Some people will do anything for attention. But anything sometimes leads to art--though it might be the kind of art that's played out on street corners for a handful of change. This weekend, a horde of street performers will swarm into downtown Denver for the seventh annual US West Buskerfest.
In the case of New York glass musician Ed Stander, an oddball talent has taken him not only to city streets but to concert-hall stages, where he's performed with symphony orchestras. "Basically, I rub the rims of glasses and make noise," says the mild-mannered Stander (who's also a geology professor) of his craft, a rarely practiced genre invented in the 1720s by Richard Puckeridge. "It was once the national instrument of Germany--for about two weeks in the late 1700s," notes Stander. "But by the 1820s, it was made illegal because it was thought to cause nervous disorders. It didn't come back until about 1930."
Stander took up the glasses after he heard a recording of Mozart's work for glasses and orchestra and thought, "Any damn fool could do that." It took Stander, a stickler for aural perfection, five years to put together his first "piano bar" of 64 glasses: "Most glasses don't sing very well--you have to audition them. Even now, I'll go into a glass store for a couple of hours and just audition glasses." And how does he deal with the funny looks he gets while he's doing it? With ease, apparently: "People who work in glass shops are very bored," he says.
Since picking up the trade, Stander's been all over the world: His musical resume includes a nine-year street-corner stint in Quebec City and a performance that was actually conducted on the Great Wall of China. But even with such experiences under his belt, Stander's not at all averse to impromptu performances, which he does on a twelve-glass "portable bar" using a repertoire that winds from the classics to Broadway show tunes.
"I'll go to various strange cities and sit on a corner and freak people out," he says. "First of all, they're shocked, and then they're mad they didn't come up with the idea first. I tend to try and put them on--like, they'll ask what kind of glasses I use, and I'll answer, 'Prescription glasses.' Or they'll ask if it works when there's beer in the glasses, and I'll say, 'It works for half an hour and then they go flat.'" Humor seems to put people at ease, Stander opines. "I'm so strange that people don't usually kick me out. I guess I'm less dangerous than a juggler."
As part of his show, Michael "Shoehorn" Conley simultaneously combines talents, as many buskers do, by rhythmically tap dancing while playing various wind instruments--mostly the saxophone. "It was just a natural thing for me to tap dance while playing the sax," he says of his vaudevillian act, which took root in his teens. "It all came out of playing harmonica and walking at the same time--I never thought of it like tap dancing at first. I used to listen to my feet all the time--for instance, when I was going down the stairs, I'd maybe do it in triplets, and when I was going up, I'd do a different rhythmic thing." Combined with a string of influences ranging from Gene Kelly to John Coltrane, Conley's interests led him to formal dance and music lessons and an eventual street gig.
"By definition, I'm sort of a performance artist," says Conley. In that spirit, he's branched out in several directions: "Now I do rap tap: I'm rappin' while I'm tappin', cuz I gotta make it happen. I call it 'Raptapsody in Blue.'" He's released two recordings, which will be available during his Denver performance, and has also developed an electronic tap instrument he calls "tappercussion." Which all keeps him busy and, well, off the streets. "I don't do the street very much anymore, but I started there," Conley says. "Now I'm more on a festival circuit, but the street's a valuable place to start out and develop your act, and it gives you a certain integrity."
Indiana native Tom McCormack, who now lives in Oregon, grew up "eating, sleeping and living basketball out in Hoosierland, where basketball was actually formed." By 1978, he was so bored by performing mundane B-ball feats--fancy shots taken while leaping over cars and the like--that he decided to try all his tricks on a pair of roller skates. He later switched to faster in-line skates to perfect a sport he calls Blade Ball--a concept McCormack says could revolutionize NBA basketball, as well as baseball or maybe even football. At 48, the sportsman who also climbs mountains and swims in the freezing Glacier River for two hours at a time can vouch for its health benefits: "It would extend your playing life--you could easily play until age 45. It keeps you loose and limber and much stronger. I have one of the lowest pulses in North America."
McCormack even considered pitching the concept as a challenge to the sorry Denver Nuggets: "If they will practice in the off-season on blades, they will beat the NBA so bad. I'm really serious about that, too--it does something to loosen up or warm up the player." Of course, he admits he's chosen a team with a weak spot. "Portland's too arrogant to consider it. But I always say limitations are self-imposed--I call them 'stupidstitions.'"
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McCormack's admittedly a sort of Renaissance man of eccentric pastimes, a fellow who knows no limitations. When he's not performing Blade Ball, he's a gifted professional storyteller, and sometimes he does both at the same time. While nonchalantly shooting hoops on blades, he'll try out new storytelling material on the audience, using a variety of gimmicks, including one-liners, sound effects, voice dialogue, mime, and flute and didgeridoo music. "I know I can take it to the Kennedy Center if I can take to the street," he notes. McCormack's motto: "A story may stand on its own, but a storyteller makes it dance."
In McCormack's case, he also puts it through the hoops.
US West Buskerfest, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Fri.-Sat. and 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sun., June 25-27, 16th Street Mall, free, 303-478-7878. Late Nite Larimer performances, 8-11 p.m. Fri.-Sat., Larimer Square.