“My father likes to say, ‘people who sweat together stick together,'” Connor Barwin said last night at the Dell Music Center in Strawberry Mansion. It was an image that hit quite close to home for this teeming audience, who was at that moment in their second or third hour of perspiring through 90+ degree heat. But the point being: the crowd braved the heat wave together, raised a lot of money together, and Barwin wanted to take a moment to say “welcome to the Make The World Better family.”
Last night’s concert, headlined by Philly-born stars Japanese Breakfast, was the sixth fundraising effort by Barwin in collaboration with R5 Productions to raise money to rehabilitate parks and rec centers across the city. Beginning with an overhaul of Point Breeze’s Ralph Brooks Park in 2014 (thanks in part to a Union Transfer benefit starring Kurt Vile), the Make The World Better Foundation has gone on to rebuild Smith Playground in South Philly’s West Passyunk neighborhood, Waterloo Playground in West Kensington, and is on to their biggest project to date, a complete overhaul of Vare Recreation Center in Gray’s Ferry. Barwin said last night’s show brought in $250,000 for the foundation’s work.
For many in attendance, the show’s community-minded nature was well-known. To some, it was simply a stellar lineup of leadling lights from the indie rock umbrella, beginning with left-of-center Welsh singer-songwriter Cate Le Bon. For an artist whose work in recorded form can lean quite ethereal, last night’s set had a vibrant pulse to it, something to lift the audience out of the late afternoon funk but not push them too hard, given the climate. Drawing on her two most recent albums, this year’s Pompeii and 2019’s Reward, Le Bon’s performance lolled, it bopped, and it gently grooved, recalling bits of kindred spirits Wye Oak and early Tame Impala, especially the set-closing numbers “Home To You” and “Remembering Me.”
As the sun dipped beyond The Dell’s western tree line and a cooling breeze blew up from the Schuylkill, Hoboken heroes Yo La Tengo took the stage with their trademark frizzle-fried Jersey art pop; the set came in hot with Painful‘s “Big Day Coming,” took a mellow detour into a cover of War’s “Summer,” and then spent an hour alternating between graceful beauty and gnarly noise, with a constant percussive pulse; Japanese Breakfast frontperson Michelle Zauner later declared them “shaker royalty” for their evocative use of maracas and other hand percussion, and those came in to play a lot last night, particularly on a crowd-pleasing rendition of I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One‘s “Autumn Sweater,” one of the band’s most beloved cuts.
It’s a testament to the staying power and prowess of Japanese Breakfast circa 2021-22 that the band was last night able to play their sixth Philadelphia concert since the release of their Grammy-nominated LP Jubilee, and still have it sound as fresh and exciting as it did a year ago. The core band of Zauner, guitarist Peter Bradley, bassist Deven Craige, and drummer Craig Hendrix was augmented last night by touring saxophone player and keyboarist Adam Schatz, violinist / keyboardist / vocalist Molly Germer, and Philly friends Koof Ibi on trumpet and St. Clair Simons on trombone; placed on this bigger stage and playing to their largest hometown audience to date, the music simply ascended to massive highs. The dazzling gong hits on “Paprika,” the soaring horns on “Slide Tackle,” the full ensemble coming together for a hauntingly trippy journey through the set-closing “Diving Woman”…it all sounded arena-ready.
Folded into that were moments of warmth and candor — something JBrekkie always brings to their hometown crowds, but I’m pretty sure I’ve never heard her refer to Bradley as a “Bucks Country prom king” before (as she did coming out of his solo on “Boyish”) or tell the story about the time her old band Little Big League played a draining, doubt-filled, but ultimately rewarding trip to the Virginia indie music festival MACRoCk. The latter was an experience she says reminds her and her team why they endure “the struggle” of the ever-fluctuant music industry, and last night’s all-around rewarding benefit was another example of exactly that.
Below, check out a photos from the gig, by Philly photographer Lisa Schaffer; for more on Make The World Better, visit their website.