Connor Barwin’s Make the World Better foundation concerts have been music calendar highlights since 2014, when Kurt Vile headlined the first Union Transfer show for MTWB, which builds playgrounds in neighborhoods throughout Philadelphia.
The shows organized by the music geek and former Philadelphia Eagle have mirrored the growth and notoriety of the city’s indie rock scene.
The fifth MTWB show will happen Thursday at the Dell Music Center in Strawberry Mansion, with Baltimore synth-pop band Future Islands topping a bill with standout Philly acts Hop Along, Strand of Oaks, and Karl Blau, who opens the show at 7 p.m.
The MTWB fund-raisers at Union Transfer featured a who’s who of local bands, including Vile, Hop Along, Waxahatchee and The Districts, and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars, with Barwin typically matching the total raised out of his own pocket.
In 2017, MTWB moved up to a larger space with the War on Drugs at the 5,200-capacity Dell. Since then, MTWB has continued to grow — the foundation’s newest project is its biggest yet. In April, MTWB received a grant from the city to renovate the Vare Recreation Center on 26th and Morris Streets in South Philadelphia.
Last year, there was no concert, partly because Barwin couldn’t be as hands on as usual. After the Eagles released him in 2017 — sadly, before the start of what would turn out to be a Super Bowl-winning season — he played the next two years in Los Angeles and New York.
This year, Barwin has been back in Philly, focused on the MTWB show, while working out at Temple University to stay in football shape in case he gets an offer to play an 11th year in the NFL. If that doesn’t happen, Barwin says, he plans on getting back into football by next year, as either a coach or in the front office.
He’s struck a deal with SEPTA to provide free bus service on the 61 and 32 lines to and from the show, and is making sure the venue doesn’t run out of beer as happened for the War on Drugs. The Dell usually presents old school R&B and hip-hop acts, and was unprepared for how much beer rock fans drink.
This year’s show at the Dell “is important because it’s how we do the work that we do,” says Barwin, talking on a recent afternoon at a Fishtown coffee shop close by where he lives with his physician’s assistant wife, Laura, and their infant son, West.
“For us to be able to work with neighborhoods to build the best playgrounds and community centers in the city, this concert is vital for that to happen. It’s how we raise money, but it’s also the way we broaden our community.”
When asked when he’s planning to run for mayor, the civic-minded athlete laughs and says, “not anytime soon.” He’s bullish on the Dell, which is part of Philadelphia’s Parks & Recreation ecosystem. Because it’s city-owned, he can keep the four-band bill down to a $20 price tag with free parking (“and tailgating is encouraged,” Barwin says) and still raise more than $100,000.
He hopes to do that with a bill topped by Future Islands, the band fronted by normcore superstar Samuel T. Herring that broke big nationally when a 2014 performance of its song “Seasons,” on The Late Show with David Letterman went viral.
Along with Hop Along, the songwriting outlet for singer-guitarist Frances Quinlan last heard from on 2018’s acclaimed Bark Your Head Off, Dog, the MTWB benefit features one songwriter who has just arrived in Philadelphia, and another who is getting set to depart.
The former is Blau, a songwriter and visual artist who became a Pacific Northwest legend while releasing more than 40 albums in 20 years. In 2016, he expanded his audience with 2016’s Introducing Karl Blau, a collection of country covers.
That album put Blau in rotation at WXPN-FM (88.5), and along with the pull of the legacy of jazz master Sun Ra and economic reality (“Philly is cheap,” Blau said in an interview last week), the singer decided to move his family from the small town of Anacortes, Wash., to Germantown last winter.
Barwin, the 6-foot-4 man about town who seems to know everybody — he was a selfie magnet before Cardi B at Made in America last weekend — is a Blau fan, and asked the songwriter to warm up the crowd at the Dell.
Just as Blau is arriving, Strand of Oaks is leaving. SOA is the project of Tim Showalter, the hirsute singer and guitarist who’s a native of Indiana but has lived in Mount Airy with his wife, Sue, since 2009.
In those years, he’s risen to prominence, first with his 2014 album HEAL and most recently his this year’s Eraserland, recorded with members of My Morning Jacket at a crisis point in his career, when he was battling depression and considering giving up music.
Last month, Showalter informed his Twitter followers that he and his wife were moving to Austin, Texas, a move he plans on completing soon after the MTWB show, which he say he’s “thrilled to be playing” for Barwin, a fellow Midwesterner who settled as an adult in Philadelphia.
Talking via FaceTime last week from the Netherlands, where he was rehearsing for a European tour, Showalter joked that people in Philadelphia won’t see any less of him now that he’ll be in Texas because “I pretty much lived like a hermit, anyway.”
His reason for moving, though, is no laughing matter. Last year, his wife’s mother died in a car accident.
“It’s been real rough. There are lot of great memories, but also a lot of tough memories, and everywhere is somewhere we had a wonderful experience with Sue’s mom…
“I love Philadelphia, and my entire DNA is tied up with this city. I did have this panic this week, like ‘What am I doing?’ But we wanted to just try something else out. We went to SXSW this year in Austin and I saw Sue just kind of light up down there. And I said, let’s just do it.”
He promises that his annual “Winter Classic” series of shows at the Boot & Saddle in December will continue.
“I think the reason why, in my humble yet very informed opinion, that Philadelphia has the best bands is that it’s a city you have to earn. You have to earn Philadelphia’s respect. And that’s the greatest accomplishment. I mean the place I’m moving is called the live music capitol, but I think the creative capitol is Philly,” he says.
Showalter has become a most impressive bandleader, as he demonstrated at a Union Transfer show this past spring on the Eraserland tour.
Mike Brenner, the Philadelphia guitarist and leader of the Low Road, sat in on that show, and toured with Showalter with Goshen Electric Company, the tribute band to Showalter’s songwriting hero, Jason Molina. He raved about Showalter’s ability to command the stage.
“That just comes from a wonderful naive lack of shame,” Showalter says in response. “So many great artists talk about stage fright. I have life fright." He laughs. "Everything about life frightens me. The stage is awesome. That’s where it’s fine. It makes sense up there.”