This past Thursday, (07-03-14) the musicians of American Diamond Recordings assembled at Philadelphia’s Boot and Saddle bar, eager to commemorate the official launch of their newly formed label. TJ Kong and the Atomic Bomb, Ron Gallo, the Levee Drivers, the Lawsuits and special guests The Districts, all graciously took the stage before an ecstatic local crowd, intent on seeing their hometown heroes before they outgrow smaller venues for good. And by inviting the public to watch them perform and celebrate the birthday of one of their own, manager and fellow label runner Marley McNamara, the superior talents at American Diamond turned over an hourglass, confirming that it is only a matter of time before these performers no longer belong solely to the city and the people who first saw them play.
Beginning their recording career with the 2008 EP, The Hinterlands, TJ Kong and the Atomic Bomb have spent the ensuing six years expanding on a highly thematic, shadowy sound that traces the exploits of the dissolute and desperate. Pairing tight rockabilly rhythms with a voice like gravel, lead vocalist and composer, Dan Bruskewicz, writes songs infused with an unmistakable literary influence, often chronicling the lives of the forlorn and lawless.
Taking the stage at 8 PM, Bruskewicz stood under a row of white spotlights, steadily strummed his guitar and closed his eyes. Watching the band perform, it is clear that storytelling is the keystone of the group’s music, the melodies and harmony bending and sloping to sonically underline the wickedness of America’s underbelly. When he sings, “I’ve got a bad idea, I think I’ll keep it to myself,” from the 2014 Kong track, “Snakeskin,” the accompanying instrumentation adds fuel to the song’s spooky, sinister atmosphere. Though the most startling moment in their set came when Bruskewicz pulled a harmonica out of his jacket pocket, in time with the opening notes of the Animals song, “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.” Though the harmonica might seem like an inferior replacement for the iconic organ riff, it wasn’t. It amplified the frenzied pace of the song, providing just the right tweak to allow the band to bring something new and surprising to a classic arrangement. But what was particularly charming and gleefully unexpected was their seamless transition from the Animals to Patti Smith’s “Because The Night” It was a moment of joy and levity, instantly bringing a smile to the faces of everyone in the room. And at just the right time, the bluesy sound of the harmonica broke through the air, leading us back to the brooding, frantic cover they started with.
Released just two weeks ago, Ronny is the solo debut of Toy Soldiers frontman and American Diamond founder, Ron Gallo. The New Jersey born, Kentucky raised artist has a wide range of influences that saturate the words and arrangements of his compositions. Armed with a sharp wit that counteracts the more austere elements of his songwriting, Gallo excels at producing songs that manage to be both contemplative and winsome. The striking combination has already won Ronny high praise, and so it was no surprise when tracks from the album littered much of the musician’s set list.
“Hello, we are Ron Gallo.” Performing with a five-piece band comprised of local musicians and friends, Gallo tore through a host of songs from his most recent release. “Started A War,” and “If You Gotta Know,” took on particular life, conveying an exuberance and brashness when played with a full band. The latter was transformed completely, turning into a rollicking, boisterous song worthy of Eddie Cochran and Buddy Holly. Gallo’s voice is especially strong, illuminating a gift for channeling dimension and delicacy. And though his sound is steeped in tradition, Gallo expands on the format instead of letting himself be restricted by it. Incorporating folk, country and blues, his music is an infinite tapestry of sound, highly reflective of a proclivity towards the whimsical and eccentric. Qualities that were front and center when he covered the Harry Nilsson song, “Early In The Morning.” Covering such a legendary performer is a daring move that can sometimes yield mixed results, but on this day, Gallo rose to the occasion. Whether shouting into his mic, or singing barley above a whisper, he injected the song with a spirit and vitality that was contagious. It was a daring move, emblematic of a career that was built upon bold, unwavering artistry.
Taking the stage a little after 9:30 PM, The Levee Drivers embodied an energy and magnetism that floored an already adoring crowd. Lead by August John Lutz II and Kyle Perella, the group’s 2010 self-titled debut EP and 2013’s Speakin’ Bourbon Coated Blues, demonstrate their ability to compose songs that are inventive and fresh, while somehow possessing melodies that you feel you’ve been hearing all your life. Deeply rooted in Sun Records era country and waltzing, stomping blues, the band has a rhythm section that could move a tree. Their musical style is a stirring fusion of howling vocals and thoughtful songwriting, but what really sets them apart is their ability to honor the quiet moments just as they conquer the loud: with soul and grit. The combination is an avalanche of sound- unignorable and enduring.
