On a late summer afternoon, harmonious duo Rachel Cox and Patrick Sullivan of Oakley Hall are stationed just outside the subway entrance on the southwest corner of New York City's Union Square. They are busking. As in, both are singing high and hard, without amplification, and Patrick is playing guitar with his case open, in case someone might care to contribute.
"We'd both done it in varying degrees in earlier parts of our lives," Sullivan says, "but it was kind of when Rachel was joining Oakley Hall that we started doing it around to make extra money because neither of us had any."
Not that the size of the band's bank account has grown much. In less than a week, the Oakleys will embark on a five-week North American tour, the longest of their career. But until then, Cox, who not only works a day job five days a week but a night job on the other two, will be doing whatever she can to hoard the cash. "I'm working all the way up until we leave," she says. "I have to. We are definitely not rich."
Oakley Hall, The Power of Positive Thinking, and Matthew Reveles are scheduled to perform Monday, September 17.
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And yet today is a response to a request, a mere stretching of relatively dormant street-performance muscles. On a wistfully warm summer day, the pair stays above ground (albeit in the shade of the subway awning), while their previous monetary success came underground, on the subway platforms. "People really liked it down there," Cox says, "because our harmonies would sort of echo. Except when the train was coming."
Besides the obvious practice time, Cox and Sullivan's underground busking also helped in other ways. While eschewing categorizations like alt-country and jam band, Oakley Hall is appropriately proud of its traditional, sweeter-than-sugar harmonies over what might be best described as an underlying maelstrom of modern melody, as if the '70s act America had stayed home with their whiskey and their weed (and maybe a clanging trash can or two), rather than trying to cross an unbelievably dry, sandy place upon an unnamed horse.
"Instead of drums, it's like a subway train going by," Sullivan says. "I think one thing that's always difficult for us is finding a harmony when there's a lot of other stuff going on, which is kind of what Oakley Hall is."