I could sit here and regale you with stories and stats about the Prison-Industrial Complex all day, but is that going to do anything? Even for the most #woke among us, it’s hard to know where to start to deal with something as massively unassailable as a for-profit prison system that funnels young lives straight into jails. But—much like music—it’s best to start with stories. Sunday night at World Cafe Live, Philly organization Beyond the Bars hit home with a massive benefit show incorporating both to strike back.
By going into prisons and teaching music to incarcerated youth, Beyond the Bars staff and volunteers are able to bring hope and respite to members of society that most people have already written off as a loss. “Even though they’re in prison, they’re still people, man. Just people,” said Bars staff member Christopher Thornton.
People with stories. Like each and every one of us—those stories matter, just as much as the ones presented in song by the many acts hitting the WCL stage. Rambunctious rapper The Bul Bey got the early evening off to an excellent start, slamming through a quick set of slickly produced, bouncy hip hop — perfect spring and summer bangers for the weather quickly coming on. Tracks like “Where I’m From” had the still assembling audience moving a little bit as they arrived. Lushlife’s Raj Haldar was pinch-hitting as The Bul Bey’s DJ, and also spinning between sets, laying down hot dancy tracks to keep things light.
Singer-songwriter Ben Arnold took things for a bit of a different tangent with his piano-blues-infused songs. He sounded great, but it seemed to me that he was having a hard time connecting with the crowd.
Rosemary Fiki hit the stage next, working over a setlist filled with rich, funky numbers of her own. Her backing band knit the tracks as a canvas for her voice to paint on top of, calling out to the audience, who couldn’t resist the temptation of pure sonic beauty.
While the stage was being changed, we heard from a number of speakers on behalf of Behind the Bars. Perhaps most moving was the story of Johndi Harrell, who founded The Center for Returning Ctitizens, another organization in Philadelphia that works against recidivism rates. “I was in it,” said Harrell, “I was a full-time gangster and part-time bank robber for 19 years. I’ve been there and back again.”
Celebrated vibestresses Queen of Jeans entranced as the next act on deck after the break — with only a small amount of material released, their set was all-too-short, yet included an absolutely radical psych-tinged cover of The Bangles classic track “Walk Like an Egyptian.” I’d heard the Queen of Jeans hype before, but still went into their set a skeptic — and came out a believer. The Philly scene is much richer for their new presence, truly.
Running behind schedule, Milton’s set was tragically amended to be only four or five songs long. But he made the absolute most of them, bringing out hype man Biz Mighty, who wowed the crowd with his stunting moves and booming additions to Milton’s groovy tracks.
“I usually play in a band called Hop Along,” said Frances Quinlan before she started her first song, “But tonight it’s just me.” And that was enough. For a solid half-hour, I was transfixed by the voice behind one of my all-time favorite bands, pouring her heart out unapologetically. A lot of the crowd didn’t get it, talking raucously over her quiet songs, as her voice rose into and out of it’s trademark yowling roar, and into the rolling valleys of “oohs” and “do-do’s” that punctuate bridge and verse. It seemed like Frances just shut her eyes and powered through, and I shut my eyes against the welling of hot tears, my trademark move at a Hop Along show.
And finally, there was one. After a long, long evening, the end was in sight — and coming on fast. The boys from the Districts came out, setting up gear and waving to fans and friends in the audience. The sold-out house was packed out to see one of the top Philly bands currently active, playing a room that could have been twice the size and still just as sold-out. After one final round of thanks from Beyond the Bars staff and show organizers, there was nothing left but to let the Districts throw down.
It’s been over a year since the last time I’d seen them live — when they sold out Union Transfer on Valentines Day, last year — so I was more than a little bit excited to see how a year of hard touring had shaped them. And, like each successive time that I’d seen them before, Sunday night was no exception: They’re back and better than ever. Hitting harder, stomping louder, wailing sharper and just generally rocking even more than I’d seen yet. Fine form, to say the least.
The set was a great mix of material from 2015’s A Flourish and a Spoil and the earlier releases like Telephone and the self-titled 10″. Even cooler was the outing of two brand new tracks that took the audience from shouting along word-for-word to stunned silence, as Rob Grote and the crew debuted material before their eyes. A cursory listen and hasty review would mark these as a bit more mellow; slightly more balanced tracks than the rippers they’ve been cranking out for the past few years, but they might just be the more calm elements of what’s yet to come. Either way, we can’t wait to hear more of what they’re up to — won’t be long now until we can start looking forward to LP3, I’d imagine.
After a raucous one-song encore with “Young Blood,” the evening was at its terminus and the audience headed to their respective homes. The songs we heard and stories we’ve been told will stick with us for a long time, and could hopefully prove to be the impetus for lasting change.
Ben Arnold, benefit, Beyond the Bars, charity, Frances Quinlan, Hop Along, Lushlife, Milton, Queen of Jeans, raj haldar, Rosemary Fiki, The Bul Bey, The Districts, World Cafe Live