Cast In Concrete #5: Taking In Bluegrass While Sitting On Prospect Park's Grass
Who: Five dudes and one woman who do not have an official name
When: July 2, 9 p.m.
Where: Prospect Park, Great Meadow, northern end
I will ride hard for Prospect Park even under normal circumstances, so when you also plop a great band down in the middle of it, you've probably made my week. Upon spying an informal jam session unfolding beneath a tree, I immediately dashed back to my nearby apartment to pick up the recording gear, which is why here you're hearing some delightful new condenser mics that I usually don't bother to bring along when I'm just aimlessly wandering. By the time I made it back the band had relocated a few yards due west, since in the intervening half hour a bird had taken a shit on guitarist Jordan Shapiro's fretboard. This took him a while to clean up.
As soon as he finished, there began a wonderful round of impromptu folk jams that more or less took over the park's Great Meadow areaeven from out of earshot, they'd have been a sight to behold, which is why they were never without an audience. I had to again leave the park and run to the nearest bodega to buy more batteries: four sets, just to be safe. (Three failed on the spot; the power draw of these mics is considerably less delightful than the music they were capturing.)
Ragged improvised solos are an important part of the busking landscape, of course, but aside from that you'd have had a hard time telling that what you were watching was a rat's nest of talent rather than an actual band. Shapiro performs with banjo player Jonah Bruno in a newgrass outfit called Astrograss, and with guitarist Pete Rubens and bassist Ian Riggs in Dr. Zsa's Powdered Zydeco Band. Riggs, in addition to having appeared on the cover of the Obie-focused issue of Voice back in May thanks to his role in Ethan Lipton's No Place To Gothis was a happy accident, I swearalso plays in The Lonesome Trio with mandolin player Jacob Tilove and comedian Ed Helms, who was not in attendance but whose musical talents have been displayed on The Office. Rounding out the group was singer and guitarist Abby Hollander, who grew up in Woodstock, now champions a country quartet called The Boot Heel Drag, is Jonah's sister, and would prefer not to explain why their last names are different. And just to bring us full circle, the most unusual project here is probably Shapiro's Choban Elektrik, in which he performs Eastern European tunes but substitutes Rhodes and Hammond organs for the traditional accordions.
There is something magical, I think, about taking in bluegrass while you're actually sitting in the grass, and that's all too easy to forget in our world of asphalt and folk-friendly hole-in-the-wall bars (<3 u, Jalopy). The title of this column in a sense pays homage to our urban environment, but here, for the first time, it felt like a liability.
The battery run lasted right up to dusk, and just a few tunes later the band was reeling off mandolin solos by moonlight, which felt like a fantastical scene straight out of A Midsummer Night's Dream. And then, abruptly, it ended. Nymphs, elves, and fairies always disappear back into the trees eventually. Better enjoy the tunes and poop on the instruments while you still can.
In the hat: No hat.
If you're going to be busking in New York, please consider this an open invitation to tweet at me with the details and I'll try to come out and catch you.