Storyship – Truly Underground Music

By Robert Voris

The band was playing on the L train platform in the station at 6th Avenue and 14th Street.  They weren’t using any sort of amplification.  They huddled together near one of the white-tiled staircases, allowing people to pass easily around them.  A guitar case displaying homemade CDs sat open in front of the singer.  People bought the CDs for a suggested donation of five dollars, or dropped in singles or loose change as they saw fit.  The band did not directly solicit money.

So when the police officers approached them and told them to leave, they pointed out that they had broken no laws.  It wasn’t the first time they’d been told to get off a subway platform, but they always argued the legality of their presence before acquiescing.  This time, however, one of the officers had an unusual reaction.  Rather than simply repeating the order to leave at a higher volume, as usually happened, he told them that he knew they were right.  That they were doing nothing wrong.  And that it didn’t matter.  The officers were told to periodically chase out anyone busking on the platform, and that anyone who didn’t move would be issued a summons.  Even if it was thrown out by a judge, even if they knew it was going to be thrown out, they’d write one anyway.  The law may be clear, but orders are crystal.

“It was the first time someone had told us the truth,” Russell Holland, the singer, said later on.  Realizing that they would always be targets, the band members decided to appeal to the one force in the subway ostensibly higher than the NYPD: the MTA.

Music Under New York, or MUNY, is a program sponsored by the Metropolitan Transit Authority that issues licenses to play in the subway system to musicians.  Depending on the quality of the auditions, MUNY will issue up to 25 of these permits per year.  Musicians get an official MUNY banner to hang, may use amplifiers, and can schedule to play in specific locations, eliminating the chance that another act will grab their spot or a police officer will tell them to vacate the premises.

The MUNY auditions were still some months away, so the band knuckled down, learning more songs, rehearsing more often, and, occasionally, busking in the subways, hoping that they could get a good set in before they were asked to move along.

It takes a couple of minutes to figure out the gimmick.  The songs are famous, but the arrangements unfamiliar, and the context odd.  But by the time Russell Holland starts to sing, a couple of people have stopped to listen.

“Please could you stop the noise, I’m trying to get some rest/From all the unborn chicken voices in my head,” he wails over a banjo, carefully plucked by bandmate Drew Pitcher.  Radiohead.  Paranoid Android.  Acoustic.  In the subway.  And in truth, it’s kind of perfect.  By the four minute-mark, when Holland wails out, “God loves His children” and the band crashes through the bridge, there are two crowds.  One on each platform.  As the uptown N train clatters into Union Square station, one man sprints across to the downtown platform where the band is continuing its set of covers, grabs one of the homemade CDs, drops a five into the open guitar case and runs back, jumping onto the express train just as the doors issue their familiar double tone.

The band is Storyship, a four-man ensemble that takes Beatles tunes, Radiohead jams and the best of E.L.O., among others, strips out the electricity and plays the results for donations and CD sales in the subways, parks and public hubs of New York City.

Russell Holland, Drew Pitcher, Tom Blancarte and Andreas Pichler have been performing together for a little over a year, and their ease with one another is apparent.  Throughout the subway set, the band spoke only a few sentences, all to one another, all short.

“Pass the accordion, please.”  “Ready?”  Not even a “one-two-three-four,” Holland tapping his foot or Pichler brushing his drumstick over a tom to start the next song.

Subway performers are nothing new, and many have the ability to stop commuters for a moment of recognition or pleasure, but holding and monopolizing the attention of New York’s commuters is rare.  By the time the band launched into its uber-bluesy rendition of “Boy Blue,” all but three of the people on both platforms were knotted together, swaying and head-bobbing at the southern end of the station.  The three abstainers were all wearing headphones, listening to their own music.

The band didn’t seem to notice the crowd, though.  During “I’m Only Sleeping,” John Lennon’s ode to laziness from Revolver, Holland’s eyes were closed, and it fell to Pitcher to nod thanks when someone made a donation or purchased a CD.  Inspired by the performance, a teenager mock MCd in front of the band, though the lyrics he mouthed into his fist never matched those Holland sang.  None of the musicians said anything or looked askance, though Pitcher had to scoot his stool back when the young man stumbled, overcome by either the music or something else.

When a Q train rolled in, Brooklyn-bound, a couple hesitated.  “We can take the local,” the woman said, and they continued to hang out as the band kicked out Tom Petty’s “Free Falllin’.”

Holland, who bears uncommon resemblance to the actor Paul Dano, allowed a small smile to break as the Q train departs and the crowd, only slightly diminished, shot the train dirty looks as its noise interfered with the concert.

Storyship was ready.  The more they busked, the better they played.  Once winter began to break, they started hitting Central Park, where the crowds were enthusiastic, much more willing to listen than commuters.  There was also more competition.  On a recent sunny day, Storyship planted itself among the photo hawkers, hot dog stands and caricaturists surrounding the grand staircase of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  The band showed up early, got set, played well.  And then another band, an a cappella doo-wop group that plays the Met often, set up nearby, poached the audience and sent Storyship wandering around to find a new pitch to play.

“We found a little open grassy place nearby, so it worked out in the end,” Pitcher said.  “But there’s so much competition over just a few spots.”

