How to Make an Arrow captures this growing niche.
Recently released on iTunes and DIY- musician bastion CDBaby.com, 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.”
Like our restaurant scene, Philadelphia’s music community is in the midst of a renaissance. The regeneration was on abundant display during SXSW, where, no matter where you went, a band from Philly was on the tip of someone’s tongue, in front of their eyes or ringing in their ears. Even Bill Murray’s.
PW's Music Issue 2014