Who: Stefan Fink
When: January 15th, 2013, about 6pm
Where: Union Square subway station, L platform
In all my years in New York, I’ve never seen anybody straight catapult over the railing on the subway stairwells in order to catch a train, but whoa, there she goes! This seems unnecessary since we’re solidly in rush hour here and the L is running every four minutes, but who knows, maybe there’s a medical emergency or something waiting on the other end. Godspeed.
But unfortunately that also means she blew right by Stefan Fink, a commanding banjo player furiously whacking away on his axe about five feet from her point of impact. He’s surprisingly young. This is a natural consequence, of course, of singing old-soul Appalachian folk; the MTA has up-to-the-minute arrival times posted on the LED signs overhead, and finally now also delivered via a new iPhone app, but songs like this emerged at a time when we were still dreaming up the concept of time zones to help with scheduling trains, none of which were underground at the time. Also, he is sporting a mean beard.
When I first spied him from a distance, he was drilling into some aggressive and percussive riffs that could have easily held up without the lead vocals, but as soon as we started recording that melted away into pieces by his brand new band O’ Great North, which is just a few weeks old and features a fiddler and a guy on the shruti box, an Indian instrument driven by bellows much like a harmonium or accordion. Their songs stand out among the ancient traditional numbers because of their strummy singer-songwriter tendencies and their reliance on simpler motifs and vocal tics which, for now, still seem more human than ghost.
It is one of those numbers, confusingly titled “Great North Shore,” which emerged as the clear highlight from a fairly lengthy recording session challenged every step of the way by rumbling trains, which Stefan handily overpowered, and the occasional mean glance from a commuter who found their path blocked by the microphone cables. “We’ll sail to the great north shore,” he howls repeatedly, which is an irresistible proposition as we’ve all already learned from Styx, but doubly so when you’re stuck on a filthy subway platform hoping you don’t get literally kicked in the face by the lunatics jumping over one another trying to catch the next train. Traveling over oceans and lyrics about doing so are inherently exciting and romantic, because for a brief moment the entire world turns disappears and you’re left with infinite angles of blue-green pathways that could lead you to anything. When you come out on the other side, it might be Spain, or it might be Narnia. Unfortunately I actually only made it out as far as Driggs that night myself, which is a sad and seedy place to have to kill the lofty ambitions Stefan had planted in my head. Maybe next time I’ll try Staten Island.
In the hat: $5