By Sarah Ford | Photos by Giles Clasen
On a sunny afternoon in Boulder, the Denver VOICE took to the Pearl Street Mall to meet its buskers and record the stories of the folks involved in some of the country’s most unique work.
Scattered throughout the Pearl Street Mall, Boulder’s street performers blend into the lively scene of meandering locals and tourists. Most passersby will spare only minutes to take in a magic show, a song, or a glance at the contortionist on the corner. Many performers have spent years honing their crafts, returning to the streets daily to earn those second glances or singles thrown into their hats. At best, they make a minor impression on a person’s day. For most, they are not even a footnote. But those single bills and seconds spared are enough to support an entire lifestyle—and sometimes an entire career.
Seth Shepard, Magician
“Street performing is the hardest job in the world, that’s why I do it,” says magician Seth Shepard as a crowd disperses after a show, several small children still lingering in a circle around him with wide eyes, hoping another dollar in his hat will produce an extra trick. He obliges, pulling a silver dollar from seemingly nowhere and making it leap as if on springs from one hand to another as he talks.
He finds street performing to be the most difficult form of entertainment, explaining that it brings the unpredictability of crowds who harbor no expectations or precedents to enjoy his act. But he has chosen street performing to cut his teeth for just that reason, and it has given him the chance to travel the world as he works on his craft. He’s traveled through most of Europe performing his act, including staying in the U.K., Finland, and Iceland.
He is back in the U.S. now to continue work on filming two demo reels and a promo video of his performances. Though he loves work on the streets, he is looking to make the move to stage and video within the next year with the upcoming release of his demos. In the meantime, he says, he will continue to travel and perform wherever possible, finding satisfaction in the smallest accomplishments of a performance.
“The fulfillment is to create that moment nobody expects, and leave them wondering,” he says, producing a red cloth he had just made disappear from thin air, waving it in front of an astonished little girl.
Mau Mau, Drummer
Sitting in the shade of a tree, perched on the edge of a brick planter, Mau Mau pounds away on his bougarabou drums, watching the passing crowd from behind a carved tribal mask. It’s part of the persona he has adopted as a man of mystery.
“The mask is from Cameroon. The drums are from Senegal,” he explains. “Everything else is from Ethan Allen,” he says, waving his arm at the rest of the mall and laughing.
Unlike many of the others performing the mall, Mau Mau is not looking to make a career out of his music. Instead, the drums have become a way to keep himself entertained in retirement, after a long career of working “many jobs.”
He spent three years intensely studying the art of bougarabou, working up to 15 hours a day and learning from film, recordings, and a few personal instructors. When he was ready to perform, he knew he needed something to set himself apart from the many other musicians on the mall. That is where the mask, which had been sitting on his wall for years, came in. On weekends he makes his way out to the mall to pound away on the drums, his body swaying back and forth to his beat, always staying hidden behind the carved face of his mask.
Mark A. Curry, Human Statue
Mark Curry says people have described him as similar to Robin Williams in his ability to pull a rubber face, and it shows after five minutes of watching him perform as a human statue. As a girl nervously asks for a picture, he whispers quietly in her ear, and she takes the prop gun he hands her (a colt with the cylinder missing) and points it as he raises his hands, green eyes popping animatedly from his makeup-caked face.
Most human statues don’t engage with passersby as much as he does, he says. But his natural gregariousness has served him well through his career as a statue, which started in Boulder in 1994.
Even now, he says, he is still perfecting parts of what many assume to be a simple job.
“I thought, ‘how hard could it be?’” he says. “But 21 years later I’m still getting better.” Part of that perfecting comes across in his makeup, which he polishes into a careful bronze blend, tinged with green as if just beginning to oxidize along the sides of his head and back.
It’s not the makeup that makes the statue-man, he says, but the energy. As a lifelong performer, who transitioned to statue work after previously working as a stand up comedian, radio host, and even host of a T.V. program, Curry has a naturalness in his interactions that belies any of the lost physicality of the “statue” persona.
