Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Chris Kasper tribute to John Lennon

The Beatles had their first British hit (Love Me Do) in 1962. Eighteen years later, one half of their timeless writing partnership was assassinated in New York City. Amazingly, it has now been twenty-nine years since John Lennon's death, but his impact on popular music is still profound. To commemorate this tragedy, top Philadelphia singer-songwriter Chris Kasper has recorded a cover of Lennon's "Mother" and posted it to his Myspace page.

The Beatles group and solo influence is so diverse, with everyone from heavy metal to country acts drawing inspiration from their catalogue. Acoustic music aficionados can point to such song's as "Blackbird" and "Cry Baby Cry." They would also do well to look to the first solo albums by both Lennon and McCartney. McCartney's eponymous effort is a stripped down offering that produced such classics as "Maybe I'm Amazed" and "That Would Be Something"; it's no coincidence that this album was the most heavily featured in McCartney's landmark appearance on the MTV series Unplugged.

Lennon's debut solo album (discounting experimental earlier offerings) was the brilliant Plastic Ono Band LP. Featuring Ringo Starr on drums and Klaus Voormann (designer of the Beatles' Revolver cover and a friend of Lennon's since the band's Hamburg days) on bass, the album was a raw and personal effort, heavily influenced by Lennon's experiments with primal scream therapy. Plastic Ono Band features an acoustic player's favorite in "Working Class Hero" and the sublime "God" before culminating in "Mother."

"Mother" is a deeply personal exploration of Lennon's feelings towards his mother, who died in 1958 (two years after McCartney lost his own mother, a shared experience that would bond the two young musicians). Kasper's version of the song looks more toward the version on Lennon's anthology, forsaking the album version's driving piano for a more subtle acoustic guitar. The result is a subdued but still powerful tribute to the great songwriter by one of the preeminent names of the Philly acoustic music scene.

Listen to it while you can: myspace.com/chriskasper.

Upcoming Kasper gig in Philly:
December 26th at the Tin Angel (with the Great Unknown)

Monday, November 23, 2009

Cool Illinois Video

Illinois are a cool Philadelphia band who've had national recognition for a few years now. I first came across them in about 2003/04 going to see my friend's band in this short-lived monthly arts-music revue above an old city club. I forget the name, but I remember the band. They stuck out among other good acts with a clever use of banjo in a indie rock setting, good singing, and infectious hooks. They were the reason I joined myspace: so I could listen to their songs and see their photos. (Unlike me, they still keep up their site: www.myspace.com/illinois.) I've kept an eye on them ever since, only catching them live once or twice, most recently at a great show at the World Cafe earlier in the month. They've been on Lollapalooza, MTV, and all over the place really. This is a cool long-playing video used to promote their last album, The Adventures of Kid Catastrophe, which they released as a series of EPs monthly until early this year.

The Adventures of Kid Catastrophe, Illinois (the band)

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Espers live on BBC 6

The Espers will be playing live on the British Broadcasting Channel's Radio 6, 2pm-4pm (EST; 7pm-9pm GMT). They will be featured on the Marc Riley show as today's "turn" (a regional English colloquialism for live entertainment).

Description from BBC site:

"Tonight's live delight or band as we usually call the turn is Espers.
They usually reside in Philadelphia and are described in the press as indie folk.
The band is comprised of singer-songwriter Greg Weeks, Meg Baird and Brooke Sietinsons, Otto Hauser, Helena Espvall and Chris Smith.
The band have released 4 album over the last 5 years, The Weed Tree was a covers album they released in 2005, all the other albums have been self titled Espers, Espers 11 and Espers 111, I'm sure Marc will have something to say about the amount of time and effort that went into choosing their album titles. You can only find out by tuning in!!!" Listen here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/6music/

The Espers are currently in the middle of a European tour, but will back in Philadelphia on December 3rd for a show at Johnny Brenda's before heading off for other U.S. dates. They recently released an excellent new album, Espers III. Listen to them here on their myspace page.

Note: The Espers' three- or four-song performance was very well-received by Marc Riley and the audience. They should expect a fan bump in England, although they probably shouldn't have shied away from their obvious British-folk influences, as they did during one of their interview segments.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Review: Tim and the 23s, "Dislocated"

Dislocated album cover by Tim and the 23s
I was sent a copy of a CD by a San Diego rock band, not the obvious review choice for a site dedicated to Philadelphia acoustic music. But like the live Papertrees show (see below), this is a music experience of authenticity and unpretentiousness, a stripped-down recording with acoustic sensibility.

Fronted by songwriter and guitarist Tim Malley, a exile from the Philadelphia coffee shop circuit whose previous work includes a stint in the shock-rock Whiskey Dicks, which also featured Philly folk stalwart Chris Kasper. Kasper also guested on Malley's debut LP, 2006's Tim and the 23s, an credible effort made possible by the input of strong players from the Philly and San Diego music scenes. In the wake of this recording, Malley put together a tight and talented three-piece band with bassist Chris Dutton and drummer Matt Liebowitz. They hit the San Diego bars (for gigs and otherwise) and embarked on several regional tours, forging a close musical bond of straight-up rock with a simple song-centered ethos that shines through on Dislocated (Swell Music, 2009).

From its opening, Dislocated hits with the honest hedonistic rock of "This Party's Gotta Woo!" The lyrics on this and songs like the excellent "Been to California" (with it's great fadeout sheet "I was a mess") and "Gotta Go to Work" express a world-weary knowing: these guys have been around, lived a fun, hard life, are touched by the world they inhabit, but know not to take things too seriously.

