This week (July 11-14), knife jugglers, flame throwers, hapless clowns and every other type of street performer in between will descend on downtown Kingston for the city’s 25th annual Buskers’ Festival. Every year, it’s one of the most popular events of the summer, and 2013 shouldn’t be any different, especially when the lineup includes Sheesham & Lotus & Son, a Kingston-based trio of ragtime musicians, and Billions Cobra, a contortionist from Toronto who’s famous for twisting himself through a flaming tennis racket. I caught up with Teilhard Frost (Sheesham) and Billions Cobra recently to find out what audiences can expect from them in Kingston and why they love to perform on the street.
Sheesham & Lotus & Son
For those who’ve never seen you perform before, what should they expect?
Well, we make music from about 1929 and earlier. And it’s all acoustic and it’s very much in the vein of music that happened before the television was invented. So it’s old-timey, high-steppin’, rag-timey music. There are three of us: Sheeshan & Lotus & Son. I play fiddle, harmonica and sing; Lotus plays banjo and bass harmonica and sings; and Son Sanderson plays sousaphone.
How about for those who do know you. Anything new they can expect in Kingston?
There will be all of the standards, and it will be the old-time music that you think you know but you’ve never heard before. And we do have a couple of new numbers to play. Our latest album  is about one year old, and it was nominated for the Best Traditional Album of 2012 by the Canadian Folk Music Awards, so we’ll be featuring some of those songs as well.
There aren’t many bands out there making albums like this anymore. What is it about this type of American roots music that is so important to you?
We just love the music; it’s just killer music that knocks people out. The thing is we started in square dance bands and then just kept singing more songs, and then it got more and more raggy. And there’s no one making the music like this. Somebody’s got to make it, and there aren’t many people doing it. We just love early jazz and really early blues, and it appeals to so many people—little kids all the way up to 90-year-olds. In fact, a 104-year-old just the other day told us how much they love us.
Will those encounters be any more meaningful at the festival in Kingston, where you’re from?
It’s funny actually. We got started by playing the streets of Kingston. We’d play at the Farmers’ Market three or four times a week, and we’d play outside the liquor store once or twice a week. So busking has been a big part of who we are, and it’s a great venue because you get all of the people. Grannies don’t go to bars, little kids don’t go to bars; when you’re busking on the street you’re getting everybody. This will be a special event for us, and since Lotus & Son live up in Wakefield, Quebec, now it’ll be really nice to have them back down here for the week.
What can audiences expect from you at the festival this year?
I do a body contortion, whip-cracking fire show basically with comedy, of course. The performance usually lasts about 45 minutes. I put my body through a tennis racket that’s on fire, and I also crack a whip that lights on fire. When you crack it, a big fire ball pops up at the end of it, so that’s really fun.
It’s pretty fun to see, too, but I can’t imagine how you got into this type of performance.
I started in 2000. When I was 18, my friend Janet taught me how to juggle and we thought it would be a fun idea to take a trip to the International Jugglers’ Convention, which is an annual meeting of the world’s best jugglers. So I went down to that and I saw all of these amazing people doing all of these amazing things, and that inspired me to get into it. So then I bought some equipment, started practicing, and that was the spark that got it going for me.
Why did you want to take what you were practicing to the street?
I saw that it was just a lot of fun, and from the beginning I saw that the people who were doing the performances were just amazing people and really fun to hang out with. I don’t know if I can put a finger on it other than that.
Have you performed in Kingston before? What are your thoughts on performing there again this year?
Yes, I have performed there. I’ve been at the festival three or four times. It’s great, and I love the festival. It’s a really good time and I’m always happy to come back again.