Ron Gallo and his Toy Soldiers crew met Seth Klinger when he was assigned to them as an intern for Ropeadope Records, where, in 2011, they issued a one-off EP called Get Through the Time. They hit it off. Klinger started filming and making videos for them, and then suddenly, he was making a documentary about the balls-to-the-wall tour that took them to South by Southwest. Now, they’re crazy about him. “Luke, our keys player, has a tattoo he got in New Orleans a few weeks ago that says ‘Cajun Seth,’” says Gallo, Toy Soldiers’ frontman. Yeah, that’s real love.
Klinger has bore witness as the ragtag Americana band that calls Philadelphia its home has grown better with age. There’ve been plenty of lineup changes over time, but for two and a half years, Toy Soldiers has been playing with a cemented membership that works for them. “The current lineup is the one,” Gallo says. “It took a while to find it, but the fates aligned, and it’s been great ever since October 2010. Dominic Billett on the drums, Bill McCloskey on bass, Matt Kelly on guitar and Luke Leidy on keys. This is Toy Soldiers.”
A Toy Soldiers show is one that communes with the spirits of generations past and present; add a little whiskey, and the band acts as dance conductors. It channels folk traditions, delta blues, raucous vintage rock ‘n’ roll and a little bit of country, yet Gallo doesn’t really embrace the notion of Toy Soldiers being country or folk, per se. “I really just think we’re all drawn to the soul, energy, honesty of the roots of this country’s music,” he says. That fevered moment when you succumb to the energy of a band and dance without inhibitions? That’s what Gallo and Co. strive for. They want you to give in and let go.
“We do like fun and making people dance. That’s the best most undeniable thing: watching people move uncontrollably,” says Gallo. And that’s exactly what they’re hoping to do at Johnny Brenda’s next Friday night with their double-function event: First, they’ll screen The Maybe Trails, Klinger’s documentary, which they scored and soundtracked, and then they’ll bang out a sweaty rock ‘n’ roll set, their first hometown gig in months.
They’re looking at a later-in-2013 release of The Maybe Boys, hopefully an album that’ll put them more squarely on the national rock map; there are plans to develop a serious campaign to get this record heard. This time, they worked with Bill Moriarty, their first pairing with an outside producer and, thankfully, a seasoned and accomplished one at that. Moriarty’s worked with Man Man and Dr. Dog, but Gallo says Toy Soldiers had a goal going into the sessions: “To get the live show energy across. And he found a way to do exactly that. It’s gritty, and it’s really fun. We love it.”
But it hasn’t been smooth sailing for the last few years. With endless tours, soundchecks, naps in vans and technical difficulties, the moments that pummel Toy Soldiers’ faith, vision and determination just keep on coming, and that’s exactly what The Maybe Trails captures. Asked what one of those worst-nightmare moments on tour were, Gallo perfectly distills the band’s drive to make people have a good time. “Definitely the van break down,” he says. “It’s those moments when you really question what you’re doing, and if you can somehow persevere and make it through when literally nothing is going right, that’s true love.”
The Maybe Trails and The Maybe Boys. What’s the connection? “The title came from a joke when we were in Texas during our tour last year” confesses Gallo. “One night at SXSW, we were sitting on top of our van, drinking and people-watching. We realized every girl in Austin is beautiful. So we played a game: Every girl that would walk by, we would vote ‘yes’ or a ‘no.’ Almost 99 percent were yesses. Then Luke said, ‘You know what other people think when they look at us? They’re ‘maybe’ boys.”
Fri., April 19. 8pm. $10. With The Holy Ghost Tent Revival. Johnny Brenda’s, 1201 N. Frankford Ave. johnnybrendas.com