by Tom Noonan
Last night at the Milkboy in Philadelphia, a venue arranged like a sonic wind tunnel directing you right to where the action is, I was greeted by the headlining act sitting at their own merch table, kicking it with fans. The thing about Milkboy is, there is no excess room. It’s a concert venue built like a Ziploc bag, something that forcibly builds a feeling of community other bars usually sacrifice for breathing room. Last night, the breathlessness gave way to familiarity, so when the bands took the stage, even if you’d never heard a song of theirs before that night, it felt like you already kind of knew them.
The first act, a band regrettably named Katie Frank and the Pheromones (how bad do you feel for the three dudes who have to introduce themselves as “the Pheromones”?), played a solid set of fuzzed over singer-songwriter jams. With birth certificates claiming they’re from Philly, the band cut through songs that had an unmistakable Alabama tint. Everything hit a new gear when Frank stopped jogging and sprinted through a cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son”, channeling the swagger John Fogerty’s words deserved. It was all energy and slightly awkward dancing, the kind of country-singed music made for stomping. They could use a little more of this in their originals.
Then there was Juston Stens and the Get Real Gang. Another local outfit, these dudes took the stage with Johnny Cash-referencing sunglasses, taking the show on a detour through rest stop meth-blues. They were the kind of band you’d expect The Drive-By Truckers to sound like, a band that didn’t belong in a bar. They needed a beer-soaked lawn to thrive. It was a wonderfully unfocused set, breaking into digressions of piano pounding codas that might have been irritating if they weren’t so much fun. Then there was standout, “Lonely Lonely Night”, a song that opens with a Queen-esque harmony then files itself down to the type of slow burner that’s difficult to get right. By the end, these dudes had almost burned the place down.
Last up was Sallie Ford and the Sound Outside, a band from Portland that wouldn’t look out of place on a Fred Armisen show. Luckily, they have the musical chops to transcend to the jokes, and with a lead singer wearing glasses that make her look like she wandered in off the set of Grease, that’s saying something. I don’t mean to mock Sallie Ford’s stage presence because it’s actually the thing that magnetizes the band. She’s the type of fronter everyone should be cribbing. She writes songs like ready-made mantras, repurposing pop goddess defiance for rockabilly knockouts. It’d be wrong to say she’s a more palatable P!nk because her attitude is closer to Nicki Minaj. She’s what would’ve happened if Joan Jett never donned the leather jacket. Songs like “Bad Boys” and “Devil” drew screams from the crowd, not whistles. This was feminism that never felt like a statement.
There is an issue with the type of rockabilly she traffics in, though, in the sparseness of melodic infrastructure. All her songs held massive lyrical weight but too often capsized because of insufficient support. It was no surprise, then, that two of the best songs, or at least most memorable, were a cover and an unreleased track. The cover, a version of Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” with all the helium sucked out, gave Ford a new blueprint to play with, revealing how dynamic she could be if she’d ever stray from her comfort zone. The other, an unreleased track excellently titled “Fuck That”, drew on punky vibes that drove the song through the roof. “My friends tell me to take it slow,” she sang. “Fuck that.” If she heeds her own advice here, Sallie Ford and her hired help could be ready to make the leap.