Photos by @HELLERHOUND
On Wednesday of this past week, the all-encompassing humidity and ninety-degree-plus temperatures characteristic of Philadelphia summers interrupted an otherwise pleasant stretch of spring. People trudged through the city as if wading through bathwater; their jaws slack, tongues swollen, threatening to hang out of their mouths like dogs. Betraying conventional wisdom, Philadelphia looked into the sky, directly at the sun, asking WHY? Scientists might have an issue with this line of logic, but I think proponents of notions like synchronicity and collective unconscious like Carl Jung may have agreed that we can attribute the heat wave that hit the city on Wednesday and persisted through Friday to the high concentration of musical talent that came into Philadelphia for WXPN’s 17th annual NON-COMMvention, an industry event for non-commercial radio stations to get together to talk shop and check out a showcase of emerging talent and seasoned veterans kickstarting reunion tours. The NON-COMM attendees came in from all over the country, as did the artists who brought the fucking heat.
A couple months back, I saw the list of about thirty bands and artists who were set to play the showcase and tried to whittle it down to the three I was most into. It was rough. I think my first list was about twenty deep. I like writing and everything, but reviewing twenty artists seemed like a bit much. This is a music review, not a Thomas Pynchon novel. But it was hard to ignore bands like Baskery, three Swedish sisters whose act sounds like the Triplets of Bellville doing an impression of The Tallest Man On Earth. But like that D.H. Lawrence quip reminds us, “one must discriminate,” so I whittled as best as I could to the following: Ron Gallo [pictured, right], a Temple U. dropout who slips in Philly references like “The Kensington Strangler” over Jack White-esque screeching electric guitar; The Growlers, who sound like the Strokes went to California, dropped LSD in a Redwood forest, and reemerged with an album; and Benjamin Booker, who makes frenetic, soulful rock music with New Orleans grit overtones.
I checked out the showcase on Wednesday night, even though none of the acts I’d settled on were playing. It’s not hard to find parking in West Philly, so I grabbed a spot within a five-minutes walk of World Cafe Live. A five-minute walk on Wednesday night, though, was more than enough to work up a soaking-through-the-shirt shvitz. For those of you not acquainted with colorful Yiddish phrases, shvitz means sweat. But this isn’t a language lesson.
Wednesday night I went in with an open mind, looking forward to hearing some music, but more just trying to get a feel for the event. Everyone had on a lanyard that displayed a conference pass with their name and their affiliation. There were four main camps: record-label reps from indie outlets like Saddle Creek, non-commercial radio employees, press, and XPN members. I’d put the median age somewhere around 50. When people bumped into one another, both parties apologized profusely, trying to claim the blame to assuage the possibility of the other’s guilt. The atmosphere reminded me of the co-op in southern Vermont where I used to shop — civility to the nth degree. Definitely not your average concert vibes. When the bands got on stage, though, the tone shifted as the scrutinizing gaze of the record-label and radio industry reps shifted to the artists. The stakes felt high, like the bands were auditioning for radio programmers. Oh right, that’s actually what was happening. Let me rephrase. The stakes were high, as bands sought to attract the attention of radio programmers in hopes of getting some airplay for their new albums. Again, not your average concert vibes.
So, I was wandering around World Cafe Live, alternating between the upstairs and downstairs stages, playing the license plate game with people’s passes, banking states like Washington, Texas, Minnesota, and New Jersey, and seeing what rooms my press pass could get me into, before I found myself wheedling through people packed like sardines in front of the stage upstairs in anticipation of this band called The Districts. I’m pretty confident that World Cafe Live had the AC going, but nothing will ramp up the heat in the room like densely packed bodies. Oh, the smells. I wish I could write a poem for you about the smells. But that’s for another time. I’d heard about this Pennsylvania band, The Districts, who are coming out with an album this summer called Popular Manipulations. I perused a few of their songs online, and they sounded like your run-of-the-mill folk music, lots of acoustic guitar and harmonica. Meh. But, fuck it, I thought, maybe I was missing something that they’d be able to fill me in on through their live show. I have no trouble admitting when I’m wrong, and expletive expletive expletive!, was I wrong about The Districts.
