Luke Folger was in a mild state of panic. His one-man-band contraption had gone dead in front of three rows of judges, and time was ticking by. Folger knelt on the floor of Grand Central Terminal and rummaged through a jumble of cables and plugs, trying to figure out what was wrong.
A violinist-juggler act was waiting to take the stage. So were an urban-acid-jazz guitarist and a onetime"American Idol"contestant. Perhaps worst of all: Another one-man band was in the wings, his snare drum, cymbals, tambourine and horns all working as he warmed up behind a black curtain inside the famous transit station.
The acts were competing in one of the most unusual tryouts in the music world: the chance to snag prime performance space in the New York subway system, where playing in the bustling halls of Penn Station rather than a distant Brooklyn tunnel can mean the difference between big bucks and small change, an admiring audience and cranky commuters.
This was the 25th year for the auditions, which Music Under New York — part of the city's Metropolitan Transit Authority — launched in a wider effort to take the edge off navigating the city's dank underbelly, which swelters in the summer, freezes in the winter, and draws rats, roaches, pigeons and even an occasional opossum.
"For me, it's about having a great ride," Sandra Bloodworth, director of the Arts for Transit program, said as a bluegrass trio performed for 33 judges, ranging from singer-songwriters to subway workers, at the free tryouts last month.
Bloodworth admits that having harpists, rappers, violinists and accordion players performing in public transit systems might not work everywhere. But without them here, subway riders would have only squealing brakes, public service announcements crackling through squawk boxes, and the voices of squabbling couples or crying children to serenade them as they wait on grimy platforms for the next train.
"Close your eyes and imagine it all gone, and you have a sterile environment," Bloodworth said of a world without buskers. "In New York, that's not acceptable."
Each year, about 70 acts audition to join the roster of performers who are guaranteed the right to occupy one of 25 sites considered best for public exposure — places like the main corridor at Penn Station, or the upper-level mezzanine at Times Square, where on a busy weekend night a performer can make $200 in tips.
Those who don't make the list may still perform, but they must cede the best spots whenever a rostered player shows up. They also can't display the sign that identifies them as having scored one of the coveted spots.
Just about anyone can, and does, try out, though some acts stand virtually no chance because they violate MTA rules or present logistical problems. No animal acts, for example; no marching bands, dance troupes or choirs who would eat up too much pedestrian space. Acts that could lead to something falling onto the tracks also are not encouraged: jugglers and baton twirlers, for example. That leaves mainly singers, musicians and small bands.
"It would be really nice to get legit," Folger said wistfully, after discovering that a misplaced cable had temporarily disabled his Electro Mobile Suit, as he calls the homemade music-making machine that straps to his body like a rocket pack.
His backpack holds a computer and battery. Keyboards hang in front at hip level, allowing the 27-year-old from Bozeman, Mont., to control the computer's audio files. Speakers extend wing-like behind his shoulders, giving the wiry Folger the look of a futuristic insect. A microphone attached to an arm stretches from the backpack to hover in front of Folger, who sings as he works the keyboards.
When it works, as it did eventually for the judges, the high-tech sound is what he describes as "transgalactic, filtered in from distant celestial zones." It's actually electronic music similar to what you might hear in a dance club, with pulsating sounds that can turn from delicate to soaring. In other words, not something you'd expect to hear in the subway.
Being a one-man electro music band has drawbacks. The Electro Mobile Suit weighs about 30 pounds, and Folger must duck into a coffee shop every half-hour to recharge the battery. "It's a good thing the battery dies out so I can take a breather," said Folger, who began playing in the subways a few years ago after watching other buskers at Grand Central.
"It forces you to bring the music up a notch," he said of performing in a city whose residents are famous for their ability to ignore even bizarre sights and sounds, not to mention real talent. True to form, few people paid attention to the auditions taking place in a corner of Grand Central's Vanderbilt Hall as they entered from 42nd Street, their clacking heels and cellphone conversations competing with the music in the corner.
But that didn't stop the aspiring performers, who included a female mariachi band, a 14-year-old piano protege, a Sufi folk fusion singer, three accordion players, the violin-juggling act (he juggled rings and balls in time to her violin playing), a harpist, a Shakespearean hip-hop artist called Sonnet Man and countless singers and steel drum players.
"It's a different energy," said Leanne Darling, a viola player, of performing in the subway. "As a musician, you're used to performing when people are actually watching you. It's a little disconcerting when people are ignoring you."
Like most of those auditioning, Darling makes her living through music, teaching it and playing. She uses a looper and an amplifier to produce her unusual sound, which she calls "kind of a cross between funk, jazz and Middle Eastern." Darling has also produced a CD of her original compositions and has played professionally in orchestras and symphonies from Florida to Salzburg.
Others have fewer props and shorter resumes.
Anthony Quarterman of Savannah, Ga., growled through Barry White's "Can't Get Enough of Your Love" with neither a microphone nor instrumental accompaniment — barely audible in the cavernous, acoustically challenging hall. Marin Ciotoi, a bald, burly accordion player from Romania who plays regularly at a French restaurant, auditioned in a sleeveless undershirt.
Bob Holman, the master of ceremonies, tried to limit each tryout to five minutes, and at one point had to blast his whistle to force a gospel singer to make way for the next contestant.
There were some no-shows, including a dancer called Hula Girl, who at the last minute called to say she didn't want to go through with the audition. There were also some repeat auditioners, like accordion player Matt Dallow. Last year, he had performedLady Gaga's"Bad Romance" and the Animals' "House of the Rising Sun."
He didn't get a place on the 2011 roster, but he got just about everything else.
"I got a ton of press. I got a ton of gigs. I got an agent," said Dallow after playing "Rolling in the Deep" and theRolling Stones'"Paint it Black" for the judges this year. The sound isn't for everyone — a man once offered him $1 to stop playing.
But others have been known to dance to his bouncy versions of hit songs, whenever he plays at the Metropolitan Avenue station in Brooklyn. It's one of his favorite practice sites because the G train stops there so rarely.
"Everyone is stuck there, so they have to listen," Dallow said. "It's great and stressful at the same time, because everyone is angry."
On a good night, Dallow can bring in $200, but he has enough paid gigs above ground nowadays that he plays the subway tunnels only two or three times a week. The key to success underground, he said, is being unique but not abrasive.
Folger concurred and hoped his act would impress the judges. "I'd be surprised if they're not into it," he said after the audition.
When the 2012 roster was announced, though, neither Dallow nor Folger was on it. The 14-year-old pianist, Jason Cordero, made the cut, as did the female mariachi band, Mariachi Flor de Toloache, two acts Bloodworth noted had been especially popular with both the judges and passersby.
"The place went crazy. They both stood out," she said, emphasizing that judges have to weigh the variety of acts in addition to talent when picking a roster.
Folger's rival one-man band, Jeff Masin, also made the cut.
Both Dallow and Folger said they would try again.
"I'm a little bummed out, but not toooo concerned," said Dallow, noting that he has plenty of above-ground gigs to keep him busy.
Folger conceded that judges might have viewed his act as a bit over-the-top for weary commuters.
"On the bright side, I will still be out there in the subway mezzanines," Folger said. "I know I'm on the right path with sharing my mobile electro pack in public spaces, and yes, I'll be in next year's audition!"