Monday, August 31, 2009

'Smells like clean spirit..'

A mall in Flemington, New Jersey might seem an odd place to smell a country music star, but I guess you can't always predict these things.

I was walking through Kohl's, the discount clothes store, when I spotted a pile of fliers and a tester bottle promoting a new men's fragrance. Nothing unusual about that, and ordinarily I don't bother any further, but then I noticed that the top of the bottle was shaped like a little guitar pick.

I had to stop and take a look.

It was "McGraw by Tim McGraw". Finally, I thought, a chance to smell like a gen-yoo-whine country music star. Apparently there are two fragrances in Tim's range - the regular "McGraw" and something called "Southern Blend" - I don't even want to guess what might make them different.

But there you are. Not my thing, but I'm sure it'll do very well. Just as well, probably, as Tim's wife's own fragrance surely will too...


I just came across this very good instructional video for a song I've been playing for a while. I've been using a standard tuning but the same chord structure, with the capo shifting the key depending on whether its me, or one of my stepdaughters, who's singing it (they have slightly different ranges); but this version with the DADGBD tuning sounds much better.


Sunday, August 30, 2009

'You've got to make your own kind of music..'

I've written a few times on here about my stepdaughter and the beginning of her career as an opera singer.

She's leaving for college in a couple of weeks and yesterday was the culmination of a lot of hard work for her over the summer when she held a recital at her great-grandmother's barn in Pennsylvania. She and her teacher, Neal Goren, put together a program that showed how far they'd come together over the past eighteen months. It goes without saying she was wonderful.

About 90 guests showed up - family and friends came from all over the country to support her, as well as some friends of our aunt's from the AVA. Everyone went home happy.

The most special thing of all, though, was that Che's 90-year-old great-grandmother got to hear her sing, and was so moved by having her home filled with glorious sound that, after most people had left, she played her own piano for the first time in a long while.


Later, a bunch of us headed to the Cactus Grill for dinner and to hear Wayne Johnston play. Wayne's brother Kurt has been a friend of the family for years and is just a terrific musician. Wayne is too, so we all had a great time.

It's a pretty cool world when you can watch your stepdaughter singing in Italian and yelling along with 'Big Yellow Taxi' in a country roadhouse within a couple of hours.

Thank God for music.

Friday, August 28, 2009

'It's been a long time comin' but now it's here..'

A couple of worthy catch-ups for the end of the week, with two really clever English songwriters I was a fan of some years ago and who have recently resurfaced.

James Maddock used to be the front man for a band called Wood, who released a great album about ten years ago called "Songs From Stamford Hill". The leadoff track, 'Stay You' was pretty much as perfect a three-minute pop song as it's possible to get.

Now, finally, he has a new album out - just as melodic, just as affecting as when he left off - called "Sunrise on Avenue C" and he's gigging again to support it, with a couple of shows coming up in Pennsylvania before heading out to California next month.

The other singer I'm glad to hear is doing ok is Adam Masterson. I used to see him play at pubs in London five or six years ago and was sure he'd break through any day. He released a terrific album called "One Tale Too Many", including a song, 'Into Nowhere Land' that's still on my most-played list on iTunes.

Very happy he's back with some new material.


Kurt Cobain will be "resurrected as a pixellated grunge throwback" in the next release of Guitar Hero, says The Guardian. The paper says that Courtney Love and Dave Grohl both endorsed the deal.

In tangentially connected reading, check out this piece from the Telegraph the other day: "Should We Always Obey A Dying Artist's Wishes?'

And, as a final thought, maybe even in death, the audience manages to get what it wants.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

'Put your records on..'

Apple today signed off on the use of an iPhone app for Spotify, the European music streaming service where suscribers - it's free if you put up with ads - "rent" rather than "own" content.

This crucial question, rent vs own, is what will ultimately define the future of music distribution. The big labels are wondering how they can get consumers to pay for the same product over again, as in the vinyl-CD-online transitional gravy-train of the last decade, but that's not going to fly this time, since the market has already passed it by.

It's probably true that people my age prefer to 'own' music in whatever format - whether that's because we like to read lyrics on the album sleeve, or we like to make mix CDs for the car - but there's a generation of consumers that not only doesn't care about ownership, but is driven purely by ephemeral utility.

They want to hear a specific track now, share it with their friends or embed it into their current playlist while its hot, for the next week or so. Then they want to move onto the next thing.

It seems like the next logical step here is voice-recognition - Apple iTunes already has this facility in Speakables which allows you to select a track by speaking its name - and a combination of that with Spotify would allow users to audibly request a song and have it play, instantly, whether they own it or not.

For my generation, we'll continue to stack our thousands of CDs against the wall and never be able to find what we're looking for. And we'll be happy, dammit, 'cause we own all this great music. If only we knew where it was.

But don't forget, it was the generation before mine that came up with the idea of "renting" music. It was called the jukebox.

And on the subject of transient recorded media, there's a store here in Brooklyn called the Record and Tape Center. It's a great old store where you can browse boxes of vinyl and CDs and unearth untold treasures at decent prices.

A couple of weeks ago, they ended up putting a huge - I mean, huge - box of cassette tapes out on the sidewalk with a note saying "free, please take".

When you're giving away half of the name of your business, you better hope people will still want to buy the other half.


Nice piece in the Telegraph today about the rise of 'living-room gigs' as well as a nod towards the increasing numbers of old fogeys like me playing music, and, as I mentioned yesterday, providing a ready market for the Beatles edition of Rock Band.