Other entries reveal a vibrant sense of humor. Malley references local heroes Ween with his line "didn't believe the roses were free even when they were given to me," and the influence of the "brothers" from New Hope comes across on songs like "Breakfast," the sincere country-folk-rock "Chained to the Line," (co-written by Dan May, now bassist for London pop-punk stars the Spivs [watch their new video here] and for Atomic Suplex, the UK's answer to Bob Log III) and the reggae-esque "Gale Force Winds" and "Mr. Bob Todd." This light-hearted sensibility veers into un-pc territory on "Bad One" (sample lyric: "I slept with your sister, I found her down at the pound") and "Squeel Like a Pig", but never drifts into offensiveness.

Where Malley's debut effort was blighted by some inconsistent production and musicianship, the tight musical comradeship of this 23s iteration perfectly backs up the honest hedonistic rock. Leibowitz's intelligent, well-stated drumming and Dutton's earthy bass-playing combine in a grungey interplay, an ideal platform for Malley's excellent guitar work (see tracks 3, 4, 7, and 8, among others) and strong, forceful vocals.

The striped down sound, unrepentant rock, and existential/humorous lyrics come together perfectly on Dislocated's high-quality final track, "Neighborhood," Malley and co's homage to their friendly SoCal beach town. (Sample lyric: "my friend named Karen's got a friend named Larry and he sleeps on her couch.") When the band sing "we all live in the neighborhood," they make you wish you did too. A Philadelphia return is eagerly anticipated.

Band: Tim and the 23s
Album: Dislocated (Swell Music, 2009)
Produced by: Tim and the 23s
Engineered by: Chris Dutton, Tim Malley, Kyle Thompson, and Deborah Reeves
Mixed by: Kyle Thompson
Engineered by: Alastair Spitzley

See Timandthe23s.com for more information.

"Been to California" from the album Dislocated by Tim and the 23s, live at the Radio Room

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Papertrees at Clark Park Festival

I unfortunately haven’t been making it out to see much music recently, but I did catch a great set by the Papertrees at the Clark Park Festival in September 20th. I’ve heard a bunch about this band and this was one act I’d been waiting to see. They are often on bills with Chris Kasper, Joshua Park, and other top names from the Philadelphia acoustic music scene (see below). They feature one of Philly’s best guitarists in Carl Cheeseman (was he playing at Clark Park? I wasn’t too close to the stage; whoever it was was great, really well considered use of the instrument), and one of the Philadelphia music scene’s best keyboardists in Andrew Lipke (he’s also a good solo performer). They have created a smoothly infectious blend of sounds. The instrumentation is almost solely electric, but they retain an almost acoustic folksiness, combined with a hip rock sensibility that has echoes of Cat Power and modern rockers like Wolf Parade and Clap Your Hands.

Papertrees is fronted by a talented female singer in Allison Polans, she has a versatile voice ideal for the band’s sincere sound blend. The songwriting is varied and of a consistent quality. They are playing a couple gigs this month, go catch them, I’m glad I did.

Papertrees Shows in Philadelphia October 2009 (as listed on their myspace page)
October 10th: House show with Joshua Park, Sweetheart Parade, and Liz Fullerton.
October 28th: North Star Bar with Chris Kasper and Caught in Motion.

Papertrees live in 20088

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Espers live at Penn Treaty Park

As I was saying in my last post, I saw an excellent show by Philly’s great psychedelic folk band the Espers, live at Penn Treaty Park yesterday as part of their Wednesday music series. Rain was forecast, but it held out and the band played on into the dusk.

I haven’t seen the Espers in a few years. The last show I remember was an ideal setting for the atmospheric folk-rock style the band has perfected: a late night show in the Franklin Institute’s Fels Planetarium. The audience lay on the ground, watched the stars and lights and listened to the Esper’s experimental doodling. Great. (The night also featured a Secret Cinema showing, I think they do similar events at the FI every year, if so it’s worth checking out).

For their Penn Treaty Park show, the Espers seemed to play a more acoustic-based, traditionally folky show than I remembered from years’ past. This was a welcome change and fit perfectly with the laidback outdoors vibe of this hip Fishtown waterfront park, a place that’s increasingly putting itself on the Philly social map with free shows, fairs, and pickup games of ultimate frisbee and the like. If this is the current style of the Espers, still freeform, but more rootsy, I’ll have to check them out on more occasions. Meg Baird and Greg Weeks have always had a good chemistry, and together with talented bassist Chris Smith and a collection of other well-matched instrumentalists, the Espers deserve any acclaim that comes their way. Recently, there’s been quite a lot.

The opening act, The Oubliette Ensemble, fit the bill well with a set of compositions that would fit into the British folk scene anytime in the last several centuries (one song was announced as “this is a piece from the 14th century”). Their loose playing was a perfect intro for the Espers. The Oubliette Ensemble should make a welcome addition to any bill.

Unfortunately, this was the last show of the season at PTP, we hope this great summer music series returns next year.

The Espers live, "Something Different"

Neither the Espers nor the Oubliette Ensemble have any upcoming shows on their myspace pages (click band name to access).

Shows at Penn Treaty Park

Saw an excellent show by Philly’s great psychedelic folk band the Espers, live at Penn Treaty Park. I’ve been going to this Fishtown green space a bunch recently for their free Wednesday concerts. A few weeks ago I saw Hunter/Gatherer and War on Drugs, two pretty good Philadelphia bands.

