Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Showtime and the NYC Subways w/ Matt Vorzimer




What time is it?


What time is it?


My friend Matt Vorzimer is an e-cusionisrt who performs at Harlem Tavern and on the street regularly. He hauls a huge drum kit up and down the subway stairs along with an electronic percussion board, sticks, CDs. He's a part of a vast network of professional musicians who earn good money on the subways.

In the underground city there are thousands of performers. They flow with the subway trains and are parked at various stops with baskets. Performers also snake through the various subways trains, doing quick sets on a swaying stage, setting up in a few seconds, and learning how to break down and run as quickly as possible.

Over the past few months on the subway I have seen numerous break dance teams, several roving mariachi bands, two electric guitarist (one who played an entire set including full version of "Hotel California" while standing against a pole), African drummers, stumbling violinists, acoustic guitar players, a celloist, bucket drummers in tandem with dancers, accordion player with his sidekick sister holding the hat, countless barbershop quartets, doo-wop groups, a few freestyle rappers/poets, and a drunk man who sings Christmas Carols all year around. Each has their own vibe, their own introduction, mini-set, and offering to give.

Parked in the 34th Street subway stop most days is an elaborate jazz bands which captures the attention of tourists from around the world. On the 42nd Street Time Square stop between the 2-3 red trains and the N-R yellow trains features a Mexican wind flute band that pops up when the seasons turn warm. And the bucket drummers of 4th Street in the village are always around to beat out a syncopated rhythm against the squealing incoming trains.

I'm pretty performing on the subway as it moves is illegal. And I see cops all the time making their way through the trains. Usually a performer has a look-out/money collector who is the sidekick that serves as security/look-out/stage clearer/promoter. It's a fascinating dynamic.

Performing in the train stations, however, requires a $100 permit/license from the city for street performing. I believer somewhere some time ago, city officials realized that street performers were going to exist in this city whether anyone liked it or not. And there was no way to tax people who took in 100% cash tips and donations. New York city figured the $100 would serve as a tax and a minimum deterrent against the absolute worst performers. I'm willing maybe half of the performers have this license. The serious ones do, the ones who have professional set-up at nice, tourist-friendly stations. The cops roam these non-stop and it would be impossible to get away with have a stage in front of the ticket booths without a cop eventually asking for permit. But the performers inside the actual subway trains probably all go incognito, dodging cops. Often you'll see survey not only the entire subway car but look through the doors and see into the next car to make sure there's no potential risks.

I tagged along one night to follow Matt to Grand Central where he was meeting up with break dancers. Street dancers are a funny bunch. They had met at a subway stop and agreed to do a show together. The logic being that a drummer and dance crew would get more attention together. There was no set routine, they were going to riff off each other for a few hours, with the dance influencing the drums, and the drums influencing the dance. To them it was no big deal, but to me I marveled at the skill and ease you must have to freestyle with a completely new person for a few hours in front of an audience.

Subway and street dance crews usually have a lot of hemming and hawing, barking and talking before any actual dance takes place. I sat in Washington Square park one day and watched a famous break crew practice. I had seen these guys on Jay Leno and other talk shows. They were probably pulling down hundreds of thousands every year, and mostly tax-free through their street performances. They were preparing for a park performance near the fountains and were bringing in a new member. The rookie couldn't get the backflip toss right. He had to be balanced enough to be lifted tossed backward, and then land on his feet and keep dancing. I watched them go through this one move dozens of times for a half hour. The rookie kept under spinning and landing on his knees or over flipping and coming down on his heels before falling to his back. They crew kept tossing him and tossing him on the soft park grass. They coached him, worked on his balance, and then got his game face right. I went about my West village life, ran a few errands and was walking back through the park several hours later. The same break crew was running through its routine, which involved a lot of talking, hyping their greatness, vaudeville jokes, audience interaction, and then some dancing. They introduced the new guy and ran through a quick dance number. The number ended with the backflip tosss. The new guy nailed it and continued dancing like he was born to do it. Having witnessed his struggles earlier in the day I admired the dance even more. The small details of the toss, his body, his land, and continued easy smile had been calibrated perfectly.

Matt's dance crew showed up fashionably late. Since he's a one-man operation he unpacked his entire drum kit, set up his e-cussion board, put up sign, laid out CDs, and made nice with the nearby vendors who stared at him wondering if they should be annoyed at the upcoming performance or encouraged by the audience it could attract to their store carts. I asked if I could help and he was in the zone preparing so I thought it was best to leave him alone. We were in the shiny peach marble hallways of Grand Station near the fish market.



When the dance crew arrived it was 3 kids who might have all been brothers or cousins. The leader was the oldest. The two younger kids took the leader's orders. They seemed a bit nervous performing in a main area and tentatively went through some of their routine.



Matt began playing and the dancers mostly nodded their heads. They would burst into a short dance step and then go back to nodding. Matt continued to drumming and looking over at the crew. Musicians take no time and have less patience for bullshitters. Dancers tend to be very finicky about their bodies and throwing it around in new places. They have to get into a rhythm. The two groups were reading each other. Matt tossed on a hot loop from his e-cussion soundboard and began drumming over it. The dancers perked up.


I was beginning to get impatient with this crew. They had repeated the alleged showtime of T-minus 2 minutes for the past 15 minutes. Businessmen walked by after work and saw a thrashing drummer in mid-set and a couple of kids standing around shouting...


This showtime was presenting me with an existential crisis. My mind was in full "Waiting for Godot" mode, thinking of pranks and coming up with jokes for this utopian 'showtime' that always seemed to be coming and never arriving. This showtime was a mirage, where the more I chased it the more it evaporated into thin air.

The show finally did start. The dancers were fluid but also in an inconvenient space for moving. The marble floors didn't really invite breakdancing in full-tilt mode. But Matt and the crew put on a symbiotic performance and they had only met once a few days ago.

Showtime had arrived. I nodded to Matt as I made my way out of the station. It was Friday night and they would be there for a while. On the subway car heading into the village there was a beggar and a guitarist. I got out of my 14th street stop and beautiful music greeted me. Violins, screeching trains, and laughter.

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