets, a couple of parks, a good cup of coffee. But love? For that, a place needs a certain charisma, a certain critical mass of the unexpected, a certain boom-chicka-wow-wow just when you thought you’d seen all it had to offer.

I like Sacramento, but “like” was all I felt until last month, when I turned a corner on my walk home from work and found a New Orleans-style brass band playing Gnarls Barkley on the sidewalk just a few blocks from my house.

Maybe it was the warm day; the sky was blue and the sunlight was dappled. Maybe it was that I had just walked under someone’s orange tree, and it was fragrant and blossoming.

Maybe it would have happened anyway, is what I’m saying. But the sound of that band, playing randomly to the patio of a restaurant on 20th and K streets, seemed to make the whole sleepy block feel suddenly lovable and lively. I heard the city with new ears, and saw it with fresh eyes.

Afterward, I tracked down the band and talked to Byron Colborn, the saxophonist. Colborn said the 5-year-old group, the Element Brass Band, actually has 16 members and plays in nightclubs, but sometimes a few of them hit the street and jam.

“Any big organized event, we’ll just crash them,” Colborn said, laughing. “Worst-case scenario, they tell us to go away.”

Street music is one of those amenities that sounds great to a city until the complaints start coming in from people trying to sleep or run a business. There are probably 10 losers strumming bad Dylan next to an open guitar case for every real musician, so you can see where unintended consequences might strike a sour note for some.

For a while, in fact, the Downtown Sacramento Partnership experimented with issuing permits to street performers. But a spokeswoman for the group said it ended up scrapping the idea because of noise complaints and other issues.

Colborn said his band plays sanctioned sidewalk gigs on Second Saturdays, and his friends sometimes play on the street in Old Sacramento. The music, he says, is welcome in those places, albeit not surprising.

People come to cities, though, because they want something more than mere orchestration. Otherwise, why leave the suburbs? That’s why I’m left wondering if the city could somehow just learn to turn a blind eye to the more talented rogues on its sidewalks.

It’s idealistic, I know, but how great would it be to walk out of that new arena after a game and be surprised by some glorious tune on a warm, fragrant evening? Wouldn’t it make you feel something like love?