On Page 26 of this week’s issue you’ll find a Q&A with burgeoning Brooklyn-based indie folk singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten. Etten’s done lots of work here in Philly, recording with Brian McTear at his Miner Street Studios in Fishtown, and hob-nobbing with locals Espers and Greg Weeks. We ask her why she’s drawn to this place of ours, 100 miles up the highway from her own.
We didn’t really have to. Because her answer is one we’ve heard countless times over the years, both from musicians who call Philly home, and others who love it here. Our musical community is “tight-knit.” It’s “more collaborative,” “less stressful” and here “people make more of an effort.”
In past music issues, we’ve told you what bands to keep an eye out and an ear open for. This year, we’re letting Philly’s musicians do it themselves by writing about their own tight-knit circle. We’ve asked 10 Philly music acts to write about the Philly bands or personalities—big or small, past or present—they are inspired by. Who do they love? Who earns their respect?
Among the pieces you’ll find beloved folkie Birdie Busch singing the praises of a man who sings praise, Childish Prodigy Kurt Vile writing about the band he loves despite their having fired him (but not really), and Sarah Everton of Reading Rainbow shouting out some young’ins. Wrap yourself in the warm embrace of their love. (Brian McManus)
By Richie Charles, guitarist, Watery Love; CEO Richie Records/TestosterTunes
Any dipstick can get good at guitar. Absolutely any geek on earth can do it. All it takes is some practice and maybe a music book or a teacher or a patient older brother. In no time you’ll be putting your fingers in the right places and stroking your six-string like Aaron Clapton or Ricki Hendrix and contorting your face like the great Lenny Page. Maybe you’ll have the good fortune to link up with a few other dropouts and beg for gigs at some dump in the bad part of town, try to convince your roommates and their girlfriends to show up and witness your act. Pour your little heart into it. Maybe really go for it and drive up I-95 once in a while for an evening of the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle. Any joker can do it. Just about all of them do.
But to play the harmonica? A precious slice of metal that alchemizes the holder’s very breath into music? That is the domain of the touched.
The humble Dan Balcer, re-christened Harmonica Dan by the late Jack Rose, is one such sage. He’s blown with some of the most notable acts on the East Coast, and for the last 15 years that I’ve been going to Philadelphia Record Exchange, he’s been a fixture behind the counter. I spent a lot of crumpled dollars on a lot of dusty records before I learned about his talents and his contribution to music. Previous to his career in retail, Dan had a reputation for being the greatest harmonica player in Key West. This was sometime in the ’80s, when the instrument was enjoying a period of fame and respectability. It was a time when guys like Dan were rewarded with envy, respect and women.
These days, relocated to South Philadelphia, Dan is the go-to harmonica player on the East Coast. He plays loud, enthusiastically and from the gut. It’s an approach that a well-heeled ax-man drowning in vintage gear will never be able to master. Players like Dan are born. The guy came screaming out of his mother blowing a C-sharp.
And some of the finest players in the region have noticed. For a sample, look for him on records with Jack Rose and Bardo Pond. Even better, catch him live next time he’s invited on stage by Endless Boogie, Meg Baird or Birds of Maya. Best yet, watch this tireless showman front his own Boogie Witch and the Megajam Booze Band on the same night!
This town is filthy with twerps contorting their bony fingers around a guitar. But there’s just one Harmonica Dan. And you couldn’t pry his harp from his cold, dead fingers.
Harmonica Dan performs with Boogie Witch and the Megajam Booze Band on Fri., Feb. 18, at the Manhattan Room.
By Kurt Vile, singer-songwriter, superstar
Richie Charles is a real wild card. Oh man, don’t get me started. We used to work at the same brewery, and I didn’t suspect a thing. But then we really hit it off. I found out that he ran his own label, Richie Records/TestosterTunes (which puts out terrifyingly great shit!), played drums in a band that became my fave for a hot Philly minute (Clockcleaner), and then he goes off and decides to front his OWN punk band, Watery Love.
And let me tell you, it sure is one all-star cast: the man himself on guitar and vocals plus Max Miligram—respected record scholar/formerly of Violent Students—on rolling rock guitar. And to top it all off, the incredible drum stylings of the lovely Meg Baird. All my great friends!
By the way, this review is in no way biased. In fact, guess who tried out for the role of their first bass player? Me, that’s who! Guess who they think was the worst they’ve had so far? Ah, I can’t say, it’s just too painful!
Moving on ... Soon after me, they hired Dan Dimaggio of Home Blitz fame, (check out their album, Out of Phase , on Richie Records) who understands playing punk rock more than others. Watery Love have been known to bash a face or two live. My favorite show was when they opened for me with the Violators at Kung Fu Necktie a-ways back. Oh jeez, what a night! Anyhow, you guys should really seek out their first 7” on Richie Records: “Debut.” It actually does powerfully slay.