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The Skeleton Key: From Amanda X, Break Free Fest, and Eugene Chadbourne to Nina Simone, Sun Ra, The Trocadero, and Yarrow, we’ve got you covered this May
A friend of mine who has been playing in bands for more than two decades recently asked me, only half-joking, where I find the energy to go to as many shows as I do. While I wanted to protest or at the very least get humorously defensive — “I don’t go to that many shows! Whatever!” — I realized it was a good question because, well, I do end up at a lot of shows every month. I mean, duh, I was asked to do this column for a reason.
Truth be told, I didn’t have a great answer for her. I found a home in music when I was 18 and moved to Philadelphia after spending five long, boring, and lonely years in South Florida. My first proper show was a couple weeks after getting here in September of 1997 — Helmet, The Melvins, Today Is The Day, and Hovercraft at The Trocadero — and I haven’t looked back since. It’s just what I do, for better or worse.
But while I didn’t have a good or even clever response to her question, I did have the realization that part of the reason I spend so much time watching live music is because there’s so much going on. Jazz, punk, hip hop, klezmer, chamber music. Eastern European choral bands. Indian classical. Harsh noise, catchy indie rock, techno DJs spinning all night long. If you wanted to, you could see a different type of music just about every night in our city and I think that’s amazing.
So with that in mind let’s get into the calendar for May. Tonight at Johnny Brenda’s it’s lo-fi country crooners Gun Outfit with Ornament and Carnivorous Bells. Also, at Kung Fu Necktie, it’s one of my favorites, Seattle’s King Dude. The absurdly-named band — they sound somewhere between Nick Cave at his gothiest and Leonard Cohen at his, uhh, most Leonard Cohen — has been around for close to a decade at this point and never fails to put on a wonderful performance.
Speaking of absurd, there’s really no better word to describe the career of Jon Mikl Thor, the bodybuilder-turned-actor-turned-rocker who has been defining and refining the very essence of heavy metal since the early 70s. There’s even a documentary about him, I Am Thor, which came out in 2015. Come to PhilaMOCA on Tuesday to see him perform songs including “We Live to Rock” and “Let the Blood Run Red” and a ton of other epic, fist-pumping ballads. It’ll be awesome.
Stoke that rock n’ roll energy and keep it blazing two days later with a rare show at Brave New Worlds, the comic book shop in Old City. Celebrating the recent publication of the graphic novel “Little Girls” about a monster targeting children and the two friends who step up to fight it, this free event will include performances by Amanda X and Teenage Bigfoot.
That Friday is definitely one of those times I wish I could be in four places at once. Up in Germantown the nine piece Džambo Aguševi Orchestra from Macedonia — “the apex of the younger generation of Balkan Romani brass performers” according to the writeup — are playing at Rigby Mansion with West Philly Orchestra. In West Philly there’s a Get Better Records showcase with HIRS, Coherence, Choked Up, and Yarrow, who incidentally will be recording a Key Studio Session for XPN this month. And if you’re out in Fishtown or Northern Liberties you have a choice between the Olivia Neutron-John record release at PhilaMOCA with The Ire or over at Kung Fu Necktie the always interesting and fun Dub Trio. Decisions, decisions!
The next day is a lot easier: go to Haus of Yarga – what used to be known as Pi Lam, though they’ve since moved – in beautiful West Philly for the annual BBQ festival! Yes, it’s that time and just because the UPenn-related “freak frat” had to move off campus doesn’t mean the decades long tradition of the all-day long BBQ has to stop. Read more about all that in this edition of The Skeleton Key from last August.
This year’s lineup, headlined by lo-fi pop genius Shamir, is a great mix of punk, hip hop, the noisy, the weird, and even some spoken word. Performers include Eat (who just put out an amazing EP of dancy no-wave that you need to check out!), Copley Woods, Chava, Apt A, Trash Knife, and many more. If you get there earlier enough you might even catch a certain columnist playing sax with his band while eating three veggie burgers at the same time!
If you get sick of hanging out at BBQ head down the block to Lightbox for a screening of the classic British subculture film Babylon from 1980 that chronicles the life of a dancehall DJ in South London. Before the screening, the House of Roots Soundsystem will be spinning some songs on the International House plaza so be sure to check that out, too.
Also that night the legendary Eugene Chadbourne will be coming to Jerry’s on Front with his newest backing band, NYC psychers Sunwatchers . They put out a collaborative LP two years ago that’s almost all Minutemen covers so be ready to sing along to your favorites. The last time I saw Chadbourne was eight years ago when he was playing with just a drummer — I mean, not “just a drummer” cause it was the great Tatsuya Nakatani, who at the time was still living in Philly — so I’m excited to witness this iteration of the longtime lo-fi avant weirdo’s music. Opening up will be San Francisco’s Dire Wolves who promise to reach “the nebulous intersection of psych, kosmische beat and spiritual jazz.” Sounds good to me!
There are three fantastic shows on Wednesday the 15th that’ll all hopefully be packed solid. One of the most thrilling and interesting bands happening right now, NYC’s Show Me The Body, will be at the batting cages with Symbiote, Junta, and Ghösh for what is sure to be an exceptional show. Over in the sanctuary of the First Unitarian Church you have a really cool synthwave/industrial concert with Perturbator, Ghost, and Korine. And across town one of the finest jazz bands to come out of Philly over the past decade, Camae Ayewa’s Irreversible Entanglements, is finally playing a hometown show after being on tour across the country and across the world for what seems like forever. They’ll be headlining Johnny Brenda’s that night on a stacked bill that includes Upholstery (who celebrates the release of their new record on Exotic Fever) and Settled Arrows. In related news, Ayewa just recorded a collaborative track with industrial noise duo Zonal that is sure to blow everyone’s minds just a little more than Moor Mother stuff already does on the reg .
