At first glance, the Harvard Square busking duo Vibe Check might induce disbelief. How could two people so young play such complex, funky, rock-fueled music? Is there trickery employed here, like prerecorded tracks?
While deception isn’t afoot, there is the spirit of a magic act about Vibe Check, two 14-year-old Belmont boys who’ve finessed a propulsive amalgam of music styles at least as old as their parents’ generation. The highly skilled sound includes 1970s funk, jazz, hard rock, jam-band, and electronica. In the Square, Cal DiGiovanni focuses on guitar and piano while Will Barsam plays the drums. But both are adept at multiple instruments.
“I play drums, bass, and guitar, all three, every day,” Will says. “I never see it as a chore, it’s what I feel like doing! Learning new things, like Frank Zappa stuff, can be hard, but it’s really fun. Listening to music every day is important because every listen gets engraved on some part of your brain.”
The drummer mentions his hero, Zappa, so often during our recent interview on Brattle Street, he apologizes. “I can talk about drummers, too, like [the Who’s] Keith Moon and [Snarky Puppy’s] Larnell Lewis.”
Cal may still be waiting for his growth spurt, but he’s grown into an absolute monster on guitar. He rattles off a sophisticated assemblage of wide-ranging favorites: the Doors, Pink Floyd, Phish, Rush, Led Zeppelin, the Meters, Parliament Funkadelic, George Clinton, Bootsy Collins, Weather Report, Chick Corea. Though inspired by the Who, Cal said he would never smash his guitar.
As buskers, the two have been joined at points by others, including bassist Liam Oulton, a high school senior. “Liam is a huge Deadhead, so he brought a lot of influences from the Dead’s Phil Lesh,” Cal says.
Their talent isn’t a clear matter of genetics. “We’re both the only musicians in our immediate family,” Cal says, adding that he plunked out “Heart and Soul” on his grandmother’s piano at age 7 and was immediately smitten with the instrument.
Both are quick to credit the School of Rock in Wakefield, where they met, and their supportive parents. “My mother bought me a bright red electric guitar years ago,” Will says. “I take apart guitars and modify them. I’ve built a few basses in my day.”
At moments, the pair sound like kids, at others, like ambitious adults. When asked if they thought of the band as a way to become more popular with peers, they appear appalled at the thought. When asked their ages, Will admits to being close to 15. “But,” Cal says with a laugh, “we’ll say we’re 14 for now, because it’s better for business.”
“When we’re busking, I play drums really loud because it attracts a crowd, and you make more money,” Will says. “But I also love dynamics and playing softer.”
Practicing drums can annoy Will’s siblings. “If my brother’s studying for a test, I switch to guitar or bass and turn the volume down,” he explains.
“I feel bad for you,” Cal says to his best friend, sounding genuinely sympathetic. (Cal doesn’t have the same problem; his siblings are much older and live elsewhere.)
The tone they strike in discussing a professional musical future is refreshingly mature. “Thinking of the future just takes the fun out of it,” says Cal. “It stresses me. We’ll cross that bridge when we get there, if we do.”
“Whatever happens happens,” Will says. “And we also think of schoolwork, like getting an A in math.”