Chris Forsyth is an instrumental-rock hero, but the Philadelphia guitarist does sing one song on his impressive, musically expansive new album, All Time Present.
It’s called “Mystic Mountain,” and it casts him as a seeker, chasing down a spiritual or musical enlightenment he can’t quite name.
“I sailed a stormy sea, just trying to find that something,” he sings as the rugged rhythm gathers force. “Let it wash all over me.”
On a recent afternoon in Kensington, Forsyth sat upstairs at Jerry’s On Front, the music venue-slash-rehearsal space he owns with his visual-artist wife, Maria Dumlao, remembering the first time he got tingly holding his instrument.
“I can still get in touch with that feeling of when I first picked up the guitar and hit a D chord,” says the songwriter, now 46, drifting back to when he was 13, growing up in North Brunswick, N.J.
“That feeling, that vibration and sensation in the air and in my body — it felt meaningful, and it still does. And I’ve been trying to chase that, and articulate that musically, ever since.
“Music is very emotional. You have to approach it from an intellectual standpoint, but when I’m actually playing, I don’t want to be thinking about anything. It’s kind of a trick, learning all of this stuff where it can get to a point where it can just flow.”
Forsyth will be letting it flow for two shows this weekend at Jerry’s in celebration of All Time Present (*** 1/2), a double LP that is the guitarist’s fourth album on the excellent East Falls-based label No Quarter.
On Saturday, the New Jersey foursome Garcia Peoples open for Forsyth and his band, at the former dress shop underneath the Market-Frankford El, where Forsyth and Dumlao rent out rehearsal and studio spaces to musicians, and he has been booking gigs in the 60-capacity room since early 2018. Cold Hand opens an early show on Sunday.
The venue is not to be confused with Jerry’s Bar, also on Front Street, in Northern Liberties, where bands have shown up ready to unload equipment.
From the high-volume jangle of “Tomorrow Might As Well Be Today” to the 20-minute “Techno Top,” which bears the influence of German motorik bands like Kraftwerk and Neu! as it slowly hypnotizes until finally cutting loose at the 13-minute mark, All Time Present demonstrates why Forsyth’s stature has steadily risen.
Back in 2013, when Forsyth released Solar Motel, War on Drugs frontman Adam Granduciel said: “I feel like Chris is going to make his life about getting inside the guitar. He’s trying to conquer it, but he respects it as an opponent.”
Reviews of Forsyth’s music tend to talk about the guitar as a nearly obsolescent instrument, before offering Forsyth as the really awesome exception that proves the rule.
Forsyth first got turned on to Peter Buck of R.E.M. in the 1980s, and remembers borrowing his cool older sister Melissa’s cassette of Sonic Youth’s Sister as a teenager.
The latter came full circle when SY guitarist Lee Ranaldo played Jerry’s this month, and Forsyth and his buddy Loren Connors (whom Forsyth and his wife went to see on their first date in New York in 1997) opened.
Forsyth and Connors’ hushed set was so quiet, every beer can opening could be heard in the BYO venue, not to mention the rumble of the El.
Forsyth moved to New York after graduating from Rutgers University, and the Keith Richards fan started to get into free-jazz players like Matthew Shipp and Susie Ibarra.
Meanwhile, “I realized I didn’t know what I was doing on guitar.” Then he saw a flyer in a rehearsal space: “Learn the cosmic principles of music from Richard Lloyd.”
That would be Richard Lloyd of the 1970s punk-era trailblazers Television, probably Forsyth’s favorite band. “I saw him every Wednesday morning at 9:30 before my restaurant job. He taught me everything.”
Forsyth and his wife moved to Kensington in 2009. He became fast friends with Jack Rose, the renowned Philadelphia guitarist who died later that year. Like Forsyth, Rose was a fan of guitar great John Fahey.
“Fahey took blues and combined it with all these other weird influences that had never been in it before,” Forsyth says. “That’s kind of what I’m trying to do with rock music. Add things that aren’t normally there, and bring it to a normal person’s ears.”
He won a fellowship from the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage in 2011, giving the musician who’s tended bar at spots like Bar Ferdinand and Kraftwork a chance to put his musical ideas into practice.
With Jerry’s, Forsyth and Dumlao want to fill a need in a Philly neighborhood that’s halfway between pricey Fishtown restaurants and the opioid epidemic epicenter to the north.
The reality that the neighborhood’s edges have not been smoothed over was emphasized when the guitarist was barely missed by an ATV speeding by on the sidewalk on a recent afternoon.
Not initially planning to open a venue, Forsyth saw other intimate spaces in the area like the High Wire Gallery fade away. “It seemed like a place where we could make some noise. Where 20 or 40 or 60 people could come, and it would be fine. You don’t want to play to 20 people at Johnny Brenda’s. That’s a failure.”
Forsyth has a show at Johnny Brenda’s coming up on Sept. 14 and will tour in clusters of dates throughout the year. When he’s home, he’ll host $10 shows at Jerry’s. Eugene Chadbourne & the Sun Boys play May 11, Spectrum 3 is there May 15, and the Boston psych-folk band Olden Yolk on May 18.
With a place where artists can create and music lovers can gather, Forsyth says, “I’m trying to put my values into the world. Yes, it’s a business, but it’s also a really good thing for a community of people who like coming here."
"We’re not trying to squeeze every dollar out of people. The bottom line is important, but it’s not the only important thing. [The venue] is utilitarian,” he says with a laugh, “but in a good way. It’s legal, and has heat and air-conditioning. It’s adult DIY, in the best possible sense.”