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Taking music from strangers — the story of Will West

-  How a street performer became a stage professional set to appear at MHCC


Will West has lived a musical life befitting a man with a surname implying a wandering cowboy’s lifestyle.

Take the time West was in San Francisco, back in 2004.

“I’d been living in my van for about four weeks at the time, exploring the entire West Coast down to San Diego and back,” he says. “I was on my slow trek back to Portland when I stopped in San Fran to visit a friend. My van was stolen about an hour after I made it to the city. I was left with my dog, my guitar and the clothes on my back.”

by: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO - Will West got his musical start in Portland by playing on the street, where he quickly learned he'd better smile more if he wanted to make money.

Yes, that’s right, all the country music clichés you’d ever want wrapped up in one theft.

“I stayed for a week hoping that my van would turn up,” he adds, noting he played on the street, or “busked” for money.

“I’d busk two or three times a day to make food money and meet folks,” he says. “It was an amazing experience performing all around Golden Gate Park and the Haight Street district. The van never turned up, but I made some really wonderful connections being stuck in the city.”

West is the latest performer set to perform in Mt. Hood Community College’s First Thursday series. He takes the stage in the Student Union from noon to 1 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 7, and will be joined by members of The Friendly Strangers, a hodgepodge of various trios, quartets and larger band ensembles that join West for live shows and studio work.

“We vary our size and lineup depending on the venue and size of the stage,” West says, noting he’s crowded as many as 11 Strangers on stage. At Mt. Hood, five other musicians will join him to deliver original songs drawn from the acoustic wells of bluegrass, pop, jazz and blues.

Carolina on his mind

West’s earliest musical memories are of his dad playing bluegrass fiddle in South Carolina.

“We’d have summer cookouts, and folks would bring instruments over, and most of the time a big jam would come together at the party,” West says. “I feel like I was fortunate to have so much exposure to live music at a young age. My dad also played guitar, sax and clarinet, so we always had instruments around the house.”

The Southern boy became a Northwesterner after falling in love with Portland through a visit and busking in the city.

“I first did it when I came to Portland to visit in the summer of 2001,” he says. “I was walking down Northwest 23rd Avenue with my guitar and found a cozy corner, laid out my case and started singing some tunes. I was just beginning to sing at this time, so normally I’d close my eyes and nervously push through my songs when I played open-mics.”

However, he realized he could make more money busking if he made some eye contact and smiled at folks walking by.

“This really helped me build my confidence as a performer and increase my comfort level on stage.”

Stages where West can be found include such Portland venues as the Doug Fir Lounge, 830 E. Burnside St., where he’ll jam at 9 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 21. He’s also playing with an offshoot of The Friendly Strangers called Brothers of the Hound every Thursday this month from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the White Eagle, 836 N. Russell St. The shows are free and open to all ages, he adds.

As for what folks who come to the Mt. Hood show should expect, there’s no script involved, he says, just improvisation.

“I like to call our shows ‘acoustic roller coaster rides.’”