It’s been said time and again: the Philly jazz scene is dead. Proof? Last year, Chris’ Jazz Cafe, what should probably be known as THE Philadelphia jazz club, equivocated on a name change with the hopes of drawing larger audiences. Even the best home-grown artists have been known to relocate to Brooklyn in the pursuit of a feasible jazz career. But jazz in Philadelphia is not dead. What I saw last night at the Philadelphia Art Alliance convinced me of it. In fact, it’s very much alive.
In an unlikely marriage of the visual and performing arts, French brothers Zach and Axel Mathieu-Mathias (the former a jazz drummer, the latter a painter) curated “Two Arts – One Story”, an evening of jazz and live painting. Zach has been drumming since his toddler years, and moved to Philadelphia in 2012 to form his own jazz combo, the Zach MAMA Motherhood Band. Featuring predominantly original compositions by Zach and trumpeter Dan Nissenbaum, the sextet dug into 90 minutes of jazz that was at once notably diversified in style and distinctly unique in identity. Several songs, including the all-too-familiar “La Vie En Rose” and Zach’s own “Pork Wapa” (a knock on the classic American mispronunciation of “Pourquoi Pas?”), were infused with Franco-American flavor unique to the Mathieu-Mathias brothers. “Lighthouse”, a Nissenbaum original, evolved into an in-the-pocket hip-hop groove of which Philly’s own Questlove would be proud. At one point, I felt like I could have been down in New Orleans listening to the Rebirth Brass Band. But I wasn’t. I was in Philadelphia, listening to great jazz.
I had heard talk about the insanity of Phish shows since I first began attending concerts. Phish had always been described to me as the best jam band experience since the Grateful Dead, and when I found out that it was going to rain on the first of two sold out Mann Center shows, I knew I was in for a truly unique and memorable first jam band experience.
Parking for the show opened at 9 AM, and by the time I arrived at the Mann, there were tailgaters as far as the eye could see, from the entrance to the picnic areas half a mile away. The night for me began as normal: file in with all the other photographers, socialize for a bit, head to the photo pit. The combination and temperature of the under-cover part of The Mann were unbearable to me, but it didn’t phase the Phish phans for one second, as they passed around and shared water entirely liberally with their fellow concert-goers. One by one as time went on, gargantuan beach balls blew up and made their way all the way down from the lawn to the pit and then back up again. After the beach balls came balloons, glow sticks, and light up balls flying all across the audience.
After about twenty minutes, a booming voice erupted over the monitors, warning terrace and lawn ticket holders that a storm involving hail, powerful gusts of wind, and frequent lightning strikes was converging on The Mann, and the voice advised the ticket holders return to their cars until further notice. However, given that they were at a Phish concert, the phans erupted in cheers at the news of bad weather, entirely ignored the voice over the monitors, and quickly returned to their jovial glow stick throwing state. About ten minutes later, the voice came on again, warning that the storm would arrive in fifteen minutes and it would take approximately that long for phans to get to their cars. Once more, no one seemed to budge. Fifteen minutes later, myself and the other photographers felt mist descending on the pit. Seconds after, we heard screams, and we turned around to find the lawn almost vacant as nearly every phan scattered to find the closest available source of cover, aside from the few ingenious souls who brought bathing suits, ponchos and towels to the gig. After about five minutes of waiting out the storm, the unthinkable happened: The Mann’s main power suddenly shut off, and fourteen thousand people who were previously very happy suddenly were not. We waited for about ten minutes with no update from Phish’s Twitter or Facebook, backup power came back on and cheers erupted from the phans under cover. After more beach ball tossing, the lawn crowd was finally cleared to return and the show got underway around 9:10 PM. After an experience like this, I realized how special the Phish experience was, especially to the phans. At any other outdoor show, fans might have been deterred by the idea of rain or worse. But the Phish phans prevailed through every single obstacle, as nothing was going to drive them away from another night with their jam band heroes.
The actual Phish experience was a similar vein of incredible; from the very first downbeat of the upbeat “Axilla”, every phan was moving and grooving, from the pit to the lawn. The members of Phish themselves weren’t entirely memorable in regard to their stage presence, but that isn’t why people go to Phish shows. Phish’s true strength lies in improvisation and hours upon hours of incessant feel-good grooves. People largely don’t attend Phish shows to idolize band members or sing along to hit choruses; they come to jam, to dance, to be with other phans, and to simply enjoy life. In this regard, Phish undoubtedly delivered, bringing over three hours of pure danceable jams to a loving audience which lapped every jam up. As I explored the crowd after my fifteen minutes in the pit, I found crowds of people mobbing the orchestra aisles dancing as if nothing in the world mattered. I climbed the stairs to the lawn and found many people dancing on the hills by themselves who claimed to have been dancing the entire night, some even before the show started. The crowd, even at the furthest point from the stage, cheered at the end of every guitar and organ solo, and the rowdiness in the pit escalated consistently from the beginning to the end of each set. Jams like the 25:58 long “Fuego” (title track of their new album) and “Walls Of The Cave” were enjoyed unanimously, and highlights for me included “555″ and “Tweezer”.
