The inside of Morningstar Studios provides a rich contrast to the sweltering mid-afternoon heat baking the pavement outside. Behind the studio’s doorway lies a small hallway lined with framed records and a small selection of gear braced against one side. Intermittently, a mixture of saxophone, upright bass, electric piano and drums funnel through the open door to the live room. Up a flight of stairs, Josh Lawrence is anxious to spend the day recording yet another album.
A month prior, the Rittenhouse-based performer and educator was interested in creating something different from his other albums, which have always had a narrative focus. At the suggestion of his wife, Ola Baldych, who works as a graphic designer, Lawrence set out to write music with a more malleable theme in mind – colors.
So began the start of Color Theory.
“I knew who I wanted to be in the band and I knew what sound I wanted, but I didn’t have any music written for them yet,” says the trumpeter as he’s seated on a black leather couch in Morningstar’s lounge area. He’s wearing a deep purple button-down and black slacks rounded out with a pair of black Chuck Taylor’s.
“So I put the band together, booked a bunch of gigs and started writing music for each one of the shows,” he continues.
The quick turnaround from concept to execution comes as no surprise to someone of Lawrence’s heavy work schedule. Since moving from Cranberry, New Jersey to Philadelphia in the late ’90s to pursue an undergraduate degree from the University of the Arts, Lawrence has become entrenched in the jazz scene here and beyond.
“I did my undergrad, just working as a musician around [the city], but I really wanted to play jazz,” he says. “So, I used to hang out at Ortlieb’s Jazzhaus back in the day when it was still the full-time jazz club and Northern Liberties was kind of a rough neighborhood.”
After cutting his teeth locally, Lawrence decided to move to New York City in 2005 to further explore the jazz scene. He gigged with everyone he could and taught his craft to others. He then moved to Poland and spent time touring Europe with his trio and various other projects before ending up back in Philadelphia for the last five years. His schedule has remained packed.
When he isn’t teaching at University of the Arts, Drexel University or the Kimmel Center’s Creative Music Program, Lawrence is constantly doing sessions and gigging – performing with acts including Captain Black Big Band, PACT, Bobby Zankel & the Warriors of the Wonderful Sound and Aerial Photograph (below).
Alumni from Lawrence’s other projects are joining him on Color Theory’s recording session. In addition to having Caleb Curtis on alto saxophone and flute, Brent White on trombone, Adam Faulk on Fender Rhodes and Madison Rast on bass, Lawrence is being joined by Captain Black Big Band bandleader Orrin Evans on piano and Anwar Marshall on drums.
Marshall is one of Lawrence’s bandmates in Fresh Cut Orchestra, one of his larger projects. Recording with Fresh Cut Orchestra is how Lawrence learned of Morningstar Studios.
“As a horn player you get called to do a lot of session work for whoever, basically,” he says. “I came into a session and said, ‘Man, this is where I’m going to do whatever I’m gonna do next.’ And once it was time to do it, I just made the call.”
Since then, Lawrence has used the studio space as his base of operations for most of his recorded work. In a manner of happenstance, engineer Dave Schonauer, who engineered Lawrence’s first session at the studio, mans today’s studio session.
“My job’s easy,” Schonauer says as the band readies themselves in-between takes. “I just get to sit back and listen to great music.”
While the 12-hour session ahead of them may seem grueling to many people, it’s just another day for Lawrence, who in between relentless gigging and sessions is looking forward to the release of Fresh Cut Orchestra’s second album, Mind Behind Closed Eyes, which dropped on Aug. 26 on Ropeadope Records.
In Fresh Cut Orchestra, Lawrence splits writing duties with Marshall and bassist Jason Fraticelli for the 10-piece orchestra, including four horns, two guitars, percussion and laptop electronics. The ensemble, which began as a commission from the Painted Bride Art Center, is one of Lawrence’s mainstays.
“The idea of that record was, what do you see when you close your eyes when you listen to music? That was really the focus of that record,” Lawrence says. “It’s like an electronic jazz project.”
Text and images by Ed Schick.
Philadelphia got a lot funkier Saturday night. No, tires weren’t burning under 95 again. Earphunk (pictured above) brought the funk with them from NOLA to The Foundry at the Fillmore. They were joined by local acts Attic Tapes and Catullus. I’m not a dancer and even my two left feet wanted to get busy.
