Milford Graves | photo via Ars Nova Workshop
The Skeleton Key: Remembering Milford Graves, then closing out February with a Funk Cancer benefit, Two Piece Fest, programming from Black Quantum Futurism and the Folksong Society, and lots of new music
Before we get to the rest of this column I just want to share a bit of late-breaking news: the permit PhilaMOCA applied for in March of 2020 was finally approved by the city, the latest step in their slow march back to reopening after being shut down in fall of 2019. Of course with the pandemic still raging I don’t expect any events there until everyone has been vaccinated but this is a very big step in the right direction.
Going to start off this edition of the Skeleton Key by talking about Milford Graves. The percussionist, artist, scientist, and all-around visionary passed away this week at the age of 79. While Graves never lived in Philadelphia and did not perform here often over the years, he was quite popular in the city. A 2014 show at Bartram’s Garden in Southwest Philly is still the stuff of legend for everyone lucky enough to be in attendance. That concert began a relationship with Ars Nova Workship that was cemented last year when the music presenters partnered with the Institute of Contemporary Art to put together one of the first major retrospectives of his life’s work.
So much of what Milford created – music, art, dance, and more – was centered on the study of the heartbeat. He had an EKG machine he used to record and analyze the heart rhythms of thousands of visitors to his home in Queens. This was an obsession. The fact that in his last few years he suffered from amyloid cardiomyopathy or ‘stiff heart syndrome,’ a very serious illness that kept him physically confined and unable to play music, was a strange irony.
In 2018, when doctors gave him six months to live, Graves decided that he needed to study his own body to try and figure out a course of action. He got an ultrasound machine and went to work analyzing what was wrong. While he couldn’t leave his living room he would spend hours tapping out a rhythm on a drum perched on his lap, urging his heart to follow suite. Maybe it was that, maybe it was the efforts of his cardiologist, maybe it was a mix of the two, but Milford kept on going.
This exhibit ran from September through the end of January and while he was unable to come to Philly to see it in the flesh, he did join in on a lot of the virtual programming, including the final Zoom call with Susie Ibarra and Will Calhoun on the 28th. I tuned in to a number of the discussions and conversations and it was always so special when Milford would weigh in. His body might have been failing but his mind was as strong as ever.
Milford meant a lot to people. I recognize that’s a cliche thing to say when somebody passes but it’s true. Those who knew him, who studied under him, who played with him, they were of course quite sad and upset about his death. But those who didn’t know him personally – and I put myself squarely in this category, though I did jump in the deep end while writing an article about the exhibit for this esteemed publication back in September – also experienced his loss in achingly profound ways. It wasn’t just his role as an elder in jazz history, though that’s of course a big part of it. It was the fact that everything he did, no matter the medium or mediums, felt absolutely universal in its scope. It was never just music or just art. It wasn’t even just science. Listening to him explain his work, there was a sense that you could talk to him about anything. And you probably could.
Ars Nova shared a playlist that was put together by Jake Meginsky, the director of the Milford Graves: Full Mantis documentary that came out in 2018. Not surprisingly, it’s awesome. I’d recommend listening to it through headphones while reading the incredibly detailed and fun profile of Milford that appeared in The Wire that same year. Also be sure to check out the tributes that appeared everywhere from NPR to The Guardian to Rolling Stone.
There is a whole lot to get to in this column so let’s jump right into the calendar. Tonight at 8:30pm is the monthly Warp Factor 9 concert, this time around featuring pianist Jim Holton alongside one of my favorites, the guitar / percussion duo Bethlehem and Sad Patrick. There’s a chance the show might be derailed by the weather – even though it’s online, of course – so be sure to pay attention to social media.
Tune in to WXPN tomorrow night cause right after the new episode of Culture Cypher Radio from 7pm to 10pm WRTI and XPN are co-presenting Devotion: A Love Supreme, a concert by the Orrin Evans Trio playing the iconic John Coltrane album.
