Category Archives: Music

Is Everything Really Just A Remix: Plagiarism vs. Inspiration

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Last week I wrote a post about recent revelations that longtime journalist Chris Hedges has, for some time now, been lifting other writers’ words and passing them off as his own. The whole matter seemed pretty cut and dry. Plagiarism is an ill born of some unknowable combination of laziness, ignorance, and hubris. But then I stumbled upon an interesting (and very well-made) video series called Everything Is A Remix, and I’m curious about where we draw the line between stealing someone else’s work and, well, using previous work as a springboard for (suspiciously identical) inspiration.

I’ve only seen the first two videos in the series so far, but from what I can tell the premise is quite compelling: What do we do when we realize that all art is, in fact, derivative? For instance, fans of Led Zeppelin (myself included) shouldn’t be surprised to learn that many of the band’s most celebrated songs—including “Stairway To Heaven” and  “Dazed and Confused”—are pretty much direct, unattributed ripoffs of songs that came before them. Ever heard of this guy?

A bit more startling was to watch some of the uncanny instances where George Lucas used shots and conceits from several other films in making Star Wars: Episode IV. And he isn’t the only one. As Remix narrator and filmmaker Kirby Ferguson points out, Hollywood (and the music industry, for that matter) has made billions by way of recycling old material, and will probably continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

To be sure, Everything Is A Remix does not set itself up as a defense of plagiarism—and neither does this blog post. But I think it’s worth exploring some of the nuances between purloining the intellectual property of others and using that property in an interesting (fair?) way to go on and make newer iterations.

What’s more, I’m left wondering how to feel about the issue when I’m confronted with instances wherein artists I love and admire seem to be lifting material quite unapologetically for their own purposes. Consider, for instance, the insanely obvious parallels between Prince’s “Purple Rain” and Ryan Adams’ “Hotel Chelsea Nights.” I mean, shit. It’s like Adams was writing the exact same song with different words.

Or consider this 2012 LA Times article that looks at the many instances where, throughout his career, Bob Dylan has been accused of plagiarizing the songs and lyrics of those who came before him. In response, Dylan made some interesting declarations about the organic and muddied nature of the issue. Like this:

Dylan added: “I’m working within my art form. It’s that simple. I work within the rules and limitations of it. There are authoritarian figures that can explain that kind of art form better to you than I can. It’s called songwriting. It has to do with melody and rhythm, and then after that, anything goes. You make everything yours. We all do it.”

This issue will never go away. In fact, in the internet age—where so much material is so easily shared and repurposed—I have a suspicion that the conversation will only grow fiercer and more challenging. In the meantime, check out the first two parts of Everything Is A Remix below (and visit the site for more—it’s worth it). I’d love to get your thoughts.

The Beatles: Let It Be & Yesterday And Today

For today’s entry I’ve posted my evening post from The Spin, a Tumblr blog dedicated to my vinyl record collection. Enjoy.

As I’ve mentioned in previous Spin posts, I haven’t put much conscious effort into adding Beatles records to my collection. Not only are worthwhile copies usually outside my spending threshold on any given day, but I kind of harbor this notion that at some point in the (not too distant?) future I will actually commit to bulking up on these Liverpudlian lads’ library. And when I do I want to do it right. Should I go all mono or all stereo? Should I look for particular pressings (about which I known nothing at this point) or just pursue quality in general? Until I sort all of this out, I sort of just take whatever comes my way. Which is how I came into this rather shoddy copy of Let It Be.

I honestly don’t remember how this came into my possession, but I think it may have been one of several records Cydnee’s mom donated to the cause about two years ago. Which was cool. Despite the rather sad circumstances under which it was recorded, it’s always been one of my favorite Beatles efforts. Sure, you come for classics like “Across the Universe” and the album’s famed title track, but you stay for the more obscure ditties like “I’ve Got A Feeling,” “For You Blue,” and “One After 909.” The whole thing is a testament to the fact that even when the band’s chemistry and endurance was up against the ropes, these guys still managed to put out a collection of kick ass music.

