Ramie Reviews Ali Awan and Others at Johnny Brenda’s, Philadelphia

Ramie Reviews Ali Awan and Others at Johnny Brenda’s, Philadelphia

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Philadelphia has a lot of great art on offer, and its music scene is no exception. We sent our local friend Ramie to local Philly venue Johnny Brenda’s to catch some local acts and report back. Here’s what he had to say about a wild night of tunage in the City of Brotherly Love:

If you were to pass Johnny Brenda’s on the street, you might think it’s like any other bar. When you walk past the seemingly constant group of people who’ve stepped out for a smoke and climb the steps into JB’s, you’re met with a familiar scene – a well-used pool table, a long diner-style bar lined with red-topped bar stools, a long list of local brews to enjoy. It feels comfortable, feels like you’ve been here before, like you’re back where you belong alongside other regulars who come for the same paradoxical sense of stability and diversion from daily life. But when you walk upstairs, you’ll find what may be the most one-of-a-kind concert venue in Philadelphia. Two-tiers of standing space facing a centrally-located stage that’s tucked away in the corner. Passing through the crowd, you enter onto the dance floor, watched over by the golden cherubesque statue overhead, and you instantly feel as if you’ve discovered one of Philly’s hidden gems, a place that simultaneously makes you feel at home and shows you the grittiness and weirdness that this city has to offer. What better place, then, to host a night of back-to-back performances by some of Philly’s most unique and lively performers.

      It was 8:30 PM on the dot when Brian Langan climbed onstage and started out the marathon of music. This one-man act (that is usually accompanied by a full band) brought a ton of energy and was somehow able to smoothly transition between upbeat, poppy numbers and gentle, melancholic melodies, all using a tinny $18 mini-guitar he’d bought specifically for this show. This dynamic performance, combined with his comical interludes, definitely set the tone for what was to continue to be an entertaining and lively night.

After a break that seemed to this writer to be conveniently long enough for those in the audience to step away for a drink or a cigarette, it was The Homophones’ turn to take the stage. This four-piece group kept the audience on their toes with abrupt transitions between upbeat, fast-paced head-bangers and more sluggish songs that had the listeners swaying from side-to-side. By the end of their set, the Homophones had left the audience wanting more and eager for the next performance.

Next up was a band that was familiar to regulars at JB’s, Sixteen Jackies. Celebrating his birthday alongside the venue’s show-runner, Marley McNamara, lead singer Joey Demarco performed the set with full make-up, a pearl necklace, and a flower-clad dress reminiscent of a chair one might find at their grandmother’s house, staying true to the band’s Glam Rock roots.  At times rolling around on-stage and shaking a bouquet of flowers to shower the stage with petals at others, Demarco more than earned the crowd’s adoring cheers and whistles throughout the set. In recognition of the birthday people, the stage had been adorned with balloons; energized by Sixteen Jackies’ Sonic Youth-esque sound and spunk, the audience took this opportunity to begin throwing the balloons in the air, creating a unique and rainfall-like effect in rhythm with the band’s performance (with a couple solid balloon bounces off of Demarco’s head in the process).

Thankfully, the audience got a chance to catch their breath before Ali Awan started their set. Readers, this writer has been to Johnny Brenda’s many times before this, but never has he seen a crowd dancing and jumping around as much as during this show. This was an electrifying performance, one that mixed lazy, bluesy tunes with others with a more classic rock-and-roll feel that justified Awan’s Jawny-B-Goode Instagram handle. To anyone watching them play, it was clear that the band was having just as much fun as the audience, as they spent their hour sharing smiles across the stage, spinning around behind their mics, and hitting the balloons back out onto the dancefloor. 

The audience got a chance to breathe as the Awan’s Magic Wheel started up, beginning with a lethargic guitar riff that is soon after accompanied by Ali’s mellow singing. Just when the room of dancers had caught their breaths, the song abruptly transitioned into a brisk whirlwind of instrumentation, with Awan delivering a punchy chorus that set a common tempo for the now-jumping fans. After just a few songs, it became clear that what this band does exceptionally well, especially live, is alternating between slower, suspense-building lyrical sections and high-energy, lively instrumental bits that give the listener a chance to dance out any tension that had built during the slower segments (or that they had brought in with them from outside of the venue). 

This talent was perhaps best demonstrated by their performance of Pick Me Up, during which the band members joined in one at a time to build an engrossing sonic experience that satisfyingly came together just in time for the guitar to take over with a solo that was delivered with as much intensity as all of the instruments it had replaced.

The performers demonstrated their impressive musical flexibility with Last Resort, a number that had a strong country feel to it and had at least this writer wishing he knew how to square dance. Ali et al. rounded out the night with their Poison and Potion, a dizzying and dreamy experience that again had the audience members jumping around until we were all satisfyingly worn out by the song’s final notes. 

All in all, this night of shows was one that left the audience feeling a sense of camaraderie, a connection borne out of a shared appreciation for music that makes you move and lifts you out of your day-to-day as well as a common sense of pride in being from the great city of Philadelphia. 

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