The Brakes may be a lot of things—just don’t call them a jam band. “We consider ourselves a rock band,” says guitarist Matt Kass. “We take the better elements of rock bands that jam—like the Grateful Dead, Pearl Jam and Wilco—and incorporate them into a more forward-thinking structure.”
That structure deftly combines Zach Djanikian’s soulful tenor and bass playing, Derek Feinberg and Kass’ poppy guitar riffs, Adam Flicker’s funky, rhythmic keyboards and trumpet, and Josh Sack’s fluid drumming. Jettisoning its modest Lower Merion beginnings, the band has gone from playing gigs over college breaks to sharing the stage with major artists like the Allman Brothers’ Warren Haynes.
Hardly new on the scene, the Brakes have several albums to their credit, along with a successful cross-country tour, countless regional gigs, and residencies at New York’s Knitting Factory and Ardmore’s Milkboy Coffee. Since July, they’ve played over 25 different cities across the country with no plans of taking the foot off the gas. Next up: the massive Moe.down festival in Upstate New York and a live release on Relix Records.
So while the Brakes may not be a jam band, they could be one of the best unsigned bands in America. “We already have many of the pieces in place,” says Kass. “But we’re still looking for the last.”
Learn more about the Brakes at myspace.com/thebrakes.
French gypsy legend Django Reinhart wasn’t just a guitarist, he was a spiritual leader. And today, musicians from all over the world are spreading the jazz-influenced sound and culture Reinhart championed in the early 20th century to anyone willing to listen.
One of them is Jon Dichter, a skilled guitarist and music teacher at the Baldwin School who’s performed in various ensembles throughout the region. “Django was a soul that came to us in a physical form,” he says of his idol.
Dichter’s most recent project, the now-defunct swing jazz outfit Beau Django (French for “beautiful Django”), followed the classic make-up of a gypsy band—two guitars, bass and violin—though it eschewed the true nomadic tradition, where musicians rarely meet their bandmates until minutes before their performances. Spontaneity is essential to the gypsy sound, which thrives on improvisation and solos. “If you can’t cut it, you go practice before you get in the inner circle,” says Dichter.
For fans, the music provides an escape from the stress of everyday life. For the players, it’s a way of life—an attitude in which unfulfilled expectations are seen as opportunities for change.
A rare breed of singer/songwriter with remarkable musicality, John Francis finds inspiration among the peaks and valleys that come with struggling for his art—no steady job, no benefits, a nomadic existence. The son of an Episcopalian minister and musician with roots in rural Chester County, Francis enjoyed a childhood filled with gospel and folk music, spiced with the classic rock of Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Chuck Berry.
Francis’ vocals are moving and precise, his guitar playing melodic. His blend of folk rock, country and Americana appeals to a diverse audience, ranging from “pierced, tattooed kids to old folks,” says Francis.
Joining the ranks of better-known artists John Mayer, Josh Ritter and Lori McKenna, Francis won the prestigious American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers Sammy Cahn Lyricist Award in 2006 for his song “Love Came to Me Dressed in Red.” That same year, he gave a moving performance at the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals summit.
For now, Francis has set his sights on becoming an even better songwriter and reaching a bigger audience—doing so without a record deal. “If a record company came to me and took me as I am—someday maybe,” he says.
Learn more about John Francis at myspace.com/johnfrancismusic.
Wayne’s Suzanne Gorman has been around the music scene for almost a decade, writing songs for big-name artists with a select group of female lyricists in Nashville, Tenn., rockin’ with her band, Dragonfly, and hosting barn gigs at her former Chester County estate. Hardly the product of a weekend hack, Gorman’s music has been featured on Dawson’s Creek and Nashville Star (Country Music Channel’s version of American Idol).
None of it has come easy for Gorman, a horse enthusiast from an early age with dreams of qualifying for the Olympics in dressage. When she suffered a serious neck injury several years ago, music became a key factor in her recovery. Now she’s finally landed a record deal with Ardmore-based Range Records, elevating her from unsigned to elated and thrusting her into crossover country-pop territory. With the release of her 2006 Range debut, Open Book, the fun-loving “diva”—as friends affectionately call her—is now suddenly all business. “It takes more than raw talent and having people believe in you,” Gorman says. “You need to have people who know how to get you in the door.”
Gorman hasn’t had much luck getting on the radio locally, a challenge she knows she doesn’t face alone. “The local stations aren’t really helpful to local artists,” she says. “It’s fine if they’re not going to play my stuff, but I would love some feedback. You send a CD in, and that’s it. Negative criticism is better than being ignored.”
To expand her portfolio—and increase the chances of writing that big hit—Gorman heads to Nashville every three months. Written for Tug McGraw, her inspirational “You Gotta Believe” was considered for Wynonna Judd and Ricky Skaggs. Her work also caught the attention of another national artist named Delilah, who had her people call Gorman’s for a meet-and-greet.