Coming to this a little late, but here's a really great fan-video for Grizzly Bear's track 'Two Weeks', put together by Gabe Askew. The band's Ed Droste gave the animator props on Twitter.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

'It gets stronger, in every way..'

Songwriter Ellie Greenwich, whose credits include songs like 'River Deep Moutain High', 'Da Doo Ron Ron' and 'Leader Of The Pack' died yesterday aged 68.

She left a remarkable catalog of classic songs that are a snapshot of a specific time in musical history and which have aged well.

Her passing also reminded me of the debate about whether or not a teenage Billy Joel actually played that ominously atmospheric piano part on 'Leader of the Pack'.

In 2005 Joel told Rolling Stone:

"I played on a session with "Shadow" Morton for two songs: "Remember (Walkin' in the Sand)" and "Leader of the Pack." We did the recordings before the Shangri-Las sang on them. I'm pretty sure it was me. I saw an interview with Ellie Greenwich [the song's co-writer], and she said it wasn't me. I never got paid, though, so it doesn't make any difference."


Not content with the prospect of achieving immortality through giving driving directions, Bob Dylan is recording a christmas album. Apparently profits will be donated to Feeding America, and other charities overseas that provide meals at Christmas.

Good on ya, Bob.


Very nice little tale over at Share My Guitar about bluesman Luther Allison.


According to Wired, Rock Band is looking at crowdsourcing songs through a community network. This looks like it could be a really interesting development, combining open source gaming and collaborative composition.

And on the subject of Rock Band, I mentioned yesterday how my kids aren't exactly bowled over by the prospect of the Beatles edition. I pressed them a bit on our way to GameStop and they told me this product will likely be a big hit "with people [your] age, who've maybe not used it before and who want a bigger experience rather than just playing the game."

Thanks, I think.


For one youth club in Inverness, there was apparently a problem getting their clients to go home at the end of the evening.

Solved, thanks to the soundtrack of The Sound of Music, says the BBC.

"..This is a creative use of music - classical music, musicals and if things get really awkward I understand nursery rhymes will be deployed."

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

'Well I'm lost somewhere, I must have made a few bad turns..'

So, Bob Dylan is talking to some car companies about becoming the voice of their GPS, according to the BBC.

"Renowned for his raspy, nasally tones, the 68-year-old American gave his listeners a taster of what his directions might sound like: "Left at the next street. No, right. You know what? Just go straight."


My kids love to play Rock Band, but from what they've been saying I don't think we'll be lining up to get the much-hyped Beatles edition when it's released in a couple of weeks. Funky 'exclusive' controllers or not, the kids' verdict so far is that the songs "don't look challenging enough".

* Via Mashable today, comes news of Hit Machine a free to play online game. Not sure i like the idea of replacing the controller with a keyboard. The whole thing's already a bit too Kraftwerkian for me, and even a faux guitar is better than no guitar at all.


My friend, former FT colleague and former bandmate Peter Whitehead decided to try the busking life for himself in London a couple of weeks ago. You can read how he got on here, with a nice audio slideshow.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

'Now witness the quickness, with which we get along..'

Thanks everyone, for all the emails since I finished up. I've been down in Florida for a few days with the family.

When I get back to the city next week, I'm going to continue to blog about music and New York in general, and think about what sort of project comes next for me. I have a couple of interesting ideas, and it'll be fun to explore them.

But today is my wedding anniversary, and I just wanted to say thanks to Mrs B for putting up with me.

I'll see you all again next week.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

'If I wander til I die, may I know whose hand I'm in..'

The final day.

This has really been a lot of fun, full of great characters, and at the same time, a sobering lesson in just how tough a life it is to make a living playing underground. There were days I'd come home exhausted after only playing for a couple of hours in the noise and the heat and the dust. Anyone who does this full-time and makes it work has my complete respect.

At the end of 48 days, I collected a total of $110.24 for the Robin Hood Foundation, which will be doubled up after I send them a check in the next few days.

There was a time in my previous life when I would earn about twice that in a day, and I know of people who make more than that in an hour. But those numbers are just measures of our usefulness at a particular point in time, not our true value.

Thank you to all my fellow New Yorkers who threw a dollar or some change in my case along the way. I'm glad I was able to move you to feel better, even for a couple of minutes. Please continue to support Subway musicians.

I don't pretend to have any talent at all, but I love music and I love to play. Some of the people I came across are just tremendous musicians and deserve wider recognition. There were times when I just wasn't able to communicate with the performers as well as I'd like, while some others - despite their public persona - didn't want to talk or allow me to film them. Every single day was always interesting. The cops and MTA officials I encountered along the way were overwhelmingly good-natured.

Part of the appeal of this was the idea of randomness; that by starting at a different station each day I would encounter music at different places across the city, and I tried as far as possible to get a good cross-section of neighborhoods. I was also keen that whatever I did should be time-limited, since busking has been going on long before I showed up and will continue long after I'm gone.

It's part of what keeps the city vibrant, and vital. You literally don't know what you're going to see around the next corner, or at the next station.

A couple of web sites that I came across very late in the day, are definitely worth checking out: The Busker's Handbook has a nice, witty approach to the subject, while Nick Broad's excellent Undercover NY is a wonderful near-encyclopedic reference covering performers in New York and cities everywhere. If you're at all interested in the artists who perform on the streets, I'd encourage you to take a look.

I'd also totally recommend "Subwayland", Randy Kennedy's collection of brilliant New York Times columns. While not specifically about music, it gives you a great insight into the sort of characters who inhabit the netherworld.

Thanks to everyone who emailed or commented on the posts. Your support was very much appreciated. Thanks also, particularly to my family, especially Mrs B, for their encouragement and patience while I was doing this. I know they're anxious to see what comes next. So am I.


