Over the past year, as I settled into the music scene in Philly, I’ve been told several times about the wonder that is Walla Fest. Bands and industry folk alike recommend it as a great place to get a first listen to the best young local bands before they get too big. A sucker for small events with excellent music, I couldn’t miss this opportunity to see 16 bands in two days. So, on July 5th and July 6th, Victoria and I set off to the cultural hideaway that is Norristown’s Centre Theater. We found that Walla Fest is not only a host of musical gems, but also a welcoming community of creative young people.
Long music events usually require a unique form of stamina that allows you to last, fluctuating between standing and sitting, through several sets and setups. Not Walla Fest! Victoria and I snagged the couch for the afternoon’s performances of Dead Tenors and Strawman. Yes, that’s right, our very own sweet, brown-leathered slice of heaven.
Much like Walla Fest, I’ve heard good things about Dead Tenors. Up first, they played a short but solid set that featured steady basslines and the constant exchange of instruments. With an indie rock sound lighter than their name might suggest, their set was diversified by the different members’ songwriting styles. Still rocking the couch, we had the pleasure of taking in a fun set from Strawman. Overcoming a barrage of breaking strings, their lo-fi 90’s style rock has a smooth laidback feel, pierced through by the lead singer’s raspy whine. I’m excited to hear how their upcoming release sounds.
The beautiful thing about Walla Fest is that it’s more than just music: it is art, film, food, and love from lots of young creatives. During this interlude, there were delicious tacos for eating and a wide variety of art. My favorite of which was an inspiring photo series on how thoughts are expressed differently on social media than they are to in person, namely to parents.
Upstairs was home to the evening show. Highlighted by stringed lights and a somewhat aggressive projector, the all black space, normally used for theater, was lit up by a youthful exuberance. The night’s set of acts brought some of our favorites of the festival. Cyberbully Mom Club started the evening off with a short but sweet set. Working out the kinks with their brand new live drummer, they waded slowly and patiently through each track. The lyrical sad and honest storytelling focus of the band is reminiscent of a melancholy Kimya Dawson. The gloomy tone continued with the expertly crafted, minimalistic, musical stylings of songstress, Abi Reimold.
A strong haunting voice backed only by the soft strums of her own electric guitar, Reimold has a gift for writing emotive, sultry jams that burn with intensity. Allowing her natural voice cracks and nerves to flow, her songs wavered between yearning and frenetic, providing one of the fest’s most memorable performances. Rounding out the female fronted acts of the night was the vocal powerhouse that is Vita and the Woolf. Boy, can that girl sing. Lead singer Jen Pauge has a set of pipes the likes of someone twice her age. Roaring over keys and the energetic drumming of Joey Anderson, Pague’s soulful performance, which included a very poppy cover of Fleetwood Mac’s Dreams, was brimming spirit and liveliness. The only thing the performance lacked was a variation in dynamics, as her vocals, though beautiful, plowed through every number.
Always a delightful combination of the comfortable and unexpected, Pine Barons’ unique blend of psychedelic folk-rock got the people on their feet for a set that kept everyone captivated. I’ve seen Pine Barons more than a handful of times, but it’s always a joy. The unique sound they have created is unorthodox enough to keep an audience slightly on edge with relatable, shout along choruses. And nothing ends a set better than the mystical wonder that is “Don’t Believe What They Told You.” They perfectly fit the spirit of the festival. If you haven’t seen them before, put it on your musical to do list.
Ending the night on a danceable note, Philly’s rocksteady reggae fellas, The Snails, left a slimy trail of good vibes and haphazard skanking youngsters, including a few members of The Districts. Hips swayed and heads bobbed along with peppy synth solos and their 60’s rock influenced reggae jams. The night ended on a crowd-pleasing rendition of “Strong Foundation” and we took our smiles and tired feet back to our own couch.
We opted for the night only set on Sunday but were eager to see the acts on the bill. Walking into the dimly lit room, we were greeted by the cheery, young, spectacled face of Somniac’s Stu Olshevski. His sound proved to be that of an ambient bedroom project headed in the right direction. A slow moving progression of live and recorded noise, Somniac swirled and twirled their hazy flashes of psychedelics into a smooth musical journey that was a treat for the ears. Vivre Sa Vie was packed with energy from the start being, I think, the first band to fully address the crowd and ask them to come forward. These punky newsters verge a very dim line between punk and rock with loads of shredded, bright guitar blended. Thrashing about in a sweaty frenzy, they are clearly edging their way into the Philly music scene with a whole lot of potential.
Personally, I was very excited for free cake for every creature. I wanted that cutesie, Michael Cera movie soundtrack style, and she (now they) delivered. Each song of her set captured a moment of her life, minus the cover of R.E.M.’s “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine).” Katie Bennett, the frontwoman and songwriter of the group, has a voice that is sturdy in quiet sincerity, backed by the dull haze of tinkling electric guitar and a smattering of cymbals. Each song was catchy and unique and the set was over quickly due to most of the tracks being around two minutes. My set favorite was “Song About You.”
The last act of the festival and my favorite was Pitchfork-hailed prodigy, Alex G. The kid knows how to write a song. This was my second chance seeing him and I can say that he has improved even within the month since I’ve seen him. An unassuming character, he loves talking candidly with crowd, including them in a way that most artists wouldn’t. Over the set, the audience heard about his love of tone, how the balance should sound, the hair in his gum, and more. But, it fit in with the whole atmosphere.
At Walla Fest, Victoria and I were amongst a crowd of people who knew his catalogue of music much better than we did and it was fun to hear everyone singing every word. It was a bit of a stripped down version of the band with the normal fourth member, a guitarist, missing but it rocked just as much. His songs vary in tempo and character all based around his enchanting melodies and grungy rock. He went for the occasional power stance on a workable guitar solo that weirdly seemed delightfully appropriate. I’m always a big fan of him playing “Animals” as he did on the night, per a crowd request. His set ended just as humbly as it began and that is what makes him great. Another for the to do list.
Walla Fest was a blast and I’m sure we’ll be back next year. Maybe you’ll be there too.
BANDS WE SAW