By Randy LoBasso
Here’s a lesson you can marker up on the front of a blank CD. If you work hard enough and are willing to make a few gig-concessions, you can live as an unsigned musician in Philly. Just ask the guys from Up The Chain.
This gyratory collective is headed by Ardmore native singer-guitarist Reed Kendall and has taken on an upbeat singer-songwriter inspired pop sound spruced up with mandolins, electric guitars, brass and sit down string instruments, reminiscent of Mike Doughty’s solo project and Jack Johnson. They’ve scoured Philly’s venues and showcases, doing what they can, when they can, to live through their music.
Kendall and keyboardist Anam Owili-Eger caught up with me after their set at a Triumph Brewery acoustic night in February. “It’s kind of a rotating cast,” Kendall says of his bandmates. “I’ve known Avery, our guitarist, the longest, then I met Anam at Fergie’s Pub [on Sansom Street in Center City Philadelphia]. He was in the house band at their open mic nights, so I showed up to play and asked a bunch of the regulars if they wanted to pick something up.”
Since that time, Up The Chain have played all over the city and suburbs, including Blinkin Lincoln in Roxborough, World Café Live, the Tin Angel and Milkboy out in Ardmore. They’ve been featured on Radio 104.5’s Friday in-studio session, XPN and the 10! Show on NBC.
The full band consists of six members – Chris Aschman, trumpet; Avery Coffee, electric guitar; Phil D’Agostino, bass; Kendall; Owili-Eger; and Chuch Treece, drums – though eight additional members are mentioned on the group’s MySpace page as fill-ins. What the duo briefly mention with indifference is the group’s ability to switch from band to duo to trio in the span of gigs. “I like to think whatever the gig calls for we’re capable of doing,” Kendall says. “I can do something on my own, or I could have ten people on stage.” The songs are arranged in such a way that Kendall is able to play his own lead parts and let the rest of the band make the shift depending on who’s around and who isn’t – and the stripping and re-stripping of the music has never made its way to individual or separated group practice sessions.
“It comes together the way it does,” says keyboardist and Germantown native Owili-Eger, “because we’re forced to do it live. That’s really all it comes down to.”
Part of what’s made the process work, they say, is that everyone in the band has come from a different place, musically. Owili-Eger is a classically-trained pianist who grew up listening to 80s pop and jazz. Guitarist Avery Coffee, though not speaking for himself, is described as a “hard rock guy” while Kendall fits the singer-songwriter mold to a tee, claiming his favorite bands as of late as Philly indie-folk outfits Hezekiah Jones and Chris Kasper. “I’ve made all the arrangements to this point,” says Kendall, who began writing music at the age of 13, “and I basically just bring them to the band to make their own arrangements. I can see this process changing down the line if the rest of the guys feel like contributing their own songs.”
“Just like St. Vincent is the band of Annie Clark,” says Owili-Eger, “right now, Up The Chain is the band of Reed Kendall.”
“It’s me doing my thing, Anam doing his thing, and Avery doing his more hard rock thing. We all have our own little areas, but it comes together somehow,” says Kendall.
“When Reed comes to us with a song, we’ll try his idea, then we’ll try someone else’s idea and see where it takes us,” says Owili-Eger. “Reed is flexible and open to what sounds good and what works. We all have the same goal, which is to make the song sound as good as it can. Thing about us is that everyone plays for the song. We all have different moments so shine, but we know that if the song doesn’t sound good, none of us shine. The egos in the group are at a minimum.”
Both members of the band keep their gigging at the professional level, they’ve set their sights to playing live every day and conforming to whatever the venue calls for – even when it’s not viable. “I play in all sorts of outfits as much as possible, but the winter can be tough. Lots of my biggest gigs playing jazz standards have been cancelled because of Snowmageddon or whatever, this year,” says Owili-Eger. “I’m definitely a fan of winter, I love the snow, but it can be a little tough.”