By Raymond Simon
Photo by Olivia Vaughn
“I am pretty knee-deep, almost buried alive, in American roots music,” Ron Gallo writes via e-mail from somewhere just outside of Birmingham, Alabama, where he’s on tour with his band, the Toy Soldiers.
“In specific what I mean by that,” he elaborates, “is all of the original, traditional styles of music that came from the past in this country: Delta blues, jazz, ragtime, country (which, in today’s world, real country is called alt-country), folk, soul, and early rock n’ roll.”
For its current 10-date swing through the South, the band is scaled down to a four-man touring unit, and you can be certain that band members are soaking up influences as they meander from Athens, Georgia to Lafayette, Louisiana and points in between.
Back home in Philadelphia, the Toy Soldiers have been writing and playing gritty, soulful rock and roll for nearly three years. Their music draws deeply on its influences but avoids imitation and nostalgia. Gallo, who sings and plays guitar and harmonica, cites Bob Dylan and Otis Redding as his chief inspirations, but he’s also enthusiastic about Hank Williams, Dr. John, Mahalia Jackson, Jeff Buckley, Blind Willie McTell, Roy Orbison, Woody Guthrie, and Etta James.
The Toy Soldiers are a loose-knit collective that morphs from a four-piece to a nine-piece depending on the season, the venue, and who’s available. Surprisingly, these twentysomethings have tapped into the spirit of earlier groups like The Band and Booker T. & the M.G.’s. Clips posted on the Toy Soldiers’ website (ohnotoysoldiers.com) reveal a band equally capable of conjuring a smoky roadhouse or a front-porch sing-along.
According to Gallo, the band’s origin lay in his relationship with longtime friend, Mike Baurer. Back in 2007, the budding songwriter had just begun exploring roots music, and although he had already tried his hand at writing songs, things didn’t click until he and Baurer tried writing a song together.
“One day, we were just sitting around and decided to write some really crude sort of joke songs,” Gallo recalls. “The same day we actually gave a stab at more legitimate music and wrote our first attempt at the blues. The very first actual song we put together was titled ‘I Die Blues’.”
The band grew quickly. No sooner had the pair recruited bassist Tyler Beck, than it began laying down basic tracks. Once the guitar, bass, and drums were in the can, Gallo began calling friends from the Philadelphia indie music scene. The band swelled to include horns, keyboards, banjo and two sultry back-up singers, Kate Foust and Vinchelle Woods.
On the surface, it seems unlikely that a pair of urban bohemians with a penchant for folk and blues could successfully sustain a 9-piece “big band,” but the Toy Soldiers’ self-released debut, which came out in September 2009, was a rollicking good time featuring the band’s bluesy, soulful take on rock, with sprinklings of folk and country for good measure. Perhaps the recording worked because Gallo and Baurer had already agreed that a simple, direct approach would work best for their music.
As Gallo puts it, “The method behind the start of the band was: write one hour; record the next hour. The music was dirty, imperfect and the original demos display that even more so. And it sort of cut out all of the potential to overanalyze a song like us artists love to do. It was about whatever made sense in the 20 or so minutes the song came about and not what we came up with after the fact.” The result is a fresh, immediate recording guaranteed to stir up a crowd.
Thanks to a vibrant debut and excellent live performances, the Toy Soldiers generated a buzz, eventually coming to the attention of Andy Hurwitz, who had recently taken the helm at Drexel University’s label, MAD Dragon. Hurwitz, who also runs the boutique label, Ropeadope Records, liked what he heard so much that he invited the Toy Soldiers to join the student-run label’s roster. By mid-May 2010, MAD Dragon released Whisper Down the Lane, which contains seven songs from the band’s debut plus four new tracks.
The album opens strong. “Throw Me Down” begins with some chain-gang sound effects and quickly transforms into a bluesy rocker. This number dates back to the band’s earliest days, Gallo recounts, being just the second song he and Baurer ever wrote. In fact, the amiable front man claims the song was composed during a bike ride from Fishtown to South Philly: “I just started singing it, Baurer chimed in, and by the time we got back to the basement we had arranged it into the song as it is today.”
From Gallo’s perspective, there’s nothing at all unusual in how the song was written. “I always say this and it sounds lame, but I feel like songs are gifts given to you as long as you’re there to accept them when they walk by.” Or rides by, one might add.
Fortunately for music lovers, the Toy Soldiers’ record offers a generous variety of rootsy styles without sounding affected or lame. Take “Hard Times,” a soulful number with a catchy chorus that would not seem out of place in one of those 1960s Motown Revues, or the sweet country rocker, “Be Right Here,” featuring Kate Foust on lead vocals. Another highlight is the upbeat track, “When I Tripped into You,” a poppy paean to the joys of falling in love.
The Toy Soldiers wrapped up their Southern tour with a series of hometown shows, including an appearance at the Origivation Magazine Music Series showcase at the World Café on August 26.
This fall Gallo and the band will show off a few things they learned on the road, like the washboard. During memorable jam sessions in New Orleans, he says, “I was primarily the washboardist, and it’s quickly becoming my new favorite thing to play.”