Subway musicians take their act to Madison Square Park

Bands working the subway, including Bandits on the Run (above), are featured in the Madison Square Park Conservancy’s new concert series, “Above Ground.” Photo by Dave Fitz)

Bands working the subway, including Bandits on the Run (above), are featured in the Madison Square Park Conservancy’s new concert series, “Above Ground.” (Photo by Dave Fitz)

By Sabina Mollot

At Madison Square Park, one of the surest signs that summer has officially arrived is not with the Shake Shack line snaking halfway around the park—since it’s like that even in the winter — but with the start of its various events.

For years now, summers in the park have included Thursday morning concerts and theater for kids as well as Wednesday night concerts for adults — and they’re all free. The evening “Oval Lawn” concert series has been going for 13 years and another concert series, “The Studio,” which runs at the park in the fall, and is the domain of Americana/bluegrass bands, is now in its tenth year.

This year, however, the Madison Square Park Conservancy has launched yet another series, this one featuring the best of what the city’s subway platforms have to offer.

Called the “Above Ground” series, the concerts have been running at 12:30 p.m. on Wednesdays since June 24 with buskers headlining. The series will continue for three more Wednesdays with performances by Bandits on the Run (July 15), Mariachi Flor de Toloache (July 22) and Underground Horns (July 29).

Ashley Hughes, the director of programming at the conservancy, said the newest program came about as a response to requests for events park goers could enjoy on their lunch breaks.

“We wanted to expand on (the existing concert series) for people who want some cultural interaction,” said Hughes.

As for spotlighting buskers, Hughes explained that she’d been very impressed with the quality of musicians who play underground with the blessing of the MTA — as well as those who play there without it. The MTA’s own curation of musicians was also a source of inspiration. “They do a great job of organizing music flowing continuously as part of the cultural mix of the subway system,” said Hughes.

For the concerts at the park, some artists were found by Hughes online and others were approached after she saw them play at different stations.
While many buskers also perform at more traditional venues, for the majority of the series’ singers, “the subway is their bread and butter,” said Hughes.

“America’s Got Talent” alum Mr. Reed helped curate the “Above Ground” series.

“America’s Got Talent” alum Mr. Reed helped curate the “Above Ground” series.

One of the performers, Mr. Reed, gained some recognition after competing on “America’s Got Talent,” and winning some praise from one of the judges, Howard Stern. Reed also helped curate the “Above Ground” series.

A subway venue veteran with over five years experience, Reed, in an interview with Town & Village, said busking is how he earns his living. This includes being able to finance his musical career through recordings, international touring and the money to pay the eleven-piece band he often performs with. Reed has been a full-time musician since 2008.

With busking having grown in popularity recently, competition for subway platforms has grown, but according to Reed, it hasn’t led to any conflicts between musicians.

When asked where he performs, Reed responded, “I run Bedford.”

This, he explained, means he’s behind the organization of the busking schedule at the busy L train stop, so buskers know and respect each other’s usual performance times.

“You build relationships with musicians and you really communicate,” he said. “There’s no such thing as arguments. There’s no such thing as beefs or problems. We only have peace. Communication is really at the core of that peace.

“There’s opportunity in creating more opportunities,” he added.

For Reed, busking, along with his reality TV stint, has also led to being hired for private events, club acts and collaborations. He noted how it was a video of one of his subway drumming performances, not a set on “AGT,” that went viral in Japan, getting over one million hits overnight once. It later got picked up by a blog, and was seen since then over four million times.

He believes subway performers are having a moment due to the “authenticity” of a DIY career in a less-than-glamorous venue.

“When you see it, it’s real. It’s not behind a curtain,” said Reed. “It’s a typical American tale of a by-your-bootstraps effort.”

He also defended buskers from those who would dismiss them as panhandlers rather than professionals.

“Most people I know are full-time musicians,” Reed said. “There’s a seriousness it takes to go out in public. A lot of people are dealing with nerves and are too nervous to go out there consistently.”

Meanwhile, for another “Above Ground” headliner, three-member band Bandits on the Run, nerves never seemed to be a part of the picture. The members all have music as well as theater backgrounds, and original member Adrian Blake Enscoe is just as likely to be on an audition as a subway platform. Blake Enscoe also plays under an alias as do the other members. His alter ego is Roy Dodger, while bandmate and girlfriend Sydney Torin Shepherd’s is Bonnie Jean a.k.a. Bonanza Jellyfish and the third bandmate, Torin Shepherd’s friend since college, Regina Marie Strayhorn, goes by Clarissa. The three, who’ve been busking for over four years, said the stage names are an integral part of the act.

With the band’s name — and busking itself — having an outlaw feel to it, “We thought we may as well go a little further with it,” explained Blake Enscoe. “When we perform on the subways, we’re like Wild West characters, breaking up the monotony.” He added, “If you’re doing stickups, you need an alias.” While the band is loath to define its style to a particular genre, its roots are in three-part harmony, not unlike the Andrews Sisters.
Busking isn’t a full-time career for any of them, although the band did give it a go for a while, performing in the subway six nights a week. But Blake Enscoe explained that because their performances are so “vocal,” it was too easy for them to wear out their voices busking that often.

“We’re auditioning for things and we need our voices for things other than singing,” he said.

Blake Enscoe, who’s been busking the longest, starting out in Pittsburgh, PA, said he doesn’t think busking has changed too much over the years.

“What’s changed is we got used to it,” he said.

But Torin Shepherd noted that it’s hard to miss that the movement is finally getting some mainstream recognition.

“It does seem like it’s trending,” she said, adding that the group has been approached numerous times by people asking for interviews for documentaries they’re working on about buskers. So far, the band hasn’t been able to comply due to schedule reasons, but indicated that they were open to the idea.

When going underground to perform, the band favors the L line’s Bedford stop as well as another Brooklyn stop, Metropolitan Avenue on the G line, and in Manhattan, the Second Avenue F line. “Especially during brunch,” said Strayhorn. Outside the subway, the group has also played on the Roosevelt Island tram. While a bit too cozy for comfort, it was worthwhile for the band, since, Strayhorn added, “People haven’t tried to do that yet.”

Another outdoor venue was Union Square Park a couple of weekends ago. The Bandits had been scheduled to play as part of an event put on by the New York Guitar School. But just as they were about to go on, “a downpour happened,” said Torin Shepherd. But later, after the rain stopped, the group went on anyway. “A lot of people stuck around so we did a guerilla concert,” she said.

To keep up with the band’s playing schedule, there’s an active Instagram account @banditsontherun.

Mr. Reed, who was set to perform at “Above Ground” on July 8, will embark on a European tour from August 24-September 24. He can be reached via email at mrreedent@gmail.com.

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