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Subterranean Music Duo Plays for Profit, Pleasure

The Reporter's Notebook

By Robin M. Wasserman

BOSTON--Amid the packed crowds waiting for the train to arrive at T stops throughout the city, impromptu performers and entrepreneurial guitar players set up shop, hoping for coins or song requests.

For Jack M. Maher and Daniel S. DePoe, a duo who performs in the Park Street stop, subterranean jazz sets and Christmas carols can bring in the occasional gold ring, as well.

Maher, a guitar player and singer, and DePoe, a trumpet player, took their act underground several months ago, playing jazz arrangements of Christmas carols for the holiday season.

The money was so good and the experience so entertaining, they say, that they came back for more.

Now DePoe and Maher, who play together under the name Amusia (a disease impairing the ability to understand music), play in the Park Street and Government Center T stations regularly and say they have never been happier.

DePoe, who has been playing the trumpet since he was a child, says he quit a job waiting tables because he is now able to make as much, if not more money, playing in the subways.

"It's like when you were a kid and all you wanted to do was go play," DePoe says. "Now I can go play whenever I want."

Maher, a recent graduate of the Berkley College of Music and a member of the band Bobby Lee Rodgers and the Herd, says he feels the same way.

"If I live this way for the rest of my life, I'm sure to be happy," Maher says.

The 23-year-olds try to spread their enthusiasm, aiming to please the diverse clientele.

"I'll play anything, anywhere, anytime, for anyone," Maher says.

DePoe, who cites Nirvana, Foo Fighters, Tori Amos and Miles Davis as his main musical influences, agrees that the two have an eclectic style. He says that sometimes he even steps in to sing when Maher takes a bathroom break.

"I feel obligated to play a song because everyone's staring at me," DePoe says. "So sometimes I sing Nirvana really bad on purpose."

But even then, DePoe says, passersby still toss money into the open guitar case.

Their pastime is not only pleasurable, but profitable.

According to Maher, playing on the subway platforms can pay better than many office jobs--he estimates that in two hours, they can make $35 to $45.

But wrinkled dollar bills and handfuls of change are not the only rewards doled out by a satisfied public.

Maher and DePoe have received business cards and phone numbers from spectators interested in hiring the duo; Maher says the two have already played several gigs arranged by subway fans.

Maher's guitar case is filled with souvenirs of audience satisfaction--a drawing on a tattered scrap of paper, a purple Furby given to them by a little girl.

As they take a break between songs, a young man adds to their bounty, dropping in a thick gold ring as he pledges, "That's 14 karat gold."

But perhaps the most memorable offering says Maher, was when a man tossed in a small bag of what Maher soon realized was marijuana.

DePoe is quick to add that he and Maher immediately disposed of the contraband.

DePoe, who leads his own band, Suicidal Rock Star, says he and Maher have considered expanding their range to include other T stations, but have encountered some logistical problems.

Since anyone can play in the subway as long as they have registered for a free pass, space is often limited. According to Maher, performers claim their positions on a first come, first serve basis.

"People are pretty feisty when it comes to getting their spot," he says.

If DePoe and Maher try to play in a station further away--such as the Harvard Square station, which they call a performance "hot spot"--they run the risk of traveling all the way there only to find that another musician has claimed the spot.

So for the moment, the two plan to remain in their downtown locale, where they have gotten to know several of their fellow performers.

Maher and DePoe say they are gratified to have a reliable source of income that allows them to both play music and pay the rent. Yet the steady cash flow is not their sole reason for enjoying their work they say.

Maher says he enjoys the chance to draw the whole T station into spontaneous revelry, like the time when the duo sparked a platform-wide sing-along of "Jingle Bells" last Christmas.

According to DePoe, this kind of audience participation is usually inspired by an inebriated few who start singing along and dancing to the music.

"They [the drunken listeners] are less inhibited," Maher says. "It takes one of those people to trigger everyone else, because everyone's caught in their own T world."

Although Maher and DePoe say they will probably retreat to aboveground performance spaces when their reputations grow, at the moment they seem perfectly content.

"We have a good time every time we come out," Maher says. "It's like a big orchestra of chaos out here and we're the soundtrack."

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