Is The Next John Mayer Serenading Us in The Subways?


By: Jess Goulart

Theo Eastwind performing in the subway. Photo courtesy of Elvert Barnes.

“It takes balls to be a busker!”

This is the emphatic adage put forth by Theo Eastwind, a NYC busker whose studio-recorded album The O rocketed him out of the subway and into the world of commercial success. With a tenor technique to rival Sting layered over an acoustic guitar reminiscent of Jeff Buckley, it’s no wonder his hit song “Set Up” topped charts worldwide. Eastwind now uses his “small success” to organize the Busker Ball, a quarterly showcase of New York City’s most talented subway performers.

In a community trademarked by a DIY, no-frills, penniless existence, with artists accustomed to fighting for their right to perform – this is no small task.

The first Busker Ball was a Red Cross benefit for Sandy in October of 2012. After its success, Eastwind decided to develop the concept further and began traveling all over the city to tap performers he favored for an invitation to participate. Gaining a reputation in the media, The Busker Ball has now been covered by Time Out New York and the Associated Press, and Eastwind tells BTR a story in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal is in the works.

Last night’s Busker Ball at Spike Hill was the 4th to date, with the 5th scheduled for January 23rd at the same venue. Thus far, Eastwind and the frenetic violin/banjo duo Mountain Animation have played every showcase, though in the future Eastwind hopes to be only the event organizer.

“I’m a big believer that if you play an instrument, you should go out there and perform,” Eastwind says, “because as long as you see people doing that, you know that we’re free in this country.”

To perform in the subways, buskers contend with the NYPD, zero acoustics, cancelling ambient sounds, and generally ambivalent, busy New Yorkers. Yet that doesn’t stop them. As far as Eastwind, who’s been busking in NYC for over 20 years, is concerned, this is the truest testament to their love of the art, and they’ve earned a little pampering.

“I want them to feel like rockstars for a night, at the Busker Ball. It’s not like they have to pander to people or run around selling their CDs, we’ll have someone selling their merch for them. They’ll get all the money from the door, they’ll get free drinks and, eventually, food. That’s the idea – for the busker’s to have a ball. It works on many levels, you see.”

And BTR did see, catching last night’s showcase of some of the best underground talent. Here’s a quick highlight of some of the evening’s artists.

Arthur Medrano, of Blueberry Season and Missed Art, performs at the Busker Ball. Photo courtesy of Jess Goulart.

The anti-folk couple Arthur and Shiloh Medrano, who play under the moniker Missed Art, took the stage first, amidst a swath of professional microphones and amps that were a far cry from the duos preferred Union Square platform. Arthur’s pensive lyrics and introverted, poetic voice were off-set by his aggressive guitar and Shiloh’s echoing counter-point screams. Arthur has been performing solo as Blueberry Season in the subways since 2006, and in 2012, he recorded a three song demo you can check out here.

Arthur Medrano, of Blueberry Season, performing in the subway.

“We’ve been confronted by the NYPD multiple times, in addition to run ins with some very negative people,” Shiloh tells BTR. “but we find that for every negative person there’s a positive one who is appreciative, even if it isn’t their style of music.”

To encourage interaction, Missed Art includes a request board for passer’s by, and are willing to sing anything from Britney Spears to The Beatles to Hot Hot Heat.

When asked whether they prefer the stage or the subway, Shiloh grimaces, “I actually don’t like performing on stage. I prefer the way our music sounds in the subway because it’s a challenge to project, so we can play as loud as we want.”

Ken Ruan at the Busker Ball. Photo courtesy of Jess Goulart.

Singer-songwriter Ken Ruan followed Missed Art. With a charming, relaxed stage presence despite pre-show jitters, Ruan’s fast-tempo acoustic shorts enveloped the room like John Mayer’s must have the first time he played to a coffee shop – everyone suddenly stopped what they were doing to pay attention. By the time Ruan’s quiet, romantic rendition of Brian Mcknight’s “Back At One” drifted out through the bar, the crowd had swelled and was swaying in rhythm.

Ruan tells BTR he’s been busking for two years, and busked every day in the summer of 2012. The F and M Uptown at Union Square is his favorite spot.

Ken Ruan busking.

“I like to say that the station choose me, because it facilitated my music. The acoustics are fantastic there, and I remember watching other musicians perform there and knowing that would eventually be my spot. The first time I played there I was very upset, because people didn’t listen to me… that happens a lot in the subways. But, eventually you get used to it, and sometimes you have times when you get a lot of attention, and that makes up for it.”

Ruan told the audience that his favorite moment when performing in the subway is when he sees you with your headphones on, and watches you take them off to listen to him instead. He loves it “when your ears perk up.”

As an Eastwind fan for years, Ruan tells BTR playing alongside him in the showcase was something of a treat.

Indeed, as Eastwind took the stage and the audience built to its peak of the evening, it was clear he has a devoted following. The magnetism with which Eastwind seems to befriend anyone he speaks to exuded from him as he introduced himself and thanked all of the performers.

After a quick speech about First Amendment rights, why busking is in the true spirit of America, and an emphatic plea to always, ALWAYS tip a busker you like (and even ones you don’t), and Eastwind was on, opening with “Set Up” off his signature album The O. A live version of him performing the song in the BTR studio can be found here. Absorbed into his irresistible charisma, the crowd danced, cheered, and laughed.

Eastwind tells BTR that his latest album, King of The Underground, was recorded under cover of night on a secret subway platform. He can’t disclose which one (trade secret), but at this particular spot, he says, “They arched the ceiling and soundproofed it so the people upstairs don’t get disturbed. So what this does is it deadens the station, and of course, when you’re recording that’s key to doing something cool. You have a huge reverb, but it’s so dead, that you can actually work with it and make it sound really good.”

Theo Eastwind performing near the subway. Photo courtesy of Elvert Barnes.

Mountain Animation followed Eastwind. Zack Orion and Scott Murphy impressively manage to blend classical and mountain music with the seamless cohesion of vocals, violin, harmonica, foot drum, and banjo. Eclectically sampling world cultures, one heavily Scottish song featured hauntingly beautiful harmonics that mimicked a background bagpipe.

Though Orion and Murphy have been with Eastwind since the get go, the pair tells BTR they won’t be joining for the 5th Busker Ball because they’re headed south to perform on slightly warmer streets.

“Oh yes,” Eastwind tells BTR, “buskers are very nomadic, and not necessarily cooperative — they’re an odd bunch, that’s why they go in the subway, because nobody can mess with them. But everyone I’ve brought here has been very helpful and sweet and appreciative.”

It was true, the buskers at the ball were convivially supportive of one another, drinking and talking and playing music into the wee hours of the morning. As he toasted Orion and Murphy, playfully trying to convince them to return for January’s Ball, Eastwind shouted, “It’s the spirit of busking that we showcase here — the spirit where you go and you play music in the subway and you do it because you just…you can’t do anything else.”

“Now THAT is something to be celebrated.”