First timers to New York are usually impressed by how many musicians are performing in the subway. If you ride the subway regularly – and everyone does except a few New Yorkers who make a conscious choice not to do it – you have a chance of seeing a 5 to 15 minute show twice a day.
Each day is a surprise. You may be holding your ears, or you may be in for a rare treat. The best rendition of “Wagon Wheel” that I’ve ever seen was on the A train, going uptown between 59 and 125 on a Friday evening. I still remember it clearly: 2 guys, and they were tight. And, they did the whole song without holding onto anything but their guitars and harmonicas as the A train hit its max speed around 110th Street. It was electrifying. I saw one of them do the same song later with another singer, but it wasn’t as good. And then they were gone. Never saw ‘em again. Kind of made me wish I still carried cash so I could have given them a fiver.
If you want consistency and goodness, the various mariachi groups deliver. In fact, the best way to hire a mariachi combo for your party is to find a group you like playing the subways on the weekends. Ask for their price and their card, and voilà as we say in Spanish. They’re either professionals or very good amateurs, and they’ll know a variety of numbers. You might like the ever-fresh “Cielito Lindo” (yeah, you know it. That’s the one that goes “ay, yi, yi, yi”). They can also play songs of love and lament, plus some more topical items such as rancheras praising El Chapo. Note about that: I consider him to be a murdering druglord, but then I bet Robin Hood’s contemporaries felt the same about him, and he got a ballad or two.
Other music professionals you’ll enjoy are the Music Underground MTA-sanctioned artists that regularly play Times Square, Grand Central, Columbus Circle and other major hubs . You have to audition for it, but you have to start somewhere. They are always professional, and you can get everything from jazz to an Andean pan pipe ensemble. Always worth a glance as you run for your train.
Then there are the musicians who skip the official MTA stamp of approval and just set up with an amp, a mike, a donation basket, and sometimes either backup musicians or a minus one on the media player. There are string duets, solo cellos, keyboard players, erhu masters, and the occasional harp. My favorite is the flute player who always sets up in the Number One uptown at 66th Street just after an opera lets out from Lincoln Center. As you file into the subway, you will start to hear a flute playing all the favorite arias you just heard on stage. This guy does his homework. He not only know what time you’re going to be hitting the train, but also the top 5 from the specific opera you just saw. It’s a winning combination.
Upon sliding a bit further down the quality slide, we find the Loan Guitarist. The lone guitarist can range from great to just god-awful. They tend to favor “Hallelujah”, though some of them write their own songs. The Loan Guitarist with a CD to sell will usually eschew the station (where you can quietly melt into the crowd to escape them), and go right to the subway car. They start with a quick introduction, a plea to lend your ears, then on to the top hit, a request to support the arts by buying a CD, and then it’s out the door as the train pulls into the station. I was happy to see the return of the protest song when one of these intruded into my evening commute with a very well-crafted old-style hiphop ballad about Donald Trump and Black Lives Matter
The Truly Horrible
Panhandlers can and do use music as a ploy, and this is rarely seen for anything more than what it is. They aren’t street musicians. They aren’t Lone Guitarists. They almost always sing a cappella, although once upon a time on the “B” train there was a guy who warned passengers to give him money or else he’d play the sax he always carried with him. It was better by far to give him the money, as he had taken your ears hostage. I heard a rumor that someone beat his sax against his face late one night, but I can tell you that didn’t improve the sound quality.
Every subway line has its own brand of audible signaling – some is built in, and some of it just happens. The Number Six train, when it pulls into Wall Street, accidentally plays the first three notes of “Somewhere (There’s a Place For Us)” from “West Side Story”. Then I can’t get the frickin thing out of my head the rest of the day. And if you click on the link, you won’t either.