By David Hiltbrand
For the Philadelphia Inquirer
It was a spectacularly strange triple bill on Thursday night at the Fire, the drinking establishment and music venue in Northern Liberties.
First up was Johnson’s Crossroad, a trio from Asheville, N.C. Fittingly, the bearded and burly guitarist and singer Paul Johnson looked like a mountain man. He sang the band’s keening ballads about whiskey and love and lonely itinerants in his distinctively deep and gruff voice. The group’s authentic brand of Americana glided on the gossamer wings of Keith Minguez’s agile mandolin.
The night came unhinged in unforgettable fashion when the Chandler Travis Philharmonic took the stage. Dressed in all manner of thrift-shop finery, covered in bathrobes and sporting a museum display of hats, from a leopard-skin fez to a bridal headdress, the nonet looked like a gaggle that had escaped from an asylum. And maybe they had, judging by their warped and wonderful set.
What the Sun Ra Arkestra was to jazz, this Cape Cod ensemble is to pop, taking the music to places so foreign it should be carrying a passport.
The songs roped in doo-wop, Dixieland, ska, Celtic, bubblegum and klezmer elements, all left under a heat lamp for far too long. Yet all these exotic accents rode atop a springy pop suspension. It sounded like Frank Zappa on laughing gas.
Front man Chandler Travis, who looks like a cross between former Red Sox pitcher Bill Lee and character actor Jack Elam, announced, “This is the Philharmonic’s first appearance in Philly. It’s good to be back.”
Travis treads a fine line between chaos and genius. But he’s smart enough to take a tear-off-the-roof horn section with him on his journey.
And let’s not overlook the drummer, Ricky Bates, a tall, rangy man who takes the stage in a long blonde wig, a bra and a wraparound skirt. He’s a great drummer.
But the Philharmonic clearly wasn’t going for style points. On stage, they’re like a science-fair project, taking all these familiar musical tropes and recombining them in crazy-quilt, Frankenstein fashion.
It was often hard to tell when Travis was being sardonic and when he was being sentimental (although that cheesy flamenco ballad delivered in histrionic faux-Spanish probably belonged in the former category). But even when he was just making noise, it sounded like beautiful music.
Sanity returned to the Fire at midnight as the Great Unknown began their set of alterna-country. These truck-stop cowboys from West Philly bring more snap and vehemence to their songs than this genre (think Wilco, for purposes of orientation) usually offers.
In fact, on stompers such as “Over and Over” and “Day’s Stampede” the five-piece led by singer Todd Henkin combined a mad momentum with the raucous assurance of Marah. Many of their compositions – and they debuted some excellent new ones on Thursday night – come wrapped in the barbed wire of Brad Jacobsen’s lap steel guitar.
By the time they swung into that old Bo Diddley beat for “Man in the Benz,” the small but fervent crowd at the Fire didn’t want the Great Unknown to leave the stage.
The combination of acts was no harmonic convergence, but if you can find a more diverse and entertaining night of music in the city for $7, bring the relatives.