Whether you gawk or throw a dollar in the guitar case, the buskers of Lawrence continue to set up shop on a vacant corner of Mass. Street and perform for a constant rotating audience.
“A good street performer will not let sirens or children or hecklers or anything like that stop them from being an entertainer,” says 30-year street-performing veteran Richard Renner.
Busking, or street entertaining, isn’t uncommon in these parts of town, often hearing a slow transition from lively zydeco music to moving jazz solos as you walk from one side of the block to the next. If you’re lucky you stumble upon “lady with maraca” (not yet tracked down) or Tom Krause, aka the “Bottle man,” on a homemade yard-long row of glass vessels he calls a bottle flute.
Let us introduce you to a few of the stories behind the street performances.
The 'extraordinary' Tyler Gregory
Blues-roots singer songwriter Tyler Gregory is hands-down a town favorite, referred to as the coup de grace of Lawrence street musicians. Starting at 16 in Lawrence, Gregory has busked all over the country from the streets of Chicago to the subways of New York to the shore of Venice Beach.
His popularity stems further than the 250 to 300 shows he performs on tour each year around the nation in different venues. An ordinary performance in May 2012 in front of Third Planet at Ninth and Massachusetts streets turned into touching moment of the connection his music made with a blind, autistic young boy named Jacob. The 8-year-old boy slowly come up to Gregory bobbing his head, and putting his hand on Gregory’s leg, then guitar.
Jacob's mom posted the video to YouTube, and it went viral, now having more than 700,000 views. Gregory was contacted by Ellen DeGeneres, "Good Morning America" and a number of radio stations.
“It was just as touching for me, but I didn't think that anything would come of it,” he says. “It warmed my heart having that child come up to my while I was playing. I've never felt anything like that before. Literally the energy was radiating off of him. When he touched my guitar it seemed as if it all connected and he was showing his appreciation as I was showing my thankfulness. ”
No matter where his travels take him, he posts up and provides the soundtrack for any scene, sometimes providing bar fight tunes at two in the morning, or recently pulling out his banjo on a hike in Colorado surrounded by people with other items like climbing gear.
“The oddest place I've ever found myself busking, though, I wasn't playing for tips,” Gregory says. “Maybe motivation for the hikers.
World-traveling Billy Ebeling
At the age of 25, “townie” Billy Ebeling took it upon himself to leave Lawrence to busk around the world with his guitar, traveling through the streets of the States, Fiji, Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong. What he learned from all of it is that some people love it, some people don’t.
“I played the other night [at a Lawrence venue], and this guy got on the mic and said when he was at the University of Kansas, he saw me playing and it changed his life,” Ebeling says.
But he’s also gotten tickets from cops.
“I’ve been thrown in jail and had the guitar confiscated,” he says. “So, life-changing to criminal.”
The perception of busking varies depending on where you play, he says, noting that his spontaneous playing abroad was welcomed with much more warmth than in Lawrence. Some people here wouldn’t even know what it means to be a busker.
“I think they just look at it as a bum with a talent,” Ebeling says.
Not that stops him. Since he came across a fiddler at a festival in Phoenix and had an “aha moment” seeing busking for the first time, he knew he wanted to be a full-time musician, and has done so since 1985.
“There’s a freedom to it, you know,” he says. “Play as long as you want to play, whatever you want to play. And it’s always there for you if you want to do it.”
You never know who will appreciate the music.
After receiving — what he and his brothers thought was a prank — phone call from Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, he was hired to play a show following a Pink Floyd concert in Auckland, New Zealand. Gilmour had seen them playing downtown, and ended up giving them backstage passes for the concert, and paying them double for the afterparty performance.
Cowgirl’s Train Set’s Mike Calvillo
When he’s not being the frontman onstage for seven-piece local band Cowgirl’s Train Set, or working for KU on Wheels or working for Shamrock Tree Service, Mike Calvillo is working on his artist craft on Mass. Street during the summer. He will often play songs that he wrote for the band as a solo act, which ends up being a very different experience without the help of his fellow bandmates.