The shame of it all is that this record is practically unlistenable. It’s not warped or scratched, but for some reason the pitch of every song ebbs and flows from start to finish, making it sound like someone is slowing it down and then speeding it up at random intervals. I don’t know why, but it kinda sucks. Still, the album looks pretty cool, which is something. I guess.

It also came with like 20 photocopies that someone decided to make from the album’s iconic cover. I wonder why…

Then there’s Yesterday and Today. Again, I don’t know how it came into my possession (see the above theory for a possible explanation) but I’m glad it did.

Released in 1966, the album is a compilation of tracks from the band’s two most recent British LPs at the time—Help! and Rubber Soul—as well as a few from the upcoming Revolver. Unfortunately the copy I have is not one of the original pressings, which came with an entirely different cover, known in most circles as “The Butcher Cover.” Here’s what it looked like:

Yeah, I know. There’s a very interesting story behind this original cover, as well as the reasons why it was eventually changed. To read all about it click here. Obtaining a “Butcher Cover” copy of Yesterday and Today is considered a Holy Grail in most vinyl collector circles, so until I set out on that particular pilgrimage this one will have to do. Besides, the cover of the one I have still has an interesting little anecdote. Notice who’s sitting inside the trunk? Yup. That image is just one of many supposed “Paul Is Dead” clues littered throughout Beatles lore. And the music isn’t half bad either.

Let Us Now Praise…Conor Oberst and Dawes

 

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To be honest, it’s been a long day of writing, house tending, dog walking, and all around life-izing—and I don’t really have much blog power left in me this evening. But in the spirit of keeping up with the goal of filing a post every day this month I thought I should at least share something. And that something is Conor Oberst and Dawes.

For those who have been following the ‘ol Twenty Pounds pub since its inception, you know that I’ve written extensively about Conor in the past. And he does indeed deserve all (er, most of?) the digital ink that has been spilled in his name over the past decade. But I don’t think I’ve touched on Dawes all too frequently (if at all). Let me do so…now.

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I first came to know about this band about five years ago, courtesy of the incomparable Joseph Master. He sent me an Mp3 of “That Western Skyline,” the first track from their debut record North Hills, and I experienced that exceedingly rare moment when you know you’re listening to a band that is still relatively unknown but perched on the precipice of great acclaim. And they have not let me down since.

To date, I’ve seen Dawes perform live at least five times (the first being a Free At Noon concert in West Philly hosted by 88.5 WXPN), and their live presence only further cemented my confidence in their eventual ascension to greatness. Since the band’s righteous debut they have released two additional studio efforts, Nothing Is Wrong in 2011 and Stories Don’t End in 2013, both of which have not disappointed. So when I found out they were going to be touring this summer with Oberst (who is promoting his current solo effort Upside Down Mountaindig the play on words there?) I knew I couldn’t miss a show if it happened through Philadelphia.

And happen it did. I had the pleasure of seeing both acts perform at Union Transfer (my 100 percent, no joke favorite Philly concert venue of all time) on May 21, and the vibe was unmistakably incendiary. Not only did Dawes come out and rock a 90-minute-plus opening set, but they then returned to the stage less than 30 minutes later to back up Oberst for nearly two juggernaut hours of foot-stomping, hand-clapping musical brilliance. Dawes frontman Taylor Goldsmith (along with drummer and brother Griffin) leant gorgeous harmonies to Oberst’s originals while also searing into regular guitar solos with the type of piercing nuance practiced by the timeless likes of Mark Knopfler and Robbie Robertson. It was, in short, one of the greatest concerts I’ve ever attended—a fitting tribute to two musical acts that I have respected for many years now.

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Dawes backing Oberst. Photo courtesy of yours truly.

Leading up to this summer’s joint tour, Dawes and Oberst released a limited edition Record Store Day seven inch that found each covering the other. The exclusive split featured Dawes covering the Bright Eyes song “Easy/Lucky/Free” and Oberst covering Dawes’ “Million Dollar Bill.” And now, for your listening enjoyment, here are both tracks (and my lord, what they do with each other’s respective work is truly beautiful):

Here’s the original “Easy/Lucky/Free” (and a cool video to boot):

Here’s the Dawes cover:

Here’s the original “Million Dollar Bill”:

And here’s the Oberst cover:

Sonic Sunday Links: An Audio Aggregation for Winding Down

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The Sunday evening view from DiUlio cottage.

