No one ever said being a street musician was easy.
First, you have to brave the elements – in Thursday’s case, the sweltering heat of 90-degree sunshine and heavy gusts of wind. Then, there’s transporting heavy instruments and staking a claim on the perfect piece of sidewalk real estate.
Finally, the pressure to perform in front of hundreds of passersby, many of whom won’t bother to look up from their phones. And if that isn’t enough, the occasional instrument malfunction.
“Ahh!” shouted Alex Gustafson, a singer and a sophomore at St. George’s School in northwest Spokane, as her band began to play. “He broke the hi-hat.”
It was somewhere between a rock and a hard place Thursday for the St. George’s quintet, which for the first time played in the Street Music Week festival – a five-day-long event that sees musicians flood the streets for lunch hour concerts.
With a busker bucket at their feet, they played for about an hour, and donated the proceeds to the Second Harvest food bank.
Former Spokesman-Review columnist Doug Clark hatched the event, which has raised more than $200,000 in its since it began in 2003. That equates to about 1 million meals, the food bank says.
So far this year, Clark estimated more than 200 bands and/or solo musicians have performed, though he and his cohort Jim Lyons don’t keep a running total of money raised until the food bank counts it all at the end of the week. They’re hoping for about $25,000 – but it’s not a race.
“It’s not about virtuosity,” Lyons often tells the musicians “It’s about generosity.”
Just as the sun was about to reach its peak in the sky, Gustafson – along with her brother, bassist Gabe Gustafson; guitarist Ben Clark; and brothers Alex and Luke Anderson – set up on the northeast corner of Wall Street and Riverside Avenue, in a small sliver of shade thanks to the skywalk above.
Since all were students at St. George’s, the group had plenty of experience playing together before taking their act to the streets. Nameless – aside from a few attempts, such as the St. George Instrumental Music Class, or the Entitlements, as a former guitarist liked to say – they filled the busy streets with classic rock hits.
Red Hot Chili Peppers. Doobie Brothers. Sublime. Jon Bon Jovi. Journey. Even Alien Ant Farm’s version of Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal.” With each song or two, a person would walk by with a quick dollar or five.
Alex Anderson, switching between bass and violin, would let his long, flowing black hair dangle in front of his eyes as he belted out a solo meant for a guitar.
And when his brother – a smaller, spitting image of himself – arrived with a drum set, they all discovered he’d forgotten a stand for the snare drum. No matter, they propped it up with instrument cases. And then there was the issue with the pedal to the hi-hat cymbal.
Perhaps in a bit of irony, they followed the mishap with a 1992 hit by Mary Chapin Carpenter.
“I feel lucky,” they sang. “I feel luck, yeah.”
Down the road on Post Street, 57-year-old Paul Fawcett strummed away at a guitar, two lonely dollars sitting comfortably in his bucket. In his third or fourth year at the event, the musician paused for a moment of quiet existentialism.
“I mostly play my own stuff,” he said, as he gathered sheet music on his stand. “But nobody cares.”
Lucky for him, his day job as an occupational therapist at Spokane Public Schools more than covers the bills. Still, the dream of one day being a folk musician beckons.