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Moor Mother leads the way as Philly Music Fest returns with in-person shows at five different venues

The non-profit fest that benefits music education is back with 19 Philadelphia acts playing at five different venues over five nights.

Moor Mother - Philadelphia poet and musician Camae Ayewa - will perform in three different showcases at World Cafe Live on the opening night of the Philly Music Fest on Wednesday.
Moor Mother - Philadelphia poet and musician Camae Ayewa - will perform in three different showcases at World Cafe Live on the opening night of the Philly Music Fest on Wednesday.Read moreBob Sweeney

The Philly Music Festival takes the first part of its name seriously.

The nonprofit fest that benefits music education will make its return as an in-person event at the newly reopened World Cafe Live on Wednesday and carry on over five days at four other independent venues.

But the PMF, now in its fifth year, is true to its title not only in where it happens, but also in who plays on its stages.

As always, all 19 acts are either Philly based or deeply locally connected. That starts with Moor Mother, the Brewerytown spoken-word poet, rapper, and experimental musician born Camae Ayewa who will open the fest at the upstairs Lounge at World Cafe Live with a trio of performances that captures her in three different musical iterations.

And it continues though the weekend with the Scranton-born pop punks the Menzingers, who headline Saturday and Sunday at Ardmore Music Hall, pulling from their 2019 album Hello Exile, recorded at Conshohocken’s Studio 4 with producer Will Yip, whose heartbreaking “Anna” rhymes: “I have so much to tell ya / Please come back to Philadelphia.”

“Our genre is Philly,” says Greg Seltzer, the PMF founder and scene booster who’s a lawyer with the Center City firm Ballard Spahr. “Other festivals have their own genres. Our genre is what is uniquely Philly.”

Every year, Seltzer says, “I get stressed about attracting local bands that are nationally recognized headliners,” as well as booking lesser-known Philly acts just on the way up.

Moor Mother is internationally recognized: She said in a recent interview that the last time she performed three times at an event was at the Berlin Jazz Festival in 2018.

“So I’m used to this kind of thing,” she said, speaking by phone from Los Angeles, where she is teaching music composition at the University of Southern California this semester. “But it’s really nice to have this in Philadelphia.”

Beyond the Menzingers and Moor Mother, the year’s PMF headliners are wide-ranging.

They include: dazzling indie songwriter Alex G, who tops a terrific bill downstairs at WCL, with Spirit of the Beehive; Frances Quinlan-fronted quartet Hop Along, who play Johnny Brenda’s on Thursday; R&B soul man Son Little, who headlines MilkBoy Philly on Friday; and rapper and singer Ivy Sole, at REC Philly, also on Friday.

The PMF has been consistent in its mission. Along with the headliners, it presents up-and-coming acts like singer-songwriter AnnonXL, who plays Johnny Brenda’s on Thursday, and Kennedy Freeman-fronted shoegaze band HighNoon, who are in an opening slot at AMH on Saturday.

The fest raised $50,000 last year for organizations like Rock to the Future, Girls Rock Philly (where Moor Mother is a former board member), and Settlement Music School. Seltzer hopes to top that number in 2021.

But due to COVID-19, this year’s PMF will be different than any previous version. In 2020, the festival was scaled down to two nights at Ardmore Music Hall, with acts such as Japanese Breakfast and Langhorne Slim playing empty-venue sets that were livestreamed to fans.

The 2021 fest arrives as indie venues are getting back in business after the long shutdown amid concern over the spread of the delta variant of the coronavirus.

Protocols for the PMF will vary only slightly from venue to venue, Seltzer says. “We have a lot of people coming in, and we’ve got to make it as safe as possible,” Seltzer says.

Proof of vaccination is required at all PMF shows. Negative tests will not be accepted. Mask policies are left up to the venue, Seltzer said, with the AMH, WCL and MilkBoy requiring masks when not eating or drinking, and Johnny Brenda’s and REC Philly encouraging them. The venues will employ additional security to enforce mask-wearing, which the PMF will pay for.

