“Ali!” they call out. “Hey, Ali!” That may be my nickname, but they’re not talking to me.
They’re greeting Fergie’s bartender, Ali Wadsworth, a soulful Philadelphia singer-songwriter and one half of Hoots and Wadsworth, one of the two acts opening for The Kalob Griffin Band (KGB) on December 22 at World Cafe Live.
“Ali’s amazing,” says Griffin, slugging back a shot of Jack Daniels and cracking open a Narragansett pounder almost simultaneously.
“We did a duet with her at The Living Room on the Lower East Side,” adds Eric Lawry, drummer of the indie Americana quintet.
John Hildenbrand, keyboardist for the band, nods. “She can sing like nothing else and she’s a huge supporter of us. So much respect.”
Support is what makes The KGB world go round. It’s been quite a while since Kalob Griffin graduated from Penn State, and while the band’s lineup has always been comprised of five 20-something dudes with hearts of gold and fingers of folk, a lot has changed.
From leaving State College, to settling in the suburbs of Philadelphia, to touring halfway across the country and back, members of the band have come and gone to pursue other passions (theater and love, respectively). Griffin and Rob Dwyer (guitarist, mandolin and banjo player) are the last original members of the band from when they started playing basement parties in the fall of 2009.
Two and a half years later, they debuted their first full-length album at World Cafe Live. It’s been less than six months since then, and the band says they’ve already got enough material for more. They’re hoping to put out an EP in March of 2013 and another LP by the end of the upcoming year. Their fans and their friends are hungry for it.
Friendships hold all the importance in the world to The KGB. After “divorces” from recent bass players, the band was searching the streets for someone who wouldn’t mind touring with a group of guys who speak in inside jokes. Two weeks before their fall 2012 tour, bassist Jonathan Davenport committed to 35 days on the road with perfect strangers. How’d they find such a good guy? He’s a friend of a friend who tutored band manager Trevor Kerin’s little brother for the SAT. Naturally. The KGB has connections, and with those connections come loyalty and love.
“Without our families, we’d be absolutely nowhere,” says Kalob. Eric and John echo the sentiment. While the majority of them currently live in Queen Village, they’ve stayed at every single band member’s parents’ house at one point in time. They’ve lived in basements and guest rooms, slept on floors and couches. Rob’s mother jokes that Kalob was “the best roommate she ever had.” “I lived at the Dwyers for eight months, rent-free,” Kalob says. “They were always there for us.”
Kalob’s own family will make the trek from Pittsburgh for their World Café Live show on the 22nd.
“Our parents truly enjoy our music and condone what we’re doing,” he says. “That is one of our biggest strengths as a band. We have support from those who love us, and that’s what keeps us going.”
Out of nowhere, British boy band One Direction’s poppy youth anthem, “Live While We’re Young” comes blaring from Fergie’s speakers. Two little girls in holiday dresses start dancing in the corner. Griffin raises an eyebrow.
“There’s a certain grace period post- college, you know? It’s like you have two years to dick around after you graduate. We know that we’re way past that point. Now we have to justify to our families why this is what we need to be doing. Why being a part of the band is so important.”
Kalob’s dad went on tour with them in June, just for the hell of it, just to see what it was like. The KGB is all about providing the best live music experience for show goers. As they watched their fan base morph from Penn State students to high school friends after they moved back home, to complete strangers in Southern states, they decided their goal in cultivating a consistent following would be easy: make The KGB a common bond between strangers.
“Trevor read an article about creating a tribe out of fans,” Griffin explains. “And tribe members need a way to identify themselves. We made these ‘IPA’ t-shirts in reference to our song – they don’t say The KGB anywhere on them. We’re cultivating New York, Virginia and DC right now. We want fans to see each other wearing the shirt and say, ‘Hey, you know The KGB?’”
The band’s website has a page for “The KGB Family” where fans can leave testimonial-type messages and download the band’s debut album for free. The sense of community is clear:
“Enjoy our blend of Americana Rock ‘n Roll. It’s an extension of who we are…we believe in delivering honest lyrics you can relate to, creating music that moves you, and sharing a live show experience that leaves us all wanting more.”
If you’ve ever been to a KGB show, you know the chant that’ll get fans riled up towards the end of a set. It’s pretty simple: “K-G-B! K-G-B!” The chant is an homage to their State College roots, the the town that made them who they are as a band.
“We want people to feel like they’re at a party when they come to a show. We want them to dance, to sing, to drink and have fun. That’s the Penn State in us,” says Kalob.
“At the same time, there’s nothing like having an audience that’s there just to listen,” Eric says. Some of the band’s most humbling experiences have been shows where people are quiet.
“In New Jersey, about fifty people who had never heard us before paid $20 to see us play in a living room. You could hear a pin drop,” Griffin tells me. “It was all about the music.”
The band will sing about Rob’s dead dog, a love affair with whiskey, West Virginia, girls and the changing seasons all in one set. Their sound digs into several genres, honing in on folk rock with a fair amount of harmonies and sing-along hooks. Their respect for songwriters like Ryan Adams, Neil Young, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen finds its way into every original song and cover. When I ask about the songwriting process, the guys tell me it usually starts with Griffin calling the rest of the band into his room.
“Listen to this sweet riff,” he’ll say.
Then comes the skeleton of the song, and the step where Kalob asks each band member how they want to put their own personal touch on the track. They work one-on-one with Kalob to avoid the complications that come from five guys trying to write one song at the same time. Everyone gets to put their creative stamp on it. “The song almost always turns out completely different than I expect it to,” Kalob says.
“Kalob is always telling us he just wrote the best song he’s ever written,” laughs Eric. “The best three songs he’s ever written were written in the past month.”
In January, The KGB plans to record a video series of South Philly neighborhood sessions. Also known as “Grub and Chug,” these intimate living room shows will stream live so the band can interact with online viewers. Fans can also look forward to a music video for “IPA” and live recordings from a week-long stay at SXSW in Austin, Texas.
“It’s our first time,” says Kalob. “We cannot wait.”
Fergie’s has lowered the stereo, but the little girls in the corner are still dancing. In many ways, you might say, The KBG is living while they’re young.
The Kalob Griffin Band plays with Hoots and Wadsworth and Toy Soldiers at World Cafe Live on Saturday, December 22.