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 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 CafĂ©. 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, 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

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.