The sights and excitement of Philly Music Fest - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart

The annual Philly Music Fest is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. Now in its seventh year, the multi-day celebration of bands and singer-songwriters rooted in the Delaware Valley region is more expansive than ever, placing 24 artists onstage at six area venues over the past seven days. It was a joyful melee of sound and an eclectic array of styles, with a ton of hometown pride in the air, as well as support for the next generation of local artists: as in years past, funds from Philly Music Fest go to a handful of local nonprofits including the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra, Play On Philly, Rock to The Future, Beyond The Bars and more.

From big-name artists performing sold-out gigs in intimate rooms to buzzing new names winning over festivalgoers, there were a lot of sights and sounds to take as we made our way across the fertile terrain of Philly Music Fest 2023. Here’s a rundown of who and what we heard and saw over the past week.

Day 1: Ardmore Music Hall with Emily Robb, Schoolly D, and Kurt Vile

Emily Robb at Philly Music Fest | photo by John Vettese for WXPN

First artist, first day is a crucial spot for setting the tone of the festival, and placing experimental guitarist Emily Robb in that position was a bold move that paid off well. During her half-hour set, Robb played a set of gnarly guitar instrumentals channeling Neil Young, Sonic Youth, and scene peer Bill Nace, rocking and roaring and whetting the appetite of the crowd packing Ardmore Music Hall for hometown hero Kurt Vile.

Schoolly D at Philly Music Fest | photo by John Vettese for WXPN

The room neared capacity when Vile took the stage to giddily introduce Philadelphia hip-hop icon Schoolly D. With stage lights set to deep red (’cause he’s all about love, Schoolly told the crowd a couple times) and a free-flowing parade of hits, from “Gucci Time” to “Saturday Night” to “PSK (What Does It Mean?),” this half-hour performance was an optimal way to experience an artist who’s sometimes an unpredictable presence in the scene. Was he going to he play a shorter set than we hoped? Would we hear the songs we wanted? The answers were no, and a resounding yes: Schoolly was stoked, this crowd was stoked, and he left us primed to watch Kurt rock out.

Kurt Vile at Philly Music Fest | photo by John Vettese for WXPN

Closing out night one with his first of two headlining underplays, Philly’s self-styled “constant hitmaker” Kurt Vile dug into the singular middle ground between experimental space rock and rootsy singer-songwriter reflection he’s honed over the past two decades. Longtime collaborator Jesse Trbovich joined him on synth and guitar, as did drummer Kyle Spence, and they grooved through material from last year’s reflective (watch my moves) LP, mixed in with poppy hits like “Pretty Pimpin” as well as deep cuts like the raging “Check Baby” and a pensive “Runner Ups.” When the clock wound down at 11:30, we couldn’t wait to do it again the next night.

Day 2: Ardmore Music Hall with Florry, Purling Hiss, and Kurt Vile

Florry at Philly Music Fest | photo by John Vettese for WXPN

The seven members of much-hyped country-punk outfit Florry packed the Ardmore Music Hall stage to kick off the second half of Kurt Vile’s two-night stand. Led by singer-guitarist Francie Medosch, the band jams like they spent a ton of time studying The Allman Brothers’ At Fillmore East, offering moments of Johnny and June Carter Cash balladeering at quieter points. It might not be the most unique style, but Florry’s musicianship is undeniable, and the sheer joy they have performing together is a delight to behold.

Purling Hiss at Philly Music Fest | photo by John Vettese for WXPN

When they were both on the come-up 15 years ago, Kurt Vile did a lot of formative gigging and touring with Philly guitar shredder Mike Polizze in various bands including Purling Hiss. Their long-standing connection made the Hiss a ideal companion for Vile’s second night at Ardmore, and Polizze and his bandmates wailed and shredded on classics they might have rocked onstage back in the day, “Run From The City” to “Almost Washed My Hair.”

