Ilana Katz Katz is a professional Boston-based musician who has never lost touch with her roots. Unlike many singer-songwriters and solo musicians who begin their careers playing the subways, fiddler-singer Katz never lost her affinity for playing the Red Line’s Park Street Station. So, it made perfect sense to capture her live in one of her favorite performance areas. Katz’s Friday morning subway gig was a lively affair to remember as she sang and played her fiddle through her small CRATE amplifier.
Now usually, I would not be hanging around the Red Line’s Park Street Station on a Friday morning. Yet, Katz is not your average, run of the mill subway busker. She is steeped in folk, blues, and Appalachian influences and her skill is exceptionally high. She has performed and recorded with Bobby Radcliff, Barry Levenson, and Cedric Watson. Her voice is imbued with a rounded tone and timbre that allows her to fill out her verses with a early American quality. One might be tempted to think she fell through a time portal from 1888 into Boston’s modern day subway system.
Katz opened with a mournful, down tempo fiddle line that captured the mood of a Friday morning, the feeling that there is another eight hours to go before one can enjoy the weekend, so close but yet so far, another work day of drudgery before a heavenly weekend. Her fiddle melody rang out with a purity of tone that remained beauteous and tasteful but also sad and forlorn. Her second tune was a vocal number, her voice maintaining a floating, buoyant, lofty timbre even though her song was about an ill fated prisoner. Her old timey tone in both her voice and her fiddle lent her number an air of authenticity, making one feel he was outside a wooden jail house in 1800s America. This fiddler could probably be playing her fiddle on soundtracks for Ken Burns.
During the poignant number “You Brush My Soul,” Katz made her fiddle sound like it was crying its heart out. Her haunted vocal line during her melodic pauses were stirring, especially when she moved into more intense intervals of notes. Dropping down long curls of notes, this fiddle took the listener into a long, dark cavern of possibilities. Her sudden drone choruses created a pleasant boom in her line, sort of like the bang and swirl of a crash cymbal.
Mid-tempo, her third number was more lively and sprightly. Assertive bowing and intricate finger work conjured up a sweet whistling melody. Next, a lilting melody stirred a feeling of impending drama. Her voice, during her melodic pauses, were honey smooth, seeming to pour over the open space. Throughout her Park Street Station gig, many children and toddlers and some older travelers would stop to notice the fiddle lady beside her microphone stand. Interestingly enough, Katz’s voice and fiddle were never overwhelmed by the roar of the lumbering iron train wheels rolling over their iron tracks whenever a line of cars approached her stop on either side.
Blues is a big influence for this lady. She sang and bowed Lead belly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” with a mournful persistence, making the question hang in the air like it was being posed to suspect partner. Katz also played some of her Appalachian musical influences throughout her subway gig, the sound identifiable by the rustic timbres she bowed out of her strings. One child, who had stopped to watch her, got jiggy with it, unable to pull himself away. Soon after, Katz was bowing an interval of sweet, happy, celebratory notes, a festive melody that conjured images of barn dancing and holiday hootenanny. Her next tune, “Let It Shine,” commenced with a thicker, richer melodic thrust moving around her, her voice traveling like the notes coming from a flute.
A sweeter Celtic vibe sprang up from the strength of a galloping melody she eventually went into, making me feel like dancing a jig on the Red Line’s platform. It was impossible to resist being pulled into her vocal melody, especially as she sang richer, darker tones. Katz laid out a wide, sweeping melody before pulling it in tighter for a more lively piece then moving back to a place halfway toward her opening sweeps.
Katz nailed the dramatic promise of the Nina Simone popularized “By My Husband,“ bowing a thick slab of melodic sweetness. Versatile, Katz played a motion filled melody that reminded of the wide swings of square dancing music, playing at a seriously uptempo clip, fast but soothing, charming and ever involving.
Near the end of her subway set, Katz conjured a “great spirit” by playing a grunge like drone, singing over it in a Native American like chant. “Jack Of Diamonds” was another she brought to vivid life for her subway audience with a line of busy notes.
While her two and a half hour set was about as long as what most musicians play in bars, restaurants, clubs, and coffeehouses when you subtract their breaks, Katz made the time fly by with her engaging fiddle work and hauntingly beautiful vocals. Above ground street corner gigs around the city of Boston might work even better for her, judging by the number of people who kept pausing to watch and listen to what she was pulling out of her repertoire. Katz will only become more visible as she plays her music in public areas and that makes for great marketing of her music career.