Right now, there’s no telling where a Gorman song might end up—or where she will be, for that matter. But for the moment, she’s enjoying the airplay her song “Heartbreaker” is getting on several adult-contemporary radio stations around the country and looking ahead to her second CD, which should reveal a more upbeat and countrified Gorman. “I met ‘me’ for the first time when I wrote my first song. But for so long, I didn’t feed my passion,” she says. “I just kept going, and now I’m finally doing what I want to do.”
Learn more about Suzanne Gorman at suzannegorman.com.
Dave Lenat’s infatuation with guitars began at age 5 and hit its stride when he was 7. By 12, he was playing in a band and studying with Jay Scott, one of the area’s preeminent guitar gurus. Today, when he’s not peddling guitar products and software for Line 6 or doting on his 6-month-old daughter, Lenat is bent over his “three-pickup Strat/Tele mutant” guitar. “As good as my life is, it’s never as good if I’m not playing,” says Lenat, who lives in Malvern.
And play he has—with the now-defunct Dark Blonde, a much-hyped local band; showcasing in New York with Mike Dutton; performing around the area with Jerry’s Combo and other groups; and doing the occasional gig with major-label artist Kristen Hoffman. For Lenat, the attention from major labels hit fever pitch from 1991 to 2004 with the groups X’s and O’s, Head and Superstatic in the form of a flurry of showcases at live music clubs throughout the region. In 2001, Lenat’s stealth strumming put him second in line to hit the road with John Mayer’s band.
These days, his pick works both ends of the spectrum, playing “down folky singer/songwriter stuff” with brother Jesse Lenat in New York and hard rock with local outfit Powervibe. “I’ve created a good career out all my experiences,” says Lenat. “My passion for playing, listening, amps, guitars—it all fits.”
Learn more about Dave Lenat at myspace.com/powervibe.
Doves have always been a universal symbol for opposing entities uniting in peaceful coexistence. It wasn’t the bird but the band that brought guitarist Pasquale DeFazio together with bassist/keyboardist Brian Novelli to create the arty, guitar-heavy Philly-area rock group Kaufman. During a fateful encounter in a Center City cable TV editing room three years ago, Novelli’s CD by atmospheric British rockers Doves prompted DeFazio, a fellow employee and fan of the group, to approach him and strike up a conversation. Just like that, Kaufman was hatched, and it would soon include DeFazio’s drumming brother, Rob, and singer/guitarist Michael Borrasso.
The band’s debut, Modern Sprawl, on the Media-based aIiIr Records, wraps the moody, cinematic sound of their live shows into a tight 11-song package. Opening track “Next Year” may just showcase their sound the best, veering gracefully from heavy, layered guitars to an almost dreamy calm. Without question, these guys know drama.
For DeFazio, translating Kaufman’s live sound to CD posed quite a challenge. “Energy from a live setting takes you a long way—and it doesn’t always translate in the studio,” he says. “The trick is to expand and explore the live energy and put it on a record.”
In the end, working in such close consort led to a tighter live show. “Being in a studio for a year has definitely changed us,” says DeFazio. “We can now better channel our music toward the audience the way we want.”
Learn more about Kaufman at myspace.com/kaufmanband.
On her way from Nashville to play a show in Chicago, singer/songwriter Sharon Little took the wheel so her producer/guitarist, Scot Sax, could catch some Zs. The next thing she knew, she was busted for speeding and thrown in jail for not having a license. Yet Little and Sax made the Chicago gig—and, by all accounts, they nailed it; Little’s soulful vocals were dead-on as always.
Suddenly, life on the road is something this former West Chester bartender has some experience in. Not long ago, Little’s impromptu performance at the Los Angeles offices of Monterey Peninsula Artists prompted the talent agency to send her out on tour with rocker (and former Sandra Bullock flame) Bob Schneider, where she played 20 shows in 20 nights. Talk about a trial by fire.
Just a year ago, Little met Sax, who’d moved back to the area from Los Angeles, where he fronted the major-label band Wanderlust. The two gelled creatively, writing an album’s worth of material and recording the self-released CD, Circles, at Milkboy Studios in Ardmore. The album has since sold 10,000 copies and is about to go into its second pressing. In the meantime, Little is playing shows in New York City and elsewhere to maintain momentum. Locally, WXPN has taken notice, and the duo has spoken with reps from Columbia. “I want to last,” says Little.
Learn more about Sharon Little at myspace.com/sharonlittle.
Ron Thomas is a gifted jazz, classical and improvisational pianist and composer who spent several years playing with the legendary guitarist Pat Martino. Like most artists, Thomas went through a period when fame and money were hot pursuits. But also like most artists, he didn’t want to sacrifice his art in the process. Crafting his music and honing his skills has remained the most important part of his musical journey.
The Thorndale resident demonstrated a remarkable ability to improvise early on, and by age 15, he’d foreseen a future as a classical pianist. His first piano teacher was unimpressed, and made a prediction of her own, dooming Thomas to obscurity.
