Oct. 17 2012 08:30 AM

Web series takes artists out of their comfort zones and onto public transportation

Little Hurricane make sweet commutin’ music.
Photo by Julia Richardson

It’s a Tuesday evening, and local blues-rock duo Little Hurricane are slowly ascending the stairs of the Grantville trolley station. Anthony “Tone” Catalano has his small acoustic guitar casually slung over his back. Celeste “C.C.” Spina carries a beaten-up, ’60s-style green suitcase in her hand—her drum for the day.

When they reach the trolley platform, they pause.

“How was that? Was that good?” Tone asks a group of videographers and photographers.

“Yeah, that looked really cool,” one of the videographers says. “I think that’ll work.”

That day, Little Hurricane participated in an installment of A Trolley Show, a locally produced YouTube series that features bands performing on the San Diego trolley. Inspired by popular web videos like Black Cab Sessions—a British series in which artists perform a song in the back of a cab—A Trolley Show provides an uncontrolled, even tumultuous setting for a band and the video crew. And it challenges bystanders, too, making them an unwitting part of the live performance.

The series was started by Andrew Rowley, a content provider for the Rancho Bernardo-based Internet-radio service Slacker Radio, along with five friends he met at SDSU and through 91X and Slacker. He graduated from SDSU a couple of years ago, where he studied theater arts with an emphasis in TV and film design. He came up with the idea for the series on a whim.

“One day, I was just driving under a bridge with a trolley going over it,” Rowley says. “The idea of a band playing in there just kind of hit me. I thought, Yeah, that could work.”

He and a team of friends began filming the series late last year. At first, they tried to fly under the radar of the Metropolitan Transit System, which runs the trolley, and sometimes they got in trouble with MTS security. But in March, they struck a one-year contract with MTS allowing them to film on the trains.

MTS spokesperson Rob Schupp says the contract is “pretty informal.” Rowley and his crew get to ride the trolley for free while shooting, and they’re supposed to let MTS know when and where they’re going to film. Otherwise, the contract doesn’t specify any interaction between the two entities.

“We all thought it was a really cool idea, and it shows the trolley system in a new light, too,” Schupp says.

With sponsorships from Taylor Guitars and Audio-Technica, Rowley now hopes to produce one video a week. So far, he and the crew have worked with a range of artists, from local acts like Maren Parusel and The Silent Comedy to big names like Allen Stone and Disney star Shane Harper. While a noisy trolley car might seem like a poor substitute for a stage, the setting puts artists outside their comfort zone, making for intimate and spontaneous performances.

At the Grantville trolley station, Little Hurricane and the crew load onto the Green Line train. Tone starts plucking on his guitar and lets out soft, howling vocals. C.C. enters as the song picks up. As she strains to sing over the noise of the clamoring train, she keeps a steady, stomping rhythm, beating a drum pedal against the side of the suitcase as she gingerly raps on the top with her drumsticks.

Many of the trolley-goers look surprised when Tone starts playing, but as the song goes on, nobody rises out of their seats to get closer. The train stops four times between Grantville and the crew’s destination, Mission Valley Center. People get on, but nobody lingers long near the band.

At one point, a group of elderly people dressed in tuxedos and evening gowns practically walk right over the band mid-song as they board the train. The elderly folk avert their eyes from the performance. One man says to the others, “So, should we find seats?” They walk to the other side of the car without looking back.

“Not everyone’s as into music as you are, especially if you’re someone like me, who’s spent their whole life in music,” Rowley explains later. “Some people are just kind of zoned out.”

But the trolley audiences aren’t always apathetic. In a video featuring local pop musician Kevin Martin, the crowd on the train comes alive. The band starts clapping to the beat during the song, and many people on the trolley merrily join in.

The underwhelming reaction to Little Hurricane—a band that’s sold out local venues like The Casbah—underscores the Trolley Show philosophy. Some crowds might react as if it’s The Beatles playing their famous rooftop show. Others might feel like they’re being accosted by noisy hipsters.

The fun comes with not knowing what to expect.

Write to editor@sdcitybeat.com.