Mark Patterson records drummer Lance Weaver on the 16th Street Mall.
Mark Patterson Records the Musicians of the 16th Street Mall
CHRIS WALKER | MAY 27, 2015 | 8:08AM
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
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
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
“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
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,”
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
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
“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