Show Review: Hop Along, The Sidekicks, Luther, and Ma Jolie

A punk show is a rabbit hole. No matter how much you think you understand, each new venue is really an exercise in discovery.  It’s still going to be like wandering into some sort of otherworldly bazaar—there’s these intense rituals, the weird sights, and the ever present chance that you’re about to be kicked directly in your face. And that’s really because each individual instance of a band getting on stage is this mixing bowl of so many intermingling concepts and definition of what punk actually is, that the end result is a thousand times more chaotic than anything within punk music’s initial mission statement. You have bloodspitters, hipsters, indie kids, metal heads, and skaters all crammed into a single church basement— a setting that itself seems totally at odds with punk music conceptually—and yet somehow it all works out rather harmoniously. It’s really fascinating to watch, and that’s before the music even comes on.

In his particular instance of punks crammed into a friendly church basement, the church was First Unitarian on 22nd and Chestnut, and the bands were Hop Along, The Sidekicks, Luther, and Ma Jolie. While open minded churches and punk scenes have become common bedfellows as of the last few years, the experience never really ceases to be fascinating. Seeing the fan base leave its mark upon the pristine Sunday school setting in the form of bathroom graffiti and drinking Yuengling tall boys in the house of the Lord definitely has a rebellious, youthful glee to it.

But what was really interesting about this particular show at First Unitarian (aside from the various sights and odors) was how little these bands seemed to belong on the same stage. Each band, Ma Jolie, Luther, The SideKicks and the headliner Hop Along, are all in such different—and at times clashing—musical styles, that they barely fit under the same umbrella of musical genre. It was really illustrative of how big of a tent the concept of punk has become, for better or worse. And it really demonstrates this fascinating genesis of Philadelphia punk: how success and exposure has exploded it from this intense, insular community into a splintered confederation of musical styles and personal expression. During the smoke break you’ll hear people with gauges and nose rings (I don’t know why that’s important, but it totally is) in equal parts bemoaning the death of classic punk and celebrating this renaissance of variety.

As mentioned before, each band was something intensely different from the one that came before; you weren’t so much seeing a different band as attending a new musical experience altogether. For example, Ma Jolie’s “everything screaming at once” method of post punk took on this odd meditative quality as you listened to it. In a weird way you weren’t so much listening to music as being completely enveloped by it. It was almost like having a wall of sheer noise blast every thought from your head, leaving you in this zen of guitar riffs and screaming. And while the follower Luther had an admirable stage presence and demonstrated an admirable technical ability, whilst consistently avoiding the cliches of pop punk, their musical style seemed to wane about halfway through their set. It sort of became mundane—though honestly due to no fault of the band. Pop punk is really difficult to keep original, and Luther did a much better job than most bands I’ve seen out there as of late.

It was the Sidekicks though that really hit something unique. They really took the “carefree” asterisk to punk music and ran with it, incorporating a style that could almost be considered “surfer” or “California”. While the comparison would probably get me backhanded by most of the people in attendance that night, I can’t help but compare them to a punk rock Grouplove, both for how similar their lead singer sounded and the same general undertone of “wooo” going through the whole set.

But Hop Along—can we talk about Hop Along? Holy crap, people. Before this show I’d never heard of the band, and now I’m frantically looking for whom to hold responsible for it. If none of your friends have told you about this band, then you need new friends; the ones you have now are depriving you of a crucial experience to be into a band before they become huge. Think of all the future opportunities to be pretentious you could be missing out on.

Hop Along can’t really be called punk—it’s more like a Death Cab For Cutie-esque band that has been thoroughly coated in punk whilst retaining its creamy indie center. They can, and often do, go from soft spoken lyrics and subtle melodies to violent guitar riffs and screaming at the drop of a hat. And the lyrical content is never really traditionally punk (one major part of this being that you can consistently understand what the singer is saying) but is rather a more soulful indie fare expressed in a very punk-ish manner.

But what really makes Hop Along worth talking about is their lead singer, Frances Quinlain. Having seen her perform, it’s really hard to describe her without coming across as a sycophant, but here it goes: I’m not totally convinced Frances Quinlain is real. She must be some sort of machine or collective hallucination, because there’s no way a person that small can have that much noise in them. She has a voice that’s a cross between a kitten and several chainsaws. So much volume and passion is exerted by this women’s lungs that you can almost see her fundamental skeletal structure change shape to accommodate it. And the sheer range of emotion on display was almost overwhelming; rage, sorrow and joy intermingled in this bizarre and profound way. Before the show someone compared her to Elvis Costello, and the comparison definitely holds up. She’s like a smaller Elvis Costello with a much greater capacity for rage.

The rest of the band maintained a solid stage presence and created this consistent and balanced ambiance to Quinlain’s central act, but really they were keeping up with her more than anything else. And that’s by no means an insult: this is the equivalent of keeping up with a moving car with a brisk jog. They really did the more thankless musical grunt work so that Quinlain could have the opportunity to flourish.

There are a lot of potential morals that would impart from this excursion into the world of Unitarian punk shows, among them being that some punk fans should really apply on more deodorant and that you should stop reading this and go listen to Hop Along. But I think the most important one is the rewards inherent to musical exploration, especially when it comes to a genre as intricate and vibrant as this. Even if you’re not a fan of punk per se, the sheer variety and intensity almost guarantees that you’ll find something to at the very least pique your interest.

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