First on the bill was Attic Tapes (fka Fishtown Beats). The room was still pretty empty when he took the stage. That didn’t seem to matter. I am admittedly not an expert on DJs but the sounds were nothing like I’ve ever heard from one. This was far from anything like you’d find at an EDM festival. The style was much smoother and laid back.
This, however, does not mean that the groove or the beats weren’t there. He was spinning this intriguing blend of Motown, hip hop, funk and even swing. He may have caught the small gathering by surprise with his unique blend of music as there was not much dancing in the beginning. However, as the set went on, people settled into his style, and more people arrived, the feet and booty shaking commenced. Towards the end of the set he was joined on stage by saxophonist Mike LaBombard. Mike added another layer to the grooves, using his sax to play along with and compliment the songs Attic Tapes was playing from his Apple. I didn’t hear a bad note and he matched the style of the music spinning quite professionally.
By this time, the venue had filled up more and most of the crowd that was there was shimmying and shaking to the duo. This was a different opener for what was essentially a rock show but it worked just fine by setting a tone and getting people moving. Again, I am not one who listens to DJs but Attic Tapes did a fine job.
Next up was local prog-funk band Catullus. More people started arriving to the intimate venue by now, some of whom were obviously familiar with them already.
Catullus continued to keep people moving and dancing. They ran through a set of about a half a dozen songs which showcased their individual talents well. By the time they settled into the song “Oh Well” early in the set, their influences were clearly visible. You could hear a mix of jazzy guitar, ELP tinged keyboards, and a rhythm section that held the groove and kept people dancing. Shortly after that song, they played “JellyBender.” This time it was the keyboards played by Justin Minnick that had that funky style backed by jazzy drums.
With each song, the crowd was becoming increasingly involved in and appreciative of the performance before them. Then it came time for the final song of the set, “Domino Days.” The band was at the top of their game when, once again, Mike LaBombard joined them onstage with his saxophone. I wasn’t sure at first if this was going to work, but it did. Mike and Catullus guitarist Andrew Meehan were trading licks like they had always played together. It wasn’t like a guitarist and a sax player. It sounded more like two guitarists trading short solos and fills.
The time for the end of the set came and it was a shame as it seemed like they were really just settling in and getting on a roll. Catullus is a band of talented capable players and musicians. I don’t know if it’s intentional or not but they wear their influences, which are too numerous to list, proudly on their sleeves. Unfortunately, that worked against them for me. There were several times when I thought to myself that I had heard some of this before. But, they are a relatively young as a band which works in their favor. They have time to find their own musical voice and I have no doubt that players with their ability will be able to do that.
After seeing videos of them on YouTube and now seeing them in person, I see that they have indeed grown as a band. I look forward to hearing and seeing them in the future to witness their growth. I have no doubt they are capable of growing. They did their job well though and continued to prep the crowd for the headliner.
Next up was Earphunk. Earphunk is comprised of Paul Provosty (lead guitar), Mark Hempe (guitar/vocals), Michael Matthews (drums), Michael Comeaux (bass), and Christian Galle (keyboards). They hail from New Orleans and it shows in the good time, party, upbeat vibe they exude. They are another band described as a prog-funk band. I would add jam band into that mix as well as much of their performance has that extended improvisational quality. But there is no doubt that they are heavy on the funk. You can also add a dash of heavy metal into the mixture for good measure, which on this particular night was on prominently displayed.
“Try” was the first song of the night. There was no doubt this was a funk band from the moment they started playing. There was no mistaking the influence of such classics by fellow New Orleans natives The Meters and their songs such as “Cissy Strut” and “Look-Ka Py Py” on this one. Just about everyone in attendance was dancing from the get go and spirits were high. Galle on keyboards played some of the funkiest organ I have ever heard. Later in the song, Provosty proves he is not merely an excellent funk rhythm guitarist, but a more than capable soloist in more than one genre. It was as if he channeled Eddie Hazel, and even a little Eddie Van Halen, to add a nice heavy blues/hard rock flavor to his solo. All the while Hempe, Matthews, and Comeaux held down the fort admirably showing they are a rhythm section to be reckoned with.
This was followed by the crowd pleaser “Saura,” which features a beautiful mix of a funky rhythm guitar section straight out of the mind of Nile Rodgers, a jazzy dual lead guitar melody in the verse and head banging riffing in the chorus. I don’t know how they mixed these styles so well in one song, but they pulled it off expertly.