I expected to have an incredible (but traditional) concert experience from seeing Phish live. Instead, I got a peek into one of the most spectacular feats of jam music I have witnessed, and into the lives of some of the most dedicated, loving fans of any band I’ve ever seen. Below the gallery, check out the set list.
In our rather short history of Folkadelphia, the artist we’ve probably worked with the most is Psalmships. Psalmships is the ever-evolving musical project of Joshua Britton, Bucks Co. resident and all-around good guy. A guy that’s been put in a hard place and perhaps that hard place is just life, existing, and coping with the day-to-day. Human problems blown to cinematic scale by the endless black of night and the tireless workings of the imagination. At least, that’s what he sings about and why we continually gravitate towards finding new ways to bring Britton’s artistry and creativity into the fold of what we’re doing here. Britton is a restless musician, always at work on songs – he’s something like the Robert Pollard of slowcoustic music (did I really just write that phrase?) But it’s true – not even a year ago, Psalmships released the expansive EP Songs For A Red Bird and, about a year before that, Hymn of Lions, his tumbleweed country album (or at least their take on that style). His brand new full-lengthed record I Sleep Alone is the distilled essence of what Britton has been honing in on with his music and writing in recent times; it’s sparsely populated with instruments – a rough acoustic guitar generally acts as forward motion with effected lap steel guitar, keyboards, and atmospherics coloring the scenes. Often, the silence, space, and breaths between words speak as loudly as what Britton is singing. Sure, it’s a deeply emotional trip, sometimes painfully so, but in that sense, it is also cathartic to work through. Instead of giving, you gain with each listen, becoming more solid and stronger for it. Not all music is designed as diversion or cotton candy. This is an album with purpose. On the opening track “You’ll Never See The Morning,” Britton cautions “The night time is so long, it can last your whole life and you’ll never see the morning if you cannot see the light.” From the very start, as dark as I Sleep Alone becomes, it brings the listener to a place where (s)he is most able to look for the light if (s)he is willing to go there. Instead of being lost in the void without purpose or direction, Britton helps us to believe that the darkness is just another side of the light and the light is coming. It’s hopeful because while I sleep alone now, I might not forever.
On his latest session for Folkadelphia, Britton, joined by Brad Hinton and Chelsea Sue Allen, recorded a number of songs from I Sleep Alone. Psalmships, along with Nathan Edwin and Chelsea Sue Allen, will be celebrating the release with a concert at Bourbon and Branch this Friday, July 11th. For even more Folkadelphia & Psalmships collaboration, listen to My Endless Black, a previous session from October 2012.
Though he’s not from here originally, Milton McCauley has a voice, sound and charisma that fits right into the heritage of Philadelphia soul. But even saying “Philly soul” is selling this very talented musician short. Originally from Maryland and currently based in Reading, Milton – an artist who prefers to go just by his first name – draws from an expanse of genres. Produced by Rob Devious (who also plays keyboards in his live band), the album pulls from jazz, pop, hiphop and electronic groove music. The live band that joined us in the WXPN studios this week for a Key Session adds an undeniable rock undercurrent to the mix as well. “Desire” is a pretty solid sonic mission statement, but the progressive swell of “Slippin Dippin” is also captivating, as is the guitar-vocal simplicity of “Emotion Picture.” Listen and download the set below, and see Milton take on the new Dockside Bar at Dave and Buster’s this Saturday the 12th of July; tickets and information on the show can be found here.
Togetherness and unity were certainly in the air pre-Independence Day when American Diamond Recordings hosted their first showcase at Boot & Saddle. The new Philly record label comprised of five local bands celebrated their out-coming with performances from each group, including The Levee Drivers, T.J. Kong & The Atomic Bomb, Ron Gallo, The Lawsuits, and a special set by a band who went by the moniker Eight Legged Prawn. The show was also a celebration of Marley McNamara’s birthday, and most figured out that Eight Legged Prawn was actually one of the bands she manages, The Districts.
It was easy to tell that these artists performing don’t just make music together, they are family.
Rain had just started to pour down as I walked up the steps of an apartment building just a few blocks South of Temple. The basement of this modest converted row home on Broad Street was to play host to a show that even I had no idea would be as incredible as it turned out to be. Hanging out with my friends in Sun Club while waiting for the other bands and more people to show up, the topic eventually turned towards the night’s bill. “Yeah, we’ve been on tour with The Sea Life for a week or so, and I guess there’s two locals,” Shane McCord says, “But then the one band is like going under a different name? I don’t know, they’re from Lancaster or something, someone said they’re getting too big and they wanted to play some smaller shows.” That’s when it hit me: The band unassumingly billed as “8 Legged Prawn” was actually our boys in The Districts.
