Four members of Portugal. The Man inside Red Bull Music Studios in L.A.: (from left) Kyle O’Quin, Zach Carothers, Eric Howk and John Baldwin Gourley.
© PIPER FERGUSON
Music

Banded Together

After guitarist and SCI survivor Eric Howk joined the rock group Portugal. The Man, his bandmates found a way to make the experience accessible for him. Now they want to do the same for their fans.
By Nora O'Donnell
5 min readPublished on
Stairs, cobblestones, curbs, grass. As a guitarist who loved touring, Eric Howk traversed these surfaces every day without giving them a second thought. Then, in May 2007, everything changed. Howk was sitting against a wall in a friend’s backyard when it collapsed. He fell more than 12 feet into an unmarked construction hole and was instantly paralyzed below his sternum from a T4 spinal cord injury.
From his bed in the ICU, the first thing Howk asked for was a guitar. Still able to use his hands, he started working on new ways to hold and position the instrument, even as he struggled to sit up without passing out. But his objective was steadfast: “It was my therapy to get back into music,” he says.
By September of that year, Howk was playing onstage, but he yearned to be on the road again. He began playing with any band that would let him come along, and he drove himself to gigs up to 1,000 miles away. “Figuring out how to play a show is one thing,” he says. “Figuring out how to tour was a much longer process. And that’s still something I’m trying to figure out.”
For years, the rock band Portugal. The Man had their eyes on Howk to join the group. Howk grew up in Wasilla, Alaska, with founding members John Baldwin Gourley and Zach Carothers, but Howk was always busy in other bands.
“Growing up with Eric, he was always the best guitarist we knew,” says Gourley, PTM’s frontman. “He was always the dude you’d see in the hallway, just hanging out and playing guitar every day.”
In September, PTM performed at the Cord Club, a Wings for Life fundraising event for spinal cord research, held for the first time in L.A.

Last year, PTM performed at a Wings for Life fundraiser at the Cord Club.

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But joining a major touring band as a wheelchair user presented a myriad of accessibility challenges for Howk. In the years that followed his injury, he avoided flying on planes, but PTM played gigs across the U.S. and traveled abroad. When it came to venues, most didn’t have a working wheelchair lift—and many didn’t even have a ramp. And accessible tour buses? According to the band, only two exist in the U.S.
“In our brain, we were just thinking about logistics, trying to plan everything out with buses, stages, with backstage, with festivals,” says Carothers, PTM’s bassist. “We were overthinking, just lost in our minds.”
As they struggled to come up with a strategy, Gourley told the band they’d simply make it work. “John is a real good person when something demands action,” Carothers adds. “He brought out the Alaskan and was like, ‘Let’s just do it.’ That’s how we do everything in life, so let’s just jump in and learn to swim.”
Accessibility is not one-size-fits-all.
So, as a band, they swam. And they flew. And they lifted Howk on and off the tour bus—or wherever he needed to be if it was inaccessible. Together they made touring work, taking on each challenge day by day.
“They make it accessible, just by carrying me on and off, you know?” Howk says with emotion in his voice. “There’s this one-size-fits-all approach to accessibility for a lot of things. But having flexibility and adaptability gets things done better. Sometimes it’s smarter. Sometimes it’s harder. But with every situation that we’re in, we approach it as the situation comes. That’s very much the spirit of this band, and I don’t think I could do this with anybody else. I know I couldn’t.”
Since Howk joined PTM in 2015, the band’s profile skyrocketed. In 2017, Portugal. The Man released its eighth studio album, Woodstock. The album produced two No. 1 hits on the alternative charts in the U.S., including the explosive megahit “Feel It Still.” That song nabbed the group a Grammy in 2018, and they took their success on the road. The band toured across the U.S., Europe and Australia with Howk, who gathered data on the accessibility of every venue they visited—the good, the bad, the despicable.
“We’re seeing real-time repairs,” says guitarist Eric Howk (pictured).

“We’re seeing real-time repairs,” says guitarist Eric Howk (pictured).

© PIPER FERGUSON

Over the years, PTM started to see some improvements, with local promoters taking note the more times Howk and the band passed through town. Gourley explains, “At the very least, what’s going to happen is, [the promoters will say] ‘I’ve got to build that ramp. I got to build that ramp. I’ve got to build that ramp.’ And then eventually the ramp just stays. They start to make those changes more permanent.” But questions lingered. Would venues maintain accessibility standards after the band left town? And what about accessibility for their fans in the audience?
That last question prompted the band to take more action. “We were sitting on all this information, and it wasn’t really getting used,” says Howk. “It was getting used for our benefit and for the backside of venues. But understanding that my experience as a concert player and the house’s experience as concertgoers is often wildly different.”
Portugal The Man wanted disabled fans to get the opportunity to see them live, so for their most recent North American tour in 2022, they launched PTM Night Out, a charitable initiative created to make their concerts ADA accessible. Select winners were given VIP treatment, with transportation to and from the venue, as well as an on-site escort and an exclusive meet-and-greet with the band. “It’s a discovery and research project more than anything,” Howk says. “I don’t think that accessibility in ticketing for a lot of companies is working the best way. We know that it’s not one-size-fits-all, so it’s about having conversations. It’s easy to get hyperfocused on mobility access, but that’s just a tiny part of it.”
Howk says solutions emerge from asking people what they need and not by shoving them into a designated area. It’s about asking concertgoers where they want to be, depending on their needs.
After a successful pilot program—and with a new album on the horizon—the band hopes to take PTM Night Out on tour around the world, pushing venues to do better. “We’re seeing actual concrete getting mixed in wheelbarrows, like real-time repairs in venues where they’re listening,” Howk says. “We’re doing audits and doing the work.”

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