A Man and His Portable Amp
Local troubadour explores his city through sound
The clincher is a 9-volt amp peeking from his back pocket. You've seen this man before. Maybe he was shuffling through Downtown, maybe up near Nob Hill or down in Old Town, this guy who ambles and noodles on an electric guitar. This dude who skips muffled, dirty sounding chords down sidewalks, off storefront windows, into alcoves like stones across water.
His name is Mark Russell. Many years ago, he drove boats for the Navy in New Orleans, but he's been a bricklayer in Albuquerque for some time now. "I layed the highest block in New Mexico out at the Bank of Albuquerque building in, like, ’89. So that’s my bragging rights. And that old jail Downtown, we did that."
Mark was mid-stroll outside the Alibi offices one warm evening, running through a bluesy chord progression. He told me, shyly, that he started playing guitar outside a little more than a year ago; that his apartment has thin walls and he doesn't want to disturb the neighbors. He's also been trying to shake his stage fright.
"I always kind of wanted to be like that guy in Venice Beach," he says quietly. "I forget what they call him ... Electric Jimmy. He wears like a turban, and he’s on roller skates and he rolls around with an amp in a backpack. I used to watch him—the stuff he made up was like a self-taught kind of a thing." As an example, Mark adjusts his volume nob and carefully picks through a random string of notes.
Mark has three electric guitars, but his Harmony Stratotone, licked with hand-painted flames and bought for $10.88 at a Goodwill, is his baby. He says he loves Jimi Hendrix, but he enjoys making songs up as he goes along.
"Right now I’m kind of doing a blues thing. But I was at Old Town, and I tried to get that Old Town feeling like," he plays an A Minor, then hammers on to an E, "those South American guys do, because they had the wind chimes going."
He says he enjoys playing Downtown most of all because there are so many little enclaves, like the KiMo Theatre's box office area, that throw sound back at him in interesting ways. If he wanders past a night club, he likes to match his strumming with the hip-hop beats pulsing out of them. He enjoys the energy of the place.
"You always hear about Downtown and how it's really bad, but I come down here, and there’s all these people cruising and they're like, 'Hey! Thumbs up! Rock on!'" He smiles, "It makes you feel good, you know—it kind of renews your humanity, how you look at things."