Kurt Vile at Philly Music Fest | photo by John Vettese for WXPN

Returning to the stage for night two, Kurt Vile made only slight, but definately appreciated variations from night one’s playbook. This time the solo-acoustic interlude mid-set featured a beautiful rendition of “Blackberry Song” from his 2009 breakout album Childish Prodigy. And since it was the birthday of singer-songwriter icon (and one of KV’s personal heroes) John Prine, Vile sent out his cover of “How Lucky” to Prine for the occasion. Prodigy‘s trippy cover of “Monkey” by 90s cult favorite supergroup Dim Stars landed in the encore too, and generally Vile and his band seemed pumped to be rocking the room again. The best part about this gig, though, might have been seeing Medosch and her bandmates in Florry packing the front row and blissing out once Kurt took the stage.

Day 3: World Cafe Live with Ryan Gilfillian, Julia Pratt, Sadurn, Sophie Coran, Trap Rabbit, and Marian Hill

Ryan Gilfillian at Philly Music Fest | photo by John Vettese for WXPN

This was the big day: the festival centerpiece, the greatest number of artists playing two stages at the venue where Philly Music Fest got its start. The World Cafe Live show got its start with soul singer-songwriter Ryan Gilfillian and his band — accented by Camden, NJ trumpet star Arnetta Johnson — playing the lounge and showcasing his emotive debut EP Evergreen as well as his skillful covers, like Chris Stapleton’s “Tennessee Whiskey.”

Julia Pratt at Philly Music Fest | photo by John Vettese for WXPN

A rising star in the indie singer-songwriter scene, Julia Pratt‘s intimate and endlessly catchy music resonated in a big way with the Philly Music Fest crowd. Pratt used her set to debut material from her newly-announced EP Two To Tango, out on October 27th, and the set was punctuated by dancers pairing off and strutting romantically across the floor of the Cafe lounge.

Sadurn at Philly Music Fest | photo by John Vettese for WXPN

Contemplative rootsy indie rockers Sadurn were the first band to take World Cafe Live’s Music Hall stage, showcasing their stellar 2022 album Radiator and its skillful songwriting steeped in the work of Gillian Welch and Jason Molina — not to mention some newer material that frontperson G de Groot jokingly described as “pretty emo.” Though noise from an overly chatty bar crowd threatened to overrun the set’s quietest, most tender moments, Sadurn powered through and kept the fans on the floor engaged with a mix of dynamic rockers and intimate reflection.

Sophie Coran at Philly Music Fest | photo by John Vettese for WXPN

Back upstairs on World Cafe Live’s lounge stage, local pianist and singer-songwriter Sophie Coran gave a vibrant performance showing off a fresh batch of material from a forthcoming project of her own (Philly Music Fest seems to more and more be a safe space for artists testing out their next chapter). Coran is stylish, poised, and engaging, and her band took her tender songwriting and amplified it in a big way.

Trap Rabbit at Philly Music Fest | photo by John Vettese for WXPN

Speaking of Coran’s band, two long-standing members — keys player Logan Roth and drummer Arjun Dube — have a project of their own called Trap Rabbit that specializes in immersive, groove-laden, jazz / prog instrumentals. With most of their gear already in place on the Lounge stage, the show quickly launched into a Trap Rabbit set, with meditative trumpet by Martronimous and a joyous bass bump care of Jonathan Coleman of Muscle Tough keeping the crowd’s energy high.

Marian Hill at Philly Music Fest | photo by John Vettese for WXPN

Their Philly Music Fest headlining slot was a homecoming for Marian Hill, and it was their first show in over a year. Suffice it to say the locally-rooted electropop outfit — now split between Philly, New York, and Los Angeles — knocked it out of the park, reminding the crowd of the catalog of hits they produced in the 20-teens (“Down,” “One Time,” “Subtle Thing,” “Whisky”) and playing their new singles “Lemme Go” and “You Were Always Sure” live for the first time (the latter performed in the band’s Key Studio Session earlier this month). With the Phillies in the Red October post-season zone, lead singer Sam Gongol donned a Bryce Harper jersey for the encore as the band covered Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own” for a joyous and very Philly-centric singalong.

Day 4: Johnny Brenda’s with Yowler, Gladie, and Tigers Jaw

Yowler at Philly Music Fest | photo by John Vettese for WXPN

Singer-guitarist Maryn Jones got their start in the Columbus, Ohio scene in bands like All Dogs and Saintseneca — bands that, in the early 20-teens, found themselves in Philly quite often, playing the city’s fertile network of DIY spaces, making new friends, and establishing a satellite branch of their community. By the decade’s end, Jones had moved to Philly while re-establishing themselves with the hooky indie rock project Yowler, which got the show started at Johnny Brenda’s on night four, playing music from their 2018 album Black Dog In My Path and beyond.