A couple of songs later, they launch into another fan favorite in “Phine.” From the opening lyric spoken through a talk box into a synthesizer, it was apparent that this would be an 80s funk inspired tune and probably the closest to a true dance tune they have, or at least played. I was the only one not dancing by the time this song was under way. Hempe started mixing in the Phil Collins classic “In the Air Tonight” and tried to get the crowd to sing along. The response was maybe not what he had hoped for but I honestly think everyone just wanted to keep dancing. After this, they played a couple more songs before coming to the final song of the set.
Here’s where the set list threw a curveball. At least so I thought. They started playing “War Pigs” by Black Sabbath. I was just as surprised. Not only did they play it, they did an outstanding job! As a side note, I’ve been listening to and seeing Sabbath and Ozzy live since the 70s. I even went to New York to see them on this final tour months before they were to play in the Philly area.
Earphunk’s version was better than even Sabbath’s version this year. For one main reason. Drummer Michael Matthews. Black Sabbath is not touring with original drummer and founding member Bill Ward. The drummer they have does not have the jazz and the swing that Ward drips all over the Sabbath records. It probably sounds crazy to a lot of people but that element was essential to the early Sabbath sound. Matthews brought that swing back into Sabbath and I thank him, in fact I did after the show. So now you’re probably thinking “War Pigs” is the curveball. Nope. The curveball is not that they played it, but that they could play it and get people head banging to it and dancing harder than they have all night to it. At the same time no less.
I have absolutely never seen people dance at all at any Black Sabbath or Ozzy concert. So Earphunk pulled off what Sabbath never could with their own song. Amazing.
After a short break, they came back out for their encore. It was back to the funk with the song “Sweet Nasty”. Probably the funkiest song of the night much to the crowd’s delight. The night ended here with the band gladly talking to fans in the audience. Earphunk proved to be one of the finest funk bands going right now. I honestly don’t know how anyone can leave one of their concerts without a big smile on their face and feeling better than when they went in. This was the feel good concert of the year.
The Bird and the Bee, the talented duo from Los Angeles, will bring their futuristic-sounding retro pop to Underground Arts next Wednesday and we’re giving away tickets.
If you want to play it safe and get your own tickets, find details for the show here.
As the crowd eagerly awaited Olsen, they were treated to the 80s-tinged sounds of Alex Cameron, who pranced and grooved in a velvet suit with a saxophonist by his side, straight from the Newark Airport to the stage. Cameron wooed the audience with his slicked back hair and even slicker music as the venue slowly filled to the brim with people.
Soon after, Olsen and her band strutted onto the stage in matching cowboy attire and blasted straight through three songs before saying a word to the crowd, letting the music speak for itself. She then blurt out, “That was fun.”
She is touring to support her most daring album yet, full of breathtaking wails, prickling guitar licks and many songs surpassing 5 minutes. These are not simple folk tunes. But the band kept it cool, hitting every note flawlessly, with Olsen as their fearless leader.
While the band had fun on stage, the crowd stood awestruck, barely able to move as they admired Olsen, who discussed greasy food and beer one minute and belted out “all my life I thought I’d change” from “Sister” the next.
After a strong set, the band returned for an encore of “Intern,” straight into a seven-minute psychedelic jam of “Woman,” giving Olsen a chance to really show off her chops as she hit every haunting high note.
I first heard Angel Olsen when I was going through a big change in my life, moving from New York to the City of Brotherly Love and worrying I wasn’t making the best move. It was both terrifying and exciting all at once – a new chapter in my life. And Olsen was the soundtrack. Maybe because of this, Olsen’s music always brings about memories of change, of something big about to happen.
But maybe that’s just her music, evoking a strange and powerful sense that something big is coming and you better be ready for it.
The scene behind the front doors of 600 N. Broad St. provides a sharp juxtaposition to the flat gray façade – directly ahead lies a decidedly rustic dining area replete with wooden tables and chairs, accented by foliage and dyed glass bottles hanging from the skylights in the room’s center. By the entranceway, a door leads to a secluded patio area lined with flowers and fresh herbs. Directly ahead of the entrance is the bar, wrapping around the corner of the room, and behind the bar the staff is dressed in uniform button downs, bow ties and aprons.
The atmosphere is Southern without showing allegiance to any one state in particular – fitting for South, the latest restaurant from brothers Rob and Ben Bynum of Warmdaddy’s and Zanzibar Blue fame.
