Ronnie Vega | photo by John Vettese for WXPN
The Skeleton Key: Remembering Ronnie Vega, upcoming livestreams from Ghosh and Catbite, new tunes, and a novel memento from a 1988 Fugazi show
These are dark times, friends. Coronavirus cases are spiking. People are getting sick and dying. The city has made the correct – but quite sad – decision to shut down all events until February. While I don’t think this will become the new norm, it is so incredibly difficult to just exist in this environment. Depression levels, not surprisingly, are through the roof.
What do you reach for in these situations of unending turmoil and sorrow? What’s your panacea? For so many of us the answer is music and especially live music. That could be watching or especially playing and performing. The fact that we’re not going to have any real concerts or anything – apologies to the livestreams I’m about to promote, but you understand – for at least a year has been especially crushing.
There is a community, a family that exists within the multitude of scenes that make up this city. I’m not just talking about the performers but also of the fans. In DIY music, where oftentimes the bands just play on the floor, there is even less of a barrier between audience and band. The two feed off each other something fierce and the best shows are the ones where everything from the front to the way back of the room feels totally electric.
My friend Ron was someone who was very familiar with that feeling. Maybe you knew him from his rap rock band Ronnie Vega, maybe you knew him as a mainstay at LAVA Space in West Philly for the last few years. Everyone that met Ron – his real name was Curan Cottman but I literally had no clue until he added me on Facebook – knew he was a force for change, an explosive rapper and artist who always wanted more. I’d see Ron at all sorts of shows around Philly, from hiphop to punk to metal, always with the same excited and happy look on his face. He passed away last week at the age of 28 with so many dreams unfulfilled.
Not only did I see Ronnie Vega a bunch and even booked them occasionally – check out those flyers! – but a couple years ago I moved into a house with Kyler, the drummer of the band, and so I’d see Ron all the time. Even after they broke up he’d still come over constantly to hang out and would always talk my ear off about his new musical finds, the tracks he was working on, and everything else going on. There was a lot of upheaval in Ron’s life but he really tried his best to stay positive.
The band turned up a previously unreleased live set from LAVA Space that they were kind enough to share with the column. Just as importantly, Don Giovanni has announced a release of the Ronnie Vega discography with proceeds from sales going to Oshun Family Center, a Philly nonprofit that has been raising funds to provide free mental healthcare to the Black community.
In the press release sent out by the label, Ronnie Vega bassist Ian Winter said, “Curan Cottman aka Ronnie Vega will be remembered as a light in the life of everyone that knew him, but his music talks vividly about the trauma of racism and capitalism that he experienced as Black person in America. To honor our friend, his band would like to make his music available for purchase with all the proceeds going to a fund, organized by Saleemah McNeil, that helps Black people in the Philadelphia area connect with free therapy.”
One of the Ronnie Vega shows I booked was in June of 2016 at LAVA with the late Erik Petersen of Mischief Brew. It’s been almost exactly four years since Erik passed away and this past week I found myself digging through some of those memories, quite literally. Check out this copy of the Mirth demo tape from 2000 I unearthed from deep in a box of flyers, cassettes, patches, and other crap I’ve held on to for decades. You can hear those songs on the collection of early Mischief Brew/Kettle Rebellion tracks Boiling Breakfast Early on their Bandcamp.
In honor of Erik and the impact he had on so many people in Philly and really around the world, Crossed Keys recorded this socially distant cover of “Departure Arrival” and published the video online. Sing along!
I apologize for being such a bummer. Well, not really. No apologies. But still, this is a dark way to kick off this edition of The Skeleton Key. I promise there’s some more positive stuff to talk about.
Actually, here’s a great example of that: tonight at 7 pm tune in to WXPN for the triumphant return of John Morrison to the airwaves! You know I’ll be listening. I don’t know what John will be playing but I’m hoping he’ll include that new track from Moor Mother and billy woods that just dropped a couple weeks back. One way or the other, I’m sure it’ll be great.
Let’s actually get into some new releases cause that seems like a good idea.
This is one of the albums I’m most excited about right now. Deep Tissue is a post-punk band out of West Philly that brings to mind the broodiness of a Christian Death or Institute while also managing to be very fun and downright poppy in parts. I’m sad that there won’t be a record release show anytime soon but I also know the band has been working on this for a year so I’m sure they’re just stoked that it’s finally out.
Hold Down The Ocean is made up of the same people from All Else Failed, one of the greatest hardcore acts to ever come out of Philadelphia. This isn’t as brashly angry as that band but let’s be real: very little is. Instead Hold Down the Ocean gives us the epic and noisy post-rock soundscapes that make up so much of the sound of All Else Failed but in a less furious, more beautiful way.
While the long-running experimental psych metal band now calls Philadelphia home, Queen Elephantine actually started in Hong Kong way back in 2006. Over the past few months the group has released a series of albums all meditating on the theme of global atrophy. Pretty timely, huh?
Tribute to Atrophos Vol 3 came out last month and it’s four tracks of improvised kraut-y trips into the netherworld with guitar, bass, and drums – sure, of course – but also electronics, synth, an extra cacophony of percussion, and even a tanpura, which is a droney stringed instrument originating in Indian classical music. Don’t let the word experimental throw you off: while it’s certainly weird it’s also quite catchy and interesting.
I used to live with Julius Masri and let me tell you there is nobody who loves playing drums as much as he does. Literally every day that he doesn’t have work or a gig this man is in the basement making a racket. It’s awesome and inspiring. If we still lived together I bet we would have started four different bands over the course of the last few months of quarantine.