Sitting on my front porch at the end of a weekend spent camping and carousing in beautiful Lewes, DE, the sun sinks slowly behind the wooded park across the street, begging me to bring light to the interwebs. After all, it’s Sunday night, and who wants anything too heavy? So pour yourself a dram, a pint, a cup, or chalice and sink like the sun as you click through a few interesting sonic links to help you get through the weekending evening:

1) 10 Public Radio Stations You Wish Were In Your Town: Courtesy of the ever-awesome Paste Magazine (did you know I once wrote a story for them?), this list is a testament to the enduring power of radio. Here they’ve curated 10 listener-supported stations “with consistently great programming, great hosts, and even some local flavor.” Do yourself a favor and put a Sunday night soundtrack on the stove.

2) This American Life’s “House On Loon Lake”: What do you get when a group of teenagers sneaks into an old abandoned house in Massachusetts and finds a home that appears to have been left behind in a hurry? One of the most captivating episodes of one of the most captivating programs in radio history. Originally broadcast in 2001 (and rebroadcast this afternoon, much to my listening delight) this is one of those episodes where Ira Glass devotes the entire hour to one tale in particular. And trust me, it doesn’t disappoint, going well beyond Scooby Doo spooks to delve into fascinating ruminations on memory, family, and the things we leave behind.

3) Radiolab’s “Who Are You”: God I love this show. I’ll resist the urge to write 500-plus words enumerating the many virtues of Radiolab (and trust me—There. Are. Many.) and cut to this chase. According to the program’s website, this week’s episode “centers around a chilling question: how well can you ever really know the people around you?” Delving into everything from a baby’s first 1,000 days on the planet to a true-life story about a wife who suddenly thinks her husband is an impostor version of the man she knows, this episode—like all Radiolab episodes—begs the lister to ask some very complex questions with some intensely humanizing answers. Oh, and as a bonus, check out the amazing Radiolab video short below.

 

4) “Sunday Mornin’ Coming Down”: And of course, this.

Let Us Now Praise…Robert Ellis

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One of the most loathsome tropes employed by music critics is the comparison of a new band or artist to an old band or artist for the sake of lending credence, understanding, or street cred to the many ineffable qualities of uncharted sonic territory. You know, something like, “Dawes is today’s heir apparent to The Band.” No. Dawes is Dawes and The Band is (was) The Band. Sure, all art is reductive on some level, but grasping at these low-hanging-fruit comparisons is just not fair, neither to the new nor the old. In doing so we water down the energy of the contemporary for the sake of nostalgia or simplicity (and yes, I’ve been guilty of doing this myself). That being said, when a February 2014 Esquire blurb did this with singer-songwriter Robert Ellis, I’ll admit, it made me sit up:

“The 25-year-old Texan is Paul Simon trapped in Tom Waits’s head, with George Jones’s voice. He’s what Jim James might sound like if he’d liked Randy Newman more than the Band.”

Ugh. Admittedly, that blurb is one big orgy of regrettable comparisons, but it did the trick and inspired me to give Ellis a digital spin. And I’ve been delighted ever since.

With three full length albums under his belt—The Great Re Arranger (2009), Photographs (2011), and The Lights From The Chemical Plant (2014)—Ellis’s talents as a lyricist and vocalist are undeniable as he aches his way through landscape tales of disillusion, complicated love, and American ennui with a pinched and plaintive whine accented by slide guitars, jangly pianos, and inspiring dynamics. And while I’ll resist the urge to do so myself, it’s easy to see why Esquire saw fit to make the comparisons it did, name dropping the likes of Waits and Newman in its review. Because there’s something slanted about the songs of Robert Ellis, who lures listeners with the charm of his melodies but then takes them by the hand through sinuous back alleys of irony, insight, and sympathetic satire once they’re hooked. Consider, for instance, these lines from “TV Song,” the opener of The Lights From The Chemical Plant:

I am not a failure, I played the hand that I was dealt
But every now and then I do pretend that I am someone else
It takes no imagination, just a flick of the remote
Then I am on vacation in a life someone else wrote

Maybe I’m a millionaire, I travel over the world
I’m handsome and respected, I get all those pretty girls
So calm and mysterious, fighting for the greater good
People love and adore me from New York to Hollywood

Well, this may not be the healthiest, I know
But I’m happiest when I exist through my favorite TV shows

I’m a gun fighter, I’m a bull rider
I’m the captain of some pirate ship at sea
For a couple hours I got super powers
Oh my God, I love watching my TV, oh yeah
Oh my God, I love watching my TV

In the hands of lesser talent, a song like this would be nothing more than a self-righteous hipster’s sneering lament about the trappings of contemporary escapism. I mean, I don’t even own a TV, man. But Ellis treats the characters in his songs with a melancholic kindness that inspires introspection rather than condescension. Give it a listen:

Another highlight is his most recent album’s namesake, “Chemical Plant,” an impressionist tale of young love juxtaposed against industrial skylines.

She says my heart is like an orphan
And your words are like home
I do not deserve such kindness
Keeps me warm down to my arms
We bear some strange familiar likeness
To a man I feel I know

As if to keep each other safe
They spent the night and then embrace

And the lights from the chemical plant
Burn bright in the night like an old kerosene lamp
When all seemed unstable
I could watch how they were there
The lights from the chemical plant

I could go on at great length about the virtues of Robert Ellis, but you gotta hear it for yourself, because it’s well worth the listen. This guy not only understands the sublime and painful nuances of life, but he gets America and what it means to feel the way we feel during this specific time and age. And that’s a rare quality indeed.

Review: “Topography of a Bird”

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“Three things are necessary,” wrote Thomas Aquinas, “for the salvation of man: to know what he ought to believe; to know what he ought to desire; and to know what he ought to do.” It could be said that Topography of a Bird, the charming full-length debut from singer-songwriter Mark Rice, is an exploration of that path to enlightenment. Full of transcendental petitions for love, comfort, and understanding, Topography is a record that explores some complicated queries through some improbably uncomplicated folk melodies and introspective lyrics; the meditations of a journeyman concerned less with the answers than he is with the questions at hand.

Topography of a Bird is the stuff of Sunday night introspection; of those solitary moments that descend after the church lights have dimmed, the monks have retired for the evening, and the rest of the congregants have gone home. In those instances, alone and unhinged against the backdrop of forever, one rarely thinks in nuanced poetry or grand declarations. Instead, he thinks (prays, meditates) on the perpetually dawning sweep of his life in the broader scope, and Rice seems to understand this quite well, whittling his search down to its most primary parts. How have I failed? How have I succeeded? What do I desire? What do I despise? Who am I now and what do I eventually wish to become? That his music appeals to these (quote-unquote) big life questions without proselytization or solipsistic trifling is a laudable feat, and it’s what males Topography at once so enjoyable and also so severe.

Belief, desire, and action. Rice raises the curtain on these concerns from the outset with the album’s whispered opening track, “Show Me How To Love,” a lyrically and sonically understated entree that begins with the chirping rhythm of nighttime crickets before the first strum of guitars. As the song builds Rice returns to one simple refrain over and over again: “Show me how to love/ Show me how to love/ When the stars are so bright…so bright.” It’s a soft meditation that sets the table for the album’s ensuing 13 tracks.

To be sure, Rice’s brush strokes are broad, even at times a little vague, as he peppers Topography with supplicant titles like “Hold Me Now,” “Don’t Let Me Down,” and “Save Me Tonight.” But this strain of indeterminate invocation—to a woman? to a friend? to God?—is the record’s greatest strength. It’s what binds the album as an honest and accessible work. And even when he sometimes dances on the edge of sentimentality Rice never gives in, always managing to avoid preciousness with an easy turn of phrase. His songs—along with all of their potential vagaries—are both intensely personal (see the wonderfully haunting “Ohio”) and yet universally appealing to a hunger for understanding what it means to be frail and broken and human.

