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THE SCENE: Live, from San Francisco's streets
Capturing sidewalk sounds on CD, from a drum circle to an eh-ru

James Sullivan   Tuesday, October 15, 2002

Tim Nutt is selling compact discs to bystanders and passers-by in sunny Union Square. That's the idea, anyway. There is no apparent sense of urgency to the endeavor.

His mother, visiting from her native France, has just collected $20 for two copies of Nutt's "Streetnote" CD, his first collection of field recordings of San Francisco street musicians.

She beckons for him to come retrieve the bills, but he waves her off.

"Centralize the cash, Timothy," booms his good-natured father, who is wearing a sport coat despite the mounting heat. A point-and-click camera dangles from his wrist.

Nutt, a scruffy recent Stanford graduate in a Streetnote T-shirt and sweatbands pushed up around his elbows, thinks it's high time our local street entertainers got some recognition. Ten paces from the makeshift Streetnote booth -- a folding table and a drummer's stool -- beefy Robert Close, the downtown opera singer who has been a Union Square fixture for two decades, is celebrating the CD release. With a tinny boom box blaring prerecorded accompaniment, he sings Puccini for a scattered crowd gathered on the steps in the middle of the square.

While at Stanford, aspiring drummer Nutt and a few of his musician friends played "jazz and Afro-Cuban stuff" on the sidewalk.

"In Palo Alto," he says, "we were the only ones. Here, there is such diversity."

Developing an interest in recording technology, Nutt says he "really didn't have much to record myself, so I decided to use my skills to help others." The Streetnote project gives deserving performers a product to sell; after a 20-CD starter kit, he says, they can buy additional copies at cost ($2.50 apiece).

He would also like to rectify the "huge misconception" that most street musicians are homeless. Close, for example, is putting two daughters through college. ("They both want to go into the theater," the singer says with a chuckle. "Boy, they're ill.")

The first "Streetnote" CD features a half dozen acts, including Close, a classically trained performer who has appeared in the San Francisco production of "The Phantom of the Opera"; blues guitarist Don Garrett, who plays daily in Fisherman's Wharf; Chinatown's Mr. Xie, who plays the violin-like eh-ru; and the drum circle at Golden Gate Park's Sharon Meadow.

"These are people who feel marginalized," says Nutt. "They really express what they have to say."

The first release, he explains, "is sort of a soundscape, a walk through San Francisco. I wanted it to be like a kaleidoscope." If things go well, he hopes to do future CDs with themes -- blues players, for instance, or musicians who ply their trade in BART stations.

Close, taking a break, ambles over to introduce his new singing partner, 31- year-old North Carolina transplant Litz Plummer.

Nutt's parents want to take a picture of their son and the opera singers, both of whom carry the ample girth common to their chosen field. "Oh, geez," jokes the garrulous Close. "Use a wide lens."

While Close has nothing but praise for his new business partner -- "Good Lord, he's probably the most honest man in San Francisco" -- not all of the musicians know quite what to make of the enthusiastic young man and his ideas. Mr. Xie, who doesn't speak English, recently told Nutt through a translator that he couldn't sell any of the CDs.

"They were in a box under his table," Nutt recalls with a laugh. "I told him, 'You can't sell them if people don't know you have them."'

E-mail James Sullivan at jamessullivan@sfchronicle.com