The SunParlour Players perform aboard a Toronto streetcar. (SunParlour Players)
As many commuters know, the sound of the streetcar has its own particular music: the clatter of wheels in trolley tracks, the percussive bump of sudden stops, the sad whistle of the breeze, the disembodied voice of the robotic announcer. On a pleasant ride, that ambient sound can be enchanting.
Clearly enamoured of that inimitable rattle and hum, the folks behind The Transit Tapes decided to add a new element to the mix: real musicians. Created by Orbyt Media (a subset of Astral Media Radio) and Temba Entertainment, the project is a live music performance web series. As you might be able to glean from its name, the Transit shows don't take place in a traditional music venue. Instead, each segment features an independent Canadian act playing one or two songs in the back of a TTC streetcar (free of other passengers) as it glides through the streets of downtown Toronto.
Shooting live musicians in transit isn't an entirely original concept; since 2007, a team of Brits have been producing a web-based series called the Black Cab Sessions, in which artists ranging from Brian Wilson to Fleet Foxes sing their hearts out in the back of a quaint black hackney carriage. In fact, Transit mastermind Christian Bailey says he came up with the idea after watching a Black Cab Session that featured cult singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston.
"I just knew I liked it," Bailey says. "And then I found this Jim Jarmusch quote, 'The first thing you should do as an artist is steal from greater artists, but make sure that your theft is authentic and comes from the right place.' I was trying to figure out how to help Astral Media break out of their mold and make connections with the emerging Canadian music community.
"There's a standard out there," he adds, noting the high quality of the Black Cab clips and similar work by French videographer Vincent Moon. " We want to capture the same things -- the band looking at each other, getting the nuances of their interactions. I know we're stealing from Black Cab, but it's important to me that it's authentic. We're all part of a vernacular, contributing to something that's going on, but we're special in our own way."
Of course, chartering streetcars is considerably more challenging than hailing a taxi (though it should be noted that the Black Cab organizers still have to make sure their cabbies are game). Bailey says word of the Transit excursions has traveled throughout the network of TTC drivers. "I think they really get a kick out of it. We saw some guys who'd worked on other shoots recently, and they waved and smiled and said they all talk about us."
Since launching the project last January, Bailey and his skilled crew (all moonlighting film-savvy folks with other day jobs) have posted nine Transit Tapes on their website, featuring a variety of Canadian indie acts including the Arkells and Gentleman Reg. Bailey says they currently have seven other segments in the can and start shooting their second "season" in September. Their most recent shoot featured T.O. roots outfit the SunParlour Players, who arrived with a 9-piece choir, a glockenspiel, banjos, and four sets of parents in tow.
"I still can't believe it when the band shows up at every shoot," he laughs. "They're really weirded out by it at first because we pick them up on the street, and they're standing outside of a coffee shop with all their gear and guitars, waiting to load it onto a streetcar. But about 45 minutes in, you can see that they’re really into it and playing. I like what happens between the musicians and [filmmaker] Josh [Ingleby] when he's shooting. We do it in one live take, so if he f---s up, or the band f---s up, or the streetcar f---s up, we have to start over."
Bailey says the experience has given him a new appreciation for the city he lives in. Because the streetcars are chartered and don't follow any specific route, the passengers (read: performers and crew members) wind up taking journeys to unexplored corners of Toronto and discovering hidden surprises within the local transit system. Even watching the episodes on the Transit Tapes website, there's something beautiful about the flickering street scenes that flash by in the background during each performance, and the way the natural light changes as the streetcar travels through different neighbourhoods.
"You know how when you're on a road trip with somebody, something happens to you in that shared space?" he muses. "I think the same thing happens on the streetcar. It's incredible to be in the streetcar as you roll along Queen Street toward the Humber with a band playing. You get out of downtown and everything’s green – it almost feels like you're going up north [with a soundtrack of music] blaring on your iPod."
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