Philadelphia’s hottest up and coming bands form the lineup of Philly Music Fest, taking place this weekend, and live streamed for all to view at no cost. Founded, produced and curated by Greg Seltzer, the non-profit event’s mission is to showcase the ever-expanding local music scene in Philadelphia while raising funds for local music education programs. Day one was a culmination of a diverse group of musicians that brought something distinctive to the experience.
Arnetta Johnson & SUNNY launched the night into full swing. Johnson picked up the trumpet at age 13 and has since played alongside Beyoncé, Solange, Janelle Monáe and more. Her relationship with the trumpet is a sweet one. Taking front stage, as she closed her eyes and pursed her lips, smooth notes poured out the end of her horn in an effortless fashion. Joined by an ensemble of equally talented supporting trumpets, saxophone, drums, bass and keyboards, the group generated a calamity of rich overlapping layers in sound.
Arnetta Johnson & SUNNY released the album If you Hear a Trumpet It’s Me last year, and during their set listeners got a taste of several of its tracks such as “Who Are You.” A modern choice of production molded together seamlessly with their classic elements of jazz. The group was excited to be back in front of a live audience after a long lull during COVID-19 shutdowns, and the energy was both genuine and uplifting.
Formed in 2009 during their high school years, The Districts have grown to be a popular indie rock band known by NME Magazine as “The Band Who Owned SXSW.” Their sound, laced with hints of blues and rock themes, is one to be savored. The band was thrilled to be back for their first show subsequent to the release of their ironically titled album, You Know I’m Not Going Anywhere, which was unveiled right as quarantine started in March. Opening up with the haunting song filled with distortions, electronic sounds and strings, “My Only Ghost,” Pat Cassidy harmonized wonderfully with lead vocalist Rob Grote.
Going full force for “If Before I Wake,” heavy bass and sliding guitar chords carried the track as Grote jumped up and down shouting the lyrics, full of energy. The way Grote thrashes his head and body, people have got to think he’ll be icing it later. For a slight cool down, “And The Horses All Go Swimming” and “4th of July” showed the softer side to The Districts, although the first left room for a skillful breakdown.
The camera zoomed in on a small lamp with “HUMAN” written in red. A man of charisma who can’t be categorized, Zeek Burse stepped on to the scene in glittery cardigan and pants, jewels dangling from his neck and ears. Eyes closed and arms wide open, it was as if he was gently inviting his voice to pour out. His jumping lyrics and range in vocals fluctuated with ease on “Dry.” Making use of the stage, he danced barefoot and scat sang, beautifully improvising melodies during “Summer Vibes.” Introducing “‘Dirty Bath Water,” Burse explained, while chuckling, “It’s about someone who left you with the leftovers, right? We’ve all been there.”
Burse possesses the incredible quality of being able to skip between jazz, blues, R&B and rock all in one set. He quoted Nina Simone: “How can I be an artist and not reflect the times?” while adding “This is us reflecting the times as well as the future.” In a ’60s-esque “Black Lives Matter” song, the guitarist shredded scales as Burse chanted “black lives matter” into the microphone, headbanging, and playing air guitar alongside him, ending with a fist in the air.
“If you know one thing about me it’s that I stand for equality and unity…” said Burse. “This song ‘One People’ is about balance. Usually during a show like today, I usually ask the audience to put up one finger when we get to the hook. Only put it up if you believe it right? It’s like church, don’t do it if you don’t believe it. But it’s basically just saying we are one people. No matter where you’re from, who you love, what you look like, we are one people and we can change the world.” The track was a refreshing, inspiring ballad among his high energy set.
Japanese Breakfast is glad to be back as well. “It feels so great to play together again, this is our first show that we’ve played together all year, and it feels really really special,” said lead singer Michelle Zaunder. The indie rock artist kicked off her set with “Diving Woman,” from Soft Sounds From Another Planet, followed by “In Heaven,” from her first studio album Psychopomp.
Zauner set down her guitar for her beloved top track “Road Head.” Close ups revealed Zauner’s expressive singing as her face transformed from grins to a scrunched up nose, fighting to hit those falsettos, and leveling them gracefully. Dancing and grooving to her own tracks, it was lovely to see her genuine enjoyment, and viewers on screen jived along with her.
Molly Germer joined the band on violin for a new song that has never been played for a live audience. “This song is called ‘Kokomo Indiana,’” said Zauner. “ I wrote it from the perspective of a love-lorne, like, 17-year-old boy whose girlfriend moves to Australia in the summer exchange program, because that to me is like the apex of feeling.” The lovesick, twangy song was reminiscent of nostalgic youthful moments and begged to have lighters waving in a crowd.
Following their original tracks, the band also performed a couple of heartwarming covers. A spot-on rendition of Tears for Fears’ “Head Over Heels” ended in the blissful “na na na’s” and hands waving in the air. Before the set came to a close with a Japanese Breakfast version of The Used’s “The Taste of Ink,” Zauner spoke out on the current state of social injustice.
“It would feel remiss if I didn’t take every opportunity in which we have a platform to essay that black lives matter,” she said. “That means not just saying it but fighting for injustice, it means marching in the streets if you’re able to. Please vote, it is not by any means the end to all of this, but it is very important and I hope that you will triple-check your registration this week and please go out and vote. March for Breonna Taylor, It is absolutely disgusting what is happening. We must work together to defund the police and invest in our communities.”
Photo Credit: Kalyn Oyer