“Encompassing the entire South is a challenge,” says head chef Paul Martin, dressed in a black polo underneath his apron.
In front of him lies the open kitchen area and as he speaks, staff members rotate bread in the oven and prep meats coming off the grill.
“I’m from Louisiana but the entire menu can’t be New Orleans focused,” he continues. “It’s gotta spread out a little bit and open up the borders. So the idea is to try to represent Southern food as a whole.”
There’s a lot of square mileage to cover in the American South, but Martin’s background in Southern cuisine handles the challenge. Born and raised in Lafayette, Louisiana, Martin got his start cooking in his dad’s restaurant before working in Austin, Texas at a couple of French bistros. Martin moved around the U.S. for a few years before settling in Philadelphia in 2004, when he signed on with Steven Starr at Washington Square (now Talula’s Garden). He left there to work at Catahoula, which is where he met Ben Bynum.
The two hit it off and when Bynum approached him with the idea of a new restaurant, Martin signed on. South opened in September of 2015.
The menu at South is as eclectic as the regions that it embodies. Diners can expect a range of dishes, with starters including chicken fried oysters and smoked tuna rilette and entrees spanning from cornmeal crusted trout and Carolina shrimp and grits to Berkshire pork chops and wood grilled chicken.
Although several mainstays have remained, Martin points out that the menu always changes.
“The menu’s sort of an organic process,” he adds. “I think it’s more of what people are in the mood to eat right now. Things come on, things come off as they’re relevant – as they’re seasonal or not seasonal.”
“Everything you see here,” he explains, motioning to the shelves that comprise nearly every available inch of wall space, each filled with pickled vegetables and hot sauces, sealed with clear glass cabinet doors, “are all done by my former sous chef, Kieran McSherry. He’s our ‘Pickle Master.’”
In addition to the sauces and vegetables that dress the interior, the herbs and fruit in the garden get used on the menu, including the Summer Berry Cobbler – a cocktail comprised of compote made from the fresh berries in the garden alongside Fishtown’s Stateside Vodka.
“It’s the marriage of the front of the house and the back of the house,” declares Harry Hayman, the director of operations for the restaurant.
Hayman has been with the Bynum’s for 24 years, starting his career with the brothers at Zanzibar Blue and, like Martin, has been at South since day one. Hayman’s duties range from purchasing for the restaurant to marketing, including special events and food ideas.
The Southern Regional Series is one of these ideas, inspired by the ROAM (an acronym standing for Regional Original American Menus) dining series at Heirloom, another of the Bynum’s restaurants. The Regionals are a monthly event on the first Wednesday of every month that revolve around crafting a menu that pays homage to one specific region of the American South and the food associated with it. The series kicked off with a Louisiana-focused menu on July 6, with South Carolina and Alabama being the respective features for August and September.
“We’ve already farmed a ‘table on steroids,’ bringing in Anson Mills and trouts right from the Georgia/South Carolina border,” he says, noting the concern for the highest quality ingredients carries over from their approach to cultivating the restaurant’s regular menu. “We’ve already tasted, like, 10 different trouts until we found this guy who likes to grow the fish out so the 10-ounce filet is on one side of the fish instead of having to butterfly the trout to get a nice filet.”
In addition to the Regionals, South has their classic series every Tuesday, a three-course meal for $25 that changes monthly and pairs well with their “Hours of Happiness” happy hour from 4–7 p.m., featuring both food and drink specials. South hopes to add brunch as a regular offering beginning in the fall.
Though quality and adventurous Southern food is the backbone of South, the heart of the restaurant lies in the live jazz that happens six nights per week in the intimate venue section of the restaurant, tucked behind a set of glass doors. The restaurant works closely with local jazz musicians, curating special events, including Tuesday’s Open Jazz Jam led by percussionist Leon Jordan, Sr. and pianist Orrin Evan’s What’s Happening Wednesdays. In addition, they will book larger, nationally touring acts looking to pick up dates in between New York or D.C.
“Back in the day, Philadelphia was known for jazz,” says general manager Rian Mitch. “There were so many great artists here in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Philadelphia was a bustling bed of all this jazz energy but it’s been forgotten. The idea of this place is to bring back that culture – the energy and drive that the old jazz heads had.”