Hunter/Gatherer started with some great female sung compositions, featuring the powerful voice of Audrey Zelia and some great guitar interplay between Zelia and bandmate Jesse Hale. I liked their latter songs featuring Hale on vocals a little less than the earlier songs and found myself a little distracted by the end of their set.

When indie rock outfit War on Drugs started playing I was racking my brain trying to figure out what Bob Dylan song they were covering. I know the famed Minnesota folkster’s catalogue pretty damn well and this was an unknown song that seemed to be unmistakenly Dylanesque. As the set went on, I realized that it was not a Dylan song, but just one of many Dylanesque numbers by this Philly band. Theirs was a highly enjoyable set, perfect for the outdoor venue.

I would like to call out War on Drugs, and other Philadelphia bands, for their decision to play “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen. As everyone who plays original sets should know, there is a list of songs that should not be covered by any band ever. “Freebird” is the clichéd example, “All Along the Watchtower” is another exemplar of this. It’s a song by a incredible recording artist (Bob Dylan), that was covered in its most perfect form by the premier electric guitarist of pop music (Jimi Hendrix). You should not attempt this. I’ve come to believe that “Hallelujah” is another one of these songs. It’s by the Canadian poet-musician Leonard Cohen (his version at the Academy of Music this Spring was sublime), but it has been done by numerous great singers, including Rufus Wainwright, K.D. Lang, Bob Dylan, Jon Bon Jovi (!), Alexandra Burke (British Pop Idol winner!), and Bono (!!!). Jeff Buckley provided perhaps the best interpretation with his 1994 cover. Picking from a Leonard Cohen catalogue that includes many touching an brilliant numbers, there is no reason to choose this song to cover. I saw Hoots and Hellmouth do it recently. Well, but still…. no more Hallelujah, okay?

Hunter/Gatherer at Penn Treaty Park from Mark Schoneveld on Vimeo.

Neither Hunter/Gatherer nor War on Drugs have any upcoming Philly shows on their myspace pages (click on band name to access).

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

"It's A Living" by Rachel Andes

Video of "It's A Living" by Rachel Andes with Evan Gist and Christopher Munden.
filmed by Jon Gangwer.

Camera (a) - preview from Jon Gangwer on Vimeo.

See the original here: http://vimeo.com/5619799.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Bevin Caulfield at the Hair of the Dog Craft Market

Spent a good part of Sunday at the Hair of the Dog Craft Market, a fair sponsored by the Philadelphia Independent Craft Market and held at the 941 Theater in Northern Liberties. It was a pretty good event, with some quality crafts, clothing, and books vendors, free PBR (after a $2 entry), an a full line-up of musical acts. I didn't catch most of the acts, one of those that I mostly missed seemed pretty good, one seemed crowded (in numbers and in sound). The act I did catch was one I saw for the first time last month at the Italian Market Festival.

In two performances and in some YouTube and Myspace listening, Bevin Caulfield has quickly become one of my favorite Philly singers. She has a plaintive, confident voice and some rhythmic and engaging songs.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Heirloom and Brendan O'Neill at Skylight 307

Skylight 307 is a hip new guerrilla art gallery above Artist and Craftsman in Old City Philadelphia. It is being used as an occasional art space and low-key performance venue by the staff of the great art store below while the landlord looks for a permanent tenant. They have some cool First Friday events, with new art, a talented jazz group, and free wine and beer. Check it out: it’s at 307 Market Street, upstairs.

Last Sunday, June 21, I spent father’s day night at this space listening to a series of acoustic duos. When I say acoustic, I mean acoustic. Apart from a few songs at the beginning of Heirloom’s set, when they used an electric guitar and a keyboard with practice amps, all the acts played unplugged, no mikes. The sound was incredible --- this space has awesome acoustics and begs to be used as a similar performance space soon.

The first act was a great male and female duo now known as Heirloom (previously Twilight Rookery, they changed their name to avoid any connection with that stupid vampire series). It is fronted by multi-instrumentalist Meggie Morganelli, a classically trained middle school music teacher. Meggie has an incredibly powerful voice and a great appreciation of English and Appalachian folk music. Their covers of these tunes blended perfectly with their well-crafted original songs. Guitarist Stefan Zajic writes the lyrics and plays a pleasant finger-picking style. Meggie switched from electric piano to dulcimer to guitar and back to dulcimer for a rousing folk-inspired rendition of Prince’s “Purple Rain,” their closing tune. She has a natural folky beauty that is a perfect look for the duo, and for the show she wore her hair in a classic hairband to really look the part. These guys are talented folksters and deserve more praise on the Philly acoustic music scene. Look out for them.

The middle act, Rachel Andes, an extremely talented singer, also played as an acoustic duo. She was followed by Brendan O’Neill. Brendan was backed by talented bassist/guitarist Kevin Voightsberger on guitar. Kevin’s played with a bunch of successful groups in many genres --- funk, jam, reggae, Irish, and folk. I know him from his days with Bradsfield Martini and his work with Illinois singer-songwriter Peter Adriel. Brendan plays really accessible and catchy original songs that brought to mind such acts as Elliot Smith, Coldplay, Oasis, and Bright Eyes. He’s poppy but sincere, with an emotive voice, chord-driven melodies, and a strong presence. Kevin is a great guy to work with and I think he would benefit to play with a group of modest backing musicians who would give him a solid backing without overtaking his pleasant songs.

