New York subway musicians take busking to a whole new level. It’s not just some emo strumming his guitar – we’re talking tight harmonies, original songs, world instruments and attentive crowds.
Thankfully, one New Yorker, Dan Pierson, has had the sense to gather together some of his favorite acts and take them above ground to perform on the stages they deserve. So tonight, Ryan and I went to ‘Subway Sets’ to check out the musicians without the rude interruption of the roar of the R train.
Over the summer, the musicians performed on roofs across the city. But now that it’s winter, tonight’s show was held inside the Bowery Hotel. And wow, what a beautiful venue – orange hues from candles, sweeping terraces and a delicious fire.
Four bands performed. There was captivating progressive rock – featuring a six-string bass, a hammered dulcimer and a drummer playing a cymbal with his bare hands – from House of Waters, and beautiful harmonies and intimate guitars from a three-piece folk band, Bird Courage.Then came the noisier sets – an all-girl band backing up singer and ukulele player Catey Shaw (who had such a beautiful tone to her voice and some cool, catchy tunes) and the winner of the night: an energetic ‘Beat-n-Brass’ band called the Drumadics, who showcased jazz trumpets, trombones and saxophones over beats drummed on plastic buckets (the bread and butter of subway music).
I loved the variety of the music on offer – but I did not enjoy how half the crowd had apparently forgotten they were at a show. When Bird Courage played, the R train may as well have been roaring past, because the noise of chatter reached a deafening din. I never get why people attend shows and then proceed to talk the whole way through.
So unfortunately, while Subway Sets’ popularity provides a great platform for the musicians, it was also a downfall for these more gentle sets. It would have been much fairer to Bird Courage to perform in an intimate spot where the audience could listen to their every lyric. I’d be interested to see if the organizers explore this route – after all, subway musicians aren’t all brass instruments and six-string basses.
But apart from that hiccup – what a brilliant way to witness some of the city’s top talent. And until the next one, I’ll be shaking it to tunes at my local subway stop.