In “Hold Me Now,” Rice is “at the crossroads/ Looking for the ancient way, the good way.” In “Don’t Let Me Down”—a road-ready, drive-time ditty—he beckons, “Don’t let the day get away/ Until I make amends.” And in “Maybe This Time,” one of Topography’s standout tracks: “I’m messed up and broken/ And I can’t see past my pride.” The cynics may confuse these for the lamentations of an old-world Pollyanna, the cries a man who still believes that perhaps salvation is simpler than we think. But where Rice’s silence and simplicity leave off, the vibrancy of the album’s musicality picks up.

Topography’s edge of enlightenment owes much to the production of David Young, a vintage stylist with some serious pop-rock predilections that harken back less to Dylanesque balladeers than to The Beach Boys or Weezer. Pulling from that tradition, Young allows Rice’s otherwise simple, coffee-shop melodies to blossom and grow into their fuller organic potential. Consider “Tuscan Sun,” a bittersweet number that, in the hands of a lesser reggisseur, might suffer under the weight of its own importance. But Young—who sings backup and also plays several studio instruments on the record, including some impressive lead guitar and harmonica—transforms the track into something wholly anthemic. You can almost see the lighters being raised in unison as a grand, harmonic chorus swells in the final minute, begging “Don’t let the sun go down now/ All my life I’ve waited now I/ Know your eyes, your life, your smile with mine.” It’s a sublime moment.

The same could be said of “Be With you Tonight.” What begins as an unadorned bedroom ballad—a little bit Elliot Smith, a little bit Ray Lamontagne—slowly builds into another one of Topography’s unexpected anthems, swelling with pianos, thudding percussion, and electric guitars. Just when it seems Rice’s spirit is beyond saving, his music finds redemption yet again. Torture, death, rebirth. Let the rain fall down.

Rice also gets a lot of help from a respectable swath of studio musicians here, including the venerable Verien Brotzman on percussion, Tom Swope on bass, and Sissy Clemens on violin and vocals (more about her in a moment). But Topography’s background players do more than add layers to the music; they lend the album a casual air of good nature and inviting humor. Despite their gravity, Rice’s tunes are not depressive. In fact they are remarkably optimistic, and this chorus of musicians at his back only serve to drive home that point.

Only once on the album does Rice take a backseat to his fellow musicians, and the moment is one of Topography’s greatest triumphs. On “Starting Ground” Clemens takes the reigns and delivers a beautiful slice of smoky sensuality and sadness that thoroughly bely her mere 20 years. “Starting Ground” is a Clemens original and the only non-Rice tune on the record. Delivered at the album’s half-way mark, this late-night, bar-room piano ballad (I am painfully resisting the all-to-obvious Billie Holiday comparison here), which concerns itself with the simple sorrow of deception, takes the pathos to an entirely new level while never feeling out of place within the context of Topography’s greater aesthetic.

Rice has said the Topography’s title is derived from a quote he once heard about the ways in which thoughts are like birds. “We can’t stop them from flying over our heads,” it goes. “But we can keep them from making a nest in our hair.” What Rice has done is craft an album that is rich with flight and absent of any nests. It’s a patient album for a throughly impatient time, and at every turn it feels as though silent salvation is at hand.

BONUS TRACK: Check out the following clip of Rice performing “Ohio” last month in Pittsburgh during his record release concert.

Native American Pale Ale Rock (or, How I Came To Know The Great Unkown)

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The February sun had set on Saturday night and Theatre 941 in Northern Liberties was becoming quite crowded with the weird beards and biceps cartoons that can so often be found wherever the mighty blue ribbon is served. Everyone was gathered that evening on North Front Street for the first annual Pabst Blue Ribbon Art & Craft Fair, which, for the nominal entry fee of $6, promised live music, an endless well of the beer being praised, and wall-to-wall PBR-inspired wares like red white and blue quilts, beeramid cupcakes, and bottle-lid cufflinks.

I had no intention of discovering new music that night. I was there to cover the event for Beer Magazine and around 7 p.m. found myself talking to Julie Roboczi, the show’s founder and organizer. Roboczi heads up the venerable Philadelphia Independent Craft Market and had, on a whim of inspiration, decided to launch this first of many PBR fairs to come. We were halfway into a chat about the event when a broken bathroom poet arrived on the scene to declare an emergency.