Today was one of those days I was reminded of why I'm glad I live here. Nothing remarkable, just a realization that this is the greatest city in the world and anything is possible.


Even on the final day, there seemed to be music everywhere I turned. Outside the ferry terminal an acappella group called Select Blendz were serenading one of the security guards on her break.

Then when I was walking around Battery Park, I saw Andre Small and his friend, African drummers. Since it was drummers who jumped on my train that day and planted the seed of this idea in my head, I was happy that drummers happened to be the last performers I end up mentioning.


The station at Brooklyn Bridge is one of those that should be a lot more fun to play at than it actually is. There are plenty of tunnels and crosswalks, but the platform itself is busy and noisy and hot.

It was important for me to come here to finish, though, since I now consider myself a Brooklynite, and it's special being on the water and crossing the bridge. I walked across today after I played, and got caught in just an unremitting downpour - one of those where it's pointless running, since you're not going to get any wetter.

It was almost as if I needed a really long shower today...

Today's songlist:

Here Comes The Sun - Beatles
Bad Moon Rising - John Fogerty
Johnny Strikes Up The Band - Warren Zevon
Waiting For My Real Life To Begin - Colin Hay
People Get Ready - Curtis Mayfield
Welfare Music - Bottle Rockets
Brown Eyed Girl - Van Morrison
Keep On Rockin' In The Free World - Neil Young
Blood Brothers - Bruce Springsteen

I also played one additional song at two above-ground locations today; on the Staten Island Ferry and in Battery Park. The latter makes the last BuskerCam:

And here - finally - is Peter Bradley Adams, with his beautiful song about being out of place and at odds with a world that may have passed you by. There's something about this song that reaches down inside your soul, and I can't remotely hope to do it justice.

Thanks again for following the blog. I hope you've had as much fun reading it as I've had doing it.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

'I got chills, they're multiplyin'..'

The penultimate day of the project and I wanted to do something special, so I asked my beautiful stepdaughter if she'd like to come busking with me.

Surprisingly, being the possessor of the lion's share of musical talent in our family, she agreed to humor me; so I thought we should go somewhere that hopefully will figure large in her future musical career.

She and I have been singing together for years, and now that she's about to go off to the opera program here, I didn't know when we might get the chance to do something like this again.

There was also something 'full circle' about the idea of my musical journey ending as hers is about to start.

She'll be learning how to project her voice over ambient noise, but I'm guessing she won't have to compete with the sounds of real trains - unless she's in a Jonathan Miller production. The platforms at the Lincoln Center station are unbelievably noisy. In addition to the up and down 1 line, there's two express tracks that run down the middle, so timing our performances was tricky.

In any case, she certainly did her best and stayed good-natured, for which I'm grateful. We sang for about 45 minutes, with plenty of repeats, and made a dollar. Running total is now $110.24.

Today's (slightly girlier than usual) songlist:

Passionate Kisses - Lucinda Williams
The Times They Are A-Changin' - Bob Dylan
Jolene - Dolly Parton
You Belong To Me - Kate Rusby
100 Miles - Catie Curtis
Walking In Memphis - Marc Cohn
Good Riddance - Green Day
Look At Miss Ohio - Gillian Welch
You're The One That I Want - The Beautiful South

Monday, August 10, 2009

'I ain't here on business, I'm only here for fun..'

Two important reality checks tonight.

I'm coming to the end of this 'temporary life' and it has given me a renewed respect and admiration for the people who do this every day for a living. They work hard and deserve any recognition and reward they can get.

I'm just an interloper, an observer. I have, for now, the relative comfort of doing this through choice, not through necessity. I'm the one - if you'll forgive the obvious pun - that's playing here.

Obviously I'll need to find some sort of job when this is done, but that's another story.

For now, though, I wanted to acknowledge all the folks I've come across who graciously took the time to talk with me, or let me record them or just listen as they went about their daily business.

Here's the other reality check. One of the things I realize as I meet musicians around the Subway is just how great technical players a lot of them are and no matter how hard I tried or worked, I could never be in their league.

Randy De Luca is one of those.

I've always loved how the Dobro sounds, and I've been a fan of Jerry Douglas since seeing him play a couple of times with Alison Krauss and on the Transatlantic Sessions, so it was great to come across Randy on the 116th platform this morning.

We talked briefly about how good the acoustics are at 116th and how there's a sympathetic crowd "when school's in session".

He said he also enjoyed playing at 72nd, where I'd just played the other day. "I make good money there, but it's more difficult to sit down on the platform," Randy says.

He told me about the Columbia radio station and its bluegrass show, The Moonshine Show, which until recently was hosted by Matt Winters, and he also recommended some other good players I should check out, like Bob Ickes and Andy Hall. (Isn't that clip just amazing..?)

Randy is originally from New York but his Dobro, which he plays in a G tuning, is quite new and from China. "I got some things to say about that," he says. He told me he doesn't play in a band outside, but prefers playing on the subway.

I listened to him for a couple of songs until my train came, and I left feeling good. And that's what it's all about.


So I was doing the four-station catch up today, hoping to right some wrongs. How'd it all work out?

At a couple of the stations, I realized today that the platforms are just too noisy to work without an amp. Maybe I was being overly optimistic before, but at both W4th and 34th, when the trains pull in, it's just deafening.

57th Street was perfect, though. Relatively quiet - although I think the recorded platform announcements might be even more incoherent than at Bleecker Street, if that's possible - and good, resonant acoustics. And because there's only one line that runs though it, there's a little more time between trains. I played longer than the four songs I'd planned, but it was a good groove and it paid off in the end.

