Street Music

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Laguna’s street musicians share their pure love of music with whomever takes the time to stop and listen. – By Hayley Toler | Photos by Jody Tiongco

On any given moment, either under glistening stars or in warm summer rays, strolling down Forest Avenue or Coast Highway in downtown Laguna Beach may prove to be an eclectic experience of melodious tunes. Setting up along sidewalks and down alleyways, Laguna Beach street musicians are as diverse as the passersby that they perform for, and many exemplify the starving artist stereotype.

Chords on the Corner

Over 20 years ago, Jim Rohrer of Laguna Woods and Warren Allen of Dana Point shared adjacent cubicles for years before discovering a mutual love of music and eventually jamming together in local coffee shops, the Irvine Spectrum and at what has been their signature downtown Laguna stage for four years, Greeter’s Corner.

Entertaining passersby with classics by Pink Floyd, The Beatles and Nick Lowe, the two can be seen most Wednesdays, Sundays and First Thursday Art Walk days; sometimes the Laguna Beach greeter even integrates himself into the performance. Warren, a producer of the Orange County Music Awards, wails on an Ibanez AFS 75 guitar while Jim sings and supports Warren with chords from his acoustic Gibson Songwriter guitar.

“Our target demographic is whoever happens to walk by,” says Jim of the group’s virtual celebrity status among passersby. “We often play for 100 people, not that any of them are paying attention. They don’t even know that they are fans.”

In the true spirit of rock ’n‘ roll, the duo admits that some characteristics of their street performance are illicit, and they have even been banned from playing in front of one downtown gallery’s window.

“Most of the time we don’t get busted for playing here, but there are certain aspects of our program that might technically not be allowed,” says Warren, who kept the details of their indiscretion confidential.

Downtown Alley

The life of the musical street renegade is dictated by a quasi code of ethics based on seniority, acoustic positioning and how many bucks a musician is willing to put into his opponent’s guitar case to persuade a change of venue. Adjacent to Bushard Pharmacy is a location that warrants the most competition for musicians, which has been dubbed “Acoustic Alley” by the local performer’s community.

“We don’t usually perform in Acoustic Alley because certain performers, like April, need that space more than we do, and it is perfect for what she does,” Warren says.

A true icon of the street musician industry, April Walsh’s famed ’40s style of dress and Judy Garland-like voice are almost as charming as her bubby personality, which in June will have enchanted downtown streets for three years. When April lost her car and subsequently her job as a food deliverer, she attempted to earn quick cash singing on the street while looking for a replacement job.

“I had come downtown to sing on a dare one time with some friends, who dragged me down on a Saturday and I stood on the corner of Fingerhut Gallery and made $7,” April says. “After I lost my job, I thought maybe I would try to do it for real. So I got my CD player, dressed up like it was 1943, got on the bus and started singing, and I made $40 bucks.” She now makes a living performing on the streets of Laguna, at parties and at senior homes.

Growing up, April was involved in chorus and took only one semester of voice training in college, but her luxuriously rich voice was discovered as a treasure on season five of “American Idol,” where April made it into the top 44.

“Even though I was cut before top 24, I got my agent out of that experience. Paula Abdul was nice enough to cut together a tape of me and send it to New Line Film Productions, and then I tried out for the movie ‘Hairspray.’ I made it to the second callback, so I got close. ‘Hairspray’ is pretty much the only lead role for a big girl like me,” April says.

Playing Their Way 

Street performing neophytes also try their hand at entertaining local crowds on their way to fame and fortune in the music industry. High school students Matt Mayamoto and Max Monahan are recent additions to the downtown scene and express their love of jazz music through Matt’s trumpet and Max’s bass.

“We love playing out here; we just get our Real Books, pick our favorite songs, and if people give us money, that’s cool,” Matt says.

Saving up money for college tuition and expenses, the two boys collected $40 and a bar of soap on their Forest Avenue debut, but Max’s usual street music crew that plays bluegrass was able to amass a whopping $170 on one generous art walk night.

“We love jazz and playing music; that’s all I want to do with my life,” says Max, who plans on attending Berklee College of Music upon graduating. In order to prove their prowess over jazz music, Max and Matt challenged longtime resident jazz aficionado, Cliff, to a musical battle.

“We were back and fourth swapping riffs, and there was no clear winner, but we had a lot of fun—we love Cliff,” Max says.

With an extensive memory of jazz music and Laguna Beach culture dating back to the mid-1960s, Cliff is the resident saxophone player who can often be seen playing in the alley next to Pacific Coast Cinema. Slightly reserved and sometimes visibly confused, he has made friends with a majority of the regular musicians and has a voluminous knowledge of music history—jazz in particular.

Performing in downtown Laguna elicits marginal fame and fortune enough to cover gas or fix a broken guitar string. Although they may have different musical styles, backgrounds and goals, the core tenet that ties all the street musicians together is their simple love of playing for others—and maybe even a bit for themselves.

“On an art walk night in the summer, I make anywhere from $100 to $150, partly because people are a little bit drunk and generous,” April says. “If I don’t have applause, I just don’t know what I would do with my day.” LBM

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