“I was sent to tell you there’s a problem with the bathroom,” said the young man in a brown leather coat trimmed with sepia fur. He had appeared from nowhere, leaned in, and spoke in an easy, calculated rhythm, like the bathroom was a lady and its problem was a broken heart. He wore dark country jeans with a rolled left cuff, workingman shoes, and a hapless fedora on a curly head of hair. His wide, unblinking eyes bounced from corner to corner. “I think you’ll want to attend to its needs,” he said. And then he smiled.

The purple costume feathers sprouting from the head of Roboczi twitched in time with her mild flustering as armies of ironic sneakers marched around her and so many tattooed fists clutched cans of warming Pabst against their patch-work hoodies and striped cardigans. The music was loud, the din beneath the buzzing fluorescent lights getting boozier by the minute. A malfunctioning bathroom was indeed an urgent matter. “Well,” she said, “I think I should go see to it then. I’ll be back. Excuse me.” And then she smiled. And then she was gone. I was left standing next to the messenger.

“You don’t want that tonight,” he said, still darting his eyes, still smiling. “Lots of PBR going down easy. Lots of pissing going on, I’m sure.” He took a sip from his can of Pabst and swallowed hard. “Like lava.”

“What’s that?” I asked. His voice was low and muted beneath the thundering of some punk outfit playing loudly in the adjacent room.

“Like laaava.” He drawled. “Laaava. Pissing lava.” I wasn’t sure what he meant by this. Not in the least. But whatever he was trying to say was clearly dear to him, clearly the most important moment of that moment because his eyes stayed wide and the humor of his internal monologue registered with every slink of his puckish frame. So we kept on talking.

This, I came to find out, was none other than Todd Henkin, and Todd Henkin’s band was about to go on in thirty minutes. “We’re The Great Unknown,” he said. “But we’re different than what you’re hearing right now. It’s nothing like this.”

“This” was thudding, post-Pixies metal mixed with a dash of slick Interpol angst, the kind that comes on at 2 a.m. after one too many PBRs. “We’re more like…Americana? Or uh, or like roots style music. Lap steel and all that. I don’t know. It’s…it’s not like this. It’s not PBR kind of music, I don’t think.”

“So what kind of beer should somebody drink to your music?”

“I don’t know. Maybe an IPA? Yeah!” Henkin liked every pet theory that came to mind. And he really liked this one.

“There’s your genre right there, man,” I told him. “IPA rock.”

“Right! Yeah. We’re an India Pale Ale.” He laughed a little and tossed off the moment with a shrug. It was then I realized that I wasn’t sure about anything he was saying. I had been at the craft fair for nearly two hours at this point, and to be sure, nothing breeds suspicion quite like these sorts of No Libs gatherings. Everything is a joke and everything is a serious edict at once. Sincerity and sarcasm do a mad, opium dance of the dead and suddenly all one is left with is the certainty that nothing is certain. Ever. For all I knew Henkin was full of shit. For all I knew he could have been a solo hip-hop free stylist who dressed as a clown on stage and rapped about Kierkegaard’s latent fascination with Muppets or accountants with Dixie Cup fetishes.

Or he might not be a musician at all. Who was to say? This was Northern Liberties. This was Pabst.

“Either way,” he continued, “I don’t really like the term ‘Americana.’ That’s not it. Maybe we need another genre. Like…like native American.”

“But then people might think about American Indians,” I said, noticing for the first time a subtle scar that ran from the corner of his mouth to the dip of his five-o’clock chin. “I don’t think that’s what you’re going for.”

“But…yeah! No, that’s it! Native American. American Indians. We are American Indians. I’m an American Indian. Like Bob Dylan.”

“Bob Dylan was an American Indian?” This, I knew, was certainly not true.

But then again…

“Hell yeah! He was an Indian.” Henkin laughed again.

“Dude, he was Jewish. You’re telling me he was a Jewish American Indian?”

