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Unprecedented Sessions: 10 Philly Artists Play Lockdown Livestreams

Vocalists Jillian Taylor and Hannah Taylor and guitarist Todd Fausnacht of Cosmic Guilt perform at True Hand Society in Philadelphia, Pa.
Paige Walter
Cherry-Veen Zine
Vocalists Jillian Taylor and Hannah Taylor and guitarist Todd Fausnacht of Cosmic Guilt perform at True Hand Society in Philadelphia, Pa.

The loss of live music during the COVID-19 pandemic left artists eager to connect with their audiences and fans yearning to see the bands they love perform in person. That was as true in Philadelphia as it was everywhere. And while music lovers tried to bridge the gap with virtual concert experiences, after a point, Instagram Live doesn't cut it anymore.

Hence, Unprecedented Sessions — "live music for unprecedented times" — was born. The video project, co-curated by Philly tastemakers Cherry-Veen Zine and WXPN, along with live audio assistance from the crew at PowerCycle Productions, materialized in the fall of 2020. The idea was to highlight the breadth of the local scene — from folk to punk to funk, solo jazz experimentalists to classic rock-infused bands — while also showcasing various music-adjacent pockets of the city.

Beginning in the Northern Liberties section of the city at an elegant venue called Ortlieb's, we traveled to vacant lots in South Philly and manicured lawns in Germantown, recording studios like Spice House Sound in the city's Fishtown section and Rockdale Music Studios in the nearby pastoral suburb of Aston. We even recorded in a converted church, currently in use as a tattoo and design studio called True Hand Society, with stained glass and a pipe organ making a resplendent backdrop.

The resulting live stream concerts were released via Facebook on a near monthly basis, from December 2020 through August 2021. Read on for 10 standout performances from the Unprecedented Sessions. (The whole series can be viewed here.)

"Star Kids" by Barney Cortez, performed at Ortlieb's

Psychedelic singer-songwriter Barney Cortez played this meditative burner in front of the velvety red curtain and warm Edison bulbs at Ortlieb's, a small independent venue that — at the point this was taped in October 2020 — hadn't seen a band step on its stage in months. Performed solo electric and bathed in warm tones, "Star Kids" is as transportive on the screen as it felt in the room.

"Party Song" by Grocer, performed at Grocer's Lot

The indie rock four-piece band Grocer lives together in a terraced house on a rapidly redeveloping street in South Philly. Over the summer, they hosted a socially-distanced outdoor gig in the vacant lot next to their home; we used that same space for the session we taped with them on a warm November afternoon. As skronky guitar solos exploded into the final chorus of "Party Song," the tension and release was visceral; it felt like screaming, "We needed this!"

"History" by Eleanor Two, performed at Spice House Sound

Singer-songwriter Lauren Hawkins makes minimal, introspective music under the name Eleanor Two, calling to mind a range of artists from Cocteau Twins to Jeff Buckley to Land of Talk. That energy felt incredibly apropos as 2020 turned to 2021, and we were still collectively unsure what was going on in the world around us. Hawkins' set, recorded at Spice House Sound in the winter, opened with the contemplative "History," where she sings of uncertainty about the future and a yearning for connection.

"In My Pocket" by Decouplr, performed at Sleepless Sound

The first time Bailey Walker and Adam Laub performed live as Decouplr, it was for the cameras of their Unprecedented Session at Laub's uptown studio Sleepless Sound. The shimmering synth pop duo writes songs that circle around themes of isolation and anxiety, topics that very much connected as we approached the one-year mark of COVID. It can be thematically bleak at times, but the warm tones of "In My Pocket" offer a sense of reassurance, hope and cautious optimism.

"The Hits" by Hoochi Coochi, performed at Rockdale Music Studio

The Wilmington, Del. funk/ R&B/rock six-piece band Hoochi Coochi loves to perform. Tricked out in keys, saxophone and killer blues shredding guitar, the group brought a massive party-like atmosphere to Rockdale Music Studio, a school and recording space nestled along the tranquil Chester Creek. In this performance of "The Hits," frontperson Sug Daniels worked the camera with bravado, cheered on her bandmates with enthusiasm and reached for connection wherever it could be found.

"Climb" by Ali Awan, performed at The International

When he's not making cosmic guitar rock, Philly's Ali Awan works as a server at Fishtown hangout spot The International. When the space was beginning to reopen for outdoor service in the spring, Awan and his band set up their gear in the bar's unused dining room, taping a tremendous set of music from his new EP, Moon Mode, during off hours.

"MBrace Diversity" by KooF, performed at Rigby Mansion

For years, Germantown's Rigby Mansion has been home to a wide range of musicians, visual artists and generally creative souls. The private residence hosted regular front porch concerts before the pandemic, and current resident Koof Ibi — a versatile trumpeter who spent much of COVID experimenting with sound loops in his Live/Raw series on Bandcamp — offered up the grounds for us to use on a glorious spring day. During his performance, which was described by fellow local artist Ben Arnold as "Bourbon Street on the moon," a soaring and expansive song titled "MBrace Diversity" beckoned a nearby bumblebee front and center, circling around Koof's fingers and the trumpet's valves, getting frighteningly close to his beard and cheek before flying away. Watch for it at the six-and-a-half minute mark; Koof held the note and didn't bat an eye.

"One Second" by Full Bush, performed at Steap and Grind

The springtime weather was in equally top form when we taped an after-hours session at Frankford Avenue cafe Steap and Grind, so the crew opened the screen doors to let the raw and raging punk of Full Bush drift across the street to nearby Palmer Park. By the time the band got to the cathartic grand finale of "One Second," with three of the four musicians thrashing on their knees, a handful of passers-by were watching from the sidewalk, remembering this thing we used to call "live music."

"Flood" by Sweet Pill, performed at The Anti-Flower Show Movement House

Emo-forward five-piece band Sweet Pill was supposed to perform their Unprecedented Session on a friend's apartment roof deck, with the skyline at sunset as their backdrop. But it rained. They promptly secured a backup location at the apartment/screen printing studio known informally as The Anti-Flower Show Movement House. Surrounded by art pieces, the group raged through a set of unreleased songs written and rocked out over quarantine, like the chugging "Flood,"; a track off of Sweet Pill's forthcoming Know Hope Records' LP, set to be released in early 2022.

"Silver and Lead" by Cosmic Guilt, performed at True Hand Society

By sheer numbers, the trippy country collective Cosmic Guilt was the biggest band we worked with during the run of Unprecedented Sessions. Its 10 players utilize pedal steel, xylophone, harmonica, keys and various sorts of percussion in addition to the traditional folky guitar-bass-drum structure. Filmed in True Hand Society's balcony — what used to be the choir loft of The Church of the Living Word — voices and instruments rang out from the rafters of the 150-year-old building as songwriter and frontperson James Everhart contemplated his own mortality on "Silver and Lead" for a borderline-transcendent experience.

Copyright 2021 XPN

John Vettese is a music writer and photographer based in Philadelphia. He is the editor of WXPN's music blog The Key, producer of the audio/video live performance series The Key Studio Sessions, and a contributor to Magnet Magazine.