It has to be fate that the last time I was writing about Maryland’s Sun Club, I envisioned them as a Baltimore parallel to the Districts. Seeing them back-to-back on the same bill – totally at random, and most likely unknown to each other – confirmed that they both share that same fiery youthful passion for making two very unique soundscapes.
The evening kicked off with the experimental rock sounds of New Unison, a recently formed Philly three-piece, playing one of their first shows out. Their mostly instrumental sound of trilling riffs laid over wah’d bass and frenzied drums was interesting in short bursts, and served as a pretty good opener for the few folks who had come early on a Wednesday night, getting people moving without needing to know any lyrics. After a quick teardown and setup, Washington DC’s The Sea Life dug into their set. The basement vibe was perfect for the fuzzy lo-fi sounds of The Sea Life. Songs moved fluidly from mellowed to rowdy, with soaring orchestral bridges. It’s hard to draw a direct comparison to any one band, but elements of Oberhoffer, Local Natives, and other bright young things mixed in.
Philly nu-punks Vivre Sa Vie came out next, and hit the ground running. Breaching the line between band and audience, frontman and lead guitarist Sam Roland would frequently jump in front of his mics stand during one of his rollicking licks, teeth gnashing at the audience. With only one song released, it’s hard to say both exactly what they sound like and how much potential they have, but their energy certainly fit right in with the theme of the night. My boys from Sun Club were up fourth, and brought their fierce summer sensations to the packed and sweaty basement. Even though most people probably didn’t know a word, nobody cared. With crowd friendly choruses full of yips and “Oh, oh!”s, it’s easy to catch the excitement from the Marylanders, and this basement show caught them in fine form. As the set got more energetic, the basement got rowdier, almost into a full-on mosh. With the lights completely off, it was hard to see (and impossible to photograph) their set, but easy to enjoy the energy which filled the space.
It’s hard to tell exactly how many people among the sixty or so people packed into the dark basement knew what band they were truly seeing, that night. As Rob Grote and crew set up and soundchecked briefly, the audience slowly filed back in from smoking on the porch or just getting a breath of fresh air. “Hey, we’re 8 Legged Prawn” Grote mumbled into the mic. Hearing a few laughs, it seems that at least some of us were on the inside of the joke. As the band worked through a rollicking and tight-knit set of favorites, those who knew sang along, and those who didn’t tried to get a closer look at the spectacle that is The Districts. Getting warmed up with the rising swell of “Rocking Chair”, the “ooohs” were a great tool with which to hook the crowd. As the night pressed on past midnight, the Districts were just getting started, and their set played like a “greatest hits” of their short discography. “Funeral Beds” “Long Distance” of course made appearances, and the wailing “Call Box” as well.
Walking away from the night extremely satisfied, the only question on my mind was how exactly was one supposed to know that it was a Districts secret show? For myself, it was a case of being in the right place at the right time; at the same show but to see a different band. If you’d like to see our friends in “8 Legged Prawn” (wink, wink) once again, they’ll be playing Boot & Saddle tonight as a part of the American Diamond Recordings Showcase, alongside Toy Soldier’s Ron Gallo, The Lawsuits and TJ Kong & The Atomic Bomb.
Photo by Laura Jane Brubaker | http://laurajanebrubaker.tumblr.com/
Heyward Howkins might be a fairly new addition to the City of Brotherly Love’s music scene, but front man and songwriter John Howkins is certainly no greenhorn. Howkins gained attention in the early aughts playing lead guitar with The Trouble With Sweeney and he is also a founding member of The Silver Ages, the Philly-centric men’s choral group that puts on notable performances (especially during the holidays). As Heyward Howkins, Howkins and his band have released two impeccable albums – 2012′s The Hale & Hearty and late 2013′s Be Frank, Furness. What continues to draw us here at Folkadelphia back to Howkins’ music is his immense storytelling powers, wrought with detail, witty wordplay, clever turns of phrase, and, the best in my opinion, references that give a wink and a nudge to Philly. Plus, we like the “Be Frank” part, as we formerly ran a record label of the same name.
What can we say about Heyward Howkins that WXPN & The Key’s John Vettese has not already written in his excellent review of Be Frank, Furness? Vettese wrote that The Hale and Hearty caught our ear “with both evocative word choices and clever imagery laid gracefully atop breeze acoustic-rooted instrumentation” and that “Howkins is a musician who likes to give his listeners a thing or two to chew on.” On this latest album, the music end of things is fleshed out, nearly as expansive as the lyrical content. As for me, I often seem to get the line from the title track stuck in my mind, “Even cut brandy is carefully fortified, but our actions still mortifying. And the orange line nags with champa and a twist cap wine, but above we’re all mortified.” That’s how this record works on you; pictures become ingrained in the imagination.
It was fresh off the release of Be Frank, Furness that we welcomed Howkins and his band – Josh Newman (bass), Vince Tampio (melodica, trumpet, vocals), and Erik Schmidt (drums) into the WXPN Performance Studio to track song for the latest album and more.