It’s a little tough to imagine now, in what feels like the 15th godforsaken week of February we’ve had to endure so far this year, but come summertime, Newport, R.I., is a wonder. Take a walk along the city’s storied Cliff Walk, and you can teeter up to the edge of a craggy path, let your feet dangle high over the water, and break off flinted pieces of rock to toss into the Easton Bay. As you watch them disappear into the blue New England waters below you, it’s easy to imagine finding magic in the town.
David Wax certainly found it.
“Without a doubt it was a real watershed moment for the band,” Wax says of playing last year’s Newport Folk Festival. “It was definitely a turning point.” He and his eponymous band, the David Wax Museum, won an opportunity to play a set at the legendary festival by mobilizing an ever-growing fan base. Once they got there, they weren’t about to let the opportunity slip.
“We knew no one would have heard of us, and no one would necessarily come to see the band,” he says. “So we just tried to meet as many people as we could and told them when we were playing”—at a not-ideal opening set on Sunday morning.
So they started pounding the pavement—er, grass—and set to busking. Wherever they saw a line—people waiting to get on buses, say—they’d start playing, just to generate excitement. They brought fans in from their native Boston, and did an early TV interview on Friday. By the time their set came around, the field was packed.
“Since we’ve toured so much, we think of ourselves as a band that’s really comfortable acoustically,” Wax recalls. “So we went out in the crowd and played, and nobody else did that at Newport. It caught people off-guard, and it felt great. It felt like the band’s moment.”
Before the weekend was over, they’d be onstage with Levon Helm of the Band singing “The Weight,” along with the Felice Brothers, Alexander Ebert of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, and more. By that point they’d won over public radio tastemakers Bob Boilen (of NPR’s All Songs Considered) and WFUV’s Rita Houston. At the festival’s end, they were invited to play the rooftop after-party.
One listen to the band’s new Everything Is Saved, out this week, and it’s not hard to guess why the sun-kissed masses at Newport found the Museum so infectious. Wax and musical partner Suz Slezak play a raucous, frenetic kind of folk music whose sweet harmonies, spicy fiddle and percussive donkey jawbone highlight strong Spanish influences. Think Josh Rouse trapped in a Mexico City street carnivale; this blend of Mexican and Americana feels like it could singlehandedly solve U.S. immigration problems. Since Newport, they’ve become NPR darlings, with a featured spot on the renowned All Songs Considered web series Tiny Desk Concerts, an upcoming stint on World Cafe and countless endorsements by widely read music blogs.
And yet, without a hard-earned Philly fan base, it might have never happened.
The David Wax Museum scored their performance slot at the 2010 Newport Folk Festival not via traditional routes, but by winning a contest put on by Magic Hat beer, in which fans voted on whom they most wanted to see. The voting was helped in no small part by the unique fan base the Museum built up through a series of West Philly house concerts over the last year, in a series curated and hosted by local artist Jacques-Jean Tiziou.
“Getting connected to JJ’s whole concert series changed the concert experience for us,” Wax says. “There’s no other way for a young band like us to be able to mass a huge crowd consistently—and every time it’s a different group of people.” Tiziou—a photographer whose work is well known to Philly Fringe artists, and whose “How Philly Moves” mural will wrap around the Philadelphia International Airport parking garage this spring—has for years hosted Spruce Hill living room concerts that pack in dozens to see largely unknown or underknown musicians. Huge audiences tend to show up based simply on Tiziou’s say-so.
“There’s nothing else quite like what he has set up [anywhere in the country],” says Wax. “For him to curate these events and have all of these people trust him, and then you play for all of these really attentive people who love music, it’s a real gift.”
Since first playing Tiziou’s living room a year ago, Wax and Co. have built up a steady momentum, touring with alt-country household names like the Avett Brothers and the Old 97’s. Wax and Slezak form the band’s core, and at this week’s album-release show, they’ll be joined by cousin Jordan Wax on accordion and Mike Roberts on upright bass and electric guitar. Together they form a joyous hootenanny sound that causes fans like NPR’s Boilen to rave, “This kind of acoustic exuberance doesn’t happen often enough.”
It’s a sound that comes from Wax’s year spent in the Mexican countryside, where he finally decided to pursue a career in music. Since making the jump to music full-time, it’s been a steady climb.
“When I got back from Mexico in 2007, I knew I wanted to become a musician and do it professionally,” he says. “I didn’t know what that meant, but I couldn’t bring myself to do anything else.”
Fri., Feb. 11, 10:30pm. $10. Tin Angel, 20 S. Second St. 215.928.0770. tinangel.com
PW's Music Issue 2014