This summer marks the 20th year that we at Philadelphia Weekly will put on Concerts in the Park, our free Wednesday shows in Rittenhouse. It’s been quite a ride. In just the past five years, we’ve watched Kurt Vile & the Violaters scorch the park just before blowing up nationally. We’ve seen Man Man play to the largest audience we’ve ever had gather for our series—people were climbing trees to get a better view. Then, the very next year, Dr. Dog—fresh off appearances on Conan O’Brien and the best record of their career, Fate—packed ’em in even more; people were climbing onto the people who’d climbed the trees. It was mayhem.
Of course, Dr. Dog had played the series before, in 2005, before they were the globetrotting superstars we’ve come to know them as. And though watching a band play to a packed park for free at the pinnacle of their popularity is pretty damn fun, it’s equally magical to watch the guys still undiscovered by the masses put their wares on display a few years before they pop.
This year, R5 Productions’ Sean Agnew takes over the booking of the series, and we have a seriously bad-ass mixed bag. Brooklyn Indie/folk alt-country act Phosphorescent are just on the cusp of serious mainstream crossover. In 2009, they put out a well-received tribute to Willie Nelson, To Willie—their cover of “Reason To Quit” will make you an insta-fan. This year’s Here’s To Taking It Easy , released in May, scored a hefty 8.2 on Pitchfork, a B+ from the Onion A.V. Club, raves from the BBC, Mojo and the Guardian overseas, and is an easy front-runner for album of the year. They play tonight at 7.
Subsequent weeks bring another Brooklyn act, A Place To Bury Strangers —whose music is much less intimidatingly-emo than their name suggests—and locals Drink Up Buttercup , whose stellar live show is not to be missed. Then there are the openers. Electroclash-ish girl duo GANG will get the dance party started for Phosphorescent this week. The Homophones bring their subdued Echo and the Bunnymen sound to next week’s show. And locals Governent Cheaze and Drink Up Buttercup close us out Aug. 25.
It’s going to be a hell of a good time, and a perfect way to send off what’s turned out to be a wretchedly hot summer. As we say goodbye to the sizzle, we are looking to say hello to seven acts in Philly that have us abuzz here at PWHQ. Some of them are up-and-comers who, by this time next year, will be playing national stages and getting press in national pages. Some have just written career-defining records just- or yet-to-be released. Others are breaking out on their own to do some inspiring solo work.
Read about them. Listen to them. Watch them grow before your eyes. See you in the park on Wednesday. (Brian McManus)
Scott Pryor is not a preacher. The North Carolina native, who moved to Philly a few years back, is unlikely to stand on a stage and pontificate, much unlike many of his fellow folkies. His message tends to slip under the radar, hidden beneath sweet chord changes and plucky banjo.
“Art is able to fly in under a lot of the other defenses we put up,” Pryor says. “There’s a noticeable difference in reaction in me giving a spiel vs. singing a song.”
It’s a lesson he learned firsthand when writing about the untold story of Nov. 7, 1979, when a group of labor organizers in Greensboro, N.C., organized an anti-KKK rally in a poor black neighborhood. The details of the day are murky, but the Klan and a group of neo-Nazis united, and the police were told to take an early lunch. By the end of the day, five of the labor organizers were dead.
“There are a lot of myths and stories that have been spun off from this one event,” Pryor says. “A lot of red flags fly up when you try to talk about it.”
So Pryor embarked on a project—inspired by Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska and Woody Guthrie’s songs about the Sacco and Vanzetti trial in the 1920s—to craft a collection of songs about the one event. “What I love about Nebraska is [Springsteen’s] ability to humanize serial killers,” Pryor says. “He tells these harrowing tales while maintaining a sense of compassion, and still not letting them off the hook.”
Like Nebraska, Pryor’s songwriting lends itself to cinematic storytelling, with heartbreaking tales of epic journeys and human frailties. His songs aren’t so much played as they are passed on, with melodies that sound much older, dustier and worn than he is.
While the Greensboro project is on the backburner, Pryor’s been busy this summer working on an EP to follow up last year’s stellar Theater for the Weary, a 12-song collection that deals with journeys and love. The Quiet Crosses EP, helmed by producer Devin Greenwood and Pryor’s crackerjack backing band the Common Sinners, includes the catchy westward road song “Lay Me Down” and the biographical “Make My Peace,” a song about the true value of whatever we have, that reminds you Pryor always keeps one hand on his acoustic and the other on the plow.
While those stories are imagined, Pryor still wants to return to historical songwriting, both in the Greensboro project—which still needs another five or six songs—and in recounting other events yet untold. In particular, he’s interested in telling stories of migrant farmworkers, like mushroom harvesters in Kennett Square: “That community has always been intriguing to me,” he says. But for both his historical writing and imagined characters, the goal is honesty.
“Regardless of whether it comes across as true or fictional,” Pryor says, “it’s compelling and human and true enough that people can relate to it.” (Jeffrey Barg)
Birdie Busch wants to give you something to hold on to. Really. That’s why she designed her new EP Everyone Will Take You In (Be Frank Records) to be available as both digital download and a limited edition 7-inch record tucked into an exquisitely designed package filled with photos, essays and other small treasures.
PW's Summer Guide 2015