As I've written in the past, when I'm travelling alone for work, and I'm confronted with a free night, my reptilian brain has one thought: find an all-ages punk show. An embarrassingly quick search (that owed more to search engine optimization than anything else) revealed a four-band bill consisting of several out-of-town bands playing at a club with some renown starting in an hour. With that, and with the help of Siri, I pointed my rental car toward North Star Bar.
While the $2.50-per-band outlay may have been a safe bet, the area around North Star seemed anything but. I parked my rental along the curb amidst boarded buildings, weedy lots, and crumbling, yet still active, trolly tracks. Dim street lights were augmented by the glow of a chicken shack. I made sure to remove my audio cable from the dash and place it in glovebox away from prying eyes before honking the horn in a conspicuous locking of the doors. I couldn't decide if it was paranoia or street smarts that kept me scanning the scraggly bushes and litter-strewn alleys during my walk back to the club. I was reminded of The Fusebox in Kansas City, and how high school kids would lie to their parents about the club's location. "It's in Westport" sounded much better than "it's an unheated brick building behind a junk yard just east of Troost."
While the area around the club was dark and strange, the interior of North Star was dark and familiar. After stepping down several stairs, and ducking through the low doorway at the back of the building, a door man took my $10, and I was in a narrow shotgun room. A high (about 3 foot) stage stood at one end of the room at the bottom of a slight, agreeable slope. A second floor had been partially opened up to create a balcony that looked down almost immediately above the stage. I wandered around for a few minutes looking for the best sight lines, pondering what sort of stage lights there would be, before I eventually settled in the balcony with my camera.
Whether an artefact of all-ages shows or sheer kindness, doors opened at 7pm, and the first band went on shortly afterwards at 7:20. The local trio of Howling Hour is a punk band of some flavour. There are elements of poppy Rancid-styled street punk, but the band's sound is definitely filtered through the noisome post-grunge 2000s. A simple rhythm section of drummer Sean Donaghy and bassist John Sepa kept time through the set, adventuring few changes, and providing only one opening for a rattly bass solo. Frontman Robert Bobo's guitar buzzed constantly through power chords that snapped in time with the bass and drums. This density verged on a monotony that was only relieved in rare situations where Bobo inserted a disjointed solo. His vocals were similarly forced, with pleasant "ooh" and "ahh" backing vocals coming from the rest of the trio. Despite this full-throttle approach to playing, the moods and tones of the band's songs swung wildly during the band's 25-minute set. It's obvious that this newish band hasn't quite found its vision. Young members and recent lineup change also contribute to this skittery nature of the band's material. Curiously, that hasn't kept the band from digitally releasing it's debut album – an album that the band played from front-to-back that evening.
I quickly realized I had miscalculated the optimal viewing spot, and returned to the main floor where I joined a dozen or so audience members that the band likely knew by name. With this in mind, Bobo was exceptionally bold frontman, attempting a level of stage banter that would seem out of place in a packed venue three times the size of North Star. I cringed at his antics through most of the set and felt sorry for him as he requested audience interaction during the band's namesake final number. But I was wrong. Bobo got his responses from the growing audience. And although I shook my head when he (of the opening band playing at 7:20 on a Tuesday night) introduced the rest of the band during a breakdown late in the set, the rest of the room seemed to be on board with these big rock show cliches.
The sound engineer moved quickly to get Howling Hour off the stage, and get the evening's second act, Science Fair, line checked and going. By 8:05 the Philadelphia quartet had launched headlong into a set of familiar, yet enthralling, post-hardcore. While the band is led by the screamed vocals and rhythm guitar of Kendall Sharpe, the band's tour de force is his interplay with lead guitarist and second vocalist Dan Anderson. Not only are guitar licks traded back and forth to build a unique whole, but Anderson's raspy vocals provide a nice balance to those of Sharpe. When the two guitarist keep the their compositions clean and sharp, Science Fair is at its best.
Although, like Howling Hour, the line up of Science Fair seems to have undergone several changes, both the band's continuity of musical vision, and its stage presence were much more mature. Sharpe moved around the stage a lot, stepping back with his guitar, tugging it this way and that, and then darting back to the microphone to deliver the next vocal line. His interaction with the audience was casual and comfortable. Only bassist Mark Walsh seemed unsure of his spot on stage. While undoubtably proud of his ironic hipster moustache, Walsh spent the whole of the night facing Sharpe – keeping his face and fuzzy lip hidden from the majority of the audience. Although drummer Pete Sovia didn't hide behind his kit, his nervous expression did speak volumes. This look, combined with a natural visual affinity for Crispin Glover, made me feel as though I was watching the young George McFly in Back to the Future. But these missteps are minor, and while Science Fair didn't invent the emo aesthetic of the mid-1990s (in fact, I bet the majority of its members were entering primary school at the time), it did adeptly revive it for 25 minutes.
