Cast In Concrete tracks Vijith Assar as he records the musical offerings of New York City’s street musicians.
Who: Zack Orion
When: 8/16, about 11:30pm
Where: Bedford Avenue L train platform
It’s been a very long time since I’ve seen anybody pull off the one-man band thing quite like this guy—his ability sucks you in from all the way up by the turnstiles. Right foot stuck to a tambourine which is substituting quite effectively for the snare crack, left foot perched on a kick pedal that’s aimed backwards at the suitcase/drum he’s sitting on, harmonica around his neck ready to go for the times when he’s not singing, and all this still leaves both hands free for the banjo. Imagine my surprise when I ambled up alongside him and saw the name on the CDs he was hocking—Zack Orion. I vaguely recognized it from the time I spent down in Virginia, where we sort of traveled in the same circles without ever actually meeting.
But we both live up in New York now, and Zack actually makes his living entirely off the low-end musician grind. This becomes easy enough to believe once you see the dollar bills flying his way from the passers-by. The testimonial he later offers via email makes this life sound incredibly romantic:
I hit the subways hard. Six to eight hour days fashioning lullabys and stomps on the spot until one day I decided I needed to be louder and shinier. My friend lent me a kick pedal and I flipped it around backwards and threw my left foot down on it. A tambourine put out its cigarette and scurried across the floor and assumed the position under my right foot. A harmonica let me in on a little secret: that it always plays the right note as long as you’re in the right key. It gave me a kiss, the banjo learned itself and five thousand hours later I got pretty decent at the wild oscillating synchronicity of the one-man band routine.
The great thing about having a loud and shiny set up is that you can play anywhere in the fine city of New York. If I’m heading somewhere and the train hasn’t arrived then my banjo case, heart and mouth open up and I try to bring myself and others back to the mystery and awe of this world. No one truly knows what is right or wrong or good or bad or gorgeous or gross but there is always that feeling of warmth and fuzziness that comes from spontaneous human interaction, especially when harmony and melody is involved. I mentally dedicate a lot of my sounds to all the performers that inspired me—there always might be someone around the corner in any given town or city that will rip you open, fill you up with love and sew you shut with dental floss. This be why I busk.
This be why I record them, too.
Now back to Bedford: Zack’s ramshackle setup is entirely acoustic, which means he has a problem on his hands when two young goofballs in bizarre costumes down the platform start causing a real ruckus by playing a drum kit along with prerecorded backing sequences being pumped through a hefty battery-powered guitar amp. (Somehow they still manage to sound pretty terrible, which is why you don’t see them in this space instead.)
By this point there’s a group of slack-jawed onlookers gathered up in a semicircle around Zack, transfixed by the juggling act, the unbelievable mental coordination required to make so many body parts on the same man seem totally autonomous. (Try patting your tummy while rubbing your head and clicking the mouse with your nose in order to download this—not so easy, is it?) At first they try hollering and and stomping and clapping in an attempt to drown out the competitors.
But this is still not sufficient, so finally Zack jumps up off his suitcase-seat; a low-grade raging posse quickly assembles around him, somehow still very intimidating even though they’re all dancing and rhythmically cheering. His feet leave behind the tambourine and the pedal for a moment, and instead carry him down the platform, militia in tow, to shut the other guys up. They quickly oblige.
In the hat: $10
Zach Orion, “Survey Survive” [FLAC, Mediafire link]