I forgot to ask the acts about upcoming shows, but I know Heirloom are playing the Tritone July 19th and I’m sure they both have other shows coming up.

Brendan O'Neill at Fergie's

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Sharon van Etten at the 2nd Street Festival

For those who braved the rain, the first annual 2nd Street Festival in Northern Liberties proved to be a pretty good day. Yards was selling booze, there were a handful of good vendors, and a stage with some fairly good bands. I'm repeatedly struck by how much NLibs as changed in the decade or so since I was a regular at the 700 club. It is a different place, and though we miss the Ministry of Information, it still has a core of good bars. The area along Second Street, Liberties Walk, and the new Piazza, is now a veritable urban village. I like my visits.

I didn't catch the names of most of the bands, but there were some good acts playing that indie sound that has become de rigeur listening among my hipster friends in the last few years, the best practitioners are bands like TV on the Radio, Spoon ... that kind of thing. They were good but somewhat unremarkable.

The day was kicked off by a more subdued but no less powerful songstress named Sharon van Etten. She played a solo show with a clean-sounding electric guitar, showing off a beautiful voice, elegant songwriting, and a steady stage presence. My friend compared her to Sandy Denny, and Sharon talked to me after the show about British folk music like Fairport Convention and Richard and Linda Thompson, so the influence is there. She has a delightfully idiosyncratic yet accessible folk sound, like a solo version of Philadelphia's great psych pop band, the Espers (they are still around) and her melodies are enticingly strong.

Sharon hails from Brooklyn, and seems to be a regular on their folk-type circuits, but you may hear more about her here. Her first album, "Because I Was In Love" (she saw my face when she told me the title and assured me it was a line from a Richard Brautigan poem), comes from the Philly label Language of Stone and she hoped to make it to our provincial hinterland more in upcoming months. She should stay a little while.

Sharon van Etten playing "For You"

Monday, June 8, 2009

Philadelphia Songwriters Project finals: MilkBoy

[Addition: Article on Philly2Philly.com is now up: click here]

By kind invitation of Dena Marchiony, I attended the finals of the Philadelphia Songwriters Project, held on Sunday June 7 at MilkBoy coffeeshop in Ardmore. As Dena told me in our conversation last week, being from Philadelphia is not a requirement for entry into the contest or membership in the group, though most of the finalists are from this general area. (The editor of the journal Philadelphia Poets, which is based in the city but publishes work from writers across the world, told me she thought of "Philadelphia" as a concept as well as a place.) Nevertheless, this was a great opportunity to hear some of the area's best emerging artists.

After receiving over 200 submissions, the Project's judges had narrowed the field to just twelve, each of whom got the chance to play two songs to a packed MilkBoy house. The six winners (marked with an asterisk: *) were chosen by a ballot of the audience. Most of the performers were singer songwriters playing acoustic guitars and singing, usually with one or two backing musicians. There were also a couple pianists and a jazz duo. The general uniformity of instrumentation and style was not a drawback to a listener who enjoys honest acoustic music, and presented a good opportunity to compare the artists on their songwriting. Some thoughts on each performer follow.

Jim Maher: The concert began with two songs by Jim Maher, who set the tone with his driving strumming on an acoustic guitar. Jim is in his 40s or 50s I'd guess, and his songs had the feel of a past era in folky songwriting, a polished tone and honest but dramatic songwriting. A talented younger violinist was a wise addition to this short set that never really took off.

*Kelly Ruth: Jim was followed by Kelly Ruth, who performed in a trio as Kelly and the Ruths. Kelly makes an unusual frontwoman (is this a word? is there a gender neutral substitute?), playing a stand-up bass accompanied by an acoustic guitarist and a drummer playing a single snare drum with a brush. Her song "Sunny Day Love," which you can hear on her myspace page, was a gentle song that featured some well-considered guitar playing. Kelly's performance earned her a deserved spot as one of the Project finalists, but her style was perhaps a little too unstructured for my tastes.

Jon Dichter: The third performer, Jon Dichter, was described as "gypsy meets dylan." Over the years, I've played a fair number of open mikes and can testify that two songs are precious little to establish a rapport with the audience and to get warmed up. Jon was the artist who struck me as most hampered by the format. His dirgy Paul Simon-esque storytelling songs gave a glimpse of a strong songwriter and performer; I think he might play a good show but he failed to establish himself in two songs. His second song, about the late baseball announcer Harry Kallas, was perhaps an attempt to connect to the audience, but the lyrics were lacking in profundity. He has a good voice and look though, and his accordion accompaniment added some tasteful additions.

*Dawn Iulg: My notes from the night are out of order, but I think Dawn Iulg went next. A winner from last year's contest, Dawn was aided in her successful quest for a repeat by some all-star accompaniment. Her (stand-up) bassist, Jeff Hiatt, played in the great Philly urbangrass project the Lowlands (which featured Chris Kasper and Adrien Reju, among others); he is now a member of Chris Kasper's excellent band and has played with other talented local musicians such as Johnny Miles. Her guitarist, Carl Cheeseman, plays with the Papertrees and Joshua Park's band. It would be hard to go wrong with such accompaniment, and indeed there was some excellent coordination between the three musicians. I was struck by Dawn's voice and good looks when I saw her a few months ago singing back-up for Chris Kasper (see earlier post). As a frontwoman, she was relaxed and confident, with a good stage presence and a strong voice. Her compositions, "Good Enough" and "Jealous Mind" (the former can be heard on her myspace page and her EP, Waking Hours) had strong changes and communicated tangible emotional drama. She fully deserved her place among the winners.

