The bloodlines of American comedy and music have been intertwined as long as they’ve been art forms. From vaudeville to variety shows, these two types of performance hit upon the most fundamental human truths.
Both forms also stand to learn tremendous amounts from one another. Many musicians can learn not to take themselves so seriously, to not put on airs that that threaten to be exposed at a moment’s notice. Likewise, comedians should always strive to be intellectually curious and explore every avenue possible for new material. Both forms grow when performers don’t pander to the lowest common denominator, yet keep themselves in check enough to not get lost in their own pretensions.
Occasionally, great performers come along to marry the two into something great, or at least entertaining. The Rat Pack, Cheech and Chong, Flight of the Conchords, Eric Andre…well, let’s not get too far into what constitutes genius (that’s another piece entirely).
But even with our city’s certified comedy and music credentials, the marriage of forms has somehow not taken off. These worlds remain consistently separated, to the point that even my saying “Kurt Vile-Chip Chantry Collaboration” might perplex you in any number of ways, depending on who you are: I don’t know who “x” is…should I? Would that combo work? What would it mean? Where do I start Googling?! (By the by, I’m formally claiming all credit for whatever collaborations this comment inspires).
Spend any amount of time with the three young men in Wilbur, and you’ll start to see these worlds for what they’re intended to be – in constant lock-step, part of the same organism that keeps regional scenes afloat and thriving. Their exceptional musical talent, played out in three-part harmonies over folk- and bluegrass-inspired guitar lines and songs that beg for audience sing-a-longs, is only part of an equation that requires a form of communicative transparency (a comedic hallmark, often more than a musical one).
But like any responsibly self-aware creatives, these whimsical folksters are not particularly heavy-handed about their mission. Over greasy fries and infinite amounts of black coffee at a deserted Fishtown diner, the early-20s trio of longtime friends play out their general mission in tangents, afterthoughts, and – naturally – jokes that underscore their core tents with sincere (if sometimes muted) enthusiasm for being able to share what they do.
Even their name – innocuously specific, possibly bovine – came about in the sort of haphazard way that great band names arise.
“It’s kind of like naming your band “Steve,” explains singer-guitarist Kieran Kriss.
“It became a thing of ‘Our band name is Wilbur, until we can think of something better,’ and we never did…I’m still trying to think of a better band name,” adds fellow singer-guitarist Simon Tangney, laughing.
The commitment to that name possibly has its roots in the poignant moments in which it was formed. Kriss and Tangney, along with singer/upright bassist Matt Bevilacqua, grew up together in Long Island and played in various bands as teens. The current incarnation of Wilbur is only the newest one, having initially began while the members were emo-obsessed teens, playing out a deep love (like we all did) for Long Island bands like Taking Back Sunday. Their music back then is understandably difficult to find, yet Philly’s incarnation of Deli Magazine awarded them “Artist of the Month” a few months ago, they managed to link viewers to some of those older, more-angsty tunes – a decision that the members still find hilarious.
The approximate-decade since their post-hardcore origins has seen them disappear to different corners of the country (during which Tangney trekked to Alaska and Arizona, hopping a train at least once) and eventually reconvene a year ago in Philadelphia, where the members moved around and held down every assortment of jobs while making a name for themselves. These circumstances, often involving tight and temporary accommodations, helped inspire their current, mellower sound.
“That came out of necessity. These were just the instruments that we had, and the instruments that we can play,” says Kriss of their current setup.
Their years of camaraderie have also inspired the collaborative nature of their songwriting and presentation. “This is the first iteration that we’ve had of us playing together where three-part harmonies are such a central feature. We’ve all had a hand in singing, all had a hand in writing melodies, all had a hand in writing lyrics,” says Tangney.
“I think that so much of what we write about…it’s a little revealing and a little embarrassing. So if I were to come to the table with people who I’m not as close to, it would be unbearable,” says Tangney, adding “It’s painful looking at yourself objectively, no matter whether or not you’re a doctor or a bum or a waiter. But I think that writing songs requires you to do that more than any other profession…looking at yourself is hard in any context, but having to do that repeatedly is especially difficult,”
And what of their lyrics? What could they possibly sing about to make comedians (some of the hardest people to make laugh) rapt with hypnotic glee, show after show? With some of their lyrics coming from admittedly emo roots, they display a lot of what good comedians consistently try communicate – self-awareness that can be so vulnerable and disarming that the best response comes from a room full of people getting it and promptly laughing at their admissions.
A song like “Philadelphia (Christmas By Myself)” is especially indicative of these sentiments. Exploring one seminal crisis of young adulthood, in which the protagonist risks alienation and opts to spend Christmas away from difficult and catty family before realizing that risks yield greater rewards for self-actualization, Wilbur encapsulates the anxiety of real-life situations that catapult so many young Americans into states of equally-matched joy and euphoria. Their delivery is so upfront that, timed with the inherently-pleasing structure of solid pop-folk hooks, they manage to make audiences laugh along to stories that are immediately relatable. Imagine a set filled with songs like these, interspersed with self-effacing and equally-prompt punchlines, and you’ll get a sense for why they’re the best band in Philly comedy.
“I’m not sure if you’d find that among musicians and comedians in general, but I think that the manner in which we approach presenting ourselves…it could reach some pretty dark territory, but it’s always with a wink, and it’s never isolating. It’s always kind of inviting,” explains Bevilacqua.
The people that they’ve invited into this space have included industrious local comics like Robert Ecks and Chris O’Connor, both of whom have hosted some of the open mic nights where Wilbur played their first gigs. “I wouldn’t want to reduce what they do to calling it shtick, but the Wilbur three certainly have a unified comedic voice that is genuine. I think comedians particularly like Wilbur because they don’t exaggerate the serious nature of their songs about love and family,” says Ecks.
Some of their connections have also helped them with videos like their Christmas special – a deranged holiday revue-meets-altered-Creation-story. From these early shows began a series of relationships that led to more gigs at comedy showcases and an enveloping sense of community that also seen Wilbur’s fan base grow significantly.
This was evident at a “Friendsgiving” show during mid-November at Fishtown’s Boom Room, a rehearsal and recording studio that doubles as a cozy two-tiered venue. An eclectic mass of 20- and 30-somethings packed the venue for an equally-varied lineup including hip-hop/soul ensemble Halfro and Connecticut-based jazzy-rockers Lady Hips, going in hard for each act.
Their upcoming show at World Cafe Live promises to be a similar affair, but with one notable addition: the release of their song “Violet” as a Valentine’s Day single (with electric instrumentation, recorded at the Boom Room). But for a band that’s just as comfortable playing in friend’s living rooms, the sense of familiarity is key. This duty to bring everybody into an entertaining yet completely personable headspace, rooted in a moroseness that yields unexpected joy at a moment’s notice, ultimately make this band a comedic and musical act to take seriously…if you can stop laughing.
Wilbur will play at World Cafe Live on February 9th, along with Ben Kessler, Brethren, Hayley Jordanna, and Memphis Hat. Click here for more details.