I went back up to 116th to finish off, and as if as a sign that I should call it a day, I broke not one, but two strings on the fourth song. An Australian woman came over to me while I was playing and said: "I've no money for you, but can I use you in my podcast?" Best pickup line all week.

Heres' today's songs:

Knockin' On Heavens Door - Bob Dylan
Badlands - Bruce Springsteen
People Get Ready - Curtis Mayfield
Lakes Of Pontchartrain - Paul Brady

Money in the case? Nope.

Knockin' On Heavens Door - Bob Dylan
I Will Posess Your Heart - Death Cab For Cutie
Wonderwall - Oasis
Steve's Last Ramble - Steve Earle

Money in the case? Nope.

Here Comes The Sun - Beatles
People Get Ready - Curtis Mayfield
The River - Bruce Springsteen
Drift Away - Dobie Gray
Waiting For My Real Life To Begin - Colin Hay
Knockin' On Heavens Door - Bob Dylan (reggae version)
Rosalita - Bruce Springsteen
The Promised Land - Bruce Springsteen

Money in the case? $6. (Running total $109.24)

People Get Ready - Curtis Mayfield
Waiting For My Real Life To Begin - Colin Hay
Peace Love And Understanding - Elvis Costello
I Know - Kim Richey

Money in the case? Nope.
Broken strings? Yep, two..

I did manage to record a BuskerCam at 57th Street. I figured if I was going to play a little more than I said I would, I should at least have fun. And this is one of my favorite songs to sing.

And here's my equivalent of the 'Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show' moment; Bruce on the BBC's "Old Grey Whistle Test' in 1978.

I wrote earlier about my friend who lent me 'Born To Run' when I was 16. I was swept up in the romanticism and language of this beautiful poetic music about a land far away; but what Springsteen was really all about didn't become clear to me until this night. After that, I never thought of rock and roll the same way.

As Jon Stewart put it a while back after seeing Bruce at Madison Square Garden: "Do you like joy?"... and sometimes it's just as simple as that.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

'Go back, Jack, do it again..'

I took a break from playing out today to recharge a little and prepare for the final three days of the project. I can't believe the time has gone so quickly. I've learned a lot and enjoyed the experience, but it has - genuinely - been the toughest job I've ever had.

Tomorrow, rather than play somewhere new, I thought I'd try going back to a few of the stations where I'd struck out first time around, just because I don't like to take no for an answer.

I'm calling it "Make Right Monday" and I'll re-visit these four stations:
W4th Street, 34th Street, 57th Street and 116th Street at Columbia University.

I won't be stubborn and stay indefinitely until I make something; so I've decided I'll play just four songs at each one, and give it a real effort and then that's it; so if I come up empty again, I can't say I didn't try. Sixteen complete songs is about what I usually play in a normal set that lasts anywhere from an hour and a quarter to 90 minutes, depending on interruptions.

It's not about the money, more about the idea of having a second chance at something.

There have been other stations where I hadn't made anything, of course, but these four I thought were central, busy, and decent places to play, where the people should generally be receptive. We'll see how it goes.


I wanted to share this video from a couple of years ago of a MUNY artist gone mainstream, Susan Cagle, who used the Subway backdrop in a professional video shoot. She has a great voice and this is a great song. I've never met her but she has the perfect 'discovery' story that a lot of fulltime Subway players er, dream about.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

'You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one..'

In 1965, Eric Paulin saw The Beatles play at Shea Stadium and it changed his life.

Today he runs the best Beatles tribute band in the Subway.

The Meetles have been together about six months, with the group's name being chosen by a poll on the New York Beatles' fans Meetup page.

Along with subway veteran Eric on drums and his wife Naomi on authentic Hofner bass, the band is completed by Thom on rhythm and vocals, one of apparently two Robs - neither of whom made it tonight - on guitar, and Danny on vocals.

Steve Baldwin, who handles photgraphy, security and publicity - he'd be the fifth Meetle if there wasn't already five of them - told me all the musicians are "students" of the Beatles, and it's clear they've done their homework. Danny's inflection is perfectly Northern, even down to the "bath" in 'Norwegian Wood'.

The band plays regularly at the main MUNY spots at 34th and 42nd Street - a better gig than playing in clubs, they say - and occasionally on the surface. Saturday night is their "big show", usually culminating with the crowd joining in a communal 'Hey Jude'. But they're playing tomorrow (Sunday) at Strawberry Fields, weather permitting, at about 1pm. Try and catch them, they're very good.


Today, Saturday, was also the 40th anniversary of "the walk" across the Abbey Road zebra crossing. A schoolfriend of mine, who I'd played in a band with when I was a kid, worked for a while as a technician at Abbey Road, so I was lucky enough to be able to get into the studios with him late one night and see round.

I count myself very lucky to have been able to stand at the center of such creative brilliance both there and in the Motown Studios in Detroit - worlds apart, but connected in the soul.

Another friend of mine is a proud Liverpudlian, who at one point helped run the Beatles' official fan club. I'm sure he must die a little inside every time another autographed item sets a new auction record these days, but for him it was always about the music.


In keeping with today's theme, I played at 72nd Street, the stop nearest the Dakota Building and Strawberry Fields, the John Lennon memorial garden in Central Park. It's hard to believe that next year will be thirty years since John's death.

As you might expect it was a pretty mellow crowd; quite a few people wanted to chat; the guitar players especially about how good the little Martin was sounding. I was at the bottom of a stairway down to the A/C line, but I started off at the wrong end before moving down to where people were coming onto the platform, rather than leaving.

