The Obscura showcase gives hip-hop and indie a new voice in West Philly

Photo courtesy of Kieko Photography

For many local music fans, “West Philadelphia” is synonymous with DIY ethics and dingy basements, guitar howls and lost hearing. While there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, those whose predilections lean towards hip-hop and breathing room might feel short-changed.

Obscura creates a space for those others, building off of the Cedar Park neighborhood’s rich diversity and deep-rooted progressivism to create a space where incendiary hip-hop and indie music can find a home. Continue reading →


Jonathan Pfeffer’s “Bodega”, featuring a cast of Philadelphia rappers and musicians, comes to ballet-dancing life in Atlanta this Friday

Jonathan Pfeffer | photo via

Although The Key normally doesn’t publish the artistic goings-on of other cities, the use of local artists’ work in boundary-pushing art is certainly worth celebrating.

It has been roughly a year since former Capillary Action frontman and composer/multimedia artist Jonathan Pfeffer premiered “Bodega”, an avant-garde piece that employed a cavalcade of local musician collaborators including emcees Lushlife and Yikes the Zero, drummers Eric Slick (Dr. Dog) and Ricardo Lagomasino (Many Arms/Deleted Scenes) and Uniform Recordings’s Jeff Zeigler in the service of abrasive and entrancing aesthetics. On Friday, the piece will take on new life further south as the Atlanta Ballet features it in the new work showcase “Yours is Mine”. Continue reading →


Listen to local emcee MilLionZ’s “No Tomorrow” and join him for Saturday’s video shoot in response to violence in Ferguson

Photo by Kate McCann |

As the country and world turn their attention to the turmoil that has engulfed Ferguson, MO, in the wake of Michael Brown’s death at the hands of police, the music world has responded in its own way. Unforgiving and stark musical messages from respected hip-hop artists like J.Cole and Ms. Lauryn Hill contribute to a conversation that also sees Killer Mike, Talib Kweli, Frank Ocean, and St. Louis native Nelly taking to social media and the press, attempting to address a community and nation at odds with how to handle the violence. The responses bare some similarity to the ways in which hip-hop addressed the post-Rodney King verdict violence in Los Angeles almost two decades ago, providing the rest of the country with a sobering look into the realities of violence and racism in the American inner city.

Gifted Overbrook Park-based rapper and singer MilLionZ, who burst onto our radar last year with a searing guest verse during singer-songwriter Ryan Tennis’s “Fight Song” (check out Tennis’s Key Studio Session to listen to the track), is adding his unique voice to that conversation. Continue reading →


King Britt and co. reign supreme at Friday’s Back2Basics reunion

King Britt

Let’s get something out of the way: it’s really easy to make plays on King Britt’s name. The king is back! Long live the king! Even the title of this piece was painstakingly chosen after a lot of agony over what would be slightly witty without being superfluously cheesy (you can argue about whether or not this was successful in the comments).

Still, the man whose official documents read “King James Britt” has left a legacy for which such comical proclamations are actually quite accurate. For over two decades, the 40-something DJ and Philly native has commanded a tiny kingdom of rabid followers through a variety of beloved and critically lauded endeavors. For these fans, which endeavor they care about the most says a tremendous amount about who they are. Perhaps they were drawn to Britt’s multi-year tenure with the bi-costal hip-hop institution Digable Planets, where his genre-mixing aesthetic slant sat effortlessly with the Plantes’ Afro-centric, laid-back brand of quiet innovation.

Some might’ve instead been captivated by Britt’s unquenchable experimental and avant garde tendencies, manifest in numerous groundbreaking and headscratchingly trippy side projects;  these projects have propelled him to a very different kind of recognition, garnering him Pew and NEA grants and putting him on stage at places like TEDxPhilly and the Institute of Contemporary Arts. Continue reading →


XPoNential Artist Spotlight: The beat-heavy road to the top of Marian Hill

Photo by Paul Gilmore via
Photo by Paul Gilmore via

Of all the shining local stars we’ve featured on WXPN, few have seen their fortunes rise quickly as Marian Hill. When they take the stage this Friday at the XPoNential Music Festival, they will be doing so on the heels of escalating tour momentum, glowing reviews in national news outlets, and a boatload of raw talent – all of which has come together within only a year-and-a-half of their official formation.

