Bands are like relationships.
Most of the time after a breakup, you would prefer never to see the other person again. But on rare occasions, everybody gets along and still remains friends.
Put the Low Road in the lucky latter category. Starting in the early 1990s, the pop band earned its way to a prominent place on the Philadelphia music scene and nationally, as well.
The quintet fronted by Mike Brenner put out two albums — The Devil’s Pocket in 1994 and Fidelity the next year. They were released on Passenger Records, a boutique label that made the band its first client in an attempt to court the radio format known as Triple A — adult album alternative — then taking shape at stations such as WXPN-FM (88.5).
The Low Road filled clubs in Philadelphia and New York — where they had a two-year Wednesday residency at Cafe Sin-e alongside rising star Jeff Buckley — and toured extensively with bands like Los Lobos, Barenaked Ladies, and their label mates Ben Folds Five.
And then in 1997, after their more-successful-than-most career arc had run its course, the Low Road played one final show at the North Star Bar and called it quits.
“Bands can end ugly or they can end on a good note,” says Mark Schreiber, the drummer who joined Brenner, harmonica player Palmer Yale, and violinist Rosie McNamara (now McNamara-Jones) in the Low Road in 1990.
“You can’t roll in around in a van month after month with four or five people and have everyone be okey-dokey about everything,” says Brenner, whose slide, dobro, and steel guitar skills have since made him an in-demand sideman under his guitar hero moniker Slo-Mo. “It’s physically and mentally impossible.”
But the Low Road’s split was pretty amicable, Brenner says.
“Throat slitting was only mentioned,” Schreiber says with a laugh. “It was never acted on.”
Brenner and Schreiber were reminiscing last week during lunch hour at a cafe on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
Brenner works in the legal department of the city’s child welfare unit; Schreiber is an IT guy for a health care company for hospice patients.
They got together to talk about the Low Road because they and their bandmates are getting back in action.
On Saturday, June 1, at World Cafe Live, the fivesome, which includes bass player Alan Hewitt, will play two shows. The nighttime show is sold out. There are still tickets available for the 3 p.m. matinee. Stargazer Lily opens the nighttime show; Joey Sweeney opens in the afternoon.
It’s an unplanned reunion. Twenty-two years after their final North Star show — in which their van, dubbed the “Jambulance” by former owners the Dead Milkmen because it had been a medical transport vehicle, broke down before the gig — the five band members still hang together like a loose-knit family.
Schreiber and Brenner play in John Train, the band fronted by Jon Houlon that frequently holds down Fridays nights at Fergie’s Pub. McNamara-Jones, who plays in the bluegrass-folk band Sarah & the Arrows and who works as head of development for the Juvenile Law Center, often sits in.
But the band’s two other members, Yale and Hewitt, live in New York, so all five Low Roaders can really count on getting together only at an annual Christmas Eve party at Schreiber’s house in Collingswood.
Last year, that soiree happened with no discussion of reuniting for a third time. The band had gotten back together in 1997 and again in 2012 for the 20th anniversary of the Tin Angel, the defunct Second Street acoustic room that was a regular haunt for the band.
But in January, Brenner got a call from World Cafe Live booker Jeff Myers suggesting a reunion.
“Everybody immediately said yes,” says McNamara-Jones, who says the guys in the band are “like my brothers.” She has three in her family, “and I couldn’t believe that I found four more.”
Those who were game and available included Hewitt, the classically trained bassist who added flair and thunder to the band’s sound and who has toured with productions of Broadway musicals like Fun Home and Spring Awakening.
Hewitt also co-wrote the music to Lizzie, a musical about ax murder Lizzie Borden, which opens at the Signature Center in Manhattan on Aug. 5.
Yale started what would become the Low Road in 1989, when he and Brenner were out of college and working as news assistants at KYW.
Brenner had played in bands in high school in Philly and during college in Boston, but “I thought I was done with music,” he says. He planned on being a music writer, producing reviews for the Welcomat and The Inquirer.
“But then Palmer and I started jamming, and we met Rosie at a gig,” and an acoustic combo was born. Schreiber came aboard in 1990, and the next year, Hewitt joined.
Pop music of the early 1990s tends to be talked about in terms of grunge bands or hip-hop.
But there was also an acoustic movement afoot, with quirky acts like Poi Dog Pondering, singer-songwriter like Lyle Lovett, and Shawn Colvin and MTV Unplugged.
When XPN launched its signature program the World Cafe in 1991, the band were the first guests, before the show went national.
“I was a big fan of the band,” says XPN program director Bruce Warren. “I invited them up to do a set on the air. It was great.”
Howard Kramer, who went on to become a curator at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, co-managed the band from 1991 to 1993. “The first time I saw them, I remember thinking they really had songs,” he recalls. “There was really character to the music. It didn’t sound like anybody else.”
The Low Road were part of a community that included Philly bands like the country-flavored Rolling Hayseeds, rugged and rootsy Go to Blazes, and jangly Flight of Mavis, with whom Brenner played guitar before joining the Low Road.
The scene was focused around Old City, with the band’s rise dovetailing with the early days of coffee culture. They often played at Old City Coffee on Church Street, where Brenner worked.
Schreiber worked around the corner at the great 3rd Street Jazz, as had Chaz Mollins, the record executive who signed the Low Road to Passenger. (All the music the band recorded for that label, and its independent releases, are available to stream or download free at the Bandcamp music site.)
The band regularly packed the Tin Angel, and had to learn to learn to make a big noise at the more raucous Khyber Pass Pub, and also at Cafe Sin-e, where they would regularly follow Buckley, who played for a crowd that Brenner says was “just like you thought it would be — all A&R people and supermodels.”
When World Cafe Live called in March, the band got together for one rehearsal before going into XPN to tape a session with John Vettese of the radio station’s Philly-music-focused The Key.
“We went down in my basement, and it was like, ‘Here’s the list of songs we’re going to do,’ and they all just ... came back,” says Schreiber. “It’s kind of in the DNA.”
Schreiber and McNamara-Jones point out that the burden is greatest on Brenner, who is usually sitting on stage, playing a dobro or pedal steel guitar in his various gigs, and who never sings or plays acoustic.
Brenner says he was never entirely at ease with himself as a singer and frontman during the Low Road’s heyday, and is comfortable in the role of a sideman or behind-the-scenes player.
But in recent years, he’s played bass with Marah and had to stand up again. “I felt very conspicuous, but it’s warmed me up to get back into being the front guy.”
The Low Road members don’t know whether the World Cafe show will lead to more gigs, though they’re open to it.
But, mainly, they’re pleasantly surprised that there’s still an audience for their music, nearly a quarter-century after their heyday.
“This is a band that really had its peak in 1993, 1994,” says Brenner. “That we can still sell some tickets and sell some shows out, I’m still kind of shocked by it. ... Honestly, I think all five of us are pretty startled that people remember the band, that people still have a place in their heart for the Low Road.”