Here’s footage of the three of them from a show in Barcelona last year:
There’s a couple newer ongoing musical series to be aware of if you’re into jazz, lo-fi guitar stuff, and the like…and this month both are falling on that Thursday. Though hopefully that won’t be the case in the future. In West Philly, it’s Warp Factor 9 at the Suzuki Piano Academy at 47th and Cedar which this time around features a duo of guitarist Nick Millevoi – fresh off the release of the Desertion Trio’s new album – and trombone player Dan Blacksberg. Also performing is multi-instrumentalist Kyle Press from Impressionist and The Love Club who put out his debut album last month.
Over in the Literature Department of the Free Library’s main branch you can see local bedroom pop maven Whomst at the inaugural Song-Poems concert, where “Philadelphia musicians interpret and perform works from the library’s vast poetry collection.” The second in the series will be two weeks later this time with guitarist Bill Nace at the helm.
No matter what you end up doing that Friday night you should make it a point to first head down to Passyunk Ave. to see one of the most fun bands happening these days, Austin’s Chronophage, play an in-store at Beautiful World Syndicate. The Facebook invite compares the band to Beat Happening, Cleaners From Venus, and Wipers and let me tell you that’s 100% not hyperbole. Catch them in a small space now because the next time they come through you’re not going to be that lucky.
When that show is over you should try and zip over to either Random Tea Room for that Ross Wightman, Sam Gasparre, and Aaron Pond improv guitar and voice show or out to The Rotunda in West Philly for the local premiere of the 1966 short film The Magic Sun, which features the Sun Ra Arkestra. The Bowerbird-curated event will also include a number of other shorts as well as a live performance by new experimental collective Philly A|V.
The best thing happening that Saturday is that Olden Yolk show over at Jerry’s. If you haven’t listened to Olden Yolk and you’re a fan of any and and all folk rock you owe it to yourself to give them a spin. This is just some delightful and interesting music and it’ll be a real treat to see live.
The next day is that final locals-only show at The Troc, a Nina Simone festival in Germantown, Joe Jack Talcum and S.T.A.R.W.O.O.D. at PhilaMOCA, and an absolutely crucial metal show over at Boot & Saddle.
First things first, that Trocadero lineup because it’s truly massive: when it was announced that the Troc was shutting down everyone, including this reporter, went through their mental list of all the shows they had gone to at the Chinatown venue over the years. There were a few final concerts announced but nothing that really felt like any kind of closure. Thankfully Lisa Flynn, who promoted shows at the space for many years, put together this one. Bands appearing include Stinking Lizaveta, Pissed Jeans, Workhorse III, Pagan Babies, Dandelion, and more. Come out! This is going to be very special.
The all-day Singing Nina conference and festival being put on by Germantown Arts is sure to be a really cool event. The revered soul singer passed away more than 15 years ago and interest in her life and music continues to be strong. This celebration will include a screening of the documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? as well as a discussion of her work and a performance of some of her more iconic songs by the seven piece string ensemble Rootstock Republic.
Final two events on the calendar for that night are that PhilaMOCA show with the always fantastic Joe Jack Talcum, who is releasing something this month as part of the This & That Tapes series, and heavy metal heavyweights Graveturner, Witchtrial, and the mysterious “Demon Lover” at Boot & Saddle.
On Tuesday the 21st Radiator Hospital are playing a record release show for their latest — or should I say his latest, since this one is a solo album of founding member Sam Cook-Parrott, who plays all the instruments on the record — Music for Daydreaming, which is being released on Salinas Records. More information about that here. Opening up will be Big Nothing, Swanning, and Cherry. Also that night Pile and C.H.E.W. will be at Boot & Saddle for a 21+ show while on Wednesday the same lineup is playing PhilaMOCA, which is all-ages.
Saturday and Sunday is all Break Free Fest. The two day punk and hardcore festival that centers black and brown artists is one of the most exciting things that happens in Philly all year and the 2019 lineup is ridiculously stacked. It’s just one banger after another after another at The Rotunda with Soul Glo (who are also putting out new stuff soon!), Amygdala, Truth Cult, Racetraitor, 700 Bliss (another Camae Ayewa project), and so many more. This is going to be a very memorable couple days and you’re going to want to be there.
Proving my point that Philadelphia is large and contains multitudes, on the final Thursday in May drop everything — and then pick it up, pick it up, pick it up — because there’s an actual ska and rocksteady show that night! The always amazing Toots and The Maytals are playing at The Keswick out in Glenside. And this isn’t even the first ska show of the month since The Slackers and Ruder Than You were at World Cafe Live last night. I apologize to my fellow nerds but this column can only be so long and I wasn’t able to include it. Maybe I’ll do an all-ska edition of The Skeleton Key in the future, just you wait!
Keep that party spirit going the next day with a trip to 10th and Ellsworth for the annual St. Maron Lebanese Festival. Starting on the afternoon of the 31st and going all weekend, this longstanding South Philly celebration includes performances by George Maalouf and his band and the St. Maron Dabke Troupe along with food, dance, and so much more.
The last thing on my May calendar is the first of two Big Mess Cabaret shows at The Trocadero. Big Mess, which we covered in our March article on The Dead Milkmen, called The Troc home for many, many years and it’s totally fitting for them to come back for one final weekend of performances.
Alright! That’s it for this column. Thanks for reading and be sure to send any and all hot tips to @talkofthetizzy on Twitter! I’ll see you at the show.