As Science Fair removed its gear from the stage, the guy standing next to me grew increasingly nervous. When the stage was clear, he motioned over the sound engineer, sheepishly said he was in the next band, and confessed that he had told friends that he wasn't going on until 9:00. It was only 8:30. That was my introduction to Brian Sella, the frontman of New Jersey's The Front Bottoms.
The sound guy granted Sella his stay, leaving the audience to fidget until Sella's friends arrived. I spent the downtime surveying the club. It was filling up nicely with about 60 people on the main floor. Fans seemed to be sorted by age, with the 30-year-old bearded guys standing in back, the 20-somethings in the middle, and young girls with Xs on their hands leaning up against the stage. When Sella's mates were accounted for, he apologized for the delay and launched the band into a half-hour set.
Despite the rather odd description of the band presented by its promotions company ("Joni Mitchell by way of Green Day?"), the band's sound is easy to pin down. Sella sings and plays acoustic guitar. His voice is high and nasally with an accent that recalls Adam Goren (of Atom and His Package) or Jeffrey Lewis, and a tendency to crack, recalling every band on Plan It X Records. His songs are tightly packed with wordy lyrics of the standard "boy needs girl" Dashboard Confessional-esque fare. This isn't to say they're not done cleverly. For example, the band's single "The Beers" with its chorus of "And I will remember that summer / As the summer I was taking steroids / 'Cause you like a man with muscles / And I like you" is as cute as it reads. Behind all that acoustic strumming is the tight, nearly disco-punk drumming of Matt Uychich, and (at least live) the keyboard and bass work of Drew Villafuerte. I will confess that I felt that the addition of Villafuerte muddied the sound of the band more than filling it out, but that may be attributable to my location in the club.
As expected, the girls up front sang along to every song, shaking their head in agreement with the forlorn lyrics. But it wasn't just the girls who knew the songs by rote – it was also the 20-somethings and even a few of the beardos. Nearly everyone seemed headphones-familar with each song. The only things I knew about the band came from what I had read on my phone minutes before. But I was learning. And soon I realised that despite the rudely delayed start time, despite the technical difficulties with Sella's guitar that cut into the evening's flow, and despite an audience that skewed a bit younger than I'm usually comfortable with, I would like to see the band again.
It was 10pm when the Brooklyn quartet of A Great Big Pile of Leaves began its set. Although I didn't know this band from any of the others on the bill, its members' relaxed confidence and air of experience made it perfectly obvious that this was the headliner. Not only were the band members clearly adept musicians, and not only did they actively move about the stage without stooping to conspicuous performances, but their interaction with the audience was pitch perfect. Frontman Pete Welland, in particular, shone as he addressed the audience informally but with authority. Maybe it reveals too much about my psyche, but I immediately wondered if he was a substitute high school teacher. Maybe it was the glasses, or maybe it was the flannel. The flannel (or at least plaid) on stage was blinding. Three members wore it proudly; the fourth (tour-only guitarist Matt Fazzi) wore all black, thus blending into the background and unable to break the checked monotony. It works though – the flannel fits the workmanlike feel of the band. A Great Big Pile of Leaves is on the job, and its job is to rock.
With songs that land somewhere between the rootsy classic rock of The Band and '90s-vintage indie rock, A Great Big Pile of Leaves has a very organic and comfortable sound. Philadelphia's Dr. Dog inhabit a similar territory. The story might languish there if it weren't for the guitar work of Fazzi. While songs continue nicely below him, Fazzi adds a layer of constant jazzy and notey electric guitar. Occasionally his lines intersect, or even interact with those of Welland, but generally its as if Fazzi was given license to write entirely new songs and play them concurrently with the band. This must be what earns the band the numerous jazz-references it receives by the press. I found this all incredibly confusing as Fazzi is best known for his time as guitarist in emo stalwarts Taking Back Sunday.
After an hour-long set of big crescendos, gang vocals, finger-tapped harmony lines, and smiling performers that seemed just tickled to be playing in Philadelphia, the evening ended. I packed up my camera and lenses, walked past the thinned audience (most of the young girls left after The Front Bottoms finished its set), and back into the unfamiliar environment of Philadelphia's Brewerytown neighbourhood. I didn't take the alley this time, and the curiously reassuring presence of hipsters with rolled pant legs riding fixies made the walk back to my car much less seedy. A shame really, as it seemed like it might be fun to have to lie to my wife about where I'd been. But she'd know anyway – the same place as always, just another all-ages punk show.