[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.