Joey Sweeney has been a fixture on the Philadelphia scene for as long as I can remember. Back in my college days, he was a witty, sassy, no-bullshit columnist for the Philadelphia Weekly who also fronted the Wilco-tinged indie rock band The Trouble With Sweeney. He went on to found the revered cityblog Philebrity (which, sadly, seems to be on something of an extended hiatus), then returned to music in the 2010s: first with the wacky denimcore rock outfit Arctic Splash, then with the elegant Long Hair Arkestra. That’s to say nothing of the early ramshackle rock acts of his formative years, which I wasn’t around for, but I’m told The Barnabys were quite good, and their brief reunion at his 40th b-day gig Your Life is Calling, and tracks on its companion compilation, seem solid.
Point being: Sweeney has been ingrained in the city’s music and culture for so long that he probably needs no introduction. And now that I’ve gone and spent all this time introducing him, we arrive at the question: why? What keeps us returning to Mr. Joey Sweeney two decades into his career?
Quite simply, he knows how to tell the story of his Philadelphia through songs. It doesn’t hurt that the songs from his current outfit The Neon Grease are uber-catchy pub rock / power pop nuggets with fierce sax solos and grimy guitar tones, taut rhythms and keyboards to raise your arms and testify to. Sweeney and his cohorts excel at playing fun music, and very visibly having fun while doing it, but you can say the same about any number of artists. What makes Sweeney stand out is his skill, not just as a scene setter, but a narrator.
He’s somebody who can poignantly articulate the struggle of the gig economy in “Polaroids on the Floor,” or capture the New Philadelphia versus Old Philadelphia divide in “On Monday” (the day when “the bougies give the city back / the bartenders all take the day off and relax / and Oh, how they laugh”). As much as his music reveres the past, his words intensely study the now, consider the future, and accept the inevitability of change — something that all of us could stand to be a little better with. Like Sweeney sings in the high-energy jammer “It Ain’t Important Now,” “you get older, you know / and some things, they tend to break down.”
This rip-roaring Key Studio Session was recorded live in the WXPN performance space with The Neon Grease: Kevin Bohannon on saxophone, Alan Carroll on keys, Alec Meltzer on drums, and XPN’s own Jared Styles on bass. The songs draw on Catholic School, Sweeney’s latest LP, released last month via Burnt Toast Vinyl and The Giving Groove, with proceeds from each sale going to music education nonprofit Rock To The Future. Listen to the entire set below, and catch Sweeney and the Grease live this Friday, October 19th, at Ortlieb’s with Ali Awan, Elk City, and Ethos. Tickets and more information on the show can be found at the XPN Concert Calendar.joey sweeney and the neon grease, The Key Studio Sessions