“You consistently learn and grow as a musician every day,” he says.
Calvillo likes to play a mixture of blues, jazz and folk and world music influences with the grittiness of punk rock. His beginning busking days a few years ago were nerve-wracking, sometimes leaving the scene after half an hour, plagued by the feeling that his resonant voice and guitar could actually be upsetting those who are trying to enjoy that quality time with their family.
“That does go through my head,” he says. “I am very loud, and sometimes that can be deterring to a lot of people. But sometimes you just get the right crowd.”
Sometimes his music connects with at least 30 people dancing around him, all feeling the music in that moment. It’s a rush nothing else can give him.
“It’s almost a euphoric high,” he says. “A full-body experience.”
It’s almost a matter of strategy, Calvillo says, finding just the right time and place (“the Third Planet corner is golden”) to start playing. People are often generous around noon when they are out shopping, and stingy during the late night bar rush, as they are looking to spend that money on drinks.
Michael Bradley on guitar, Barry “Washboard” Barnes and Tommee Sherwood on Cajun accordion make up a 10-year-going funky act on Eighth and Mass. every Friday night called Zydeco Tougeau.
“People are still surprised when they hear it,” Barnes says.
Stomping their feet, hooting and hollering, with Barnes twirling his hat in the air and leading vocal sections of “liggy liggy lie, liggy liggy lo” definitely stops people in their tracks at this unexpected mix between Cajun and zydeco far more popular in the South.
“We do it for the potential of kids freaking out,” Barnes says.
Ten or more random young kids often form a sideshow on the sidewalk, frantically dancing along to the strong rhythm of the music. Even break-dancers will stop for a moment (which happened while the photo was being taken for this story) to add to the spectacle. It’s often not even about us street performers, Sherwood says.
“It’s three hours of free practice space every Friday night,” Bradley says. “We play wherever people want to get down.”
Their street-performing is a stark difference from their individual day jobs. Sherwood is custodian at Kansas University, Bradley works in the children’s department at Lawrence Public Library and Barnes works in the productions facility of Hallmark and writes poetry. His published book, “We Sleep in a Burning House” is available at The Raven Book Store.
Far more people pass by them than stick around but the three are content with those odds considering how many people they come in contact with every time.
"If a fraction of everyone likes what we're doing, that's still a lot of people," Sherwood says.
Odd Act Richard Renner
While it’s not surprising that music is the bulk of the busking scene in Lawrence, we do have some “circus act” buskers amidst us. Renner produces the annual Lawrence Busker Festival (this year Aug. 22 through 24) downtown, where attendees can dive into “a world where freaks, geeks, oddities, artists and out-of-the-box entertainers run wild.” Pitches, or stages, are set up on the streets sectioned off between Eighth and 10th for 25 different local and international acts.
But Renner isn’t lacking his own skills. After graduating from Kansas University in 1981 with a theater degree and a series of “useless” talents like juggling, unicycle riding and walking on stilts, he naturally gravitated to the street-performing field.
“I started hanging out with the wrong kind of people — street performers and clowns and musicians,” Renner says.
He furthered his skills at conferences learning from teachers across the country, until hired by Kansas City company Mimewock. A small accordion in hand for one routine, he channeled his inner clown.
“I play ‘Pop Goes the Weasel’ very badly,” Renner says. “But I’m not a Ringling Bros. clown. I’m more of a Dick Van Dyke, Red Skelton, Jerry Lewis kind of clown.”
Renner enjoys the spontaneity of street performing, a distinct memory performing with a fire-eater friend, who set himself on fire. After grabbing a McDonald’s milkshake from a little girl standing nearby and pouring it on him (not a part of the act), he helped put out the fire and drove him directly to the nearest hospital.
“But we got the biggest hat,” he says. “We got the most money from that show that I’ve ever gotten. I thought, maybe I should think about pursuing other venues other than the street if this is what it takes.”