It would be foolish, however, to think too much of the duo’s relative youth (both as a band and as 24-year-olds). Vocalist Samantha Gongol and producer/beatsmith Jeremy Lloyd possess the rare mix of gracious humility and insatiable, studied ambition that strongly correlates with creative longevity.

“We still have a long way to go, but already realizing so many dreams and having this type of audience…it’s been out of this world,” says Lloyd. Continue reading →


Queens of the Stone Age stop hearts at the Mann Center’s Skyline Stage

Queens of the Stone Age | Photo by Matthew Shaver |
Queens of the Stone Age | Photo by Matthew Shaver |

Few moments make music lovers swoon like the moment when a band goes off book, ditching their planned setlist to play old songs, new songs, and whatever the heck else they want.

The everlasting California desert rock institution Queens of the Stone Age did just that in the middle of their electrifying concert last night at the Mann Center’s Skyline Stage. Opting to skip playing “Kalopsia” from 2013′s …Like Clockwork, frontman Josh Homme announced that the band would instead play 2000′s “In the Fade” to rapturous applause.

Moments like this littered a night permeated by a celebratory atmosphere for many. For the Queens, it’s the last US show for a while on a touring cycle that began last year. Their electrifying performance was preceded by a brutal opening set from thrash metal wunderkinds Unlocking the Truth (those 8th graders who just inked a $1.7 million deal with Sony that you’ve been hearing about) and an equally hard-hitting one from Spinerrette/Distillers frontwoman Brody Dalle (a.k.a Mrs. Josh Homme). The Queens refused to disappoint, though, and the near-capacity crowd at the Mann was ever-grateful.

From the stage, Homme pontificated on whether or not this was the best show of the tour. We’re inclined to say that yes, indeed, it was. Check out the setlist below, as well as a gallery of photos from The Key’s Matthew Shaver.

Continue reading →


Marsha Ambrosius talks industry, history, Friends & Lovers

Marsha Ambrosius | photo via
Marsha Ambrosius | photo via

The music industry, like any other momentum-bound field in which people can become loyal professionals, tends to bestow its employees with a sort of tunnel vision. The brilliant young artists who enter the songwriting hustle in their teens or early adulthood, shrouded behind the scenes while quietly architecting major hits for the pop elite, are the ones most likely to feel this myopia. Their craft is plied for the highest bidder, and momentum can build over a painstaking period of time in which songs may go to a poorly-fit artist or languish unearthed for years. Maybe they’ll make it to a songwriter’s own album, but few are so lucky as to have a bigger solo mark than the artists for whom they end up writing.

“Right now, I’m sitting on a patio, looking at palm trees and blue skies, and just taking a moment to just go,” says Marsha Ambrosius over a spotty phone line, exhaling deeply, her exhaustion apparent even in her laughs. “Come next week Tuesday, I’m probably not going to sleep for a year, so I have to get my vacation in now The Liverpool-born singer/songwriter extraordinaire, whose near decade-and-a-half in Philadelphia has done nothing to her accent, is in Los Angeles on a break between tours (one opening for John Legend and another on her own, which lands at the Mann Center on August 2nd). Like any conscientious musician in the public eye, she’s using her break to do the most relaxing thing ever – a gating gun of 20-minute phone interviews, one after another, with music journalists. She’s quick, though, to state her graciousness at being in her unique position.

“Well this is my life, I signed up for this part. This is the part I enjoy, because I get to give it away first,” she says about interviewing. Artists who reach these heights – a solo debut that moved over 90,000 units in it’s first week alone, shared songwriting credits with Justin Timberlake and Michael Jackson, and membership in a definitive neo-soul group among them – have probably sat through enough of these interviews to know just how a public image gets managed and scripted at every turn. But for Ambrosius, who’s lyrical signature lies in the no-holds-barred exploration of deeply personal scenarios, the exhaustion and graciousness is best understood as nothing but honest.

Marsha Ambrosius live | via

On Friends & Lovers, her second solo album which dropped this week via RCA records, Ambrosius is continuing to mine this familiar territory to increasingly grandiose and high-energy conclusions – something, she admits, is somewhat borne of her showbusiness lifestyle.