My original plan was to play one set here, and one set at Spring Street, the nearest station to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Annex, which is having a John Lennon exhibit at the moment. But as it turned out, I did two sets at 72nd, played quite a few songs two or even three times, and it felt good.

In all, I played for just under two hours, really enjoyed it, and broke the psychological barrier! I collected $5.86 today, making the running total $103.24.

Today's songist:

Here Comes The Sun - Beatles
Let It Be - Beatles
Imagine - John Lennon
Knockin' On Heaven's Door - Bob Dylan
How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live - Bruce Springsteen
People Get Ready - Curtis Mayfield
Johnny Come Lately - Steve Earle
Forever Young - Bob Dylan
Peace Love And Understanding - Elvis Costello
You're Still Standing There - Steve Earle
Passionate Kisses - Lucinda Williams
Already Home - Marc Cohn
The Promised Land - Bruce Springsteen
May You Never - John Martyn
The Waiting - Tom Petty
1952 Vincent Black Lightning - Richard Thompson
Waiting For My Real Life To Begin - Colin Hay
New York, New York - Ryan Adams
Rosalita - Bruce Springsteen

'I'm singin' this note 'cause it fits in well with the chords I'm playing..'

I went to Lincoln Center this evening to hear an outdoor performance - the US premiere - of Rhys Chatham's minimalist piece 'A Crimson Grail' scored for 200 guitars. It sounded pretty cool in the open air and in that great setting. It reminded me a bit of "In C" by Terry Riley which blew me away when I first heard it maybe 25 years ago.

Here's part of the intro. You decide for yourself.

When the bass started thumping at the start of what I guess was the second movement, at least two people near were I was standing started singing the guitar line from 'Purple Haze'.

'It's not just you, it's not just me; it's all around the world..'

I ran into a few musicians this evening on my way up and downtown, and it was a real National Geographic trip.

Yily Nelson - not Wille, Yily - is a guitar player originally from the Dominican Republic.

If you like Yily, you might also like Thalys Peterson Quaresma, a Brazilian player I met a couple of weeks ago.

Annette Taylor's powerful voice hits you as soon as you come down the stairs onto the platform. She was in the middle of belting out the Alicia Keys song 'I Keep On Falling' and it sounded great. Her latest CD is 'Hustlin' For Dollars, Hustlin' For Change'

There was a woman playing an African drum in the passageway at 42nd Street but I didn't get a chance to speak to her.

Finally, there's Professor Edwardo Alvarado.

He's a little hard to describe, beyond saying he's like a cross between Eddie Layton and Rod Steiger, but here's a nice piece on him from the Village Voice a couple of years ago.

Compelling as it is, I honestly have no idea what the main focus of his act is meant to be - is it the music or the slightly unsettling choreographed puppets? Does it matter?

But one thing I do know is that he gave me probably the sweetest smile I've ever had on the subway when I put a dollar in his basket.

And if I'm still making music when I'm his age, I'll consider myself blessed. (I'll probably ixnay the puppets though).

Friday, August 7, 2009

'You know you make me wanna..'

Michael Shulman's MUNY banner reads "Paganini XXI Century", and he seems like a cross between Darryl Way and Ritchie Blackmore. He specializes in "shred violin" and he certainly makes for compelling viewing.

Here's a WPIX story on him from a few months ago, and here's his website and his MySpace page.

At least he seems to be having more success than Thoth, the Central Park violinist has been recently.


I played at Houston Street on the downtown 1 line today. It's a surprisingly busy station, made worse by the fact that there's two express tracks running up the middle between the up and down platforms. It's also a pretty narrow platform, so that when someone is coming towards you who may not have, lets say, the best of intentions, there's no way to avoid them.

That happened today when a woman about five feet tall and maybe 70 years old approached me and just shouted for about thirty seconds about nothing in particular; although it sounded like she was angry with either her doctor - perhaps logically - or President Obama. Maybe both.

One of the reasons I like playing at the stations around Greenwich Village - like here or here - is that you honestly never know what might happen. I just kept singing and eventually she walked off to check the phone booth for change.

I played for about 40 minutes and made a dollar, taking the running total to $97.38.

Today's songlist:

Knockin' On Heaven's Door - Bob Dylan
People Get Ready - Curtis Mayfield
I Want You Back - Jackson Five
Beast Of Burden - Rolling Stones
Rosalita - Bruce Springsteen
Here Comes The Sun - Beatles
Tumblin' Dice - Rolling Stones
Waiting For My Real Life To Begin - Colin Hay

This is part of a mosaic installation at the Houston Street station by Deborah Brown called 'Platform Diving'.


Along the way today, I saw Raices Group on the Mezzanine at Union Square and Jason the 12-year-old pianist on the platform downstairs. When I got out at 42nd Street to change, I came across Grupo Wayno, who today were just one guy; not Wayno, but Peruvian founder Luis Vilcherrez, who single-handedly brings the score to Mariachis 5 Pan Flutes 5.

It's getting tense.

Notice the video for Michael Jackson's 'Thriller' playing in the window of the electronics store in the background. Ola Ray is screaming. It was just that sort of day.


'It Might Get Loud' looks awesome and opens next Friday. Here's the trailer.

Of course young James Page's first screen appearance was pretty cool too...


Hard to imagine, but tomorrow is the start of the last weekend of this project. Unbelievably, I'm down to the last four busking days, and I'm determined to make them special.

Over the weekend I'll be writing about some of the things I've learned from doing this - I started with some of these thoughts yesterday - and also where the blog and myself go from here.

