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SW Portland mini-profile: Bobby Tower and Michael Black, musicians

Posted by on February 10th, 2015 at 2:44 pm

wide angle buskers

“There’s not a lot of gathering places in the urban environment, you know,” said vocalist Michael Black, right.
(Photos: M.Andersen/BikePortland)

This post is part of our SW Portland Week.

Part of the reason you don’t expect to encounter Bobby Tower and Michael Black at the bus stop outside the Burlingame Fred Meyer is that you basically can’t hear them until you’re within a couple yards of them.

Even midday, their music is almost completely drowned out by the constant roar of traffic on Southwest Barbur Boulevard and, about a block away, the gully of Interstate 5.

But Black said that though the duo sometimes performs downtown, they prefer the sidewalk next to the bus stop because they’re more likely to attract attention, and because people are less likely to tell them what to play.

“People are kind of willing to stop and listen,” Black said. “There’s not a lot of gathering places in the urban environment, you know. The market is, like, one of the only places left.”

Black, 22, plays ukulele and sings; Tower, 33, plays violin. I’ve definitely heard worse.

street music

The pair use a performance space nearby, said Black, who was born in Portland but graduated from high school in Hawaii and has lived in Texas, Seattle and elsewhere. He moved back three years ago and has graduated from Concordia University in Northeast Portland.


Tower also came to Portland three years ago, in his case to study music at Portland Community College. He’s about to finish an associate’s degree and plans to transfer to Portland State University or elsewhere.

Neither owns a car, and both get around mostly by bus, MAX and foot.

“I used to bike a lot,” said Black. Then he moved away from the Concordia area and into the downtown area. At that point, Black said, thieves started taking parts off his bike — even seemingly worthless things like the chain.

“Street music really makes you feel like you’re part of the life of the city.”
— Michael Black, 22

“It was like, you’re taking my whole bike apart,” Black said. “I’d rather walk and know, like, my stuff is safe with me, rather than walking back to my bike and being like, ‘Oh God.'”

Then Black gestured to the divided road in front of him, Barbur Boulevard. At this point it’s striped with white bike lanes, four travel lanes and turn lanes.

“And I’d like to see dedicated bike lanes,” he said. “This feels dangerous at times. … I’ve actually heard people say this is one of the worse roads.”

I asked what he meant by a dedicated bike lane, since there were already striped lanes there.

“Maybe more of a bike path I guess,” he said. “I just notice that there’s a lot of space. … I don’t have enough expertise to know for sure, but I’d say that it would make me feel better.”

But however they get around, both seemed to enjoy their work.

“Street music really makes you feel like you’re part of the life of the city,” Black said, smiling. “It’s really a breath of fresh air. Even though we’re surrounded by all these cars and smog and everything.”

buskers closest

We’ll be here in Southwest all week! And join us Friday afternoon for a BikePortland Get Together and social hour at the Lucky Labrador Public House in Multnomah Village (7675 SW Capitol Hwy) from 4:00 – 6:30pm.

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    rick February 10, 2015 at 4:34 pm

    Cleaned-up parks in and adjacent to SW Portland have become gathering places; some were formerly unofficial dog parks.

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    Todd Boulanger February 10, 2015 at 5:41 pm

    An almost sad place to wait for the bus…at a minimum there is some buffer from traffic but no transit bench at a likely “high demand stop” for a major super market. Sadness…at this [sub]urbane space. Anyone try calling Trimet or Fred Meyers (Leave Feedback | 1-800-342-6663)?

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      meh February 11, 2015 at 7:12 am

      Speaking of benches, go look at the monstrosities TriMet has replaced benches with throughout the system The pole with two seats. Where once there was a bench that could hold 3 adults or an adult ane three children there is now an uncomfortable pair metal cheese graters to sit upon.

      And if Trimet doesn’t care about rider comfort, at least think of the lost advertising revenue. Those old benches had acres of space for every realtor and lawyer in the area.

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        Jeff P February 11, 2015 at 12:12 pm

        I believe that is more of a TriMet reaction to riders not caring about their comfort through destruction, vandalism and trash accumulation at standard style benches than TriMet not caring. When the citizenry cares so will the providers….people who destroy nice things should not get nice things.

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          meh February 11, 2015 at 3:11 pm

          What did the type of seating have to do with trash. The busier the bus stop the more trash. Might have to do with a lack of trash receptacle.

          I never saw a bench destroyed by vandalism. If vandalism were the issue why put up any seating??

          It was a bad move.

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          meh February 11, 2015 at 3:12 pm

          Why replace them all at once?? Not all the benches were problematic?

          Why incur the cost??

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    groovin101 February 11, 2015 at 9:23 am

    Neato, hurray street music 🙂 Also telling, that anecdote about rampant bike theft and a new found lack of ridership.

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    Granpa February 11, 2015 at 12:03 pm

    The paucity of comments quietly reflect my opinion on this thread: Street musicians at a bus stop are not topical to a blog about bicycling. OK, they are at a bus stop and buses are transportation, and bicycles are transportation (and Kevin Bacon uses transportation). Nice dreads though.

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    Anne Hawley February 11, 2015 at 1:01 pm

    Let me respectfully contradict Granpa. I enjoyed this story on is merits. What’s more, after ten years of nimble and ever improving transportation blogging, BikePortland has earned is place in the broad worldwide conversation about cities. Street life, whether sidewalk cafes, buskers, or homelessness, is a major part of that conversation. This little story is a good contribution to it.

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      Granpa February 11, 2015 at 1:18 pm

      Your respect is noted and appreciated, and your opinion is valid. It is indisputable that street musicians, bike theft, poverty, homelessness, environmental degradation, income inequality, bikes, freight movement, rail, bridges, flawed idealists and disruptive protestations are all part of our mosaic of civilization Perhaps the title of the blog should be changed to “Everything Everywhere”.

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        BIKELEPTIC February 11, 2015 at 9:12 pm

        Human interest story and something that is relevant if you are involved with city hall issues. I am the founder and one of the organizers of which is an advocacy and resource group for street performers in Portland. (My friends and I were jokingly saying pretty soon you won’t be able to tell where I stop and BP starts since they’re honing in on my territory)

        Street performers, sit/lie ordinances, homeless, cycling and transportation, even people with disabilities are all seen as second class citizens that can be debated. OPAL is a great organization to get involved with. Their Bus Rider’s alliance and Cameron who works with that is dedicated whole heartedly into changing things that Trimet has that unfairly discriminates against minorities, low-income and people with disabilities. (Such as the whole park bench & garbage can thing as well as safety lighting, covered stops, longer hours for those that work outside white collar job shifts, etc.)

        So if you don’t know why this isn’t relevant, than you’re not paying attention and you’re not involved.

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