Also that night is the first Monthly Fund show of the year. The benefit series will kick off 2021 with performances from Attia Taylor and Upholstery as well as a virtual open mic, all benefiting the Women’s Medical Fund.
On Saturday you have a choice between the Philadelphia Folksong Society’s winter concert and the Funk Cancer benefit. Or I guess you could just have them open in different tabs? I can’t wait for real, in-person events again, but until that happens I am happy with all these online shows as a stopgap, especially when the quality of the performers is as high as these two shows.
The Funk Cancer show, coming at you live from the Ardmore Music Hall, is a benefit for local musician Yeho Bostick (Likebirds, Circadian Rhythms) who has been receiving treatment for bone cancer over the past year. Watching his progress as he slowly-but-surely beat this disease has been incredible. This concert is not just the culmination of a lot of hard work on the part of Yeho and a core group of his friends but also a celebration of his good health. I can’t imagine going through chemo, surgery, physical therapy, and everything else he’s had to deal with, much less during a global pandemic, and remaining as positive and optimistic as he’s been through all of it. It’s all quite inspirational.
Bands playing are Trap Rabbit, Eat Your Beats, Darlingtyn, Interminable, Martronimous, Honey Chile, Bronson Tennis, and Likebirds, with a “special feature” by Circadian Rhythms who have gotten back together for this event. Read more about them in this article about their last show back in 2019.
The Folksong Sociey’s “Cabin Fever Fest” goes through Sunday. The lineup includes Keb’ Mo’, Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn, Valerie June – recently featured in our fantastic Black Inspirations series talking about the great Alice Coltrane – and a ton more from around the city and around the world. More info about that can be found on the PFS website.
I want to pause the calendar real quick to talk about some of the albums that came out over the past couple weeks. Actually let’s start with an announcement: the long-awaited new album from basement grunge sweethearts King Azaz will finally be coming out in April on Get Better Records. I previewed a track from Forever Green in this very column back in April of 2020. I always thought that one of the benefits of being in a two piece band was being able to get things done quicker and easier but what do I know!
Speaking of two piece bands on Get Better, HIRS hinted that their new album might be coming out soon. How they’ll top the last one is anybody’s guess – getting Shirley Manson from Garbage and Laura Jane Grace from Against Me! to do guest vocals on a screechingly loud punk and grind album is still one of the coolest things that’s ever happened – but I’m sure they’ll figure something out.
The Sweatys – Drills
This is the third demo tape from West Philly punkers The Sweatys. Listening to Drills I’m getting flashbacks to crowded, beer-soaked shows on Lancaster Ave. back in the day. Part Violent Society, part Plow United, but with the self-awareness that comes with the fact that it’s 2021 and not 1997, for better or worse. The music on Drills is brash, dumb, and totally fun. I am here for it. Read an interview with lead Sweaty Joseph Meadows over on the Blandcamp blog.
People Skills – As Thru Days of Endless
The newest from People Skills runs the gamut from minimal electronic stuff to Mount Eerie-esque indie to more rhythmic, harsher sounds, sometimes all in the same song. The label describes it as “ambient fog, blurred confessions, snide rhythmic noir, true driftings from a mad planet” and while that might seem like total word salad, listening through the album I’m pretty sure I can point to where each of those comes up.This isn’t exactly comfort music but something about As Thru Days of Endless is very comforting, especially these days when all interactions feel so absolutely alien.
A Good Host – Pick Up the Phone
Joe Carlough has been staying very busy during quarantine. He’s been making zines, running This & That Tapes – his label that’s released a bunch of awesome albums from Joe Jack Talcum, Lauren Napier, and more – and now he’s put out out an EP under the name A Good Host. The lo-fi, synthy tracks on Pick Up the Phone were made on small pocket synths, the KORG app for the Nintendo Switch, and a homemade microphone made out of parts salvaged from a phone receiver. That last part is important: the entire album is entirely phone-themed so it makes sense that a telephone was used in its creation. It’s all quite catchy and I can’t wait to hear the rest of the songs.