Leon Mitchell: The next songwriter, pianist Leon Mitchell, provided a nice change of pace with his quality jazz number, "To Lady," a tribute to legendary singer Billie “Lady” Holiday. According to Leon, the song was begun just after Lady's death in 1959 and finished in a ten-minute spurt of inspiration in 2002. The composition was sung by an "amazing singer" (in the words of another audience member), Ella Gahnt. Both the vocal style and piano playing provided a lot of space. Jazz isn't my favorite style of music, but I was quite surprised that Leon wasn't among the winners. He and Ella represent a tradition of great Philly jazz players (take a look at his resume) and their exclusion was probably more indicative of the tastes of the MilkBoy audience (myself included), than their considerable talent.

Karen & Amy Jones: Next in my notes are Karen and Amy Jones, a sister duo I heard recently on XPN Local. You can tell these two have been singing and writing together for some time; their vocal harmonies were excellent and cover a wide register range. They gave a powerful performance, with strong guitar strumming and lead vocals. The songs didn't leave me with a memorable refrain but were of a memorably high quality. There were some other quality performers, but I expect the sisters were justifiably disappointed not to be among the winners.

*Dante Bucci: The Jones sisters' were followed by the most unique act of the afternoon. Dante Bucci played two songs on a melodic percussion instrument I have never heard before: the hang (pronounced "hung"). The first, "Evolution," can be heard on his myspace page. Listen to it: it is beautifully soothing and relaxing, if perhaps a bit new age-y. According to Bucci, the hang was invented just eight years ago by a steel pan player. Each note that rings on the hang activates neighboring notes to create a dreamy hypnotic sound. There only about 5,000 of these instruments in existence. (Dante, who has a physique and looks reminiscent of Rafael Nadal, also plays other rhythmic instruments. I think, although I’m not sure, that he plays on the video I posted of Bevin Caulfield; and the congo rhythm really makes that song. I saw him play percussion for Mutlu at the World Café. I went to the show with a date who knew Mutlu's girlfriend and I was somewhat underwhelmed, until, that is, the band played a devastatingly good cover of a devastatingly good song, "Freedom of 76" by Ween, one of the best bands to ever come out of the Philadelphia area (they hail from New Hope). Apparently, Dante persuaded Mutlu to play this song, Ween's tribute to the City of Brotherly Love. It's an ambitious cover, but they pulled it off superbly, so I have him to thank for making an evening of mine, a few months ago.)

Ross Bellenoit: er, my notes seem to be missing for Ross Bellenoit and for one other performer. I’ll update this entry if/when they are found. Ross is an excellent guitarist who played with all three performers in the show I wrote about at the Philadelphia Art Alliance: Chris Kasper, Birdie Busch, and Carsie Blanton. He’s been doing his own singer/songwriter act for about eight months now and shows considerable potential. I’ll keep an eye on him; he was a bit tentative as a singer, but he is extremely talented musically and runs with some great songwriters, so I predict his solo act will only get better. He also seemed like a genuinely nice guy.

*Andrea Carlson: I lost my notes for Andrea Carlson, but I remember her as a talented but somewhat timid performer. She played a virtuoso classical guitar, and her songs were jazzy and complex, reminiscent of Joni Mitchell’s songwriting. Fully deserving of her place among the winners.

Brian Dilts: If they were giving prizes for the most good-natured performer of the afternoon, the fresh-face, ginger-haired Brian Dilts would be a shoo-in. I spoke to this friendly pianist after the show. He told me he has been studying classical piano since age nine and currently teaches piano at Drexel. He’s been “working on this singer-songwriter thing” for three or four years, and brings his strong piano playing to a quality show. Although his singing is at times hesitant and the songs lacked real catch in the refrain, they are powerful dirgy tunes that would not be out of place on an Elliot Smith b-side.

*Angella Irwin: Angella Irwin was another performer to whom it was an absolute pleasure to talk: she is genuinely sweet, intelligent, and attractive both onstage and off. This was not her first performance for the Project — she did a showcase at the MilkBoy for them in 2007 — and she had obviously put some thought into her short set. For the first song, a gentle number called “Sangria” (you can hear it on her myspace page) she just sang a solid piano line by keyboardist John Stenger. Angella described the song to me as taking place on two levels: it is about woman and how she is interacting with her world and it is about everybody’s relationship with themselves and their many internal contradictions. (That made more sense to me when she said it than when I typed it… perhaps my notes are poor.) For her second song, “Gingerbread Man,” she played guitar and was accompanied by a talented Jason Fraticelli on stand-up bass and Francois Zayas on the percussive cajon. The resulting sound was described by a fellow audience member as “folky Alanis.” I’m not sure what Angella would think of that, but in any case, the juxtaposition of two styles and instrumentations made for a rich small set. I’d like to see her play a full show; she stood out for me as one of the highlights of the concert.