The West Philly musician’s resume runs the gamut from jazz — Sirius Juju, Dromedaries — to metal — the mind-melting grind duo Night Raids — to a ton of other stuff. Lately he’s been working on a bunch of noise and electronic projects under various titles. His most recent is called The Arabic Room and according to his Bandcamp it’s a “Mixtape album of all original works, veering into all sorts of musical genres. Exploration of Orientalist tropes so thick that Edward Sa3id is rolling in his grave.”
Julius also did this very fun and provocative collaboration with artist Erik Ruin you definitely should watch:
While the cover art to Machines, the new Mt Vengeance album, might make you think this is some Hawkwind-esque five-bong-hits-minimum psychrock tripout, the music is actually way more clever and fun than that. Nothing against that sort of thing, but these days I’m mostly craving constant hooks, guitar riffs, and three minute songs from my rock n’ roll. Mt Vengeance definitely brings all that and more on this album. Considering that the band features members of the great Electric Love Muffin, Uptown Bones, and Ashtabula it is so not surprising.
This was put out on local label Sister Raygun Records who is also releasing This Time You’re On Your Own by Foxycontin in August. Watch this space for more about that!
Before I get into all the livestreams happening I want to impress upon all of you the need to fill out the form on https://www.saveourstages.com/. The website is run by the National Independent Venue Association and it will send a message to your elected officials in Congress about the need to support the RESTART Act, a bill that would “ensure the survival of independent venues across the nation” according to the site. Every day I hear the news about another venue that’s had to shutter its doors forever and I’m afraid it’s only a matter of time until this happens here in Philly.
On a slightly more positive note, I just saw that the Paul Robeson House at 50th and Walnut, the home the noted actor, musician, communist, and activist lived in between 1966 and his death in 1976, received a notable grant from the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund. If you’ve never listened to Robeson I’d recommend starting with his rendition of “Ol’ Man River” from the 1927 musical Show Boat if just because it’s one of the many things he’s known for, but really it’s all quite beautiful. Also check out his mural at 45th and Walnut, it’s one of my favorites in the city.
The first thing on my calendar for the next couple weeks is the Elegy for Justice community vigil on Sunday night on the east stairs of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. That’s the string ensemble in honor of the late Elijah McClain from Denver, a violinist, and West Philadelphia cellist Mouhamed Cisse. McClain was killed by police in August of 2019, while Cisse was shot and killed in an apparent random attack last month.
Organized by members of the Bismuth Quartet and other groups the event aims to, “lift up voices of Black artists, musicians, composers, community members, friends, families, neighbors, youth.”
I attended the vigil on the 15th at Malcolm X Park in West Philly and it was an extremely powerful and moving performance. You can see a couple pictures from that below:
We’ve written a bunch about Ghosh recently here at The Key but they so totally deserve it. I’ve even seen some chatter from folks twice their ages on some music nerd message boards I’m on about how unabashedly fun the electro dance punk duo are. Your chance to see them live is on the 22nd with Yaki and Walt Funk — members of the equally awesome Eat — on Twitch.
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We are very excited to announce we’re organizing a live stream performance on Wednesday July 22nd at 8pm EST. It will be viewable on our twitch channel- twitch.tv/ghoshaliens – We are also very stoked that we will be joined by homies Yaki and Walt Funk. It’s a new project we’re doing with hopes to turn it into a regular thing. So save the date and tune and help us make it a success. �Ȉ
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This might seem a bit meta but on the 28th the American Composers Forum is holding an online workshop about livestreaming. Hosted by Philly musician and educator Adam Vidiksis, the event “will cover various issues and strategies related to remote concerts, pros & cons of various platforms (Zoom, MIDI networks, SoundJack, livestream, etc.), affordable video and audio hardware, and tips for building audiences and community around your performances.” This seems pretty integral for any musician hoping to play some shows over the next few months so sign up now cause space is limited.
On the 31st check out the the Exotic Fever 20th anniversary online festival for performances from War on Women, Upholstery, Geoff Rickly from Thursday, and a bunch more. Twenty years is a long time to run a label and I’m very excited for this. Finally on the 1st make sure to tune in to two tone favorites Catbite with NYC ska stalwarts The Slackers.
I wanted to end this column on a bit more of a high note. On Instagram recently I saw this incredible tattoo of the iconic picture of Guy Picciotto from Fugazi hanging upside down from a basketball hoop at their Philly gig in 1988. I thought I might want to include it in the column and then after doing a little research realized that the person who got the tattoo is the same person who booked that famous show at the YWCA. That would be Mickey Lynch.
I reached out to Lynch to make sure I could publish the picture and he asked me if I wanted to include a bunch of shots he took at the show more than three decades ago. Duh! So check those out below — especially the ones of a very young Scram featuring Elliot Levin on sax! — and also peep the original picture the tattoo is based off of which was taken by Sean Gustilo, who used to do Philly Zine and was involved in the Cabbage Collective booking organization. For more about him give a listen to this interview he did with Joseph Gervasi as part of the the Loud! Fast! Philly! series.
Alright! That is it for this column. I’ll be back in a couple weeks and we will talk about all the amazing bands playing the Folk Festival this year. As always, if you have any hot tips, suggestions, or criticisms feel free to hit me up on Twitter at @talkofthetizzy. See you in August!