Philadelphia always gets typecast as the underdog, this city of illusion-of-grandeur miscreants that drastically wants to be NYC or D.C. or whatever else but can’t. You probably know of the “6th Borough” label or the Rocky lovable loser trope or any of the articles that question why anybody would even try and find success in our wonderful city. Hell, even the Fresh Prince had to move to Bel-Air before he could make something of himself.
This is nonsense. Philly doesn’t want to be New York or anywhere else. Like we’re supposed to care about what goes on in those high-strung, obnoxiously stressful cities and somehow bend and break ourselves to fit that mold. What’s great about this city, our city, is that we’re not that. We don’t have to play by their rules. People in Philadelphia have always created their own scenes and that music, that art, is the essence of what makes us unique. It’s weird, freaky, and very much does not need to fit in.
Step into any West Philly basement and you’re almost guaranteed to see a band that sounds like nothing else out there and absolutely slays. If you were the kind of person to look for clues in history, here’s a hint: it’s been almost five decades since Sun Ra and his Arkestra landed in Germantown and rewrote the rules of jazz and really music as a whole. There is literally no end to the examples of Philly bands that have decided to do whatever it is they felt compelled to do, even if nobody else cared. Underdogs we are clearly not.
“I don’t know enough about other music scenes to know if all cities have it, but I feel like Philadelphia has such a strong undercurrent of weird shit.” That’s Eliot Duhan, lead singer of a band that’s a perfect example of all that: EDO. Since their formation at St. John’s College in Annapolis, MD back in 1987 – they moved to Philly soon after graduation – the band has continuously defied norms and expectations. Somewhere between Frank Zappa’s matter-of-fact weirdness, the Butthole Surfers’ freakout rock, and the outer space groove of Parliament Funkadelic, EDO (the meaning of the name has been lost to history) occupies a singular position in Philly punk history, even if you’ve never heard of them.
“I used to say we’re Philadelphia preeminent Marx Brothers tribute band and everybody else in the band would get really mad at me,” Duhan said with a smirk. Having played just about everywhere in Philadelphia over the past 27 years in the city – the band’s charmingly outdated first website has a ‘places we’ve played’ section that’s basically a list of all the most venerated venues in Philly history, stretching from The Killtime warehouse on Lancaster Ave. to The Painted Bride, Upstairs at Nick’s, The Middle East, The Trocadero, and more – EDO is headed to the School of Rock on Saturday night to play their entire first album front to back, 1994’s delightfully fun Wrinkles.
The lineup for this show will be the one that recorded that album, including Yanni Papadopoulos, who formed one of the finest underground bands in Philadelphia history, the ‘doom jazz’ trio Stinking Lizaveta, soon after his second stint in EDO ended in ’94. His first time in the band was at its birth back in Annapolis.
According to Duhan, “Yanni came [back] after we lost the original bass player in ’92 due to a Mad Cow Disease-related incident. Not actually getting Mad Cow Disease but a sort of panic about having thought he got Mad Cow Disease which was kind of the final straw. He remembered about a year later that he had eaten a cheeseburger in Dublin and he couldn’t find his keys and was convinced that was it. It caused some soul searching.” This sort of thing is not at all atypical in the world of EDO.
Papadopoulos is also the music director of the Philadelphia School of Rock, which explains the choice of venue. Although he has joined the band occasionally over the years, this will be the first time they do something as intentional and purposeful as playing a full album.
While the lineup of EDO has fluctuated greatly over the years, it has evolved into being a bit of a collective, with many of the same faces shuffling in and out of the band depending on who is available. Duhan has always been at the helm, a showman in every sense of the word, willing and able to do just about anything to make sure the audience is having as much fun as he is.
The first time I saw EDO play was at around two in the morning during Human BBQ XXIII in 2001. That was the year Wesley Willis headlined. I had gone to a few other shows that night and wandered in to Pi Lam probably around midnight. It felt like everybody there was in some state of intense inebriation, which was appropriate. I don’t remember who else I saw that night but EDO’s set was so perfectly weird and brilliant that it stuck with me for years.
My favorite memory of the set was seeing the band do “This Is Your Life, Boris Karloff” off of Wrinkles, a song celebrating the tragic life of the actor best known for playing Frankenstein’s Monster. Duhan was running around the room in a Frankenstein mask, getting into people’s faces while delivering the vocals with the fervent intensity of someone who truly felt upset at the pain and suffering Karloff went through in his life and wanted everyone there to know all about it. This was wild. This was fun. This was really, really odd. I was hooked.
The other memory I have of the night was of EDO doing their version of San Francisco-by-way-of-Prague’s Life After Life song “Marijuana” – with the catchy chorus of “I LOVE MARIJUANA!” (really) – and everybody there just freaking out and singing along. Sure, lots of bands have songs about weed but this seemed a bit more than just a casual love of getting stoned. I’d find out later that EDO played almost all the benefits for the National Organization for Marijuana Legalization, or NORML.
So that brings us to Saturday and the band’s first show in a while. Asked what the future looks like, Duhan answered somewhat woefully, “For a long, long time, up until about 2010, people would say, ‘What do you do?’ and I’d say, ‘Well I have a day job but in real life I’m in a rock band.’ And for a long time that was really true, or at least I felt that way. And now I don’t know if I feel that way. It defined me for so long and I don’t know what there is absent now.”
This is part of being in a band for three decades. He explained that, “It’s a complex, high-performance machine designed to create a certain sort of music and environment and it really requires a lot of work to do that and we don’t have the time to put in that work anymore.” Still, EDO recorded four new songs last year with the intention of putting an album out sometime soon.
“We have another record in us,” Duhan told The Key. “I don’t know what the best way to get it out is and nobody wants it except us. But that won’t stop us from inflicting it on people, which is kind of self-indulgent. But that’s okay, it’s our prerogative.” So EDO continues making funny, weird, and ultimately very intelligent music, from the basements of West Philly to Clark Park Fest to Pretzel Park near Duhan’s longtime home in Manayunk to the Philadelphia School of Rock. They’re no underdogs scrapping and fighting to be the next big thing. They’re just a bunch of freaks and weirdos playing the music they want to hear because nobody else is doing it. Everyone else in Philadelphia is just along for the ride.
EDO performs live at School of Rock Philadelphia tomorrow, September 23rd, at 8 p.m.; more information on the show can be found here.
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