Shrouded in dense blue light that highlighted the worn finish on his charcoal black guitar, August John Lutz II sang with a range and urgency that has been conspicuously absent in rock music. So much so that grabbing the microphone and pulling it to his lips was to brandish a weapon. Twisting his vocals to echo shades of regret, longing and menace, Lutz roamed the stage with all of the unhinged intensity of an animal about to sneak up on its prey.
Smoothing out the savage energy present on “There You Go,” and White Stripes cover, “Seven Nation Army,” was “Bourbon Coated.” With a careening melody and breezy harmonica, the song’s relaxed mood illustrates the ambitious nature of the band’s songwriting. By braiding elements of classic country, folk, hard rock and blues, they have distinguished themselves as versatile artists that are not limited to any one genre. Instead, these accomplished players experiment with an array of different textures and sounds that build off of rich, organic storytelling.
Since the October 2013 release of Cool Cool Cool, the Lawsuits have continued to hone and perfect an impressively rich live show. Already a few years into a career that has seen them share a stage with Good Old War, Toy Soldiers, and Joe Fletcher, the band is nationally recognized as the City of Brotherly Love’s crown jewel. Mixing bluesy, intricate melodies with lush vocals, the Lawsuits stitch together musical genres so easily that the seams are virtually invisible. And while their harmonies and guitar tones often appear to be sunlit, the musical landscapes that they create are anything but saccharine. Most thrilling is when those moments of tranquility quietly fade, gradually wearing away to unveil unvarnished, stark rock and roll.
Lawsuits lead vocalist and songwriter, Brian Strouse, has a unique way of constructing concise melody and verse, which strongly informs the group’s highly original sound. And in most of his compositions, the details are often in what goes unsung. When Strouse sang, “And you don’t talk to much to Grandma. Hell, she don’t talk too much to you,” from the Cool Cool Cool track, “Dreaming # 26,” it painted a complete portrait of a turbulent, familial relationship without really saying much at all. And despite the joyous sing-along that erupted when the band played fan favorite “Ebony Rose,” the absolute highlight of their set was their serene performance of, “You Won’t Love Me If You Don’t.” Featuring Vanessa Winters on lead vocal, the song is a beautiful, heart-wrenching paean to anyone who has ever been discarded for someone else. Most arresting was the final, gleaming refrain, sung with a power and restraint that the band matched note for note:
“You won’t love me if you don’t, I won’t ask you if you won’t.
You don’t hold me if you won’t, I don’t want you if you don’t.
You don’t love me if you don’t, I won’t ask you if you won’t.
Don’t hold me if you won’t, I don’t want you if you don’t.”
Just before 11 PM, the four members of The Districts got up onstage, meticulously tuning up and chatting amongst themselves, seemingly oblivious to the massive excitement generated by the news of their appearance. Though they were billed as “Eight Legged Prawn,” the American Diamond showcase doubled as a secret show for the up and coming musicians from Lancaster, PA. The only band to perform that is not signed to American Diamond, The Districts are nonetheless connected to the label through their manager, Marley McNamara.
The overwhelming response to their 2012 full-length debut, Telephone, immediately granted The Districts the opportunity to take their live show across the country. And while they are still at the beginning of a relatively young career, the band has already toured with a number of established artists including Dr. Dog, Deer Tick, and Langhorne Slim. With upcoming appearances at Canada’s Ottawa Blues Festival, Philadelphia’s Xponential Festival and Chicago’s Lollapalooza, the group’s unbridled talent and riotous stage presence has all but guaranteed them a lengthy recording career.
Screaming into his microphone as he beat the notes out of his guitar, Districts frontman Rob Grote snarled his way through the Telephone track, “Call Box.” “I don’t know what I paid for, but I want my money back.”
In just under one hour, the band delivered an impassioned, smoldering performance, highly symbolic of their capacity to forge a style that is all their own. Thrashing back and forth to a heavy beat, the group managed to create a vast, deep sound without comprising harmony or melody. And by pairing poetic verse with unflinching, seething rock and roll, these performers have declared their ambitions to push their music forward without compromising their influences. Though it’s been only a few years since their formation, The Districts have architected their own path by inventing their own singular sound, completely unpolluted by anything you’ve heard before.
Thursday’s show at Boot and Saddle was a night of near-perfect performances, officially ushering in a new chapter in the city’s rich musical history. TJ Kong and the Atomic Bomb, Ron Gallo, the Levee Drivers, the Lawsuits and The Districts all played their hearts out, unknowingly allowing their music to articulate the bittersweet truth that just as the Beatles outgrew the Cavern, someday they will outgrow Boot and Saddle. Though the songs they create will always remain symbolic of a new frontier, one that establishes Philadelphia as a center for the performing arts. And for these settlers, music and community are more important than anything else.
Article by: Caitlin Phillips