A touring musician needs a way to transport his gear, so Gideon Irving, a singer-songwriter who plays about a dozen instruments during his one-man show, recently bought a used shopping cart and a pair of Rollerblades for his monthlong tour of New York City.
Mr. Irving, 26, is currently playing every night, not in bars or nightclubs, but inside other people’s apartments – mostly those of complete strangers. Not only does he play in their homes, he often ends up spending the night on the couch.
Mr. Irving, a native New Yorker, calls his shopping cart-schlep through the city his “Staying Put” tour, a contrast to his recent tour of New Zealand, which involved four months of bicycling through the country, playing, and then sleeping in, 80 homes.
“Part of the idea is to get to know my city and meet people I wouldn’t otherwise meet here,” he said. “New York City can be a lonely place, so how do you connect with all these people? How do you meet those people who aren’t in your world?”
He began his tour by packing up his cart, which a friend had equipped with rugged wheels and orange wooden panels on the side which bear the name of Mr. Irving’s Web site. He skated to his first gig, an apartment building at Broadway and West 171st Street in Upper Manhattan, to play for “a room full of opera singers and theater people,” he said.
The next night’s show was at a filmmaker’s home on Bank Street, in the West Village. On the way there, a malfunctioning wheel on his cart forced him to doff his skates and push the cart, a task which took five hours. For another performance, at an apartment on 148th Street, Mr. Irving had to carry his cart up five flights of stairs.
On a recent Monday night, Mr. Irving was setting up in the home of Maureen Laffey, a playwright and part-time nurse who lives with her small dog, Yummy Plum, in a one-bedroom basement apartment in an elegant building on West 72nd Street.
“I think the novelty of it helps get me in people’s door – a lot of people respond to this sense of adventure and do-it-yourself,” he said.
As for Ms. Laffey, she had been Mr. Irving’s neighbor when he was growing up on Amsterdam Avenue and West 90th Street. He began riding the subway by himself at 10, and making friends of all ages and from all walks of life, he said. Instead of college, he moved to North Carolina and studied bluegrass banjo with Akira Satake, a Japanese potter and banjo expert. For several years, he joined up with bands and traveled the country playing gigs and becoming proficient on less popular instruments, such as the bouzouki, the jaw harp, and an Indian instrument known as a shruti box.
He decided to do home shows after seeing one in Bayside, Queens, performed by Julian Koster, a musician and storyteller.
Mr. Irving polished his performances in New Zealand. He arrived there having booked only five gigs in advance, through the hospitality Web site couchsurfing.org. Then, as word spread, he booked another 75 shows, usually staying at the house where he had just performed. He played living rooms, kitchens, and garages, for a handful of people or several dozen.
He sometimes pedaled 12 hours a day, and logged nearly 2,500 miles, pulling a trailer loaded with about 200 pounds of musical instruments and equipment.
“I could only come to New York with this after having had the experience elsewhere,” he said. “New Yorkers are way more jaded. They’ve seen everything.”
Mr. Irving has booked about 30 nights for his New York tour. The performances are free, though Mr. Irving’s CDs are available for purchase and he accepts donations from his listeners – whomever his hosts decide to invite.
On this particular night, Ms. Laffey had invited seven nurses from Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center; they arrived with bottles of wine. Ms. Laffey opened them and put out snacks and sandwiches as Mr. Irving set up his instruments in a corner of Ms. Laffey’s modest living room. He introduced himself as a “house showman.”
Mr. Irving delivered a 75-minute showcase of his music, which he calls stovetop folk. Traces of bluegrass and world music could be heard. Much of the material was autobiographical, and was often both poignant and funny.
At one point, Mr. Irving noted that his left hand was aching from having to keep his cart straight on Manhattan’s sloping streets. Afterward he took questions, and referred to maps that he displays of New York City and the United States, showing where he has performed.
In January Mr. Irving plans to embark on a cross-country tour and he asked the nurses to refer him to other friends who might house him. Several people pinpointed locations on the maps, in Arkansas, Denver and Buffalo, among other places.
The following morning, as Mr. Irving packed up his shopping cart and strapped on his Rollerblades, Ms. Laffey said her nurse friends had enjoyed the show. “They’re not the most artsy people but they really appreciated it,’’ she said. “Some of them were texting me this morning with lyrics to his songs.”
Mr. Irving tucked his tip jar and his African thumb piano into his shopping cart, hugged Ms. Laffey and pulled the cart out onto the street. He pointed it toward his next apartment, on East Ninth Street, and began pushing it along in the rain.