Have a great weekend, everyone.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

'Will you recognize me, call my name or walk on by..?'

One of the things that has fascinated me since I've been doing this is the simple idea of why people put money in the case? What makes us give? Or not? As a passenger, I'd be inclined to lay a dollar down if the player sounded good, or was playing a song I liked. And recognition of effort is always a factor.

I know that wherever I play, I pretty much play with the same enthusiasm every day. There are always some exceptions, of course.

So why is that some days I wind up with nothing, and other days it just seems to click? Today at 50th Street, I played for about two hours, ran through 25 different songs - the most yet - and made $14.32.

I’ve tried to break it down to a few thoughts from my own experience:

1. Choice of station: Seems obvious, I know, but ideally you want a busy station with plenty of foot traffic - probably with an interchange between lines, but with separated platforms - that isn't too noisy. There should be a decent length of time between trains so you can play a complete song, but also one where the trains come often enough that there's a regular turnover of your ‘audience’. Choosing my stations at random has been a bit hit-or-miss sometimes, but generally I've had more good than bad ones. So far, there's been only one I couldn't bear to even try at.

2. Where to stand on the platform: At the foot of a staircase, if there is one, is helpful both in the numbers of people who pass and for resonance. Don’t forget the ‘25 feet’ in the MTA rules. If there's benches on a narrow platform, try standing just by them, but give people enough personal space. You want to be seen and heard, but you don't want people to feel like you're in their face, or that there's no escape from you.

3. How I'm dressed: Basically, do I look like I need that dollar more than you? I’m not saying I deliberately dress down, I don’t; but what I'm wearing might not immediately strike some people as ‘deserving’. And when people give you money, it's partly to make them feel good about giving it, and partly about rewarding your talent. Generally though, because it's so hot, I usually wear a plain tshirt and shorts.

4. What I’m playing: There's absolutely nothing worse as a passenger than hearing a busker murdering your favorite song. But at the same time, there may be few things better than hearing someone play something non-mainstream that you might like. I've tried to keep the songlist varied between recognizable stuff and songs that are good to play, although I'm conscious that a lot of my songs are of a similar genre. Foot-tappers are always good, whether the audience is familiar with them or not. Also, you have to enjoy playing them - especially over and over - so that's also a consideration.

(I'd say that the songs that I most often get some money thrown in while I'm playing would be "People Get Ready", "Peace Love and Understanding", "Rosalita" and "May You Never").

5. Interaction: How engaging am I - or indeed - how engaging should I be? Am I smiling, is my body 'open' as you walk past? Did I make eye contact? I always say 'thank you' when someone comes over to put money in the case. And I always talk to people who want to talk between songs. So far I've found that people will often throw something in just as their train is pulling in, so obviously playing while the platform is quiet is better than talking, but if someone wants to chat, I'm cool with that.

6. What's people’s general mood? The one thing you don't have any control over. I found that in New York the weather really affects how responsive people are. Time of day matters; obviously the more hurried people are, either to get to work or to get home, the less inclined they are to hear you. Also, how crowded the station is, and whether the gates and ticket machines are working matters. Generally the less hassle people have had getting onto the platform, the more they're happy to decompress for a couple of minutes.

I know there are others I haven’t thought of, but these are the ones that come to mind tonight. Any buskers out there have any to add?

My efforts today brought the running total to $96.38.

Don't forget, people don't know I'm giving the money to charity, so I hope that when they throw something in the case it's a reflection of my being able to make their day a little better, even for a couple of minutes.

Today's songlist:

Knockin' On Heavens Door - Bob Dylan
Sweetheart Like You - Bob Dylan
Crazy Dreams - Paul Brady
Galway Girl - Steve Earle
You Can't Always Get What You Want - Rolling Stones
Queen Jane Approximately - Bob Dylan
The White Hare - Seth Lakeman
Secret Garden - Bruce Springsteen
Drift Away - Dobie Gray
Nothing But The Same Old Story - Paul Brady
Crazy Love - Van Morrison
Chance - Big Country
Waiting For My Real Life To Begin - Colin Hay
Peace Love And Understanding - Elvis Costello
Rebels - Tom Petty
Welfare Music - Bottle Rockets
Roxanne - Sting
The Longer I Run - Peter Bradley Adams
Brown Eyed Girl - Van Morrison
Tonight Will Be Fine - Leonard Cohen
People Look Around - Catie Curtis
Rosalita - Bruce Springsteen
Lakes of Pontchartrain - Paul Brady
The Promised Land - Bruce Springsteen
Tumblin' Dice - Rolling Stones


Going downtown on the R train tonight, I ran into three members of a Mariachi quartet. I know there was supposed to be four of them because when they got on, one of them - a guitar player - inadvertantly got into the carriage behind and only caught his bandmates up at the next stop. In, out and gone - the usual very efficient modus operandi for these players. Play the song, pass the hat and move on.

But little did these guys know that on this particular day, they broke the deadlock between Mariachis and Pan Flute players I've randomly encountered so far. (Actually, on reviewing the videoptape, I think one of them appeared with a previous band of different players, or just that type of shirt is particularly common; but hey, they're a whole other band and they're playing a different tune, so they count!)

Tonight makes it Mariachis 5 Pan Flutes 4, and there's just a few more days to go...

The other Mariachi bands I've run into are here here here and here.

Three of the four Pan Flute players I've seen are here here and here.




Finally, farewell, John Hughes.

