Neo-Folk Flourishes In Philly

How to Make an Arrow captures this growing niche.

By Tara Murtha
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 6 | Posted Mar. 23, 2010

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A Few Philly Folk

Photo by Lisa Schaffer Photography

Recently released on iTunes and DIY- musician bastion, Philly Comp One: How to Make an Arrow is the latest milestone in a burgeoning niche music scene that’s been fiddlin’ with big ideas.

The disk, curated over the last year by local musicians Joe Duffey and Dan Gallagher (Crow vs. Lion), is a collection of new songs, alternative versions and live tracks. Featuring music from 10 local acts—Hezekiah Jones; Spinning Leaves; Wes Mattheu & the New Way Down; Sisters 3; Your Midway Host; Joe Duffey and Whatever’s Clever; TJ Kong and the Atomic Bomb; Christopher Bohn; Crow vs. Lion and the Great Unknown—the compilation is a tidy little sample of an often overlooked corner of Philly’s folk revival.

“The cool thing about it for me is that everyone’s at a different point in their pursuit of music, though we all do play shows together. I just wanted to make a good CD, a good mix,” says Gallagher.

Though Philly’s Espers anchor a more psychedelic strand of folk musicians who were plunked, alongside Devendra Banhart, into almost every article written three years ago heralding the arrival of “freak folk,” there hasn’t been too much mainstream notice of Philly’s rootsier brethren. Yet. Inspired by L.A.’s Hotel Cafe, the straight-shooting down-home revivalists hope to eventually tour the country under one banner.

“It’s amazing, it really is. There’s so many things going on, somebody’s got to find a way to put it out there,” says Duffey. “Why or how, I don’t know. But it’s happening. Philly’s just jumping right now.”

This latest burst of folk revival is made up of a rotating cast of 30 to 40 like-minded musician friends who, over countless gigs, bring-your-own-instrument house parties and collaborations, snowballed into an ever-expanding collective they refer to “our little music community.” Philly Comp One offers a good taste of what’s cooking, though future compilations would be wise to include tracks by Chris Kasper, who has been quietly emerging as one of Philly’s most distinguished songwriters and the festival-friendly good-time bluegrass outfit Wissahickon Chicken Shack to get a more complete snapshot.

The colorful hodgepodge of folkie folk can be traced in some ways to a cold-call MySpace email sent in 2005 from gypsy pixie Barb Gettes (now of Ropeadope Records’ duo Spinning Leaves, then a nervous girl who’d never sung into a mic before) to Raphael Cutrufello, the one-man band behind Hezekiah Jones of Yer Bird Records—who for my iTunes gift-card money, has been making some of the best records coming out of Philly of any genre since 2006’s Hezekiah Says You’re A-OK .

“I stumbled upon his music and obsessed over it,” says Gettes. “We decided to meet at a park and we were both petrified as we sang in front of each other because he was just leaving his band and I never sang in front of anyone.”

Though any hint of hierarchy is anathema to these kids, who go to great conversational pains to sing each other’s praises with equal heaps of enthusiasm (at least around reporters), it seems like that email and subsequent meeting is what sparked the scene in motion.

Cutrufello was working the door and occasionally booking shows at the Fire on Girard Avenue. Since he was just starting to test solo material, he started booking Gettes and other friends to fill out the bill and lighten the vibe. “Instead of walking in and not knowing anyone, we were able to book shows we like and make nights for ourselves,” says Cutrufello.

“We discovered we had a lot of friends in common and knew a lot of the same musicians, so we put a lot of residencies together at the Fire,” says Gettes. Then, Cutrufello would trade bills with out-of-town bands who wanted to play the Fire and they started hitting the road.

The pair, who say they “still get emotional after gigs” because of how far they’ve come along on mutual support, basically just kept networking and collaborating and soon a handful of new friends gigging together bloomed into a permeable collective who regularly share band members, bills and tour vans as their sound branches out further and further west.

“There’s a good folkie energy in Philly, and I think we’re like the next generation of that,” says Michael Baker, Philadelphian by-way-of Kentucky and the other Spinning Leaf. “That’s why Philly Folk Comp is a good thing for us, because part of our band has everything to do with the people we play around, you know.”

