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Steve Rusch, Zak Kane

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Names: Steve Rusch, Zak Kane
Ages: 21, 23
Day jobs: None
Venue: South Side
Favorite musicians: Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Beach Boys
Instruments: Mandolin, guitar
Most requested songs: “American Girl,” by Tom Petty and “Santeria,” by Sublime
Favorite songs: “Range Life,” by Pavement and “Wagon Wheel,” by Old Crow Medicine Show

Pittsburgh natives Steve Rusch and Zak Kane began busking with a simple idea in mind.

“We figured we could just practice on the streets,” Rusch says. “We just do what we do at home, but we do it on the streets and make some money.”

Rusch and Kane can usually be seen playing covers and original songs on East Carson Street. Kane’s guitar provides the rhythm, while Rusch’s mandolin injects clever melodies of a sort seldom heard from other buskers along the South Side’s main drag.

“The style we have is what instruments we’re playing,” Rusch says. “It’s really dependent on our mood, too. Two nights ago we were playing super hard, heavy and fast, and other days we play super light and easy, and just kind of go with the breeze.”

Currently, the duo is traveling up and down the East Coast, from North Carolina to Georgia. They plan on visiting New Orleans and Nashville before heading back to Pittsburgh, their hometown and favorite city to busk. 

“It probably won’t work out the way we have it planned now,” Rusch said, just hours before the two hit the road. “Things change daily. That’s the cool thing: We don’t have to worry about it. Like, if you don’t have a place to sleep one night, you just stay up.”

After stopping back in Pittsburgh, Rusch and Kane will embark on one more trip to the West Coast before summer’s end, where the pair will eventually have to part ways. Rusch, who has more than 10 years of formal music training, will stay in Los Angeles to attend California Institute of the Arts in the fall.

But it’s likely Rusch will miss busking with his long-time friend. When they started busking together, a little more than a year ago, neither envisioned it would become their passion, let alone their day job. 

“On New Year’s Eve this year, I realized that where I wanted to be was standing outside on the South Side playing music for people,” says Rusch, wearing a light blue Flaming Lips T-shirt. “That’s where my home is.”

Although the two have survived on their busking income so far this summer, tips can be hit or miss.

“Pay can vary,” Kane says, perched atop his guitar case on the South Side. “You can make $20 in one second; other nights you can make five bucks in four hours.”

Rusch says they’ve gotten tips as high as $40, and once were treated to Wendy’s for dinner.

Rusch says they can play about 70 percent of the requests they get on the street. But there are limits to what they’ll do for money.

“We vowed never to play Lynyrd Skynyrd or The Eagles,” Kane says. “Ninety-five percent of people ask us to play Lynyrd Skynyrd.”

“Our originals are our favorites,” Rusch says.

After they performed some original music one night, Rusch says, one guy was so satisfied that he emptied his pockets. “He gave us his last two dollars and was like, ‘I don’t have any more, but that was awesome!’”

Unfortunately, though, not everyone is so gracious.

“You’ll always get one person who will shout out of a car, ‘You suck!’,” Rusch says. “This one dude even flipped a lit cigarette into our case. I got so upset by that.”

Other tips leave the buskers more confused than angry.

“If there are bachelorette parties, we’ll get random penis stuff,” Rusch adds.

But by far, the most amusing tip the folk-rock duo has ever received came from a man who claimed to own a recording studio on the North Side. He threw his business card into Kane’s guitar case, and after Rusch called a few days later to inquire about the man’s interest, the buskers quickly realized things wouldn’t work out.

“He wanted to turn us into a boy band,” Rusch says. “I was like, ‘Are you serious? Dude, I don’t know if you’re going to pull that off.’”

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