“Oh…wait. No, yeah. Jewish! He was Jewish.” More laughter. More mad, darting eyes. He looked at me like he was on the lamb and I was about to call the cops. “That’s what I meant. Jewish. They’re so similar, ya know? Jewish. Indian. I get ‘em mixed up. So maybe Jewish American rock? Whatya think?”

The conversation continued like this for a few more minutes until Robosczi finally returned to tell us all was right with the flushable world. I shook Henkin’s hand and told him I was anxious to hear the band. He told me to find some IPA.

Later, while waiting in the back of the theatre for some more PBR to arrive (the natives growing restless) I began to hear the copper strumming of an acoustic guitar. The thudding of a country bass. The slick slide of a lap steel. The Great Unknown was warming up. When the new batch of beer finally arrived I grabbed myself a chilled, cozi-less can and made my way to the crowded front room, where I found Henkin and Co. already well into the second song of their set.

So he was telling the truth after all.

For thirty minutes I watched The Great Unknown churn out some of the most exciting and finely crafted American music I have had the pleasure of hearing in this city. Henkin lead the outfit with his loose acoustic and sharp vocals, backed all the while by a jangly electric guitar, sweet and subtle lap steel, excitable bass, and riverstone drums. They were harmonizing three parts, laughing between beats, and moving in mountain step with one another the way one imagines wolves might if they had smiles and voices and hands to play such sweet, rollicking tavern anthems to the night.

For thirty minutes I watched The Great Unknown conjure up images of its woozy urban cowboyism played against the mossy backdrop of an American forest, or through the smoky blur of a basement in the dark, pensive Pennsylvania hills. Henkin sang about love declared to sleeping ladies and whistled his way through a number’s closing. He made Tom Waits references between songs and all the while kept darting his wide, junkyard eyes from corner to corer, just as he had done when I met him less than an hour before.

For thirty minutes I watched the members of The Great Unknown have the time of their lives, as though every number was the closing of a concert given to celebrate the end of the world. I watched them inspire some in the crowd to belt out delirious rebel yells that would make the sober eyes of nuns rattle in their heads and young women shudder for the impossibility of affection. This was the young man music for which rock and roll was first invented. The music of getting drunk when it matters the most. The music of reckless love in dusty jukebox corners. The music of being snowed in by time and guarded against its sinister march. The music of long conversations that mean nothing, save for their assurance that long conversations still exist somewhere in the hearts of the young.

For thirty minutes I watched The Great Unknown restore my faith in the possibility of accidentally stumbling upon a band that makes you want to sing until your voice is raw and stomp until your feet are blistered and ghostly. I have spent many years seeking out such possibility, going from Philly pub to Philly pub with the hope that I might leave with the desire to tell everyone about the band I just saw. Sadly, that expectation is most often met with disappointment, and I wind up wondering if anyone is yet to be discovered. But last weekend I was treated to thirty unexpected minutes of The Great Unknown, and now I know the search has been worth it. And it is worth it still.

It’s unfortunate that the indie world has become so bloated with expectation and slavish devotion to novelty and irony these days, because what so many local outfits miss in their efforts to become the next Arcade Fire or Deerhoof (fine bands in their own right, don’t get me wrong) is the bliss of being enveloped by the simple, singular pleasure of solid songwriting and a band bleeding its life on stage. Consider that just last month I watched a seven-piece group crowd the North Star with a violin, three guitars, synth keyboards and marching band drums. In all of their expected grandeur, those guys and gals couldn’t manage to eek out a single melody that came close to even the simplest lines of The Great Unknown. These dudes know how to summon the muse, and they do it damn well.

Look, this band isn’t going to push the limits of pop music evolution. The Great Unknown probably won’t rearrange the sonic landscape as we know it or woo the critics with its visionary scope. But I can tell you this: they will make you feel, they will give you one hell of a good show, and you’ll find yourself humming their tunes long after the others have packed away their violins and cut off the power to their canned orchestras.

With the PBR fair finally winding down I managed to catch up with Henkin as he and his mates packed up for a show later that night in Center City. But before I could get a word in to tell him how incendiary their set was, he looked at me and said, “So. Did it make you want an IPA?”

Check out The Great Unknown here. Or better yet, go see them play at Johnny Brenda’s on March 7. You won’t be disappointed.