Monkey Monk – Love at 1st, 2nd, & 3rd night
Love at 1st, 2nd, & 3rd night is a full hour of instrumental songs ranging in style from psych to ambient to trip hop. And that’s just in the first few tracks! The creator of this cacophony is Vosco Adams, lead singer of 80’s hardcore band Ruin. He’s been putting out solo stuff for years and I’m very thankful that all of it – most? – is collected in one place over on his Bandcamp.
Before we get back into the rest of the dates, I want to congratulate Moor Mother and Rasheedah Phillips from the Black Quantum Futurism collective on being awarded a residency at CERN, the European Organization For Nuclear Research. They’re going to be working on a project based around the idea that “quantum physics can influence how people think about, experience and measure time in everyday reality, exploring the possibilities that quantum physics offers beyond the limitations of traditional, linear notions of time.” How incredible is that?
Be sure to check out the Local Mean Time – BQF Black History/Futures Month events they’ve been hosting that range from poetry workshops to sci-fi readings to conversations about culture and politics. I’m especially looking forward to the “Unpacking Systemic Racism in the Music Industry” event they’re doing on the 28th via Zoom.
While we’re at it kudos also go out to Hound’s Perry Shall for designing the cover of the new Green Day album. It’s not nuclear physics, sure, but it is very, very cool. Good week for Philadelphia! On top of that and all the work he’s been doing for Easy Eye Sound (like the cover of Dan Auerbach’s new project around the unreleased music of Tony Joe White), Perry has contributed a piece of “lunch-themed” art to a virtual auction Middle Child is hosting tomorrow to raise money for the National Independent Venue Association’s #SaveOurStages initiative. You can find more about that on the Middle Child Instagram.
On Thursday the 25th Bowerbird and The Rotunda are presenting multi-instrumentalist Laura Baird as part of the Liminal States series. Those are the “late night, live streamed concerts intended to be listened to as you fall asleep” they’ve been hosting for the past month. It feels exceptionally hard to relax these days and so this series has been very welcome.
That Sunday is the 14th annual Two Piece Fest. I really wish that the world was in better shape because as always I was really, really looking forward to this show. Last year I even got to play it! Still, I am happy that it’s been moved online because a) the idea of it not happening at all is incredibly depressing and b) the list of bands performing this year is honestly mind-blowing.
I mean, check it out: Shellshag, Lovelorn, Heavy Medical, 7th Victim, The Great Cackler, Righteous Aquarium & Jet Lightspeed, Sandcastle, New Zealand’s Hamish Kilgour (The Clean) and Paul Kean (The Bats), SATWO from Malaysia, and so many other great duos. Oh, and of course Peter & Craig, the main organizers of the festival and the only band that has played every single one over the years. Also the whole thing is a benefit for Mutual Aid Philly. I can’t wait!
Also that day the Folksong Society and XPN are presenting the 9th annual Winter Doldrums, an all-day concert benefiting the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. The lineup is fantastic – Dar Williams, Kuf Knotz & Christine Elise, Emily Drinker, Andrew Lipke, and many, many more – and the cause is rather necessary, especially these days, so be sure to tune in.
Alright! That is it for this month. Please remember to always wear a mask, keep your distance, and sign up for a vaccine. We’ve reached the year mark and I truly hate this new normal but the only way forward is to stay the course. It’s all very tough and the future feels impossible but I have faith that we’ll get there by summer or fall.
If you need a boost – let’s be real, you definitely need a boost – please watch this newly-unearthed video of local electronic pioneers Crash Course In Science playing Houston Hall at the benefit for XPN DJ Lee Paris in 1986. This amazing piece of Philly history was posted by the nerds at Freedom Has No Bounds, of course. I finally got to write about that site recently and you can read my article over here.
As always feel free to hit me up on Twitter with any hot tips at @talkofthetizzy! See you in March.