*Adam Swink: The final performer of the afternoon was the youngest and the one who had traveled the furthest. Adam Swink is just 18 and shows a precocious talent: he released his first EP at age 14 and now has a second. In two songs, he showed his talents as a lead singer, harmony singer, pianist, and guitarist; the only area he could use work is in his lyrics, but hey, he's 18. His first number was an energetic emo-style number played on piano. Adam hails from DC and joined the Project at his father-manager’s suggestion. For his second number, he brought fellow Fairfax County singer Chelsea Lee, a talented solo artist in her own right. Chelsea and Adam met through their vocal teacher, a lucky person. They make a good duo. Adam is slender and looks like an emo pop star, with longish blond hair; Chelsea has an beautiful earthy, almost hippie look and a great voice. Their harmonies were organic — perfect without being too perfect, if that makes sense. Adam is off to Nashville in the Fall to study music business. His field of choice is one realm where great talent and committed motivation are no guarantors of success, but these are two performers with lots of potential. It’s too bad they aren’t Philadelphians, it’d be nice to track their progress.

There you have it. Go see the six winners: Dawn Iulg, Dante Bucci, Adam Swink, Angella Irwin, Andrea Carlson, and Kelly Ruth at the Kimmel Center on June 20, at the Bethlehem Musik Festival August 6-9, or the Philadelphia Folk Festival August 14. I’m going to use these notes and my interview with Dena to write an article for philly2philly.com, which I’ll put a link to when it appears.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Philadelphia Songwriting Project interview

The finals of the Philadelphia Songwriters Project's 2009 songwriting contest are this Sunday (6/7) at 4pm at the MilkBoy in Ardmore. I had the opportunity to talk to Dena Marchiony, executive director of the Project, about the organization, the contest, and the Philly music scene in general. This is an edited transcript of our interview. For more information visit www.phillysongwriters.com.

Philly Acoustic Reviews: Could you tell me a little bit about the Philadelphia Songwriters Project: How did you get started?
Dena Marchiony: We started in November 2002. It was me and my business partner, Stu Shames. We’re both songwriters and we were pondering the plight of all the people who were so talented and not getting any traction. This was seven years ago and things were very different in the Philadelphia music scene.
PAR: How so?
DM: I think the scene has gone through peaks and troughs, and this was during a trough. In the 1960s, when I was growing up — and I’m dating myself here — there were lots of clubs and other venues where emerging artists could play. In 2002 things were different for new artists. Our first show was in a black box theater, the Adrienne, which was a purposeful choice because we wanted the music to be center stage. For about two and half years we did a series of shows on Sunday evenings — a laid-back time when artists generally aren’t working their day jobs and when we wouldn’t be in competition with bars. We also did a weekly show at smaller venues for emerging artists, they were one step up from an open mike — each performer got four songs. We’ve since gone through lots of evolution, trying to figure out how to nurture and how to be a resource for performing artists.
PAR: What other programs have you sponsored?
DM: We run a mentoring program that started off giving business advice to performers and moved into different areas — one year we focused on the artists’ inner life and we had a life coach working with performers. Last year we had established songwriters mentoring on the art of songwriting. The program is on hiatus this year. We’ve also brought artists and workshops to schools and done innovative festivals and presentations like Beyond Measure. This started as a songwriting contest. We chose 12 songs in different genres and set them for a choir or vocal ensemble. It resulted in a great concert in 2007 and a CD the following year.
PAR: What are some of the aims of the Songwriting Project?
DM: Philadelphia is a great music city, it really is. It often gets overlooked and New York gets so much attention, but we saw that Philadelphia has its own flavor and its own great music scene. We want to help develop the talented artists and make them part the cultural landscape of the city.
PAR: How is the Project organized? How many people work on it?
DM: We are a 501C3, so donations to the Project are tax deductible. We're all volunteer. I’m full-time we a have a board of directors who also contribute. We’d like be able to have a paid staff and to pay our artists. Maybe one day.
PAR: Pending funding.
DM: Pending funding.
PAR: How long have you doing songwriting contests?
DM: I think we’ve done contests since 2004. We’ve had many different prize packages, generally not cash: the Beyond Measure concert and CD, one year two performers got a place at the XPN Festival; last year winners performed at the Bethlehem Music Festival.
PAR: What are the prizes this year?
DM: The six winners will perform at the Kimmel Center, at the Bethlehem Music Festival, and at the Philadelphia Folk Festival. Plus we have an assortment of smaller prizes from our sponsors.
PAR: How many entries did you get?
DM: Over 200. From that we chose 12 finalists, who will play this Sunday at the MilkBoy. Six winners will be chosen by the audience and by a smaller panel of judges.
PAR: Are all the entries from Philadelphia?
DM: Most of them, but we had entries from as far away as Ireland and California. Last year we had a winner from Illinois who drove all the way for the final and then back for the show at the Bethlehem Music Festival. This year all the finalists are from this general area, except for one from D.C. That’s just how it turned out.
PAR: Have you had any previous winners go on to modest fame?
DM: A winner from last year, I think she played as Ali Kat, recently went on tour with David Bromberg. And we’ve seen people from our other events go on to great things. Birdie Busch played at one of our first shows. This was before she even played her own guitar, she had someone else playing for her. Mutlu and Amos Lee played with us. Mutlu was discovered by XPN at one of our shows. Sharon Little played with us; she just got off tour with Alison Krause and Robert Plant.
PAR: Did you grow up in Philadelphia?
DM: I wasn’t born here, but I grew up and have spent most of my life in the Wynnewood/ Ardmore area. I grew up in a time when there was an amazing music scene in the city: the old Electric Factory; Second Fret, a great place that closed in perhaps the early 70s, it was around 19th and Sansom if I remember correctly and Joni Mitchell and other major acts played there; the Main Point; numerous phenomenal venues and some great musicians. It was inspiring to grow up in that environment.
PAR: You mentioned that seven years ago it was a bad time for the Philadelphia music scene. How have things changed since then?
DM: There’s so much more opportunity, a greater appreciation and focus on original music. I think having some major people come out of Philadelphia and make it to the next level in performing is inspiring. There’s an incredibly deep talent pool in the city, it’s almost an embarrassment of riches. It has really blossomed and people are into it. I wouldn’t say we started it, but we’ve been lucky to be at the head of the wave. When we started there was the Tin Angel and the Point and that was about it. Artists used to complain that there was nowhere to play. Now there are many more venues where emerging artists can be heard. There are some great studios and producers. It’s an awesome music town.
PAR: Are there certain attributes that Philadelphia musicians share?
DM: It’s not like the time of Gamble and Huff when you had twenty or so artists doing a “Philly sound.” There’s just a general high quality of musicians and artists. At the show on Sunday we’ll have everything from an instrumentalist playing a Hang, a percussion instrument that looks like a spaceship from a 1950s movie, to standard jazz, to mixes of genres.
PAR: What are some of the future plans for the Project?
DM: This was supposed to be a year of hiatus, but of course there’s always things going on. We’re going through a period of reevaluation. One of the biggest issues is funding. This was a year that hit every arts organization hard. I knew there would be a learning curve the first year of two of the Project as we introduced the concept to philanthropists, but I didn’t realize how very hard it would be. People always hear about us and say “that’s really great; I love what you’re doing,” but that doesn’t translate to donations. It’s something we have to focus on. But I can’t really tell you what our future plans are because they are still being cooked.
PAR: Thanks for your time Dena. I’m looking forward to Sunday.
DM: See you there.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Hoots & Hellmouth, almost

