by Adam McGrath
Philadelphia was full of excellent local music options Saturday night. Many partied with The Lawsuits in Center City to help Milkboy celebrate their third successful year, but I found myself over in Northern Liberties at Bourbon and Branch, where another limb of the city’s burgeoning scene spread its foliage. Ron Gallo, striking out behind solo album Ronny and newly formed label American Diamond Recordings, led a lineup featuring his pals in the Bernhardt Family Band and labelmate TJ Kong.
One of the best parts of covering the Philly music scene is discovering the interlinking communities that make up one of the most vibrant arts scenes in the country. Friends hang out and play in each others’ bands, and those bands work together to book shows, build a fanbase, and inspire each other to create. Ron Gallo is an important link in one such chain, and the talented songwriter continues to perch new hats upon his bushy head.
TJ Kong, plenty explosive even without his band The Atomic Bomb, wielded his guitar in the middle of a stage crowded with instruments, as if protecting himself against six-stringed shrapnel. Playing songs from the recent EP Kong, Dan Bruskewicz (the singer’s given name) showcased an arresting voice that rises from the belly of America, somewhere between the dust of West Texas and the Louisiana bayou.
Kong’s performance perfectly channeled the spirit of American music, seamlessly shifting from boom to twang to drawl, occasionally augmenting the driving guitar with creamy harmonica riffs and pitch perfect whistling. A Tom Waits cover naturally extended the set, and though humble to the end, TJ set a high bar for the evening.
Next to take the stage was the Bernhardt Family Band, fronted by siblings Jerry and Kate along with bass player Ben Plotnik, joined Saturday by Ken Perella from Levee Drivers on slide guitar. This group is a perfect example of the familial nature of the Philly music scene, not only because two of its members share DNA, but because every member plays with at least one other group in the city.
The first time I saw the Bernhardt Family Band play, I was entranced by the simple, delicate interplay between Jerry and Kate, with her sweet voice sending out irresistible signals and his vocal harmony perfectly picking up the low ends. On Saturday night, I felt some of those softer intricacies were lost amongst the drums and second guitar. Perella’s playing was fine, don’t get me wrong, but on songs like “Moonlight”, the extra decibels obscured the subtleties that make this band special.
Jerry Bernhardt swapped out his guitar for a bass to stay onstage for Ron Gallo’s exciting, unpredictable performance. A bit lanky, a bit goofy, Gallo peppered the crowd with non sequiturs, daring them to keep up with his half-jokes. The first sign of the artist’s earnest experimenting came in a performance of “If You Gotta Know”, the opening track to Ronny. With each eight-bar repetition of the chorus, the band played it in an entirely different style, switching from reggae to punk to jazz within seconds. “We couldn’t make up our minds,” Gallo quipped. It was a blast.
Equally frivolous yet moving was a pseudo-cover of Tina Turner’s amazing “What’s Love Got to Do with It” which seems to be a personal motto for the frontman. Later came a polished performance of “Fine Diners & Finer Whiners”, the album’s lead single. Each song, we never knew if we were getting a thrashing rocker or a crooning singer. The energy, wit, and talent that Ron Gallo put into his performance is a great sign that his music, his label, and his friends will continue to shape the expansion of Philadelphia’s unbeatable music scene.