Paige Walter / Cherry-Veen Zine
The loss of live music during the COVID-19 pandemic has left artists eager to connect with their audiences and fans yearning to see the bands they love perform in person. This was as true in Philadelphia as it was anywhere. And while music lovers were trying to bridge the gap with virtual concert experiences, after a while, Instagram Live is not enough.
Thus, Unprecedented Sessions – “live music for unprecedented times” – was born. The video project, co-hosted by taste makers Philly Cherry-Veen Zine and WXPN, with live audio assistance from the PowerCycle Productions team, came to fruition in fall 2020. The idea was to showcasing the breadth of the local scene – from folk to punk to funk, solo jazz experimenters to classic rock bands – while showcasing various pockets of the city adjacent to the music.
Starting in the Northern Liberties section of town in an elegant place called Ortlieb’s, we traveled through wasteland of South Philly and manicured lawns in Germantown, recording studios like Spice House Sound in the Fishtown section of town. and Rockdale Music Studios in the nearby pastoral suburb. from Aston. We even recorded in a converted church, currently used as a tattoo and design studio called True Hand Society, with stained glass windows and a pipe organ making a resplendent backdrop.
The resulting live concerts were broadcast via Facebook on a near-monthly basis, from December 2020 through August 2021. Read on for 10 Outstanding Performances From Unprecedented Sessions. (The entire series can be viewed here.)
“Star Kids” by Barney Cortez, performed at Ortlieb’s
Psychedelic singer-songwriter Barney Cortez performed this meditative burner in front of the velvety red curtain and hot Edison bulbs at Ortlieb’s, a small independent venue that – at the time of recording in October 2020 – had not seen a group go up on its stage in months. Performed as an electric solo and bathed in warm tones, “Star Kids” is as transporting to the screen as it was felt in the room.
Grocer’s “Party Song”, performed at the Grocer’s Lot
The indie rock group of four Grocer live together in a terraced house on a developing street in South Philly. Over the summer, they held an outdoor social distancing concert on the vacant lot next to their house; we used that same space for the session we recorded with them on a hot November afternoon. As the skronky guitar solos exploded in the final chorus of “Party Song,” the tension and release were visceral; I felt like I was screaming, “We needed this!”
“History” by Eleanor Two, performed at Spice House Sound
Singer-songwriter Lauren Hawkins creates minimal, introspective music under the name Eleanor Two, evoking a range of artists from Cocteau Twins to Jeff Buckley to Land of Talk. This energy felt incredibly timely as 2020 turned to 2021, and we were still collectively unsure of what was going on in the world around us. Hawkins’ set, recorded at Spice House Sound in winter, opened up to the contemplative “History,” where she sings about uncertainty about the future and a longing for connection.
“In My Pocket” by Decouplr, played at Sleepless Sound
The first time Bailey Walker and Adam Laub performed live as Decouplr was for the cameras of their unprecedented session at Laub’s Sleepless Sound studio. The glittering synth-pop duo writes songs that revolve around themes of isolation and anxiety, topics closely related to the one-year mark approaching COVID. It can be thematically dark at times, but the warm tones of “In My Pocket” provide a sense of comfort, hope, and cautious optimism.
“The Hits” by Hoochi Coochi, performed at Rockdale Music Studio
The six-piece group from Wilmington, Del. funk / R & B / rock Hoochi Coochi loves to perform. Tricked into the keys, saxophone and jagged guitar of killer blues, the band brought a massive party atmosphere to Rockdale Music Studio, a school and recording space nestled along peaceful Chester Creek. In this performance of “The Hits,” frontman Sug Daniels bravely worked the camera, enthusiastically cheered on his bandmates, and sought connection wherever it could be found.
Ali Awan’s “Climb”, performed at The International
When he’s not doing cosmic rock guitar, Ali Awan of Philly works as a waiter at Fishtown’s hangout, The International. When the space began to reopen for outdoor service in the spring, Awan and his band set up their gear in the bar’s unused dining room, recording a terrific ensemble of music from his new EP, Moon Mode, during off-peak hours.
KooF’s “MBrace Diversity”, performed at the Rigby Mansion
For years, the Rigby Mansion in Germantown has hosted a wide range of musicians, visual artists, and generally creative souls. The private residence hosted regular concerts on the front porch before the pandemic, and current resident Koof Ibi – a versatile trumpeter who has spent much of COVID experimenting with sound loops in his Live / Raw series on Bandcamp – gave us the terrain to use on a glorious spring day. During her performance, which has been described by fellow local artist Ben Arnold as “Bourbon Street on the Moon,” a rising and expansive song titled “MBrace Diversity” drew a nearby drone in front and center, circling around. Koof’s fingers and trumpet valves, getting terribly close to his beard and cheek before flying away. Watch him at the six-and-a-half-minute mark; Koof held the note and didn’t bat an eyelid.
Full Bush’s “One Second”, played in Steap and Grind
Spring weather was just as great when we recorded an after-hours session at the Steap and Grind Cafe on Frankford Avenue. By the time the group got to the cathartic grand finale of “One Second”, with three of the four musicians struggling on their knees, a handful of passers-by were watching from the sidewalk, remembering what we called “live music.” “
“Flood” by Sweet Pill, performed at The Anti-Flower Show Movement House
The avant-garde five-piece Sweet Pill were supposed to perform their unprecedented session on the rooftop of a friend’s apartment, with the sunset skyline as a backdrop. But it rained. They quickly secured a backup location in the screen printing apartment / studio known informally as The Anti-Flower Show Movement House. Surrounded by artwork, the group raged through a set of unreleased songs written and rocked in their forties, like the blowing “Flood”; a track from Sweet Pill’s upcoming Know Hope Records LP, due for release in early 2022.
“Silver and Lead” by Cosmic Guilt, played at True Hand Society
In numbers, the country trippy collective Cosmic Guilt was the largest group we worked with during the Unprecedented sessions. Its 10 musicians use steel pedals, xylophone, harmonica, keys and various kinds of percussion in addition to the traditional folk guitar-bass-drums structure. Filmed on the balcony of the True Hand Society – what was once the choir of the Church of the Living Word – voices and instruments echoed from the rafters of the 150-year-old building as songwriter and frontman James Everhart envisioned his own mortality on “Silver and Lead” for an experience bordering on transcendence.