I went to see the excellent Hoots & Hellmouth at Johnny Brendas in Fishtown last night for the second night of their cd release party for their new album, Holy Open Secret. The song "What Good Are Ploughshares" from this album has been on their myspace site for a while and it is excellent; I was looking forward to hearing the whole thing.

The show was sold out. Texts to the band yielded no tickets. I hung out and drank with some friends downstairs. I heard the show the night before was excellent, and last night probably was too. That's all there is to report. Oh well.

They are going on tour all around the eastern half of the United States; there are no Philly dates on their calendar.

What I missed: Hoots & Hellmouth live, playing "What Good Are Ploughshares" at last year's Philadelphia Folk Festival

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Great Unknown and Bevin Caulfield at the Italian Market Festival

Took a stroll down Ninth Street for a sandwich, a canolli, and some people watching and found myself at the Connie's Ric Rac stage close to Pat's and Geno's (and near the great Rim Cafe). Caught the second half of a quality set by the Great Unknown, a rocking local acoustic outfit based in West Philly. They are fronted by the enthusiastic Todd Henton, who has a great voice and real skills on the mouth organ but the annoyingly affected style of playing with a trouser leg pulled up like he's about to ride a bicycle. The band is tight and rootsy, and they always seem like they are having fun, which is pretty infectious. A good outdoorsy band. Their next Philly show is June 27th at the Gorgas Park Festival in Manayunk.

The Great Unknown were followed by an act I hadn't heard before but will be sure to check out again: Bevin Caulfield and her band. Bevin is a beautiful singer, with a sexy and emotive voice and a good backing band. The drummer kept almost a hip hop beat that suited the songs. Bevin played a solid acoustic guitar and another pretty girl, perhaps her sister judging by looks, added some well considered backing vocals. I see from her myspace page (which has a link for a good cover of the admittedly over-covered l.cohen song "hallelujah") that she has a show May 22nd at the Tin Angel. I have a gig that night or I'd be there. There are also some other area shows on her calendar.

Bevin Caulfield live

Friday, May 15, 2009

Philly Local 4/21/09

The idea to create this website devoted to acoustic music in Philadelphia coalesced during two recent listening experiences. The first was the Philadelphia Art Alliance show I talk about in my last post, the second was a few Tuesdays ago while I was streaming an excellent edition of Philly Local on xpn.org. Philly Local is a great show on XPN every Tuesday at 9pm, playing music by local acts, both known (Mutlu, Amos Lee, even Hall and Oates), and relatively unknown (recent shows have featured songs by Adrien Reju and the Jones sisters). It is hosted by Helen Leicht, who also does the Middays show every weekday from 10am to 2pm. I don’t have a car or a working radio so I don’t listen to XPN that much (that’s not all bad, but they can be a good source for discovering local and national acts), but I like to stream Philly Local.

This week’s show opened with “And You Wait” by Chris Kasper, perhaps my favorite song by this star of the Philly acoustic scene. They also had a song by Adrien Reju, a collaborator of Kasper’s in his solo shows and in the excellent Lowlands urbangrass band; a good number by Andrew Lipke (“Get It Over With” from his album Motherpiece & Dynamite); and a cover of the Boss standard “Thunder Road” by Dan May. The quality of music by these local musicians was inspiring, and i wanted to write about it.