Vaxes and masks will also be required at the PMF’s two networking events. There’s a Friday afternoon Tech Tour at Guru Technologies in Center City meant to bring music and tech innovators together.

And on Saturday, WCL will host Inside Hustle panel discussions for aspiring artists that feature local luminaries like Augusta Koch of Gladie and Yip, the producer who made headlines with his #StopAsianHate raffle to benefit the Asian American & Pacific Islander Community Fund.

Both Tech Tour and Inside Hustle are free. All PMF nighttime showcases are technically sold out, though Seltzer said the rooms have been sold at diminished capacities and “small batches” of tickets will go on sale as the festival approaches. Check for updates.

» READ MORE: North Philly activist, poet, and musician Moor Mother on her free jazz musical, Afrofuturism, and Patti LaBelle

Seltzer said a PMF goal is to have genre diversity not just in the festival as a whole, but also within each night. That was easily achieved by handing the opening night at the Lounge over to Moor Mother, who embodies multiple genres on her own.

“People can see the range of what I’ve been doing,” she says.

Which is, as always, a lot.

The North Philly artist and activist, whose 2020 album Circuit City grew out of a 2019 Philadelphia Fringe Festival performance about “the trauma of living in affordable housing,” recently teamed with Rasheedah Phillips, her partner in the interdisciplinary art practice Black Quantum Futurism, for an art installation, Ancestors returning again / this time only to themselves. It was on display at Hatfield House in Fairmount Park for five weeks this summer.

She’s just released Black Encyclopedia of the Air, her most tuneful and accessible album yet, which employs a number of guest rappers and opens up in rhythmic, spacious soundscapes without blunting the confrontational force of her music.

Black Encyclopedia is the first album she has released on prominent indie label Anti-. No one will ever mistake industrial strength Moor Mother music for easily digestible pop, but she has jokingly referred to it — which references Sun Ra Arkestra, Rage Against the Machine, and former NBA player Latrell Sprewell — as her “sell-out” album.

“It’s just that my other work is pretty avant garde,” says the artist, who grew up as Camae Ayewa in Aberdeen, Md., and moved to Philadelphia to attend the University of the Arts. “I’m trying to create a starting point for people to get into my music.”

The new music is of a piece with her body of work: the Afro-Futurist “temporal disrupters” featured in the Hatfield House exhibit show, also referencing the “Temporal Control of Light Echoes,” the opening track on Black Encyclopedia.

“I like to do multiple projects at once, just being positive, having fun creating music,” she says.

The new album is one of three that Ayewa, who formerly worked as a substitute teacher and basketball coach at Friends Select school, recorded during the pandemic, while also learning saxophone.

“I turned into a studio person instead of a live performance person,” she says. The next Moor Mother album, due on Anti- next year, “will be my most accessible work. After that I’ll go a different way.”

In 2019, she released Analog Fluids of Sonic Black Holes, with production by King Britt and Mental Jewelry. The latter is a noise-rock producer who she’ll pair with as Moor Jewelry on Wednesday at the PMF.

For that gig, the duo will be joined by drummer Phillip Price and guitarist Marissa Paternoster of the New Jersey band Screaming Females, with whom Ayewa has recorded yet another forthcoming album. “That’s gonna be a nice punk rock record,” she says.

At the WCL, Ayewa will close her night with Irreversible Entanglements, the band of Chicago musicians with whom she explores free jazz and spoken-word experimentation. “We haven’t seen each other for almost two years, so it’s going to be really great to just be reunited, to just get together and hug each other.”

In between, Ayewa will perform as Moor Mother, alone on stage.

“It’ll be me doing something,” she says with a laugh. “I don’t know yet, though it’s only a couple of days away. I’ll probably do something from the new record. But I’ll do some new unreleased stuff, too. Those are the things I’m most excited about.”

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