From The Roots to Kurt Vile and Hop Along: Philadelphia has one of the most exciting alternative music scenes in the US. Music journalist John Vettese tells you which bands and places you should check out.
How did you get involved in the alternative music scene in Philly?
When I was a journalism student at Temple University, I interned in the music department at at Philadelphia City Paper. This was 2001 or so, and while my initial interest was writing about bands like The Strokes and Yeah Yeah Yeahs as they toured through Philly, I quickly came to realize how many great bands there were that were actually from Philly. The more I looked, the more of them I found, and so I kept writing about them for various media outlets.
What fascinated you about it back then?
Part of it was certainly how approachable all the musicians seemed to me. Which, looking back at it now, is kind of a silly thought…musicians are people just like everyone, of course they’d be approachable. But I was young, so I had less perspective, plus Philly still had a lot of really good radio stations in the city at the time that played a lot of local music, so there were these bands that I was hearing on the radio, and then was able to get coffee with them and talk about their art. That was a huge deal for me.
I also loved how the city’s scene was all over the place, style-wise. Again, looking back as an adult, most cities are like this — they have folk scenes, they have hip-hop scenes, they have punk scenes — but I was able to find artists I seriously loved in like every genre across the board. Hardcore punk: Paint It Black. Experimental rock: Bardo Pond, mewithoutYou. Folk: Birdie Busch, Devin Greenwood. And of course The Roots are to this day one of my favorite bands ever.
How has it evolved since then?
Change is constant. Venues close, new venues open; artists move away from the city, others move to the city. Bands break up, either in a big way (psych punks Creepoid played a huge farewell show at Union Transfer earlier this year) or with little fanfare (an emo band I loved a lot, Everyone Everywhere, played their final show at FEST a couple years back and kind of quietly parted ways, though the bassist Matt Scottoline fronts the band Hurry now).
Overall though, there does seem to be a gradual trend towards Philly having a more robust, supportive music scene, as compared to when I first became involved. There are slightly more venues now, and they’re more spread out over the city than they were in the early 00s. Promoters tend to treat artists better in terms of pay and hospitality (particularly at places like Johnny Brenda’s or Boot and Saddle), though I still hear stories about venues who don’t pay local artists, or DIY shows where the kid putting it on wasn’t happy that the turnout wasn’t bigger so they took the door money and ran before the show was over. So there are still scumbags operating in Philly, for sure. But not as many as there once were.
Atmosphere — it runs the spectrum, though it is nice to have venues like Johnny Brenda’s where the sound is good and the environment is comfortable. Back in the day, I saw so many shows at this place called the North Star Bar that had one of the foulest bathrooms in the city; the vibe of the venues in Philly circa 2002, before the city banned indoor smoking and before these falling apart venues shot down for good, could best be categorized as horrifically gross.
On the artist level, having major successes that came up from Philly helps a lot; The War on Drugs won a Grammy this year, you know? Likewise, The Roots have been prominently featured on late night TV for a decade. Stuff like that gives artists something to aspire to…even though, for The Roots, it took them 15 years to get that national mainstream recognition.
I think what’s changed over the past decade and a half is that, while it used to be that Philly artists never broke out of the underground or under-the-radar levels (and seemed okay with that in a weird defeatist way), today enough Philly artists have made it on the national / global scale that the outside world is looking to Philly for what’s next; and it’s giving artists more motivation to really push themselves and their craft.
What do you find fascinating about it today?
I think the thing that fascinates me today is not only the amount of bands in the city, but the amount of quality bands in the city. For my show on WXPN, I feature live performances with Philly artists on the air each week. I’ve been doing this since 2012 and I’ve rarely repeated artists. Moreso, I could easily feature double the artists I do now if I had the time to produce all those live sets.
Similarly, I write a column where I search for new Philadelphia artists on Bandcamp, and every week there is some new release that blows me away. Most weeks there are like ten or twenty finds that stand out.