“I do have a private life to manage…or mismanage, but it makes for great music, especially from a distance. To withstand a lucrative career for the past fourteen years, I’ve been on the road. So anybody who I’ve encountered, whether it be love or lust has had to handle that…or not handle that,” explains Ambrosius about the source of her narratives. One could understand Friends & Lovers as a definitive look into the life of a fast-moving recording industry star – a person who, surrounded by the pace of constant movement and creative energy interspersed with frequent performative obligations, grasps for intimacy in fleeting moments.

In this sense, the album builds from 2011’s Late Nights and Early Mornings in scope. Where Friends & Lovers deviates from its predecessor is precisely things start to get especially interesting. The album is expansive in scope, laced with atmospheric tapestries and shimmering synths at nearly every turn. Ambrosius winds through narratives of erotic passion, emotional vulnerability, and every emotion that runs the gamut of her and others’ deeply personal dalliances. Not every song mines this very specific moment of intimacy – some songs, like album closer “Streets of London”, are based in feelings of homesickness and rootlessness – but the album is unified by these tales of people who have entered and exited Ambrosius’s life as quickly and loudly as they entered it. Ambrosius admits great intentionality here, as many of these songs are sequels to songs on Late Nights. Continue reading →


Marsha Ambrosius continues her ecstatic personal exploration on Friends & Lovers

Album art for Friends & Lovers

If an artist’s credentials are supposed to speak for themselves, then few musicians working today have a louder imprint than Marsha Ambrosius. The British-born, Philadelphia-based singer-songwriter is probably best known for her deeply sensual and evocative work as one half of Floetry, the duo whose early-2000s blend of RnB- and hip-hop/spoken word aesthetics made them (and this city) synonymous with neo-soul’s golden age. For those who chose to pay attention, however, the 36-year-old chanteuse has continued to supersede expectations and quietly architect some of the best pop and soul music of the past 15 years; her virtuoso vocals and keen ear for soundscapes and hooks are featured on superstar tracks like Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me a River” and Michael Jackson’s “Butterflies”, as well as deeper cuts from Alicia Keys, Kelis, and Jazmine Sullivan.

To be sure, “those in the know” are a pretty big group – her 2011 solo debut, Late Nights and Early Mornings, opened at number 2 on the Billboard 200 and sold almost 100,000 copies in its first week. Propelled by big-name production and co-writing from folks as varied as Keys, Just Blaze, and the ever-enigmatic Lauryn Hill, Late Nights mined the depths of Ambrosius’s fiery passion on songs that quietly overtook the RnB charts.

On Friends & Lovers (RCA), which drops today after prolonged record label troubles, Ambrosius builds off of the first album’s themes to deliver something laced with both continuity and explosive uniqueness. This may be Ambrosius’s finest work since her Floetry days, as well as the most complete manifestation of this pop veteran’s creative mission yet.

Ambrosius’s musical genius is based in a mix of her immense talent and lyrical frankness. Seeds planted while she was in Floetry have come to fruition on her solo records, both of whose titles point towards the kinds of experiences that have influenced most of her work. But whereas Late Nights was a bit scattered, a compendium of amazing songs that worked best in isolation, Friends & Lovers is conceptual and inextricable from its whole. Continue reading →


The Gallerist weaves Twine and gives you plenty to take home at Saturday’s album release show

Photo by Tait Militana
Left to right: Mike Collins, John Holback, Kai Carter | Photo by Tait Militana

With a name that evokes classic notions of taste style, you might initially think of The Gallerist as something pretentious or esoteric – art school dropouts more concerned with presentation and aesthetics than the actual music. Well, you might think these things if you’re particularly judgmental about band names.

Nothing about this trio of Philadelphia musicians actually reeks of ostentatiousness, though. In fact, on this somewhat quiet Tuesday evening at Ortlieb’s in Northern Liberties, they’re the only people in the bar still talking about the heart-wrenching removal of the US Men’s National Team from this year’s World Cup. Talking about it with a distanced reverence for the team’s accomplishments (particularly goalkeeper Tim Howard, whose considerable talents are now meme boilerplate), the conversation goes towards local sports very quickly. These are men who would sit comfortably in a number of crowds, and their music – a spirited take on familiar Americana and folk tropes – does much of the same.