For those of us of a certain age, he helped define "cool" in the 1980s. In retrospect, that may seem a tough task, but the stories he told had timeless themes. A comment on The Guardian today said: “John Hughes's legacy was to put the voice of wise-cracking common sense into the mouths of those more used to being told to shut up.”

And at the time, this was pretty much perfect.

Here's Glasgow's finest, with one of the best songs not just of that year, but of that increasingly fuzzy decade; and one that likely will always be associated with him.

*This, however, might well be the only obit he'll ever need.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

'Where the underworld can meet the elite..'

Twice, 42nd Street had beaten me. Consecutive string breaks on consecutive days. I was determined to go back and play a proper set at the busiest station in the network, determined also that it wouldn't fall into the list where I've struck out, and when better than on the 42nd day of this project.

So I persevered for about an hour using the little Martin, and lo and behold, I managed a dollar! Was happy for it, and happy to see the back of 42nd Street, to be honest. Running total is now $82.06.

Up at the 42nd Street MUNY spot, the Raices Group were setting up and getting ready to play as I was heading home.

Today's songlist:

Here Comes The Sun - Beatles
Knockin' On Heaven's Door - Bob Dylan
Bad Moon Rising - John Fogerty
Welfare Music - Bottle Rockets
The Ties That Bind - Bruce Springsteen
Galway Girl - Steve Earle
Lawyers Guns And Money - Warren Zevon
Rise - Eddie Vedder
The Longer I Run - Peter Bradley Adams
Queen Jane Approximately - Bob Dylan
Never Tire Of The Road - Andy Irvine
Rosalita - Bruce Springsteen
Peace Love And Understanding - Elvis Costello

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

'Back of my neck getting dirty and gritty..'

Played an evening set tonight close to home, in the heart of downtown Brooklyn, right by Junior's.

Usually there's a steel drummer who plays on the platform here during the day; not sure how he manages it, since it's a pretty narrow space between the up and down platforms. In the evening the trains are frequent and it's dusty and almost unbearably hot.

I played for about an hour and talked for a while with a very nice woman who told me she used to busk on the London subway with her boyfriend.

Made $2.50 tonight, making the running total for Robin Hood $81.06.

Tonight's songlist:

Knockin' On Heaven's Door - Bob Dylan
People Get Ready - Curtis Mayfield
Here Comes The Sun - Beatles
Lawyers Guns And Money - Warren Zevon
Peace Love And Understanding - Elvis Costello
The Rising - Bruce Springsteen
The Promised Land - Bruce Springsteen
Roxanne - Sting
Rosalita - Bruce Springsteen
Drift Away - Dobie Gray
All Along The Watchtower - Bob Dylan


The Guardian reports on the BBC radio premiere of Radiohead's new song, dedicated to Britain's last surviving First World War veteran Harry Patch, who died this week.

Monday, August 3, 2009

'A dream of life comes to me..'

When I first moved to New York, in May 2000, I lived downtown for a couple of months while I looked for a permanent apartment. My Subway stop was Fulton Street, and as I went into the station every day to go to work, the sky would be dark because the World Trade Center towers were just a couple of blocks away.

By the time September 11 happened, I was living across the river in Hoboken, whose community suffered proportionally more than many other suburbs. For the first few weeks after I moved, I'd take the PATH train into the WTC station and connect uptown, before deciding that the bus to the Port Authority was a quicker option.

On the day itself, at the moment the world changed, I was in the air.

I'd been in London visiting my kids. It was my younger son's birthday on September 7, and I'd never not been with him for his birthday. I was flying back to JFK on a United flight that morning, and about an hour out of Heathrow, the captain announced that we were turning around. He said there was "a problem with US air traffic control" and that was the last official word until we landed.

Passengers in first and business class started to use the in-seat phones to talk to people on the ground - with the initial intention of rearranging travel plans - and news started to seep through about what had happened.

As phones were pressed to ears, hands were raised whenever anyone managed to get through to someone stateside. Other passengers then gathered around the caller, who would relay snippets of information, often punctuated by "oh dear God.."

We had no idea what was truth and what was fiction. And, like the rest of the world, we had no idea when it might be over.

Although I was heading back to my kids - I learned later that the flight ahead of us had been diverted to Canada - I've never felt further from the people I loved.

Like everyone else, I was glued to the television for days until flight restrictions were lifted and I was able to return to New York. I remember the night I got back, being in a cab coming around the corner into Washington Street in Hoboken, and seeing the bus shelters and light poles plastered with "missing' posters. It was heartwrenching and humbling.

In the rush and mix of emotions over that next few weeks, I found a profound grief was mixed with an incredible pride in how my adopted city responded. This helped. And then so did this.

Somehow, music became even more meaningful as life and love became more precious.

A piece I wrote for Forbes in 2005, about the 30th anniversary of Bruce Springsteen's Born To Run, drew a line connecting that album with 2002's The Rising:

"In the three decades since its birth, the album has endured as the characters who inhabit Springsteen's poetry have grown older, possibly wiser, possibly richer or possibly more disillusioned with society and their place in it.

These themes - personal triumph over adversity, blue-collar honesty, joy in the human spirit and the possibility of a second chance - are revisited throughout his subsequent work: Darkness on the Edge of Town, The River, Born in the USA, the emotionally bleak but musically beautiful Tunnel of Love and right up through The Rising, his very human response to the events of Sept. 11, 2001.

In many ways, The Rising - one of the most articulate and sympathetically resonant artistic reflections on the attacks - is a perfect bookend to Born to Run, with its now middle-aged protagonists working hard to get by in the real world, and having the unreal thrust upon them.