And, I mean, the artists are still approachable, and I still love that. I love that I can see people from my favorite bands around town — folks from Hop Along working at restaurants in Fishtown, folks from Cayetana tending bar in Center City, folks from Modern Baseball working door at venues in South Philly.
How is it different from scenes in places like New York or Chicago?
It’s hard for me to answer that, since I haven’t really spent too much time in either New York or Chicago on more than a tourist level, so I couldn’t claim to truly understand their scenes like I understand Philly.
That said, New York is a different beast from Philly altogether. Not only is it like five times the size, it’s also a city with a lot of music industry infrastructure in place (labels, publishing companies, booking agencies, management companies, in addition to studios and venues, etc), so a lot of creative people flock to from all over the country and world to NYC with the goal of “making it” — and because of that, there’s less of a sense of community than in Philly, where most creative people are still from the city itself or the surrounding suburbs. That said, we are seeing more artists move to Philly from New York, or other parts of the country, not so much to “make it” in the “I’m gonna be a star” sense but more because it’s a place you can afford to live as a working musician. Which is the other thing about New York — it’s expensive, so to be successful there, you probably have some degree of money and privilege going into it, or you have to be unfathomably determined, and lucky to boot. And even the New Yorkest of New York bands, Sonic Youth, ultimately left the city to live in New England towards the end of their career.
Chicago feels different from New York. It actually felt very community-centric the time I was there, it seemed like there was a lot of civic investment in public music events, and a lot of venues all around the metro area. And let’s not forget Chance the Rapper and the entire community surrounding him — I love Philly, but I do think Chicago has the best hip-hop scene in America right now, and it feels very distinctively and authentically Chicago.
That said, Chicago is a massive city, and definitely feels like a massive city when you’re walking around it. So to me, it’s like the spirit of the Philly music community, but spread out in a space the size of New York. (People are also a lot friendlier in Chicago, but I hear that’s just a thing with the midwestern states.)
Which venues and bands do you find interesting in Philly at the moment?
Venues: The most interesting of those are honestly the ones at the DIY level. The Philly music community definitely operates with this punk mentality of “if there’s something we want, we’re going to find a way to make it happen.” There’s a place called Everybody Hits, located in Fishtown; by day, it’s an indoor batting cage, and by night they host live music. I saw an incredible Japanese Breakfast show there last year. It’s definitely rough around the edges and the sound isn’t the best, but it’s a much more positive atmosphere than the dive bars that used to host gigs in the late 90s / early 00s. Likewise, you can see shows in basements or galleries any night of the week.
The punk and emo bands that make up a lot of what gets booked at those DIY venues are always amazing, Harmony Woods and Shannen Moser being two current faves. But some of the most exciting stuff for me comes from the more experimental, noise-oriented fringes of DIY, like Moor Mother and NAH and Pinkwash and Solarized and Ronnie Vega. Stuff that’s more visceral and fueled by outrage, that doesn’t fit neatly into genre boxes and doesn’t really seem to concerned with mainstream accessibility, stuff that’s just pure cathartic expression.
How difficult is it to get access to the scene?
I feel like the scene is relatively easy to find if you’re interested in looking for it. Most “proper” venues (Union Transfer, Johnny Brenda’s, etc) publish their schedules on their websites, and it’s easy to fill your calendar up very far out. DIY venues, for various reasons involving city zoning laws, have to operate more on the down low, so they don’t have their schedule publicly announced as far out. But they will still post in advance about their gigs on social media — they never publicize the address, you have to message the event organizer to find out the location if it’s your first time at a space. But I’ve never been turned away or ghosted when I try to go to the show. Philly DIY operates on a “don’t be a cop / respect the space / respect the neighbors” outlook, and most concertgoers seem to abide by that. As far as physical accessibility, most venues (DIY and otherwise) are extremely close to public transportation.
How homogenous or divers is the scene?
I’m glad you asked this, because diversity and inclusiveness is something we as a scene could definitely stand to do a lot better with. It’s not that there aren’t, for example, black music fans in the scene who would like to come to shows. And we’re definitely improving; again, to compare it to how the scene was when I started as a music journalist, the consciousness of the community has definitely evolved towards inclusiveness.