A bit of background: Buskers, or street performers, are found in high-traffic spots in major cities across the United States.  Jackson Square, New Orleans; Union Square, San Francisco; Millennium Park, Chicago.  All boast healthy busker populations.  But New York, as it is for so many things, is busker central.  Central Park, Times Square, Washington Square and Battery Park are all busker havens.  Busking can be pretty much anything: miming, caricature drawing and break-dancing all fall under the general term.  It’s simply a performance for an audience that doesn’t know there’s going to be a show.  The spot where a busker sets up is the pitch.

The improvisatory nature of busking has many good traits.  There is no boss.  There is no set schedule.  There’s not even a workplace.

The drawbacks to busking are closely related to its pleasantries.  Without a boss, there’s no one to complain to if things go sour.  With no schedule, it’s easy to show up to a favored spot and find it claimed by another performer.  Not having a workplace means that, more often than not, one has to be created.

In addition to protection against over-zealous police officers, the other huge advantage to the MUNY permit is the protection against other buskers intruding on Storyship’s pitch, as MUNY gigs are booked in advance.

Busking was not what the members of Storyship had in mind when they moved to New York.  Holland, Pitcher and Blancarte all trained as jazz musicians at the University of North Texas, though they did not play together during their college years.  After graduation, they all played on separate cruise ships, an experience that Holland describes as “an easy way to get stuck,” and Pitcher remembers as “where I saw ‘Along Came Polly.’  What else was there to do on a cruise ship?”  The money was decent, though, and the three decided to move together to New York.

Day jobs were uninspiring, naturally.  Pitcher and Blancarte worked together in a mailroom that didn’t get much mail, so they spent time playing chess, learning how to play the harmonica and talking about music.  When the company folded, Pitcher went to work in another, far busier, mailroom – Columbia House, the CD-by-mail company.  The job wasn’t any more inspiring, but the fringe benefit – lots of CDs – was substantial.

The turning point was still a year away, but the cause was already in the apartment, wrapped in plastic.  It took a year before Pitcher got around to opening one of the many CDs he’d brought home with him, an old ELO album.  But one night, one of the many sit-around-drinking-beer-and-listening-to-music nights that Pitcher and Holland and Blancarte have had, the CD went into the player and, as Holland puts it, “the holy shit moment,” happened.

“It was like, ‘How have I been on the Earth this long and not known about this,’” Holland said.  “Why didn’t anyone tell me?”

Frustrated by the New York jam sessions they’d participated in and unhappy in their day jobs, Pitcher and Holland threw themselves into picking apart pop music, figuring out how the harmonies worked and how to re-arrange the music for the instruments they were teaching themselves: harmonica, banjo and accordion.  In addition to ELO, the two gorged on massive helpings of Beatles, Radiohead, Paul McCartney and Bruce Springsteen.

“But it all goes back to Jeff Lynne,” Pitcher said.

The third roommate, Blancarte, was finding steady work as an avant-garde jazz bassist, but he enjoyed the process of prying tunes apart to see how they worked and then reassembling them to see if they could still run.

Pichler came from Austria on a tourist visa to play drums in avant-garde jazz groups and connected with the others through Blancarte’s girlfriend.  The Bruce Springsteen song “The River,” which his American friends introduced him to,  haunted him.

“He’d just walk around, picking at a banjo and singing ‘The River’ softly to himself for hours,” Pitcher remembered. “He’d be in his room late at night and we’d hear him at it.”  He joined up and the quartet was complete.

They swear it’s not about money.  They make some money with Storyship busking gigs, but there are outside revenue streams, including what Pitcher calls a “Bossa Nova Christmas album thing” on iTunes that sold well last year.

They played together for a year, until just before the MUNY audition, when Pichler had to return to Austria and Blancarte left to tour Europe.

“Andreas had a banjo shipped back to Austria,” Holland said.  “He’s probably playing the Boss on it right now.”  Pichler wasn’t happy about leaving the States.  He’s told Holland and Pitcher that he wants to return as soon as possible and get back to busking with them.

Those departures left Pitcher and Holland as the only members of the group who would actually be present for the audition that would make busking so much easier for all of them.

The two men, long-time friends, waited with two men they knew less well at Grand Central Station for their audition time.  They had gone to college together back in Texas, where they trained to be jazz musicians.  They had not anticipated this audition when they moved to New York City.  Stability is not something that any musician relies on, but if chosen from among the 57 acts trying out, a small amount of stability would be theirs.

The song they were going to play was easy, a crowd-pleaser, but the two old friends had played it together hundreds of times, while the two they were relying on today had played it once.  If the two guys they usually played with could have been at Grand Central, it would be a lock.  As it stood, they felt confident, just less so.

When their time came, Russell Holland took up his guitar, Drew Pitcher his accordion, the two fill-ins their bass and drums.  Then the foursome stood before the judges and belted out “Free Fallin’” by Tom Petty, hoping to win their license to busk.

“We just want to be able to play the music that we like to hear,” Holland said later on over a plate of chili fries (actually an order of chili poured on top an order of potato wedges) in a downtown bar.  Pitcher nodded and sipped his pint of Brooklyn Lager.

Unfortunately, MUNY disagreed with their taste, or their interpretation, and turned them down for a permit.

Back to bannerless busking, but so long as the beer is cold, the boys in the band will abide.

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