The kids who fought in the streets in the stanzas of "Jungleland" were now cops and firefighters - working-class heroes with real drama in their lives - or grew into the white-collar commuters who came to work in Lower Manhattan.

Yet while the message of Born to Run is rooted in a basic individuality and self-confidence, The Rising ultimately delivers the listener to a place where, even when we cannot always comprehend why the world is how it is, faith in one's fellow human beings helps us to reach for what is best in all of us."

It was a short set today, as I broke another string. But I made $3 in about 40 minutes, bringing the running total for Robin Hood to $78.56.

Today's songlist:

The Rising - Bruce Springsteen
Waiting For My Real Life To Begin - Colin Hay
Galway Girl - Steve Earle
Rise - Eddie Vedder
100 Miles - Catie Curtis
Brown Eyed Girl - Van Morrison
Peace Love And Understanding - Elvis Costello

BuskerCam today is a respectful version of the only song it could possibly be.

And here's how Bruce performed it at the Lincoln Memorial on inauguration weekend this year; one of the most redemptive musical performances I have ever seen.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

'Draw the shades, and light the fire..'

Mrs B had to fly to Chicago today, so after I dropped her at the airport I came back to the City and ended up at Grand Central, maybe the one location that says more about rail transportation than any other in New York. The Terminal building is undoubtedly beautiful, one of the most photographed stations in the world, inside and out.

But despite having the Transit museum (Annex) tucked away off the concourse, it's almost as if the Subway is an afterthought, the functional bastard child of the more luxurious and glamorous parents upstairs.

I came down to play on the 7 line, since the platforms are wider, but it's as noisy as you'd expect. I don't know how the teenage couple kissing passionately under the steps managed to block out the sound of the trains. I certainly couldn't. I played about a half hour before cutting my losses and getting the train down to Canal Street for a quick 45 minutes before heading home. No money in the case at either venue, but that's ok.

On the way downtown I ran into a couple of musicians on the train - travelling, not playing. Jazz players Steven Husted (bass) and Carras Paton (sax) were coming from a brunch gig in Brooklyn to a rehearsal in the city.

Today's songlists

Grand Central:

Leavin' On A Jet Plane - John Denver/Sister Hazel
Who'll Stop The Rain - John Fogerty
Knockin' On Heaven's Door - Bob Dylan
If I Had A Boat - Lyle Lovett
People Get Ready/My City Of Ruins - Curtis Mayfield/Bruce Springsteen
Beast Of Burden - Rolling Stones

Canal St:

You're The World To Me - David Gray
Knockin' On Heaven's Door - Bob Dylan
Roxanne - Sting
People Get Ready - Curtis Mayfield
Lakes Of Pontchartrain - Paul Brady
Tumblin' Dice - Rolling Stones
Rosalita - Bruce Springsteen
Waiting For My Real Life To Begin - Colin Hay
Sultans Of Swing - Dire Straits

Finally, since there was another torrential downpour today - and Mrs B loves the sound of thunderstorms (hence the title of tonight's post) - take a look at this from Slovenia...

Saturday, August 1, 2009

'I see a little silhouetto of a man..'

No busking for me on Friday, as I headed up to Westchester to hear stepdaughter in the chorus at the Caramoor Opera Festival for a performance of Rossini's "Semiramide". They announced that it might be the first time ever a Caramoor performance would be amplified, as thunderstorms were scheduled to pass through the area and with an outdoor venue, they wanted to make sure the sound could defeat anything the elements might hurl at them. As it turned out, the weather played nice.

It was tremendous. The orchestra was first rate, and the principal singers: Angela Meade, Lawrence Brownlee and, especially, Vivica Genaux, were all outstanding. Everyone, performers and audience, was deeply into it, and their commitment made the whole thing - all four hours of it - memorable. As for the story, In short, a mother unknowingly falls in love with her son. It all ends badly.

I won't pretend to have grown up with an appreciation for this kind of experience, and I've only come to it as my stepdaughter gets involved in that world. But I'm enjoying learning more, through observing - this was about my tenth opera tonight - and reading smart blogs like An Unamplified Voice, but above all, it's a happy education for me when she points out how one singer's technique differs from another's, or how important it is to breathe at exactly the right time (well, duhh ..)

When I watch her practice I see her enthusiasm and dedication to this craft, even though she knows it's a tough path, and it makes me proud and excited for her as she sets off on her career.

At the end of the day, music is music. Wherever you find it, however you make it, its main purpose is to move you. And if it moves you, the greatest gift you can give is to move others.


On Thursday night, my local PBS station broadcast the Pete Seeger 90th Birthday Concert which took place in May at Madison Square Garden.

It was an amazing night, and I wrote about it here at the time. If you get the chance to see it on re-run or even when the DVD comes out, please do. You'll definitely find something you like in this remarkable show.


The always excellent Play A Little Guitar blog has a nice story about a busker in downtown Washington DC. On my visits to the nation's capital, I don't remember ever seeing musicians inside the subway stations themselves, so I'm guessing the rules might be a little different, although the acoustics down there would be pretty amazing, since it's a much more cavernous structure than here in New York.


Finally, if you're in the UK, the wonderful Cambridge Folk Festival is on this weekend. I've been a few times and it's always a great outing, whether you're camping out or just up for the day. This year, as always, there are some terrific acts lined up: Jim Moray, Cara Dillon, Martin Simpson and Blazin' Fiddles play both Saturday and Sunday, while Los Lobos headline Saturday before Paul Brady and then Lucinda Williams close things out on Sunday night.

To give you a flavour of the the event, here's a couple of my favourite festival performers from recent years: the brilliant Kate Rusby, and then Seth Lakeman.