This week, as you may recall, I’ve been thinking of the truly unsung heroes of music: the street performers. Street performers, of course, aren’t inherently heroes just for being what they are, though. As much as I love unexpected art, there are lots of performers I am not such a huge fan of. I find the human statues to be comically pointless. I consider the dancers who run into subway cars, blasting their boomboxes as they freestyle through the carriage between stops, to be little more than novice hostage takers. Basically any other performer, you can walk past, hop a train, simply ignore, but with the doors closed tight, hurtling through tunnels, this sort of aggressive panhandling feels like a violation. Like a restaurant in a tourist town trying to hound people inside, if the performance is truly worthwhile, people will stop anyway. That is proven time and again, and just as there are many amazing eateries hiding behind the hawkers getting in your face, there are many, many talented musicians in our nation’s cities. Slide guitar or blues guitar may echo through the squares of the world, perhaps saxophone or mandolin outside a cafe, or just a makeshift plastic tub functioning as a drum. These musicians share the stage with other masters, such as the men and women recreating classic art in chalk and pastel on the sides of roads every day, or other spectacles (I’ve seen men jump through tiny hoops, or lie on the proverbial bed of nails). The sheer talent or sheer oddity of something will be enough to draw a crowd. Today’s piece draws a bit on both.
I had plenty of time to kill when last I was in The City, due to an insanely early bus schedule. By rush hour, my backpack, simply packed though it was, felt like I was carrying the Empire State Building instead of some clothing and a laptop, and while New York makes walking a pleasure, I was admittedly dragging. With this in mind, I would have taken a bit longer that evening in Union Square than I would have normally anyway. Instead, I ended up stopping.
I wasn’t alone, no, there was a throng around the three musicians in the subway station before I even walked by. Despite the busy New Yorker stereotype, even during the post-work milieu people were pausing to watch, video, and tip the performance before us. If the average video is any indication, these people took nearly ten minutes out of their lives to watch three strangers, without any fame implied. It was a brief interlude in a busy day for the unknown and for music.
What music it was, too. The video here seems very representative of what I walked into. One song bled into another, with drum n’ bass sax lines under Arab tinged trumpet, downtempo ska morphing into a plaza in Madrid, all over constant percussion from the tub thumping (not to be confused with Tubthumper) tradition. Having researched further now, there -are- specific songs, or at least movements, coming across here, but it doesn’t change the medley of stylistic departure points. Even the trio themselves seem to come from different worlds: when I saw them, the drummer did indeed have the sort of hypnotic devotion to his drum as the best street drummers do. The sax was in the hands of a young man who both looked and danced like he grew up skanking to ska, while that wailing trumpet emulated big band jazz in sound as much as it’s player’s posture. The three together created a sort of jazz-trance, a street funk, something not easily defined but in the moment very special. When you’re takin’ it to the streets, you don’t have to worry so much about genre and define-ability. You also, thankfully, don’t need to concentrate much on your band name: when I heard “Too Many Zooz,” it clattered on the ground of my mind, unable to properly hold what I’d just seen, but really, if most of your fans are going to pass through the underground, silly names become less of a conflict. It’s all about the performance and the music: that’s what gets people to stop, not a band name.
The crowd a few weeks ago was impressive, sure, and the music certainly left an impact, but I apparently wasn’t the only one. Since discovering them, the group has announced their first proper, above-ground show, opening for actual national band Moon Hooch. They also just recently self-released an EP. You can snag it through Bandcamp: this video features the first three tracks, which flow similarly, one into the next, on the recording as well. The music still has something recorded, even if it loses a bit of its improv feel to know these are actually composed pieces. Still, if this is to be the start of big things for the trio (next year’s SXSW darlings? “Love this Zoo” collab after bumping into David Byrne on the F train?) it can’t really substitute the intrigue of stumbling over them the first time, knowing nothing, having no prejudice. A real stage may allow the professionalism of their music to show just as well, but it won’t have that echo and clatter of the subway. Everything is different depending on how and when you experience it. It’s why the songs you hate are the songs you belt out with your friends anyway. It’s how an average guitar wending through the wind in a magical setting can trump a virtuoso in an uncomfortable club. I wish the best to the worlds of musicians out there fighting up the ranks, but I also hope you the readers get to experience them in those unpolished, unexpected moments as well.
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