A former “hopeless musican in doom metal bands,” Mitch’s interest in jazz was fueled by working the restaurant and running sound at one of the Bynum’s other ventures, Paris Bistro.
“Jazz is like punk rock,” he continues. “It’s like the underground of music. It’s where musicians go to be musicians, to break out from tradition and push the envelope.”
The concert programming includes performances by trombonist Robin Eubanks, singer and pianist Freddie Cole, Blue Note recording artist José James and saxophonist Grace Kelly. In September, South is participating in the 2016 Philadelphia United Jazz Festival, curated by bassist Warren Oree of Arpeggio Jazz Ensemble fame.
“We’re always planning,” says Hayman, regarding future events at South. “We’re gonna do the ‘Young Lions of Jazz’ series, bringing in some younger up-and-coming stuff. We’ve also got the ‘Living Legends of Jazz’ series with more mature artists.
“But generally we’re just booking the best goddamn jazz in Philadelphia.”
It’s 11:48 at night, and there are still about 10 performers left to go at Connie’s Ric Rac in South Philadelphia. Their names are written on an orange list that at this point is covered in spilled beer.
Kelvin Cochrane, the host for the evening, bounds on stage.
“This is where the Connie’s Ric Rac Open Mic gets real,” he says to the assembled crowd of musicians and friends. “Up next is none other than the Reverend TJ McGlinchey, a certified Connie’s Ric Racketeer!”
McGlinchey, blond hair pulled back in a ponytail, walks on stage with a guitar. Just before he starts playing, he catches the eye of a tall bald guy in a sleeveless basketball shirt that had played earlier that night. Barry Dwyer—another open mic regular—nods back to McGlinchey and climbs on stage with a harmonica.
“I’m going to play in C. You play something in C.” That’s all the instruction McGlinchey gives before they launch into a version of “Dark Hollow” by the Grateful Dead that feels like it was rehearsed, but wasn’t.
That’s just part of the magic of open mic.
On a different afternoon, during the daylight, McGlinchey sits in the tiny backyard of his South Philly home sipping coffee.
“Open mics are pretty much how I learned to play,” he says.
Though he doesn’t have to grind away at open mics looking for exposure like he did in the past, the 35-year-old singer-songwriter and Philly Folk Festival favorite can’t shake his love for those grab-bag weekday nights that he credits with giving him the confidence to play and bringing him into the city’s music scene.
The democracy of the open sign-up sheet means everybody gets a chance to prove themselves, and through years of seizing that opportunity at open mics across town, McGlinchey was able to build his base amongst the other musicians looking for an open stage or just a place to hang out on a weeknight.
When McGlinchey released his first album, Tell Me To Stay, in 2012, he used the network of the open mic world to get the word out for the release show at World Cafe Live.
“The only promotion I did for that album release was Facebook posts and promoting the show at open mics,” he says. “We had over 200 people downstairs at World Café Live.”
For McGlinchey, and for others, open mics aren’t about sharing a half-assed cover of “Wonderwall.” They’re about building community.
It’s a Monday night on the other side of town. The door hangs open at The Fire on 4th and Girard as the sounds of an acoustic guitar float out to mingle with a few scruffy guys taking a smoke break.
Inside, it’s dark and somewhat dingy. The only lights are on the stage. The wooden floor sinks just slightly beneath people’s footsteps. The host throws on some music while Mike James Patrick Robinson, who performs under the name Big Cuz, hands off the beats he’s going to rap over. Robinson takes the mic.
“Welcome to the greatest shitshow on Earth,” Robinson says from the stage.
According to Derek Dorsey, who’s been booking The Fire since 2003, Open Mic Night has been a staple since, well, before he really knows. It started long before his career at the venue and it’s gone through many different stages. If someone had come back in the early 2000s for instance, Dorsey says you were almost guaranteed to see someone who was destined to be your favorite artist.
“It was a scene,” he says. “You wanted to be there.”
Dorsey says open mics are integral to providing a space for acts with real talent to first discover themselves as artists, even if they don’t realize it yet.
Scott McMicken and Toby Leaman started performing at Open Mic as a duo that they would later fill out with other members and call Dr. Dog. Kurt Vile used to perform here. John Legend was so popular at Open Mic Night that he got a residency at The Fire. Amos Lee signed his first record contract here.
The list goes on.
When Birdie Busch – who now has five albums to her name and a captivating voice – first stepped on to a stage at The Fire’s Open Mic Night, she was noticeably green.
