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July 5, 2014
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The Playing for Change Band to play the Half Shell

Walking near his home in Santa Monica in 2005, Mark Johnson was struck by a sound.

It’s a moment he recounts often, the one he considers the origin of the Playing For Change project, a decade-long effort to better the world through music.

The sound was the voice of Roger Ridley, a street performer singing “Stand By Me,” one of the most beautiful sounds Johnson said he’d ever heard. The music producer asked Ridley why he wasn’t singing on TV.

“He said, ‘Man, I’m in the joy business. I play out here to be close to the people.’”

A collection of one-time street performers Johnson helped assemble — The Playing for Change Band — plays at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Nichols Bandshell at Stewart Park in Roseburg.

“The most common thread between street musicians is they want to connect with people,” Johnson said by phone from an Austin, Texas, tour stop.

The day after his encounter with Ridley, Johnson returned with his recording equipment and set down a version of Ridley singing “Stand By Me.” He took that track to other street musicians, who added their own to the mix.

He cobbled together an audio track and video from the dozens he recorded. Enlivened by the experience, Johnson began recording other “songs around the world,” traveling to more and more remote locales.

Today, Johnson and his crew have filmed and recorded hundreds of musicians in 45 countries. They’ve added tracks from big-name musicians who are fans of the project, like Bono, Keith Richards and Keb’Mo’. The video of “Stand By Me” has now been viewed 63 million times on YouTube.

Johnson said he’s faced little in the way of resistance, from governments or musicians.

“They don’t say ‘no,’” he said. “They don’t say ‘no’ because I’m asking musicians to play music.”

Playing for Change is now a multi-faceted project, Johnson said. Music on the Half Shell viewers will catch just the face of it — The Playing For Change Band, made up of all-stars from the web video series. Performing will be 10 musicians from eight countries, including the New Orleanian Grandpa Elliot, who played for more than 60 years on the streets of the French Quarter. He’ll be joined by Dutch guitarist Clarence Milton Bekker, Congolese multi-instrumentalist Mermans Mosengo and South African singer Titi Tsira.

The “core” of the band came together in 2009 to open for Robert Plant on a world tour.

Johnson shared a story about Grandpa Elliot, a near-blind graybeard, encountering Plant for the first time on the tour. Plant told Elliot that Playing For Change would be a tough act to follow. Not knowing who Plant was, Elliot tried to reassure the Led Zeppelin frontman, “Ah, man, you’ll do all right.”

Another aspect of the PFC project are the nine nonprofit Playing For Change music and art schools around the world. There’s also Playing For Change Day — Sept. 20 this year — when 315 events are planned in 56 countries.

All told, one encounter with a street musician changed Mark Johnson’s life.

“I’ve dedicated my entire life to this,” he said. “It never ends.”

Among the lessons he’s learned meeting musicians around the world is that Bob Marley remains a big deal. Even secluded Tibetan monks had copies of the reggae legend’s ubiquitous “Legend” compilation.

“The guy is everywhere,” Johnson said. “I’ve recorded homeless men, and I’ve recorded millionaires, and they all love Bob Marley.”

• You can reach reporter Garrett Andrews at 541-957-4218 or by email at gandrews@nrtoday.com.


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The News-Review Updated Jul 5, 2014 12:14AM Published Jul 6, 2014 08:58AM Copyright 2014 The News-Review. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.