But a lot of times it starts with the person who’s putting the lineups for the shows together, and it really varies from promoter to promoter. So when you have a white dude promoter putting on a show where the lineup is mostly white, mostly dude-identifying artists, you’re going to get an overwhelmingly white dude crowd.
By comparison, there are several events that do make a point of programming diverse bills that include artists of color, that include women or nonbinary artists, in addition to the dude bands. A few examples:
First Time’s The Charm is a weekend festival at PhilaMOCA, an all ages art space in the Callowhill neighborhood, and the idea is that it presents two days of bands, all of whom are playing their very first show, all of whom also have to include one or more of the following — a person new to their instrument; a woman, trans or nonbinary artist; an artist of color. The goal of the fest is pretty much to provide visibility to aspiring artists who are typically ostracized from hetero white male-dominated music scenes, to provide a comfortable space for them to perform for the first time. Some artists who perform at FTTC just play the once and that’s it, while others (like Littler and Full Bush and Aster More) go on to have a more prominent presence in the scene. The festival happens every other year and I wish it happened more often.
All Mutable is a promotions group that puts on gigs that prioritize not only experimental and avant garde music (I first saw the amazing NY band Guerilla Toss at one of their shows) but also lineups that are not just white dude band after white dude band.
Break Free Fest was an incredible punk rock festival I went to last Memorial Day weekend, and the bands on the bill were almost entirely artists of color (the aforementioned Solarized, the incredible Soul Glo, the no-longer-together-but-still-awesome S-21). I guess similar to Afropunk, curatorially, but with less emphasis on fashion and more emphasis on radical politics – money from the fest went to community organizations like Black Lives Matter Philadelphia.
How political is the scene in Philly?
There’s more of a political awareness since Trump took office, for certain. Even apolitical bands are trying to help by putting on benefit concerts for local and national nonprofits that are either actively opposing Trump’s policies or working to support communities who have come under attack in the Trump administration. Local label Lame-O Records has been incredible about this — the past two Januaries, they’ve held a residency at the venue Boot and Saddle where they curate weekly showcases of artists on their label mixed with bands they’re friends with, and each show benefits somewhere like Planned Parenthood or the Southern Poverty Law Center or the North Philly immigration advocacy group Juntos. Most of those bands involved, like Thin Lips and Hurry, tend to be on the emo / introspective side of things lyrically, without songs being overtly political, but it’s been a way for those artists to help affect change and support marginalized groups. (Boot and Saddle in general has been amazing about benefit shows this year, and in addition to the Lame-O run, had another four or five nights on its January calendar where proceeds went to charity.)
And on the other side of things, you have events like Break Free Fest, where it’s political artists using their shows as a political action.
But politics in Philly music aren’t particularly new, or even tied to American party politics. Two of my all time favorite Philly musicians are the hardcore band Paint It Black, who wrote and released incredibly powerfully political music during the Bush-led Republican-dominated early 00s, whereas the first Philly band I ever got into was The Goats, a hip-hop band that put out incredible records breaking down racism and economic inequality during the Democratic era of Bill Clinton.
If someone would like to get to know cool places and music in Philly, what would you recommend?
Shameless plug: the website I edit, The Key, covers a huge spectrum of goings on in the Philadelphia music community, and gives a weekly rundown of upcoming gigs to get to:
I’m also a fan of what the quarterly magazine JUMP Philly does, as far as profiling musicians and behind the scenes folks in the city.
The Deli Philly is another long running outlet reporting on emerging artists in the scene.
I love >WKDU, a free-form student-run college radio station based at Drexel University. And honestly, just look around on Facebook and social media. When you find an artist from Philly you dig, check out who they’re working with, see who they’re sharing shows with, listen to who they’re shouting out…and then do it again, build it further and further out. There’s so much to see and hear.
Main Picture: The Menzingers at the now defunct Golden Tea Room (Photo by Jessica Flynn).