March 11, 2010

Buskin' Portland

BOB KEYES

— By

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Staff Writer

PORTLAND — You could hear David Wayne Tayes before you could see him.

On the first short-sleeve day of the spring, the musician from West Baldwin stood on the corner of Middle and Exchange streets in the Old Port belting out songs at the top of his lungs.

No microphone, no amp. Nothing to tether him down. He wandered around in a 20-foot circle, pouring out one song after another, singing for anyone who cared to listen and those who did not.

At the height of the lunch hour, business began picking up. A few folks dropped dimes into a hat. Now and again, someone offered up a dollar bill.

To encourage donations, Tayes had his 5-year-old son, Cicada, at his side playing percussion.

''When the economy crashed, I lost my job and I could not get another one,'' said Tayes, 32. ''So here I am, trying to sing for a living.''

Up the street, near Nickelodeon Cinemas, Fred Hoffmeister sawed away on his fiddle.

''If you have a piece of hay in your mouth, it's a fiddle. Take the hay out, and it's a violin,'' he quipped to one inquisitor who asked if Hoffmeister was playing a fiddle or a violin.

This is the season for street musicians, and the Old Port is alive, especially when the weather is favorable. Their ranks are typically populated by guitar-toting youngsters who pop out song after song in hopes of winning the admiration and donations of people walking by.

This work is not the exclusive domain of young musicians, however.

Portland's best-known street performer is Mark Finks, a 61-year-old banjo player from Falmouth who performs year-round, no matter the weather, outside high-profile events.

Most of the other street performers are itinerant, working the spots where people gather. Tommy's Park and Post Office Square in the Old Port are popular locales, as is Monument Square. But the musicians are free to roam.

Nicole Clegg, director of communications for the city, said street musicians do not need permits to perform. ''If there are noise or conduct complaints, we will respond, but the city practice is to view street performers and artists as expressing their right to freely express themselves,'' Clegg wrote in an e-mail.

Some do it for joy, others for work.

Hoffmeister, an elderly gentleman from Old Orchard Beach given to laughs, has supported himself by playing on the street for more than a decade. He's part musician, part entertainer.

He gave his age as ''38-plus. I decided in '97 to be a street musician. I'm 105 percent committed to being a street musician.''

He said he had 11 reasons for performing on the streets, and then listed five:

''Because you make your own hours.

''You get to use the talent that God gave you.

''It's an affordable form of entertainment.

''It's something I love to do.

''And it gives me a chance to communicate with people.''

And the other six reasons?

Hoffmeister paused for a moment and then said, ''I'll think about that. But now I have to get back to playing. My customers are passing me by.''

He tucked his fiddle back up under his chin and sawed away on a happy tune, hoping to lure people to his little spot on the sidewalk.

''Hello, there,'' he said to one woman walking past. ''What song would you like to hear today?''

Tayes might take requests too, but he's happier playing his own music. He's in the process of making a CD, but for now is content playing on the streets for strangers. It gives him a chance to improve his skills while testing his songs.

When he gets his CD finished, he'll offer it for $15 a pop.

After he lost his job, Tayes invested his money in a couple of guitars and a van and moved south to Asheville, N.C. He has personal reasons for going there, but found professional joy. He enjoyed the life of a street musician, and also did well financially.

''We made money, money, money,'' he said. ''I was averaging $40 an hour down there.''

He's back in Maine now, and finds it much harder making money on the streets of Portland. For one thing, the weather isn't as cooperative, and people seem to be less willing to part with their cash.

He understands. He's broke too.

''That's why I am out here singing,'' Tayes said. ''This is the best way I know to try to make money.''

Tayes figures it costs him $10 a day in gas to get to Portland, so he has to be sure he's got a good day in terms of the weather to recoup his investment and come out ahead.

He has been a musician most of his life. He learned to play music from his grandmother, Rae Simmonds, who gave him lessons. He thinks of her whenever he straps on his guitar. ''I'm trying to carry on her legacy,'' he said.

Tayes has been playing on the streets of Portland for about 15 years, but this is the first time he's put out a cup.

So far, he's learned a tough economic lesson. ''I'm realizing now how tight it really is out here,'' he said.

Lazzlo has become a fixture in the Old Port in a short time. The six-piece Americana band plays roots rock, with tight harmonies and strong musicianship.

The band is new to Portland, having relocated here from Vermont six months ago ''because we ran out of venues in Vermont,'' said singer/guitarist Jim Belt.

''We like playing in the streets. We're all Deadheads, and we like to play on pavement -- in the streets, on the sidewalks, in parking lots,'' Belt said.

On Tuesday afternoon, Lazzlo drew a nice crowd at the corner of Middle and Exchange, and its tip box filled up nicely.

''We love this town,'' Belt said. ''Everyone is so accommodating, and people are friendly.''

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

bkeyes@pressherald.comCover StoryPhotos by Jeff Woodbury and Doug Jones

Lazzlo warms up the Old Port on a sunny Tuesday afternoon, above and left. At top, David Wayne Tayes and his 5-year-old son, Cicada, perform at Middle and Exchange streets.Photo by Doug jones

Fred Hoffmeister, an elderly gentleman from Old Orchard Beach, has been supporting himself by fiddling on the street for more than a decade.

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