Gladie at Philly Music Fest | photo by John Vettese for WXPN

On the heels of a stellar Free At Noon performance, Philly’s Gladie took the middle slot at this DIY / punk centric lineup at Johnny Brenda’s. Led by co-songwriters Augusta Koch and Matt Schimelfenig, the band’s songwriting is at turns gritty and vulnerable, as well as spacey and introspective, and the road-seasoned band (they’ve been on tour all fall with Jeff Rosenstock) played an impressive set to the packed room.

Tigers Jaw at Philly Music Fest | photo by John Vettese for WXPN

Both other bands on the night four Philly Music Fest bill spoke lovingly of headliners Tigers Jaw — a force in the emo-adjacent indie rock world for over 15 years. Born in Scranton, with key players based in Philly for the better part of the last decade, Tigers Jaw’s set was a tour-de-force of new music from last year’s I Won’t Care How You RememberMe, back-catalog favorites (“Plane vs Tank vs Submarine” from the band’s 2008 self-titled album is always sure to get the crowd going), a cover of “Constant Headache” by scene peers Joyce Manor, and the voices of the entire room constantly joining in with co-frontpersons Ben Walsh and Brianna Collins.

Day 5: MilkBoy with Moustapha Noumbissi, Grocer, and Mo Lowda & The Humble

Sadly, in our frenzy of running around at PMF 2023, we all but missed one of the bands on the lineup — the bluegrass sextet Cheddar Boys, who were glefully jamming out the final song of their set in stylish, round a single mic style when we stepped into the room at MilkBoy on Friday. Apologies to this band for not getting them represented in the mix of photos you see here; their set sounded turbulent and so much fun.

Moustapha Noumbissi at Philly Music Fest | photo by John Vettese for WXPN

The room was packed and the energy was high for a riveting performance from Philly singer-songwriter Moustapha Noumbissi, whose commanding presence and heartfelt songs had the tiny Chestnut Street venue locked in. Backed by Manny Roach on bass, Keaton Thandi on drums, and Will Brown on guitar, Noumbissi gave most of the singles he’s released to date a strong showing, and for a set-closing unreleased song, Noumbissi put down his guitar and took the vocal mic to pace the stage and work the crowd with the charisma and ferocity of a hardcore punk singer. Big things are ahead for this guy.

Grocer at Philly Music Fest | photo by John Vettese for WXPN

Indie three-piece Grocer are a tough nut to crack. They’re irreverent as performers but deeply serious as players; their songs are as apt to tackle weighty issues like misogyny and existential dread as they are to be about silly things like looking for parking and calling out of work. Their driving performance on the MilkBoy stage was a mix of all of the above: studious technical proficency, light comedy, and anthemic rage.

Mo Lowda and the Humble at Philly Music Fest | photo by John Vettese for WXPN

Fresh off their latest run across the country, veteran Philly modern rockers Mo Lowda & The Humble came out onstage to Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” — which, despite being in the thick of spooky season, had a nice wistful effect on the crowd. From there, the band promptly launched into a riveting, rollicking set of their knuckle-busting jams like “Pearls” and “Restive,” which have a simultaneous swagger and sensitivity that worked wonders on a Friday night in center city Philadelphia.

Day 6: Underground Arts with HUEY, The Cosmonaut., Church Girls, Knifeplay, and Algernon Cadwallader

HUEY, The Cosmonaut. at Philly Music Fest | photo by John Vettese for WXPN

Saturday night’s bill at Underground Arts was eclectic and packed, and it got under way with recent Key Studio Sessions starHUEY, The Cosmonaut., who got the night started with a performace showing the stylistic scope of his recent Rustbelt Radio LP. Songs moved from radiant funk/pop to flowy, hip-hop fueled jams, to heartfelt soul, to country in an impressively tight timeframe.

