Forgive me if I sound giddy: I’ve just seen a rock band play inside a music venue.
Actually, two. Thursday was opening night of the Philly Music Festival, the nonprofit venture that benefits music education and is usually a multi-evening affair at clubs across the city.
This year, the coronavirus forced the festival to scale back to two nights at the Ardmore Music Hall, and to exist principally as a free livestream and radio broadcast.
Night one featured four bands playing for over three hours. Two of those, headliners Japanese Breakfast and The Districts, played live at the AMH.
Two more — Philly vocalist Zeek Burse and Camden trumpeter Arnetta Johnson — pre-recorded performances at the Main Line club.
All were streamed at PhillyMusicFest.com as well as on NPR Music and YouTube. The show also aired live on WXPN-FM (88.5).
I’ve had the date circled for weeks. In its first three years, founder Greg Seltzer has established the all-Philly band PMF as an estimable event that provides an annual update on the scene while funneling funds to causes like Girls Rock Philly and the Settlement Music School. (This year, it also aims to provide COVID relief micro-grants to musicians.)
I was also keen to see what’s going on with Japanese Breakfast, the project of songwriter Michelle Zauner, who’s one of the more compelling indie-pop artists working anywhere.
It’s been three years since Soft Sounds From Another Planet, the band’s last album, though Zauner has a good excuse for the lag time. She’s been writing a memoir, Crying In H Mart, that’s to be published by Knopf next year.
My motives were also selfish. The last time I was actually inside a venue to see a live band was in mid-March when I caught Americana songwriter Robbie Fulks at the Locks in Manayunk. Other than the odd drive-in and rooftop show, it’s been a six-month drought for me and every other lover of live music.
So here was a chance to check out the operation at Ardmore, which is at the forefront of producing high-quality livestreams. But more enticingly, an opportunity to once again feel the blood quicken, witnessing a live performance alongside other human beings.
But not too many. In pre-pandemic days, AMH squeezed in up to 600 people for a sold-out show. On Thursday — and Friday, with Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and Langhorne Slim on the bill — that number was limited to 25, including band members and crew.
Everyone who wasn’t on stage was masked. My temperature was checked at the door. (97.9: I was officially chill.) Social distancing was in effect, with a few tables on the riser behind the dance floor, empty except for camera and video technicians and Zoom screens for fans who paid $40 to virtually interact with the bands.
It was still a little freaky. When you spend half a year avoiding people to keep from catching a deadly disease, the idea of spending hours inside of your own volition seems a little insane.
My solution was to watch half of the swaggering opening set by Johnson and her band Sunny at home on my laptop before making a two-minute drive to catch the Districts. Later, I raced home to watch Burse and check out the quality of the livestream.
Which was top notch, in sound and picture quality, particularly for Burse, a charismatic frontman who showed off soul-man moves with “Dry” and rocked out Jimi Hendrix-style with his “Black Lives Matter” protest song. He quoted Nina Simone: “How can I be an artist and not reflect the times?”
But as polished as the livestream was, it couldn’t compare to the kick of being in the room where it was happening.
Has AMH always had such crystal clear, impeccable sound, I wondered? Or has it just been so long since I’ve seen an expertly produced live show that I forgot how satisfying one can be?
On Thursday, the Districts could hardly contain their enthusiasm at being back on stage for the first time since their tour was canceled on the same March day their fatefully titled You Know I’m Not Going Anywhere was released.
The raucous quintet pulled from that album and 2017′s Popular Manipulations, with singer Rob Grote supported by arrangements that have grown more sophisticated since the band came roaring out of Lititz, Pa., nearly a decade ago.
Japanese Breakfast was sterling. The band opened with undulating “Diving Woman” from Soft Sounds, and put together an altogether charming set that included one country-flavored song by Bumper, Zauner’s quarantine side-project with Ryan Galloway.
Promising songs from a forthcoming Japanese Breakfast album that had the feel of classic 1960s pop also debuted.
The show is the band’s only one of 2020. Zauner told the small crowd at the venue and the large one at home — as many as 100,000 from various streams, Seltzer said — that the evening was “really, really, special ... You’ve brought some joy back into our lives.”
The show culminated with the kinetic “Everybody Wants To Love You” from 2016′s Psychopomp, sandwiched between covers of Tears for Fears' “Head Over Heels” and The Used’s “The Taste Of Ink.”
On the former, a masked Grote and two bandmates came on stage, singing from their knees into a piano microphone to maintain social distance while Zauner stood over them. Everybody on stage beamed at the rekindled memory of how much fun it can be to play music for people, while not knowing when they might be able to do it again.
Seltzer said the PMF raised $14,000 though donations on Thursday, less than half of its $40,000 goal.