Just around the corner from the iconic Melrose Diner in South Philly sits a little dive bar called the Station, so quiet most of the time that I thought it was abandoned until I met someone who worked as a bartender there. It’s one of the few bars that still allows smoking, which created a time-travelling effect this past Friday night while three local bands played the night away for the bargain entry price of $5.
Opening the evening was Muffin Man, a three-piece group that has a country or folk feel, with maybe some metal influences thrown in. I don’t know their music at all so I was a bit lost for most of their set. By accident I sat in a disadvantageous place to hear vocals, and by the time I realized it a local neighbor had found me and started chatting me up, so it was too late to move. Where Muffin Man excelled, however, was in their very last piece, all instrumental, which sounded psychedelic and improvisatory. It was as if the musicians laid down all the molds and just said what they had to say. It was one of the better moments of the evening.
Next up was Adam and Dave’s Bloodline, a five-piece band that I got to know by being one of Adam’s regular customers at South Philly Taproom, not even two blocks from where the show took place. They began with all four selections from their most recent album, 2×2, produced by Founding Fathers Records. One of the great things about this group’s music is that it doesn’t rely on constant singing; long instrumental interludes allow the music to say more than words could. “Dark Clouds,” for instance, features some of these, and the listener needs it after hearing a refrain that laments, “And so we look down on this grave we dug together, knowing it won’t be long ‘til we’re lying there forever.”
Adam and Dave’s Bloodline is well known to have a plethora of influences—Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, among others, have been mentioned. My ear hears some Ska, too, but maybe that’s because it’s all I listened to in the mid-90’s besides Mahler’s Sixth Symphony. But the important thing is this: these diverse influences are pulled together into an original approach, so that you’re not saying anything except, “That sounds like Adam and Dave.”
St. James and the Apostles, the final band, made for a perfect way to conclude Good Friday at a place called the Station. They didn’t make quite as much racket as they normally do at, say, Johnny Brenda’s, but otherwise the walls may have blown out. With alternative, acid rock, psychedelic flavors, no one would be surprised to hear that The Doors, Pink Floyd or Black Flag are among their influences along with “anything that has soul or kicks ass,” as one of their online profiles says. Besides their cool name, the first thing I ever noticed about them was drummer Jeff Castner, who gets a huge sound out of the set without banging on it tastelessly. Percussion teachers tell their students to “pull” the sound out of the drum, and that’s exactly what he does. But there is not a weak spot in this trio of cousins who formed only a few years ago. Organist Mike Kiker has chops and can play real licks, not just celestial background chords. Guitarist and lead singer Jamie Mahon tackles the music with full throat, going from words to onomatopoeia, and even to jubilus. Last month at Johnny Brenda’s I approached Mahon and said that he sang like he was possessed by the devil, and I love it. “No, no,” he insisted, “it’s the Holy Spirit.” Fitting, since the Holy Spirit is wind and fire, and this band makes your heart burn in all the right ways.
Among the marks of this band’s musical prowess is its willingness to get out of 4/4 time, an obvious but neglected virtue. Friday featured a bluesy song in 6/8, exactly the kind of rhythmic variety the rock genre needs. They’re also not afraid to draw on religious language, a result of a conflicted upbringing in Catholicism. They tested a new song on us locals called “Lazarus,” and they left us, as all performers with good taste do, wanting more.
I’m more or less a newcomer to the rock scene, having only recently shaken off young-fogeydom, but I have been impressed by the inherent desire of bands such as these to actually say something, to make art—not the art hidden away in hermetically sealed concert halls and museums, but a gritty art that doesn’t shun the everyday venue. Rock musicians of this sort hate commercial pop as much as Allan Bloom but because of their perspective are in a better position to critique it. Rock has earned for itself the chastisement of even careful observers because of its “decadence.” But in many respects it may prove to be one of the genres of music most capable of dealing with the crises of our times, if for no other reason than that it hasn’t been mummified by custom or taboo—yet. With any luck it will stay that way.
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