What a ride

London indie filmmakers Black Cab Sessions bring their taxi to New York.

Standing at the edge of Washington Square Park, the members of bearded French duo Herman Dune scan Manhattan's streets for a London taxi—not out of some European eccentricity, but because today, the band becomes the 66th act to take part in the Internet phenomenon that is Black Cab Sessions. Set up in London a couple of years ago by two young filmmakers with a bit of time on their hands, the Black Cabs series now commands a quarter of a million hits a week, has fans all over the world, and has garnered coverage from CBS and ABC news. The mission statement is simple: "One song, one take, one cab."

Herman Dune
HERMAN DUNE "Whaddya mean you won't go to Brooklyn?"

Photograph: Beth Levendis

In reality, this has meant artists as diverse as Death Cab for Cutie, Cool Kids and Brian Wilson (yes, that Brian Wilson) bundling into the back of a London taxi to record a song while being driven around town—the more bumps, passersby and outside weirdness, the better. But today, Black Cabs has come to New York to film—with TONY sitting in the backseat holding the boom mike. "We wanted to come here because New York is another music capital of the world," Cabs cofounder Jono Stevens says. "And New York has its own taxis too, so it's nice to have that little bit of friction." "Actually," his sister Gen adds, "someone did tell us to fuck off back to England yesterday...."

The team has its work cut out, squishing five sessions into this one day—even they seem a bit jumpy. Will they be able to fit a four-piece neoclassical group in the back? Is it possible to play flamenco guitar on a bumpy road? Well...

Herman Dune brings a ukulele, a pair of bongos and a pretty girl singer named Angela into the cab, and their quirky sound works great in the little space. "This is not unusual for us at all," shrugs singer David-Ivar. "We're used to playing music on the road; it stops us getting bored. I think it does something different for the viewer."

Too true. Whether you're watching the session onscreen or in real life, you're thrillingly close to the music; in it, for all intents and purposes. New York band Apache Beat, next up, is accustomed to an electrified lineup, but even unplugged, its sound retains a darkly psychedelic edge, the singer's face flushing pink as she belts out a song. They're giddy and giggly when they get out of the cab. "It's like you're naked!" says guitarist Philip Aceto. "A song is either good, or it's not—and playing like this is the only way of really, really telling."

GAIDA and her unconvinced guitarist

Photograph: Beth Levendis

Later in the day, Arabic-singing New Yorker Gaida squeezes into the cab with an enormous flamenco guitarist; the combination of her otherworldly chanting and the jerky Manhattan traffic is ridiculous—and brilliant for that very reason.

The Elysian Quartet manages to cram in a cello, a viola and two violins—four players, plus crew. "It's part improvisation, part contortionism," grins cellist Laura Moody, who has at least three elbows in her face right now. Making up the music as they go, the group scratches and squeaks, and then out of the chaos rise up grand, swooping chords—it's a perfect match for NYC's architecture as we motor through Chelsea. "In fact," muses Jono, "the New York skyline looks like sound bars on a graphic equalizer."

The cab drives to Williamsburg to pick up local girl Holly Miranda, whose album is being helmed by TV on the Radio's Dave Sitek. Her delicate, sweet voice merges beautifully with the warehouses and bleached American flags that fly by in the half-light.

When the crew turns in to a bar off Bedford Avenue at the end of the day, it's a neat surprise to find they're meeting up with Vincent Moon, the "Blogotheque" filmmaker whose beautiful, scrappy one-take music videos have been compared to Alan Lomax's 1930s field recordings. Moon believes that this is an art form for everyone: "I never want to be a professional," he says. "People talk about intimacy in these kind of films, but this is what it always should have been." It's true, Jono concurs, musicians get excited about the fact that there's no interview with Black Cabs: "It's the band, the fans and no one in between."

Black Cab Sessions in NYC goes live on Thu 2 at blackcabsessions.com.

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