Possibly 4th Street: Oakley Hall Busks in Union Square


Couple days ago, we attempted to explain Possibly 4th Street, this new feature here at Sound of the City, but here’s the abridged version. Writer Rob Trucks invites musicians that he likes to play songs somewhere, anywhere, in public. More often than not, your Sound of the City emcee tags along to capture the proceedings with a box of taffy and a Fisher Price videocamera. Once a week, we dump everything here. The really abridged version: free Oakley Hall live in Union Square MP3 below!

P.S. Oakley Hall headlines the Bowery Ballroom on Saturday, October 13. Tickets available here.

photo by Rob Trucks

Oakley Hall, “No Dreams” (Busking in Union Square) (MP3)

Possibly 4th Street: Oakley Hall

Excellent psych-country band plays free public mini-set. Only one (little) person notices.

by Rob Trucks

On a late summer afternoon, dulcet duo Rachel Cox and Patrick Sullivan of Oakley Hall are stationed just outside the subway entrance in the southwest corner of New York City’s Union Square. They are, in fact, busking. As in, both are singing high and hard, without amplification, and Patrick is playing guitar with his case open, in case someone, anyone, might care to contribute.

“We’d both done it in varying degrees in earlier parts of our lives,” Sullivan admits, “but it was kind of when Rachel was joining Oakley Hall that we started doing it around to make extra money because neither of us had any.”

Not that the size of the band’s bank account has grown much. In less than a week from this August afternoon, the Oakleys will embark on a five-week North American tour, the longest of their career. But until then, Cox, who not only works a day job five days a week but a night job on the other two, will be doing whatever she can to hoard the cash.

“I’m working all the way up until we leave,” she says. “I have to. We are definitely not rich.”

And yet today is a response to a request, a mere stretching of relatively dormant street-performance muscles. On a wistfully warm summer day, the pair stays above ground (albeit in the shade of the subway awning), while their previous monetary success came underground, on subway platforms.

“People really liked it down there,” Cox says, “because our harmonies would sort of echo. Except when the train was coming.”

Besides the obvious practice time, Cox and Sullivan’s underground busking also helped in other ways. While eschewing (seriously) categorizations like alt-country and (God forbid) jam band, Oakley Hall is appropriately proud of its traditional, sweeter-than-sugar harmonies over what might be best described as an underlying maelstrom of modern melody, as if the ’70s act America had stayed home with their whiskey and their weed (and maybe a clanging trash can or two), rather than trying to cross an unbelievably dry, sandy place upon an unnamed horse.

“Instead of drums, it’s like a subway train going by,” Sullivan says. “I think one thing that’s always difficult for us is finding a harmony when there’s a lot of other stuff going on, which is kind of what Oakley Hall is.”

Patrick Sullivan and Rachel Cox of Oakley Hall

Just about three p.m. on Friday, August 31st

In the shade of the subway awning in the southwest corner of Union Square Park

A Patrick Sullivan theory about busking in the subway:
“The thing about the subway is, you’re always competing with trains. There’s more traffic that goes by you, but you only have to play like two songs, so you can just keep recycling.”

A Patrick Sullivan theory about busking in Union Square versus Wall Street:
“I’ve done it on Wall Street a couple times and it sucks down there. Like, I think I was down there in the middle of the day and it’s just a ghost town. It’s only good at like, you know, rush hour, but even then it’s not that good because it’s just way too crowded.
“I think [Union Square] is good because people are just chilling, and when you play here people actually stop and listen. They’re like not on their way somewhere.”

One more Patrick Sullivan theory pertaining to busking:
“I think even just singing together, as opposed to singing alone, works better. You might not make more money but people are much more interested in something different, whether it’s harmonies or a different type of instrument or something odd about the act. Whereas I think if you just go into the subway where like you’re a dude with an acoustic guitar or a girl with just your acoustic guitar and it’s you alone it’s not as much of a hook.”

According to Rachel Cox, one reason you shouldn’t wear prom gloves while busking in Seattle, where she spent time while “traveling around”:
“I wore these electric blue prom gloves and I cut the fingers out and this one guy approached me and he was going to give me some money. I actually got a pretty good response. But I’d be out there for like several hours a day. But one guy came up and said he wanted to make sure I wasn’t shooting up or doing drugs because he didn’t want to give me money [if I was]. Like he thought I was doing drugs or something and I was like, ‘No, I’m not. I’m really just out here playing music.’”

Other stuff Rachel learned about busking in Seattle:
“Actually you have to go get a permit from the state. And it’s actually a welcome thing. They have like little music notes and you have to stand, like they actually have places you have to stand on the little music notes. There’s a guy that lived right in that area. It was like down by the water where they have the big market and they have the fish and all that stuff. And he lived right there and he would roll his piano out onto this music note that was right on the corner from his apartment and play the piano. But like it was pretty regulated there. It was part of a touristy thing.”

One thing that Patrick has never ever done:
“Bowled naked.”

Something that Rachel has done once and one time only:
“I had sex in a theater.”

A book that Patrick has read at least twice:

A movie Rachel has seen at least three times:
Wild Blue Yonder by Werner Herzog.”

The net distance between Oakley Hall’s first Fall tour stop (Tuesday, September 4th at Maxwell’s in Hoboken) and their last (this Saturday, October 13th at the Bowery Ballroom on Delancey):
4.7 miles

Possibly 4th Street: Fiery Furnaces