The last proper date that the Philadelphia rock-and-roll band RFA played in front of paying customers before the pandemic hit was a rip-roaring affair at the Ardmore Music Hall the day after Christmas in 2019.
There’s a photo of the blissed-out bandmates — plus keyboard player Will Loftus, who’s a de facto member of the group — backstage at the Main Line venue, all squeezed onto a too-small couch. It’s a snapshot from a strangely distant, more carefree time.
Since then, there have been no RFA shows. A late-March date at Union Transfer was the first to get nixed. It soon became apparent that high-profile gigs at the Wayne Music Festival and Philly Music Festival weren’t going to happen, either.
A year and one day later, the band released Late to the Party, their long-anticipated new album, which came in under the wire as one of the most vibrant, spirit-lifting rock records of 2020.
Written and recorded before the pandemic, the bittersweet collection of raucous, convivial songs was meant to be the breakthrough for the band, which had come onto the Philly scene with a self-titled debut album in 2018 that bristled with the energy of early-2000s garage-rock revival bands like the Libertines and the Strokes.
It established RFA as one of the most promising Philly acts in recent years. And then came COVID-19.
RFA formed a decade ago when songwriter/front man Dan Cousart, guitarist Christian Turzo, and drummer Alec Powell were 14-year-old high school students at St. Joseph’s Prep. The name originally stood for “really fast automobiles.”
The group expanded to include bassist Brendan McHale, and they kept playing together while attending various colleges in Philadelphia. The RFA album marked an auspicious debut, and the band also earned a reputation as a stellar live act, playing indie venues and house parties in Philly while also touring widely.
“I wouldn’t trade the experiences we had for anything,” says Powell. “I mean, it was incredible. We traveled all around the country, we played amazing shows, we met amazing people. None of it was for nothing.”
When the shutdown began, Late to the Party wasn’t quite finished, though the band had been working on it for over a year.
The cover image of the album is a black-and-white photo of a player piano from Cousart’s house in Fishtown, where some of the Late to the Party songs were composed.
“It was in our practice space, where we threw big parties,” says Cousart. “It was the piano I wrote ‘Truly’ and ‘Esmerelda and the Open Bar’ on.”
Those titles are standouts on Late to the Party (Self-Released *** 1/2), which was birthed in what Cousart calls “a particularly long and drawn-out process,” he says. “We were trying to nail down our live sound.”
Making Late to the Party, “it just became more apparent that we don’t work well in the studio as a band,” says Turzo. “It’s something that we never really focused on. And we finally ran into that brick wall.”
In a world without a pandemic, RFA would have carried on playing live, and found a way to get Late to the Party finished and out into the world earlier, instead of arriving unceremoniously on streaming services when it finally did.
But with no gigs on the horizon, the musicians — who are all 24 years old — came down with the pandemic blues, and put all band business aside.
The RFA rehearsal space in Fishtown is no more. Without a band to play with or his job as a barista at La Colombe, Cousart moved back in with his parents in West Chester.
Does that mean RFA broke up? Is this the swan song of one of Philadelphia brightest young bands?
“Breaking up makes it sound like you hate each other,” says McHale. “Like if you were to break up with someone you were dating. But I think we’re all under the impression that we can still be friends without working together for a little bit. It was more like, we’re all just going to do our own thing, and not be a band for a while.”
Taking up the challenge facing so many musicians — how to remain creative while prevented from doing what you love most — the band members, who spoke to The Inquirer on a conference call this week, branched out.
“We’ve grown together musically, but I think we all need the opportunity to expand our creative personal horizons,” says Powell.
McHale and Turzo, who live together in the Francisville neighborhood, have a new project called Echo Kid with an experimental bent. They released a Christmas EP, and their debut album, Folks at Home, comes out Friday, Jan. 15. Loftus, who’s a producer on the WXPN-FM (88.5) show World Cafe, plays guitar in the band and Powell joins on drums.
Cousart recorded a solo project at Headroom Studios in Kensington with producer Kyle Pulley. It has an R&B sensibility, he says, and less of an “RFA just plug your guitar into an amp” approach. The first single, “Look Back” is due Feb. 1. An EP arrives March 1.
But while stretching out — or in Powell’s case, “moving into a real-job situation” as a data analyst while going to grad school at Temple — the RFA guys decided to not let Late to the Party languish.
In November, Cousart buckled down with engineers at Philly’s Bloom Music Group and put final production touches on the album so it could be released before another year ticked away.
RFA acolytes and those yet to discover them can be thankful for that. Late to the Party easily stands alongside albums by Lil Uzi Vert, Low Cut Connie, Shamir, and Sad13 among the strongest Philly releases of 2020.
It turns out, it’s well timed. Arriving in a live music drought, songs like the frayed “Chinatown” and the Herman’s Hermits-borrowing “Something Tells Me that I’m in for Something Good” deliver enlivening jolts from a world that now seems lost.
“It’s not lockdown music,” says Cousart. “These are songs written from the perspective of things you would have seen at a party, things that were going on in my life, or our lives, before all this happened. I think people find that refreshing.”
But the Late to the Party songs also display interior depth. Cousart’s narrator on the title track moves through a room full of smiling faces, but still feels isolated. “No one see the world like me,” he sings, alone in a crowd.
That the band can’t even consider going out and playing live is “the biggest drag,” says Turzo. “Not being able to play shows — that was just what we did for the last 10 years.”
“It’s depressing,” says Loftus. “And not just playing shows — just being able to get with friends that you know play instruments and not have to calculate who has seen who and when. Now it just seems so foreign to play a show for 300 people. I miss it.”