“I have a psychological edge,” he jokes. “People think they are looking at me, but really, I’m looking at them.”
Wes Lee, Guitarist
Wes Lee’s Boulder gig was canceled, but that didn’t stop him from making the most of a trip out to Colorado from his home of Mississippi. He’s currently making his way around the country playing his blues music in small festivals, house concerts, and clubs. As an independent artist, Lee says he and his steel guitar Rosie have logged almost 1,500 shows together, and have played in 48 of the 50 states. He decided to make a few bucks back by playing on the mall while his wife and two children roamed the shops together.
“It’s constant work,” Lee says about working as an independent artist, conceding that a team or record label would help. But he has successfully led the lifestyle of an independent artist for 27 years, after getting his start in a small Mississippi town called Hattiesburg. He just recently released a new album, Blue Roux, which he carries dozens of copies of in his guitar case to hand out to interested passersby.
This is his second time in Colorado, and he says that he has had so much success here that he aims to return for a couple of weeks next time he is out. He will live out of his van, taking the chance to go fishing when he can. He won’t make a great deal of money, but it’s all he needs to keep going in music.
“I don’t have many needs,” he says “so I’m cool.”
Check out his music at wesleemusic.com
Mark Austin Riggs, Circus Stunts
Mark Riggs can sit atop a 10’3” tall unicycle, idling while he juggles flaming batons, passing one underneath his leg. But he doesn’t consider that the center point of his act. Nor does he consider it juggling while balancing on a ladder, another stunt he performs in front of a gasping crowd of more than 200. To him, these are ancillary elements.
His act, he says, is the jokes he spends hours perfecting, writing, and rewriting to test in front of his assembled audiences. His career has not been built from focusing on his tricks, but from channeling his performer’s personality, thanks to a tip he received over 20 years ago from a fellow street performer in New Orleans.
While Riggs worked on developing his act early in his career, he would stay around the established performers to soak up whatever methods and advice he could.
“I was the younger guy and hung out with all the big guys,” he says.
One day, he made some suggestions on ways one performer might be able to adjust his jokes for better effect, and was tipped $20. He was given some advice, too: just use that personality and be yourself.
So that became his focus, and it has successfully supplied him with 25 years of work that carried him to 48 states and 16 countries. He is a staple on the Pearl Street Mall, where he has been performing for 21 years. Now, he has become one of the “big guys,” often offering advice and support to the performers just getting under way. But with a new generation, he has also found a new set of problems.
“Youtube ruined my life pretty much,” he says. Spectators will often record his act and post it online, inviting other performers to steal the jokes and one-liners he has worked so hard to perfect and write. It is another reason he is looking at soon moving his act exclusively to fairs and festivals.
But for now, he is happy with what he has: a Boulder home, family, and freedom to continue doing the work he enjoys.
“A lot of these guys want to be superstars or whatever,” he says, “but I’m over it.”
Matt Cantor and Jeremy Mohney, Swing Duo
After graduating recently from the University of Colorado Boulder with a degree in engineering, Matt Cantor decided that his lifelong love for music could become more than just a side passion. He and bandmate Jeremy Mohney, who has been playing saxophone for more than 10 years, teamed up to travel a new road together.
“We were playing in a band and he was like ‘want to play swing?’ And I was like ‘I’m down,” says Cantor. They play a regular gig on Tuesday evenings at the No Name Bar around 9 p.m., and used to have regular shows just down the block on Sundays as well, but their start came from playing together on the street.
“The thing about being a musician is it’s hard to find consistency,” says Cantor. Playing the mall gives him and Mohney an easy way to earn some extra cash for groceries, and can pay as much as a regular gig on a good day, he says.
They stand under the awning of a building at the south end of the mall, where Mohney’s usually quiet voice and shy demeanor are cast aside as his belting voice carries down the street, attracting a small crowd to watch a quick song. After they are done, a woman deposits $5 in their open case, asking where they usually play and whether she can find them online. There’s another benefit of playing the street—you never know who might wander by.
Check out Jeremy Mohney at jeremymohney.com ■