March 9, 2009
By Ric Albano
At first, the sight of them brings an almost nerve-wracking sense of unease. As they methodically go through the motions of setting the stage, their appearance is that of flannel-clad stoners that had just rolled out of bed, 8pm bed-head and all.
Later on stage, the visual unease continues. Bass player John Davis spends more time looking at drummer Dave Burnett than he does looking forward toward the audience (Burnett himself resembles a leprechaun-esque Mick Fleetwood, with his small, round hat, extra-long beard, and his ever-present disturbed-looking smile). Phil Sterk sits awkwardly on what appears to be a stack of road cases as he works the pedal steel guitar, while 6-foot-something lead guitarist Abe Seiferth is set up precariously close behind him and frequently alternates between standing straight up and squatting to manually adjust the settings of his various effects pedals.
Rounding out the lineup is chief vocalist and chief song writer Matthew Welsh who switches among four distinct instruments during the first four numbers, moving from electric guitar to synth controller, to 12-string acoustic to 6-string acoustic, all while seamlessly providing clear and steady vocals. When Welsh plays his guitars, he stands at center stage, lining the band up with an unusual asymmetric shift towards stage left.
Yes, Phonograph may not be a Las Vegas, lounge-ready act visually, but then you hear them and you know that they are something special.
Based out of Brooklyn, NY (with a PA connection as Seiferth is a native of Williamsport), the band fuses a unique blend of country flavored Americana with elements of vintage psychadelia and prog rock, resulting in a totally fresh thrill ride of musicianship. Although the band has already achieved a notable measure of success opening for national recording artists Wilco and being featured on NPR‘s The World Café, you get the feeling that this sound will someday explode into much wider prominence.
The band formed in 2005 when Welsh worked as an intern in a studio where Davis worked as an engineer. Davis expressed interest in working with Welsh after hearing him play piano and sing in between setting up and tearing down equipment and invited Burnett and Seiforth to join the budding project. Welsh came across Stark, while he was trading in a pedal steel amp in a guitar shop and this unlikely quintet with very different backgrounds in jazz, country and rock was formed.
Phonograph released their eponymous full-length debut album in 2006 and followed up with an EP entitled Hiawatha Talking Machine in 2007. Currently, a second album is finished but pending release, as negotiations with the record company need to be finalized. Welsh described this “like having a closet full of Christmas presents you can’t open yet. You know you have this great thing in there and you can’t get it out.” He added that a highlight of the new release is a duet with Grace Potter from Grace Potter and the Nocturnals. (Grey’s Anatomy fans may recognize her song “Falling or Flying” which was featured on that show.) He described it as resembling Stevie Nicks and Tom Petty’s collaborations, though definitely not a ballad. Hopefully this new recording will better approximate their live sound. For as good as their recorded material is, it falls short of the dynamics of their live sound.
Many of their tunes have the surreal sensation like waltzing through a hurricane as they work through the verses and then build to a tight, hyper-enthused, crowd-pleasing crescendo. There is a core of classic sound surrounded by an eclectic mix of noises that seem like they shouldn’t work together, but they do – and brilliantly. Explaining the origins of the name “Phonograph”, Welsh said that the name is a tie to the core of what the band is all about. “When you think of a phonograph it evokes the classic sounds of the 50′s and 60′s, and that is what this band is about, the classic elements of music in the 50′s and 60′s but with a fresh interpretation. A band’s name should symbolize the way they want to be perceived and the message they are trying to convey.”