BY JOE PAONE MATH ROCK CORRESPONDENT It takes a lot to extricate me from the warm embrace of South Philadelphia and into our metro area’s nether regions. It takes even more to *move* me when I’ve found myself in those remote outposts. But there I was Saturday night, motoring on the dark roads of Bucks County up to its comfy little seat, Doylestown, for a show that I dare say I shan’t forget for some time.
The great local institution Siren Records was hosting a benefit to aid Guitars for Vets, a highly worthy non-profit organization that, in its own words, “enhances the lives of ailing and injured military veterans by providing them with guitars and music instruction. Through self-expression and the healing power of music, it is our intent to restore the feelings of joy and purpose that can be lost after suffering trauma.”
Bill Hagar, the leader of the local chapter of G4V and a volunteer at the Coatesville Veterans Administration Medical Center, warmly greeted a goodly number of visitors at the door. In addition to over $200 in cash donations, Bill went home with eight donated guitars. Additionally, Martin Guitars gave $1,200 worth of guitar strings to this great cause.
So that was the good works portion of the evening. Now, about the bands.
In my never-ending quest to find rock music that sends shivers up my spine, I’ve found myself looking beyond the glut of in-town soft rockers and happily chirping pixies, and acutely following some little-known bands from Bucks and Montgomery counties. These bands aren’t necessarily the epitome of hip, but they sure do bring the rock with absolutely no affectation or pretension, but rather with little more than good gear, talent and steadfast conviction.
Four such bands comprised the bill here. That shouldn’t have come as a big surprise, because the show was curated by the erudite Sam Pinola. One of the OGs of the 80s/90s Bensalem DIY punk scene, Pinola is a pivotal figure in this Suburban Rock Renaissance, due to his musicianship, his recording studio, and his unwavering support of this ever-emerging scene.
The Breaks [pictured, above], out of Lansdale, led things off by announcing that their name will no longer be The Breaks because of legal action brought against them. Whatever these guys will be called in the future, they’re worth checking out. An intriguing mix of, let’s say, Blue Oyster Cult and Bryan Adams (or, as Pinola describes them, “punk rock CCR”), they were by default the closest thing to a guitar pop-rock act of the evening. It was great just to hear the blue-collar Philadelphia accent of the band’s muscle-shirted, baseball-hatted, sardonic singer/guitarist CJ Morgan between tunes, and then see these really solid songs develop in front of me.
The Mahlors, out of “Bucks County,” scared me because they were billed as “reggae ska,” which generally skeeves me out. But their music wasn’t that annoying perky danceable shit, and no horn section was to be found. Instead, their music leaned more toward psych and dub, which hit my pleasure centers. Put a gun to my head (go ahead, do it) and I’d concede that they were my least favorite band of the night, which is kind of like saying my least favorite Sixers legend is Mo Cheeks. In other words, very good, well-played stuff in a genre that’s not usually up my alley.
One of the best bands in the Philadelphia area (at the very least) was on next: Doylestown’s absolutely astounding Carved Up. When I saw them in the past, they recalled the post-hardcore sass of early Rye Coalition. But at Siren, there was no microphone to be seen, as apparently the singer recently left the band under what sounded like ugly circumstances. Here’s the thing: Carved Up is even *better* as an instrumental guitar/bass/drums trio, channeling early Don Caballero and, especially, the mathy Baltimore visionaries Oxes, whom Carved Up guitarist/bassist Nick Norvilis called “my jam” in a post-show note. Intense, ridiculously tight as shit, visually striking, cathartic… if you ever liked anything on Touch and Go Records, you will eat this band up. And unlike a lot of “post-rock” bands of their ilk, Carved Up never gets boring or mellow. Their music grabs your body and mind and just incessantly pummels them into happy submission. Judging from their insanely great, best-I’ve-heard-them-yet set at Siren, their finest work likely lies ahead of them. I can’t rave about this band enough.
Finally, Pinola’s terrific punk-rock trio Ghosts in the Valley took the stage. Suffice to say that these cats represent everything that is good about music. If I told you there was a band that expertly mixed the sounds of Shellac, Silkworm and Fugazi and somehow didn’t sound derivative of any of them, you’d get these guys. Fresh off recording its latest album (which unfortunately does not feature their new drummer) with Steve Albini, Ghosts in the Valley are a totemic band in need of a much wider audience, especially in Philadelphia proper.
Because I was in a great record store, I also ended up buying $60 worth of sweet vinyl.
And I stopped at the Somerton Wawa on the way home and got an unexpectedly delicious turkey hoagie.
Driving is cool sometimes.