Discovering jazz in 1965 was a turning point for Thomas, who appreciated the freedom it both represented and bestowed. His revelation enabled him to reach another level with his classical compositions. Fittingly, his current work represents a blending of the two genres. “I guess I’m hard to categorize,” Thomas admits. “As a classical composer, my music takes in influences from Bach through Berlioz, Liszt and on to Stravinsky, Webern and Bartok. My jazz work is an extension of the innovations found in the mid-’60s work of pianist Bill Evans and trumpeter/leader Miles Davis.”
Experience Thomas live on Mondays at Sullivan’s Steakhouse in King of Prussia. For examples of his work on CD, try Tom Cohen Trio With Mike Richmond & Ron Thomas; Erik Kloss’ One, Two, Free; and Thomas’ own Scenes from a Voyage to Arcturus and The House of Counted Days.
Learn more about Ron Thomas at ronthomasmusic.com.
Alfred James parents’ used to credit their son’s passion for the cello to nine months of in-womb serenades by his father. But James says his real inspiration came from watching his father’s cello lay idle after a stroke that ended his career as a transplant surgeon. Influenced by everyone from Leonard Bernstein and Samuel Barber to Leonard Cohen and Led Zeppelin, James’ cello-driven acoustic rock brings to mind Sting, Jason Mraz, Jack Johnson and Dave Matthews, among others.
Lucky If Easy, the Alfred James Band’s 2005 debut, earned a surprising number of accolades. It was nominated for two Underground Grammys in 2006—Album of the Year and Song of the Year. And the single, “Better Days,” earned the band airplay on WSTW in Delaware, XM and Sirius satellite radio, WXPN, Whole Wheat Radio in Alaska, and many college radio stations across the country. This summer, the group was selected as the Artist of the Week on XM’s Radar Report.
But James’ true passion is getting out in front of audiences at colleges and events for serious music lovers like West Chester’s annual Turk’s Head Music Festival. “We’re a bit too contemporary and too acoustic rock for the Philadelphia Folk Festival,” says James, admitting that the band’s unique sound can be a double-edged sword. “People don’t always realize what the music will sound like.
But when we do get to play for them, we win them over.”
Learn more about Alfred James at alfredjamesband.com.
66 N. Main St., Spring City; (610) 792-4110, chaplinsthemusiccafe.com.
This historical café, which once hosted legends such Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, is now a thoroughly modern, out-of-the-way place to see national and regional singer/songwriters and bands.
Chris’ Jazz Café
1421 Sansom St., Philadelphia; (215) 568-3131, chrisjazzcafe.com.
Chris’ boasts a full menu and enticing drink specials, not to mention multiple sets by the biggest names in jazz nightly.
227 Bridge St., Phoenixville; (610) 917-1228, thecolonialtheatre.com.
This rehabbed classic movie house features both regional talent and national touring acts.
Grape Street Pub
4100 Main St., Philadelphia; (215) 483-7084, grapestreet.com.
Who hasn’t played here? This Manayunk favorite has kept the area rocking for years with breakout local acts (the Roots, G. Love, Tommy Conwell) and touring artists.
56 S. 2nd St., Philadelphia; (215) 238-5888, thekhyber.com.
This Old City staple strives to be anything but ordinary. Think neon lights, loud music that follows no formula, and tons of exotic beers on tap and in bottles.
Locations in Ardmore and Bryn Mawr, milkboycoffee.com.
Milkboy is nothing less than a godsend for the local scene, offering shows spanning every genre. They extend their passion for all things local by only serving food and drinks grown and prepared in the area.
North Star Bar
2639 Poplar St., Philadelphia; (215) 787-0488, northstarrocks.com.
The North Star Bar boasts some of the best local and national musicians. A chummy neighborhood watering hole with great food.
North by Northwest
7165 Germantown Ave., Philadelphia; (215) 248-1000, nxnwphl.com.
NXNW is well known around the region for offering great music and delicious food and spirits. Stop by on Wednesday for the longest running live salsa night in the city.
847 N. 3rd St., Philadelphia; (215) 922-1035, ortliebsjazzhaus.com.
Ortlieb’s has been a Northern Liberties institution since way before that part of town became hip. And now that it is, people come from all over to enjoy top-notch jazz in its cozy urban setting.
Printer’s Alley, Doylestown; (215) 348-9000, pucklive.com.
Such a top-flight venue seems unlikely in Doylestown, but Puck’s quality local and national bookings make it worth the drive.
Steel City Coffeehouse
203 Bridge St., Phoenixville; (610) 933-4043, steelcitycoffeehouse.com.
When it comes to local talent, Steel City doesn’t mess around, featuring top-caliber artists like Amos Lee and Pepper’s Ghost along with just about anyone—or anything—else at its spirited open-mic nights.
10 E. Gay St., West Chester; (610) 696.4262, vincentsjazz.com.
Expect everything from New Orleans jazz to Texas blues at this lively West Chester haunt.
This article was originally published in the September 2007 issue.