Mark Patterson Records the Musicians of the 16th Street Mall

One summer evening in 2012, the 16th Street Mall was filled with tourists and shoppers dining on outdoor patios and reveling in the agreeable weather. Mark Patterson had a different mission. The street musician was searching for a spot along the promenade to play his guitar. The plan was to practice some tunes, maybe earn a few bucks in tips. But Patterson was also excited to try out a new TASCAM field recorder he’d bought. In the seventeen years since he’d moved to Denver from Michigan, he’d played guitar along the 16th Street Mall on many occasions. But this would be the first time he’d capture his own performance on an audio recording. At least that was his plan, until he happened upon Gordon Von.

“I immediately stopped in my tracks,” recalls Patterson. Von, a pianist and singer, was so talented that Patterson realized the recorder in his backpack could be put to greater use than just recording his own playing.

“Hey, do you mind?” he asked, setting the microphone atop the piano Von was playing. From Downtown Denver: Street Music by From Downtown Denver: Street Music

So began Patterson’s project documenting street musicians along the 16th Street Mall. For the remainder of that summer, Patterson says, he returned to the mall most afternoons to record performers, amassing hundreds of hours of audio. Then, over the past few years, he edited the tracks in his spare time, eventually selecting thirteen recordings to make into an album titled From Downtown Denver: Street Music.

The result is an intriguing compilation of Denver’s street-music scene. Performers include a college student playing piano in a Spiderman suit, various members of touring bands, homeless musicians — even strangers pulled together for an improvised performance.

“There’s this amazing street scene in Denver that people don’t always pay attention to,” notes Patterson.

While he’s not the first to record musicians along the mall (in 2011, a homeless man named Dred Scott reached number fourteen on iTunes’ Singer and Songwriter chart after a local producer recorded him), Patterson says his goal is to showcase the breadth of talent that can be found along the city’s sidewalks.
“I think Denver’s street scene is artistically superior to [that of] most other cities,” he says. “I’ve traveled, so I know. Like, you go to L.A., and it’s the weirdest mix of Michael Jackson impersonators.”

In some ways, Patterson was the perfect man for the job. Having played guitar on the mall himself, he knows the tricks of the trade. He explains that the best time to find street musicians in Denver is during the summer, from mid-afternoon to early evening. That’s when a lot of people are out — getting off work, going to happy hour. It’s also the best time for tips. “Lunch businesspeople are terrible tippers, but once people start drinking, you can have people throwing down twenties,” Patterson says.

Of course, another draw of the mall is its pianos, which the City of Denver has put out each summer since 2009 as part of its Keys to the City program. The street musicians know which pianos are the best, Patterson says, and even compete for them: “Boy, do they know them! They have all the pianos rated, from like one to seven!”

Not all of the pianos are well tuned, but the more talented musicians learn to play around any dead keys. Such was the case with Von, who is now part of a traveling act called the Dueling Piano Road Show. On the day Patterson recorded him, he was performing a couple of his solo compositions.

As soon as he captured those initial recordings, Patterson says, he was hooked. He was out on the mall constantly. “I spent a lot of time recording. Not just good musicians, but a lot of bad musicians, too,” he laughs. “You never know if someone’s good or not ’til they start playing.”

Not surprisingly, he has colorful anecdotes from all of the different musicians he’s met. For instance, there was one guitarist, “C.W.,” who wouldn’t give his real name and spent most his time along the mall cursing at pedestrians. He ranted and yelled at Patterson until Patterson was finally able to cajole him to play. The song ended up becoming the second track on the album.

Another time, Patterson met the members of a relatively popular indie band named Us, From Outside, who were playing on the mall because an axle on their trailer had broken, and they were stuck in Denver until it could be fixed.

But most of the people on the album, including the kid in the Spiderman suit, are locals. And with the exception of one female artist named Pretty. Loud., they’re all men. Patterson says that’s just who he found.
“You’ll also notice that the songs are sedate,” he says. In general, Denver’s street musicians are hurting for cash. You hear it in the songs, which tend to be sad or ironic. Patterson claims he didn’t meet any local musicians who held regular, stable jobs (not counting students). He never pressed his subjects too hard, but some musicians complained about rising housing costs in Denver.

“A lot of them are too proud to ever admit how they’re struggling. Playing on the street is a way for them to escape,” he explains.

Patterson claims that he’s trying to help the musicians out with this album, and it’s been released to online-streaming services like Spotify and Rdio so that he can pay royalties to those he recorded. He still has most of the musicians’ contact information — save for a few individuals like C.W. — and plans to send them checks if the album ever makes money.

So far, though, he’s only made $10 back on his $50 licensing investment.

“Maybe I could dish out the eighty cents in royalties, or whatever it’d be, but that might not be worth writing checks just yet,” he says.

The likelihood of the album ever making anyone rich is low. Still, it remains an intriguing historical record.

The last track is particularly valuable, capturing a rare moment of total spontaneity and creativity within Denver’s street scene. On it, listeners can hear Wesley Watkins, a well-known figure who has played trumpet along the mall since he was fifteen, gather a group of strangers together and lead them into an improvised jam. One guy is on piano, another is beatboxing, another yelling soul chants. And then, adding the final atmospheric touch, is the ever-present noise of the 16th Street shuttle.

“It’s moments like that that keep me coming back,” says Patterson, whose next project is to film a DVD of the city’s best street musicians. You might see him on the mall this summer: Just look for the guy with glasses, a baseball cap and a video camera. 
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Chris Walker is a freelancer and former staff writer at Westword. Before moving to the Mile High City he spent two years bicycling across Eurasia, during which he wrote feature stories for VICE, NPR, Forbes, and The Atlantic. Read more of Chris's feature work and view his portfolio here.
Contact: Chris Walker