Though they’re not yet packaged and touring the country under one banner Hotel Cafe-style yet, they got things moving by founding Miles & Maggie Fest, a DIY summer folk fest established in 2008, and kick-starting a series of showcases last year at World Cafe Live called Philly Folk Parade.

What Baker said about the people they play around is obvious at the two Parade shows staged so far. They dissolve into sprawling, rambling affairs where most artists also play in every other artists’ set, at least singing back-up or shaking a tambourine, with all-stops-out numbers where everyone gathers onstage together in one big old kumbaya “We Are The World”-style finale. They all know each other’s songs and all sing along.

Some of the musicians are literally in every show, like Phil D’Agostino, arguably the hardest working bassist in local showbiz, who head-checks the full catalogue of all the groups’ songs since he regularly gigs with about seven of the acts.

Sharing band members makes it easier to share tour vans, which makes it easier to tour—with all the cost of touring and promoters not generally willing to bet a Friday night’s worth of cover charges on a band they’re not sure can draw, it’s a lot easier to book a gig if you arrive with three self-promoting acts ready to fill a bill with shared backline, players and minimal fuss. The Philly Folk Parade set out on a maiden mini-tour voyage this past December, have a show coming up in April and hope to get back on the road in May.

“It’s finally starting to happen, we’ve been plugging away for a few years now,” says Gettes, who recently returned from playing a string of dates in Moscow. “We’ll be on tour and everyone will be musing off of each other. It’s a pulsing thing. It’s just alive.”

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Comments 1 - 6 of 6
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1. bird said... on Mar 24, 2010 at 03:32PM

“music meets heart.”

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2. Martha Floyd said... on Mar 25, 2010 at 07:39AM

“You guys are so AWESOME!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

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3. ::VON GEHL:: said... on May 22, 2010 at 05:27PM

“You are incorrect to refer to this as Neofolk.

Neofolk is a genre, culture and nation that has been spanning 40 years now.

Neofolk is the music of Organic Europeans, of Odinists and people against the Modern World. It is deeply spiritual music for a specific ethnicity. We are often Radical Traditionalists, or Occult/Crypto Fascists.

We are rugged individualists! Which is why I am writing to inform you of how misleading your article is.

However! I recently moved to Philly and am glad to see a folk scene here, I appreciate this style of Americana.

I believe you mean Americana and not Neofolk.”

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4. Anonymous said... on Jun 13, 2010 at 06:15AM

“mhm, Von Gehl has the right of it. This is NOT Neofolk in any fashion. Please do your research next time before attempting to either pick up a genre name before knowing about it, or attempting to coin one yourself. This is shoddy journalism. Neofolk is a very established, yet obscure genre; however, even something as simple as a google search would have shown you the difference.

No slight intended to the artists in this article. All music is worthy of respect. They just had the bad luck to be written about in this paper.

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5. Anonymous said... on Jun 28, 2010 at 01:56PM

“wow. Unitl i did the research i had no idea what people were using the term 'neo-folk' to mean. I'm sure Tara meant no offense to those considering themselves 'neofolk' and/or any of the musicans written about in this article. I think she was just referring to it as new folk and using it relate a new wave of folk tradition here in Philadelphia. with that being said, here is a definition I found for Neo-Folk::

Neofolk (or neo-folk) is a form of folk music that emerged from White Power ideals and indie faggotism. Neofolk lyrics can either be obviously anti-Semitic or Random Namedropping of European Supremacists. The genre encompasses a wide assortment of themes including traditional anti-Semitism, heathenry, homoeroticism, modern anti-Semitism and occultism. Neofolk musicians often have ties to other youth sub-cultures such as BDSM and Innocent WASP College Kids, or have links with neo-pagan (also neopagan) circles or other countercultural elements, most notably Tolkien fan circles.

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6. The Deathlands said... on Jun 14, 2011 at 11:08PM

“Von Gehl is a racist, chauvinistic, disgusting shell of a human who gives two tugs on a dead dog's dick what he thinks.

His ideals are like looking into a can of smashed assholes to find beauty.”


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