Published Friday, Jan. 24, 2014 | 2 a.m.
Updated Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2014 | 8:20 a.m.
More than a decade ago, lawyers wrangled for years in court fighting for people's right to distribute pamphlets on the Fremont Street Experience, the four blocks of East Fremont Street blocked to vehicle traffic under a city-funded electric canopy.
Lawyers for the ACLU eventually won the battle, affirming that the attraction is a public forum open to expressions of free speech.
Today when you walk the Experience, there are gaggles of costumed Batmans and Sponge Bobs looking to earn a few bucks from tourists willing to take pictures with them.
But more and more, musicians such as Jimi Hendrix impersonator Lenny Payne, David “Raw” Shaw and Larry “The Crooner” Holmes are plugging their electric guitars and mics into portable speakers and bringing free, classic rock to hordes of tourists.
They hope people enjoy their music enough to toss them a dollar or more. That happens pretty often, which isn’t surprising since each has a rich musical background.
Musical acts, costumed characters and other street performers have increasingly turned to the Strip and downtown for work ever since many lost their jobs and couldn't land gigs elsewhere.
Payne has been playing music since learning the flute at age 7. As a studio musician, he played with Earth, Wind & Fire and A Taste of Honey, touring all over the United States. He came to Las Vegas late last year to escape the growing trend in Los Angeles of venues asking musicians to pay to play.
“I came with the brand of Jimi Hendrix, and that’s lacking here,” said Payne, 50, who ties a multicolored band of cloth around his faux afro and wears a paisley orange long-sleeved shirt and jeans. His cheeks are permanently creased from smiling. “I’m here to rekindle, because people instantly identify with the image."
Payne plays with a fullness that stops many tourists. He doesn’t act it, but he’s still getting used to performing on the street.
“I’ve never been a street performer,” he said. “I’ve been on stage. You pull up my website, and that’s what you’ll see. This is something totally new to me."
Just west of him 100 yards across 4th Street, Shaw and Holmes play the Temptations' 1964 Motown classic “My Girl" to such perfection it sounds like it’s coming from a radio.
“People recognize a level of quality, and they tip accordingly,” said Holmes, 58. “Buskers get tipped according to what the consumer feels they are getting.”
Holmes picked up musical instruments at a young age and toured the southeast's “Chitlin Circuit," playing with brothers Stevie Ray and Jimmie Vaughn, before quitting at 26 when his daughter was born.
For 30 years, he worked as a carpenter. Now retired, he got back into music.
Shaw, 62, has played the bass guitar since childhood and toured all over Asia. He lived for eight years in Thailand and for six in Japan where “they love this music,” he said.
The pair got together two years ago, started busking and now own SF Entertainment LLC.
“Both our wives thought it was beneath us,” Holmes said. “But once they saw how well we do — because we do OK — they are fine with it.”
As the two play, tourists stop and drop money into their 5-gallon bucket, as they do with Payne.
“Music is just a beautiful thing to do,” Payne said. “It's so universal to people, their spirit, their soul. It's truly a waveform out in the universe.”
Neither Payne nor Shaw and Holmes have any complaints about how they are treated by Experience security.
If there’s any complaint, it’s from the tourists. Not about the music but about why the performers aren’t featured on either of the Experience’s two permanent stages.
“We’re seasoned musicians with good resumes, and we’re getting put behind unseasoned musicians,” Holmes said. “As a result, tourists aren’t getting the best quality. All the time, they say, ‘Why aren’t you on the stage?’”
Fremont Street Experience managers decide who gets to perform on stage. They pay for the stages and their upkeep. They could not be reached for comment.
“It’s a patience thing," Payne said. “But you just have to let it happen. You can’t trip on that. If you have the brand and the format, you can let it manifest.”
He pulls out his Hendrix guitar to begin another song.
“My horoscope said this morning: ‘Do not rush into it; it’s already happening.’ So I don’t agitate it, just let it flow, and that’s why I’ve been doing.”
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct the name of Jimi Hendrix impersonator Lenny Payne. | (August 20, 2014)