“She was nervous, fragile, her voice was cracking,” Dorsey says. “But even in her imperfection, she was perfection.”
All scenes come and go, and though Dorsey says the halcyon days of the singer-songwriter are over since most of the big names outgrew their need for open mics and The Fire now attracts a more diverse set of genres, Open Mic Night has remained a home for musicians in the city.
“This is our living room,” says Robinson after his set.
The redhead rapper says he has been coming to the open mic since 2002 to try out new material and hang out with other musicians. At this point, he guesses that about 70 percent of the weekly crowd is made up of regulars, some of whom are content not to play anywhere else.
“Open mics are the first frontier and the last frontier,” Dorsey says.
The first, because it introduces serious performers to what may be their first platform. The last, because open mics are the last place casual musicians can be anonymous and as Dorsey explains, “feel special in [their] art.”
Bill “Bongo Billy” Clancy (pictured above) is one of the most beloved regulars on Monday nights. He doesn’t really play anywhere else.
When he takes the stage, Clancy pounds out a rhythm on a floor tom taken from the drum kit on stage and half-sings, half-recites lyrics that are either full originals or parodies of other songs. Two out of the three are all about how much the open mic means to him. He closes with these lyrics from a re-imagining of “Chim Chim Cher-ee” from Mary Poppins:
“Here at The Fire, you’re family,” Clancy sings.
A petite singer named Kriss Mincey stands on the stage at Time and belts out “Summertime, and the livin’s easy,” the jazz standard. Whoops and cheers come from the crowd at the bar, made up of men in jackets and loosened ties and women in nice dresses – the after-work crowd in Center City.
It’s open mic at Time but it doesn’t feel that way. A lot of the performances are acts you’d pay to see, and in fact, performers like Mincy are there to promote a show she’s doing later in the week.
Earlier in the night, Drew Breder played looping bass lines in an entrancing solo performance. The trippy style was somewhat of a departure from the heavy jazz and R&B lineup of the night, but no less polished.
Breder works from his home in Center City as a computer programmer, a job which he says pays for his open mic addiction. He’ll take time off and plan road trips with the sole purpose of hitting as many different open mics as possible.
“I’m just playing open mics but I live like a rock star!” he says.
Many come to Time’s open mic as solo singers, but collaborate with the house band for back-up. You really need to know your stuff musically if you don’t want to completely blow your spot.
“We don’t allow anyone to use backing tracks,” says Anam Owili-Eger, who runs the open mic at Time and plays keys for performers who need it.
Owili-Eger says this is not a limitation, but an intentional choice to make Time’s open mic all about live performance. Nothing pre-recorded or canned. Owili-Eger accepts submissions from performers who don’t want to go it alone, but would rather send in their track ahead of time so Owili-Eger and the Time band of seasoned musicians can devise a live arrangement.
“It’s an open mic,” he says. “A place where you should try new things, and be willing to step out of your comfort zone from time to time.”
The line stretches all the way around the lobby of World Cafe Live. Young musicians nervously check and re-check their instrument cases to make sure they have everything they need. Inside, right in front of the red-curtained stage sit rows of chairs like the waiting room in a doctor’s office.
World Cafe Live’s “Philly Rising” event is no ordinary open mic. It’s also a competition, and it certainly plays up the intimidation factor.
“Raise your hand if you’re playing tonight,” says host Boy Wonder after a sound check.
Diligently, the front rows put their hands up.
“I’m going to be doing that a lot tonight, so you better be paying attention,” Boy Wonder continues.
He then rattles off a long list of rules that covers everything from how to hold the microphone to instructions on putting the stage back together after a performance. It feels like a parent giving their children rules to the house before going on vacation.
But the most important rule of all is, “Give yourselves a round of applause.”
First up is Joselito “Lito” Gamalinda, singer-songwriter.
“I play piano by ear, so excuse me if this goes wrong,” Gamalinda says.
Gamalinda sings with a beautiful falsetto, but his hands occasionally falter over the keys. The songs aren’t ready yet. They’re freshly written, being tried on stage for the first time.
After his performance, Gamalinda explains that he’s written more than 180 songs since 2014. It was in that year that he decided he wasn’t fully satisfied by his job as a bartender and wanted another way to express himself. Gamalinda performs these songs as often as he can, exclusively at open mics.