Philly Local playlist 4/21/09
Chris Kasper - And You Wait - Flying Boy
Zach Djanikian - The Day That Paul Newman Died
Boris Garcia - Holiday - Once More Into The Bliss
Adrien Reju - Fire Away - A Million Hearts
The Silence - Fade - Outside World
Karen Gross – It Won’t Be Me
Receiving The Ghost - Waiting - Receiving The Ghost
Andrew Lipke - Get It Over With - Motherpearl & Dynamite
Dan May - Thunder Road - PL artists salute Bruce Springsteen
American Babies – Backstreets - PL artists salute Bruce Springsteen
John Francis - The Way The Empire Fell - The Better Angels
Farewell Flight - Begin Again - Sound.Color.Motion

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Chris Kasper, Birdie Busch, and Carsie Blanton at the Philadelphia Art Alliance

The Philadelphia Art Alliance is one of my favorite venues in Philadelphia. They have a several galleries of artwork in a large 19th-century mansion on Rittenhouse Square and host free play readings and several music events each month. Unfortunately, the venue is generally used just for jazz or classical shows. (There’s a great free string quartet recital the last Friday of every month.) I was delighted when i saw on their calendar an XPN-sponsored event featuring three excellent local acoustic acts: Chris Kasper, Birdie Busch, and Carsie Blanton. It was while listening to their three well executed sets in a beautiful acoustic setting that i first thought, “i’d like to cover this great local music scene.”

If i remember correctly (this was about a month ago, my motivation did not directly follow my inspiration... too often the case), Carsie went first. Both her and Birdie Busch were accompanied by an excellent guitarist whose name i forget [update: he is Ross Bellenoit, and as one comment noted, "he's the sh*t]. Carsie plays an excellent subdued finger-picking style of acoustic guitar, best exemplified on her song “Ain’t So Green,” from her album of the same name. I had that song stuck in my head for about a fortnight afterwards. (You can listen to that song on her myspace site.) The first time i saw her it was in a loud bar, and her quiet solo acoustic set was drowned out. I don’t know her personally, but she has a humble, somewhat meek stage demeanor that begs for a venue like this where she will be the center of attention.

Birdie Busch, a longtime stalwart of the Philly acoustic scene, turned things up slightly with an attractive large body electric guitar. There wasn’t any song particular that stood out, but this was partly due to the generally excellent sound of the set.

I was most looking forward to seeing Chris Kasper in this setting. I’ve been seeing Kasper play for years, in such long-forgotten groups as PoCKet ScHwa and the Whiskey Dicks, and more recently in the excellent urbangrass band, the Lowlands. For a long time his solo shows were just that: him and an acoustic guitar. After a tour with Amos Lee he began increasingly to play with supporting musicians. He has put together an excellent cast of players and they serve him well at the larger venues he now plays, but I was hoping this set would be a return to his solo roots.

Kasper instead chose to play with his whole band, but kept a generally low key sound (the drummer used brushes). A young and talented female singer whose name i forget [update: her name was Dawn Iulg] took Adrien Reju’s singing parts. The set was mostly composed of songs from his older album, the excellent Flying Boy, including two favorites of mine: "And You Wait" and "Gone the Summer." I spoke to Chris after the show and he said the songs from his new album (released May 17 with a party at the World Cafe) were more upbeat and fitting for louder venues. In any case, Kasper is a real ambassador for Philly acoustic music and his new album is as eagerly anticipated as his last is warmly appreciated. He helped inspire this site.

Carsie Blanton singing "Ain't So Green" (live version)

Monday, May 11, 2009

Philly Acoustic Reviews

I’ve been going to shows, buying albums, and playing on the fringes of the Philadelphia folk/ acoustic/ singer-songwriter music scene for about a decade. (I use these categories loosely: many of the acts use electric instruments [they all use amplifiers or PAs], most are not folk in any strict sense of the word, and many have more than one singer or songwriter. My love is for soulful, fairly low-key, original music.) I’m continually impressed by the number of extremely talented musicians and songwriters there are out there. This site is intended to be a humble attempt to promote, discuss, and review select artists, shows, and albums, and to comment on topics of interest to the Philadelphia acoustic music scene. I go to about one folk-y type show a month, and buy a few albums by local artists each year, so the number of posts will likely be limited. Probably I’ll do a bunch at first then it’ll peter out. So it is.

Off the top of my head, here are a few of the quality local acts I’ve seen, with links to their myspace sites (i know: facebook is where it’s at but not yet for music):

Adrien Reju (www.myspace.com/adrienreju)
Birdie Busch (www.myspace.com/birdiebusch)
Bruce Langfeld [1967-2007] (www.myspace.com/brucelangfeld)
Carsie Blanton (www.myspace.com/carsieblanton)
Chris Kasper (www.myspace.com/chriskasper)
Christine Havrilla (www.myspace.com/christinehavrilla)
Cowmuddy (www.myspace.com/cowmuddy)
the Great Unknown (www.myspace.com/thegreatunknownband)
Hoots & Hellmouth (www.myspace.com/hootshellmouth)
Illinois (www.myspace.com/illinois)
Joshua Park (www.myspace.com/joshuaparkmusic)
Karen Gross (www.myspace.com/karengross)
Kate Gaffney (www.myspace.com/kategaffney)
Langhorne Slim (www.myspace.com/langhorneslim)
the Lowlands (www.myspace.com/thelowlandsband)
Papertrees (www.myspace.com/papertreesmusic)
Peasant (www.myspace.com/peasant)
the Philadelphia Bluegrass Band (www.myspace.com/thephiladelphiabluegrassband)
Rachel Andes (www.myspace.com/rachelandes)
Sara Judge (www.myspace.com/sarajudge)
Sexcop (www.myspace.com/sexcop)
Sisters 3 (www.myspace.com/sisters3)
the Writing Birds (www.myspace.com/thewritingbirds)