Going Solo

Several local rockers are taking a hiatus from their well-established bands. What makes them want a break?

By Doug Wallen
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Sep. 1, 2004

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Everybody wants to be a rock star. That much we know. But what do rock stars do when they need to get away from the band and secure a little me time? They go solo, of course. At least, that seems to be the growing trend in Philadelphia.

Nobody's talking about breaking up the band. It's just that a band can be a lot like a job, and no matter how much we like our jobs, we all need a vacation once in a while.

A few months ago Cordalene lead singer Mike Kiley decided to do a solo set at the Fire. The venue's talent buyer, Derek Dorsey, asked Kiley if he'd host a month-long series of solo shows featuring Philly frontpersons.

The afternoon series, dubbed Sunday Bloody Sunday, ran through June and included members of the Capitol Years, Trouble Everyday, This Radiant Boy, Elevator Parade, Wise & Foolish Builders, Laguardia, the Bigger Lovers and She-Haw. Some were playing solo for the first time, while others were all too familiar with it.

Kiley booked the shows with Dorsey's approval. "I think it was great for the musicians to step out from their normal comfort zone," says Dorsey. "It was very much about musical camaraderie." The Fire has also hosted tributes to Bob Dylan, the Band, Neil Young and Tom Petty, at which dozens of Philly musicians come together to cover their favorite songs.

It's no surprise that covers commonly pop up in solo sets. "I think it helps make the performer feel more comfortable," says Kiley, who covered CCR's "Fortunate Son" with She-Haw's Amy Pickard during the Fire series.

The Capitol Years' Shai Halperin does a few Dylan covers, and even inserts a recent Alicia Keys single into the middle of one. "It's a little surprise for audience members whose eyes may be glazing over," he says.

Solo sets let musicians play some of their songs that might not make it onto their band's set list, either because the song is too old or because the bandmates don't like it as much. It's also a chance for musicians to rework familiar songs and try out new ones.

"I can write a song the day of the show and try it out that night. It's farm-fresh," says Pilot Round the Sun's Sean Hoots, who plays solo the first Thursday of every month at Spence Caf´┐Ż in West Chester. "I can slow down, speed up and change styles, keys or phrasing."

Kiley likes to make one Cordalene song into a waltz, while Mike Guggino of This Radiant Boy delves into some antiwar material. Halperin adds harmonica and odd instruments to "switch it up a bit so it's not all folky stuff."

The central challenge of playing alone is holding the audience's attention. "People seem happier to get their eyebrows singed by a band in full flight than watch a lone guy having a nervous breakdown with a guitar," says Bret Tobias of the Bigger Lovers.

"There's definitely a cliche of boring-jerk-with-an-acoustic-guitar that's working against you at all times," says the Trouble With Sweeney's Joey Sweeney. "Even if you're just a dude, your job is still to go out there and be entertaining."

"You can't expect people to shut up [and pay attention] unless you give them a reason to," says Kiley. To that end, This Radiant Boy's Guggino talks to the audience, tells stories, takes random requests and plays in offbeat spots like grocery stores. "If you interact with people, they'll get into it," he says.

Such tactics help reduce the fear behind a solo performance, which can be fairly daunting. "If it's just you, then every success and failure is yours to relish," says Pickard.

Sweeney adds, "The errors do glare in all their glory."

Despite the limitations and trepidations involved in playing without a band, more musicians are going that route, even if just as a detour. Last month Tobias performed solo at the Khyber and Tritone, while Halperin played at the Five Spot alongside solo sets by Sweeney and the Lapse's Chris Leo. Meanwhile, Guggino just completed his solo debut, Eight Songs Before Midnight, on which he experiments with bluesy touches like slide guitar. And Sweeney plans to record a solo album while his band takes a break for the next few months.

It works the other way too. Philly singer/ songwriter Denison Witmer recruited a backing band called the River Bends for his latest album, as did Adam Arcuragi. A quartet of solo artists even banded together as 4 Way Street a few years back.

After her band April Disaster split up, Carolynne McNeel did a string of solo shows, but then picked up a drummer and a multi- instrumentalist to become the Carolynne McNeel Three. "I like having the input of other people, to see what they can add to songs," she says. "I think a lot of times you get stuck if you're doing it by yourself."

"I feel a real energy when we all play together and a level of excitement that just wasn't there when I play solo," says Trouble Everyday's Kyle Costill.

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