On a good week, he says he’ll hit seven: three on Monday, two on Tuesday, one on Wednesday and one on Thursday.
His reason for putting in all these hours just to perform for free is simple:
“It’s my outlet,” he says.
The open mic scene is varied, says McGlinchey, but so are the people you see in the same place on one night.
“I’m never going to leave this place,” he says of his hosting spot at Connie’s. “It’s like a little slice of humanity.”
Whether it’s an old punk trying new songs or an introverted businessperson playing out for the first time, at an open mic anyone can try, can maybe even fail, and be welcomed into a community of artists.
“Because of open mics,” McGlinchey says, “artists and fans have a home to occupy together.”
When entering Dahlak Paradise bar in West Philly, the first thing you notice are the walls decorated with traditional Eritrean pieces of art from the east African country. From masks to pottery, the art stands out under dim lighting and the smoke from the hookah that fills the bar. It’s ambiance that can speak to the soul.
As the musicians set up for the Drum Like a Lady sister event Jam Jawn, in the center stands the talented mastermind behind this gathering, LaTreice Branson.
While joking with the other musicians, Branson begins to organize everyone by placing a conga here and setting up a keyboard there.
On every third Friday of the month, Branson gathers musicians, women and men, here for a jam session. Little known, yet swiftly growing, is this musical collective Branson has been expanding called Drum Like a Lady.
Branson, 32, first decided to create Drum Like a Lady as a form of therapy for both physical and mental health issues. In 2013, one year from tenure at Cheyney University as an assistant professor of graphic design, doctors diagnosed Branson with borderline personality disorder, PTSD and depression among other disorders. Not helping matters, she received a letter from the PA State System of Higher Education appointed psychologist stating that she was unfit for duty.
“Realizing that I was unfit really took a toll on my depression,” says Branson. “I didn’t leave the house much. Still it’s a struggle.”
While looking for an outlet to express herself, Branson recalls her friend saying, “Why don’t you drum it out?”
At the time, she felt that playing drums wasn’t the outlet she needed. But she tried it anyway and people began to notice her gift. People’s repetitive question of where she learned – to which she explained that her mother was a drummer (below) and taught her – led her to come up with the idea for Drum Like a Lady.
“I was trying to figure out, ‘Where’s my place now,’ coming from academia and now mourning my career,” Branson recalls. “Realizing what to do next or how do I teach when there’s no university to hire me. Drum Like a Lady was something that was important. It was something that could resurrect me from this despair that I was in. But in order to do it I needed other people’s help.”
Branson decided that if she was going to organize this, it wouldn’t be only to help her, but also to aid others like her.
One of the musicians who got involved, Barbera Duncan, currently plays for the band JJX and has been a part of the collection from early on, once she met Branson at one of her shows.
“[JJX] performed every third Thursday. That’s how I met LaTreice,” Duncan says. “Eventually, she asked me if I wanted be a part of Drum Like a Lady. I’ve been coming ever since.”
A young up-and-coming saxophone player, Art Crichlow III, is the featured conductor for this night’s event. As the conductor, Crichlow leads the jam session with Branson’s guidance.
After set-up, Branson introduces herself to the crowd and includes information about Drum Like A Lady, openly inviting anyone to join, with one rule: Ask her or Crichlow first.
As soon as her intro is done, a low rumble escapes from the drums.
The session includes a bassist, a keyboard player, Crichlow on the sax, three congas and a drummer on a kit. The synchronized music make it feel like they have been playing together for years. Not a single beat is missed and smooth transitions are commonplace but most of the people playing together have never met.
After leading most of the night’s session with his stylish and funky notes on the saxophone, Crichlow takes a moment to explain the open environment of jam sessions held by Drum Like a Lady.
“You just walk up and play, man,” Crichlow explains of the relaxed vibe (as long as you ask, of course). “It’s not really that deep!”
People switch out to let someone new step in or borrow one another’s instruments, letting the music slip out of them, while consistently adding to the organic mixture of sounds.
It’s no wonder that Bernie Sanders once recruited them to play for his presidential campaign visit to Philadelphia.
For two hours, they play with unimaginable vigor. Yet in this moment, sitting off to the right, playing her conga decorated with the Puerto Rican flag, Branson looks at peace.
“It’s led by women,” says Branson with a sly smile as she grips her instrument and explains Drum Like A Lady, “and governed by percussion.”