Maybe you saw them open for some other local artist like Ron Gallo at a place like Tin Angel or Fergie’s, playing one-off gigs with just frontman/guitarist Mike Collins. Or perhaps you were lucky enough to see them open for the quickly-ascendant English singer-songwriter Laura Marling at the historic Prince Music Theater last year. Either way, their driving hooks, deft harmonies, and impassioned lyrics stayed with you well after the performance. On their new self-released EP Twine, which is officially released on Tuesday, July 15th, (and which initially gets offered to the public tomorrow at an album release show at the Bourbon & Branch), the band presents their clearest manifesto yet: five songs, each more instantaneously catchy than the last. The Key’s Skye Leppo wasn’t kidding when she said that The Gallerist “may just be one of the Philadelphia folk scene’s best kept secrets”, and we suspect that they won’t stay in the shadows much longer.

But right now, Collins and his bandmates – bassist Kai Carter and drummer John Holback – are understandably shrouded in some misconceptions about who they are. This is probably thanks to their name, which has made some people think they’re a one-person act. To be fair, the band name is in the singular, which dates back to the project’s origins as Collins’s solo vehicle in 2011. He still plays some solo acoustic shows, like last night’s at the Tin Angel, as The Gallerist.

“If you think about somebody who owns a gallery or frequents galleries…they really like bringing things together into one place. I liked the concept of someone collecting different things…experiencing different things, collecting experiences,” he explains. The 29-year-old New Jersey native started performing as The Gallerist while living in Boston, where he released the gorgeous A Falling Waltz EP in 2011 as well. When he moved to Philadelphia later that same year for graduate school, he chose to keep the name while looking for other members. Holback came to Collins’s attention via a Craigslist search for a drummer and bassist, while Carter came to their collective attention via his own Craigslist ad nearly a year later. Collins and the 31-year-old Carter played a few shows together as a duo while Holback, 26, was serving as an AmeriCorps volunteer in the Midwest; when he returned, they began playing as a trio and building a slow buzz for their evocative songs and tight musicianship.

The happenstance way in which these three musicians came together is fairly indicative of how a lot of local bands start, but few sustain their chemistry for this long a period of time; one gets the sense, when spending time with them, that their chemistry is completely natural and consolidated over a dedication to craft. This carries over into how they create music, and the collaborative dynamic is important to all of them.

“I’m not making all the decisions in this group. There are sounding boards, and we all discuss what’s going on collectively,” says Collins.

“The Gallerist was a huge transition for me,” adds Carter. “I moved out to Philly and left my previous gig playing for a solo artist, where I got told what to do. I got really burned out on being in some guy’s band and being a hired gun. To be a member of a band, writing harmonies and arranging with Mike. To have more creativity was good for me.” Continue reading →


A Toy Soldier goes solo : Ron Gallo’s Ronny

photo courtesy of the artist

Those who see Philadelphia psych-folk-a-billy-everything band Toy Soldiers in any number of their live shows can speak to some of its most inherently appealing qualities. Their searing energy, channeled into a unique and thoroughly modern take on classic rock n’ roll, makes for a merry time that appeals to myriad show-goers’ innate desires. You can dance, nod your head, raptly observe each twangy guitar lick, scream along to frontman Ron Gallo’s wry and catchy vocals (probably out of tune), throw back bourbon shots, all of the above – Toy Soldiers indulges each one of those whims.

What gets lost in this fray, however, are the more subtle aspects of their sonic imprint that take repeat listens to uncover. Toy Soldiers has always had a slight weirdness to their music, a lyrical and instrumental sort of irreverence that compels them to meld traditions while simultaneously breaking them.

This is largely due to Ron Gallo’s idiosyncratic approach on classic American rock and folk tropes. On Ronny, his debut solo album (released today via his own American Diamond Recordings), Gallo blasts this approach open. What remained subtextual in Toy Soldiers’ songs is thrown front and center in this intriguing head-scratcher of an album, with Gallo’s nasal tenor painting rich narratives of personal experience that are immediately relatable to anybody willing to look past the obvious quirks.

Even before the album was released, Gallo seemed intent on characterizing the Ronny experience around his eccentricities. Continue reading →