1 of 2
Left to right: Benjamin VandenBrink, Sarah Jensen, Henry Jensen, William Jensen. Photograph by Thomas Crone
2 of 2
Late last week, I was minding my own business, per usual, just heading to the Hartford Coffee Company for some hot tea and reading time. But the wholesome sight outside the venue would’ve stopped me even if I hadn’t planned on going into the coffee shop.
Outside the popular neighborhood venue, two kids were performing, an open guitar case giving the worldwide signal that busking was happening here. They were obviously getting into the moment, their bodies swaying and their heads tilting back in song. Crossing the street and dropping a dollar atop the five or six bills already in their case, I caught some snippets of lyrics. These seemed to be about white and black watermelon seeds.
Inside, I bounced between a pair of books, but kept looking outside at the progress. The duo—guitarist/vocalist William Jensen, 11, and singer Benjamin VandenBrink, 11—were eventually joined by mandolin player Sarah Jensen, 13, and violinist Henry Jensen, 9. Bemused patrons walked by, some talking to the kids, others silently pausing, then dropping a dollar. A few kids from the neighborhood rolled nearby on bicycles, placidly taking in the scene from across Roger.
Setting up an appointment with one of their moms, I went by again the next day, the quartet somewhat strapped for time thanks to various after-school appointments and responsibilities. But sitting on the street corner with them for even a few minutes, I learned about their unusual, still-in-formation act.
Here’s a summary. All the players live close enough to walk down the street for their almost-daily busking. That three are siblings helps the show get organized. It was the youngest member, the energetic Henry, who began the ritual, playing his fiddle on the corner about six months ago. The others slowly started joining in, too, with Sarah the most recent to the scene. On a given day, you might find one, two, three, or all four engaged and belting out classics like “Amazing Grace” or originals like “The Lonely Avocado” or “Watermelon.” (Ah, the watermelon seeds song!)
The Jensens have a family music night at home, so it’s a not a surprise that they’ve taken their gig to the streets. VandenBrink, who sings and plays the shaker eggs, is tight pals with William Jensen, so his addition to the cast was a natural one.
During the Christmas season, the act—let’s call it the Jensen VandenBrink Experience, for lack of an official name—turned to caroling and did some door-to-door gigs that way. Mostly, though, they’re on the corner, directly in front of Hartford Coffee, or just across the street. It’s lucrative, according to Henry Jensen, who says, “We usually earn a lot of money.” As an example, VandenBrink points to an afternoon when the gang played a two-and-a-half hour set that netted $40. Usually, those funds are immediately reinvested in the neighborhood, in the form of Italian sodas and hot chocolate at Hartford Coffee.
New options, though, have begun to emerge. The members of JVBE say that an owner or manager of the club Plush came by once, offering the band a gig. Sarah Jensen, though, said that the group’s passing for now, preferring to wait “until we get better.”
And there’s plenty of time for that. After all, this isn’t a group that sounds as if it’s going to splinter into rival factions. As Sarah Jensen said, “My brothers are my best friends.” That statement was followed by VandenBrink popping over to William Jensen, the former saying “...and this is my best friend.” That comment then had Henry Jensen slipping between those two, throwing his arms around them while proclaiming “...and these are my best friends,” for which he was playfully shoved out of the middle. Proving the old adage that you can be the guy that started the band, but you’re also the younger brother.
You can catch the JVBE on school days, around 4 p.m. On the weekends, barring rain or things like soccer practice, you can catch the act around mid-day, just outside Hartford Coffee, at 3974 Hartford. Or you can watch the accompanying video, which features the band’s take on “Yellow Submarine,” as well as their original “Toothpaste,” part of a larger songwriting project focused “on mundane things.”
(Thanks to the band and their folks for the opportunity to feature this act.)