Church Girls at Philly Music Fest | photo by John Vettese for WXPN

In contrast, veteran local rockers Church Girls picked a lane and stuck with it during their half-hour set. The band’s latest EP, Nightmare Nights, is pop-punk fueled anthems in the vein of early Paramore, and frontperson Mariel Beaumont and her bandmates Mitchell Layton on gutar, Julien Varnier on drums, and Vince Vullo on bass played it with gusto, going particularly hard on the standout “Death Wish.”

Knifeplay at Philly Music Fest | photo by John Vettese for WXPN

Buzzing local shoegazers Knifeplay were certainly an enigmatic force at Philly Music Fest. They offered no banter and little acknowledgement of the crowd; their lead singer Tj Strohmer took the stage in a Marilyn Manson t-shirt, which we hope was intended in a mallgoth nostaglia way and not a caping-for-a-multiple-times-accused-abuser-and-predator way; the lights were already low and moody, and at a point the band requested them to go even lower for the remainder of the set (the second time this week deep red lighting was requested). It was perplexing, but this is a band that has always built its aesthetic around being “mysterious.” Beneath it all, the music sounded gorgeous; Knifeplay’s Animal Drowning EP channels the lush atmospheres Slowdive and Mazzy Star, and live, it’s robust and radiant, with vocals from Johanna Baumann and slide guitar by John Klein adding bright texture and detail.

Algernon Cadwallader at Philly Music Fest | photo by John Vettese for WXPN

The Underground Arts floor surged as Philly emo trailblazers Algernon Cadwallader played the opening notes of their cult favorite anthem “Spit Fountain”; if you knew what was going on, you quickly braced yourself, and if you didn’t, you were in for an onslaught. Hands were thrown in the air, superfans pushed to the front, and a sea of voices screamed along with singer/bassist Peter Helmis and guitarist Joe Reinhart. The band was a force on the scene locally and nationally in the early 20-teens, but in its day mostly played to all-ages crowds in basements and DIY spaces. Its current reunion run — which, Helmis noted, kicked off a year to the day from the band’s Philly Music Fest gig — finds Algernon performing to bigger crowds than they ever did back in the day, and their tremendous onstage engery and community-minded charisma are all the stronger for it. As their hour-plus set wound down, the pulse of the crowd showed no sign of cooling, and at one point towards the end of the night you could spot photographers getting in on the action, stage diving with camera in hand to get extreme angles on the scene.

Day 7: Solar Myth with Chris Forsyth and Charlie Hall

Chris Forsyth and the Solar Motel Band at Philly Music Fest | photo by John Vettese for WXPN

Closing the week of festivities out at the new South Philly space Solar Myth, two ensembles of players in the city’s jazz and experimental scene put their spin on two classic albums from the heady world of 70s jazz fusion celebrating their 50th anniversary this fall. Starting out the night, it was a tribute to Carlos Santana and John McLaughlin’s Love Devotion Surrender, played by guitar virtuoso Chris Forsyth leading a company of players including drummers Ryan Jewell and Mikel Patrick Avery, bassist Douglas McCombs, keyboardist Brent Cordero, and guitarist Nick Millevoi. The set was loose and interpretive, delicate and lovely (the album’s pensive cover of Coltrane’s “Naima”) and it exploded with an energy and joy (the fervent cumbia flavor of “Let Us Go Into the House of the Lord”) that had the crowd dancing.

Head Hunters tribute at Philly Music Fest | photo by John Vettese for WXPN

By contrast, the tribute to Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters spearheaded by The War on Drugs drummer Charlie Hall was played a bit more true-to-the-album, with an impressive roster of Philly music scene allstars recreating the rich textures and idiosyncratic nuances of songs like “Chameleon” and “Watermelon Man.” Joining Hall were keyboardists Luke Carlos O’Reilly and Corey Bernhard, bassist Anthony Tidd, drummer Nazir Ebo, and woodwinds player Mark Allen, and though the performance stretched past curfew on the album tribute alone (they encored with a take on “Palm Grease” from Hancock’s 1974 album Thrust), the vibe was immaculate, making for a Philly Music Fest finale like no other.

Below, explore a vast gallery of scenes and highlights from Philly Music Fest 2023, and head to the festival’s website for more information about the education nonprofits they’re partnering with this year. For more, check out our Spotify playlist of music from each of this year’s performers.

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