Like I was saying, I had been in La La Land, drifting through World Cafe Live, but The Districts brought me back to earth. The band showcased the rare ability to strike a balance between structure and chaos in rock music. Their sound was tight, but simultaneously sounded like it was exploding. Frontman Rob Grote delivered an unwavering intensity, putting his entire body into his performance with a desperation to express himself that lit a fire on stage. This fire was too hot for some, who trickled out of the venue during the set. But for every person who left, the fire drew another in, like a moth to a flame. The Districts’ performance was an eye-opening call to feel your feels and live your life; a rock band performance like I haven’t seen in awhile, which couldn’t have been further from the effete folk drivel I’d heard online. I left NON-COMM Wednesday night drenched in sweat, but I looked cool and dry compared to Rob Grote, who had to be wet-vac’d off the stage.
After another 95 degree day, and feeling drained from The District’s cathartic performance, I didn’t make it to NON-COMM on Thursday night, which meant that I missed Ron Gallo. After all that whittling, The Districts swooped in like a swarm of termites and fucked it all up. Such is life. What I’ll say about Ron Gallo though, is that If you like afros, the White Stripes, and/or electric guitar, you would be remiss to not check him out.
So Friday night, I went back to check out The Growlers [pictured, below] and Benjamin Booker. Did I mention it was fucking hot? So, I was baffled when The Growlers came on stage and everyone was wearing army canvas button-downs, and frontman Brooks Nielsen was wearing an overcoat. I knew the band was from SoCal, but damn, hot is hot, right? I dug the matching leopard-print collars. But, the outfits were mostly confusing. One of the guitarists straight-up looked exactly like Ewan McGregor in Trainspotting. The bassist looked like a Swedish dude destined for Death Metal who’d been transplanted from Stockholm to Santa Cruz at a crucial moment that led him join a psychedelic surf-rock band. The best of all of it, though, was the guitarist who was standing directly in front of a fan, which blew through his hair throughout the entire set, making him look like he was acting for a glam-metal music video. It was hilarious, but I’m sure he felt like he’d won lottery getting to stand in front of the fan, while the rest of the band sweat bullets under the sweltering stage lights.
Musically, The Growlers’ sound is an extension of Nielsen’s hyper-intentionally modest dance moves. In a style that mirrored his moves, Nielsen’s vocals weaved intentionally through three-electric guitars, a back-bone bass, and a synth. I looked around around and saw just about everyone’s head was bobbing. Unlike The Districts, The Growlers didn’t drive anyone out of the venue with their rhythmically-driven psychedelic funk , but they also didn’t set the stage on fire. Instead, decked out in their coordinated army canvas tour outfits, Nielsen used his mic as a dance prop during instrumental breaks as he placed his other hand on his belly, searching for his internal rhythm to guide his subdued dance moves. Overall, I wasn’t blown away by The Growler’s music. It didn’t force me to feel, like my favorite music does, but it did act as a portal to another time and place. The Growler’s sound, combined with their odd, quasi-coordinated look transported me into a southern California beach-town drug scene like that of the world of Joaquin Phoenix’s character in Inherent Vice.
After the Growlers’ set, I stepped outside for some air. HA! Right, still ninety degrees. There was no escape. I gulped down some “fresh air” full of car fumes and headed back inside for Benjamin Booker. I looked up at the stage and was happy to notice two things. First, the lead guitarist looked like Seth Rogen with an afro, which was cool in its own right, but particularly great after missing out on Ron Gallo’s afro the night before. And second, Benjamin Booker performs with a standard arrangement rock band — a rare thing these days. And damn, they provide the perfect framework for Booker’s gravelly, soul-baring voice, scattered, smothered and covered in Louisiana hot sauce. Sonically connected to the likes of John Mayer and Tom Waits, Benjamin Booker delivers a grittier, bluesier version of Leon Bridges’ music. The intimacy of his raspy vocals draws you in like a friendly stranger putting you up for the night after a long day’s journey on your way to somewhere very far away. — DILLON ALEXANDER